"He is a fine fellow, who does not deserve his fate."(Crew of the HMS Northumberland)
By John Tarttelin, MA (History)
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF THE EMPEROR NAPOLEON
When it comes to their historians, the nation that spawned Shakespeare needs to be treated with caution. The first principle when reading an English history in relation to Napoleonic France should be: "Is this a swagger I see before me?"
They take as given, almost by definition, that the English cause was ever just and righteous and that Napoleon, a Frenchman, nay, not even that, a mere Corsican, was an inveterate warmonger and a loser to boot, unfit to buckle the Duke of Wellington's shoes. Because Wellington defeated him at Waterloo, the chap must have been a very bad sort from the start. Many of the following accounts come from hostile English historians and observers. Nevertheless, they often say much more than they themselves realized.
In 1900 Lord Rosebery wrote: "In England his name was a synonym for the author of all evil. He was, indeed, in our national judgment, a devil seven times worse than the others. But then we knew nothing at all about him."(My italics) (1) That, in a nutshell, is why there are so many waspish comments about Napoleon even to this day.
The Appendix in Rosebery's 'The Last Phase' is much more revealing and includes comments from people who actually met the Emperor. Captain Maitland wrote: "Napoleon Buonaparte, when he came on board the Bellerophon on the 15th July 1815... was then a remarkably strong, well-built man, about five feet seven inches high..."(2)
Five feet seven? But everyone knows Napoleon was 'small'. Actually, he wasn't, he was the average height for his day. The reason he got his nickname of The Little Corporal was because only the tallest men were allowed to become grenadiers and Guardsmen. And French measurements were not the same as British ones, a French 'foot' was bigger.
Maitland continues: "His manners were extremely pleasing and affable; he joined in every conversation, related numerous anecdotes, and endeavoured in every way, to promote good humour: he even admitted his attendants to great familiarity; and I saw one or two instances of their contradicting him in the most direct terms, though they generally treated him with much respect."(3)
Yet Rosebery states: "He had no checks or assistance from advice, for his ministers were cyphers."(4)Napoleon certainly listened to Talleyrand early on, perhaps too much - as the Duke of Enghien Affair was set in motion at the behest of that defrocked priest (5) Fouche and Talleyrand gave 'advice' to everybody.
The Duke of Enghien
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand
Not just Napoleon, but the Tsar, the Bourbons and the British. They continued with plots and treacheries throughout Napoleon's rule.
Had he been the evil dictator he is often supposed to be, he would have had both of them shot. At Saint Helena he was to rue the fact he hadn't. Mere cyphers those two were not. Rosebery himself concedes: "To use a common vulgarism, he was not, we think, as black as he is painted.". (6)
Maitland illuminates Napoleon even further when he says: "He possessed to a wonderful degree, a faculty in making a favourable impression upon those with whom he entered into conversation: this appeared to me to be accomplished by turning the subject to matters he supposed the person he was addressing was well acquainted with, and on which he could show himself to advantage."(7)
Rosebery says: "He was it may be fairly alleged, indulgent and affectionate to his family, particularly in his first, better years; dutiful to his mother; kind to his early friends."(8)
In 'Swords Around a Throne' (1988), John Elting wrote that Napoleon never forgot someone who had been kind or helpful to him. That is why Talleyrand lived to see old age. Despite his many treacheries, and the Emperor railing at him and calling him "Shit in a silk stocking"(9)- Napoleon never forgot their earlier friendship.(10)
Even Rosebery has to admit: "Napoleon was assuredly great. Besides that indefinable spark which we call genius, he represents a combination of intellect and energy which had never been equalled, never certainly, surpassed."(11)And the Noble Lord goes further and quotes another of his station, Lord Dudley: "He has thrown doubt on all past glory; he has made all future renown impossible."(12)Praise indeed from the land of his supposedly inveterate enemies.
The Appendix also shows the stark reality of Napoleon's imprisonment on Saint Helena and his subsequent rapid physical decline. On July 31st 1815, Bunbury describes him: "Napoleon appears to be about five feet six inches high...The general character of his countenance was grave and almost melancholy; but no trace of severity or violent passion was allowed to appear. I have seldom seen a man of stronger make, or better fitted to endure fatigue."(13)
On June 25th 1816, Lady Malcolm states that: "She was struck by the kindness of his expression so contrary to the fierceness she had expected. She saw no trace of great ability; his countenance seemed rather to indicate gentleness..."(14)A very interesting observation. No doubt, having heard so much about the Corsican Ogre, she was surprised to find that he was human after all.
