Daily Life ~ Through the Prism of The Great War

This is one of those blog posts I’ve been avoiding writing for some time now.  Like for well over a year.

Chiefly because writing it will mean that I might have to get up off my sorry backside and go look in a book or two to confirm a couple of details rather than just opening up my brain and allowing the contents to leak onto the page.  Which obviously is my preferred method.

English officersYou see, as I’ve observed the popular focus on the early 19th century in novels and because of the undimming interest in Austen, I’ve come to feel that–somehow–there’s this assumption from the few oblique references to it in Austen’s works that the long wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France really didn’t impact on the lives of the ordinary and/or aristocratic British at this time.

But that’s a bit like inferring that Austen and her family didn’t eat eggs.  Or wouldn’t have known what they were. She never mentions them, does she?  Ergo…

Yet, like eggs or milk or bread, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, the ongoing war with France was so much a part of the fabric of daily life that–like her omitting to say that her characters had eggs for breakfast–it possibly didn’t occur to her to mention it.  Indeed, this period of war created the very weft and warp of their existence…And the daily reminders of it–they called it the Great War–were so constant, so ubiquitous in their daily lives, that Austen and all her readers took it as understood.

horationelson2The wars with France between 1793-1815 defined, changed and effected abso-blooming-lutely everything!  And they went on and on and on, world without end, amen…

And therefore I would contend that in order to truly understand the period–which some call the Regency (though that’s far from strictly accurate)–one must view it not through a rose-tinted lorgnette with an aristocratic mother-of-pearl handle, but rather through war-tinted spectacles.

Let me show you.

From the outset of the French Revolution, English eyes (and newspapers) had been riveted on the unfolding events in Paris.  Remember–France is right across that little arm of water called the Channel (or la Manche if you’re French)…a body of water so narrow, a person can swim it.  A small boat can sail it on a fine day…

Until just 250 years previously, at least a part of France had always been owned or ruled by England.  The ties, therefore, for all sorts of reasons, were very close.  So, it must have seemed like their French cousins and business partners/competition had plunged into a vortex of sanguinary madness such as had never before been seen…

warprintAnd then, in 1793, four years into this Revolution, the French declared war on Britain.  Viscount Castlereagh, when still a young man, was the in the Low Countries during the September Massacres…he daren’t enter France himself…and he read with mounting horror the newspaper accounts of the events that still today are nearly unreadable for their savagery.

By 1797, France was strong enough and cocksure enough to attempt invasions of both Ireland (then under British rule) and the British mainland…both, fortunately, fizzled out–Ireland’s due to a blizzard and heaving gale and the mainland’s due to the inferiority of the French troops and the welly of the Welsh they encountered at Fishguard.

martellotower But subsequently, all along the south coast, successive governments would embark on building a series of Martello towers to protect against the present threat on invasion.

Nor was invasion just a mythical nightmare of a threat.  Napoleon, in power since 1799, used the year of the Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) to establish one of the largest army camps at Boulogne–which again, is just across the Channel and which, on a clear day, one can see from the coast of Kent.  And what the English saw didn’t make for very reassuring viewing.

For at Boulogne, Napoleon was assembling his troops for invasion.  Some 500,000 of them. And often he was there himself, reviewing the troops in full view of the English telescopic lenses trained on the place.  Imagine it.

Bearing in mind that ever since the Commonwealth, Britain hadn’t had a standing army per se–or at least nothing on the scale of the European powers–this was pretty scary stuff.  If that Corsican upstart managed to get those troops across that tiny slip of water, the result would have been overwhelming.  Quite literally.

Thus, the army fellows spent weeks and months working out which were the most likely points of access and then, carving up Kent and Sussex with a series of water courses to hinder the French advance while they, in London, would get the King and royal family away to safety in Wheedon–where they built the early 19th century version of a royal bomb shelter.  As the whole of Kent and Sussex were carved up this way, the impact on transportation and even agriculture would have been immense–a daily reminder of the threat across the water.

It seems impossible to fathom, of course, but although he was pretty hot as a general on land, Napoleon never got the hang of water.  And that, of course, saved Britain time and again from his invading forces.

Those forces gathering and threatening in Boulogne were only held back as the French waited for a spell of calm in which to cross over. Because Napoleon, judging the difficulty of navigation solely on the width of the Channel, had opted for rafts–large wooden rafts, four feet deep–in which to transport his men, horses, artillery across to England.

And when the first troops were loaded onto these rafts for his inspection, they, er, tipped over.  Many soldiers–being unable to swim–drowned, the guns fell into the water and sank, and the horses swam for shore.  Whereupon, Napoleon stormed off in one of his classic rages…

The threat may have been lessened for the moment, but the Brits didn’t lose their sense of vulnerability.  Not ever.

semaphore towerImagine the disruption to daily life, there, along the south coast.  Also along the coast, just as in the weeks preceding the arrival of the Spanish Armada, huge woodpiles were erected to act as beacons should the French be sighted crossing.  Added to this, from 1796, there were the telegraph hills or semaphore towers, marring the skyline perhaps, but able to send coded messages inland (Deal to London) in a matter of minutes.

No wonder the militias in those southern counties were particularly active and always recruiting…and all the landed families of each county would have been expected to send their sons and husbands to be officers in the militia, if they hadn’t already bought commissions in the military or gone to sea…

Britain was indubitably on a war footing and that’s how things would remain until 1814…

Everywhere they went, everything they saw and experienced would have emphasised this, if ever they forgot…the newspapers churned out a daily diet of war coverage, and particularly naval coverage, because it was at sea that Britain truly excelled.

Between the years of 1793 and 1812, year upon year, Parliament voted to expand the size of the Royal Navy, taking its size from 135 vessels in 1793 to 584 ships in 1812, with an increase in seamen from 36,000 to 114,000 men.   Those seamen all had families, families who missed them whilst they were away, families who grieved if and when they were lost.

In 1792, the size of the merchant marine was already at 118,000, but this too expanded as the Continent was increasingly closed to British trade and British merchants had to seek farther afield for fresh markets.

nelson'stombAdmiral Horatio Nelson was the hero of the age–embodying the tenacity, the daring, the sea-savvy of Britons through the centuries, standing up to Continental aggression and aggrandisement alone.  He wasn’t just lionised, he was idolised.

