On April 14, 1808, the emperor of the French, Napoleon I or Napoleon Bonaparte, came to the Basque Country for the first time during his reign, taking up residence in Baiona, Lapurdi. The context of the visit was the outbreak of the Peninsular War in 1807, a conflict for control of the Iberian Peninsula.
In taking up a position so close to the unfolding events, Napoleon was attempting to provoke the abdication of Spain’s newly crowned King Ferdinand VII. Philippe Veyrin, in his classic study The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and Their Traditions (pp. 242-43):
The emperor arrived on April 14, took a dislike to the Hôtel de la Division, and went off to Marracq where he set up in the little château built a century earlier for Maria Anna of Neubourg. By a strange quirk, it was against this background (since ruined by a fire) that the historic scenes of the spoliation of the Bourbons of Spain took place. Napoleon lingered on in Baiona until July 20; he visited part of the country, taking a particular interest in the port of Baiona, La Barre, and the maritime arsenals that had once been so flourishing and whose activities he attempted to rekindle. Soon, more troops than had ever been seen in this part of the world were marching across our region. Baiona was filled with a feverish hubbub of activity.
Seconde vue du port de Bayonne, prise de l’allée des Boufflers (1755) by Claude Joseph Vernet. View of the Port of Baiona in the mid-eighteenth century. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1808, Spain was in turmoil, beset by violent civil strife that had, in March, resulted in the abdication of King Charles IV in favor of his son Ferdinand VII. Indeed, by this time, Napoleon had already ordered the invasion of the peninsula to take advantage of Spain’s domestic woes. As Cameron Watson notes, in Modern Basque History (p. 74):
As the invasion took place, the French emperor sought the abdication of the Spanish monarch, in favor of a handpicked French candidate for the post: his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. During the summer of 1808, Napoleon called an assembly in Baiona (Bayonne), to which he invited several influential figures within the Spanish kingdom, including Basque representatives. His plan was to gain support for the creation of a new noble class supportive of the royal candidacy of his brother. At the meeting, the separate delegations of Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Nafarroa coordinated their efforts in an attempt to convince the French that the centralizing tendencies of their state had little chance of success in a political culture long used to specific rights and liberties. Amazingly, considering the nature of the French empire, not to mention events just a few years previously in Iparralde, Napoleon agreed to their demands. The new Spanish constitution of 1808 thus guaranteed the foruak of Hegoalde while at the same time installing Joseph Bonaparte as king.
The Peninsular War, which dragged on to 1814, marks a moment in European history when the Basque Country assumed center stage. French occupation of the provinces making up Hegoalde in the Spanish Kingdom moved Basque Senator Dominique-Joseph Garat in Iparralde to implore Napoleon, on several occasions, to create a Basque federation (in effect, a united Basque Country), a protectorate that would serve as a buffer state between France and the Iberian Peninsula. Garat even proposed naming it La Nouvelle Phénicie (The New Phoenicia)!
Battle of the Pyrenees, 1813. Created by Djmaschek. this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.
But these efforts were to no avail. A rearguard action on the part of Spain and Portugal, together with their ally Britain, saw allied forces sweep back up through the Basque Country, on both sides of the border. At the key battle of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba, in June 1813, a combined allied army led by General Wellington broke the French army, and that same summer witnessed key battles in Navarre, including those at Maya-Amaiur and Roncesvalles-Orreaga (July 25) as well as Sorauren (July 28 and 30). Wellington’s forces finally took Donostia-San Sebastián (September) and Iruñea-Pamplona (October) from the French, and eventually swept into Iparralde that same fall, with fighting taking place there right through the Winter and into the Spring of 1814. In April that same year, beset by multiple wars on many fronts, Napoleon abdicated effectively heralding the end of the Peninsular War.
Interestingly, then, the Basque Country–both Iparralde and Hegoalde–was a key stage on which Napoleon came to demonstrate both the zenith and nadir of his own personal power and influence.