The Siege of BarcelonaApril 21, 2021
Chapter 15: The Siege of Barcelona
After the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in April 1713, Felipe V’s armies were no longer spread out all over Europe. The only military objective remaining was to mop up resistance in the Crown of Aragon. Apart from Mallorca, the main areas still to be brought under Bourbon control were in Catalonia, so on July 7th 1713, Felipe’s military representatives ordered Barcelona to surrender.
The Catalans had sided with Archduke Charles and the allies partly because of the way the wind of military fortunes had blown but mainly because, as every invader of Catalonia had done since time immemorial, the English had promised to respect the Principality’s constitutions and charters. Felipe V had done much the same a few years earlier in order to avoid a peninsular war, but his viceroy in Catalonia Fernández de Velasco had not put the king’s promises into practice.
After a decade of conflict, the Bourbon king was in no mood for negotiation and his aim was to institute a firm government from Madrid with the same laws for all territories on the Iberian peninsula. He had already made his position clear with the introduction of the Nueva Planta Decrees in Valencia and Aragon following their fall to the Franco-Castilian forces in 1707. The new Spain would live under a single regime. Catalonia could not only expect the abolition of its laws and institutions but a policy of vigorous post-war reprisals as well.
Had the terms of the surrender been at all reasonable, the Catalans may well have accepted, but Felipe V had declared the Catalan resistance a rebellion rather than a war. Consequently, Castile was under no obligation to respect international treaties on the treatment of prisoners. After long deliberations over two days, the Catalan crisis government, the Junta de Braços decided that resistance was the only course of action. On the morning of July 9th 1713 a Declaration of War was sent to the Bourbon military leaders camped outside Barcelona.
Apart from a body of exiles from other parts of the Crown of Aragon, including Catalan-speaking Valencia, who had fled to Barcelona to escape reprisals, and stragglers from the allied English, Dutch and Austrian forces left behind after the War of the Spanish Succession, the defenders of Barcelona would be Catalans.
There were two regular forces of about 1,500 men that had been created in 1705 during the war, the Regiment de la Generalitat de Catalunya and the Regiment de la Ciutat de Barcelona. By far the most numerous defence force would be 3,500-man-strong La Coronela, Barcelona’s civilian militia made up of tradesmen and organised around the city’s professional guilds.
To lead this troop of just over 5,000 men, the Junta de Braços named Antonio de Villarroel commander-in-chief on July 10th. The former Bourbon general would be defending Barcelona against a force of 25,000 commanded by Restaino Cantelmo-Stuart, the Duke of Populi.
The Siege of Barcelona officially began two weeks later on July 25th 1713. The Duke of Populi’s initial task was to secure the countryside around Barcelona by occupying convents, country houses and outlying villages. The Bourbon general approached the conflict as a bombardment. He hoped to destroy the city by long-range cannon fire and force its surrender through a mixture of fear and exhaustion.
The Campaign in the Countryside
More familiar with the local terrain, small groups of Catalan shock troops, led by Valencian exile Joan Baptista Basset, used guerrilla tactics to attack the invaders from behind, causing unexpectedly high numbers of casualties. Beyond the siege lines in Vigatan territory in central Catalonia, popular uprisings continually broke out. This meant troops had to be diverted from the main campaign outside Barcelona.
To make matters worse, the Bourbon naval blockade was frequently broken. Provisions of food as well as gunpowder and ammunition from Mallorca reached the defenders with relative ease.
Between August and October 1713, the Expedition of the Braç Militar led by Antoni de Berenguer and Rafael Nebot managed to disembark 300 horsemen and 300 riflemen at Arenys de Mar on the coast north of Barcelona. The aim was to organise resistance throughout Catalonia. Despite being chased by 10,000 Franco-Castilian soldiers, the expedition managed to raise 5,000 recruits before being forced to return to the capital.
These 5,000 men formed a pocket of resistance which spread throughout the Catalan countryside. The terror tactics of the Army of the Two Crowns, executing prisoners and burning towns in their wake, only led to more recruits joining the Catalan irregulars under experienced Vigatan commanders Bac de Roda, Antoni Desvalls and Josep Moragues.
The Catalan strategy was to hold out as long as possible by attacking on many fronts and diverting troops from the main Siege of Barcelona. The hope was that the British would finally honour their promises and return to the conflict on the side of Catalonia.
However, in early 1714 French reinforcements arrived and The Army of the Two Crowns now numbered around 47,000 at the siege and another 40,000 in the countryside. The naval blockade on Barcelona was reinforced making it increasingly difficult for provisions to get through. When the Franco-Castilian army secured garrisons in the key towns of Vic, Manresa, Martorell, Mataró, Ripoll, Lleida, Hostalric, Vilafranca, most of Catalonia was under Bourbon control.
The Duke of Populi continued bombing Barcelona but, to both Felipe V’s and Louis XIV’s frustration, the Catalan capital stood firm. In an attempt to close the circle around the city, on May 17th 1714, the Duke decided to attack a Caputxin convent on the outskirts of the city, which Catalan irregulars had successfully defended for the previous months. In the ensuing Battle of the Convent dels Caputxins, although finally victorious, the Bourbons lost over 500 men to 17 Catalans.