Thousands upon thousands of British boys went to sea because of him–and he was known for treating the younkers well.  When he died at Trafalgar, the nation mourned, quite literally.  (Have a look at his catafalque in St. Paul’s if you doubt it.)

Again, along the south coast, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton were all swimming with sailors, and with all those industries which support a maritime war–from shipyards to rope-makers to munitions-makers…it was boom-time.

Encampment in St. James's Park 1780

Encampment in St. James’s Park 1780

Hyde Park and numerous other vast public tracts of land were covered with the tents and paraphernalia of military training camps for the army.

But it wasn’t just in the ubiquity of the military that one sees the war–the preferred and very available art form of this period was the cartoon, the satirical print.  The war and in particular, Napoleon, provided the fertile imaginations of the cartoonists with a veritable buffet of opportunities for their cynical art and wit.

printshopwindow1Given then some 40% of the population was illiterate, it was from these prints, every day displayed in print shop windows, that the British public, gawping and laughing, gathered much of its news and thereby formed its opinions.  (That’s every day for nearly 20 years!)

The theatres too invariably included a naval spectacle or re-enactment as part of each evening’s bill, in much the same way as during WWII wartime dramas starring John Mills were churned out by Pinewood Studios.

Plays about Nelson were the most popular and the plays of Charles Dibden (then popular, now forgot) reflected this with titles like Naval Pillars, a piece based on Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay.  Indeed, it was often joked that Dibden should be decorated by the Admiralty for the number of successful naval dramas he’d written…

As if that weren’t enough, the popularity of these maritime spectacles prompted the owners of Sadler’s Wells to create a lake of real water upon their stage as a more lifelike setting for all these pieces.  And when one considers that up to 20,000 Londoners attended the theatre each night–and that’s not including Vauxhall Gardens where they also produced martial spectacles or any of the smaller venues where the chief attraction was naval illuminations–that’s when you start to see this war as almost the emotional meat and potatoes of their daily lives.

militarystyleClothing design, especially for women, embraced the military influence–whether it was riding jackets a la militaire with double rows of buttons and frogging up the bodices and cuffs, or as lady’s head wear, taking its shape from the common shako or the caterpiller-crested helmets of the dragoons, there it is again.

For the underclasses, let’s call them, all along the coast from Cornwall up to East Anglia, the endless French wars led to an increase in smuggling activity upon an industrial scale.

Brandy, French silk, and all sorts were smuggled in, whilst wool for uniforms was smuggled from East Anglia, and just about everything else you can imagine was smuggled from the rest of the coast to European beaches…the organisation and size of these smuggling gangs grew proportionately more sophisticated as the wars raged on, and once Napoleon closed Europe’s borders to British trade, the size of these gangs just mushroomed.

As did the need for an increased presence of Preventive Officers and Revenue Cutters, patrolling the waters of the Solent, the Channel, and the North Sea…

And finally, these wars hit everyone where they’d feel it most, every day.  In their pockets.

The war itself, added to the agricultural consequences of years of terrible harvests, led to rampant inflation.  Food prices as well as the cost of common goods soared.  The lack of grain was so acute that in the years 1808-1812, the Government had been forced to buy thousands of tons of grain from the United States, to be shipped to feed the British troops on the Peninsula.

shako1Not only that, but within five years of its breaking out, the cost of the war had effectively drained the Treasury–the wretched conditions in the Royal Navy had in 1797 led to mutiny and the army was, not to put too fine a point on it, starving.  There was, as seen up above, a serious threat of French invasion and Ireland needed troops to ward off any French incursion there.

Pitt the Younger was both Prime Minister as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (a common combination of offices at that time) and he felt there was a need for an increase in ‘aid and contribution for the prosecution of the war.’  His solution?  Income tax.  Which was announced in 1798 and became part of every taxpayer’s nightmare from 1799.  As today’s Inland Revenue describes it, it was a fairly straightforward proposition:

“Income tax was to be applied in Great Britain (but not Ireland) at a rate of 10% on the total income of the taxpayer from all sources above £60, with reductions on income up to £200.  It was to be paid in six equal instalments from June 1799, with an expected return of £10 million in its first year. It actually realised less than £6 million, but the money was vital and a precedent had been set…”

It was, as it turned out, just a drop in the bucket when set against the vast costs of the war.  A detailed, country by country, analysis of the subsidies Britain paid to her allies over this twenty year period adds up to the eye-watering sum of £55,228,892.

(If you’d like that in today’s money, that’s £3.5 billion, using the retail price index.  Or if you prefer to calculate using average earnings, £55.1 billion.)

And if you think they weren’t constantly grumbling about it…think again.

Nor does that sum include the cost of maintaining a military force in the Peninsula under Wellington, the cost of the disastrous Walcheren expedition, nor the vast (and we’re talking millions) sums secretly paid out to the intelligence agents and spies…The total figure, therefore, is closer to £700 million or £44 billion in today’s dosh.

And none of this even hints at the private sadness and inconsolable losses of those who received, daily, from the Admiralty, from Horse Guards, from commanding officers in Spain, letters informing them that their loved ones would not be returning home…

The war, it was everywhere…it was the carefree laughter and the relief of peace that were missing. And for many had never been known.


Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.


So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.


And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…

A word or two about the British monarchy…

One of the things that I kept sensing during the various discussions engendered by my last blog about the Regency was at root a thing about the monarchy.

It’s something in the way some non-Brits write about the monarchy, putting a spin on British history that we simply lack here.  Like, I’m not convinced they get it.

Because here’s the thing–with the exception of a small rump of media types and political republicans here (as opposed to monarchists), we don’t feel there’s anything inherently unequal about having a monarch–a person whom we refer to as His or Her Majesty.  We don’t bristle over that.

We don’t regard it as a slight on our equality in the eyes of God or the law or anything. We don’t regard it as a slap in the face to our personal freedoms.

Some monarchs are more popular than others.  Some were considered useless.  Some are utterly brilliant.  Some go in and out of popularity.

edward-viiEdward VII, for all that the press racked up more salacious stories about him than just about anyone under the sun, was surprisingly popular and it was he who turned the Victorian monarchy into the vibrant modern institution it is today–he it was who got out in his car and drove about, meeting and greeting his subjects.  And he was round and fat and jolly, just like them, and they were quite fond of him for just those reasons. (Though if you read some biogs of the poor fellow, you’d not know this…)

Anyway, as I’ve mulled over this little problem, I’ve become convinced it has something to do with sentiments of the American Revolution, and a misplaced conviction that we must have felt that way too, only we lacked to gumption to throw off those chains of tyranny or something.

