The year when fear of Napoleon stalked the land

As Britain’s military fortunes ebbed and flowed in the run-up to Waterloo, the public mood routinely swung from joy to horror and back again. Jenny Uglow tells the story of the year when fear of Napoleon stalked the land...

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

DDNGGA View of a sham fight on the Serpentine, Hyde Park, London, 1814. Artist: Charles Calvert
Charles Calvert’s painting shows a ‘sham fight’ on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, celebrating Napoleon’s fall from power in 1814. The French emperor’s defeat sparked a nationwide outpouring of relief, yet he would soon be back to spoil the party. (Alamy)

A century ago, in August 1914, Britain was plunging into war. But in the same month a hundred years before, the country was rejoicing at the end – as they thought – of the long conflict with France, and the toppling of Napoleon Bonaparte.

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The prince regent announced a grand jubilee in London’s royal parks, to be held on 1 August – a date that also marked a centenary of Hanoverian rule. It was rather more spectacular than he hoped: the Chinese pagoda in St James’s Park caught fire and tumbled into the lake, killing two men and some swans, and drawing huge crowds who thought it was all part of the show. In Hyde Park, the fairground shows of Bartholomew Fair, due at the end of the month, took over the ground: swings, roundabouts, wild-beast shows, donkey racing and sack-racing, and even printing presses to run off souvenirs. The writer Charles Lamb groaned that the grass was turned to sand, and “booths & drinking places go all round it for a mile & half… the stench of liquors, bad tobacco, dirty people & provisions, conquers the air”.

At the outset of the wars with France in 1793, politicians had assured the public that the conflict would be finished in months – as with the First World War, ‘over by Christmas’. Yet by now, broken only by the brief Peace of Amiens in 1802, the fighting had continued for over 20 years: 300,000 men had died and many more were wounded and maimed.

Briefly, the country was wild with relief. But the following spring, elation would turn to despair at Napoleon’s return, then to anxiety and finally to mingled joy and horror at the news of Waterloo. Dizzying changes of mood swept the people of Britain as they cheered, waited, watched and trembled.

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Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba came as a nasty shock to many Britons. (Bridgeman)

Rise and thaw

It was always hard to keep up with news from the battlefronts, and in the biting winter of 1813–14 snow drifts had blocked the roads, the rivers were frozen and the mails were stopped. But with the thaw came a rise in hopes. In the north Napoleon’s army was fighting a brilliant rear-guard action to stop the combined armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia marching across his borders, but in the south, the Duke of Wellington had defeated French forces in Spain and had crossed the Pyrenees. In this time of suspense, ordinary life went on. “Do not be angry with me for beginning another letter to you,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in March, “I have read The Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.”

Then came a wave of alarm: hearing rumours of French victories, people rushed to sell stocks before prices fell. On 4 April 1814, The Times was still carrying accounts of French triumphs from the Paris papers. Yet in fact, in the last two days of March – a week before the news reached the London press – the Russians and Prussians had entered Paris. On 2 April, the new French Senate declared that Napoleon was officially deposed.

“The week before Easter was certainly a very agitating one,” wrote the elderly aristocrat Amabel Hume-Campbell, “& to be sure I slept but little the night after that Tuesday when three different gradations of incredible good news came on us from hour to hour.”

The papers were peppered with contradictory reports, but finally, on the evening of Saturday 9 April, the day before Easter, a Gazette Extraordinary from the Foreign Office appeared, saying that despatches had arrived “announcing the abdication of the crowns of France and Italy by Napoleon Bonaparte”.

Queues formed outside booksellers and the stock of newspapers ran out. The country rang with bells and shone with illuminations. “What overpowering events!” exclaimed the clergyman John Stonard. “Surely there will never be any more news as long as we live. The papers will be as dull as a ledger and politics insipid as the white of an egg.”

Beaume Joseph (1796-1885). Versailles, ch‚teaux de Versailles et de Trianon. MV1777.

Joseph Beaume’s painting shows Napoleon leaving the island of Elba, on which he had been exiled, to return to France. This turn of events propelled many Britons, who had been glorying in the Corsican’s ‘defeat’, into a state of blind panic. (L’Agence photographique de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais)
 

On Easter Monday the allies signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, exiling Napoleon to Elba and restoring Louis XVIII. “Nap the Mighty is gone to pot,” wrote the teenage Thomas Carlyle in amazement. The novelist Maria Edgeworth exclaimed: “All that has passed in France in the last few weeks, a revolution without bloodshed! Paris taken without being pillaged.”