On September 1st 1817, Henry paints a sad picture of the former Emperor's decline: "The features instantly reminded me of the prints of him which we had seen. On the whole, his general look was more that of an obese Spanish or Portuguese friar, than the hero of modern times... A fascinated prestige, which we had cherished all our lives, then vanished like gossamer in the sun.The great Napoleon had merged in an unsightly and obese individual; and we looked in vain for that overwhelming power of eye and force of expression, which we had been taught to expect by a delusive imagination."(15)(My italics)
We now know, thanks to the work of Ben Weider and Sten Forshufvud, that Napoleon was being poisoned with arsenic by Montholon. Perhaps its insidious progress is already evident here as obeseness is one of its symptoms.(16)
John Bowle (1973),(17)who says Napoleon was the first of the modern dictators, quotes Nelson in 1805: "Never was the probability of universal monarchy more nearly realized than in the person of the Corsican."(18)To Nelson, responsible for the massacre of republicans in Naples, only universalBritish monarchy would do.(19)
Bowle, another hostile critic, comments on Napoleon's personal affability: "His charm, when he switched it on, was apparently irresistible; as when he got round his insular British captors on HMS Bellerophon, and the British oligarchy had to take care that he should not meet and hypnotise the Prince Regent. This fascination briefly won over the neurotic Tsar Alexander..."(20)
Elizabeth Longford,(21)who wrote the introduction to Bowle's book states: "There can be nothing but thankfulness for Waterloo."(22)A slightly insouciant remark to say the least. If the Allies had accepted the peace terms offered by Napoleon on his return from Elba, to rapturous popular acclaim in France, there would have been no need for war. After it, the White Terror launched on the direct orders of Lord Liverpool, the British Prime Minister, led to the judicial murders of dozens of French soldiers and former supporters of Napoleon. That is nothing to crow about.(23)
Neither is the effect that Louis XVIII, dumped on France by her hero, the illustrious Duke of Wellington himself, had on the country, leave alone that of his hideous brother d'Artois, the future Charles X. Hundreds of people were killed in France after Waterloo and Wellington, who as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies until 1818 could have done a lot to prevent it, did absolutely nothing(24)
The great lady continues - after the abasement of Napoleonic France she can afford to be 'generous':
"Nevertheless, so compelling was the Emperor's magnetism that English Whigs considered Europe fortunate to be in such rapacious hands and under such heavy boots. They wept when he abdicated, sent him presents and beautified their houses with his bust."((25)Longford says nothing about the British citizens kicked out of their own country by aristocratic boots and sent to Australia, merely for questioning the rule of their benighted, selfish masters.(26)
The Duke of Wellington
When Prime Minister, Wellington held out against reform and was indifferent to the plight of those caught up in economic depression. As a result, people rioted outside Apsley House, his London residence and smashed his windows.The public wanted to give Wellington - the boot.
The Downing Street website says: "He defended rule by the elite and refused to expand the franchise."(27)Wellington held the common man in contempt throughout his life.
Christopher Lee gets his fangs into Napoleon in 'Nelson and Napoleon' (2005). The dust-jacket of his book speaks of "the megalomania of Napoleon to invade England," which pretty much sets the tone.(28)There is no mention of the numerous assassination attempts on his life financed by London nor the help given by the British Cabinet to d'Artois in fomenting his plots. Napoleon had a right to consider the Cabinet little more than Brittunculi - wretched little Brits in a Roman phrase - because even during the Treaty of Amiens, these conspiracies continued.(29)
Lee states that: "Nelson was a perfect hero: brilliant, anti-establishment, romantic and - above all - victorious, especially in death..."(30)In terms of historical fact, Nelson was a consummately arrogant man - even for the British at that time. Despite having another man's wife on his arm - Emma Hamilton - he was angered when the couple were not accepted by polite society. Over zealous in the pursuit of prize money from captured vessels, Nelson had a chip on both shoulders - he could have played all night at Las Vegas with no trouble at all.(31)
Yet even Lee has to admit that: "The fighting started because the rest of Europe, Britain included, believed that Bonaparte could - and probably would - export the Revolution." And he speaks of "the eighteenth-century arrogance of the eighteenth-century British, who believed above all in the divine gift of Protestantism. All those who were not Protestants were, by simple definition, second rate. Bonaparte's ideas of a secular society fitted easily into this British conceit." (32)
As for England's elite, here is Lee's own assessment: "The ruling class was a small society of relatives drawn mainly from the aristocracy at a time when parliamentary seats were bought, sold and owned by that same aristocracy."(My italics) (33)Here, he is undoubtedly right.
