Thursday, 7 April 2022

The Man on the Rock - Kenneth Griffith (1975)


On our recent visit to St Helena we were privileged to be able to watch this powerful performance by Kenneth Griffith on a large screen. It first appeared in 1975, but has long since been forgotten, and it was difficult to find a copy. We were surprised and pleased to find that it is now available on youtube

Click Here To View .

It was filmed on St Helena and one of my friends on the island remembers Griffith coming to the local amateur dramatic group on a number of occasions during his stay.

Griffith plays Napoleon's gaoler Sir Hudson Lowe as well as Napoleon, which is a remarkable achievement in itself. His portrayal of Lowe is at times rather amusing and after half a century and much scholarly activity still seems an accurate one.

Any recent visitor to St Helena will note how the presentation of the French Properties has greatly changed since the film was made.

It is very highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in the captivity of Napoleon.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Sir Hudson Lowe and Antonomasia - A Review


Sir Hudson Lowe, Victime of St Helena by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau

This book, one of a series of 12, is only available from the Longwood House souvenir shop on the island of St Helena. It contains parallel French and English text, as well as numerous pictures, newspaper cuttings and historical documents. The author rivals Napoleon in his capacity for hard work, and has over the years done a tremendous amount of research on his subject, rather more than is normal for such a book, as the 369 footnotes testify.

From relatively humble origins, Lowe received the job of guarding the most illustrious person of his age, and probably of many ages, and this gave him an inflated sense of his own importance. He came to believe that he was at least Napoleon’s equal, and perhaps his superior. Rising from relatively humble origins, with an undistinguished military career, he had gained for himself a reputation for good foreign language and writing skills. His promotion was based on his abilities as an administrator and an observer, on his loyalism and obedience, and on the fact that nobody of suitable rank could be found to carry out such an assignment.

The author provides an apt judgement on why Sir Hudson Lowe was such a good choice for the Lord Bathurst and the British Government.

“.. the man Bathurst needed to subject Napoleon to the petty restrictions, even humiliations, he wished to inflict on him, without exposing himself to the opprobrium of opposition and history. Two centuries after the events, the appointment of a civil servant reputed to be meticulous, undiscerning, quarrelsome, vain, petty, zealous and stubborn looks like a fool’s bargain. If one had to decide who was to blame, one should probably look to those who invited him to the table of the great and powerful.”

Flier for Exhibition at Plantation House, St Helena, cut short by decision of the present Governor's wife!

The book reveals a sound knowledge of the British or more accurately English society from which Lowe sprang: a highly ordered, corrupt society dominated by a small oligarchy, ruthless in its suppression of dissent and desirous of turning back the ideas of the French Revolution of which Napoleon had become the symbol. It correctly identifies Lowe as an ultra-loyalist Tory, whose political views would have been reinforced by his association with the absolutist continental rulers to whom he was often attached during the wars against Napoleon. He was in short the most loyal of subjects of George III and the Prince Regent, and of the aristocratic world in which he thought he had secured a foothold. In his entourage on St Helena he sought people with similar views to himself, and was most suspicious of those known to be sympathetic to the Whigs and to Napoleon.

The study takes issue with those who see Lowe as a vindictive gaoler as well as those who see him as the victim of cruel manipulation by Napoleon and his entourage. It paints a picture of a well meaning but flawed man, appointed to a job for which he was not suited, who let his sudden promotion rather go to his head, and who was never able to free himself from the delusions acquired from his appointment. Much of the material is new, particularly for the period after his return from St Helena when Lowe was never able to get a senior position that matched the St Helena appointment, and had to withstand increasingly unpleasant and often public shows of unpopularity, which the author describes as “mobbing”.

The most astonishing revelation of this study was the amount of wealth that Lowe gained from his five years in charge of Napoleon, despite losing a significant amount from fraud. As this book explains, this helped reinforce the delusion which was a feature of his conduct both on St Helena and after. In 1824 he continually changed his mind as to whether to accept the post of Governor of Antigua, and his frequent changes often appeared to be related to decisions of the local Assembly to lower and then raise the salary. Despite not taking the job he still submitted an account for £302 for expenses, around £27,000 in 2018 money! The author also reveals Lowe’s attempts to get back-pay from the East India Company as well as pay for the year after he left the island. The Company resisted, but for some reason the British Government in the person of Lord Bathurst acceded to his wishes.

Perhaps the most telling and amusing part is the account of his ten months long ostentatious overland journey with his family from Paris to Ceylon to take up his appointment as Lieutenant Governor, in the forlorn expectation that he would shortly thereafter receive the appointment as Governor. During the whole of this trip Lowe basked in the temporary title the Govt had given him of Lieutenant General of His Gracious Majesty, but he was not always as well received as he wished in the capitals of Europe. In Vienna the Emperor Franz refused to see him, and Metternich encouraged him to leave the city where Napoleon’s son then resided!

