Napoleon’s planned invasion of England: what went wrong?

On 2 December 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France, and his imperial ambitions extended to the islands across the Channel. Nicholas Best explains how Napoleon intended to invade Britain, and what Britain planned to do to stop him.

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and later became emperor of France. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Napoleon’s coronation took place in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, on 2 December 1804. Clad from head to toe in satin and diamonds, he marched up the aisle, wearing high-heeled shoes and carrying the sceptre of Charlemagne in his right hand.

Advertisement

He was received by the Pope, who had travelled from Rome for the enthronement. In a ceremony that was partly religious but mostly secular, Napoleon was crowned with a diadem of gold laurel leaves designed to make him look like a Roman emperor. He placed the crown firmly on his own head at the climax of the proceedings, rather than receive it from the Catholic Church, as custom demanded. The Pope looked on with barely suppressed disapproval.

Afterwards, Napoleon and his wife Josephine emerged from Notre-Dame to a mixed reception from the crowds lining the streets for the procession. Whatever his military achievements, Napoleon was far from popular with the ordinary people of Paris.

They enjoyed the spectacle of the coronation – all the fireworks and illuminations – but they had little real enthusiasm for Napoleon himself, as he sourly noted. If anything, they preferred his wife.

It was a critical time for Napoleon. He had been declared emperor in May as a “sure means of establishing peace and quiet in France”. Despite the horrors of the French Revolution, the country was still monarchist at heart and had grown weary of the constant plots against its head of state.

By making Napoleon emperor and guaranteeing the succession to his heirs, the French were hoping to put an end to the attempts on his life and secure the continuity and stability of the new regime. But there were still plenty of people in France who preferred a return of the Bourbons to the promotion of this Corsican upstart.

Napoleon’s chance: why the French Revolution was Bonaparte’s big break

The ending of privilege in France gave the young Napoleon the opportunity to shine in his military career, says Marisa Linton, but what really allowed him to rise to the top was his astute exploitation of the political instability and years of war that followed the French Revolution…

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789, as depicted by artist Charles Thévenin

The flames of discontent were vigorously fanned by the British, who saw Napoleon as a threat to world order. Convinced that he was using the Peace of Amiens as a breathing space in his quest for domination of Europe, the British had declared war again in May 1803, before Napoleon could complete the build-up of his armed forces. Their aim now was to topple him by any legitimate means possible.

They baulked at assassinating a foreign head of state, but were quite happy to finance Napoleon’s overthrow by his own people, if it could be arranged. Large supplies of gold coin were stored at Walmer Castle, Kent, for the purpose. The money was shipped across to France at night, along with a constant stream of spies and agents provocateurs seeking to bring an end to Napoleon’s rule.

The traffic was so intense that Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, had lodged a formal protest, accusing the British of interfering in France’s internal affairs. The British had huffed and puffed, but had been unable to deny this diplomatic faux pas. “It is an acknowledged Right of Belligerent Powers to avail themselves of any discontents existing in the countries with which they happen to be at war,” they had claimed in response.

The French in turn had decided that the quickest way to end the war was to invade Britain before the British could effect an alliance with Russia and Austria. Once the British had been subdued, there would be no alliance and Napoleon would be free to concentrate on his ambitions in Italy, Egypt, Turkey and northern Europe. He coveted Britain’s imperial possessions as well – the sugar islands of the West Indies and the seemingly bottomless resources of India. His aim was for France to supplant Britain as the richest and most powerful trading nation on Earth, with himself at the country’s head.

He saw himself as another Charlemagne, moulding all of western Europe into a new Frankish empire. There would be little to stop him, once the British were out of the way.

Napoleon’s Grand Army

Napoleon began to assemble his invasion force immediately after the resumption of the war in 1803. Later to be renamed the Grand Army, it was known initially as the Army of England and at its peak numbered perhaps 167,000 men – an astonishing figure in the days when the logistics of maintaining a large force were far more formidable than now. Most were housed in camps specially built along the cliff tops between Calais and Boulogne, with a perfect view of England in clear weather.

The troops looking across the Channel were the elite of the French army, carefully selected for the task ahead. Almost all the officers had seen active service in Italy, Egypt and other campaigns. So had more than half the men. With commanders as distinguished as Ney, Soult and Davout, there had never been an army like it in modern times.

“I do not believe,” wrote one of their junior officers, “that there existed at any period, nor in any country, such an excellent military school as there was at the Boulogne camp. The general who had command of it, the generals under his orders, and the troops which it comprised were all drafted from the pick of the French army, and the greatest general that had ever appeared, Napoleon Bonaparte, used to come himself frequently to inspect those old troops and the young fighting men who were being formed under those excellent models”.