He also comments on Napoleon's peace offering to the British: "Some have regarded the letter he wrote on 2 Jan 1805 as an offer of peace. But was it really that?"(34)Napoleon wrote: "If your Majesty will but consider the matter personally, you will see that war is purposeless, and can lead to no definite result. And it is a miserable prospect for two peoples to fight merely for the sake of fighting. The world is big enough for both our peoples to live on."(35)
Isn't that just too reasonable by half? Here is strong support for Franceschi and Weiders' thesis in 'The Wars Against Napoleon' (2008) that no matter how hard he tried, the British would not accept peace.(36)It was their refusal to leave Malta, as agreed in the Treaty of Amiens, that led to renewed war. Why should we be so cynical about Napoleon's offer?(37)
The Treaty of Amiens was welcomed by both the British and the French public. Tourists flocked across the Channel in both directions. Frank McLynn tells us: "British public opinion demanded peace." (38)This was despite the official campaign in the British media against Napoleon. McLynn adds: Napoleon also raised the question of the vile propaganda cartoons about him being printed in the English newspapers, portraying him as a tyrant and ogre. The Morning Post had just described him as 'an unclassifiable being, half African, half European, a Mediterranean mulatto'. In cartoons he was usually portrayed as a pygmy with an enormous nose."(39)It was only the so-called British elite who wanted to continue with war against Napoleon and they tried to get the public on board by means of such pathetic and racist diatribes.
John Strawson's book 'The Duke and the Emperor' (1994) is a tour de force in character assassination: Wellington walks on water, while Napoleon is a creature from the abyss.(40)Strawson opines: "The fact is that, as Wellington is alleged to have said of the Emperor, 'the feller wasn't quite a gentleman.' Wellington most assuredly was. This contrast in character was absolute. Napoleon was treachorous, disloyal, amoral, a cheat, a liar and a bully - fit for treasons strategems and spoils. His only limits were his own will-power, egotism and ambition." (41)
Considering, after such objectivity, that the writer 'isn't quite an historian', one can compare Napoleon's return from Elba, to overwhelming popular acclaim, to Wellington's hiding in Apsley House as his windows were being smashed by those angry crowds.
Strawson goes on with overweening partiality: "This difference in breeding was to some extent reflected in the armies that the two men commanded. The Grand Armee was full of first-class soldiers, but not many of them were gentlemen...the British Army on the other hand was largely officered by gentlemen and many of them were excellent soldiers."(42)
Was that why the English abandoned their women and children during Moore's retreat to Corunna?(43)To Strawson, being a 'gentlemen' is the touchstone to everything. He seems not just to be writing of the 19th Century, but living in it.
Strawson then undermines his own case completely. How do his British captors view the Corsican usurper?: "Captain Maitland under whose protection Napoleon sailed from Rochefort to England on July 1815, recorded their feeling that 'if the people of England knew him as well as we do, they would not touch a hair on his head'. These sentiments were echoed again by the men of the Northumberland who, during the voyage to Saint Helena, had every opportunity to study their celebrated passenger: 'He is a fine fellow, who does not deserve his fate'."(44)
Those men met and talked with Napoleon, thus, Strawson's own ranting at the opening of his book is even more inexcusable. In fact, when Napoleon got to Torbay and later, Plymouth, the British public came to snatch a glimpse of him in their droves. Many cheered him. McLynn says he was "the sensation of the hour...His one card was public opinion and the legal skill of his British supporters." (45)But the corrupt Establishment instructed the Admiralty to order the Northumberland to set sail before Napoleon got the chance to step ashore. His fate was sealed.(46)
Meanwhile, Byron sung his praises and castigated the Duke: "Wellington is the Cub of Fortune but she will never lick him into shape...Victory was never before wasted on such an unprofitable soil, as this dunghill of tyranny..."(47)Strawson's view, that Wellington was a better man than Napoleon is utterly destroyed in his own book, at the very end of which he states: "For Napoleon, the great player, the gigantic gambler, the soaring eagle, there is a shorter tribute. He was a modern Caesar, and bestrode the world like a Colossus. When we read or write of him today, he still does."(48)
In England, when Napoleon died. Sir James Mackintosh remarked: "What a sensation this event would have had nine years ago and what a sensation it will make in nine hundred years." And he added: "Of all the great conquerors Napoleon is the most remarkable."(49)
Sir Robert Wilson. formerly one of the Emperor's bitterest enemies, went into mourning when he saw a placard on London walls appealing to all those who admire talent and courage in adversity to honour 'this premature death!'(50)
Who then, as now, is the measure of all things? Napoleon. Even his detractors, Bowle, Lee, Longford, Strawson et al, pitch Wellington and Nelson against him as if, like Native Americans of the 19th Century, they believe that the greater their enemy, the greater their own heroes are themselves. Napoleon was the man of the century. He was not just a soldier, he was the ruler of an empire, a legislator, a writer, a visionary, an adventurer and romantic who personally instituted the whole field of Egyptology. We shall not see his like again.
