Journal of Anglo-Hispanic Romanticism

War in Peace: The End of the Santoña Siege in Wellington's Dispatches and Other British Sources (Spring, 1814)

Silvia Gregorio Sáinz

Universidad de Oviedo


By April 1814, the allies had managed to push most of the French soldiers out of the Peninsula, Napoleon had finally been forced to abdicate, and Ferdinand VII had already returned to his country. Nevertheless, in this general atmosphere of peace some Spanish cities were still suffering siege operations. This was the case of the Cantabrian town of Santoña, the only place in Northern Spain that still remained in the Enemy's power. Occupied since 1810 by a French garrison, the allied armies had not been able to take the fortress to that date. The town even became a major concern for Arthur Wellesley himself, who finally managed to force its capitulation—though the real evacuation took place approximately a month after the end of the war. This article critically revises the references made to the Cantabrian town by Wellington in his dispatches, paying special attention to the General's orders related to the siege in 1814 and to his opinions about the operations that took place there. The allusions to Santoña as published both in the British press during that year and in several historical works (by authors like Napier) are also examined. The revision of this information provides a new perspective on the British siege operations in this village in the aftermath of the Peninsular War.



The victories of Austria, Prussia, and Russia in Europe in 1813 signaled a turning point in the war against Napoleon. The Emperor's power in the Peninsula was weakened and the allies managed to push most of the Imperial soldiers out of Spain that same year. By April 1814, the war against the French was already won, Napoleon had finally been forced to abdicate, and Ferdinand VII had already returned to his kingdom. Nevertheless, peace was not fully established in the Peninsula yet. The French invaders were still holding a handful of isolated fortresses, which continued to face siege operations. This was the case of the Cantabrian town of Santoña, the only place in Northern Spain that still remained in enemy hands.


This paper aims to critically revise the references to this town made by Wellington in his dispatches as well as those found in the British press that year and in some contemporary works by authors like Napier. These sources have been thus far disregarded by Cantabrian historians studying the Peninsular War in that Province.


Despite the fact that by the spring of 1814 most of the Cantabrian territory had been evacuated, the French occupation of the so- called "Gibraltar of the North" produced an uneasiness that could intensely be felt in every single village, even more so when Santander became Wellington's main northern harbor in Spain. It seemed to be impossible for those inhabitants to recover their daily routines. The Spanish authorities' demands for new requisitions to hold the siege of Santoña were constant, as were arguments with the British authorities left there to lead the blockade and protect Wellington's rear. In addition, French privateers hidden in that village prevented trade recovery and the landing of supplies for the allied troops. Peace in Cantabria, therefore, was theoretical, all the more, after the cessation of hostilities signed on the 18th April 'officially' ended the War.


Since the beginning of the Peninsular War, both French and allied military officers and governments had been aware of the strategic importance of the Santoña port on the Bay of Biscay for their operations on the Northern Coast. British officers commissioned in the area had repeatedly insisted in their dispatches on the advantages of occupying this port. However, nothing was done effectively by the allied armies apart from some small skirmishes; eventually, Santoña was occupied by French troops in 1810. It was then gradually fortified under the Emperor's strict orders. After the allied victory in Vitoria and the recapture of Castro Urdiales in June 1813, which forced Napoleon's soldiers in Cantabria to fall back to Santoña, the works were intensified in an attempt to make it impregnable.


Those defenses prevented Spanish regular forces, headed by Gabriel de Mendizabal's division, together with the Northern guerrilla from taking the fortress by assault. Despite the fact that in May 1813 4,000 Spanish soldiers were besieging a French garrison of approximately 1,300 souls, the former apparently had poor means to proceed to the attack. The only solution was to order a blockade so as to surrender the town by exhaustion. Thus Spanish forces took charge of the land siege while British ships of war proceeded to close off the port. The naval duties involved not only preventing French succours from reaching Santoña, but also protecting allied ships and Spanish trade. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1814, after two years of holding the siege, the Spanish had not been possible to take the port. This failure was hardly understandable by the Spaniards who started to blame the allies, as can be seen in the Diario de Juan Verdades on the 14th of January:

Why has Santoña not surrendered yet, a good question! What is the point of our troops' siege disturbing the neighbouring villages with the burden of the blockade? As long as sea succours are not intercepted, Santoña will not surrender till Doomsday. In the middle of last month two luggers from Bayonne came through, and two schooners and other smaller boats were in the rear. And the insolence of the Santoña people is such that they have armed some privateers. With three two-masted coasters they have taken six preys in fifteen days. Thus Santoña will not capitulate. Let that question for the English as they will know what to do.