Napoleon’s ‘bat hat’ and more: his life in 10 objects

Two hundred years after his death, Nicole Cochrane and Emma Butcher examine 10 objects that offer us a fresh perspective on the French emperor

One of Napoleon’s bicorne hats

The new emperor knew exactly what he would do when his men had captured London. Napoleon claimed: “With God’s help I will put an end to the future and very existence of England.”

King George would be overthrown and a republic proclaimed, with liberty, equality and fraternity for all. The nobility would be abolished and their lands and fine houses would be confiscated.

The House of Lords would be abolished as well. The House of Commons would be allowed to remain, but only after major reform. There would be democracy for all and a redistribution of property in favour of the ordinary working man. A proclamation was to be issued, announcing that the French came as friends, to restore popular government and liberate common people from a corrupt aristocracy.

Before any of that could be done however, Napoleon had to get his troops across the Channel. They practised the invasion repeatedly on nearby beaches, storming ashore from their landing craft to seize the cliffs of Boulogne. Sometimes they came ashore under gunfire from their own batteries, to give them a taste of what the real thing would be like.

For the younger soldiers, these live-firing exercises were often all too realistic: “During a practice attack, I sniffed the scent of powder for the first time and received my baptism of fire. I hate to admit it, but I was really frightened! The terrible reality of danger, the brutality of cannon balls, bullets flying, corpses lying around would make any recruit’s heart beat faster. But we soon got used to it. A searching look from the veterans, a scornful smile, above all the fear of ridicule, banished all nervousness and we ended up encouraging danger”.

Britain will be mine, all mine

Napoleon oversaw the training from a wooden pavilion that had been built for him at Boulogne, on the cliff next to the telegraph station. The pavilion contained a four foot telescope on a mahogany tripod, pointing towards Dover. On clear days, Napoleon liked to look across the sea to the castle, muttering to himself that England would be his with a few hours of calm weather.

It was in the pavilion that his admirals tried to explain the difficulties of the invasion to him. Napoleon had assembled a flotilla of more than 2,000 vessels for the crossing, but they were crammed so tight into the Channel ports that it would be impossible to launch them all on one tide. It would need several days of calm weather to get all the ships to sea, by which time the Royal Navy would certainly have launched a counter-attack. There were sandbanks to negotiate as well, and treacherous currents off the English coast. The flotilla’s flat-bottomed barges were ideal for running troops ashore, but highly unsafe for a Channel crossing. They would be swamped in even the lightest of swells, and thousands would drown. The whole operation was fraught with difficulties that Napoleon, a soldier rather than a sailor, had not properly considered when he drew up his plans.

But he was determined to invade, whatever the problems might be. He would not have a free hand in the rest of Europe until the British had been eliminated. The British knew it and stepped up their espionage as Napoleon’s activities gathered pace. In June 1804 alone, eight smartly dressed Englishmen had been captured at Boulogne, carrying incendiary devices to set fire to the flotilla. They were shot within the hour.

The men were followed by another Englishman who was searched in front of Napoleon himself and found to have a map sewn into his clothes. The map showed all the latest Boulogne fortifications, including Napoleon’s pavilion on the cliff. “All right,” the man admitted, as the French ripped the lining of his waistcoat. “The game’s up. There’s 20 guineas gone.”

Boldest of all was the beautiful English blonde who presented herself to Napoleon’s staff one day, insisting that she had a message for the emperor’s ears alone. She was almost certainly a spy, hoping to get secrets out of him in bed, but Napoleon saw her anyway, granting her an audience in his pavilion. He fended off her advances and sent her away empty-handed.

With the flotilla assembled and the army ready to go, the only remaining obstacle to the invasion was the Royal Navy, which maintained a constant blockade of the Channel ports.

In spring 1805, Napoleon devised a plan to lure the navy away by sending Admiral Villeneuve and a large Franco-Spanish fleet to attack British interests in the West Indies. He reasoned that the Royal Navy would have to abandon its blockade and follow, rather than see Britain’s sugar islands captured by the French.

He himself added to the deception by embarking on a tour of Italy to lull the British into a false sense of security. He returned secretly in July and headed back to Boulogne on 3 August to launch the invasion – only to discover the Royal Navy blockade still in place.

Undaunted, Napoleon pinned his hopes on Villeneuve’s return from the West Indies. At 3am on 21 August, apparently under the impression that Villeneuve’s fleet would appear with the dawn to protect his flotilla from the Royal Navy, Napoleon gave the order for the invasion to proceed.

