This astute man was born in 1767, in Extremadura, a well-named rocky wilderness bordering Portugal, with the vastness of Andalucía to the south. As a very young man he became a guardsman accompanying the Spanish royal family, and is said to have had an affair with Queen María Luisa. This may seem unlikely, given the almost god-like position royal persons had in Spain in the eighteenth century, and their total separation from ordinary people. Nevertheless, young Godoy got on well enough with the King, Carlos IV to become his trusted confidant. Stranger things have happened.
The King’s chief minister fell from grace in 1792, when Godoy was twenty-five. As the King’s friend he became, in effect, the actual power behind the throne, and from this position he ruled the country as an éminence grise dictator for the next sixteen years. It was the time of the French Revolution (q.v.) and Spain’s nobility had been horrified by the execution of Louis XVI, incidentally a relative of Carlos IV. Godoy saw to it that a twenty-year period of cordial relations with France was brought speedily to an end. This did not mean that Godoy wanted war with France, but it happened notwithstanding. He hoped for an understanding with the French, and achieved a peace settlement in 1795. A year later he organised an alliance with the French ‘Directory’ (revolutionary government). This was a mistake as England did not like the idea of having her worst and most enduring enemy accompanied in battle by Spain. In 1797 therefore Spain found herself at war with England. It was in this year that Vice-Admiral Nelson unsuccessfully attacked Santa Cruz in the Spanish island of Tenerife (Canaries) and lost an arm in the action.
The war with England was far too costly for Spain to sustain, and in order to confront the economic crisis, state administration was further centralized, with Godoy in control of everything that moved. He was now a dictator in everything but name. But Spain, by 1901, was treated by the French as a kind of province. Godoy was told to do battle with both the British and the Portuguese, and to gather moneys from the Spanish rich and poor alike to finance Bonaparte’s war pretensions. Things did not go at all well, and there was soon tremendous inflation, the loss of the American market (because of the ever-present British Navy) and a depression mostly involving Cataluña.
Them to top it all, Bonaparte invaded his supposed ally in 1807! Manuel Godoy is said to have had secret meetings with Bonaparte, who had made himself Emperor of the French. Again it is alleged that Godoy was after a little kingdom himself, situated in the Algarve region of Portugal. He failed.
In 1808 most Spanish people were fed up with Godoy, whom they saw as vain and ostentatious. He was certainly powerful but not enough to repel a coup arranged by his worst enemy, the Prince of Asturias (a future king of Spain, the worst ever). Fernando, encouraged and supported by the outraged nobility, overthrew Godoy and saw to it that he was imprisoned in France; his political career was over but he was still alive, a miracle when heads were falling off shoulders everywhere.
After the Peninsular War (1808 – 14) Godoy lived in semi-seclusion in Rome and Paris. In 1847 the Spanish Queen Isabel II instructed her ministers to re-habilitate him, but he died in Paris without returning to his native country. Though he still seen by the people of Extremadura as one of their noblest sons, it is a fact that Godoy’s quiet dictatorship of Spain and especially his unwise alliance with France had destructive consequences for the Empire and above all, trade. Spain was seen by the French as a weak nation with a once-glorious past, and Bonaparte showed his contempt by shoving Fernando VII off the Spanish throne and replacing him with his own brother Joseph. Sadly for Spain, as soon as Joseph scuttled off, perturbed by the Spanish/British alliance which won the Peninsular War, Fernando returned to the throne, from where he made mischief until his death in 1833.