Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

Charles IV and Bonaparte

When, at the age of forty, in 1789, Charles IV ascended the throne of Spain, he for a while retained in power his father's great prime minister, Floridablanca; but soon, it seems, his wisdom failed him. After dallying awhile with this faithful servant, who was succeeded by Count Cabarrus, then by the patriot Jovellanos, Charles gave up all attempts to rule wisely, and abandoned himself utterly to the guidance of his wife, who was as capricious and depraved as any of her sex who had ever before ruled over a Spanish king. In 1792 the queen managed to install her own favourite, Manuel Godoy, a young man of low birth, in the seat of the statesman Aranda, and had him raised to the rank of a Spanish grandee, as Duke of Alcudia. Henceforth for many years, poor Spain was to witness the humiliating spectacle of a good-natured but weak sovereign, ruled by his vicious wife and her creature, and to become familiar with family scandals which were a disgrace to the nation.

Perhaps Charles would have made mistakes enough if he had been left to himself, for early in his reign the world was amazed at the horrible cruelties of the French Revolution, and he, as a Bourbon allied to the family of Louis XVI, was placed in a most embarrassing position when the excesses of the revolutionists culminated in the execution of the king. All Spain rose in protest against this barbarous act, and urged King Charles to declare for vengeance; but he sat supinely in his palace, and did nothing more than to send a feeble protest and a feebler army against the regicides. The new-born republic did not wait, however, for him to declare war, but sent a force into Spain, which quickly invaded the frontier and soon defeated the allied Spanish and Portuguese in several battles. The triumphant republicans were only checked when they held the peninsula at their mercy, for, as history has told us, they were at the outset invincible. They snatched victories from defeats, turned defeats into victories: these desperate outlaws, battling against the rights of kings and the oppressions of decadent nobility. They were equally victorious over the allied armies in the Netherlands also, and soon we have the edifying spectacle of this Bourbon King of Spain entering into treaty with the red-handed murderers of his royal kinsman. This was in 1795, at the Treaty of Basel, arranged by the vainglorious Godoy, who won thereby great rewards in lands and honours, and also the title of the "Prince of Peace." Further, by the Treaty of Ildefonso, in 1796, distracted Spain turned completely around and entered into an offensive and defensive alliance with France against England. Retribution was swift and sure, for the next year her fleet was shattered at the naval fight of Cape St. Vincent, Cadiz was attacked by the English, and she lost the island of Trinidad in the West Indies, besides having her merchant marine ruined and her colonial trade all but destroyed.

At the instigation of Napoleon, who was now foremost in the affairs of France, Spain declared war against her sister kingdom Portugal, though sorely against her will, as—if for no other reason—the queen's favourite daughter, Carlota, was the wife of the Prince Regent of Portugal. But in 1801 that kingdom was overrun by an army composed of seventy-five thousand men, fifteen thousand of which were French and sixty thousand Spanish, and the "Prince of Peace" won new honours for himself by his active participation. Spain, in common with other European countries, secured a brief breathing space by the Treaty of Amiens, in 1802, but by this treaty England was confirmed in her captures and came out triumphant.

Napoleon's act in disposing of Louisiana to the United States for the paltry sum of fifteen million dollars, was a vast benefit to America, but a violation of good faith, inasmuch as Spain had ceded that territory to France, only three years before, with the expressed condition that no other country should ever obtain it. Still, she meekly bore this bitter humiliation, for she was under the domination of the conqueror of Europe, who soon imposed yet heavier conditions upon her. He found a pretext for violating the peace with England, and Spain also, who had purchased her neutrality by a monthly payment, in 1804 declared war against the Britons for seizing her homeward-sailing galleons with their wealth of treasure from the American colonies. England had done this as a measure of self-defence, foreseeing that, with the sinews of war which this colonial treasure would purchase, Spain would not hesitate to cast her lot with Napoleon and France.

The conflict that ensued put an end forever (so far as human ken can forecast) to Spain's ascendancy at sea. Her supremacy, indeed, had long since departed; not since the times of the "invincible armada" had she been a powerful. factor to reckon with upon the ocean. But it was during the war that followed that the combined French and Spanish fleets, under Villeneuve and Gravina, were sought out and attacked by Lord Nelson. Off Trafalgar, October 25, 1805, occurred that memorable naval battle by which the fleets were shattered, and England obtained, coincidently with the death of Nelson, the title which she has since so proudly borne of "mistress of the seas." She was thence forth supreme upon the ocean, and the colonies of France and Spain were at her mercy.