C. John Tarttelin MA (Hist) FINS
IMPORTANT NAMES (In order of appearance in the article)
1) NAPOLEON (1769-1821) Born in Corsica, educated in France. Successful General and later Emperor in 1804. Faced implacable opposition from the British Government and the monarchs of Europe who believed in their God-given, Divine Right, to rule. Forced to abdicate in 1814 and was exiled to Elba. His return to France in 1815 was wildly popular but, after his peace overtures were rejected, he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Exiled to Saint Helena where he was poisoned.
2) WELLINGTON (1769-1852) Fought the French in the Spanish Peninsular War. Defeated Napoleon at Waterloo with the help of the Prussians under Blucher. Prime Minister 1828-30. Opposed Reform Bill 183 1-32. Aristocrat who believed in power remaining with an elite.
3) CAPTAIN FREDERICK MAITLAND (1777-1839) Commanded the British vessel EMS Bellerophon — ‘Billy Ruffian' — on which Napoleon sailed from Rochefort to England in July 1815.
4) TALLEYRAND (1754-1838) Early supporter of Napoleon who became his Foreign Minister but later betrayed him. Gave Paris to the Allies in 1814 which led to Napoleon's abdication. Helped Allies at the Congress of Vienna 1815 against Napoleon and France.
5) DUKE OF ENGHIEN (1772-1804) Bourbon Prince in the pay of the English. Under suspicion of plotting to take Napoleon's life, Talleyrand and Fouche argued for his arrest. Executed in 1804 by fifing squad by over-zealous subordinate before Napoleon had a chance to pardon him — as he did many others. Ever since, Napoleon has been personally blamed for this debacle.
6) FOUCHE (1759-1820) Talleyrand's accomplice and notorious traitor. As Napoleon's Chief of Police he had double- and even triple-agents at his beck and call. Betrayed Napoleon after Waterloo in 1815. A master of duplicity and deceit, his only loyalty was to himself.
7) TSAR ALEXANDER (1777-1825) Indecisive, mystical Russian leader who probably knew about the murder of his father Tsar Paul — an ally of Napoleon. Came under the spell of Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807 but soon turned against him. The war of 1812 led to Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow.
8) LORD LWERPOOL (1770-1828) British Prime Minister 1812-27. After Waterloo, he insisted on a punitive retaliation against former supporters of Napoleon in so-called White Terror. Many executions followed.
9) LOUIS XVIII (1755-1824) Younger brother of Louis XVI of France, this 3101b Bourbon returned to Paris in the baggage-train of the Allies — twice, in 1814 and 1815. An ineffectual ruler who proved that the Bourbons had learnt nothing and had fogotten nothing.
10) D'ARTOIS (1757-1 836) One of the most odious characters in French history. Younger brother of Louis XVIII, known as ‘Monsieur', future Charles X. His terrorist group the ‘Chevalier de Ia Foi' plotted innumerable assassination attempts upon Napoleon's life. His man, Montholon, finally succeeded in poisoning Napoleon with arsenic on Saint Helena.
11) NELSON (1758 -1805) The great victory at Trafalgar in 1805 and his glorious death, made him an English hero, but in his private life he was a very arrogant man. He also ordered the cold-bloodied execution of republican rebels in Naples in 1799.
12) SIR JOHN MOORE (1761-1809) British General who fought in the Spanish Peninsula. He was chased out of Spain by Napoleon and died at Corunna in 1809. His men escaped, after leaving their women and children behind. The French soldiers returned them unharmed.
13) BYRON (1788-1824) Famous English poet. Napoleon was his hero. He loathed Wellington and ridiculed Castleragh, the British Foreign Minister. Died fighting for Greek independence in 1824.
14) SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH (1765-1832) Historian, philosopher, doctor of medicine, and British author of Vindiciae Gallica, reflections on the French Revolution.
15) SIR ROBERT WILSON (1777-1849) British General who fought with the Russians against Napoleon in 1812. Yet, during the White Terror, he spoke out against the murder of Bonapartists and was jailed for three months by Louis XVIII because of it.
