Thursday, 23 November 2017

Napoleon and British Song 1797-1822 - by Oskar Cox Jensen

Napoleon and British Song 1797-1822

This is an important and fascinating book which is packed with new insights into popular culture during the wars against France after 1797.

Early in the book Jensen makes a striking claim that is worth reproducing

The historical reality is that across the British Isles, both during and especially after the Napoleonic Wars, the eponymous Bonaparte was better loved and respected by the general populace than Wellington, Pitt or the Prince Regent

Castlereagh and Sidmouth might have been added to this pantheon of anti-heroes, and some might wonder at the inclusion of Wellington. His creation as a national rather than a partisan hero was in fact some decades away. In the years after Waterloo he was rarely represented in song as "purely good", and he remained a target of many of the populace through the Reform bill period and even into the times of the Chartists. The New Hunting song in praise of Fergus O'Connor singled out Wellington for attack but praised "brave Bonaparte ", "a man of sense". Napoleon was seen as representing social mobility, whereas Wellington was seen as the ungrateful persecutor of his own soldiers.

The book supports the view that despite its place in the western and especially the British imagination, because of the scale of the casualties Waterloo received muted celebration in 1815 amongst all classes. Napoleon's escape from Elba, his proclamations of peace and his association with liberal politics had tempered radical doubts about him and reinforced a negative view of the battle. Despite the triumphalist Loyalist propaganda, Waterloo was often represented as a tragedy, a slaughter, and even a crime.

The endurance of British songs about Napoleon has been well known for some time, and Jensen confirms that not a single song collected from either a broadside or an oral source after 1815 speaks ill of Napoleon. This suggests the ultimate failure of all the Loyalist propaganda in demonising Napoleon in the popular imagination, and a failure in inculcating a sense of identity with the state and against the French.

In this respect Jensen is clearly at odds with the work of Linda Colley and others who have portrayed the wars as uniting the British people against the Corsican Ogre and Catholic France. Jensen reminds us of the reality of the relationship of the mass of the people to the British state: the press gang, enclosure, transportation and Pitt's "terror".

The book also stresses the importance of localism, which has been a neglected aspect of our national story. Britain in 1815 as for many decades later, consisted of a myriad of highly localised cultures. In conservative areas in Ireland, Napoleon was "the latest incarnation of the saviour across the water", in many areas there was great hostility to the militia, in some areas, especially the North East, the press gang was a major source of disaffection, in other areas Luddism was strong, in some areas there was an identification with smugglers, in Newcastle and perhaps elsewhere there was an anti authoritarian, pre-enlightenment popular song culture into which songs about Napoleon were readily incorporated, and everywhere there was little enthusiasm for volunteering for the wars.

The book analyses the changing dialectic between Loyalist propaganda and oppositional songs, and suggests that propaganda helped to build Napoleon up as a fabulous, folkloric figure. The Napoleon of the "black legend" though was never assimilated into popular culture, and his exile and separation from his wife and child made him a figure with which people could readily sympathise and identify. In the nineteenth century attention was focussed not on Josephine but on Marie Louise. So Napoleon on St. Helena became the victim of the British state, a flawed but attractive figure.

My only very minor quibble with the book concerns its opening sentence - "It is no coincidence that they named the Wars after him". This might give the impression that people at the time used the term, "Napoleonic Wars", but in fact that term did not come into use until the middle of the nineteenth century, and was certainly not a product of popular culture. The author redeems himself in the final sentence of the book, describing them as, "the Wars that took his name."

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Forthcoming Talk: Napoleon and the British opposition, 1815-1821

Opening theme for my planned talk

In 2015 I gave a talk in London to the Friends of St Helena on Napoleon and the British Opposition. I am now preparing for a talk in Stockport, and intend to incorporate some of the local material that has appeared on recent blogs.

After my London talk I sent a summary for publication on the FOSH website, which I have reproduced below.

Britain during the period that Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena was a divided and repressive country. It was a period of dissent and disorder: machine breaking, mass movements, public meetings and petitions against taxes, against corruption, against placemen and against a standing army.

The Foxite Whigs, the opposition in Parliament, often critical of the wars against both France and the United States, never subscribed to the Tory caricature of Napoleon. Whilst not uncritical of him, they recognized that he had created order out of the anarchy of the Revolution, had safeguarded property rights, and furthermore had instituted a number of reforms they would have welcomed in England. They admired his sponsorship of the arts and sciences, the Code Napoléon, considered far superior to the repressive legal system in England, and the religious freedom he had brought to France.

