The Silver of Saint James


When Soult marched south in February 1809 for the conquest of Oporto, Ney remained behind to rule Galicia and to guard against a British maritime invasion. With the Alarmas all over the countryside and the city folk either uncooperative or plainly hostile, it was a truly thankless task. Yet Ney was not there to make friends; he was there to make a killing. The innovative French method of provisioning which historians commonly label with the famous phrase ‘living off the land’ did not merely involve robbing the harvest from the fields, the stores from the barns and the roofs and furniture from peasants’ huts for fuel. There was absolutely nothing new in that; all armies in all wars did just the same. No, what it meant first and foremost was ‘forcible requisitioning amounting to robbery’, as Elizabeth Longford put it. While other armies still made do with voluntary loans and war chests carried down from distant capitals, the French demanded monetary contributions and free deliveries of supplies from the local authorities. It was the logical consequence of their modern tactics. If Napoleon’s conscript armies were exceptional in anything, it was their extreme marching speed, meant to give them the decisive edge of mobility. While the rest of Europe still marched at a leisurely 70 steps a minute, the French did an astonishing 120! The only possible way to reach such speeds was by freeing themselves as much as possible from cumbersome baggage-trains and the task of maintaining long lines of communication. And if, in the absence of these, they were not to die of hunger and cold, they had to extort whatever the army needed in every place they occupied, unscrupulously confiscating money, food, fuel and clothing, from private citizens, municipal corporations and church treasuries, without an eye to the damage done. ‘La guerre,’ wrote Napoleon, ‘doit nourrir la guerre’; even if that meant starving huge chunks of native populations7.

Compostela got to know the full burden of the method. Barely had Soult marched off, than Ney set briskly about the task. On 13 February 1809 he filed his first claims for monetary contributions, demanding a full two million reales from the Santiago township to pay for the occupation and the hospitals for his troops; another four million from its regular and secular clergy; and an additional ‘forced loan’ of ten million from the Galician Church, which the cathedral’s chapter was instructed to allocate and collect, and which had to be handed over in three monthly instalments, the first due on March 10th. Meekly, the town council replied there were no such funds available in the city, while the cathedral chapter in its turn stalled, wrote wriggling letters, and, pleading poverty, filed petitions to have the sums reduced. The protestations of poverty may have been true, or they may merely have been the obligatory patriotic lies. In any case, the French wouldn’t take No for an answer. Ney’s representative in Santiago soon turned up his tune, threatening all prominent citizens with imprisonment unless the money was forthcoming, and even hinting subtly at a firing squad. When there still was no satisfactory answer, a handful of notables and cathedral canons was arrested, transported to Coruña, and locked up as hostages in the Castillo de San Anton, a horrid little Alcatraz-style jailhouse on a rock in the harbour. This ugly measure finally stirred the Santiago authorities to action.

In early April, after a long and complicated correspondence, the Cabildo of the cathedral informed the French that they had collected what money could be found. The amount fell far short of the sum required, but the canons offered to cover the deficit by handing over the church plate from the cathedral treasury and from various city parishes and convents, with the exception of some pieces necessary for ‘the dignity of the mass’. The French were happy to agree. They took the money, then set out to collect the plate. In the afternoon of April 17th, whole cart-loads of silverware and jewellery were hauled out of the religious buildings of Compostela, and handed over to an inspector of the French police, the collaborator José Vivas. Vivas deposited the booty in the cellars of the former Inquisition palace, of old the safest place in Santiago, which the French had turned into their police precinct. It must have been a painful moment for lovers of religious art, for the French made no secret of their intentions. The plate – 14,000 onzas, or over 400 kilograms of gold, silver, emeralds and pearls, not counting fifty-seven large brass and silver lamps and other trinkets – was to be ‘conveyed in bars to Coruña, where a mint will be set up.’ The treasures great and small, many centuries’ worth of donations and religious adornment, would be tossed into the melting pot of the modern revolutionary Moloch8.