The Spanish-French alliance had changed since the time of the "family compact," for what then was a natural union between sovereigns allied by blood and interests, was now a most unnatural connection between two totally dissimilar organizations. Especially since Napoleon had so cruelly put to death the young Duke d'Enghien, a scion of the Bourbon house in 18044, Spain regarded France with averted eyes. The repugnance of the king could not be overcome, and even the skill at dissimulation possessed by the artful Godoy could not suffice to hide from Napoleon the fact that his great adversary, England, was higher in favour than himself. He took a characteristic revenge, and by compelling Spain to become a party to the dismemberment of Portugal, by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, placed her in a position from which she could not retreat. This was in 1806, and the same year a French army under Junot invaded Portugal and drove the royal family into exile. The next year, however, it became evident that not Portugal alone, but Spain as well, was the object of the great Napoleon's ambition. The wonder is that she had escaped so long, when already Germany, Italy, Austria, Prussia, the Netherlands, and even the vast empire of Russia, had been invaded by him and made subject to his will. But Spain's hour had come; the giant now felt the moment propitious for her conquest. Under pretext of marching his troops through Spain to Portugal—as by the treaty he was permitted to do—Napoleon massed his soldiers at all the passes of the Pyrenees, and, before the king and court were well aware of his plans, had obtained full possession of the frontier, and was sending forward Murat and his battalions to the capital, Madrid. Terror-stricken, the royal family resolved at once to flee to Mexico. But when the people learned this, realizing that all this misery had been brought upon them by the corrupt and faithless Godoy, they rose en masse  and sacked the palace, seeking everywhere for the prime minister, whose life would have been forfeited if he had not escaped by hiding in a closet. This ebullition showed Charles IV the futility of longer clinging to the shadow of what he had formerly possessed, and he formally abdicated, on March 17, 1808, in favour of his son Ferdinand, the Prince of Asturias.

France had experienced her Reign of Terror; she now had her master, Napoleon, who looked upon his small empire as too restricted for his towering ambitions, and cast around for some other thrones to occupy. He saw, with that clearness of perception for which he was noted, that the throne of Spain was divided against itself: the king against the queen, Godoy the Prince of Peace against them both, and the son of the king at enmity with the other three. In truth, it was charged by Godoy that he had conspired to kill, or at least to dethrone, his father, and he was thrown into prison until he pretended to relent and ask forgiveness. Ferdinand, hated by his mother, despised by the prime minister, and accustomed to regard his father as an obstacle in the path of his ambition, was an altogether unlovely character, dark, sinister, with the making of another Philip II in him, had but the times been propitious. He was, however, the popular idol, and the misguided people hailed with joy this new accession to the line of royalty, under the title of Ferdinand VII.

It was not long that he was permitted to enjoy the royal prerogatives, nor the malicious satisfaction of retaliating upon his enemies. Confiding in the supposed friendship of Napoleon, he sent back to Portugal the Spanish troops which his father had recalled in anticipation of a French invasion, and unsuspiciously placed himself in the emperor's hands. With consummate duplicity, Bonaparte allured first Ferdinand, then his father, the queen mother and Godoy, over the frontier to Bayonne, where he indeed had them at his mercy, and then revealed his true intentions. In a word, he frightened Ferdinand into an abdication, his father into renouncing forever his claim to the throne, in return for a pension and paltry honours, and Godoy he dropped as unworthy of attention.

Ferdinand was promised an income of one million francs, a palace, and—captivity. Meanwhile, Napoleon called an assembly of the notables—such as would come at his call—forced upon them a new Constitution, and made them swear allegiance to the new king who, of course, was one of his own family—his brother Joseph, until then King of Naples. Joseph himself, by nature unfitted for kingship, amiable, humane, was yet unable to resist his imperious brother. Against his own inclinations he was forced to take the throne but not all the ability and resources of Napoleon could keep him seated there. For though Napoleon, after he had finished the work to his mind—had dethroned two kings and seated another—returned to Paris and other victories, yet the people over whom he had placed his brother Joseph absolutely refused to accept him. An outbreak at Madrid was only quelled after many French soldiers and Spanish citizens had been massacred, and affairs wore such a threatening aspect that reenforcements now poured through the Pyrenean passes to the number of one hundred thousand men. Marat did the best he could, other French generals co-operated; but within a week or so after he had entered the Spanish capital, Joseph was compelled to retreat the frontier.

These, in brief, were the beginnings of the famed Peninsular War, which lasted from1807 to 1814, and inflicted incalculable misery upon the Spanish and Portuguese people.

The Spanish fought desperately, but without common purpose or direction. At the first siege of Saragossa, made memorable by the valiant defence of its inhabitants, Palafox and the romantic "Maid of Saragossa," the French were repulsed; but at the second they took the city, with terrible slaughter. Joseph was a second time compelled to abandon Madrid, and a second time to return; for his brother was furious over the acts of the Spanish rebels, and determined to subdue the country. Perhaps he would have accomplished this in the end, though the whole nation was now aroused; but the Spaniards bethought themselves to appeal to England for assistance. The British ministry saw its way clear to fight the universal conqueror in Spain and Portugal in a manner not possible on the soil of France; so they sent out Moore and Wellington, and other tried generals, with armies behind them and fleets to support them, and they began operations in Portugal. At first they were successful in compelling Marshal Ney to evacuate Portugal; but in Spain Sir John Moore was driven back upon the port of Coruna, and met his death—the same General Moore whose defeat and burial are immortalized in heroic verse. Napoleon himself hastened to Spain and organized victories with two hundred thousand men, so that for a time "brother Joseph" was secure on the throne upon which his imperial master had so unceremoniously seated him. But with his departure reverses came again; for, though driven away at first, the British returned.

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