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The Events of May 2

In 1808 Carlos IV ruled Spain, a king more interested in hunting than in the duties attached to government. The king delegated power to his wife, María Luisa, and she to the chief minister, Manuel de Godoy, one of the country's most despised statesmen of all time. Godoy succeeded in tripling the country's debt in 20 years and signed the secret Convention of Fontainebleau with Napoléon, which allowed the French troops to cross Spain freely on their way to Portugal. Napoléon's plans were different—he intended to use the convention as an excuse to annex Spain to his vast domain. While the French troops entered Spain, the Spanish people, tired of the inept king and the greedy Godoy, revolted against the French in Aranjuez on March 17, 1808, hoping Napoléon would hand the throne over to the king's elder son, Prince Ferdinand. In the following days Carlos IV abdicated, and his son was proclaimed the new king, Fernando VII. Napoléon had already chosen a person for that job, though—one of his brothers, Joseph (José) Bonaparte. The shrewd French emperor managed to attract the Spanish royal family to France and had Carlos IV, his wife, and Ferdinand VII imprisoned in Bayonne, France, and his brother placed on the Spanish throne.

When the French general Joachim Murat arrived in Madrid on March 23 with 10,000 men (leaving 20,000 more camped outside the city), following Napoléon's orders, Madrid's Captain General Francisco Javier Negrete ordered the Spanish troops to remain in their military quarters, arguing that resistance was futile. On the morning of May 2, a group of civilians revolted in front of the Palacio Real, fearing the French troops intended to send Francisco de Paula, King Carlos IV's youngest son, to Bayonne with his brother and father. Gunfire ensued, and word of the events spread all over the city. The people rose up, fighting the mightier French troops with whatever they could use as weapons. Two captains, Luis Daoiz and Pedro Velarde, and a lieutenant, Jacinto Ruiz, disobeyed Negrete's orders and quartered at the Monteleón Artillery barracks, which stretched from what is now Plaza del 2 de mayo to Calle Carranza. Helped by a small group of soldiers and some brave citizens who had marched to the barracks from the Royal Palace, the group resisted the French for three hours, doing so with very little ammunition, as they couldn't access the armory.

Daoiz and Velarde died in the bloody fight. Ruiz managed to escape, only to die from his wounds later. Murat's forces executed soldiers and civilians throughout the city, including in the Casa de Campo and what's now the Parque del Oeste, captured by Goya in one of his two famous paintings of the executions—both restored in 2008 to celebrate the bicentennial of the events. The events marked the beginning of the five-year War of Independence against the French. The remains of the three military heroes, together with those who were executed at Paseo del Prado, are now held in an obelisk/mausoleum at Plaza de la Lealtad.

Paradoxically, Joseph Bonaparte proved to be a good ruler, implementing wise renovations in the then congested and unhygienic city. He built new squares, enlarged key streets, and moved some cemeteries outside the city.

Updated: 2013-11-22

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