Among the belongings auctioned after his death was a lock of the King of Rome’s hair, the subject of over 1000 pages of correspondence while he was on St Helena, which had supposedly been destroyed. There were also other articles bearing inscriptions “N” and “Emperor” which would have got anyone severe penalties had they been written by anyone on the island during Lowe’s term as Governor.

Finally, I have learned a new word from this book, antonomasia, the use of a proper name to describe the characteristics of a person. According to Hazlitt (1826) a “Sir Hudson Lowe” is someone who appears

“ so much the creatures of the head and so little of the heart, they are so cold, so lifeless, so mechanical, so much governed by calculation, and so little by impulse …”.
Such was Lowe’s reputation that the term was even used in the House of Commons during Lowe’s lifetime.

This is an important, well researched book. It is a pity that it is so difficult to obtain.

ps. I also learned that Sir Hudson Lowe was a couple of centimetres shorter than Napoleon! The British propaganda about Napoleon's height is a subject I have often referred to over the years!.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugénie


Queen Victoria's portrait of Eugénie, May 1855

By the last decades of the nineteenth century the Bonaparte family had gained legitimacy among Europe's rulers. No longer identified with opposition to the British oligarchy and its absolutist allies on the continent, they had become part of the established order, allies against Republican and working class movements which increasingly put fear into the heads of Europe's ruling classes.

The Bonapartes themselves exhibited a certain sense of entitlement, all the more curious since their claims derived entirely from the upstart Emperor, exiled on St Helena and insultingly referred to as "General Bonaparte" by his British gaolers. At least one of the family, Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904), daughter of Napoleon's brother Jerome, recognised this, apparently telling Marcel Proust that if it weren't for her famous uncle she would be "selling oranges in the streets of Ajaccio, " but there is no evidence that it made her feel any less entitled.

One of the Bonapartes, Prince Louis-Lucien(1813-1891) was apparently devoted to Queen Victoria. She always addressed him as Imperial Highness although he had no right to the title. According to his cousin Caroline Murat he lived so long in England and had "became almost an Englishman", and a rather conservative one at that. (1) Having met Gladstone at Eugenie's he commented "I didn't know a Liberal could be a true gentleman". (2) The closest relationship though was between Queen Victoria and Eugénie, Empress of the French (1826-1920).


Franz Xaver Winterhalter's portrait of Eugénie, Empress of the French, copied by Mary Curtis in December 1855 for Queen Victoria

The world in which Victoria and Eugenie became friends was very different from that of the first Napoleon. Britain was at the pinnacle of its global power, and the centuries old struggle with France had come to an end, although not everyone had noticed it.(3) The Enlightenment ideas with which Napoleon was identified, the rights of property, secularism and legal equality had for the most part become mainstream among the English ruling class, and most of England's rulers still shared Napoleon's distrust of democracy.

Victoria and Albert with Napoleon III and Eugénie, London 1855

Queen Victoria had been told in 1850 by Lord Aberdeen that the future Napoleon III had good manners and was " very quiet, not at all French " (4), which perhaps reconciled her to the fall of King Louis Philippe, "the one person fitted to govern such an unmanageable people. " (5).

Over a decade earlier, before Napoleon's body had been brought back from St Helena she had been sent a book by her uncle the Duke of Sussex, a well known Whig supporter of Napoleon. The book had suggested to her the almost treasonous thought that "Napoleon's wars were good " and disabused her of the belief that he had been a coward. (6)

Initially opposed to Louis Napoleon's coup, in October Victoria recorded that the Govt formed was of "people who are nobody". By December though she rejoiced at the big majority that Louis Napoleon had gained in the French elections, "as a sign of moderation" and "a stepping stone to something better". (7)

Napoleon III, Eugénie and the Prince Imperial

Her soon to be friend, the Spanish Princess Eugénie de Montijo, had married Napoleon III in 1853, and their first meeting was in 1855 when she and her husband were guests in London during the Crimean War. Shortly after Victoria returned the visit and in Paris was taken to see the tomb of "the great Napoleon".

Franz Xaver Winterhalter's portrait of Eugénie, Empress of the French, copy by Johann Horrak.

In her diary of December 24th, 1857 commenting on her Christmas presents Queen Victoria singled out a gift by "Dearest Albert" of "a copy of Winterhalter's picture of the Empress Eugénie in a straw hat, which I am so particularly fond of, and which is charming."