His step-daughter Hortense was at a military ball when word came for officers to rejoin their units at once and embark the landing craft. She followed as they galloped through the night to Boulogne. “I myself felt overcome with an inexpressible emotion at the idea that such a momentous event was happening before my eyes. I already imagined that I was witnessing the naval battle and seeing our vessels plunge into the watery deep. I trembled at the thought.”

In the event though, Villeneuve’s ships did not appear at dawn and Napoleon cancelled the invasion, declaring that it had all just been a training exercise. His troops were outraged as they disembarked and trudged back to camp. Many had sold their watches so as to have spending money in London.

Fortune smiles on Britain

A few days later, Napoleon paraded his troops again and gave them some astonishing news. Alarmed at Napoleon’s annexation of territory during his Italian tour, and funded with English gold, the Austrians had declared war on France. They had invaded Bavaria, where they intended to link up with the Russian army and attack France across the Rhine.

Napoleon responded at once. Leaving 25,000 troops behind to keep the English guessing, he ordered the rest to march to the Rhine immediately. The Grand Army left within hours, hurrying across France at breakneck speed. They took the Austrians by surprise, defeating them first at Ulm, then decisively at the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon had intended to double back thereafter and renew his attack on Britain, but Villeneuve’s fleet had ceased to exist by then, destroyed at the battle of Trafalgar. Britain was safe from invasion, but Napoleon reigned supreme in Europe. The war dragged on for another ten years.

Britain was ill-prepared for an attack, had Napoleon landed 

Invasion seemed imminent to the British after the resumption of the war in 1803. The tents of Napoleon’s army were clearly visible along the cliffs between Calais and Boulogne, growing more numerous by the day. The army’s lights shone threateningly at night and its guns could sometimes be heard booming across the water. More than once, people in Dover and Folkestone packed their valuables and fled inland, convinced that the activity on the opposite shore heralded the beginning of the invasion.

The country was woefully ill-prepared for an attack. The navy was short of ships and the army thinly spread along an invasion coastline stretching from Yarmouth to Land’s End. Thousands of civilians had rushed to join the Militia or the Volunteers, but there weren’t enough uniforms for them at first, let alone weapons. “You must train yourselves to wield a pitch-fork, or a hedgestake, if you cannot procure a musquet”, they were advised instead.

The coast had few permanent defences either. Apart from Dover Castle and a couple of crumbling Tudor forts, Kent and Sussex had no military strong points. The defences were so weak that General Bonaparte and his army would almost certainly be in London within five days of coming ashore.

Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain: how the threat fizzled out

27 March 1802 | Unable to defeat each other after nine years of war, Britain and France agree an uneasy peace in the Treaty of Amiens

17 May 1803 | France continues to annex territory. Britain declares war again before the French complete their naval expansion

May 1804 | Pitt succeeds Addington as Britain’s prime minister and turns his attention to Napoleon’s gathering invasion forces

5 October 1804 | Spanish ships with bullion for Napoleon are waylaid by the Royal Navy with great loss of life; Spain declares war in December

2 December 1804 | Napoleon crowns himself at Notre Dame while the Pope looks on. Governments all across Europe are horrified

29 March 1805 | Admiral Villeneuve’s fleet leaves Toulon for the West Indies, hoping to lure the Royal Navy away from its defence of the English Channel

April 1805 | Napoleon begins a tour of north Italy, planning to lull the British into a false sense of security before returning secretly to Boulogne to launch an invasion

May 1805 | Napoleon annexes more Italian territory, forcing Russia and Austria into a military alliance with Britain as the only way to stop him

22 July 1805 | Villeneuve’s Franco-Spanish fleet returns from the West Indies, aiming for Boulogne. Intercepted by the Royal Navy, it retreats to Cadiz instead

August–December 1805 | Napoleon speeds his army across France as the Austrians invade Bavaria to attack France while the Grand Army is in Boulogne. The Austrians are routed at Austerlitz

21 October 1805 | Lord Nelson attacks Villeneuve’s fleet off Cape Trafalgar, south of Cadiz. Twenty enemy ships are destroyed. The remainder never fight again

The battle of Trafalgar, hour by hour: what happened and why did Britain win?

Admiral Nelson spent 10 months hunting the French fleet. Finally, as it left Cadiz, he had his chance to destroy forever Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain. Tim Clayton describes the dramatic clash between 60 warships when in October 1805 the two sides met at last…

A painting by Louis Philippe Crepin depicting the battle of Trafalgar, 1805. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Nicholas Best is an author and former literary critic for the Financial Times. His books include Trafalgar: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sea Battle in History

Advertisement

This article was first published in the December 2004 issue of BBC History Magazine