The Peninsular War part 1. Fontainebleau to Sintra

Lynne Booker


2008 sees the bicentenary of British involvement in the Peninsular War. Napoleon started in October 1807 with a Franco-Spanish treaty to provide for the invasion and partition of Portugal and was sucked into a war against Spain, Portugal and Britain as allies.


The war in the Peninsula ended 6 years later when Wellington pushed the French back over the Pyrenees. One year later Napoleon met his Waterloo in June 1815. In his St Helena prison, Napoleon reflected that his involvement in Iberia (he called it his ´Spanish Ulcer´) had become a terminal cancer and the principal reason for his downfall.



Portugal - ´sitting on the fence´

Portugal has at times in its history struggled for independence - against the Moors and often against Spain, with support from England, ´the oldest ally´. The French Revolution of 1789 had a profound effect on Portugal as on the rest of Europe. Together with Spain and Britain, she declared war on the French Republic in 1794, and later found herself invaded by her traditional enemy Spain (now allied with France) in 1801. Following a 3 week ´War of the Oranges´Portugal lost the border town of Olivença and was forced to make peace. Although Prince Regent João kept his head down, Napoleon and the powerful pro-French party which included the Marquês d´Alorna made the next six years were very difficult for him. 

Britain and the ´Continental´system

By 1806 there was left only ´little England against the World´ (Lady Bessborough). In November that year Napoleon´s Berlin decrees embargoed all British trade with Europe. On the other hand, the Royal Navy had such a grip on seaborne trade that no colonial goods could enter Europe but through Britain. Any such goods reaching the continent could arrive only as a result of smuggling, which became a major industry of any coastal town both in Britain and in Europe. Britain retaliated against the ´continental system´by prohibiting trade by ships from neutral countries to French or French-allied ports. The Royal Navy´s success in enforcing Britain´s policy led to higher prices and scarcities in Europe. But even Napoleon had to turn a blind eye to the 50,000 West Riding overcoats and 200,000 pairs of Northampton boots which clothed his army in Poland! Portugal´s unwillingness to accept the Berlin decrees enraged Napoleon, but assured the thirsty British of a source of wine and port.


Plans and Campaigns

The Planned Partition of Portugal

At Fontainebleau on 27 October 1807, Spanish and French government representatives finalised the treaty by which Portugal was to be partitioned - a short term and cynical ploy by Napoleon to get Spanish cooperation in bullying Portugal to accept the ´Continental System´. The Northern provinces between the Douro and the Minho, including Porto and the Southern provinces of the Alentejo and the Algarve were to be given to Spain and the remainder of Portugal (Trás os Montes, Beiras and Estremadura) was to be occupied by French troops and then restored to the House of Bragança (following the expected French victory) in exchange for Gibraltar, Trinidad and other Spanish possessions taken by the British. In the meantime, these 3 provinces would be occupied by French troops. 


Junot´s Advance

Having thus bought Spanish cooperation, on 18 October 1807 Napoleon launched 25,000 French troops over the Pyrenees en route for Lisbon. Napoleon had ordered Marshal Junot to enter Portugal via the Tagus valley to avoid the Portuguese border fortresses of Almeida and Elvas. Napoleon´s maps didn´t show why was there no fortress guarding this route - it was a barren wilderness where supplies were difficult to find and the terrain made travel arduous. Junot entered Lisbon on 30 November at the head of 1500 exhausted soldiers only to discover that the Portuguese Royal Family had already sailed for Brazil with a British escort. 


The French occupy Spain and Portugal

Junot´s troops (now rested and joined by the survivors of the perilous journey through the Tagus valley) were soon joined by 25 000 Spanish troops as the army of occupation. Apart from 1,200 men of the the Lisbon Police Legion, the Portuguese armed forces were disbanded or sent off as the Portuguese Legion to join Napoleon. Those Portuguese who felt that the French would bring an enlightened ´Liberty, Equality and Fraternity´were sadly disappointed. Junot´s administration was nothing short of a military dictatorship and French generals acted more like warlords in every sector of the country, including those areas under Spanish occupation. Property and belongings were seized, trade was lost and Napoleon demanded a levy of 100,000,000 francs. Torture and execution were the rewards for those who resisted. 


