It is a curious fact, ignored by historians, that Napoleon is probably the most popular historical figure in British folk music. I don't think there were any enduring songs celebrating Wellington and Waterloo, although Nelson and Trafalgar certainly had a place in folk tradition.
During the Revolutionary Wars Government propagandists put out patriotic ballads designed to villify Napoleon as the "Corsican ogre", but curiously these did not last. Those that did generally portrayed Napoleon sympathetically, as liberator, victim and hero.
One such song was Saint Helena, sympathetic to the plight of Napoleon and Marie Louise, and condemning the "base intrigues" and "base misdemeanours" of his powerful enemies. It also suggested that many shared Marie Louise's grief.
Oh, Boney's away from his wars and his fightings, He is gone to a land where naught can delight him. And there he may sit down and tell the scenes he's seen, oh, While alone he does mourn on the Isle of Saint Helena. Oh, Louisa she weeps for her husband's departing. She dreams when she sleeps and she wakes broken-hearted. Not a friend to console her, though there's many would be with her, And she mourns when she thinks on the Isle of Saint Helena. Oh the rude rushing waves o'er the ocean are beating, And the loud billows' roar on the shore's rocks are beating. He may look to the moon o'er the great Mount Diana And he grieves as he thinks on the Isle of Saint Helena. No more in Saint Cloud he'll be seen in such splendour Or go on with his wars like the great Alexander, For the young king of Rome and the prince of Gehenna Have caused him to die on the isle of Saint Helena.* Oh you parliaments of war and your Holy Alliance, To a prisoner of war you may now bid defiance, For your base intrigues and your base misdemeanors Have caused him to die on the Isle of Saint Helena.
A last rather moralising stanza appears to conflict with the accusatory tone of the preceding one, although it could perhaps be seen as a warning to Napoleon's enemies that their turn might come. This verse was not always sung, and as is the nature of folk songs, there is no definitive version, and we can't be sure whether or not it was a later addition.
All you who have wealth, beware of ambition, For a small cast of fate could soon change your condition. Be steadfast in time,for what's to come you know not, Or your days they may end, like his, on Saint Helena.
Popular sympathy for Napoleon does not fit in with the narratives of historians on the right, for whom Wellington was a national hero and Waterloo the founding myth of a century of British dominance, nor for those on the left who see Napoleon only as a counter-revolutionary, a dictator and a military conqueror. E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class has no mention of the sympathy which radical leaders had for Napoleon whom they saw as a victim of absolutism and, for all his faults, as being on the side of liberty and reform. They also, like a number of reform minded Whigs, saw much to admire in Napoleonic France as compared with England.
One of the best known songs, which fits firmly within the contemporary radical narrative is A Dream of Napoleon. It was collected by Vaughan Williams at the turn of the twentieth century from a Norfolk workhouse resident Charles Crist, a former merchant seaman. Some think this is an American song by origin, because of US identification as the land of the free, although England too would have taken pride in its identification with freedom.
One night sad and languid I went to my bed But I scarce had reclined on my pillow When a vision surprising came into my head; Methought I was traversing the billow. One night as my vessel dashed over the deep I beheld a rude rock that was craggy and steep, The rock where the willow now seemèd to weep O'er the grave of the once famed Napoleon. Methought that my vessel drew near to the land; I beheld clad in green this bold figure. With the trumpet of fame claspèd firm in his hand, On his brow there was valour and rigour. “O stranger,” he cried, “hast thou ventured to me From that land of thy fathers who boast they are free? If so a tale I'll tell unto thee Concerning the once famed Napoleon.” “Remember that year so immortal,” he cried, “When I crossed the rude Alps famed in story With the legions of France, for her sons were my pride, As I led them to honour and glory. On the plains of Marengo I tyranny hurled And wherever my banners the eagle unfurled 'Twas the standard of freedom all over the world And a signal of fame,” cried Napoleon. “Like a soldier I've been in the heat and the cold, As I marched to the trumpet and cymbal, But by dark deeds of treachery I have been sold, While monarchs before me have trembled. Now rulers and princes their station demean, And like scorpions spit forth their venom and spleen, But liberty soon o'er the world shall be seen,” As I woke from my dream, cried Napoleon.
Another song, Boney's Lamentation spoke of the restoration of the rights of France,"which had long been confiscated" and concluded with a less flattering view of the Empress Marie Louise:
So fare thee well my royal whore, And offspring great that I adore, May you reinstate that throne, That's torn away this very day, Kings with me have had their play, And caused this Lamentation.Another, Napoleon's Death managed to celebrate both Nelson, a great Norfolk hero, and Napoleon. Unlike Trafalgar and Quatre Bras, Waterloo was not celebrated, according to this song it was "bought".