Not only British ships were to blame though; Spanish troops could also have conducted their operations more effectively. However, as the quote shows, it was evident that the sea blockade did not work. This breach was confirmed, for example, by Napier who made public the summer 1813 complaints of the Spanish General blockading Santoña, who revealed that the exertions of the Spanish troops were useless, because the French were succouring the fortress by sea. Furthermore, the French small fleet hidden there was disturbing Wellington's campaign in the North. The blockade is, therefore, described as 'nominal'. This may have been because the allies were involved in too many operations at the same time and they did not have at their disposal a suitable quantity of vessels. Moreover, Wellington himself put it down to lack of coordination between the Spanish and the British forces and he even accused the Admiralty of failing to warn transport masters that the port of Santoña was still occupied. These shortcomings caused some Spaniards to distrust British intentions. Rumors were spread that the British wanted to take possession of that fortress and turn it into a new Gibraltar.


The commander-in-chief of the British Army was aware of those deficiencies and, as can be seen in his October 1813 dispatches to Captain George Collier, who was responsible for the naval blockade at that time, and to Lieutenant-Generals Lord Aylmer and John Hope, he was determined to strengthen their position. He therefore ordered Lord Aylmer to head for Santoña to tighten the blockade in collaboration with Collier and, in combination with the Spanish forces, to take Laredo and El Puntal. Owing to lack of coordination, however, this operation was not possible. Captain John Wells of the Royal Engineers was sent to quicken the Spanish officers' siege operations on the ground. In December, the 5th article of the Treaty of Valençay established that all Spanish fortresses under a French garrison should be given back to Spanish troops. The situation in Santoña, however, remained unchanged until February of 1814. Wellington, thus, did not hesitate to accuse Collier directly of negligence in his operations on the Cantabrian coast.


On February 13, 1814 the Spaniards were sent by Wellington to take Santoña by storm. Napier describes those operations in detail and unveils some interesting particulars about British officers' involvement. On that night, the Spanish leader of the siege, Diego Del Barco, at the head of the Monterrey Regiment, held briefly the battery of El Puntal. Seven days later, on the 21st he ordered a double attack. First, Del Barco himself with the Volunteers of Toledo, León and Bureba, decided to storm the fort of El Rastrillar and the town of Laredo. He carried out the latter and also took some outer defenses of the fort. Unfortunately, Del Barco was wounded in the assault and the attack ceased. At this point, the description of facts in Spanish sources differs from those found in British reports regarding Captain Wells' proceedings. According to Spanish dispatches, the British officer was restricted to directing the approaches to the fort. By contrast, British writers stated Wells was the leader of the offensive:

Capt. John Wells now strenuously urged the Spaniards to crown the counterscarp of the fort at Laredo and attack vigorously, but they preferred establishing four fieldpieces. These guns were dismounted the moment they began to fire, and the Spanish generals committed the direction of the attack to Wells. He immediately opened a heavy musketry fire on the fort to stifle the noise of his workmen, then pushing trenches up the hill close to the counterscarp in the night, he was proceeding to burst open the gate, when the Italian garrison mutinied against their commander, and making him prisoner surrendered the place.


Afterwards, San Llorente led the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, "Tiradores de Cantabria," and 2nd and 3rd of Vizcaya to get the outposts of El Brusco and El Gromo, manuevers he successfully carried out on the 25th and the 26th, respectively.


The French garrison of Santoña was then effectively isolated with the allies commanding now the entrance to the harbor. Even though the Spanish forces holding the siege increased their numbers to 7,000 in March, the capture of the fortress by assault was still impossible. The French governor and the garrison were still strong in their position and confident that Napoleon would relieve them. Almost a month later, on March 31st, the British paper the Cheltenham Chronicle reported that "Ferdinand had arrived in Toulouse, on his way to Spain, the fort of Laredo in Biscay had surrendered to Spanish troops; but Santoña had still a French garrison."


Around that time two British officers, Lieut. Colonel Henry Sullivan and Captain Dundas of H.M.S. Pyramid, were detained in Santander. Intelligence there suggested that "should a British force appear before Santoña, the French General commanding would be induced to surrender" and bearing that in mind, as they reported to Wellington, they decided to approach that village. Nonetheless, they could not arrive before March 21st when they "found that the French officer commanding the town had just concluded a capitulation with the Spaniards." Earlier that day, Count Lameth, knowing the change in fortune of the Imperial forces in France, had offered the surrender of the fortress to San Llorente, the new leader of the land siege, who agreed to a provisional armistice on two essential conditions: the closure of the port and the freeing of the sea on that coast. This truce, however, had to be ratified by the chief generals of both armies, Wellington and Soult.


