Spain Before the Peninsular War

In 1805, British writer Robert Semple travelled across Spain. His observations on the journey, published in London in 1807, provide a sense of what Spain was like before the Peninsular War (1807-1814), and before Napoleon placed his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. At the time of Semple’s visit, Charles IV – a member of the Bourbon family – was the king of Spain. Charles took little interest in matters of government, leaving them in the hands of his wife, Queen Maria Luisa, and the Spanish prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, who was thought to be the queen’s lover. Spain was in a forced alliance with France. Here are some of Semple’s thoughts about Spain.

Madrid Fair in Plaza de la Cebada, by Manuel de la Cruz Vázquez

Madrid Fair in Plaza de la Cebada, by Manuel de la Cruz Vázquez, circa 1770-1780

Spanish roads

The roads in Portugal are in a most neglected state, whilst in Spain, no sooner have we passed the frontiers than we see them excellent from Badajoz to Madrid. The Portuguese do not scruple to avow their reason for thus not merely abandoning their roads toward Spain, but absolutely leading them over the most difficult and rocky ground: ‘We do not wish,’ say they, ‘to make a road to Lisbon for the Spaniards.’ The Spaniards, on the contrary, construct excellent roads, in all directions from their metropolis to the frontiers, and even toward France…. In the same spirit the Spaniards affect no concealment with respect to their fortifications and harbours. Any person may obtain at Madrid excellent plans of Cadiz, Ferrol, Barcelona, &c. published by the government, and greatly superior in accuracy to those executed in other countries. The French, on the contrary, are exceedingly jealous on these points. (1)

Impressions of Madrid

[Madrid] presents houses being lofty and built of stone; the streets well paved and clean, and the public edifices not being blacked with smoke, as in London, look as if they were newly erected. The great ornaments of Madrid, exclusive of its palaces and churches, are its gates, resembling so many triumphal arches, and the prado or public walk. The erection of these gates was the glory or the weakness of Charles the Third, who has taken due care to record his name upon them in long inscriptions; but he forgot to add walls to them, which, in my opinion, would have greatly increased the effect. Beautiful gates are placed here and there in a miserable wall, which a few three pounders would batter down in an hour; so strangely are magnificence and poverty here blended together. The prado, on the contrary, is admirable in all its parts, being a broad walk, adorned with handsome fountains, and divided into avenues by rows of trees…. (2)

[O]n Sundays, the King, Queen, and royal family, ride up and down the carriage road, and salute the people constantly as they pass. It is on the prado that the stranger may study with advantage the dress, the air, and the gait of the Spaniards; for then all pass in review before him, from the prince to the beggar. The nobleman alights from his carriage, and saunters among the throng, seemingly careless about his fine dress, and the ornaments at his button-hole, although nobody glances at them so often as himself; the citizen dresses in the mode general throughout Europe thirty years ago; whilst the lower classes that venture on the prado, still wear their clothes thrown over the shoulder, and thus preserve the last reliques of the ancient toga.

All the men wear large cocked hats, and all smoke cigars; for this latter purpose boys run up and down the prado with a kind of slow torch, which burns without flaming, and serves to light the cigars. In opposition to them, water carriers, with their porous, earthen vases and goblets vend the cool water of the neighbouring fountains; and the various cries of fire, fire, and fresh water, water, are heard above the buzz of the mingled crowd. But the women principally attract the eyes of the stranger. Their simple and elegant dress, their veils, which serve any purpose but that of concealing their faces, the freedom of their walk, and their looks attractive, but not immodest, tend to make an Englishman forget for a moment that they are greatly inferior in point of real beauty to the women of his own country. (3)

Outside Madrid

The towns and villages of Spain may be compared almost universally to islands in the midst of the ocean, where you travel from one to the other, without seeing any intermediate object that recalls the idea of human habitation. From Lisbon to Madrid, excepting two or three gloomy castles, there is not a single gentleman’s seat visible on the road. The ancient periods of internal war and rapine seem to have left so strong an impression on the minds and customs of the people, that they are afraid to inhabit except near to each other, and in clusters for mutual protection. (4)