At Hartwell, the new French king, Louis XVIII, a portly widower, and his niece the Duchesse d’Angoulême, the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, packed their bags for their return. Later that month Louis paid a state visit to London. “At this present writing, Louis the Gouty is wheeling in triumph into Piccadilly, in all the pomp and rabblement of royalty,” wrote Lord Byron to Tom Moore. “I had an offer of seats to see them pass; but as I have seen a sultan going to mosque, and been at his reception of an ambassador, the most Christian king ‘hath no attractions for me’.” On 24 April Louis left Dover for Calais on the yacht Royal Sovereign, entering Paris on 3 May.

Hobbling soldiers

Slowly the soldiers returned home. The rifleman Benjamin Harris, suffering from fever contracted during the ill-fated Walcheren expedition to the Netherlands in 1809, marched to Chelsea with his veterans’ battalion, to be disbanded. Harris saw thousands of soldiers – English, Scots and Irish – lining the streets, “and lounging about before the different public-houses, with every description of wound and casualty incident to modern warfare. There hobbled the maimed Light Infantryman, the heavy dragoon, the hussar, the artillery-man, the fusilier, and specimens from every regiment in the service.” A week later he was discharged, receiving his pension of sixpence a day.

The relief of British families seeing fathers, sons and brothers out of uniform at last was matched by that of countless French prisoners of war. As the Peterborough newspapers reported: “The joy produced among the prisoners of war at Norman Cross by the change of affairs in France is quite indescribably extravagant. A large white flag is set up in each of the quadrangles of the depot, under which the thousands of poor fellows, for years in confinement, dance, sing, laugh and cry for joy, with rapturous delight.”

It was different for the French officers. Several had been on parole around Melrose, where the novelist Walter Scott had been hospitable to them: “Many of them,” Scott wrote, “companions of Buonaparte’s victories, and who hitherto have marched with him from conquest to conquest, disbelieve the change entirely.”

But the change was true. On 30 May the Peace of Paris restored France to the borders of 1792 (when the French Revolutionary Wars erupted), with slight adjustments. In June the allied sovereigns, Frederick William III of Prussia, Tsar Alexander of Russia and Metternich, the Austrian chancellor, with the heads of German states and several generals, paid a state visit to London. The whole route from Dover was illuminated, and the artist Thomas Sidney Cooper, then 10, remembered flags hung across the streets in Canterbury and how the wounded soldiers following the procession “were treated and cheered by the populace, who smoked and drank with them; and the city was kept in a state of conviviality and uproar until midnight”.

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A c1819 painting shows Chelsea Pensioners receiving tidings of the victory at Waterloo. The news would be music to a war-weary nation’s ears. (Bridgeman)

Green pantaloons

In London, windows along the route were let for huge sums, bakers ran out of bread and the cows in Hyde Park were spooked by the cheers, and produced no milk. When a grand ball was held at Burlington House, Betsey Fremantle, the young wife of a naval commander, gasped at the splendour: “The rooms were brilliant, and looked like a fairy palace… 2,000 people set down without any inconvenience or confusion. I stayed till seven o’clock in the morning and met almost everybody I know in London.”

This was rivalled by a masquerade at Watier’s, to which Byron went dressed as a monk, while politician Cam Hobhouse put on Byron’s Albanian robes and Lady Caroline Lamb appeared in mask and domino, flashing her green pantaloons.

All spring and summer, across the country there were tables in the streets, sports and dancing on the green. In Oldham, wrote the weaver William Rowbottom, “the different manufacturers gave dinners and ale to their respective work people who paraded the streets with musick and flags with different devices. A pair of looms were drawn in a cart where a person was weaving callico and a person representing Bonaparte was winding… ale &c flowed in the greatest profusion.”

Every town had such stories. Bury St Edmunds held a feast for 4,000 poor people from 20 miles around: “The whole of the meat was prepared a day or two before & of course was designed to be cold,” explained James Oakes, “the plum puddings hot. The tables were set all thro the butter market, on the beest market & round the theatre.”

In Gainsborough there was “a grand emblematical procession” including an effigy of the fallen emperor labelled ‘Going to Elba’. In the small Devon town of Ashburton, parole prisoners joined local guilds in a parade with “Fifty flower girls, haymakers and agriculturalists, woollen manufacturers”, ending with “Britannia in triumphal car drawn by four horses abreast”.

Not everyone enjoyed the celebrations. The journalist William Cobbett saw them as a form of hysteria and thundered against the balls and processions, “from the solemn and gawdy buffoonery of the freemasons down to the little ragged children at the Lancashire schools… Upwards of 2,000 oxen were roasted whole and upwards of 2,000 sheep. One boundless scene of extravagance and waste, and idleness and dissipation pervaded the whole kingdome, and the people appeared to be all raving drunk, all raving mad.”

