Sunday, 20 April 2008

Capel Lofft: Napoleon can count on me.

Capel Lofft (1751 – 1824) lawyer, writer, minor poet, amateur astronomer and Suffolk squire. A man of many talents, and a precocious child, by the age of 6 he had read Spenser's "Fairy Queen".

He was generally known as Capel Lofft, of Troston Hall; and was in no respect a common-place man... Mr Lofft was a warm politician in the Whig school .. and in private life an amiable man. (1)

The most noticeable person I had ever been in company with was Capel Lofft — a gentleman of good family and estate — an author on an infinity of subjects; his books were on Law, History, Poetry, Antiquities, Divinity, and Politics. (Henry Crabb Robinson)

.. a man of feeling, .. who loves literature, and liberty, and science. - Lofft's description of Robinson which could also be applied to himself.

The Whig David and the Tory Goliath

Mr. Capel Lofft .. though a most zealous Whig, has a mind so full of learning and knowledge, and so much exercised in various departments, and withal so much liberality, that the stupendous powers of the literary Goliath, though they did not frighten this little David of popular spirit, could not but excite his admiration.
- Boswell, on the young Lofft's lunch wth the eminent Tory Goliath, Dr Johnson.

Boswell's Biblical imagery seems appropriate: a small man with squeaky voice, Lofft was a fearless advocate of liberal principles at a time when the forces of reaction were in the ascendancy in England. (2)

Lofft's radicalism made him enemies in Suffolk, and in 1800 they got their revenge. During that year Lofft became involved in the unsuccessful campaign to gain clemency for Sarah Lloyd, a young servant girl who was sentenced to death for theft. Lofft sat with the girl on the cart to the gallows, sheltered her under his umbrella, and then harangued the crowd gathered to view the execution. Lofft's criticisms of the Home Secretary were duly reported by his enemies who pointed out his "democratic" tendencies to the Government. Lofft was immediately dismissed from the magistracy.(3)

Byron and Lofft: The Maecenas of shoemakers

Lofft's passion, particularly in his later years was for literature; he corresponded with a number of literary figures, and was himself a writer of sonnets.(4) Perhaps his most famous contribution however, was his patronage of Robert Broomfield the artisan author of The Farmer's Boy, for which he was mocked by Byron as:
the Maecenas of shoemakers and preface-writer general to distressed versemen; a kind of gratis accoucheur to those who wish to be delivered of rhyme, but do not know how to bring forth.

Byron and Lofft shared an admiration of Napoleon however, both were linked to Holland House, both were devastated by Waterloo, and both spent their latter years overseas.
After 1816 Lofft left England for the continent, to advance his daughters' education. He died in Italy in 1824, shortly after hearing of the death of Byron.

A memorial to him can be found in Troston Parish Church (click to enlarge).

Capel Lofft and Napoleon

Lofft was impressed by the popular acclaim which the French gave to Napoleon on his return from Elba: most sublime and bloodless of revolutions said Lofft; Napoleon had shown that he possessed a calm and great mind, above all passion and revenge.

Like a number of radicals and literary figures, Lofft saw Waterloo simply as the victory of the forces of reaction both at home and on the continent. Hearing rumours of Napoleon's capture, he wrote the following letter, apparently to a Tory who certainly did not share his sympathies.

...incomparably the first man in the world, who has performed every duty of a sovereign, a general, and a soldier, with the highest ability and most devoted perseverance.

.. He has given to France laws and a constitution of a most transcendent excellence and mildness. He has been the great friend of the arts, and cultivator of the sciences; he has devoted himself to his people as a father for the life and happiness of his children.

I consider the Bourbons, who have endeavoured to overwhelm France with foreigners, as of all beings the most unworthy to reign there.

