Tuesday, 4 May 2021

May 5th: Thoughts on the Bicentenary of Napoleon's Death

The Centenary of Napoleon's Death, St Helena 1921

Napoleon's Tomb, St Helena

Despite the pandemic an impressive programme has been planned on St Helena both at Longwood House and around the empty grave. It will be a very different atmosphere from a century ago. I will be surprised if the Union Jack is flown as it was in 1921, and I expect a low key, more informal ceremony with the participation of many ordinary Saints, few if any of whom appear to have been present a century ago.

In Paris President Macron has somewhat controversially decided to lay a wreath beside Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides. It will probably come as a surprise to many English patriots to find that Napoleon is not universally admired in France. At the risk of over-simplification his memory is more revered on the political Right than on the Left! Macron of course is a centrist.

Macron's aides have let it be known that "Someone at the start of the 21st century does not think like someone at the start of the 19th century. Our history is our history and we accept it. "

The novelist L.P. Hartley put it more succinctly:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

With that in mind I have decided to return to what has been a major theme of this blog: the surprising amount of support for Napoleon in England, in folk songs, in people christening their children "Napoleon", and in the political campaigns of the Radicals, not to mention the better known but more measured support from Lady Holland and the Foxite Whigs.

"The most wonderful man that ever existed"

Henry "Orator" Hunt, the radical leader who was imprisoned after the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, on hearing of Napoleon's death wrote these comments from Ilchester Jail. (1)

For Radicals Waterloo and Peterloo were of one piece - to cement the hold of autocratic rulers against the forces of liberty on the continent and in England.

Curiously on St. Helena Napoleon spoke of Orator Hunt, and it is fair to say that he did not have that much sympathy for his cause, which he seems to have identified with mob rule from which he believed he had saved France. He marvelled though at the ability of the English aristocracy to laugh at liberty and at freedom of the press. (2)

On Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's Gaoler: "very unlike the English to have behaved like that"

Finally a few comments by Queen Victoria, just under two years old when Napoleon died, but clearly schooled by the Whigs! On hearing of the death of Hudson Lowe in 1844 she wrote:

Sir Hudson Lowe has just died. He was chiefly renowned for his custody of Napoleon at St. Helena, which he is said to have performed with great harshness.(3)

Napoleon she considered was "one of the most remarkable men in the world's history, though not the best.(4) A few days later she added:

Sir Robert Gardiner has no good opinion of Sir Hudson Lowe & says his treatment of Napoleon was most unfeeling & harsh, & that altogether the way in which he was treated at St. Helena, was abominable & disgraceful, & most ungenerous towards a Captive of such note as he was. I must say I think it is very unlike the English to have behaved like that.
1. To the Radical reformers, male and female, of England, Ireland, and Scotland p. 238-239.
2. Napoleon at St. Helena, Memoirs of General Bertrand, Grand Marshall of the Palace January to May 1821 (London 1953) p. 71.
3. Queen Victoria Journal, 12th January 1844.
4. ibid .
5. Queen Victoria Journal, 15th January 1844.