Tales From Madrid: The Dos de Mayo Uprising

Manuela Malasaña

Find out why madrileños celebrate this day and how it forms part of the city’s rebellious nature.


The 2nd May is a bank holiday in the region of Madrid, on this day groups of people spend the day drinking in a square in the ever-changing neighbourhood of Malasaña. Those that are art lovers may go to the Prado to see some of Goya’s work. Or an unsuspecting group of teenagers may smoke weed in Casa de Campo, unaware they are indirectly paying tribute to the madrileños that fell before them. What do Goya, a gentrified neighbourhood, an enormous park and the second of May have in common?

A Frenchman

Not just any Frenchman, but the Frenchman: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Madrid celebrates this day as the day madrileños struggled to try to overthrow the French occupiers. With this celebration comes many tales of bravery and sacrifice.

The Dos de May Uprising of 1808 in Madrid was the day before a massacre and the day of a revolt against the occupying French army. The background to this uprising is the Peninsular war. From 1807 to 1814, major battles took place all over the Iberian peninsular for control of the land. These battles were fought initially with Napoleon’s French army and Spain on the same side fighting against Portugal. After capturing Portugal, the French turned against the Spanish. This resulted in the French army occupying Madrid and the rest of Spain in 1808.

Charles IV, known as the half-wit king, abdicated in March due to revolts in Aranjuez, a town south of Madrid, at one of the royal family’s palaces (I recommend visiting in summer as the gardens are beautiful). After the revolts, his son, Ferdinand VII, took his place. Although he never lasted long giving the throne back to his father, who gave it up to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

Coming from Naples, where he was previously king, he was not popular in Spain. They named him Pepe Botella after his supposed heavy drinking habit (which turned out not to be true).

Joachim-Napoléon Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, was in Madrid on the 2nd May. He tried to move Charles IV’s family to France, including Francisco de Paula, Charles’s youngest son. Ferdinand gave the go ahead after the city council refused Murat’s request. The unpopularity of Joseph Bonaparte and the attempt to remove the last of the Spanish royal family all added to tension in the city that would explode.

Crowds gathered in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid as news of the plot to move the family spread through the city. Murat sent a number of Imperial guards, including the Mameluke soldiers from Egypt serving in the French army. Instead of scattering the crowd, accounts say that they antagonised and brutally cut down the public. Indeed, they were sent to manage the rioting that had started. Whatever they did, they didn’t stop it.

By Francisco Goya — Museo del Prado, Madrid, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6342190

The scene of the Egyptian militants and the locals fighting in Puerta del Sol was captured by Goya in his painting Charge of the Mamelukes. It hangs in the Prado today.

Fighting spread throughout the capital between the French troops and the Spanish civilians. From the palace, through to Puerta de Toledo, Puerta del Sol and up into the streets north of here to the neighbourhood Maravillas, now called Malasaña.


Malasaña was later named after a 17-year-old girl Manuela Malasaña. A seamstress living in the neighbourhood when the revolt broke out, Manuela become an icon for the people of Madrid. She embodies the struggle of the civilian people and is a true icon.

The story of her demise has been twisted and turned by tour guides and artists for centuries. Yet the most likely tale is that she was waling home hours after the riots took place when she was jumped by a group of French soldiers. They tried groping and raping her and she fought back with a pair of large sewing scissors. They shot her dead in the square.

That square is now called Plaza Dos de Mayo, and regularly, more so on the bank holiday itself, Spaniards go there to drink in the square. The square houses a large statue of two soldiers. These men are Luis Daoíz de Torres and Pedro Velarde y Santillán.

Some of the the Spanish army was in barracks in the capital but were told to stay put, seeing the commotion the two officers disobeyed orders and joined in the fighting. Both soldiers become martyrs for the Spanish army in the war that followed the uprising: The Spanish War of Independence.

Today, the lions that sit outside of the Spanish Congress are named after these officers. Velarde and Daoíz.

The French gained control over the city and slaughtered many madrileños. Murat called for a state of Marshall law and took over control of the city. On the 3rd May they took many civilians to Casa de Campo and shot them.

In another of Goya’s paintings, El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid, you can see the French army shooting the rebellious citizens. Murat issued a statement “The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.”

It is said that they killed anyone who was found with anything that could have been a weapon, with only a few French speaking madrileños managing to convince the French occupiers to spare their lives. We can see Príncipe Pío in the background of the painting. This painting is marvelled for its revolutionary spirit and is said to have inspired Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica.

They say Goya painted it to curdle the emotions of Spaniards and make them angry towards the French for what they did. The painting hangs next to its sister painting in the Prado.

Happy Dos de Mayo!

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