As such things go, when the forces of Evil are almost triumphant, the forces of Good appear on the horizon. In this case relief came in the shape of an improvised Spanish army, put hurriedly together from scattered guerrilla bands. Having taken Vigo in March and Tuy in mid-April, the ragtag collection of Alarmas had been reorganised into a serious corps, some 16,000 strong, called the Division of the Miño. Now, armed by British frigates which had quickly run rifles into Galicia’s rias and led by officers newly arrived, they came marching north to Santiago. To their luck, Ney himself had left Galicia in the early days of May to conquer neighbouring Asturias with the main part of his army. This left only a garrison of 3,000 troops, with fourteen cannon and 300 horse, to block the Spanish advance at Santiago. The two armies met on May 23rd. After a preliminary skirmish in the early morning some ten miles south of the city, in which the guerrilleros of the Abbot of Couto dislodged a French advance guard by a crushing bayonet charge, the Miño Division reached the outskirts of Santiago. Maucune, the acting French commander, had taken one look at Santiago’s ramshackle walls, and decided to make a stand outside the city. He ordered his men to dig in on the bulging hill of Santa Susana and on the small plain of the Campo de Estrella a hundred yards south of the city gates. It was a strong, elevated position, which dominated the road by which the Miño Division would have to approach. Some ruinous old walls and ancient oaks trees offered the French soldiers ample cover; while on its extreme south side a high ridge and deep precipice protected them from frontal assault.

In this position, the French might have withstood almost any impromptu attack. But Martin La Carrera, the Spanish commander, had foreseen stiff resistance, and had prepared his forces well. He made sure to have all his artillery in excellent shape and brought up before any action was taken. A long cannonade opened the hostilities, in which – as Carrera later wrote proudly – ‘our own artillerists were as good as theirs were poor’. For roughly an hour both sides exchanged a fierce fire, while the French unsuccessfully staged several sorties. Then, once the adversary was numbed, Carrera ordered his right wing to envelope the French position, while he himself led a frontal charge. Twice the French withdrew to prepared positions, twice they were dislodged anew. Maucune himself was wounded, and at long last the French line broke. The beaten French soldiers ran for their lives towards the nearest city gate, where some artillery had been stationed to cover a retreat. However, the furious Spaniards quickly overran the battery and pursued their prey right into the city streets, and after a lot of ugly street fighting, they chased them out the other end of the town, and ten miles up the road towards Coruña.

It was a resounding victory, the significance of which was raised to near mystical levels owing to two most welcome coincidences. It was fought on the Campo de Estrella, where legend said the tomb of Saint James had been first discovered in the 9th century. On top of that it took place on the very same date as the famous Battle of Clavijo, a desperate encounter of Christian hosts with the Muslim Moors back in the year 844, where, as the day seemed lost, the Apostle himself had miraculously appeared on a shiny white battle steed, to chop off so many Moorish heads that a glorious victory was won after all. No wonder that today’s battle had been barely less miraculous! The French – theologically recognized as the atheist heirs of the infidel Moors – lost all their cannon and some 500 men between casualties and captured, while Spanish losses were so small that their wounded reputedly ‘fitted into a single room of the Hospital Real’.

Once the town was firmly in their hands, the Spanish made a thorough search for much needed supplies and provisions. They were lucky. The French had blown up two ammunition depots on withdrawal, but two other arsenals were found intact, and so were various magazines containing clothing, some 600 rifles and a number of horses. Most importantly, however, in the dungeons of the Inquisition Palace, the soldiers discovered the French foundry, where forty-one arrobas of silver melted into bars lay waiting. Depending on what ‘arroba’ the scribes had in mind when noting this down, the hoard may have weighed anywhere between 450 and 600 kilos. In any case, the total considerably exceeded the weight of the church plate officially handed over in April, which shows that Ney’s men must have done a good deal of robbing elsewhere as well. And yet, this hoard was still only a part of the all precious metals they had collected, as was to be discovered in the course of the day.

Being a Spanish city, Santiago could not, of course, be given over to pillage, in spite of its resistance. But such patriotic privilege did not extent to the houses of prominent collaborators, all of whom had wisely fled with the retreating French. Their houses were now wrecked and robbed by the soldiers and the loyal inhabitants of the town. In the home of Vivas, the police inspector who had rounded up the church plate, a collection of the original pieces was found. A friend of his wife, a woman only identified by the somewhat disreputable nickname La Liracha, was also caught with various trinkets from the original payment. And in a chest in the archive of the town hall, Manuel Fraguio, Civil Governor for the French, had stored away a sum of 8,401 reales in money, together with a dozen small, broken chunks of religious silverware tied into a common handkerchief. Naturally these finds represented no more than the crumbs from the French table. Yet they showed what use the French had made of the silver: they had broken up the lot in little bits and pieces, and handed those out to loyal supporters and civil servants, to meet daily expenses.