The Spanish court

The whole population of Madrid, consisting of about two hundred and fifty thousand souls, may be said to be merely an appendage to the court, the absence of which is immediately and sensibly felt. In order to break, or rather to prevent the reviving of, the ancient feudal spirit, the crown insists upon the whole of the Spanish nobility residing in the capital and what was at first a political institution has now become so much a fashion, that a banishment to the country is considered as a most grievous punishment. From this great concourse of nobility, the manners even of the lower classes partake of much urbanity, yet in some points mixed with an attention to punctilios. If two porters meet, they do not fail to salute each other with the title of senor and cavallero, but all ranks are jealous of giving the wall in walking the streets, and duels have not unfrequently taken place on this account. Assassinations are however less frequent, considering the population, than in most of the great towns in Spain. (5)

Spanish food

In their diet the citizens are temperate and uniform. The universal and regular dish for all ranks, is the Poteheiro, a kind of stew of meat and an excellent species of large pea which grows in the utmost perfection near San Ildefonso; with by far the greater part, this forms the whole of the dinner, and is truly a national dish, being regularly served every day at the king’s table, as well as at that of the poorest mechanic. In most of the other articles of their cookery oil is greatly used, and that in general of a very indifferent quality; indeed they use the same for their kitchens as for burning in their lamps. The oil of Valencia is excellent, but that is never met with on the roads, and an Englishman is astonished to find that, except at Madrid, he cannot obtain, at any price, such good oil as is commonly used in London. There are some landlords that draw their wine and their vinegar from the same cask; but all of them draw the oil for their lamps and their ragouts from the same jar; with such oil, water, vinegar, garlic and bread, cut small and mixed up cold together, a Spaniard forms a mess, with which he appeases his hunger for the whole day. …

Two other great ingredients in Spanish cookery are, the tomata or love apple, and the green pepper pod. The former stewed, and the latter boiled, and eaten with bread, form in their seasons very material articles of the food of the lower classes. (6)

[T]he markets of Madrid are scantily enough supplied with meat, but plentifully with vegetables and fruits; of the latter, the grapes, melons, peaches and cherries are delicious. In their great entertainments, they are fond of bringing in one dish after another; reserving what they esteem the best to the last, as if they delighted in taking their guests by surprise, enticing, and in a manner forcing them to eat more, after being already satisfied. During dinner they drink plentifully enough of wine diluted with water, and a few bottles of French wine terminate the repast. After rising from table, coffee is served round, and the party breaks up. Most of the guests retire to their siesta or afternoon’s nap, universal throughout Spain; and in the evening fresh parties are again formed, either for cards, the prado, or the theatre.

As the poteheiro is the general dinner, so a single cup of chocolate, with a little bread, is the universal breakfast of the Spaniards; after which they drink a glass or two of cold water. Whenever they travel they carry chocolate with them, and when they can procure nothing else, with a little warm water and some bread, they make a kind of meal with which they are contented. Yet I have had many occasions to remark, that their temperance is perhaps, in general, more constrained, than constitutional or voluntary. At all public tables I have seen that a Spaniard eats full as much as the foreigner alongside of him. In the use of wine they are certainly temperate, and a drunken Spaniard, even of the lowest class, is scarcely ever seen in the streets of Madrid. (7)


[Spaniards] smoke immoderately, and at all hours, from their first rising to their hour of going to bed. They do not use pipes, but smoke the tobacco leaf itself rolled up, or cut small and wrapped in a slight covering, such as paper, or the thin leaves of maize. Great quantities of tobacco thus prepared are imported from the Havannah, under the name of cigars, in slight cedar or mahogany boxes, containing a thousand each. Those wrapt in the leaf of maize are called padhillos, or little straws, and are chiefly smoked by the women, for whose use also others are formed of white paper, ornamented with a kind of gold wire. I have seen women of some rank playing at cards, and smoking these padhillos. (8)


