Thursday, 27 March 2008

Lady Holland, Dahlias, Everlastings, Napoleon and some not very good Poetry

Elizabeth Vassal Fox, Lady Holland, was Napoleon's most prominent supporter in England.

Excluded from court and shunned by many society women because of her scandalous divorce, she presided over the most celebrated social and political circle in London until the death of her husband in 1840. (1)

The Hollands loved travel, and spent a lot of time overseas. In 1800-1805 they lived in Spain and France, and were critical of Napoleon's policies in Spain. After the Treaty of Amiens they were presented to Napoleon in Paris. This was the only time they ever met.

Dahlias and Everlastings

A favourite of generations of English gardeners, the dahlia originates from Mexico. It was first brought to Spain in the late eighteenth century, where it was spotted by Lady Holland. She is credited with being the first person to introduce the plant into England, some 15 years after it had arrived in Spain.

Lord Holland wrote a poem about it to her:
The Dahlia you brought to our isle
Your praises for ever shall speak:
Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,
And colour as bright as your cheek.

Lady Holland is also credited with introducing the Everlastings to St. Helena. She sent some seeds to Longwood during the occupation, hoping that they would remind Napoleon of Corsica. They now grow all over the island.

The Holland House Set

This term is used to refer to the large group of whig politicians, literary figures and distinguished foreign visitors who were entertained by Lord and Lady Holland at their Jacobean mansion in Kensington.(2) In the 1830's when the Whigs finally returned to power, Cabinet dinners were often held at Holland House.

The guests were largely male and aristocratic. They included members of most of the great Whig families: the Cavendishes, the Fitzwilliams, the Spencers, Earl Grey, the Russells, and of course in the early years, Lord Holland's uncle, the Whig statesman, Charles James Fox. (3)

The Hollands were great patrons of the arts. Lord Byron was a member of their circle - despite a famous attack on them. It was here that he met Lady Caroline Lamb.

Among the distinguished overseas visitors welcomed to Holland House at various times were Metternich, the Czar of Russia, Mme de Staël, Talleyrand, the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo and King Louis Philippe of France.

For more information, including pictures of the house itself and a description of Lady Holland's rather imperious style of entertaining, follow the link: Holland House

The Hollands and Napoleon

Lord Holland's admiration of Napoleon was rather more measured than his wife's. Nevertheless throughout his whole political career he took a pro-French stance, which was typical of a number of the more liberal Whigs. Like them he was a critic of the Tory Government's expensive continental wars, and a resolute opponent of the policy of supporting the absolute monarchies of Europe and of restoring the Bourbons to France.

Tory pamphlets and cartoons often attempted to portray Whigs in general, and Holland House in particular, as dupes of the French, defeatists and worse. One cartoon in 1810, anticipating that the Prince Regent would soon allow the Whigs back into power, portrayed Lord and Lady Holland entering the Treasury Building, with Lady Holland inevitably wearing trousers, and with a diminutive Napoleon hanging on to her coat tails.

The Hollands were in Italy during Napoleon's exile on Elba. A number of Whigs, including Lord John Russell, travelled from Italy to Elba to talk with Napoleon. (4)The Hollands also intended to do so, and met some of Napoleon's family in Italy.

Lady Holland got permission to send Napoleon some newspapers. One of them contained a short piece alleging that the allies intended to move Napoleon from Elba to the more secure island of St. Helena. This, along with the failure to provide the funds promised to him under the peace agreement, is sometimes taken as a decisive factor persuading Napoleon to take the gamble of returning to France.

On her return to England after Waterloo, Lady Holland was desolate at Napoleon's surrender and at the decision to deport him to St. Helena.

Lord Holland was an outspoken opponent of the act to legalise Napoleon's captivity.
To consign to distant exile and imprisonment a foreign and captive Chief, who, after the abdication of his authority, relying on British generosity, had surrendered himself to us, in preference to his other enemies, is unworthy the magnanimity of a great country;

Most Whigs were unwilling to support him, and Lady Holland wanted him to stand on his own as the only opponent of the bill in the Lords. The Duke of Sussex, Lord Holland's most reliable ally, insisted that he too should be recorded as voting against.(5)

Throughout the captivity there was frequent communication between Napoleon's entourage on St. Helena and Holland House. Over 1000 books were sent to Napoleon. The Duke of Bedford also was encouraged to send gifts to Napoleon.

Among the Napoleonic treasures the Hollands accumulated was a colossal bust of Napoleon by a pupil of Canova. Inscribed on it in 1817 was Lord Holland's translation of a verse from Homer's Odyssey.

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

In his will Napoleon left Lady Holland a snuff box as an expresson of gratitude for her many kindnesses to him. The poet Moore wrote a poem for her about this.(6)

Gift of the Hero, on his dying day,
To her, whose pity watched, for ever nigh;
Oh! could he see the proud, the happy ray,
This relic lights up on her generous eye,
Sighing, he'd feel how easy 'tis to pay
A friendship all his kingdoms could not buy.

Lord Holland wrote that he considered Napoleon's death
a legal or political murder, a species of crime which tho' not uncommon in our age is one of the blackest dye most odious nature.


1. Born in Jamaica in 1770 , the daughter a wealthy planter from the American colonies, she married Sir Godfrey Webster before her 16th birthday in 1786. They had two sons and a daughter. It was an unhappy marriage. Always short of money, Sir Godfrey was apparently attracted by Elizabeth Vassal's large fortune, and was frustrated by his inability to get his hands on it. In Florence in 1794 she fell in love with the young Henry Fox (1773-1840), nephew of the famous Whig leader, Charles James Fox. They had their first son in 1796, and after a messy divorce they married in 1797. They had two other sons; one of whom died in infancy, the other Henry Edward Fox, (1802–1859) became the 4th Baron Holland. Sir Godfrey Webster committed suicide in 1800 after bad luck at cards.

2. Holland House itself was destroyed by German bombs in 1940. It was then demolished and became a park.

3. Lord Holland's political career was relatively unsuccessful. He served as Lord Privy Seal in the short lived Ministry of All the Talents (1806-7), but had to wait until the Whigs returned to power in 1830 for his next period in Government, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was still in office when he died in 1840. He was a consistent supporter of liberal reforms championed by the more advanced whigs, such as the removal of religious disabilities and the reduction in the number of capital offences. All of these were blocked by the Tory Governments of the period.
4. Lord John Russell(1792-1878), younger son of the Duke of Bedford, prominent Whig/Liberal politician, supporter of Parliamentary Reform; twice Prime Minister (1846-52, 1865-6). Like his father, Lord John Russell felt that Britain had no right to interfere in the question of who should rule in France, and was a firm opponent of the coalition with Austria, Prussia and Russia.
5. The Duke of Sussex was 6th son of George III, and the only surviving son who did not have a naval or military career. He was of course an uncle of Queen Victoria. It was he who gave her away at her wedding to Prince Albert.

6. Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852) was an Irish poet. He was the literary executor of Lord Byron.

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