Carrera was told about all these rediscovered valuables, and he made the best dispositions he could. The bars of silver, whose origins and owners could no longer be traced, he shipped out behind the lines to pay for the costs of the war. What pieces could be identified as belonging to the cathedral were duly returned to its treasury. And loose trinkets such as those from Vivas’ cupboards and Fraguio’s handkerchief, were deposited with a newly founded Security Council for safekeeping, from where, in later years, they were transferred to the army’s paymaster to pay for British weapons. Consequently: anyone who would like to reconstruct the whereabouts of the Santiago church plate, can start to despair right here, with the breaking up and dispersal of the various recuperated hoards, of which no inventories have survived, and whose total volume cannot even be roughly computed.

And this confusion was to grow still worse. On May 22nd, the day before the Battle of Campo de Estrella, Ney returned victoriously to Galicia from the Asturias, where he had occupied Oviedo and Gijón. At Lugo, he found the beaten Soult waiting for him with the remnants of his routed Oporto army. The news of the Spanish advance onto Santiago reached the two marshals almost before they had shaken hands. They held a strategic conference and decided to make one last attempt to subdue Galicia with the 25,000 troops not needed for garrison duty. Picturing Galicia as a giant disc, Soult would march clockwise inland to the southwest region of the Miño river, while Ney was to go counter-clockwise by Coruña and the coastal route, retake Santiago, and push on to Pontevedra and beyond. At Vigo, the southernmost city of importance, the two armies were to meet.

In the first days of June, Ney’s forces approached Santiago. The Spanish commanders understood that they could not hold the unfortified city with their peasant army against a large number of the veteran French soldiers under one of Napoleon’s best marshals. Wisely, they decided to evacuate, and dig in at a stronger position further south. On June 2nd they withdrew. Next day, Ney’s advance guard marched in. Hurt in their ‘invincible’ pride, vengeful and furious, the French soldiers behaved barbarously on return. Santiago had shown itself a hostile city, and it was now to pay for the offence. All churches, chapels, convents and monasteries were indiscriminately sacked. At the monastery of Saint Augustine – the only one of which a report has survived – the soldiers accused the monks of having taken pot-shots at them from the windows during their retreat in May – something which is not wholly unthinkable given the patriotic hatred of the times and the robust nature of Galician friars. In retaliation, they mistreated the monks, destroyed the furniture, broke up the altars, the statues, the glass windows and everything else sufficiently fragile, burned the library, robbed the remaining jewellery from chapels and treasuries, and even stripped the gold leaf off the woodwork of the altarpiece. It seems similar scenes took place at the other great temples and monastic institutions. What little church plate the French had allowed to remain in the churches for the saying of mass – and such pieces which the clerics had managed to hide! – were now taken by brute force and indiscriminately carried off.

Then, on June 6th, Ney marched his men southwards. The Miño Division was waiting for him at the bridge of Sampayo, a strategic crossing over the firth between Vigo and Pontevedra. With foresight, the Spanish commander, Don Pablo Morillo, had fortified the spot weeks in advance, and the Alarmas were perfectly dug in, with breastworks on the riverbanks and even gunboats on the river. Ney, however, had no choice but charge. If he ever wanted to join up with Soult and keep hold of Galicia for France, he had to break through at this point. On the morning of the 8th, he ordered a kamikaze style assault. Time after time the French columns charged over the bridge. Just as often they were thrown back before they could reach the opposite bank. The position proved simply impregnable and at the end of the day the French had to give up. Reputedly for the first time in his career, ‘Brave Ney’, Napoleon’s most celebrated marshal, had lost a battle. And to add insult to injury: he had been beaten by a bunch of peasants of whom almost a third went unarmed. Wellington had indeed shown great foresight when after the conquest of Oporto, he declined to pursue the French into Galicia with the remark that he would leave Marshal Ney ‘to the war of the peasantry, which has been so successful.’