You heroes of the day Who are happy, blithe and gay, Only think of former champions By land and sea. The total pride of France With his eagles did advance, This hero come from Corsica To prove himself a don. Many kings he did dethrown And some thousands caused to mourn, Yet winced that long lost emperor, Napoleon. Now this Norfolk hero bold Who was never bribed with gold, All glory to Lord Nelson, Now a long time dead. To Copenhagen, and the Nile, He advanced in rank and file, He fought at great Trafalgar Where he fell and where he bled. But bold Boney fought on land Like an emperor so grand, And his soldiers cried, “Long life To Great Napoleon.” When Moscow came in view Then their trumpets loudly blew, But soon it turned their joy to grief And turned their grief to pain. For Boney in a daze Beheld all Moscow in a blaze, And his gallant army melted Just like snow before the sun. Back to France he went amazed And another army raised, And it's “Oh, for death and glory,” Cried Napoleon. Then northward out of France With his army he advanced, He made the Dutch and German Fast before him fly. And when at Quatre Bras, He let loose the dogs of war, Many thousand Prussians there did fall And there did die. But though bravely there he fought Waterloo was bought, And he died on St Helena, Great Napoleon. Long time his body lay Till some Frenchmen came that way To beg the bones of Bonaparte, The Frenchmen's pride. Oh, bring him back again, It will ease the Frenchmen's pain, And in a tomb of marble We will lay his body low. We will decorate his tomb With the glory he has won, And in letters of bright gold Inscribed “Napoleon.”A similar view of history was present in The Grand Conversation on Napoleon. In this song not only is Waterloo bought, but Napoleon II's death also the result of a grand plot:
It was over that wild beaten track 'twas said a friend of Bonaparte's Did pace the sands and the lofty rocks of St Helena's shore, And the wind it blew a hurricane, the lightning fierce around did dart, The seagulls were a-shrieking and the waves around did roar. Ah hush, rude winds, the stranger cried, while I range the spot Where alas the gallant hero did his weary eyelids close. And though at peace his limbs do rest, his name will never be forgot. This grand conversation on Napoleon arose. Oh alas, he cried, why England did you persecute that hero bold? Much better had you slain him on the plains of Waterloo. For Napoleon he was a friend to heroes all, both young and old, He caused the money for to fly wherever he did go. When plans were forming night and day, the bold commander to betray, He said, I'll go to Moscow and there I'll ease my woes. And if fortune smiles on me that day, then all the world shall me obey, This grand conversation on Napoleon arose. Oh his men in thousands then did rise to conquer Moscow by surprise, He led his troops across the Alps oppressed by frost and snow, And being near the Russian land, he then began to open his eyes, For Moscow was a-blazing and the men drove to and fro. Napoleon dauntless viewed the plain and then in anguish at the same, He cried, Retreat me gallant men, for time so swiftly goes. Ah what thousands died in that retreat, some forced their horses for to eat. This grand conversation on Napoleon arose. At Waterloo they bravely fought, commanded by this Bonaparte, Field Marshall Ney did him betray, but he was bribed by gold. And when Blucher led the Prussians, it nearly broke Napoleon's heart. He cried, my thirty thousand men are lost, and I am sold. He viewed the plain and cried, all's lost, and then his favourite charger crossed, The plain was in confusion with blood and dying woes. And the bunch of roses did advance and boldly entered into France. This grand conversation on Napoleon arose. Oh, this Bonaparte was plann'd to be a prisoner across the sea, The rocks of St Helena, oh, it was his final spot. And as a prisoner there to be till death did end his misery. His son soon followed to the tomb: it was an awful plot. And long enough have they been dead, the blast of war around us spread, And may our shipping float again to face the daring foes. And now my boys when honour calls we'll boldly mount those wooden walls. This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.
The last few lines, perhaps a patriotic addition, seem to distinguish between Napoleon's wars on the continent, of no real concern to the people of Britain, and any threat of invasion, which was an entirely different matter.
Finally, there is a song "The Bonny Bunch of Roses" which evokes sympathy for the plight of Napoleon II, unable to recover his father's throne, and describes Napoleon as "brave", an epithet frequently used by Government opponents in Britain during Napoleon's exile on St. Helena. Whilst the song uses patriotic symbols of the rose and the "heart of oak", the latter associated with the navy, it concludes that Napoleon's deeds will "sting the bonny bunch of roses":
By the margins of the Ocean, one morning in the month of June, Where feathered, warbling, songsters, their charming notes did sweetly tune. There I beheld a female, she seemed to be in great grief and woe, Conversing with young Bonaparte, Concerning the bonny bunch of roses, O. Then up and spoke young Napoleon, as he was seated all by his mother's knee, O mother dear have patience, just wait and you will surely see. I will raise a mighty army, and through tremendous dangers I will go, And in spite of all the universe I will conquer the bonny bunch of roses, O. O son don't speak so venturesome, for England she is the heart of oak. And England, Ireland and Scotland, their unity has ne'er been broke. O son think on your father, in St Helena his body lies Low, And you might follow after, So beware the bonny bunch of roses, O. For he took three hundred thousand men and kings and princes to join his throng He was so well provided, he might have carried the world along. But when he came to Moscow, they were overpowered by driving snow, And Moscow was a-blazing And he lost the bonny bunch of roses, O. Now it's mother adieu for ever, for now I'm on my dying bed, If I'd lived sure I might have been clever, but now I hang my drooping head, And whilst my bones lie mouldering and weeping willows all over me do grow, The deeds of brave Napoleon Will sting the bonny bunch of roses, O.
Where and how these various songs started is I think impossible to say. There have been suggestions that one or two may have come from the United States, or Ireland, but they were certainly sung in England and were part of its folk tradition in the century after Waterloo.
Sir Walter Runciman in his preface to The Tragedy of St. Helena, spoke of the shanties celebrating Napoleon that he heard as a merchant seaman and reproduced "Boney was an Emperor" as an example of these songs. The fact that the sentiments so often chime with those of the radicals in the period 1815-1821 makes me doubt that these are simply foreign imports.
* The reference to the King of Rome seems rather confusing - but his very existence was seen as a threat to the old absolute monarchs of Europe, and an added reason for fearing Napoleon.