Wellington ultimately rejected the capitulation of Santoña, as he explained to Henry Bathurst on April 1st, "because it stipulated that the garrison were to return to France, under engagement not to serve for one year," and, as had just happened in Jaca, the French were sure to violate that condition, which threatened operations in Old Gallia. Furthermore, he did not judge it proper to set that post free, since he had turned down the evacuation of Barcelona and other places and since he surmised that Santoña might not be important for further military operations. Thus, in that same dispatch Wellington insistently ordered the naval officer of the coast to maintain the blockade, and asked Bathurst not only to offer the means required to maintain it effectively but also to ensure that the Government knew about his refusal. It was crucial, he stated, to stop the rumor of the capitulation to prevent British ships from getting into the port and being captured.


The British press did not wait to announce the long-expected capitulation of Santoña, though it had not been ratified by Wellington. On April 1st, The Morning Chronicle, announced the desirable news: "Mails from Cadiz and Corunna arrived yesterday, by which we learnt that the fortress of Santona has at length surrendered." In the following days of April the news was published in at least six more newspapers all over Britain. The Leeds Intelligencer (4th), The Bury and Norwich Post (6th), The Worcester Journal (7th) and Lancaster Gazette (9th) published, "Account by the Corunna mail states that the important fortress of Santoña, in the Bay of Biscay, has at last surrendered." The Morning Post also published a letter from Cork dated April 4th stating that the fortress had been captured with its garrison of 1,000 men. And, finally, on April 11th, The Hampshire Telegraph informed their readers of the event.


But Wellington had not accepted the pre-armistice, and, therefore, hostilities were resumed on April 9, 1814. Ironically, by then Paris had already surrrendered, Napoleon had abdicated, the Bourbon throne had been restored, and Wellington's army had closed in at Toulouse where Soult had withdrawn with his troops. The Convention of Toulouse, signed on April 18th marked the official end of the Peninsular War. Consequently, an agreement had to be reached concerning the liberation of the seven Spanish fortresses still held by French garrisons. The release of Santoña was established in the 5th article.


The agreement, known in Santander on May 5th, did not mean the immediate freeing of the Cantabrian fortress. On the contrary, the evacuation of the French garrison still had to wait a bit longer due to the French governor's refusal to hand it over to British forces. Santoña, then, was still occupied by Napoleon's soldiers when Ferdinand's troops entered Madrid and restored absolutism on May 10-11th . It was not until May 15th, according to both British and Cantabrian sources, that the French garrison there embarked, leaving the port the following day. The last Napoleonic military post in the North had been evacuated approximately a month after the official end of war, and the Province of Cantabria was finally free from Imperial soldiers.


I have revised the references made to Santoña in Wellington's dispatches, in British contemporary works, and in the British press at the end of the Peninsular War. Most of these British sources had been thus far disregarded or forgotten by historians even in recent works. One of the main conclusions is that when the conflict was over, peace was far from being a fact in the Province of Santander since the Santoña fortress and town were still occupied by a French garrison and, what is still more relevant, they underwent siege operations. The consulted sources provide a new perspective on British activity and behavior in that village, which has been traditionally simplified and sometimes misunderstood. From the very beginning of the war the allies were aware of the importance of that port though they never planned to occupy it. However, as soon as the first French garrisons took hold of it, Santoña became a major concern for the allies. The ineffective sea blockade conducted by British ships led Wellington himself to take over. The British were not the only ones to blame. There was also failure with the Spanish land siege. They should not be accused of a twofold action. The documents analyzed have shown that, despite shortcomings and errors, the British allies tried to do their best. In fact, the ultimate capitulation of Laredo and Santoña, as I have tried to explain, was the result of British operations. Finally, the examined references to this town in the British press reveal the importance given in Great Britain to Santoña's lasting resistance and its liberation. The "Perfidious Albion's" plans to establish a new Gibraltar there cannot possibly be proved. However, British newspapers' close attention to proceedings in that town might explain those rumors of an allied plan to set a new Gibraltar on the Northern Coast.

Biographical Notice

Silvia Gregorio-Sáinz holds a BA with Honors in English Studies and a MA in TEFL. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Oviedo where she also works in an English language school. She is now finishing her Ph.D. thesis. Her main field of research focuses on Anglo-Spanish relationships in the first half of the nineteenth century. She has presented several papers at national and international conferences, including, "The Siege and destruction of Castro Urdiales According to British Sources: The Role of the British Allies in the Defence of the Cantabrian Town" (Cantabria, 2013) and "The Bishop of Santander in the 1808 British Press: An unusual Tracking" (45th Annual Meeting of the Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies in Modena, 2014).

End Notes


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