Dance of the Majos at the Banks of Manzanares, by Francisco Goya, 1777

Dance of the Majos at the Banks of Manzanares, by Francisco Goya, 1777

The amusements are now much the same as in other parts of Europe, and contain little that is national, since the suppression of the bull-fights by the present king. Humanity was the motive alleged for this suppression; but it is said to have been occasioned by the people’s loudly expressing their dissatisfaction at some orders given by him relative to the management of a fight where he was present. The murmur was called mutiny: despotism was alarmed; and either to show his power or his fears, the king at once forbade this favourite diversion of a great people. The heat of the climate discourages athletic exercises; walking on the prado, riding in carriages, cards, smoking, and billiards, are therefore the principal amusements of the inhabitants of Madrid. Their theatres are seldom thronged but on the representation of a new piece; and the public taste is certainly here not very correct, and often applauds not merely buffooneries but indecency. …

The play is generally followed by a dance of one or two persons, and is either the Fandango or Bolera. The former is not very decent, but the latter, in which the dancers keep time with their castanets, is pleasing. The people are astonishingly fond of both, and although the dance lasts but a very short time, appear often to derive more pleasure from it than the whole of the play. The dress of the female dancers is that of the Andalusian women, carried to excess in ornaments, spangles, and fringes, but producing a rich and seductive effect. (9)


[T]here is scarcely a church or a convent that does not contain some peculiarity of architecture, some picture, statue, or column worthy of being seen. The palace of the Retiro, and still more the new palace, contains many curiosities and valuable paintings. The latter, like many great Spanish undertakings, remains unfinished; if completed it would certainly be the most significant palace in Europe….

Above all, the royal museum must not pass unnoticed. Here there is no need of tickets or money to gain admission. It is open on certain days in the week, and at stated hours, during which every person of a tolerably decent appearance is admitted. The collection of animals, birds, ores, spars, and other articles of natural history, is not perhaps superior to those of many other countries; but the curiosities from South America, and which are shown apart, are such as can no where else be found. Not only the skins of animals and birds, peculiar to that Continent, are there preserved, but the arms, dress, and utensils of the ancient Peruvians. … The sight of these trophies, purchased at the expense of so much innocent blood, awakens deep reflections in the mind. (10)

Holy bones

The religious processions are managed here with great magnificence, and may indeed be termed one of the principal amusements of the people. Sometimes it is the relique of a martyr, sometimes of a female saint, and even of an apostle, or a primitive father of the church. The invaluable skull, or arm, or finger is carried through the streets encased in gold, and covered with a canopy, and the people throw themselves on their knees as it approaches them. But great is the joy when the entire body of a saint, or a whole bag of holy bones is the subject of the piece. Notice is publicly give of the streets through which the procession is to pass, and the inhabitants hang over their balconies rich carpets and velvet curtains, at the same time that they are crowded with women dressed in their finest clothes. First marches a band of music playing solemn tunes; then choristers who chant anthems, and they are followed by a long double row of monks, with lighted tapers, and generally clothed in white.

At length appears the holy relic, carried by six or eight sturdy priests, on a shrine of massy silver, and shaded from the night air by a rich canopy of silk. A priest precedes it, swinging a silver censer, which throws out clouds of perfume, and walking backwards, that he may not seem to show any disrespect to the sacred bones. A company of soldiers with fixed bayonets closes the procession; and happy are they who are chosen for this service, not only on account of the holiness of the office, but also because they are paid a quarter of a dollar each. A vast crowd of both sexes, and of every age and condition, follow the whole with heads uncovered. I saw the reliques of Santa Barbara thus carried and thus attended. … I held up a little girl in my arms, that she might see over the heads of the crowd, and during this time some pious Spaniard took an opportunity of picking my pocket. (11)


I sufficiently esteem the manners of the inhabitants [of Madrid]; but I regret to find their most private conversations cramped by the fear of speaking any thing which might come to the ears of a jealous government. I feel myself like all the rest, merely an appendage, and one of the slaves of the court. Spies wrapped up in large cloaks stand at the corners of all the streets. Men converse here in whispers and shrugs, and I am tired of being constantly reminded by my friends, that I must not speak with so much freedom. (12)