So I thought I’d deal talk about that–rather than the news about Richard III.

To begin with, late 18th century Englishmen did not believe they were suffering under any tyrant’s boot.

They thought the opposite–they knew they lived in the freest society on earth.  They believed that to the core of their beings.  They had freedom of speech, freedom of the press and no need even for a police force to patrol them.

(Yes, yes, yes, there were some rabble-rousers like young Tom Paine–but have you read him?  Actually read him?  I mean the guy was as nuts as any bag of squirrel food!)


Indeed, by the late 18th century, British men were firm in their belief that the political vicissitudes inherent in a tyrannical system had been dealt with the abolition of the Star Chamber under Charles I’s rule, and subsequently, with the disposal of Oliver Cromwell, the republic’s dictator.

And it’s important too to remember that it was an Act of Parliament which invited Charles II back to England to sit on the throne.  He was there by populist choice–he wasn’t imposed on us.

And even when his younger brother, James II, proved such a kingly disaster, it wasn’t the monarchy that the people wished to get rid of, it was James.  I mean, they didn’t say, “Oi, this king business is rubbish, let’s have an anarcho-syndacalist commune” instead, did they?

No, they just opted to get rid of James and get in someone more to their taste.

And again, it was Parliament who wrote to William of Orange inviting him to come and be king here.  He ruled by popular consent.  And that is a significant point.  It’s also significant that after 1689, it is always a limited monarchy that is being spoken of–not an absolute monarchy as in France or Russia or Spain…

Also, Britain already had separation of the legislative and executive going back at least as far as Elizabeth–she couldn’t raise her own taxes, for example.

Robert Walpole was the first MP to use the title of Prime Minister–he took office in 1721–and he held that position until 1742–a period of unprecedented peace.  This is also the point at which the political power shifts from the head of state to the head of government.  Thus, Walpole was de facto head of the executive while the head of state was the absentee king, George I.

And–again, important to note–this was an elected government.  And whilst one might say it’s not democracy as we know democracy–they had rotten boroughs and all that–I’d just like to point out what was happening to our nearest neighbour–that would be the reign of Louis XV.  Ehem.

So, skipping along to George III…

imagesFrom the outset, he was immensely popular.  He had everything going for him.  For the first time in several generations, he, the king, had been born here in England.  English was his native language.  He looked and spoke like an English country gentleman.  And they loved him for it.

He married and was devoted to his wife.  He adored his children.

Indeed–though one frequently hears commentary to suggest that Albert and Victoria invented the image of the happy royal family and all that Victorian ideal–the fact is George III was the inventor of the modern family.

George played with his children, he was devoted to them, they were often seen with him in the carriage, or held high in his arms, and it was clear from his every movement and every word, that he sincerely loved them.  And this was a new thing–this engagement with one’s children.  And the people loved him for it.

He was also a tremendous patron of the arts, of manufacture and industry, of scientific study and invention.  A few years ago at the Queen’s Gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing his patronage of the arts and manufacture–and what an exhibition it was!  The range of scientific experimentation and instrument manufacture that had come about because of his support was jaw-dropping.

This was a guy who was constantly on the look-out for ingenuity and advancement, and when he found it, he threw the whole of his weight behind it.  He invited the author/inventor to come talk about it.  He commissioned a fancy prototype for himself.  And when he got hold of it, he shewed it to everybody at court and got them to invest in it…If George III took you up, you were made!  And they loved him for it.

He was like that about the agricultural revolution then sweeping England as well.  His letters to Coke of Norfolk and others are copious, and well-informed.  So the farmers of England (and that’s just about everyone) thought he was pretty sound too.

Then came the American Revolution–and this is a curious thing–because when encountering the colonial complaints and their cries of tyranny, the English living in England didn’t actually know what to make of it.  For a start, they couldn’t figure out what the colonials were talking about.

The cries about the tyrant who imposed unfair taxes, without representation, didn’t even make sense to an 18th century Englishman, because he knew that the king had no say over taxation.  The king didn’t and couldn’t raise taxes–he had nothing to say to the matter one way or another.

(And George III was remarkably frugal.  [There’s another word for it, and that would be nip-farthing…ehem…another reason his British subjects liked him…])

He didn’t have executive power either as stated previously.  So all that George III is a tyrant stuff–that was lost on us.


In the wake of the American Revolution, George III’s reputation did suffer–people here thought that he really should have sent over lots more troops and kicked some sense into the fractious colonials.

But, he and his ministers knew something too (had known something for some time)–and that is that the American Revolution had been paid for by the French crown; the American troops had been led by French officers, their food supplies sent from France, along with all their uniforms, their munitions, etc.

(For a detailed account of the French crown’s investment and Congress’s subsequent reneging of those massive loans–which incidentally caused France’s bankruptcy and hence its slide into Revolution–see Maurice Lever’s three volume biography of Beaumarchais, who in addition to being the author of The Marriage of Figaro, was Louis XVI’s agent in the affair.)

And once the Revolution was over in 1783, and British attention refocused on matters closer to home–as in across the Channel where Englishmen did a lot of their business–George’s reputation recovered.

Then came the first Regency crisis…

Prinny RussellUntil that point, Prince George had been your average rebellious prince, playing around with the naughty crowd–the Devonshire set–in moves designed to set his parents’ teeth on edge…but the Regency crisis changed all that.

And when George III recovered his wits, (just as the French Revolution was about to kick off…) there was more than a whiff of bad odour about the business.

There were, and there had been, echoes of Henry IV’s rage over Prince Hal’s ‘trying on the crown’ in the air (see Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two).

Prince George had been far too eager for power…And that was felt to be truly offensive…And I think it’s safe to say their relationship never really recovered.

Meanwhile, George III went back to kinging, to supporting the arts and manufacture, to farming which was his passion.  He may still have felt the loss of the colonies most keenly, but as the French Revolution unfolded and the genocidal violence reached its nadir, old George–devoted to his country, his family, his farm and his people–looked better and better.