Many great names voted against the resumption of war in the House of Lords in 1815, including the Prince Regent’s brother, the Duke of Sussex, a future Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey, and Marquis Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Opposition in the House of Commons was led by Lord John Russell, another future Prime Minister, younger son of the Duke of Bedford, who was among a number of Whigs who had travelled to Elba to meet Napoleon in 1814.

Lords voting against war in 1815, including Lord Byron. Lord Holland and the Duke of Bedford were still on their way home from Italy

On the day that news of the victory arrived in London, Earl Grey was telling all who would listen that the world needed the genius of Napoleon. The unexpected victory, so pumped up by Government propagandists that even Wellington became a little embarrassed, totally wrong footed the Whigs. Lord Byron said that there was nothing to do but to follow the example of Samuel Whitbread, one of Napoleon’s greatest admirers in Parliament who for whatever reason committed suicide on 6th July.

Throughout the period of the captivity only the most “reform minded” Whigs were prepared to become associated publicly with Napoleon’s cause. Holland House in London, the home of Charles James Fox’s nephew, Lord Holland, became Napoleon’s centre of support. Lady Holland sent Napoleon some 1000 books donated by Whig families. The Everlasting, Xerochrysum bracteatum , an Australian plant that now grows across St Helena, is the permanent legacy of Lady Holland, who sent the original seeds to Longwood.

In Holland House garden a Canova bust of Napoleon was installed, inscribed at its base:

The hero is not dead, but breathes the air
In lands beyond the deep:
Some island sea-begirded, where
Harsh men the prisoner keep.

Whilst most of the Whigs were quiescent, the Radicals became more vocal in Napoleon’s support. As supporters of the French Revolution, they had found Napoleon’s imperial crown and marriage to an Austrian princess hard to swallow. However, in the post-Waterloo world many came to see Napoleon and to some extent his son, confined by his grandfather the Austrian Emperor, as the symbols of an international liberty that had begun with the French Revolution and was now under threat.

The Radicals developed a narrative about Waterloo diametrically opposed to that pushed by Tory propagandists. The following extracts from the press give an insight into their discourse:

The Rights of Kings triumphed over the Rights of the People at Waterloo. 

Had the country a reformed House of Commons, a war of 
such injustice had never been commenced.

The fall of Napoleon .. was effected by immense German armies, subsidized by us.

That perjury and fraud to which England lent herself, 
in enslaving the Nations of Europe ..

That war sent the brave and generous Napoleon into 
captivity; that war restored the Bourbons in France, 
Spain and Naples; 
it restored the Pope and the Inquisition, all of which Bonaparte had put down.

You see the scaffolds in France streaming with the 
blood of people who cry out for Napoleon’s return .. 
religious liberty was, under Napoleon, made as perfect as in America

So far from it being true that the whole nation 
approved of this measure [exile of Napoleon], 
the fact is that a very great part of the 
sound and enlightened  part of the nation decidedly disapproved of it;

Napoleon towers like the Andes above them all. He 
stands a beacon and a sign unto the Nations; 
and although his thunders sleep, 
perhaps for ever, there is not a-King, or Kingling – a base legitimate – or a plundering Minister, 
that does not tremble at the very name of NAPOLEON.
At the close of poll in the Westminster Election in 1818 the cries of “Napoleon – Napoleon” were heard. On July 22nd 1819 a reform meeting at Smithfield, attended by 40,000-50,000 passed the following resolution:
That this meeting unequivocally disclaims any share or participation in the disgraceful and cowardly acts of the boroughmongers, in placing the brave Napoleon a prisoner, to perish upon a desert island, shut out from human society, and torn from his only son, whilst he is exposed to the brutal insolence of a hired keeper.

Soon followed the mass meeting in Manchester, almost immediately known as the Peterloo Massacre, an ironic reference to the “killing fields of Waterloo.”

When news of Napoleon’s death arrived, placards appeared in London inviting people to go into mourning. The Radical leader Henry Hunt whose attempted arrest led to the Peterloo Massacre, described Napoleon as “the most illustrious and eminent man of the present age, both as a profound statesman and a brave and matchless general.” Whilst aware of Napoleon’s failings,

“yet, when I reflect upon the period in which his energetic mind was allowed to have its full scope of action, and when I recollect the powerful armies and fleets that he had to contend with, and the phalanx of tyrants who were at various times leagued together against him, I am disposed not to examine too nicely and with too critical an eye the means that he used to defend himself against their unceasing endeavours to destroy him, and to restore the old tyranny of the Bourbons.”

