Friday, 17 November 2017

English Honour and the Captivity of Napoleon

An English Gentleman

England in the Regency period was a highly ordered society. Gentlemanly conduct was the ideal to which all in power aspired. Half a century earlier Dr Johnson had defined being a gentleman in terms of "nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness." Gentlemanly conduct also encompassed ideas of never taking unfair advantage and of conducting oneself towards your enemy as if he might one day become your friend. (1)

The treatment of Napoleon after his surrender was clearly an infringement of this gentlemanly code: detaining a defeated ruler after the end of hostilities was neither customary nor honourable. Napoleon in his letter to the Prince Regent had claimed " the protection of the laws", and had thrown himself on "the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous" of his enemies. Whilst Captain Maitland gave no assurances as to the outcome of his surrender, Napoleon certainly got the impression that he would be treated with the respect normally afforded a defeated enemy. Lord Holland made exactly this criticism when opposing the bill to legalise Napoleon's detention:

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;

Napoleon Preparing to Board the Bellerophon

The question of “honour” was important in governing circles, and impugnment of a man's honour fairly regularly led to duels.(2) Hudson Lowe mentioned it in one of his long letters to Bathurst early in the captivity.(3) Lord Castlereagh sought to dispel the concern by a rather tortuous logic: Napoleon and his fellow exiles had held a council of war in France prior to surrender and had decided there was no chance of escape; if Napoleon had had a chance of escape and had surrendered then the Government action would have been dishonourable, but since he had had no choice then Britain acted honourably.

The fact that Lord Bathurst and many members of the Government derived amusement from Napoleon's plight was also unworthy of an English gentleman. In a debate in the House of Lords in 1817 Lord Holland wondered how Bathurst could “allow himself to laugh and sneer at a man because he was in his power.“ Commenting on the affair, the Examiner criticized Bathurst for taking advantage of a man’s adversity by cracking jokes about him, and concluded that “it is the object of Ministers to humiliate their fallen Superior” hence their insistence on the title “General.

Samuel Bamford, the simple weaver who could not aspire to gentlemanly status, clearly judged his country by that moral code, and condemned Napoleon's exile on St. Helena: "Of England's honour 'tis the grave."

It is no wonder that a later gentlemanly Prime Minister would write that an Englishman

"must regret that his Government ever undertook the custody of Napoleon, and he must regret still more that the duty should have been discharged in a spirit so ignoble and through agents so unfortunate."
Rosebery was presumably referring to two knights of the realm, Sir Hudson Lowe and Sir Thomas Reade, neither of whom he considered gentlemen.(4) For Loyalists such as Lowe and Reade of course, and for Bathurst also, Napoleon was an illegitimate ruler, a rebel and a usurper, which undoutedly affected the way he was treated.

It might be fair to point out that for the French at this time and later there was a certain hypocrisy about an Englishman's invocation of "honour", L'Angleterre, ah, la perfide Angleterre .
1.See "In a Gewntleman-Like-Manner"
1. Canning and Castlereagh duelled in 1809; the Duke of Wellington fought a duel in 1829 when he was Prime Minister.
3. See also Gorrequer's comment, June 10, 1818.
4.Lord Rosebery, Napoleon The Last Phase London 1900, p 57.

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