All too soon, however, they were sober again. As winter closed in, hunger stalked the poor. In the new year, while delegates to the Congress of Vienna waited to formalise the terms of the peace, unemployed soldiers haunted British roads. The farmers, who had made big profits during the war, worried as the price of corn fell. In March 1815, during the final stages of a bill to ban imports when the home price of wheat fell below 80 shillings a quarter, mobs gathered outside ministers’ houses, tearing down railings and scrawling ‘Bread or Blood’ on the walls.

At the same time, on Friday 10 March, James Oakes of Bury St Edmunds wrote a worried entry in his diary. “This morning by mail the acct came of Bonaparte’s making good his landing in France with 10 or 12,000 men.” After slipping away from Elba, Napoleon had landed 10 days earlier near Antibes, with 600 men. Suddenly the national mood swung back towards panic. Every day there were new and contradictory reports: that Napoleon had reached Lyons and most of the army and navy had defected to him; that his troops were deserting, “& great hopes were entertaind there Bonaparte would be surrounded & brot a prisoner, dead or alive, to Paris”, scribbled Oakes. But on Good Friday, the 24th, he wrote solemnly: “The London papers this morning announced the arrival of Bonaparte at Paris on Monday last, 20th Inst, without opposition. Not a gun fired.” Napoleon was back in power.

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This caricature shows Napoleon – now in exile on the Atlantic island of St Helena – before and after  his fall from power. By the time of his final defeat at Waterloo, the Corsican had haunted Britons’ nightmares for over a decade. (Bridgeman)
 

Mary Hutchinson, from her family’s farm in Radnorshire, wrote to her relative Tom, that they had sent to town to find a newspaper “to satisfy us on the report we have had of B. having entered Paris. It was terrible not to have a paper, at such a time as this when we are all anxiety – we have not had one since the 13th and therefore are in utter darkness probably made more gloomy by reports which are afloat in the neighbourhood… What can these wise emperors & kings think of themselves now, for giving such a tyranny an opportunity of once more bringing misery upon the world when they had it in them to destroy him.”

More than half the farmers, she thought, who “think of themselves alone and look no further than the present would be most happy to have war again”. But most people were full of dismay, foreseeing more taxes, more hardship, more deaths.

Soldiers like Benjamin Harris were hauled back to their regiments: 30,000 troops converged on Canterbury and marched to Deal, to board ships waiting in the Downs.

For the next two months, the British public tried to keep track of the fighting in Flanders and around the Rhine. Spring passed and June was fine and hot. The haymaking began and the London elite got ready to leave for the country. Then, around 19 June, rumours began to spread in the city from Channel couriers of three days of fighting around Waterloo, south of Brussels.

Late on 21 June, Wellington’s exhausted aide, Henry Percy, arrived in London. Next morning the Morning Chronicle declared “TOTAL DEFEAT OF BONAPARTE: We stop the press to announce the most brilliant and complete victory ever obtained by the Duke of Wellington and which will forever exalt the glory of the British name.”

Scene of carnage

But while the public illuminations were grander than ever, letters home from soldiers were sad and grim – “how anyone escaped alive out that scene of carnage is strange,” wrote James Stanhope of the Foot Guards. Over the coming months hundreds of British visitors toured the battlefield, bringing back trophies – a button, a bullet, a letter, a skull.

The papers reported that Bonaparte had dashed back to Paris to raise a new army. But at Rochefort on 15 July, he surrendered to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon. When the ship anchored in Torbay and then in Plymouth, crowds packed the shore or rowed out to see him. Sailors hung out placards saying that Bonaparte was at breakfast, or in his cabin.

On one of these was General George Dyer of the marines, who noted every detail, from Napoleon’s white pantaloons to his thinning hair and “fix’d steady look.

“When I reflected on the wonderful events that had taken place,” he wrote, “I could scarcely believe [while looking at Bonaparte] that I actually saw this man who had caused so much blood to be spilt and so much misery to all Europe and that he was at the moment a prisoner in a British man of war, in an English port – But alas! How inscrutable are the ways of Providence.”

Ten days later, on Friday 11 August 1815, Napoleon sailed on the Northumberland to his final banishment on St Helena. In Britain there were hard years ahead, but for the moment – after the exhilaration of 1814, the panic at Napoleon’s return, and the emotions aroused by Waterloo – the whole nation shared Dyer’s dazed astonishment that, finally, the long war was over.

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Jenny Uglow is an award-winning historian and biographer. Her book In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793–1815 was published by Faber & Faber.