Saturday, 3 September 2011

Marlborough and Napoleon - another Gift from the Emperor?

Histoire de Jean Churchill, Duc de Marlborough

These three volumes, a French biography of the great Duke of Marlborough,

published under the Imperial insignia in Paris in the year XIII (1805), beautifully bound and in near perfect condition, are to be found in the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

This would not merit a mention but for a handwritten inscription inside the cover of volume I :
This Book was sent as a present to my Father about the year 1809 or 1810 by the Emperor Napoleon another copy was sent at the same time to the Prince Regent & a third to the then Duke of Marlborough

This inscription was apparently dated 13th August 1852, and signed by Earl Spencer. If my inference is correct then the signature is that of the 4th Earl, Frederick Spencer (1798-1857), the great great grandfather of Diana Princess of Wales. His father to whom the gift was purportedly sent was the 2nd Earl, George John Spencer (1758-1834), brother of Lady Georgiana, famous Duchess of Devonshire and mother of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, whose links with the Bonapartes have been covered elsewhere. What complicated family ties these Whig families had!

The 2nd Earl Spencer was a great collector of books, and accumulated the "greatest private library in the world" according to the Althorp Hall website. Towards the end of the nineteenth century one of his descendants sold this 40,000 volume library to Mrs Rylands, the creator of the library named after her husband in industrial Manchester, and there it remains.

Apart from the Prince Regent, the other recipient of the biography would have been the 4th Duke of Marlborough, George Spencer (1739-1817). Curiously it was the 4th Duke's youngest brother, Lord Robert Spencer (1747 –1831), who later sent Coxe's Life of Marlborough to Napoleon on St Helena.(1) My impression from a visit to Blenheim some time ago is that members of the Marlborough family had a reciprocal interest in Napoleon; this was certainly the case of its most famous son, Sir Winston Curchill.

My efforts to find out whether copies of the 1805 French biography of Marlborough now reside at Blenheim and in the Royal Library, have so far met with no success. Without some corroboration one cannot be certain that the inscription in the Manchester book is accurate. One can see why Napoleon might have sought to cultivate leading Whig families who were out of office and were generally critical of Britain's wars on the continent, not least because they resented being taxed to pay for them. The same applies to the Prince Regent who was close to the Whigs at this time. It is possible of course that the inscription is simply repeating a family legend which had been embroidered a little in the retelling.

It seems probable though that Napoleon, who had great respect for Marlborough, took a close interest in the production of this biography, which was published not long after his coronation as Emperor. In the John Rylands Library there is also a much inferior 1808 edition (the revolutionary calendar abandoned), now losing its binding and held together with tape. Inside its front cover is a barely legible handwritten French inscription indicating that the book was printed "by order of Napoleon".

The first page of the preface to the biography is in this regard worth consideration:
A great man belongs to all peoples and to all centuries; he is, if I dare express myself thus, a masterpiece of human nature, similar to a masterpiece of art, offering a model to imitate in all times and in all places. His life is a public patrimony, a treasure where each has the right to come and draw light, wisdom, magnanimous sentiments, and the love of everything which can ennoble humanity. It becomes precious for all generations, through memories useful to the instructor who teaches, to the army general who commands, and to the man of affairs who governs.

Is the author talking about Napoleon or Marlborough one wonders? I don't think there is much doubt that this is how Napoleon hoped he too would be remembered.

My thanks to the University of Manchester for permission to publish the images taken from the collection in the John Rylands Library .
1. On his death bed Napoleon gave the three volume Coxe's Life of Marlborough to the 20th Foot Regiment. An account of this, and the problems the gift caused have already been covered in my blog on the Fusilier Museum. It is curious that two biographies of Marlborough, both associated with Napoleon, are now to be found in Greater Manchester.