The Duke was so enraged that he ordered the commander of the naval blockade Admiral Jean Baptiste du Casse to bomb the port neighbourhood of La Ribera, whose inhabitants were forced to flee to the beaches. When the Duke ordered the Admiral to open fire on the defenceless Barcelonans, du Casse replied that he was an honourable military man not a murderer and refused. The Duke of Populi was replaced as commander of the Siege of Barcelona less than two weeks later.
The Duke of Berwick
On July 6th 1714 James FitzJames, the first Duke of Berwick, substituted the Duke of Populi as commander of the siege. Berwick was the most capable of the Bourbon commanders and would direct the last stage of the siege against the equally experienced General Antonio de Villaroel. The civil commander of Barcelona was lawyer Rafael Casanova, who had been named Councillor in Chief of the Consell de Cent as well as Colonel of La Coronela in November 1713.
Berwick was more interested in winning the battle than destroying the city and with 47,000 men outside the walls of Barcelona plus another 40,000 in the countryside, the odds were definitely on his side. An honourable military man in principle, Barcelona could expect no mercy as various letters from Felipe V to Berwick testified that the Bourbon king wanted the Catalan capital turned into a cemetery. Even if the city surrendered, Felipe wanted revenge for 10 years of war and the betrayal of the agreements reached in 1702.
Having identified the northern section between the bastions of Sant Pere, Santa Clara and Portal Nou as the weakest point in the Barcelona defences, Berwick’s first task was to build the trenches close to the city walls from which the final assault would be launched. The trenches were constructed according to the Vauban method that brought the assault trench closer to the walls by a slow process of excavation. In the extension and reinforcement work during the first month of his command, Berwick lost over 2,000 men to snipers.
The Duke decided to make a definitive assault on August 12th but although the Bourbon forces managed to partially occupy two bastions, they were forced to retreat.
47,000 Franco-Castilian regulars had been repelled by around 5,000 Catalan defenders made up mainly of civilians. The Barcelonans were fighting to save the homes and livelihood of their families rather than just earning a soldier’s pay and their heroism was renowned. Motions were tabled in the British Houses of Parliament but no help came.
A day later Berwick decided to restrict his attack to the bastions of Portal Nou and Santa Clara but to his amazement, the Bourbon attackers were forced back once again at the Battle of the Bastion of Santa Clara. Even though the Catalan defenders had also suffered serious losses, Berwick was unwilling to risk another full frontal offensive. He withdrew to bombard the city with cannons and weaken defences. The longer the siege continued, the more effective the land and sea blockades would be in bringing the people of Barcelona to starvation point.
The Final Assault
On September 3rd, the Duke of Berwick offered the city surrender conditions and given that there were only a few days of gunpowder supplies remaining, Councillor in Chief Rafael Casanova was in favour of accepting an armistice of 12 days. The Junta de Braços, however, decided against surrender and sent a curt reply saying that the city of Barcelona was unwilling to accept any proposals from the enemy. In protest, Antonio de Villaroel resigned as military commander-in-chief although he took up his command again for the final assault on September 11th.
The attack began at around 4.30 am. To rally the brave defenders, Rafael Casanova stood high on the city walls flying the Flag of Santa Eulàlia. The symbolic standard is only flown when Barcelona is in great peril.
The Bourbon troops broke through the walls in various places but the main attack was concentrated at the royal breach between the bastions of Portal Nou and Santa Clara. The invaders poured through the city walls and Catalans and Bourbons fought hand to hand in the streets of La Ribera. The attackers were blocked from reaching the city centre by the famous defence of the Convent of Sant Augustí. Bayoneted bodies piled up outside the Monastery of Sant Pere de les Puel.les.
The Catalan defenders fought tooth and nail but, outnumbered 8 to 1, it was only a question of time before they succumbed. By the end of the day, both Rafael Casanova and Antoni de Villarroel were injured. With the political and military leaders out of action, the Junta de Braços met again.
The Junta offered capitulation rather than full surrender to the Duke of Berwick, which was accepted. Over the following days, Castilians occupied positions of power and hundreds of rebel leaders were executed. By 1716, the Nueva Planta Decrees had legally destroyed all Catalan institutions and the people of Catalonia were prohibited from speaking their mother tongue.
The Siege of Barcelona came to an end on September 11th 1714 and Catalonia ceased to exist as a sovereign state. September 11th is commemorated as La Diada, the National Day of Catalonia. The day when the Catalans lost all their traditional laws and charters and Castilian military occupation began.
Questions were raised in the British Parliament and two books were published The Deplorable History of the Catalans and The Case of the Catalans Consider’d, the subtitle of which is “You gain your Ends, and Damn them when you’re Done”. Great Britain had gained Gibraltar and Menorca but had reneged on its promises to the Catalans, who had lost their freedom.
In 1715, a statement in the House of Lords went so far as to say that “the Honour of the British Nation, always renowned for the Love of Liberty, and for giving Protection to the Assertors of it, was most basely prostituted and a free and generous People, the faithful and useful Allies of this Kingdom, were betrayed, in the most unparalleled Manner, into irrevocable Slavery.” After 300 years, the moral debt has still not been repaid.