Napoleon’s surrender: letter begging Prince Regent for mercy after Waterloo defeat to go on show in Windsor

It was a failure that brought to an end his hundred days reign, and saw him exiled on the island of St Helena until his death five years later. Now, a letter of surrender sent by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte following the allied victory at Waterloo is to go on show at Windsor Castle

Napoleon Bonaparte © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy

Dated 13 July 1815, the letter was written to the Prince Regent 25 days after Napoleon’s defeat.

Signed by the emperor himself, the letter pleads for the “hospitality of the British people” and calls on the prince as the “most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies” for protection. Seeking refuge, the emperor compares himself to Themistocles, a Greek statesman who threw himself on the mercy of the Persian ruler Artaxerxes and was subsequently received with honour.

On receiving the letter, the prince reportedly declared: “Upon my word, a very proper letter: much more so, I must say, than any I ever received from Louis XVIII”. Despite this, Napoleon's request for protection was refused, and he was exiled on the island of St Helena, where he remained until his death in May 1821.

Royal Archives / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Napoleon’s correspondence will go on display alongside a previously unseen letter sent to the Prince Regent by the Duke of Wellington, who led the allied armies to victory at Waterloo.

Sent 14 days after the battle, which was fought near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the note was a response to the prince's “most gracious letter of the 22d June”.

In it, the duke writes: “Your Royal Highness will again have saved the World”. This, experts at Windsor Castle explain, perpetuated the Prince Regent's personal belief that he played a key role in the triumph over Napoleon, despite having never seen active service.

The letters will go on show at Windsor Castle alongside other Napoleonic memorabilia, including a lock of the emperor's hair and a star of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Legion d’Honneur, worn by Napoleon.

Royal Archives / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The exhibition, Waterloo at Windsor: 1815–2015, will also include letters to the Prince Regent from members of the royal family written in the immediate aftermath of the battle, as well as contemporary prints and drawings, and items seized from the battlefield.

In one such letter, the Queen of Württemberg, the Prince Regent's sister and the wife of King Frederick of Württemberg, congratulates the prince on his “glorious Victory” in a war that “threatened the ruin of Europe”.

The French defeat at Waterloo brought to an end 23 years of war that began with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continued with the Napoleonic Wars from 1803.

Exhibition curator, Kate Heard of Royal Collection Trust, told History Extra: “It is wonderful to be able to display these fascinating letters as part of the exhibition. Both were sent to the Prince Regent, later George IV, in the wake of the allied victory at the battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).

“Although Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, and his carriage captured by the Prussians, he managed to escape the battlefield and return to Paris. But it was clear that his power had been severely weakened, and he abdicated as emperor on 22 June.

“His subsequent attempt to flee France was thwarted by a British naval blockade of French ports, and on 13 July he wrote a letter of surrender. Written by a secretary and signed by Napoleon himself, this is the fair copy which was sent to the Prince Regent [a neat and exact copy of a corrected draft].

“In translation, it reads: 'Your Royal Highness, A victim to the factions which distract my country, and to the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, I have terminated my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself on the hospitality of the British people.

'I put myself under the protection of their laws; which I claim from your Royal Highness, as the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies. Rochefort 13 July 1815, Napoleon'.”

“Meanwhile, a letter from the Duke of Wellington, also addressed to the Prince Regent, reflects on the battle at Waterloo. Like Napoleon, Wellington flatters the Prince, to whom he credits the victory, and suggests that, in defeating Napoleon, 'Your Royal Highness will again have saved the World'.”

Waterloo at Windsor: 1815–2015 opens at Windsor Castle on 31 January 2015, and will run until January 2016. To find out more, click here.

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