After the overthrow of the Second Empire Victoria visited the Empress and her son in Kent where Eugénie "very thin & pale, but still very handsome", with "deep sadness in her face" and frequent tears in her eyes, spoke of her dreadful last hours in Paris as the populace stormed the Tuileries. (8)

After Napoleon III's death the Empress gave Victoria a photograph of him and his travelling clock which had accompanied him everywhere and was beside his bed when he died. Victoria showed it to Eugénie when the latter visited, and wrote in her diary: "Now it stands in my sitting room, & I shall always take it about with me, & leave it as an Heirloom to Windsor!!!" (9)

Most devastating of all was the tragic death of Eugenie's only child, the Prince Imperial, while serving with British troops in South Africa. Victoria heard the news before Eugénie, and may have felt some responsibility for it. She recorded that it haunted her all night "seeing those horrid Zulus constantly before me", and "thinking of the poor Empress who did not yet know it." (10) Her diary gives a very detailed account of the Prince Imperial's funeral where she met all the assorted Bonapartes, most of whom she seemed to have some knowledge of,

The Princes & Psse Matilde came in here, & the different Princes were presented by Pce Napoleon, who has very civil, & very subdued & embarassed. Psse Matilde, I found very little altered At the door, we were met by Ld Sydney Psse Matilde (whom I had not seen since 55, in Paris) Pce Napoleon, with his 2 sons Victor & Louis, Pce Lucien Bonaparte (the savant, who always resides in England) Pce Charles Napolén Bonaparte (his, nephew) Pce Murat, his daughter Psse Eugénie, & his brother Pce Louis, the Duc de Bassano & others. Pce Napoleon is aged, & grown balder, & more like to Napoleon I than ever. His eldest son Victor, is tall & nice & intelligent looking, very like the Italian family, but with the fine Bonaparte brow, & complexion. The 2nd, is much shorter & darker, & has quite the Bonaparte features. Pce Lucien, is grey & old looking, very pleasing, & gentlemanlike. He loved the dear young Prince dearly & feels his death acutely. He is the son of Napoleon I's eldest brother. He was present at the painful identification & said "Mais, je l'ai reconnu!" His nephew, Pce Charles, I had never seen before, a good looking elderly man, whose mother, was the daughter of Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain. Besides these, there was Pce Murat's handsome daughter Eugénie & his younger brother Pce Louis. — (11)

In her widowhood the Empress Eugénie, often referred to by Victoria as "dear Empress Eugénie" and sometime "poor Empress Eugénie ", was a frequent visitor to Osborne House, Balmoral and Windsor. Occasionally Victoria visited her, including a couple of visits to Eugénie's villa, "Cyrnos" in the South of France. Victoria sometimes lent Eugénie a cottage at Osborne house, and also another one in Abergele in the Scottish highlands. In Osborne House gardens were some violets brought back from St Helena in 1880. (12) Sometimes other members of the Bonaparte family accompanied Eugénie on her visits.

Eugénie at her villa, Cyrnos, in the South of France

On one occasion the two friends visited the Demidoff villa in Italy, former home of Anatoly Demidoff (1813-1870), and his wife Mathilde Bonaparte. Victoria noted that

there were busts of the Empr Napoleon & Empress Eugénie, also a bust of myself, which I cannot understand how he got. Took tea, which we had brought with us, in one of the small rooms, & afterwards went up into a magnificent drawing room, which was full of fine & interesting things, amongst others the clock, which had stood in the room at St. Helena, in which Napoleon I died. There was also death mask of him. (13)

Funeral in 1820, attended by King and Queen of England and the Queen of Spain

Bonapartism as a political force effectively ended with the death of the Prince Imperial in 1879. Thereafter the Orleanists became the better bet for the enemies of Republicanism. (14) Nevertheless Victoria's relationship with the Bonapartes remained unbroken. In 1886 she saw the "monstrous" proposal by the French Govt to expel the Orléans & Bonaparte Princes as directed at Prince Napoleon and his son Prince Victor. In the final months of her life she was visited by Prince Napoleon and his brother Princce Louis, who she noted had been serving for some time in the Russian army, which happened to be governed by another Emperor and another relative of hers. (15)

Eugénie lived to see Victoria's son and then grandson on the throne, and then through the First World War, which destroyed much of the old European order. She died in 1920 on a final visit to Spain, the nation of her birth. Like Napoleon I she had two funerals, one in Madrid, and then her body was returned for burial in England. Her English funeral was attended not only by assorted Bonapartes, but by the King and Queen of England and the Queen of Spain.
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1. My Memoirs The Princess Caroline Murat (New York 1910) p. 80
2. Murat p 24
3. There was a war scare in Britain after Napoleon III came to power.
4. Victoria Diary, 6th Feb 1850.
5. Victoria Diary 14 August 1839
6. Victoria Diary, 14 Aug 1839
7. Victoria Diary, 31st Oct & 14 Dec 1848.
8. Victoria Diary 30th November 1870
9. Victoria Diary Osborne House 26th January 1873.
10. Victoria Diary, Balmoral Castle, Friday June 20th 1879)
11. Victoria Diary, Windsor 12th July 1879
12. Victoria Diary, 22 December 1881.
13 Victoria Diary, Florence (Villa Palieri). 19th April 1888
14. "Courts in exile: Bourbons, Bonapartes and Orléans in London, from George III to Edward VII" Philip Mansel in A history of the French in London, ed Debra Kelly & Martyn Cornick, p 118. Institute of Historical Research (London 2013)
15. Victoria Diary 4th June 1886 & 22 November 1900.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Queen Victoria, Count Walewski and a Famous Painting


Napoleon at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 Paul Delaroche

There appear to be a number of versions of Delaroche's painting of Napoleon's first abdication. One has been in the Musée de l'Armée in Paris since 1954. (1) Another resides in the Royal Collection.