The papers cannot tell greater lies than they did about the whole progress of the Emperor Napoleon from the Gulph of St. Juan to Paris and the throne. (5)

Capel Lofft and Napoleon's Captivity

Lofft wrote numerous letters to the press complaining at the illegality of Napoleon's detainment by Britain,
The intelligence that the great Napoleon will not be permitted to land, and is perhaps to be sent to St. Helena, is almost overwhelming me, though long accustomed to suffer much, and to expect everything!

and he attempted to serve a writ of habeas corpus whilst Napoleon was in Plymouth harbour. (6) Lord Keith had to play a cat and mouse game to evade this and a subpoena instigated by Anthony Mackenrot, for Napoleon to appear in court as a witness in an obscure case.

As a precaution the Bellerophon was moved out of port to wait for the Northumberland. The latter had to set sail for St. Helena before many of the necessary supplies could be loaded.

Apparently Lofft was in communication with Napoleon whilst he was on the Bellerophon .

The letter above reads, The Count of Milleraye sends his respects to M. Capel Lofft, and is instructed by the greatest of men, as he is rightly titled, to send him the enclosed lock of hair - as a sign of his esteem for his principles and his gratitude for the zeal he has shown for his cause, etc. Plymouth 11th August 1815 (7)

After Napoleon's exile Capel Lofft was in regular contact with Lord Holland, encouraging him in his efforts to get Napoleon removed from St. Helena. He was also involved like a number of other Whigs, in providing support for Bonapartists and Liberals who were at risk because of the triumph of absolutist regimes on the continent. Captain Piontowski entrusted his new bride to Lofft's safe keeping as he left to join Napoleon on St. Helena. Lofft also persuaded Lord Holland to assist Las Cases, who following his deportation from St. Helena had left England and fallen into Prussian hands.

On Napoleon's death Lofft wrote to Lord Holland blaming Napoleon's terminal cancer on the St. Helena climate, the poor diet and the system of jealous and vindictive surveillance which had been inflicted on him.


1. Obituary in New Monthly Magazine, July 1st, 1824.
The earliest recollections of him was in his appearance at the County Meetings held at Stowmarket, during the last 25 years of the late King's reign. His figure was small, upright, and boyish; his dress -- without fit, fashion, or neatness; his speaking -- small-voiced, long sentenced, and involved; his manner -- persevering, but without command. On these occasions, Mr. Lofft invariably opposed the Tory measures which those meetings were intended to sanction; and he was assailed, as invariably, by the rude hootings and hissings of the gentry and the rabble. Undismayed however, by rebuff, he would fearlessly continue to advocate the cause of civil and religious freedom, conscious that though his voice was powerless, his cause was strong ...

2. Lofft supported every radical cause in the late eighteenth century: American Independence, the principles of the French Revolution, opposition to war with America and France; was a proponent of Parliamentary Reform and was involved in the anti-slavery movement; supported religious toleration for dissenters and Catholics. He also supported the rights of labourers to glean the fields after harvest, and was an opponent of hunting.

3. Lofft also addressed a large crowd at her funeral. They dispersed shouting "Lofft is our friend"; had they caused any damage Lofft would have ended in prison. For an account of the case see Sarah Lloyd See also Lofft's Letters on Sarah Lloyd

4. A recent book has been written on this subject: Roger Meyenberg: Capel Lofft and the English Sonnet Tradition 1770-1815.

5.This letter appears to be misdated, it was written not in January, but after Waterloo - for full text see Post Waterloo Letter

6. Habeas corpus Safeguards the right not to be held without trial. The Government got round this by passing an act of Parliament retrospectively legalising Napoleon's detention.

7. Reported in New York Times, July 8th 1896, the letter and first lock sold for £30; the second for £5. Comte Milleraye was presumably Las Cases. It is thought that communication was probably through O'Meara, the ship's surgeon who agreed to accompany Napoleon to St. Helena. Maitland, the captain of the Bellerophon, was criticised for allowing Napoleon's staff to communicate with the outside world. It was one of the things which Hudson Lowe, equally unsuccessfully, tried to prevent on St. Helena.

1 comment:

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau said...

Just want to say Bravo John for this entry... I learn a lot with you . Great