Perspectives on Spain in wartime by a strong ‘new’ woman of her age
There can be no doubt that the socialite Elizabeth Vassall Fox was a remarkable woman. Initially married to Sir Godfrey Webster, a man 20 years her senior, she bore him five children, but by the time of their divorce in 1797 she was already pregnant again—by her lover, the Whig politician Henry Fox (3rd Baron Holland). They immediately married and Elizabeth bore seven more children to her new husband. Both Elizabeth and her husband admired Napoleon Bonaparte. Henry Fox’s political status gave him a roving commission and made him and his redoubtable spouse party to much information not necessarily available to the public at the time. Fox’s travels, accompanied by Elizabeth, took him to Spain at the time of the Peninsular War, and it is this period that makes Lady Holland’s journal so fascinating. As an independently minded woman of high social standing Elizabeth wrote directly—and often scathingly—about the people and events she experienced or which came to her notice in consequence of her husband’s position. This is interesting to modern students of the period not only as a rare female perspective, but also because much contemporary writing of the period has come from military gentlemen who might be relied upon to be guarded in their written views for the sake of good form or because discretion was—in the presence of the powerful—always the better part of valour. By contrast Elizabeth Holland’s often acerbic observations and fearless judgements may occasionally verge upon gossip, but are nonetheless historically valuable.
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Cuesta is afraid the enemy may attempt to push on and intercept him from Truxillo, where his magazines, &c., are. His plan was to abandon Mirabete and reach Truxillo last night, but there was a bare possibility of the enemy getting there before him. His intention is to fight his way through and reach the passes of the Sierra Morena, so as to cover Andalusia. The moment is critical: one false movement in tactics and the whole cause is lost.
At length the arms are arrived at Cadiz, 30,000 musquets, &c., &c.
Jalon, an officer sent from Valencia, gives a good report of the state of the public mind there. They have 4000 men armed with bad muskets, and 12,000 clothed, trained, and embodied who have none, and as many more enlisted who have no clothing and are not drilled.
There is a foolish, prating Baron Crossard from the Austrians; he has no mission, but is allowed to come in order to see the armies. According to the private letters and public papers, the English public are only occupied with the disgraceful business of the D. of York, (the scandal about Mrs. Clarke), against whom some women of no character and some men of bad character have brought forth very severe charges of corruption if they should be substantiated. Spain, the reverses of the English Army, and the failure of the measures of ministers, seem all forgotten in the superior interest of examining women of the town at the Bar of the H. of Commons.
21st March.—The news from Cuesta has revived the drooping and almost expiring hopes of the Spaniards. Cuesta began his retreat at ½ past ten on the night of the 18th from Mirabete; he effected it in excellent order to Truxillo, without sustaining the loss of a single piece of cannon or any of his baggage or ammunition. His headquarters were at Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and his avant guard at Truxillo; the enemy had an advanced post at Torrecillas. His intention was to maintain himself at Sta. Cruz until he knew what were the movements of the army of Albuquerque in his favour. The opinion now is that the enemy are not in great force, that they hardly equal, and certainly do not exceed that of Cuesta. From great despondence, the spirits of the people are rising almost too much.
Great complaints of the English military adventurers who go to the Spanish armies and interfere and meddle. Infantado sent away one when he discovered that he was not employed by the English Govt.—a Col. Whittingham. The consequence has been that he has traduced and injured the Duke in every possible manner.
23rd March.—Cuesta, conscious how exposed his situation was if the French should advance and get on his rear, resolved to fall back and avoid active operations, in order that the Army of the Centre might have full opportunity to pursue its operations. He found considerable difficulty in repressing the ardour of his troops, who are very desirous of advancing in this affair as well as in that of Consuegra, (Cuesta was awaiting two valuable reinforcements, hence his unusual show of caution). It is evident that the Spanish cavalry is far superior to that of the French.
Albuquerque left Ciudad Real at ½ past four in morning on the 19th, with the intention of proceeding to Guadalupe to support Cuesta. Urbina was to follow up this movement, and to attack the French at Toledo, where they are said to be 700 weak; but I much fear the Spaniards are sanguine and credulous about the forces of their enemies. Ld. Hd. has had a letter from Romana. He was attacked at Chaves by a considerable force, and at the close of the affair they came to the bayonet; he has fallen back. Ciudad Rodrigo is terrified, and an attack is hourly expected.
Cuesta continues retreating, he has fallen back upon Medellin, where he intends to maintain himself to give scope to the movements of the Central Army. The Spanish cavalry has again had a brilliant pursuit and victory over the enemy at Miajadas; the regts. Infante and Almanza are named for their bravery. (This was the second of two successful skirmishes with the enemy, which were planned by Henestrosa during his retreat. The French lost over 150 men killed and wounded. The first took place on the 20th at Berrocal).
Cuesta adds that but for the appearance of a column of infantry, the enemy would have lost every horseman. These regts. are part of Romana’s dismounted cavalry who were in Germany, and left this place about a fortnight ago equipped and tolerably mounted. This skirmish happened on 21st.
The 40th regt., (the British regiment which had been sent from Elvas to Seville in February), have orders to march to Elvas next Monday. Gen. Sherbrooke has about 4000 men freshly arrived at Lisbon. Cornel, the Minister of War, applied to the English Minister, Frere, to allow the 40th to take the post of Sta. Ollala; I know not what has been the answer. Great succours in clothing, &c., are arrived at Lisbon from England; the people are quite enraptured.
Blake is to be appointed Capt.-Genl. of Aragon and Valencia, and to have one half of Lazan’s army put under his command, and to collect near Teruel. Very pleasing accounts of the successes of the somatenes and miqueletes in Catalonia. Two thousand men have advanced from Sta. Ollala to join Cuesta, (three regiments from Badajoz under the Marqués de Portago), and the same number of raw troops have gone from hence to supply their place at Sta. Ollala. They write from Gibraltar and Cadiz that in an English frigate which passed the straits an Austrian and Russian courier were on board. Good news if true: great rumours of Austrian war.
24th March.—Duque del Infantado, Chev. Ardelberg, Arriaza, Dn. Francisco Ferras y Cornel. Cuesta’s poste of today is still dated from Medellin, but it is supposed that he intends to fall back upon Campanario, in order to secure his junction with the Duke of Albuquerque, who on the 16th left Ciudad Real and joined Gen. Echavarria at Almodovar del Campo. Their corps united consisted of 8000 infantry and 500 cavalry, and it is reported, for it is not authentic, that his advanced guard was in Guadalupe on the 21st.