Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Byron, Churchill, Harrow & Napoleon

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, Jacques-Louis David, 1812

Wellington, himself an old Etonian, is often misquoted as saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.(1) It is strange that Harrow, Eton's strongest rival, has produced three of the biggest admirers of Wellington's opponent at Waterloo!

The David picture above, some seven feet high, was commissioned in 1811 by the first of our old Harrovians, Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852). Hamilton, a Scottish Whig politician, apparently had a tendency to emphasise the importance of ancient birth, but this curiously did not prevent him from supporting Napoleon, an upstart whose career and credo symbolised equality of opportunity. In 1882 the painting that Hamilton had commissioned was acquired by Lord Rosebery, like Hamilton a Scottish politician of Whig ancestry.

A Liberal Imperialist who briefly served as Foreign Secretary twice, and then Prime Minister(1894-1895), Rosebery's marriage to Hannah Rothschild (1878) enabled him to buy a priceless collection of art, including a number of valuable Napoleon memorabilia, to fill his twelve houses. (2) Rosebery was the author of an excellent study of Napoleon's exile which is still worth reading, and also commissioned the famous portrait of Napoleon by James Sant.

Rosebery was an old Etonian, but whilst the David painting was in his possession it caught the admiring gaze of the second of our old Harrovians, the young Conservative politician, Winston Churchill, a passionate devotee of Napoleon.

This was the first time that Churchill had been confronted by a large life-size picture of his hero. It made such an impression on him that the very next day he wrote to Rosebery about it:

I carried away quite a queer sensation from the Napoleon picture yesterday. It seems pervaded with his personality; and I felt as if I had looked furtively into the very room where he was working, and only just got out of the way to avoid being seen. (3)

I have written a number of posts about Winston Churchill's intense admiration for Napoleon, and a recent reading of Michael Sheldon's Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, the only biography which has focused on his early political career, has shed further light on this:

In 1912, now a Liberal and First Lord of the Admiralty, travelling by train across the Alps to Naples to try to persuade the retired Lord Fisher to help the Government with its naval plans, Churchill waxed so eloquently about Napoleon's crossing the Alps that his wife in the next compartment thought he was reading aloud. (4)

Photograph Churchill sent to Gilbert Martineau in May 1961, now exhibited at Longwood House

In April 1915, critical of the performance of the Navy in the early stages of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign he quoted Napoleon to Admiral Fisher,

'We are defeated at sea because our Admirals have learned--where I know not--that war can be made without running risks' [Napoleon] (5)

Contemporaries were of course well aware of his passion for Napoleon. "He thinks himself Napoleon " said Lord Esher, his superior at the Colonial Office. His friend John Morley, Gladstone's biographer, when told that Churchill was reading another book on Napoleon commented,

He would do better to study the drab heroes of life. Framing oneself upon Napoleon has proved a danger to many a man before him. (6)

Letter from Winston Churchill to Gilbert Martineau May 1961, exhibited at Longwood House

Perhaps the strongest criticism came from a political opponent, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who described him in a Unionist rally in Hyde Park in 1914 as an enemy of Ulster and a danger to the State, a "Lilliput Napoleon. A man with an unbalanced mind. An egomaniac ..!" (7)

The third of our old Harrovian aristocratic admirers of Napoleon was of course Lord Byron, from whom Churchill drew great inspiration. Both Byron and Churchill kept busts of Napoleon on their desks. Byron seemed in Churchill's mind to resemble his own father whose career had been tragically cut short, and to possess that combination of energy, action, vision and free thinking which he so admired.

Shelden's study suggests that as a young man Churchill very much saw himself as a Byronic romantic hero, a protagonist of domestic reform, determined to change the world for the better, and one whose political career looked to have come to an end with the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign. Churchill though did not perhaps quite look the part, and the book throws new light on his passionate if unsuccessful pursuit of three of the most beautiful women of his time. (8)

Churchill was a great lover of Byron's poetry and could recite long passages from it, and often drew on it as in his famous promise in 1940 of only "Blood Sweat and Tears" which echoed Byron's reference in his Age of Bronze to the war profiteering of the landed gentry who enriched themselves with their "blood, sweat and tear-rung millions". (9)


1. Others have claimed that what he actually said decades later when observing an Eton cricket match was "There grows the stuff that won Waterloo".

2. The David painting was bought by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954 and now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

3. Churchill to Rosebery, 4th Sept 1901 p. 45 Michael Shelden, Young Titan, The Making of Winston Churchill, Great Britain, 2014.

4. Shelden pp. 278-9.

5. Winston, Churchill to Admiral Lord Fisher, April 8th 1815. Churchill Archives.

6. Shelden p. 92

7. Shelden pp. 195, 270.

8. Shelden pp 7-10.

9. Apparently when in 1941 Franklin Roosevelt suggested that the allies should call themselves the United Nations Churchill immediately quoted a verse from Byron, "Here, where the sword united nations drew .." Shelden pp 6-7.