He became a symbol of stability, of the English nation that would not bow to the tyrannical violence and bloodshed of Republican France.  Once Napoleon came on the scene and with his military might swallowed up most of Europe, George’s reputation smelled rosier and rosier.

As he aged–and soldiered on on their behalf–he was regarded with great affection by his subjects.  They truly loved him and truly felt great empathy for his physical sufferings and his final descent into blindness, deafness and madness caused by porphyria.

As for George IV, his reputation never did recover.  A disloyal child–to the Georgian mind–was one of the great banes of existence.   There were scores of disinherited children during this period… And George had crossed that line and was perceived as disloyal to his father and disloyal to the king and therefore to the country.

But what’s curious though is that whilst George IV, both as Regent and King, was hated–certainly by the London press–no move was ever made to get rid of him.

(Again, no suggestions of an anarcho-syndacalist commune…and this is important, because often when one considers the history of a place or period, what’s missing is as significant as what’s there…)

And had the problem been with the concept of monarchy, as some people imagine it must have been, Parliament might have stepped in.  They’d done it before…

But they didn’t.

And for all that the newspapers and cartoonists of the day loathed and mocked Prinny, what’s peculiar is the grounds for their so-called hatred:  his licentiousness and profligacy.  Because here’s the thing–as I’ve mentioned earlier, there are more saucy stories about Edward VII than about nearly everyone else put together.  But that doesn’t seem to have bothered either the press or the populace.  By comparison to Edward, Prinny was an amateur, a kindergartner…

And he did a number of quite innovative and good things.

He insisted that Britain should NOT participate in the art-grab when the allies were breaking up the vast collection of artwork in the Louvre, pillaged from all over Europe.  He wouldn’t accept any of those pillaged treasures as gifts either.  He was a patron of the arts and letters–particularly letters–his patronage meant a great deal to Sir Walter Scott and did much to transform the anti-Scottish sentiment which had been the norm in England.

He was the first British monarch since the 17th century to visit Scotland and he loved it there and did everything he could to promote it–so those kudos do not belong to Victoria and Albert either–George IV had already begun the work.

He was also the first monarch to appear in tartan dress.  (Yes, I know that a regular kilt requires 14 yards of fabric, and one for a chap with a 50″ waist just makes my eyes pop…but, well, he probably kept at least one tartan weaver in work for over year…)

When he died, he wasn’t mourned particularly.  The people had loved his daughter, Charlotte…But George IV’s brother, William IV, was much loved too.  He drank too much–they all did–but he was regarded with genuine affection.  And his reign had seen the beginning of many of the reforms that Victoria is often credited with…

And now?  Now we regard the monarchy and our dear Queen with affection and appreciation–probably just as his subjects regarded George III–so my advice to those writing about Britain–don’t infer that we regard our kings or queens with anything other than full-hearted gratitude.  Regardless of what the press are blabbing about.  And many of us sing with full gusto every time we hear the music, those famous strains of Handel’s coronation anthem:  “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.  And all the people rejoiced and said, God save the King!  Long live the King.  May the King live forever.  Alleluia!  Alleluia…Amen.”

And we mean it.  Every word of it.

What the Regency is and is not…

I know, I know…why am I returning to this old chestnut?  You wish to read something new, entertaining, disgusting and/or engaging… (And where have I been for the last month, anyway, slacker that I am?)

(Off for the holidays, since you ask.  Followed by a vicious bout of manflu.  So much so that I can now say, with absolute conviction than manflu is not a weenie version of influenza but was in fact the secret biological weapon of the Spanish Inquisition or possibly of Dr. John Dee working undercover as a Tudor torturer in the Tower of London…)

But back to this Regency business…

I have, in fact, already attempted to herd the fantasists into some verisimilitude of historical accuracy or other in my previous blog on the subject where I discussed the actual dates of the Regency, in my so aptly titled blog, What exactly is the Regency, anyway?   And you would have thought that would be the end of it. 

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. 

Now I hear–courtesy of the ubiquitous grapevine that is the internet–that one or other or several of our charming colonial cousins are insisting at some length and indeed volume that the Regency actually started in the late 18th century and that history isn’t the only criterion.  Or something. 

(I don’t know–I could have heard that wrong or I may have had a bit of fluff in my ear…)

To which I feel forced to ask, therefore, how are you defining the word Regency?  What does the word, in fact, mean, when you’re using it? 

Are you using it in reference to a period of time during which George III had been found to have lost his senses, irreparably impairing his ability to govern and his son and heir was made acting head of state, aka the Regent? 

Then you would be talking, as I have outlined, of a period beginning 5 February 1811 when the Regency Act became law and the death of the king in 1820. 

Or, you could stretch the point and date it slightly earlier, beginning-ish a year or so earlier, when George III’s mental health began to deteriorate as it had previously and his son and heir stepped in ex officio to keep things ticking over and running smoothly–it was a time of war, with all the matters of state that entails–until such time as his father recovered or his condition stabilised. 

But what if you don’t care a jot about history?  Fair enough.  Are you speaking culturally?  What if you’re talking about architecture?  Or furniture design?  Or when Napoleon was gallivanting about the Continent calling himself Emperor?

blokeWhat if, indeed, when you say Regency you’re actually picturing in your mind a chappie with his hair cropped and unpowdered, wearing a high white cravat constructed of heavily starched linen about his neck, a high crowned bevor on his head (which looks quite similar to our top hats), a tightly fitted tailored wool coat, a plain waistcoat and very tight buckskin breeches?  What if that’s what Regency means to you? 

Well, that definition of Regency would date the beginning of said period with the arrival of Mr. George Brummell in London and his appearance–which shocked his fellow members at White’s, particularly those of an older generation than himself–dressed as above. 

copy-of-beau-bonhamsBrummell bought his house in Chesterfield Street in 1799.  He also became a member of White’s Club in that year.  Though it wasn’t until 1802-3 that Londoners were treated to the first public appearance of the strangulation device known as the starched cravat.  He had also cropped his hair by that point.  And like many of his generation, he was no longer using powder–which was then heavily taxed to pay for the already long war with France. 

1802-3 is also the year that the French Empire waist made a strong showing in ladies wear, here in England.  The Peace of Amiens with France meant that travel was briefly possibly for those of means and what they did was pop over to France for a spot of shopping. 

The fashion for dressing in white muslin was not new–Marie Antoinette had swathed herself in layers of white muslin–but the simpler silhouette we associate with the early 19th century was. 