ENGLAND'S UNLIKELY HERO NAPOLEON BIBLIOGRAPHY
BERNARD J.F. TALLEYRAND: A BIOGRAPHY (1973)
BOWLE JOHN NAPOLEON (1973)
COIGNET JEAN-ROCH CAPTAIN COIGNET (2007)
ELTING JOHN R. SWORDS AROUND A THRONE (1988)
FRANCESCHI MICHEL & WElDER BEN THE WARS AGAINST NAPOLEON (2008)
HAMILTON-WILLIAMS D. THE FALL OF NAPOLEON (1994)
HAPGOOD D. & WElDER B. THE MURDER OF NAPOLEON (1982)
LEE CHRISTOPHER NELSON AND NAPOLEON (2005)
MARTINEAU GILBERT NAPOLEON'S LAST JOURNEY (1976)
McLYNN FRANK NAPOLEON (1997)
ROSEBERY LORD NAPOLEON THE LAST PHASE (1900)
STRAWSON JOHN THE DUKE AND THE EMPEROR (1994)
(1)Lord Rosebery ‘Napoleon The Last Phase' (1900) p 247
(5)General Miehel Franceschi ‘The Duke of Enghien Affair: A plot Against Napoleon' (2005) quotes Napoleon's secretary Meneval on p 28: “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that Napoleon, sufficiently comforted by the humiliation he had inflicted on his enemies by foiling their plot, would have leaned towards mercy and sparing the prince's life.”
(9)J.F. Bernard ‘Talleyrand: A Biography' (1973) p 13
(10). Lord Rosebery op.cit. p249 says: “M. de Remusat witnessed in 1806 a scene of almost hysterical and insurmountable emotion when Napoleon embraced Talleyrand and Josephine, declaring that it was hard to part from the two people that one loved the most; and, utterly unable to control himself, fell into strong convulsions.”
(19)See Roger Knight's review of ‘An Admiral with a Star Quality' by Matthew Nicholls (2005) at www.oxonianreview.org/issues/5- 1/5- lnicholls.html : “his over-hasty execution of Neapolitan rebels in 1799, and especially the hanging of the Italian Caracciolo, cast a long shadow over his career, ‘paralysing' as one contemporary put it, ‘all the energy and zeal which distinguished him in every other situation.”
(22)Ibid, p 7 Longford also criticizes here Napoleon's “loathing for the masses” a trait Wellington shared of course. Yet, Napoleon had the ‘common touch' with his soldiers whereas Wellington was haughty and distant to his men.
(23)David Hamilton-Williams' ‘The Fall of Napoleon' (1994) ps26l-262 quotes a letter from Lord Liverpool to Louis XVIII: “The forbearance manifested at the present moment can be considered in no other light than weakness, and NOT mercy.. .what dangers might not be apprehended from forty thousand officers unemployed — men of desperate fortunes, and possessing a large proportion of talent and energy of the country! A severe example made of the conspirators who brought back Buonaparte could alone have any effect in countering these dangers.” Hamilton-Williams adds, on p 262: “It will be seen clearly from these letters that in Liverpool's opinion, only a spate of terror, executions and imprisonment would subdue the republicans and imperialists.”
(24)John Strawson in ‘The Duke and the Emperor' (1994) on p 241 states, for example: “During Ney's trial many appeals were made to the Duke of Wellington to intervene. But he did not.” And he adds on p 242: “still we know that had he intervened, Ney would not have been executed.”
(29)David Hamilton-Williams op.cit., p 304: “On 27 March Napoleon had concluded the Peace of Amiens with Britain, but the British Cabinet, unknown to Parliament, had neither asked the Bourbons to quit England nor closed down d'Artois' underground activities in Jersey.”
(32)www.historyofwar.org/artic1es/people nelson mid.html Nelson,Horatio, Admiral (1759-1805): 1798-1803 states on p3: “Nelson had not been impressed during his previous dealings with Naples, describing it as ‘a country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels.”
(43)General Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider op.cit. p 134: “the British general abandoned to this “henchman of the devil,” Napoleon, a thousand British women and children, found on January 2, 1809, in a large shed at Astorga. They were starving, shivering with cold, and trembling with fear. The mothers threw themselves at the emperor's feet and begged him to preserve the lives of their children. He made all arrangements to reassure, lodge, warm, and feed these unfortunates before returning them in good health to the British army several days later.”
(44)John Strawson op.cit. PS 232-233. He also says on p232 “the ship's company of HMS Undaunted,which took the Emperor to Elba, had wished him ‘long life and prosperity' and ‘better luck another time'...”