Lord Holland considered Napoleon’s death “a legal or political murder, a species of crime which tho’ not uncommon in our age is one of the most blackest dye most odious nature.” Appropriately for a Whig, he drew up a balance sheet:

pro: freedom of worship, financial probity in public life, magnificence of public works, openness to office based on merit alone.

con: “enormous evil” of conscription, persecution of critics and curtailment of personal liberties.

Both Whigs and Radicals had views of Napoleon that differed totally from that of the “Corsican Ogre” created by Government propagandists. Evidence of Whig admiration for Napoleon is to be found in the collections that remain in some of the large stately homes, particularly Chatsworth and Blenheim; the folk memories of the lower orders, reflected in this song

They sent him to St Helena! Oh! Aye, oh!  
They sent him to St. Helena,
John France Wa! (Francois)
Boney was ill-treated! Oh! Aye, Oh! 
Boney was ill-treated,
John France Wa!
Oh Boney's heart was broken! Oh! Aye, Oh!  
Boney's heart was broken
John France Wa!
But Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh! 
But Boney was an Emperor!
John France Wa!
have largely disappeared.

Friday, 17 November 2017

English Honour and the Captivity of Napoleon

An English Gentleman

England in the Regency period was a highly ordered society. Gentlemanly conduct was the ideal to which all in power aspired. Half a century earlier Dr Johnson had defined being a gentleman in terms of "nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness." Gentlemanly conduct also encompassed ideas of never taking unfair advantage and of conducting oneself towards your enemy as if he might one day become your friend. (1)

The treatment of Napoleon after his surrender was clearly an infringement of this gentlemanly code: detaining a defeated ruler after the end of hostilities was neither customary nor honourable. Napoleon in his letter to the Prince Regent had claimed " the protection of the laws", and had thrown himself on "the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous" of his enemies. Whilst Captain Maitland gave no assurances as to the outcome of his surrender, Napoleon certainly got the impression that he would be treated with the respect normally afforded a defeated enemy. Lord Holland made exactly this criticism when opposing the bill to legalise Napoleon's detention:

To consign to distant exile and imprisonment a foreign and captive Chief, who, after the abdication of his authority, relying on British generosity, had surrendered himself to us, in preference to his other enemies, is unworthy the magnanimity of a great country;

Napoleon Preparing to Board the Bellerophon

The question of “honour” was important in governing circles, and impugnment of a man's honour fairly regularly led to duels.(2) Hudson Lowe mentioned it in one of his long letters to Bathurst early in the captivity.(3) Lord Castlereagh sought to dispel the concern by a rather tortuous logic: Napoleon and his fellow exiles had held a council of war in France prior to surrender and had decided there was no chance of escape; if Napoleon had had a chance of escape and had surrendered then the Government action would have been dishonourable, but since he had had no choice then Britain acted honourably.

The fact that Lord Bathurst and many members of the Government derived amusement from Napoleon's plight was also unworthy of an English gentleman. In a debate in the House of Lords in 1817 Lord Holland wondered how Bathurst could “allow himself to laugh and sneer at a man because he was in his power.“ Commenting on the affair, the Examiner criticized Bathurst for taking advantage of a man’s adversity by cracking jokes about him, and concluded that “it is the object of Ministers to humiliate their fallen Superior” hence their insistence on the title “General.

Samuel Bamford, the simple weaver who could not aspire to gentlemanly status, clearly judged his country by that moral code, and condemned Napoleon's exile on St. Helena: "Of England's honour 'tis the grave."

It is no wonder that a later gentlemanly Prime Minister would write that an Englishman

"must regret that his Government ever undertook the custody of Napoleon, and he must regret still more that the duty should have been discharged in a spirit so ignoble and through agents so unfortunate."
Rosebery was presumably referring to two knights of the realm, Sir Hudson Lowe and Sir Thomas Reade, neither of whom he considered gentlemen.(4) For Loyalists such as Lowe and Reade of course, and for Bathurst also, Napoleon was an illegitimate ruler, a rebel and a usurper, which undoutedly affected the way he was treated.

It might be fair to point out that for the French at this time and later there was a certain hypocrisy about an Englishman's invocation of "honour", L'Angleterre, ah, la perfide Angleterre .
1.See "In a Gewntleman-Like-Manner"
1. Canning and Castlereagh duelled in 1809; the Duke of Wellington fought a duel in 1829 when he was Prime Minister.
3. See also Gorrequer's comment, June 10, 1818.
4.Lord Rosebery, Napoleon The Last Phase London 1900, p 57.