In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Peninsular War

  • Introduction
  • The Napoleonic Context
  • The Art of War
  • The Duke of Wellington
  • The French Army
  • The Spanish and Portuguese Armies
  • The Guerrillas
  • Regional Studies
  • The Bonaparte Kingdom of Spain
  • Atlases and Battlefield Guides

Military History Peninsular War
Charles J. Esdaile
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0186


The Peninsular War is the name given to the struggle that raged in Spain and Portugal between the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and those of Britain, Spain, and Portugal. In brief, in the early summer of 1808, Napoleon’s decision to overthrow the Spanish Bourbons produced a major revolt against the French troops that had been in occupation of parts of the Iberian peninsula since October 1807, the result being a long, drawn-out struggle that culminated in the expulsion of the French from the peninsula by the Anglo-Portuguese army of the Duke of Wellington in the autumn of 1813. However, this was not just a matter of regular armies fighting pitched battles. On the contrary, the French were also faced by a long guerrilla struggle. Traditionally, this has been envisaged in terms of patriotic bands of armed civilians that inflicted huge casualties on the invaders. Yet, as will be shown, modern research has completely undermined these ideas: while the French did indeed face a “little war” in Spain, this was much more the work of regular troops than bands of irregulars, the latter accounting for only a limited number of French casualties and in practice being mere bandits. Particularly in Spain, meanwhile, there has also been much concentration on the manner in which the rising of 1808 unleashed a political and social chain reaction that initiated the destruction of the antiguo régimen via the promulgation of the famous constitution of 1812. Thanks, meanwhile, to the recent bicentenary of the conflict—an event marked in Spain and Portugal alike by numerous scholarly meetings and a positive tidal wave of publications—all these debates have been revived. If this article will bear witness to past controversies, then it will also do so in respect of ones that are far more recent. Inevitably, bibliographies reflect gaps in the literature as much as they do its strengths. Here, particular mention ought to be made of Portugal. Lamentably, no anglophone historian has seen fit to address the Portuguese experience of the Peninsular War, while the Portuguese historiography, itself not especially abundant, is not much known beyond Portugal’s frontiers. If there is one area of the subject that is awaiting its British or American historian, this is it, and it is much to be hoped that one of the effects of this article will be to nudge some young scholar in that direction.

General Overviews

General overviews of the Peninsular War exist in large numbers and have, for convenience, been divided into two groups, namely those published in the 19th century and those published in the 20th century and beyond. At the time of writing, the preeminent English-language work is recognized to be Esdaile 2002 (cited under Post-1900).

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