Sunday, 22 February 2015

Napoleon On Elba: "He is quite forgotten -- as much as if he never existed."



Napoleon Bonaparte leaving Elba, 26 February 1815. Joseph Beaume 1836

Almost 200 years ago, on 26th February 1815, Napoleon and his supporters left Elba, bound for France, where he was to regain the throne without a shot being fired. The breaking of the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau by the great powers was in his eyes justification enough for his return.

The departure was witnessed by an English visitor, Henry Grattan, the son of a prominent Irish politician, who had been told by a servant that Napoleon and his troops were about to leave for Italy. **

At 7 p.m. the troops marched out of the fortifications without music or noise, and embarked at the health-office in feluccas and boats which were alongside, a part of them being transported to the brig which lay in the harbour.

At 9 p.m. Napoleon with General Bertrand passed out in the Princess Pauline's small carriage drawn by four horses, embarked at the health-office in a boat, and went on board the brig 'L'Inconstant.' Immediately afterwards the whole flotilla got under weigh with sweeps and boats, the soldiers crying out 'Vive l'Empereur!'(1)

Somewhat surprised at being a witness to this celebrated moment of history, Grattan hired a boat to go out to 'L'Inconstant' where Napoleon was pacing the quarter-deck in his greatcoat. Questioned by one of the officers on board, after being told that he was English, Grattan said he had come merely to see the Emperor; upon which he was ordered to go away. This he immediately complied with, for he expected every moment to be fired or seized (2).

In Florence, about 10 days before Napoleon's departure, Sir Neil Campbell, the British Commissioner on Elba, raised his fears that Napoleon might leave with Edward Cooke, the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. He told him of the concerns that were unsettling Napoleon, his family and his closest companions: the money that had been promised and never paid, rumours about the actions of the Congress of Vienna and concerns about the intentions of the Empress Marie Louise.

Cooke's sarcastic reply alleviated Cambell's concerns or so he claimed:

You may tell him that everything is amicably settled at Vienna; that he has no chance; that the Sovereigns wil not quarrel. Nobody thinks of him at all. He is quite forgotten -- as much as if he never existed! (3)

We do not know when Napoleon decided to leave Elba or whether he would ever have been reconciled to staying there. It is clear though that, aside from the situation in France where the Bourbons, propped up by the British Government with the hated and nearly assassinated Duke of Wellington as Ambassador, had made as much of a mess of things as Napoleon had anticipated, there were three major factors which contributed to his decision or at least made it easier.

Firstly was the failure of Marie Louise and his son to join him on Elba. The last letter he received from her was dated August 10th, and said that although she had promised to join him her father had insisted that she returned to Vienna. He wrote a last letter to her on August 28th, I long to see you and also my son and ended Adieu ma bonne Louise. Tout à toit. Ton Nap.(4) Soon thereafter she began a relationship with Count von Neipperg, with whom she was to bear three children.

In December Napoleon discussed with Campbell the rumour that the Austrians were seeking to annul his marriage to Marie Louise and aired his sense of injustice over the behaviour of his father in law:

"She had promised to write to him every day upon her return from Switzerland to Vienna, but he had never since received one letter from her. His child was taken from him like the children taken by conquerors in ancient times to grace their triumphs. The Emperor ought to recollect how differently he had acted towards him when he was entirely at his mercy .. He had twice entered Vienna as a conqueror, but never exercised towards the Emperor such ungenerous conduct." (5)

The second issue was that of funds. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau it was agreed that Napoleon should receive 2.5 million francs per annum from the French Government. Not a penny was ever paid, and Napoleon was too proud to ask for it. Campbell raised this a number of times:

If pecuniary difficulties press upon him much longer, so as to prevent his vanity from being satisfied by the ridiculous establishment of a court which he has hitherto supported in Elba, and if his doubts are not removed, I think he is capable of crossing over to Piombino with his troops, or of any other eccentricity. But if his residence in Elba and his income are secured to him, I think he will pass the rest of his life there in tranquility. (6)