The Spanish character

[T]he Spaniards are generally grave, with something of a stately walk and air, yet they do not preserve their character throughout, being excessively fond of risible objects and sayings; nor is there any language in Europe, which so much abounds in daily expressions, calculated to excite a smile, as the Spanish. They seem to me greatly mistaken who suppose the Spaniards to be merely a grave and serious people. They preserve a forced gravity, especially with strangers; because the dignity and ancient glory of his country, are ever present to the mind of a true Spaniard; but they give themselves up to every amusement and pleasure, within their reach, with a kind of fury, which shows their seriousness to be more habitual than constitutional. I conceive greatness of soul to be the character which they affect above all others; yet in this they content themselves with empty sounds, and a vain name, instead of aiming at the reality. Hence a Spaniard may sit tamely down, and see his king insulted, his country sold and tributary to France, and his own personal privileges and liberties abridged; and although he may not make a single struggle, or even vent an unavailing sigh for the fallen greatness of Spain, he may yet preserve his greatness of soul.

In what then does it consist? In boasting that the sun never sets on the Spanish dominions; in informing you that Spain was the seat of learning, civilization, and philosophy, when when England, France, and Germany were covered with forests, and partially inhabited by barbarians; in assuring you that the Spaniards are the most honourable and most noble minded of all nations; in building stone bridges over rivulets; joining triumphal arches to mud-walls; in planning the most magnificent schemes for uniting the Duero; the Ebro; and the Tagus; the Niger and the Nile; the South-sea and the Caribbean; but never executing them. (13)

The Spanish Royal family

Charles IV of Spain and His Family, by Francisco Goya, 1800

Charles IV of Spain and His Family, by Francisco Goya, 1800

The King is a man of good intentions, but of confined understanding, and a mere slave to the pleasures of the chase, which forms not only his sole diversion, but his principal occupation. His thoughts are constantly engaged by partridges, hares, and wild boars; and his greatest exploit is to have fired so many guns in the course of a day. These are constantly present to him ready loaded by his huntsmen, as fast as he can discharge them, and hence the slaughter which he sometimes makes is almost incredible. It must be owned that he is an excellent marksman; but what is more to his credit, he seems to be aware of the fatal effects of this blind passion in the monarch of a great kingdom, and has given strict orders that his sons should not be allowed to acquire similar propensities. In his person he is very tall and stout, and is generally healthy, owing no doubt to the constant exercise which he takes, and his temperance in drinking, water being his sole beverage. Such is the present King of Spain. His consort forms the reverse to his insensible character, being intriguing, revengeful, and a slave to far other passions than those of the chase. ‘It is through her,’ say the Spaniards secretly, ‘that royalty is degraded, and the Spanish name dishonoured. To gratify her unworthy passions, a wretch has been raised from the ranks, to domineer over our nobility, and sell our country to France.’ (14)

Manuel de Godoy

[Godoy] is universally hated; but that is in private: before him even the Grandees of Spain must wear a smile, and Madrid is full of his spies. He is however sagely aware of the uncertainties of revolutions, and is said to have deposited large sums of money in foreign banks, besides having great quantities of specie secretly hoarded in his own possession…. [H]is own regiment of dragoons always near him, mount guard at his gate and send detachments to attend him wherever he goes. I have witnessed the secret curses that attended this progress, but the sabres of his dragoons are sharp and woe betide the Spaniard who is heard to murmur. (15)

Spaniards’ view of France

[T]he real government is that of France, and whatever French General may be the ambassador at Madrid, is in effect king of Spain. … The inhabitants of all this immense tract are generally bold with the knife in the hour of darkness; but they tremble at the bayonet in the face of day. Yet, strange as it may appear, the hatred of France and Frenchmen is universal throughout the whole of this district. In talking of Frenchmen there is a mixture of hatred, contempt, and yet of dread, not to be conceived by those who have not witnessed it. If every Spaniard or Portuguese had a single Frenchman within reach of his long knife, the contest would be short. But other nations must meet their discipline, their bayonets, and their artillery. (16)

In 1808, Godoy lost power and Charles IV was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Ferdinand VII. When Charles appealed to Napoleon for help, Napoleon compelled both Charles and Ferdinand to give up the Spanish throne. Instead he installed his brother Joseph as King of Spain. The citizens of Spain rebelled against Joseph and the French occupation of their country. A combination of guerrilla warfare and British armed assistance (led by the Duke of Wellington) eventually drove the French out of Spain and Portugal, contributing greatly to Napoleon’s fall from power in 1814.