In 1852 the painting was viewed at Windsor by Alexandre Walewski (1810-1868), Napoleon's natural son, now French emissary to the Court of St James. Victoria entertained Walewski and his wife a few days after the British Government had officially recognised Louis Napoleon as Emperor of the French!

The Walewskis & Lord Malmesbury to dinner, the Count, sitting next to me. He was very amiable & talkative, speaking immediately, & in great admiration, of the fine picture we have here of Napoleon at Fontainebleau, by P. Delaroche. The Counts own likeness to Napoleon is very striking, & if there was a doubt of the relationship, the fact of his appearance is an infallible proof. (2)

Alexandre Walewski (1810-1858)

Queen Victoria got to know Walewski and his second wife very well. In the early year things were rather strained. She was concerned that Lord Palmerston had expressed his approval to Walewski of the coup in which Louis Napoleon had seized power, which cost Palmerston his job. She also refused to give her support to the proposed marriage of Napoleon III to her niece, Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.

In her diary she commented on Walewski's lack of tact, and later described him as a rogue when he appeared to criticise Napoleon III, for whom after a rather hostile start, the Queen came to develop a surprisingly close attachment.(3) She also was very well aware of Walewski's relationship with the promiscuous actress Rachel, who had a few years earlier borne him a daughter:

The latter was full of awkward "mal à propas", being famous for want of tact. He is most anxious our Fleets should have an opportunity of acting together, — enquired after the Orléans family, — spoke of Rachel, whose former liaison with him is notorious! &c(4)

A year or two later, during the Crimean War,in which the two great enemies were for the first time allies, Victoria entertained Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, with whom she was to forge a long lasting friendship. The meeting was a great success, but Victoria could not help appreciate the irony of entertaining a nephew of Napoleon:

Then dancing began, I, dancing a Quadrille with the Emperor, Albert opposite, with the Empress. This was followed by a Reel, in which Vicky danced very nicely, then a Valse which the Emperor asked her to dance with him, & which frightened her very much, &c — Really to think of a Gd Daughter of George IIIrd, dancing with the nephew of our great enemy, the Empr Napoleon now my most firm Ally, in the Waterloo Gallery, — is incredible! And this Ally was only 6 years ago, an exile in England, poor, & not at all thought of! The Emperor led me in to supper & Albert, the Empress. Her manner is the most perfect thing I ever saw, so gentle, graceful & kind, & so modest & retiring. All was over by ½ p. 12. Vicky behaved extremely well, making beautiful curtseys & was much praised by the Emperor & Empress, about whom she raves.(5)
A few months later Victoria was in Paris, the first British monarch to go there for four centuries, and whilst there paid her respects before the tomb of the "Great Napoleon"!


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1. The Musée de l'Armée version, was bought by the Liverpool industrialist John Naylor, and was for years part of the Naylor Collection in Wales. An article published by theNapoleon Foundation says it was bought and donated to the Museum by Francis Howard, the Founder of the Grosvenor Art Gallery in London, a European educated American, the great grandson of Benjamin Franklin.
2. Queen Victoria's Diary, 9th December 1852. DNA has now confirmed Victoria's judgement that Walewski did descend from the male Bonaparte line.
3. Diary, 10th June 1853, 4th September 1859.
4. Diary 10th June 1853.
5. Diary 17th April 1855.

Friday, 21 May 2021

The Bicentenary: An Update


Napoleon's Grave, St Helena, May 2021

After years of preparation, the disruption of the pandemic and the debate in France over Napoleon's legacy, the ceremonies on St Helena have now passed.

In my previous post I said that the commemoration would be very different from that in 1921. It didn't take any special foresight to say that! Commemoration of the bicentenary took place in a world perhaps even further removed from 1921 than that era was from 1821.

In the shadow of the Great War, most if not all of the imperial certainties of a European dominated, Atlantic centred world remained. That era has now long gone. The UK has moved on from Empire to Commonwealth, and now, after a brief semi-detached sojourn in the European Community, in the midst of a global economic and environmental crisis, to the Anglosphere and "Global Britain". One wonders what our descendants will make of that in 2121. One wonders also what place St Helena will have in this new world.