Brits tend to be well aware of the time in 1588 when the Spanish Armada almost invaded England. But they don’t tend to be quite so aware of the frequency with which Brits have invaded Spain.
In the late fourth century, Magnus Maximus led an army including Britons into Europe in pursuit of the imperial crown and held Spain for a while.
And at the beginning of the fifth century, Constantine III led another army from Britain into Europe. This time a British-born general, Gerontius, was sent with an army to take Spain, which he succeeded in doing. However, Spanish troops recruited into his army were later to turn against him in a move that led to his death in an epic siege. He and a few others found themselves surrounded in a house and held off the Spanish troops, killing 300 of them, until they ran out of arrows.
In the period after the end of the Roman Empire, Brits settled in north-western Spain in an area of Galicia that was known for a while as Britonia. By 572, Mailoc, a bishop of Britonia, was present at the Council of Braga. As with the British settlement in Brittany, we don’t know how much violence was involved in this settlement, or whether it was entirely peaceful, but the fact is that Brits seem to have taken control of an area of Spain.
During the Middle Ages we were involved with assorted activities in Spain. In 1367, the Black Prince invaded Spain from Aquitaine with an Anglo-Gascon army in support of Peter of Castile in the Castilian Civil War. At the Battle of Nájera, our longbowmen helped win a crushing victory over the opposition. Not that it achieved too much in the long run as Peter and the Black Prince fell out with each other over money.
It was in the sixteenth century, though, that things really started hotting up between us and Spain. We’ve already mentioned the Spanish Armada, but the same conflict also saw us attack Spanish territory on a number of occasions. Most memorably on 19 April 1587, prior to the Armada, Francis Drake did his ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’ by taking between thirty and forty English ships into Cadiz harbour and destroying loads of Spanish vessels. The English were back in Cadiz in 1596, with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Wessex destroying ships in the harbour and taking the town.
And we didn’t stop there. There was plenty more to come in the seventeenth century. Though the 1625 Raid on Cadiz (Cadiz, yet again) has to rank as one of England’s more disastrous military expeditions. The attacking English troops landed and took a fort they didn’t have to. Then, because they didn’t have enough provisions with them, the troops ‘liberated’ some wine vats. With most of the expedition now drunk, some made it back to the ships and the rest were slaughtered, in both senses of the word, when the Spanish defenders attacked them. Under Cromwell we were attacking Spain again and a fleet was dispatched with Admiral Blake to take the war into their home territory and water. In 1656, the English were back at Cadiz, not drunk this time, and blockading the port. The Battle of Cadiz was a huge defeat for Spain and a huge victory for England. Blake followed it up on 20 April 1657 with victory at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in which he virtually destroyed another Spanish fleet.
The eighteenth century was also going to be a big century for attacking Spain. The War of the Spanish Succession got under way early in the eighteenth century and we soon had troops roaming the country. In October 1705, an allied army under Charles Mordaunt, the Earl of Peterborough, captured Barcelona. James Stanhope followed that up with assorted other victories, including the capture of Minorca, and victories at the Battle of Almenar and Saragossa. However, he rather lost out to the French at Brihuega and eventually had to surrender in December 1710. Still, by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, we kept Minorca, and of course Gibraltar.
By contrast, during the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the Spanish managed to set foot in Britain when 300 Spanish marines landed in Scotland to link up with local Highlander forces before being defeated with their local allies at the Battle of Glenshiel in 1719. Late the same year, we were back to invading Spain again, landing at Vigo and taking it, before marching to Pontevedra.
And in the Seven Years War of 1756–63 we were once again fighting in Spanish waters and on Spanish soil. In 1756, we lost Minorca, but by 1762 we had British troops on the ground in mainland Spain fighting alongside our Portuguese allies and defeating the Spanish at the Battle of Valencia de Alcántara. And we got Minorca back at the end of the war anyway. Although we lost it for the last time in 1781 to a combined Spanish and French force.
And then we come to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Most Brits have heard of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but many of them tend to think of Nelson defeating the French there. What they often forget is that there were Spanish ships opposing our ships as well, and that Cape Trafalgar itself is on the Spanish coast, not the French. Mind you, Nelson’s attack on Santa Cruze de Tenerife in 1797 hadn’t been such a great success. That’s where he got the wound that cost him part of his arm.
When we think of Brits invading Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, we usually tend to think of one Arthur Wellesley (later created Duke of Wellington). We had had successes as well as failures in the period before Wellesley’s arrival in Spain. Sir John Moore’s death at the Battle of Corunna is one of those memorable incidents in British military history. Wellesley led a gritty campaign against the French and their local allies as the tide of battle ebbed and flowed over the Portuguese border, and as the Spanish increasingly rose against the French, but eventually he managed to push deep into Spain and stay there. In 1812, he captured Badajoz and after victory at the Battle of Salamanca, the French lost control of Madrid. Finally, in 1813 he chased the French out of Spain back across the Pyrenees into France.
Then we come to the First Carlist War. Lots of Brits know about Wellington in Spain, but not so many know about our 10,000-strong British Legion, consisting of English, Scots and Irish, fighting here in the 1830s in support of Queen Isabella and the Liberals against the Carlists. This was a serious military force that faced heavy fighting and made a significant contribution to the side we were supporting in the war. In 1836, Sir George De Lacy Evans was in command of the force at San Sebastián, and the legion held the fort at Mount Urgull de San Sebastián. In 1837, despite defeat at the Battle of Oriamendi, they helped prevent the fall of Madrid. And, of course, plenty of Brits went to fight bravely on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.