If you’re talking about furniture design, well, again the dates aren’t what you’d expect.  We associate the designs of Thomas Sheraton with the best of the period, yet his famous book of designs was not published until 1812 and it was published posthumously. 

HoratioNelsonThere’s quite a lot of gilded furniture about at the time too–all those gold leaf porpoises are furniture for the Age of Nelson–who was the great Naval hero.  Was he a Regency gentleman?  He wore his hair in a queue, and powdered, and had he been asked, would have told you and with some passion that he served George III and his country.  He was no “Regency gentleman”.  He died in 1805, well before George III’s descent into blindness, deafness and madness…

If you’re talking about the delicious interiors of Robert Adam, such as at Osterley Park, home of Lady Sally Jersey (absolutely gorgeous–a most lust-worthy residence!) you’d actually be talking about the 1780s when Adam and his rival James Wyatt were at the height of their powers and popularity…

pittWas William Pitt a Regency gentleman?  He was Prime Minister (until his death in 1806) during all the early years of the wars with France and Napoleon, yet while he lived and worked, George III retained a firm grip on the reins of government. 

Viscount Castlereagh, husband to one of Almack’s Lady Patronesses, and a political force of incalculable stature powdered his hair all his life.  And he didn’t drink to excess.  He hardly drank at all and he never drank spirits, though he was one person the Prince Regent considered a close and trusted friend.  Not what one would expect necessarily, is it?

(Almack’s Assembly Rooms themselves had opened in 1764…)

Or perhaps the word Regency indicates to you a certain sexual license and profligacy as exemplified by the Prince of Wales and frequently lampooned in the London newspapers and cartoons of the era.  Hmn.  

I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings and all that, but the previous generation’s morals, particularly those of the Whig aristocracy, were a great deal more…ah…exciting than those of the Prince Regent.  Check out the doings at Chatsworth when Prinny was yet a spotty adolescent living at Kew, if you doubt me–they make the poor man appear positively staid. 

Moreover, yes, I know that the Prince was considered universally unpopular and that is the picture one will arrive at if one relies solely on the London media–which was Radical and libellous by any standard.  

alexander 1814But here’s the thing–I was recently reading about a trip the Tsar and the Prince Regent made to Oxford during the summer of 1814.  Anyway, the Tsar left the dinner and parties early and flounced back to London (yes, it was rude–he was good at that!) because what he particularly liked was fawning adulation and the applause of the crowds–and he loved London for that.  The London crowds adored him and booed the Prince Regent. 

Yet in Oxford, the crowds were wild in their support for…yes, you guessed it…the Prince Regent, and loudly cheered him wherever he went, even as they ignored the Tsar.  And the Tsar didn’t like that. 

Which begs the question–did the London journalists and satirists actually speak for and reflect public opinion at the time or did they just shout the loudest and longest, drowning out all other voices?  And was there such a thing as public opinion in the early 19th century, anyway?

I could, of course, list dozens of more anomalies…and I’m happy to do so…but I think what I’m most trying to say is that for all that the word Regency is today used quite loosely to designate a period of time-ish, historical reality isn’t like that. 

Nothing happens all at once–and certainly not in a neatly contained box with dated end-papers put there for the convenience of later generations’ school essays.  Change occurs gradually and often generationally. 

Beau Brummell may have introduced his version of menswear and its astonishing wonder of the clean world, the cravat, in 1802, but not everybody hopped on the bandwagon and suddenly dressed like that. 

The elder generations thought he looked like a numpty and certainly didn’t ape him–to them, he probably appeared as the first Goth appeared in the 1980s–equal parts shocking, daft, foppish and unBritish or some such thing.  Those who did take up his lead initially were only a handful of young men from a tiny coterie of very rich and very aristocratic families.  (And it’s doubtful their parents approved.) 

Equally, in 1802, the majority hadn’t the means in that time of inflation and war to throw out their serviceable clothing in favour of what was new from London or from Paris.  Nor did they chuck out their serviceable chairs and tables the second the new catalogue came out from Ikea in 1812…

As the old was worn out, it was replaced with the new–the new cut, the new fashion in colours, the new fabrics from wherever.  Just as there came a time when the older generation was comprised of men and women who’d grown up thinking that Brummell dressed as a gentleman should dress, who had no personal memory of the old mad king, and believed that bagwigs belonged in the prop cupboard for family theatricals.  But this all requires the passage of unminuted time…

So, back to the definition?  Is that any clearer?  I don’t know…I hope so. 

Prinny RussellBut I will tell you one more thing.  Regardless of what they may wish had happened, the United States did not have a Regency period.  And do you know why?  Because in order to have a Regency, you require a king or an emperor kind of person who is in need of someone to run things for him while he’s not of age or of mental ability…and a king is one thing America did not have–they’d taken care of that by 1783. 

(Instead, the Americans had Thomas Jefferson and his rabid Anglo-phobia…to be followed by James Madison and his rabid Anglo-phobic policies which culminated in a declaration of war in 1812…And I’m fairly certain that did not stem from any desire to rejoin the Mother Country and share once more in the joys and privileges of having a Prince Regent…Ehem.)