The third and perhaps most important issue concerned the rumour that he was going to be moved to St. Helena or St. Lucia. As early as July 1814 the Morning Post carried a report that Napoleon had been seized on Elba and transported to Malta or St. Helena, and this false story was repeated in a number of British provincial papers. More significant though, on October 19th the Courier, mouthpiece of the Tory Administration, had run a story that Napoleon was to be sent to St Helena. This rumour apparently spread across Italy and and had reached Elba at least by early November.(7) Madame Bertrand raised it with an English visitor in January, and Napoleon also discussed it with Campbell at around the same time. Campbell tried to reassure him, and said that he at least did not believe it.(8) In fact one of the first questions discussed at the Congress of Vienna in September was precisely this, all the powers were concerned that the presence of Napoleon so close to the continent exacerbated problems in France and Italy.(9) The King of France was apparently ready to pay Napoleon the sum owed, and more, if he went to the Azores!

On Christmas Eve 1814 Napoleon was visited by the future Prime Minister Lord John Russell, one of a number of Whigs who found their way to Elba. Russell reported that Napoleon seemed very agitated.(10) At the end of December though Campbell thought he detected a change in Napoleon's mood:

Napoleon's spirits seem of late rather to rise than to yield in the smallest degree to the pressure of pecuniary difficulties; although his mother, and some of the principal persons who have followed his fortune, are constantly absorbed in grief and effusions of discontent. They place their last hope for amelioration in the Congress, the members of which, they expect, will fix the regular payment of Napoleon's annuity, according to treaty. They appear also to entertain sanguine hopes that Mary-Louise will reside at Parma as sovereign, and even that she will come to Elba after the Congress is dissolved. (11)

Clearly there is much that we don't know about Napoleon's decision to gamble everything on a return to France. Few expected that he would be able to ascend the throne of France so easily. His own expectations are unknown, he appears to have confided in nobody. What does seem clear though is that from his point of view it was a gamble worth taking: his future as Emperor of the Lilliputian Kingdom of Elba was uncertain, to say the least. Norman Mackenzie neatly summarised his position:

If he stayed on Elba, even for a few more months, he was finished. At best he might be offered a bribe to take himself off to some final place of exile, and at worst he might be transported, imprisoned in a fortress, or killed defending himself.(12)

Quite simply he had nothing to lose. He was in a trap.

His attempt to break out caused an explosion of rumour on the continent. Britain's allies were inclined to pin the blame on Perfidious Albion, whose motives were variously seen as allowing him to escape with a view to having an excuse to treat him more severely, or in ruling circles in France as a manoeuvre designed to cause civil war and therefore to weaken the country further. (13) This latter interpretation was shared by the radical William Cobbett in his 1830 History of the Regency and Reign of King George the Fourth. There is I think no evidence to support this conspiracy theory, although the weakening of France was the result and indeed the intent of British policy over twenty years of war: never again was France to be in a position to exert hegemony on the continent of Europe and for the time at least, Britain reigned supreme.

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** See comments below. The Mr Grattan who witnessed Napoleon's departure may have been Henry's brother James.

1. Major-General Sir Neil Campbell Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba Being A Journal of Occurrences in 1814-1815 (London 1869) pp 372-3.
2. ibid.
3. Campbell pp 362-3
4. Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London 2014) p. 724.
5. Campbell op. cit. p. 327.
6. Despatch No 34 to Castlereagh, Campbell op. cit. p. 319
7. Campbell op. cit. p. 349. In the same interview Napoleon expressed his concern that the Bourbons were planning to assassinate him.
8. Campbell p. 318-9.
9. Sir Charles Webster, The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815 (first published by the Foreign Office 1819, 1950 edition) p. 136
10. Katherine MacDonagh,"A Sympathetic Ear: Napoleon, Elba and the British", History Today, (1994), VOL. 44
11. Campbell p. 349.
12. Norman Mackenzie, The Escape from Elba, The Fall and Flight of Napoleon 1814-1815 (Pen and Sword edition, 2007) p. 188
13. Katherine MacDonagh "A Sympathethetic Ear .."