You might also enjoy:

The Scene at Cádiz After the Battle of Trafalgar

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

The 1823 French Invasion of Spain

  1. Robert Semple, Observations on a Journey Through Spain and Italy to Naples, Vol. I (London, 1807), pp. 55-57.
  2. Ibid., pp. 58-59.
  3. Ibid., pp. 60-61.
  4. Ibid., p. 65.
  5. Ibid., pp. 69-70.
  6. Ibid., pp. 70-71.
  7. Ibid., pp. 72-73.
  8. Ibid., pp. 73-74.
  9. Ibid., pp. 74-76.
  10. Ibi, pp. 77-78.
  11. Ibid., pp. 78-81.
  12. Ibid., p. 83.
  13. Ibid., pp. 207-209.
  14. Ibid., pp. 214-215.
  15. Ibid., pp. 216-217.
  16. Ibid., pp. 217, 218-219.

10 commments on “Spain Before the Peninsular War”

  • Richard says:

    Although biased, this account struck a few true notes. I live in a region where Spanish language and Spanish/Mexican culture are part of everday life. I recognized parts of myself and my neighbors.
    Thank you for sharing these interesting observations. Mr Robert Semple is a good writer and now i want to read the entire journal.

  • John F. MacMichael says:

    I found this interesting because (among other things) it told me who Godoy was. Previously I knew the name only from a reference in Patrick O’Brian’s novel “Post Captain” (second in his great Aubrey/Maturin series). In the last chapter, the Royal Navy has dispatched ships to intercept a Spanish treasure fleet because Spain is about to go to war in alliance with France. Captain Jack Aubrey commands one ship and Dr. Stephen Maturin is along as a political advisor to the Commodore. The British try to negotiate a peaceful surrender and Dr. Maturin advises the British envoy:

    “Bring him if you possibly can,’ said Stephen.
    And above all, remember Godoy has betrayed the kingdom to the French.’ “

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Glad you found it interesting, John. Maturin (O’Brian) sums Godoy up well. The latter was a pretty unsavory character.

  • Randy Ford says:

    Interesting that bull fighting was banned by the King at that time. Wonder if the barbarity was the reason or ? Great article though, very informative but can’t find a recipe for poteheiro.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Randy. According to Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight by Adrian Shubert (1999), there were economic and social reasons for a ban, including a shortage of livestock and the time and money people spent on bullfights, as well as concerns about the barbarity of the practice. Charles III issued a decree in November 1785 that prohibited bullfights in which the animals were killed, with some exceptions; the ban was in many cases ignored. After a review by his council, Charles IV on February 10, 1805, issued a royal decree that announced an “absolute prohibition” of any fight in which the bull was killed. He had decided to “abolish a spectacle that does not conform to the humanity of the Spanish people, which causes damage to agriculture because of the obstacles it poses to the raising of livestock and the backwardness of industry because of the sad waste of time among artisans on days in which they should be working.” (p. 156) In 1811, King Joseph Bonaparte re-authorized bullfights.

    Apparently poteheiro was also called puchero, which means “stewpot.” An 1872 travel guide described it as “a kind of soup, whose ingredients are beef, mutton, sausages, with various vegetables, and especially a variety of dried pease called garbanzos.” Although I can’t vouch for it, there is a recipe here that you might want to try: Looks tasty!

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    It would be interesting to do a comparison between society and politics in Spain before the French invasion AND the changes in such brought about by the French. Such as the abolition of the Inquisition introduced by the French…..! Another point of interest is the program suggested by the Junta of 1812, and how it was (if at all) implemented. In other words,what were the changes introduced and provoked by the French occupation. Before they were repealed by Ferdinand after 1815…..!

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    What is “funny” is that the French came back in Spain in 1823 to “save” Ferdinand VII from liberals…

Join the discussion

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If every Spaniard or Portuguese had a single Frenchman within reach of his long knife, the contest would be short. But other nations must meet their discipline, their bayonets, and their artillery.

Robert Semple