Napoleon as Romantic Hero? Let me think…

Poor, poor, poor, poor Napoleon.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauI mean, look at him, poor fellow, sent by that nasty-wasty British Government (what a pack of Grinches, eh?) to that pestiferous outcrop of black rocks in the middle of bally-nowhere, a.k.a. the island of St. Helena, and all because he’d been just a little naughty and had the bad luck to lose at Waterloo.  I mean, are they a bunch of bad winners or what?  Meanies.
Yes, yes, yes…of course I’ve made the mistake (again) of reading a blog by someone or other about poor, poor, poor old Boney.  And how he was forced into surrendering to the Brits, blah-di-blah…
Uhm, could we just go over a fact or two here?  Like about how he came to be in that position in the first place?
napoleon1814So, in the spring of 1814, after having run rampant over the Continent since roughly 1796, slaughtering some 5-6 million people in the process, all the way from the coast of Portugal in the west to the Kremlin in the east, Napoleon (poor fellow) had been beat to a standstill by the Allied forces of the Prussians, Russians and Austrians at the gates of Paris.
And following the Battle of Paris, when the Russians whooped those French troops who were meant to defend the capital, having drained the country of every ounce of anything resembling food or fodder or hard cash, Napoleon who was hanging out at Fontainbleau, was urged, advised, encouraged by his advisors and marshalls and generals, for the sake of the country, to abdicate power.
Which he did.  But not before he had attempted suicide, swallowing a delicious concoction of opium, belladonna and white hellebore, which he’d carried on his person for some time.  But he apparently had the constitution of an ox.  Or the poison had lost its viv during the disastrous Russian campaign, so he, er, was soon found sitting at the table (which I have seen) signing his name to the abdication papers.
So, what to do with the troublesome teen, eh?  Bootcamp?  Outward Bound?  Betty Ford?
alexander 1814The Tsar of all Russia, Alexander I, because he still rather liked and admired Napoleon, conceived of the clever plan to ship him off to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, where he could still have his own little kingdom and be happy making daisy-chains and frolicking in the sunshine and things.
The French, like Talleyrand, thought it was a bad idea.  The Austrians thought it was a disastrous idea.  The Prussians wanted him executed by firing squad.  And the British refused to have anything to do with it because they heartily disapproved–they thought it was asking for trouble.
Nevertheless, it fell to the Brits to get him there and keep him there by virtue of the fact that the Royal Navy rules the waves of the Mediterranean and elsewhere and nobody else had any ships to speak of.  So on 4 May 1814, HMS Undaunted delivered him to the 16-mile-long island of Elba.
Hence, during the ensuing months, everyone across Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief, ate food, slept in their beds without worrying about their villages being pillaged and shelled, and then met in Vienna to try and sort out some kind of modern peace plan for the much-trampled-on peoples of Europe.  This lasted for months.
During which time, Napoleon, down on his island poverty-dise constructed a new palace, furnished it, taxed the population, came up with various schemes, waited for his wife and son to arrive (they never did) and got bored.  So, on 26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped his lead, boarded the 16-gun brig, Inconstant, and made for France.
Where he proceeded to raise a new army.
The restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII eventually skedaddled and headed for Belgium.
wellingtonThe Duke of Wellington, who’d been busy at the Congress of Vienna, also headed for Belgium where he was to be Commander in Chief of the Allied Army; the Prussian Army under General Blucher also got moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, the crowned heads of Europe had put together a statement which read “The Powers declare that Napoleon Buonaparte has placed himself outside all human relations and that, as the enemy and disturber of the peace of the world, he has delivered himself up to public justice.”  And for good measure they claimed that he had forfeited “his sole lawful right to exist.”
It was the 1815 equivalent of the United Nations declaring someone an international war criminal, really.
And some 100 days following his escape, Napoleon was beaten, rolled up, squashed, creamed and otherwise defeated at the 4-day event now known as the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).
But what happened then? you ask.  Didn’t poor, poor, poor Napoleon just get snatched up by those clamouring bullies the English and thrown higgledy-piggledy onto the HMS Bellerophon without so much as an embroidered imperial hanky?
Er, no.  Not really.
The British were kind of busy, er, mopping up at Waterloo and in Brussels, you might say.  Total casualties of the days’ fighting were something in the region of 115,000 men.  Napoleon’s losses were approximately 41,400 killed or wounded, 7000 captured and 10,000 missing.
Those are big numbers.
Nevertheless, having just inflicted this new grievous loss upon France, Napoleon headed back to Paris, determined to raise yet another army–he had a plan to use General Grouchy’s troops as a core, combine them with the reserves of the National Guard and…and…impose a new round of conscription (also known as the blood tax) in order to take on the Allies with a new army of 300,000 in order to avenge Waterloo.
(I kid you not.  That was his new plan.)
But others in France…well, this time they weren’t so keen.  Or maybe they’d finally worked out that he was stark, raving bonkers and a power-junkie megalomaniac.  So, these fellows, including many within his own government, got to work to undermine him.  They included his former minister of police, Fouche, and several prominent men in the French legislature, including the Marquis de Lafayette, a former Bonapartist and hero of the American and French Revolutions.
Napoleon’s brother Lucien spoke to defend his brother as did the author of the novel, Manon Lescaut, Emmanuel Sieyes.
But it was Lafayette’s words which carried the day in response to a cry to rally the French to “drive the barbarians from our country.”
“Have you forgot where the bones of our sons and brothers whiten?  The deserts of Egypt, the snows of Russia, and now the plains of Belgium–Will it also be the streets of Paris?  France,” Lafayette lamented, already had a few million victims “of this one man who wanted to fight all Europe!  Enough!”
While the French legislature debated, Napoleon’s friends and advisors (including brother Lucien) were urging him to send in the army in order to seize power.  Advice that, for once, he did not take.
napo-creepOn 22 June–four days after the catastrophe at Waterloo–the French legislature ordered him to step down from the throne of his own free will or they would remove him.  They gave him an hour to make up his mind.  At 3.00 in the afternoon, therefore, for the second time, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated.
And with the Allied powers now heading for or encamped in Paris, Napoleon decided the best plan was to scarper.  Note that–it was his idea.
He first headed out to Malmaison, the home he’d shared with Josephine on the banks of the Seine, until he’d divorced her.  And now she was dead, though he felt her presence there…
Still, with the Prussians closing in–for the Prussians, whom his troops had brutalised for years and years, it was payback time–and the French unable or unwilling to guarantee his safety, the government ordered him out of France.
Ever the helpful one though, Napoleon offered to resume his post as general and rally the remaining army, then defeat the vicious invaders and cast them out, etc.
Strangely, this generous offer was declined.   So he left for the port of Rochefort secretly, where he trusted he would find a ship bound for the United States, or barring that, one bound for Mexico or South America.
He’d been told that there were two French frigates awaiting his pleasure, but, uh, when he got to Rochefort, they’d been joined by two of the Royal Navy’s finest, including HMS Bellerophon.  Ehem.  He toyed with the idea of escape, possibly in a barrel or on a small fishing boat, but then decided it was beneath his dignity, and so, on 15 July, he surrendered to the British and boarded the Bellerophon.
He still had a plan.  This time it was that the British would offer him asylum.  (He seems to have missed that all that stuff about killing 5-6 million people and being a war criminal.  Or maybe he thought it was irrelevant.)
The British Government declined to take him up on this–I can’t possibly imagine why–and since the island-paradise-close-to-Europe plan hadn’t worked out so well for them, they opted for the island-hell-as-far-away-from-civilisation-as-possible (nearest neighbour 700 miles away) plan.
And so, on 17 October 1815, still protesting that he’d been tricked and cheated by the British Government (yuh, like that’s credible) he was landed at Jamestown, St. Helena…where he died, in May 1821.  But not before he did his best to rewrite history and claim that all he’d ever really wanted was peace…
Yuh, right.  Poor baby.
Romantic hero?  I don’t think so…

200 years ago today ~ War and a new Government…

I shall be brief. 

You may recall that on 11 May 1812, Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. 

Now today this might have triggered a new Parliamentary election or an election of a new leader of whichever party held power, or even the accession of a Deputy Prime Minister to the post of Prime Minister. 

However, 200 years ago, the post of Prime Minister was in the gift of the Prince Regent.  And the chappie who accepted that gift-post needed then to fill the other various Cabinet positions from among his political allies, friends and even relations.

With Perceval’s death, many had expected the Prince Regent to turn to his former drinking cronies, the Whigs–those to whom he’d always promised power when he wasn’t in a position to give it–to find and form a Government from amongst their ranks. 

But that’s precisely what the Prince Regent didn’t do.

Instead, he turned first to Sir Richard Wellesley, Lord Wellington’s elder brother and another former drinking partner.   

Still, there was a problem. 

Too many of the current Cabinet Ministers and others in the Tory party distrusted Wellesley.  Also, he’d had published a critique of Perceval’s premiership after Perceval’s death, in the Times.  You couldn’t top this for being dishonourable. 

So, Wellesley needed to elicit the support of some of the front bench of the Whig benches.  However, the two biggest shots, and obvious choices, were Lords Grey and Greville and neither of them would join a Cabinet that did not promise to push through Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. 

And the problem with that was?  The Prince Regent was wholly against the idea and would have none of it. 

Hence, Wellesley had to eventually tell HRH that he couldn’t do the job, he couldn’t form a Government.  Full stop.

Then, on 21 May, a chap by the name of Wortley called for a vote of ‘confidence’ in the Government, claiming that “…the administration which was now upon the eve of being formed was inadequate to meet the exigencies of the times…” and “that the present government was not very strong, even with the aid of Mr. Perceval’s great talents…and that they were certainly worse than weak without them.”

Nice, eh?  We’ve got a little governmental crisis here, we’re in the midst of a world war, so what shall we do?  Oh, I think add the toppling of the Government to it, don’t you?  Great idea! 

The Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, speaking in the House of Commons, addressed the motion thusly:  “At no period of our history was it more necessary that a Government should be formed of the united talent and honour of the nation…” 

He announced his readiness to resign from his position as Foreign Secretary.  Then he added, “But for the moment, but for the moment, the whole attention of the administration should be bent to the great difficulties in which the country is placed, and, above all, to conducting the war on the Peninsula on the largest possible scale.”

The Government lost the vote by four votes. 

The Prince Regent now did as was expected of him.  He turned to the Whig peer, Lord Moira. 

And Lord Moira had the cunning plan to form a coalition government by bringing in George Canning (Lord Castlereagh’s rival and enemy–they’d even fought a duel over Canning’s backstabbing ways–which ended with a bullet in Canning’s thigh…Whoops.) and his chums. 

But that didn’t work out so well either.  There were a number of people who didn’t quite trust Canning after the behaviour which had led to the duel.  He wasn’t, as it were, considered a gentleman

So…there we are…sitting in Brook’s Club on 8 June, with the Whig MP, Thomas Creevey , who was writing to his wife and telling her quite jubilantly that Lord Moira had been made Prime Minister that day.  When what should happen, but Castlereagh walked past him and stopped to have a brief word. 

Whereupon Creevey finished his letter this way:  “Well this is beyond anything, Castlereagh has just told us that Moira resigned the commission this morning, and that His Royal Highness had appointed Lord Liverpool Prime Minister.  Was there ever anything equal to this?”

The new administration was in place by 200 years ago today:  Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister; Lord Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office and became Leader of the House of Commons as well; Lord Sidmouth took over the Home Office…

The first order of business that the new administration undertook on 16 June was to repeal the Orders in Council–those Orders which had brought the 50-year old United States to the point of declaring war with Great Britain. 

But their action came too late.

For on the very same day, the United States Congress–led by the War Hawks and President James Madison, who were eager to take full advantage of Britain’s large-scale military commitments in the Peninsula against Napoleon’s troops there to launch their own land grab of Canada, and fully expecting their favourite ally, Napoleon to conquer Russia–declared war on Great Britain. 

There were those who expected that with the repeal of the Orders in Council, the alleged cassus belli, the Americans back down by saying, “Righto, that’s us sorted,” and war would be averted. 

But that sanguine hope was not to be fulfilled. 

And there you have it.  A busy day all round, wasn’t it?

200 years ago today ~ the Trial of John Bellingham

Imagine what would have happened if Winston Churchill had been assassinated in May 1944. 

Instantly all sorts of frightening scenarios flood the mind, don’t they? 

Would Britain have won the war?  Was it a Nazi plot?  Who or what was the next target?  How would security have been expanded?  Could it have been expanded?  Would Hitler have used the event and the terror it caused to launch an even more appalling strike?  An invasion, perhaps?  Who would have taken up the job of Prime Minister?  Who was left?   

The possibilities are endless.  And, as I say, frightening.

Well, exactly 200 years ago today, this is exactly the situation in which Britain found herself.  The assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 changed everything! 

Not only that, but Perceval was Chancellor of the Exchequer too.  So you might say that the assassin, John Bellingham, had taken out heart of government with a single shot. 

And, as in my imagined scenario of 1944, all of Europe was at war and had been for a long, long time. 

Times were turbulent, both domestically and abroad.  There was hardly a country in Europe whose government or hereditary ruler hadn’t been deposed by Napoleon, mafia-style, and one of his feckless siblings put on the throne.  Whole countries had been absorbed by others and turned into French satellites.  Across the Atlantic, the Americans had been gearing up for a war in which they could land-grab Canada.  At home, there were the Luddite disturbances in the north, the harvests had been bad for several years running, and the King was mad.  And they were fighting a war against a military genius with an empire which ranged from Spain to Russia…

Insecurity was normal.  