Thursday, 1 January 2015

July 1879, A Great Victorian Spectacle: The Funeral of the Prince Imperial


Prince Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte (1856-1879)

Little is now remembered of Napoleon IV, but his premature death rocked Victorian England and led to a remarkable outpouring of public sympathy. The Illustrated London News felt it important enough to merit a special edition.

The Prince Imperial's body being transported back to England

Prince Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial came to live in England in 1870 after his father Napoleon III was overthrown following defeat and capture by Prussia at the battle of Sedan. The young Prince's mother Princess Eugenie had to flee from the Paris Commune, and joined him in a hotel in Hastings. They then settled in Chislehurst where Napoleon III joined them six months later when he was freed by the Prussians.

In the summer of 1872 the young prince was admitted to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. After the death of his father in January 1873 he technically became Napoleon IV, although he never used the title himself. In 1879 he went out with the British Army to South Africa to act as an observer in the Zulu War. Despite the efforts of the British military, under strict orders to shield him from danger, a reconnaissance party he had joined was ambushed by a group of Zulu warriors and he was killed.

Painting by Paul Jamin portraying death of Prince Imperial in South Africa

The Prince Imperial's death was both tragic and highly embarrassing, particularly to Queen Victoria, by origin a German princess whose sympathies with the newly unified and triumphant Germany were well known, and who against the wishes of the young man's mother and against the advice of her Prime Minister had given the young prince permission to go to South Africa.

The Prince's body was transported back to England, and his funeral took place in a small Catholic church in Chislehurst in July 1879. The procession was witnessed by some 40,000 people. It must have been one of the largest seen in Victorian England.

This was an extraordinary event, or at least so it seems to modern eyes: the funeral of a 23 year old prince from a parvenu and twice ousted French dynasty, attended by royalty, representatives of the Cabinet, foreign dignitaries, members of the Catholic hierarchy and British military top brass.

The Catholic journal, The Tablet, waxed lyrical:

When it is said that seven batteries of the Royal Horse and Royal Artillery, with both their bands, mounted and unmounted, and that the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, all took part in the procession, it may easily be imagined that for one hour it slowly defiled along. The boom of the minute guns and the tolling of the church bells were all, save the mournful music, that broke the silence of the scene. Sorrow sat on the faces of all the crowd, who, grieving for the dead, mourned still more for his Imperial mother, for they recalled "that he was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow."(1)

Queen Victoria herself was in attendance, having previously made the tearful journey to Chislehurst to comfort Princess Eugenie. Victoria was fascinated by death, but royal protocol prevented her from attending the funerals of mere commoners, but this was different.

What is more the Prince Imperial was apparently her godson, although she had not actually attended the christening at Notre Dame in 1856, but had been represented by Josephine, Queen Consort of Sweden and Norway. The granddaughter of the Empress Josephine, a Catholic monarch in a Lutheran country, representing the Protestant grandmother of the future Kaiser Wilhelm II at a Catholic funeral in France: what a strange cosmopolitan world nineteenth century Royalty inhabited!

Royal pall Bearers at funeral of Prince Imperial

The Tablet emphasized the Royal connections:

The Prince of Wales wears the uniform of the Norfolk Artillery Militia, the Duke of Edinburgh that of the Scottish capital from which he takes his title, the Duke of Connaught of the Isle of Wight Artillery. The Duke of Cambridge wears the uniform of a Field Marshal; Prince Leopold that of an Elder Brother of the Trinity House, and the Crown Prince of Sweden, the great grandson of Bernadotte, the white tunic and quaint brass helmet of the cavalry of the Swedish Guards. In front of the carriage two artillerymen support an enormous wreath of violets, the offering of the City of Paris; on the Union Jack which totally covers the coffin lies a gilt laurel wreath placed there by the kindly hand of the Queen herself, and a violet cross formed of porcelain, the tribute of the Princess Beatrice. (1)

In the funeral procession was an unidentified old man who apparently had been present at the funeral of Napoleon I on St. Helena and more recently at the funeral of Napoleon III. Among the members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who attended was a Catholic Bishop, Monseigneur Las Cases, formerly Bishop of Constantine in Algeria, and a relative of the author of the Memorial de Ste. Helene.