The battle of Sampayo bridge was the straw that broke the camel’s back. On June 11th Ney returned to Santiago disheartened and began to prepare for a definite evacuation. Soult – who had managed to do little more than march fruitlessly to and fro between the Miño and the border at Sanabria – agreed. He wrote a bitter and frustrated letter to King Joseph, explaining his retreat with the observation that ‘this province is in continuous fermentation. The soldiers are either doomed to perish from pure want or from assault by the peasants, who, through a system of incessant pestering and the evasion of all open battle, would succeed in wiping out even the strongest army; and unless that army be constantly replenished anew with fresh men, [these peasants] would manage to destroy it without any combat.’ The ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was playing up; and it finally began to dawn on the overconfident French marshals that one may perhaps battle a country, but never beat a nation. With less than 20,000 men left to them out of the splendid 70,000 with which they had marched in, the two marshals abandoned Galicia in the final week of June, burning and sacking as they went, and being ambushed in return by the Alarmas. On July 1st not one French soldier remained in the province.

The further adventures of Santiago’s church plate remain to be told, but only a muddled story can be made of it. We do not know how much of their booty the soldiers who pillaged the churches and convents in the first days of June ceded to the army paymaster, and what they kept for themselves. It seems that part of it was salvaged from Ney’s baggage train after Sampayo bridge; but other than that all trace is lost of these valuables. Nor has it ever become clear how much, or little, it may have amounted to. As for the church plate which had not been shipped out by the Spanish in May and had not been looted by the soldiers, the French tried to recuperate it. On June 7th, Pedro Bazan, the collaborating Chief of the Police, demanded that these remnants be handed back again, together with all the trophies of the Battle of Campo de Estrella which Carrera had piously deposited in the cathedral as offering to the Apostle during a great Thanksgiving mass. What there was – or perhaps better: what the Cabildo was unable to conceal – was duly handed over. It wasn’t much, only some caliches, statues and small trinkets. These were collected once again at Bazan’s police station in the Inquisition Palace. Then, at the ultimate moment, on June 16th, four days before final evacuation, Bazan ordered the accumulated church plate, new and old, to be sent to Marchand’s offices. There is no evidence that it was ever moved there, but neither is there any proof to the contrary. We simply lose sight of the hoard in these final chaotic days of occupation.

The small rearguard garrison that remained in Santiago to the last, marched out – with Bazan in their midst – on the 20th of June, never to return again. It was a petty, feeble force that had to pass through hostile country, infested with vengeful Alarmas who would gladly come in for a final kill. Speed was vital if they wished to survive. Therefore they had to march light and there could be no question of loading up with booty. So what did they do with their accumulated loot? It is said, by the reliable Santiago historian Lopez Ferreiro, that once again they left much of their plunder behind with loyal supporters, but how much of it and where is not explained. Some choice pieces pop up unexpectedly in later months: an inscribed silver tray from the convent of San Payo, returned by the cathedral on the abbess’s request in August; a monstrance restored to the church of San Francisco in October, and so on. A few miserable pieces were put back in the misnamed ‘treasury’ of the cathedral itself and could be seen there, decades later, in a gloomy room behind the altar. All those, however, are but drops in an ocean of vanished plate, and can never account for the towering pile of silver and jewellery whose fate remains unknown. The truth is that nobody has an inkling as to the final account of the valuables looted, lost, destroyed and returned. How much was ever really robbed in Galicia during the six months of French occupation, how much was recuperated, and how much of those rescued goods were turned over to the Spanish army, or stolen again by the French, or appropriated by individual soldiers and collaborators, will remain, forever, a mystery.

Reading all this, one gradually begins to see how a belief in a Treasure of Ney could have emerged in later years. In this self-propelling tangle of requisitions, confiscations, the breaking up and scattering of hoards, the undocumented additions and the spontaneous grants to the national war chest, all track is lost of the whereabouts of Santiago’s church plate. And where such obscurity reigns, where even one single piece of the pie seems to be missing, there will always be some chatterbox who suggests that a major part of the fortune was in reality buried on the sly, on a mountainside, in the dark… It only has to happen once, and a vigorous legend, a true Hydra of Hidden Hoards, is born. And it is after monsters of this breed that huntsmen like Mol come chasing.