The most immediate effects of the assassination were felt, as was to be expected, here at home.  Hence, during the evening of the 11th, the Cabinet met for hours, hammering out a series of security measures which they trusted would keep the peace and prevent panic from overtaking the realm: 

Sharpshooters were installed atop government buildings.  The Household Guard–those troops responsible for guarding the King and Queen at Windsor and the Prince Regent in London–their numbers were trebled.  The mails were stopped until further notice.  The militia was called out in mass to patrol the streets of London.  The Thames River Police were given orders to search vessels for possible conspirators. 

Nevertheless, fear, panic, terror and distress gripped the nation as the news filtered out from the capital.  It was no non-event, such as history books might suggest.  No, it had more in common with the terrorist attacks of 7/7.

Not only that, but the British were right to suspect the hand of France in it.  Because, let’s face it, by 1812, the French Emperor was good at coups. 

So, at 5.25 p.m. on 11 May 1812, when Bellingham fired that fatal shot at point-blank range, the MPs tore about the place, shouting it was a conspiracy, and searching for accomplices.  There was precedent!

Yet, though it took many people time to accept this, there were no co-conspirators.  Indeed, though the British didn’t know it, Napoleon had left Paris for Dresden on the 9th May, on his way to joining his half a million troops massed in Prussia and Poland, ready for the invasion of Russia. 

Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, was one of those who doubted that Bellingham’s action had been part of a conspiracy or coup.  Even as he assuredly kept his intelligence agents busy looking for enemy agents and the “Black Chamber” of the Post Office was opening every foreign letter…

Which might have been some comfort.  But not much. 

So what next? 

On the 12th, Parliament voted a handsome annuity to Perceval’s wife and 12 children in recognition of his service to the country.  Lord Castlereagh tried to speak to the motion, tried to articulate his affection for his friend and colleague, but broke down sobbing and had to be escorted back to his seat. 

London itself appeared to be under martial law–what with the number of militia on every street.

And, there were ramifications.  Very serious ones.  First off, they needed to find a new Prime Minister.  But what would happen to the war effort?  Would another Prime Minister continue the fight against Napoleon, would he support Wellington’s efforts in the Peninsula, would he secure the troops Wellington needed, and the supplies?

Meanwhile, what of the assassin, the man who had unleashed this latest bout of insecurity upon the nation? 

Since the early hours of the 12th, Bellingham had been incarcerated at Newgate prison, in a cell adjoining the chapel. 

All day the 12th and the 13th, as Castlereagh was speaking and weeping, and as Perceval was being laid to rest, Bellingham was visited by the sheriffs and other public functionaries.  He remained cheerful and was quite clear in all his conversation that when he came to trial, it would “be seen how far he was justified.”  And he repeated that he considered the whole a private matter between himself and the Government which had given him carte blanche to do his worst…

Four days after the death of the Prime Minister, on the 15th May 1812, Bellingham was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. 

At 10.00, the judges took their seats on either side of the Lord Mayor.  The recorder, the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and nearly all the aldermen of the City of London crowded onto the bench.  The court was packed with MPs, jostling among the throng.

At length, Bellingham, wearing a light brown surtout coat and a striped yellow waistcoat, appeared–his hair was unpowdered, the press noted.  He appeared undismayed by the whole.  He bowed to the Court respectfully and even gracefully, some said.

The Attorney General opened the case for the prosecution and several witnesses were called.  Several more witnesses were called in defence to testify that they considered Bellingham insane.  Eventually, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield gave the summing up, and the jury retired to consider the verdict.  

Fourteen minutes later, a guilty verdict was returned.  The death sentence was passed and Bellingham was ordered for execution on the following Monday–the 18th. 

From the moment of his condemnation, Bellingham (as was custom) was fed on bread and water.  Any means of suicide were removed from his cell and he was not allowed to shave–which bothered him.  On Sunday, he was visited by a number of religious gentlemen to whom he resolutely maintained his innocence. 

But what of the rest of the world?  What of the war? 

With the sudden vacancy at the top, those men who’d longed for power began shifting about, seeing this as their opportunity.   The Opposition party, the Whigs, thought that their moment had arrived and hourly expected messengers to invite them to a meeting with the Prince Regent, during which they would happily accept his offer to form a government–which for the war effort would have been nothing short of disaster. 

Meanwhile, Richard Wellesley (brother to the Duke of Wellington) had intended to launch a savage attack on Perceval and his conduct of the war prior to the 11th.  But when he’d sat in the House of Lords, with his notes before him, he’d gone blank and hadn’t made the speech.  Yet, within a day of Perceval’s death, those notes had been found and their gist printed in The Times

The nation was appalled by such bad taste and as one turned against Wellesley. 

Still, strangely, the Prince Regent did send for him (Wellesley was an old friend and gaming companion), though not to offer him the Premiership.  No, it was only to assess how many friends Wellesley could find who would be willing to serve in alongside him in a Cabinet. 

That list turned out to be woefully short. 

Just one man–George Canning–said yes.  (And George Canning was known not to be a gentleman.  Indeed, there were just as many men who wouldn’t serve alongside Canning…)  Too many were offended by his complaints that Perceval had not been willing to spend enough in support of the war and Lord Wellington’s troops, while at the same time trying to negotiate with Whigs who criticised Perceval for spending too much and who had declared themselves against the was effort in Spain and Portugal. 

Next, the Prince Regent would turn to Lord Moira, a Whig, to see if he could form a government…which would have been a very different sort of government and would most assuredly have seen Britain suing for peace with the Americans and with Napoleon–thus ending Wellington’s career.  (Would Napoleon have been defeated without him?) 

The Whigs were jubilant and loud in their triumph.  The officers and under-secretaries at the Admiralty and at Horse Guards were appalled.

But again, Moira turned to George Canning and his followers for support, so this went nowhere.  Even as the country seethed with instability and uncertainty. 

Eventually, another of William Pitt’s disciples (as Castlereagh and Perceval were), Lord Liverpool, was appointed Prime Minister by the Prince Regent.   He kept much of the existing Cabinet appointments intact–Castlereagh remained at the Foreign Office, but added Leader of the House to his list of duties.  And the war against the French was pursued even more vigorously to the total defeat of the French Empire and the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

But, 200 years ago today, they didn’t know all that…and on 15th May, they couldn’t even begin to imagine it.