There was of course a full turnout of the Bonaparte family and their supporters, including actress Sarah Bernhardt, the slight figure in deep mourning, amongst a group of brother and sister artistes of the Comedie Francaise. Among all the floral tributes was an enormous wreath of bay leaves, carried with difficulty by five men. This came from Ajaccio, in Corsica, from the cradle of the first to lie at the tomb of the last of the Napoleons (2).

There were two memorials to the Prince Imperial in Chislehurst, where he was apparently much loved. The main memorial bears words taken from his will:

I shall die with a sentiment of profound gratitude to Her Majesty the Queen of England and all the Royal Family, and for the country where I have received for eight years such cordial hospitality
There is more surprisingly another in the chapel at Windsor.

Monument to the Prince Imperial (Napoleon IV), Chapel of St. George, Windsor Castle, 1881

This was initially suggested by the Dean of Westminster, but the British establishment felt that a memorial to a member of an exiled French dynasty ought not to appear in Westminster Abbey, and that it should more appropriately be located at Windsor to show the personal and private affection of the Royal Family towards the Prince Imperial. (3)

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1. The Tablet

2. The Tablet, op. cit.

3. Chapel Archives and Chapter Library, Windsor

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Images of Napoleon


Finding Napoleon Face to Face from Margaret Rodenberg on Vimeo.

Margaret Rodenberg and her husband Bert have put together this collection of 70 or so images of Napoleon, including an American impersonator who looks quite like him. I thought it was an interesting idea, and Margaret has kindly given me permission to put it on my blog.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Dr Archibald Arnott, Kirkconnel Hall and Salix Babylonica


Kirkconnel Hall, family home of the Arnott family (1838 and 1870)

On a recent visit to Scotland I decided to pull off the A74 and have a look at Kirkconnel Hall, the home of Dr Archibald Arnott (1772-1855), Surgeon of the 20th Regiment of Foot and the last doctor to attend Napoleon on St Helena.

Arnott was born in an older house which once stood on this site, and after his retirement he had it demolished and completed the relatively modest two-storey house to the right around 1838. It is now somewhat overshadowed by the larger three-storey building to the left.

Two-storey house built by Dr Arnott around 1838

Dr Arnott lived in his new house until his death and is buried in the nearby Ecclefechan churchyard, with the following inscription on his tombstone:

At St. Helena he was the medical attendant of Napoleon Bonaparte whose esteem he won and whose last moments he soothed.

The hall iself is now a hotel, and pictures either side of the fireplace in reception remind the visitor of its historical associations.

To the left a picture of Napoleon, to the right Dr Arnott

And on the mantelpiece, almost hidden by unrelated bric a brac, is to be found a plate bearing an easily recognised image.

A Plate bearing an image of Napoleon on mantelpiece

Curiously the current owner has created a corner dedicated to his own hero Winston Churchill. He was not aware of Churchill's admiration for Napoleon.

Churchill memorabilia, to the left plans of the house Arnott built

Perhaps most interesting of all is the willow tree to be found in the grounds of the hotel. This is claimed to have been grown from a cutting brought back from St Helena by Dr Arnott, of the famous willow that once grew on the site of Napoleon's grave.

Salix Babylonica in the grounds of Kirkconnel Hall

Apparently the original was destroyed when the A74 was upgraded in 1992, and the current tree was grown from a cutting taken from it.

Whilst I was in Scotland my friend John Grimshaw was on the other side of the world, photographing a tree in Sydney Botanical Gardens that is also claimed to descend from the famous St Helena willow.

Monday, 13 October 2014

"The pocket-sized Emperor" - letter to the Observer

letter to The Observer October 12th 2014

I cannot remember when I last wrote to newspaper, but a review of Andrew Roberts' recent biography of Napoleon moved me to do so. The propaganda about Napoleon's height, now some two centuries old, was discussed in Finding Napoleon almost a year ago. I imagine that Napoleon would be at least as surprised to find that his stature gave rise to a complex named after him as he was on St Helena to find that the English inappropriately nicknamed him "boney".

Anyway an uncharacteristically and perhaps appropriately short post from me on this occasion.