The real history behind ‘Poldark’ series three: episode three

In the third instalment of a new Poldark series for History Extra, historian Hannah Greig explores the bigger historical picture as Ross visits Republican France

Ross Poldark travels to Republican France in the latest episode of the BBC drama. France was a 'brutal and dangerous' place to be at the time, says historian Hannah Greig. (BBC/Mammoth Screen)

Did you miss the history behind episode two? Read it here.

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As the third series of Poldark continues, we leave the Cornish coast for foreign shores. Episode three takes Ross on a treacherous journey to France. Having sailed south from Cornwall, he lands at the coastal port of Roscoff in northern Brittany in order to launch a search for his missing friend Doctor Enys. It is 1794 and a hunt for a quiet holiday home is out of the question: late 18th-century France was at war with Britain, and it was a brutal and dangerous place to be.

The French Revolution of 1789 had led to the removal and eventual execution of the country’s monarchy and the establishment of a new French republic.

In its early months, the French revolutionary movement had been broadly welcomed in Britain. It was regarded as modernising French politics and bringing the French constitution more into line with the parliamentary system that operated in Britain. However, as the revolution became ever more bloody and extreme, British popular and political support waned, to be replaced by fear of a neighbour that looked increasingly chaotic, violent and out of control.

In the years after the revolution – a period often called the ‘Reign of Terror’ – many thousands of ordinary French people were accused of counter-revolutionary activity and executed by guillotines placed in town squares. France’s aggressive campaigns also extended beyond its own population, as the French army marched across European borders. The country had declared war in Britain in 1793 and the British army and navy fought hard to protect vital trade routes as well as defend borders against possible invasion.

Doctor Dwight Enys, who finds himself lost in Republican France. (Mammoth Screen/BBC)
Doctor Dwight Enys, who finds himself lost in Republican France. (Mammoth Screen/BBC)

This, then, is the tumultuous France that Ross is visiting, in the hope of discovering the fate of his friend Doctor Dwight Enys, who he believes has been captured and imprisoned following a sea battle. It is a risky trip; France poses many dangers, as does Mariette – a beautiful but radicalised “citoyenne” (female French citizen) determined to defend the Republic.

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Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark.