Unwelcome Guests in Portugal

Posted on Thursday 9th June 2016


by david buttery

It is a rare historian who is not inspired by fiction and Bernard Cornwell’s novels really encouraged me to write about the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe’s Havoc had a plot that really intrigued me with his eponymous hero fighting Napoleon’s armies as Portugal was threatened by a French invasion in 1809. It is an incredible tale and, surprised that so little non-fiction had been written about it, I began to explore the subject further. Studying nineteenth and early twentieth century works confirmed that the 1809 campaign was well worth reading about.

The Second French Invasion of Portugal commanded by Marshal Soult proved very different to General Junot’s remarkably swift incursion in 1807. This time Portuguese sympathies were divided between the two superpowers intervening in their country and Soult encountered serious difficulties from the outset, not least from guerrillas who harried him at every turn. Nevertheless, he tried to win Portuguese support, allegedly with ulterior motives, as many think he intended to claim the crown. Whether he really aspired to become King of Portugal is something that historians have never agreed upon and I had great fun examining this question.

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Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult, one of Napoleon's most experienced generals, was ordered to invade Portugal for a second time in 1809
Yet it is the clash between Soult and Wellington (military giants of the period) that I found really interesting. One thing that immediately struck me about Wellington’s performance during 1809 was just how aggressive he was as a commander at the beginning of the Peninsular War. The speed with which he struck against Soult in order to retake the city of Porto was remarkable along with a virtually unique attempt to outflank a French force with an amphibious lake crossing. Yet it was the daring passage of the Douro when he attempted to surprise his opponent that earned him praise and rebuke in equal measure.
Soult’s early career is obscure compared to Wellington’s and I found researching and writing his biographical chapter (Duke of Damnation) very revealing. He saw significant campaigning before 1809 and Wellington found him a far more able opponent than his predecessor in Portugal. Even when caught off guard, Soult managed to extricate his army from a nightmare situation and the heroic retreat through the mountains is one of the high points of the campaign for me rather than the anti-climax you might expect.
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General Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington)
It is remarkable that the second French Invasion has received so little attention from historians as its repulse when the tide was turning against France is important for understanding the Napoleonic Wars and helped Britain gain a vital foothold on the continent. Perhaps the fact that it was over so quickly and relatively few lives were lost compared to other campaigns goes some way to explaining this. Certainly campaigns ending in bloodier battles receive more attention, even if they achieved far less strategically.
The fact that treachery and intrigue played a role in this campaign also marks it out as unusual. The Argenton Conspiracy revealed that some French officers were discontent under Soult’s command and even contemplated overthrowing their Emperor. One would be inclined to dismiss this as exaggeration if it were not for the fact that Wellington, Soult and Napoleon all took it very seriously.
The first two books of this series were published as Portuguese language editions and I hope that Wellington Against Soult may receive the same treatment, as recent anniversaries of events in 1807-1811 have encouraged further interest there. Although Portuguese sources are scarce for this period, I was amused to see that the Portuguese in 1809 considered both the French and the British as unwelcome guests and that it was far from certain which side they would end up supporting. Wellington and Soult’s clash went a long way to helping them make up their minds.
Researching this series showed me just how fascinating this era can be and visiting historic locations in Portugal was a pleasure. Modern Portugal is an incredible place and people I met there were enthusiastic about their history and inspired me to continue with a project that rapidly began to expand. The reception the first book received from readers also spurred me on as this project never started out with the idea of creating a three book series. One thing that would really please me is to hear that people who have read my books have been encouraged to take up the old campaign trail and visit that marvellous country.
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