Sunday, 19 November 2017

Forthcoming Talk: Napoleon and the British opposition, 1815-1821

Opening theme for my planned talk

In 2015 I gave a talk in London to the Friends of St Helena on Napoleon and the British Opposition. I am now preparing for a talk in Stockport, and intend to incorporate some of the local material that has appeared on recent blogs.

After my London talk I sent a summary for publication on the FOSH website, which I have reproduced below.

Britain during the period that Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena was a divided and repressive country. It was a period of dissent and disorder: machine breaking, mass movements, public meetings and petitions against taxes, against corruption, against placemen and against a standing army.

The Foxite Whigs, the opposition in Parliament, often critical of the wars against both France and the United States, never subscribed to the Tory caricature of Napoleon. Whilst not uncritical of him, they recognized that he had created order out of the anarchy of the Revolution, had safeguarded property rights, and furthermore had instituted a number of reforms they would have welcomed in England. They admired his sponsorship of the arts and sciences, the Code Napoléon, considered far superior to the repressive legal system in England, and the religious freedom he had brought to France.

Many great names voted against the resumption of war in the House of Lords in 1815, including the Prince Regent’s brother, the Duke of Sussex, a future Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey, and Marquis Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Opposition in the House of Commons was led by Lord John Russell, another future Prime Minister, younger son of the Duke of Bedford, who was among a number of Whigs who had travelled to Elba to meet Napoleon in 1814.

Lords voting against war in 1815, including Lord Byron. Lord Holland and the Duke of Bedford were still on their way home from Italy

On the day that news of the victory arrived in London, Earl Grey was telling all who would listen that the world needed the genius of Napoleon. The unexpected victory, so pumped up by Government propagandists that even Wellington became a little embarrassed, totally wrong footed the Whigs. Lord Byron said that there was nothing to do but to follow the example of Samuel Whitbread, one of Napoleon’s greatest admirers in Parliament who for whatever reason committed suicide on 6th July.

Throughout the period of the captivity only the most “reform minded” Whigs were prepared to become associated publicly with Napoleon’s cause. Holland House in London, the home of Charles James Fox’s nephew, Lord Holland, became Napoleon’s centre of support. Lady Holland sent Napoleon some 1000 books donated by Whig families. The Everlasting, Xerochrysum bracteatum , an Australian plant that now grows across St Helena, is the permanent legacy of Lady Holland, who sent the original seeds to Longwood.

In Holland House garden a Canova bust of Napoleon was installed, inscribed at its base:

The hero is not dead, but breathes the air
In lands beyond the deep:
Some island sea-begirded, where
Harsh men the prisoner keep.

Whilst most of the Whigs were quiescent, the Radicals became more vocal in Napoleon’s support. As supporters of the French Revolution, they had found Napoleon’s imperial crown and marriage to an Austrian princess hard to swallow. However, in the post-Waterloo world many came to see Napoleon and to some extent his son, confined by his grandfather the Austrian Emperor, as the symbols of an international liberty that had begun with the French Revolution and was now under threat.

The Radicals developed a narrative about Waterloo diametrically opposed to that pushed by Tory propagandists. The following extracts from the press give an insight into their discourse:

The Rights of Kings triumphed over the Rights of the People at Waterloo. 

Had the country a reformed House of Commons, a war of 
such injustice had never been commenced.

The fall of Napoleon .. was effected by immense German armies, subsidized by us.

That perjury and fraud to which England lent herself, 
in enslaving the Nations of Europe ..

That war sent the brave and generous Napoleon into 
captivity; that war restored the Bourbons in France, 
Spain and Naples; 
it restored the Pope and the Inquisition, all of which Bonaparte had put down.

You see the scaffolds in France streaming with the 
blood of people who cry out for Napoleon’s return .. 
religious liberty was, under Napoleon, made as perfect as in America

So far from it being true that the whole nation 
approved of this measure [exile of Napoleon], 
the fact is that a very great part of the 
sound and enlightened  part of the nation decidedly disapproved of it;

Napoleon towers like the Andes above them all. He 
stands a beacon and a sign unto the Nations; 
and although his thunders sleep, 
perhaps for ever, there is not a-King, or Kingling – a base legitimate – or a plundering Minister, 
that does not tremble at the very name of NAPOLEON.
At the close of poll in the Westminster Election in 1818 the cries of “Napoleon – Napoleon” were heard. On July 22nd 1819 a reform meeting at Smithfield, attended by 40,000-50,000 passed the following resolution:
That this meeting unequivocally disclaims any share or participation in the disgraceful and cowardly acts of the boroughmongers, in placing the brave Napoleon a prisoner, to perish upon a desert island, shut out from human society, and torn from his only son, whilst he is exposed to the brutal insolence of a hired keeper.

Soon followed the mass meeting in Manchester, almost immediately known as the Peterloo Massacre, an ironic reference to the “killing fields of Waterloo.”

When news of Napoleon’s death arrived, placards appeared in London inviting people to go into mourning. The Radical leader Henry Hunt whose attempted arrest led to the Peterloo Massacre, described Napoleon as “the most illustrious and eminent man of the present age, both as a profound statesman and a brave and matchless general.” Whilst aware of Napoleon’s failings,

“yet, when I reflect upon the period in which his energetic mind was allowed to have its full scope of action, and when I recollect the powerful armies and fleets that he had to contend with, and the phalanx of tyrants who were at various times leagued together against him, I am disposed not to examine too nicely and with too critical an eye the means that he used to defend himself against their unceasing endeavours to destroy him, and to restore the old tyranny of the Bourbons.”

Lord Holland considered Napoleon’s death “a legal or political murder, a species of crime which tho’ not uncommon in our age is one of the most blackest dye most odious nature.” Appropriately for a Whig, he drew up a balance sheet:

pro: freedom of worship, financial probity in public life, magnificence of public works, openness to office based on merit alone.

con: “enormous evil” of conscription, persecution of critics and curtailment of personal liberties.

Both Whigs and Radicals had views of Napoleon that differed totally from that of the “Corsican Ogre” created by Government propagandists. Evidence of Whig admiration for Napoleon is to be found in the collections that remain in some of the large stately homes, particularly Chatsworth and Blenheim; the folk memories of the lower orders, reflected in this song

They sent him to St Helena! Oh! Aye, oh!  
They sent him to St. Helena,
John France Wa! (Francois)
Boney was ill-treated! Oh! Aye, Oh! 
Boney was ill-treated,
John France Wa!
Oh Boney's heart was broken! Oh! Aye, Oh!  
Boney's heart was broken
John France Wa!
But Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh! 
But Boney was an Emperor!
John France Wa!
have largely disappeared.

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