Dos de Mayo: The Madrileñes Strike Back

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I went to see Ridley Scott’s blockbuster ‘Napoleón‘ last week, expecting to have a little glimpse of his exploits on the Iberian Peninsular. Maybe just a bit, but you know, something.

Well, I was rather disappointed that in the whole movie there isn’t a single mention of Spain. Nope, not a word. Nada. Scott wants to release a four and a half hour version at some point, which I’m hoping may allude to the six or so years the Spanish and Portuguese, assisted by their allies including the British and Irish of course, battled to regain their lands.

In the meantime, I thought I’d add a post from earlier this year, when Madrid hosted a recreation of the fateful events of the 2nd of May, when ordinary Spanish citizens tried to repel the forces of the much stronger and well-equipped army of ‘El Tirano’. Viva!

Lead by Marshal Murat on a gleaming, if rather jittery white horse, two columns of blue-coated soldiers march through the leafy lanes of Retiro Park. They proudly carry two gold eagles and flags bearing the golden N insignia of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Behind them come a band of slightly less official looking Madrileñes. White shirts, espadrilles and straw hats are their uniform. The group includes numerous pitchfork wielding women, who with a couple of priests and a dog, have come to defend their city. 

For one day a year, crowds of onlookers are transported back to the 2nd May 1808. This is an important date in Madrid history, so much so, that it’s still a public holiday. It marks the day when French forces came to expel the royal family and take over the capital. The Spanish army had been told not to resist, but the locals didn’t get the memo. 

Each year, La Asociación Histórico-Cultural Voluntarios de Madrid 1808-1814, reenact a greatest hits tour of Madrid, revisiting the sites that saw ordinary Spanish citizens fighting hand to hand with the well-trained French Grande Armée. 

After marching through Retiro Park, the group lay a wreath to commemorate the fallen at the Monument de Dos de Mayo, near the Prado Museum where Goya’s paintings document the bloody events of the occupation. A volley of musket fire makes the spectators jump, except my boyfriend and I who, as seasoned re-enactors ourselves, are fairly used to it.

The re-enactors then continue on to Puerta de Sol, with the crowd engaging in some light-hearted booing when ‘Vive la France’ is shouted. Now the tourist heart of Madrid, in 1808 this area saw citizens brutally cut down by the curved swords of the Mameluks, a mounted unit made up of various Middle-Eastern and European troops. These days everyone passes peacefully through, past the huge stage erected for the musical events planned for the next couple of days’ holiday. 

I decide I need a drink break in sympathy with the re-enactors who, after 8 hours in wool clothing must be gasping, and after a couple of hours, the reverberating blast of cannon fire alerts me to their return. 

The spectacle ends where it began in 1808, outside the Royal Palace. Angered by the forced removal of the Bourbon family, a group of citizens storm through the gates in the early morning of the 2nd of May. The French are ordered to fire on the crowd without warning, and it is this initial brutal act that leads to the subsequent city wide civilian uprisings. Ultimately almost 400 ordinary Spanish men and women would lose their lives. The recreation ends with this tragic event, luckily these reenactors arise to fight another day after a well deserved rest I hope. 

The events of the 2nd of May didn’t stop the invasion of Spain, it would be another six years before the French would be driven out and Napoleon’s dreams of Empire would be shattered. But their bravery would act as inspiration for the remainder of the War of Independence on the Peninsular and further afield. The Spanish would fight on and that sense of pride still is in the hearts of rebellious Madrileñes 215 years later.

Check out The Making of Madrid blog and this article on a painting associated with the Dos de Mayo uprising.

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