Uprisings in the Peninsula

On 15 December 1807, Junot decreed that the Portuguese flag be replaced by the French tricolour and a riot broke out in Lisbon which was easily suppressed. Napoleon´s real intentions in Iberia became obvious as thousands of French troops poured into Spain. The Spanish flame of revolt, already smouldering, was ignited on 2 May in Madrid and it spread like wildfire, bringing massive French retaliation. Carlos IV and his son Ferdinand were forced to renounce the throne and Napoleon´s brother, Joseph, was nominated King of Spain in July 1808. When the news of Spanish insurrections reached Portugal, the Spanish army of occupation decided its presence was more important in Spain, but were too late to participate in the spectacular victory at Bailén (near Jaén) on 19 July, 1808 over the previously invincible French army. In Portugal resistance leaders were hard to find because many had fled with the court to Brazil. The Bishop of the most heavily anti-French city, Oporto, took over when the Spanish left and set up a Supreme Junta for all of Portugal. (Oporto had suffered severe economic loss due to the collapsing wine trade). Other subordinate juntas sprang up and soldiers re-emerged. Junot, without Spanish troops in support, was hard pressed to garrison Lisbon and also to hold on to the fortresses of Elvas, Almeida, Figueira da Foz and Peniche to ensure that his lines of communication remained open. Junot sent troops from Almeida northwards towards Oporto but they were unable to get past Portuguese irregular troops at Teixeira and Régua. Although Portuguese insurrections in Vila Viçosa and Beja were quickly and brutally crushed, in the Algarve the Portuguese achieved success at Quelfes and half a dozen fishermen from Olhão left for Brazil on the boat ´Bom Sucesso´ in order to tell Prince João that it was now safe for him and the court to return. By late July French troops had regrouped near Lisbon. Rumours were abounding about British warships approaching Lisbon and Junot, keen to keep open an escape route to Spain, sent 7,000 men under General Loison to take Évora, where Portuguese were slaughtered in great numbers. 


3 Commanders, a skirmish and 2 battles 

With the news of uprisings in the Peninsula, the 10,000 troops concentrated at Cork, destination Venezuela, found themselves under way for Portugal under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley. Here at last was the opportunity which William Pitt´s governments had always sought - a national movement which Britain could support with arms and gold. By 8 August 14,000 British troops had landed on the beaches at Figueira da Foz and Wellesley marched them south towards Lisbon, with transport animals supplied by the Bishop of Oporto. At Leiria, Wellesley took under his command 2 500 Portuguese soldiers and the first encounter with the French was a skirmish at Brilos near Óbidos followed immediately by the battle of Roliça (17 August) where the French lost 600 men and the allies 474. Both actions were without tactical significance but they showed that the British infantry had acquired both steadiness and initiative. On 21 August the French attacked Wellesley´s forces at Vimeiro and were beaten back three times with heavy loss and the day after they asked for a truce. Sir Arthur was superseded by cautious "Betty" Burrard and within hours by "Dowager" Dalrymple. The British army thus had had three different commanders within 24 hours. Dalrymple decreed a truce and Wellesley´s triumphant advance ground to a halt. 


´Britannia sickens, Sintra, at they name!´ (Wordsworth). 

Under the terms of the ´Convention of Sintra´ (an agreement between Britain and France - Portugal was not invited to sign it) the Royal Navy was to transport back to France the French army, its supporters, together with arms, baggage and loot. The Portuguese were understandably furious at this agreement and many saw it as an insult to Portugal and unworthy of the British nation. There was a massive outcry against it in Britain, and Wellesley was threatened with lynching. In the Court of Inquiry held in late 1808, Sir Arthur was exonerated because he had signed under orders and Burrard and Dalrymple, found to have acted improperly, never achieved another command.





27 October  - Treaty of Fontainebleau between France and Spain 

November -  25,000 French troops with 26,000 Spanish troops at Portuguese border

30 November - Junot enters Lisbon



6 June - Revolt breaks out in Oporto and spreads rapidly

7 June - Spanish troops begin to leave Portugal

18 June - French garrison of Olhão defeated near Quelfes

19 June - Supreme Junta established by Bishop of Oporto 

21 June - French force marching on Oporto forced to turn back at Teixeira and Régua

26 June - French take and sack Vila Viçosa and Beja

27 June - Students of Coimbra University take the fort at Figueira da Foz 

29 July - French take Évora, massacre of Portuguese ensues 

1 August - British troops begin landing in Mondego Bay, near Figueira da Foz

15 August - Skirmish at Óbidos (first clash between British and French in the Peninsula)

17 August  - Battle of Roliça

21 August - Battle of Vimeiro

31 August - Convention of Sintra