When the King of France lived in England

When Louis XVIII, King of France, returned to his country to ascend the throne after Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, he sailed from England, his home for the preceding seven years. The King’s younger brother, the Count of Artois (future King Charles X of France), had lived in England for even longer. In fact, the entire French royal family lived in England throughout much of the Napoleonic Wars, generously subsidized by the British government.

Louis XVIII, King of France, leaving Hartwell House, 1814

Louis XVIII, King of France, leaving Hartwell House, 1814

Escaping the French Revolution

Louis XVIII (then known as the Count of Provence) escaped from France in June 1791, at the same time that his older brother, Louis XVI, and his family tried unsuccessfully to flee the country. The Count of Artois had left France two years earlier, shortly after the storming of the Bastille.

With a small court of émigrés, the Count of Provence took refuge in Brussels, then in Coblenz, and then in Hamm, Westphalia. In 1795, upon learning of the death in prison of his nephew, Louis-Charles (son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were executed in 1793), Louis XVIII proclaimed himself the rightful King of France.

As the reach of Republican France, and subsequently Napoleon’s Empire, expanded, progressively fewer courts were willing to host the exiled French royal family. Louis XVIII and his entourage shuffled to Verona, Blankenburg, Mittau (Jelgava), Warsaw, and then – in 1805 – back to Mittau, which was under the rule of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Meanwhile, the Count of Artois, with his own followers, went to Britain.

In July 1807, Tsar Alexander signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon. Knowing he was no longer safe in Mittau, Louis XVIII went to Sweden to consult with King Gustavus IV Adolphus. Louis was in need of money, as the pension he had been getting from Spain – now under Napoleon’s control – had stopped. He was also jealous of his brother, Artois, who was receiving British subsidies and directing a network of royalist agents. Louis travelled to Gothenburg where he embarked for Britain on the Swedish frigate Freya.

Arrival in England

Louis XVIII, King of France

Louis XVIII, King of France

On October 29, 1807, Louis XVIII, accompanied by his nephews the Duke of Angoulême and the Duke of Berry (sons of the Count of Artois), as well as members of the French nobility, arrived at Yarmouth. There was scrambling on the part of the British government, since Louis had failed to give notice of his intention to visit the country. King George III is said to have expressed “considerable surprise” on hearing of the French royal family’s arrival. (1)

The British government was willing to give Louis XVIII asylum as a private individual, but did not want to receive him in the capacity of King of France. They offered him Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, where the Count of Artois had stayed from 1796 to 1803. “The illustrious Prince,” however,

on being informed of his destined residence, and that it was provided for him as a safe and hospitable asylum, refused to proceed thither, observing that he wanted no asylum; that, contrary to report, it was not necessity that had induced him to come to this country; that he had a safe asylum in the Russian territory, where he had left his wife and niece; that the object of his journey was of a nature purely political, and immediately concerned his interest as King of France; and that rather than go to Scotland, or be treated otherwise than as a Sovereign claiming the aid of Britain to recover the sceptre of France, he would return to Russia. (2)

The government let him disembark on the condition that he abstain from political activity and reside at least 50 miles outside London. After being greeted by the Count of Artois and the other Bourbon princes (Prince of Condé and Duke of Bourbon) already in England, Louis proceeded to the mansion of Gosfield Hall in Essex, offered to him by the Marquis of Buckingham.

Louis adopted the title of Comte de L’Isle-Jourdain, which the British shortened to Count de Lille (or Count de Lisle). A local paper reported:

The Count de Lille appears greatly delighted with the residence of Gosfield, which presents a very striking contrast to the bleakness of the country which he has quitted. He walks a great deal; but, from his size, has now left off riding. The French in this country who wish to pay their respects to their Sovereign, write for permission to wait upon him, and are received agreeably to priority and rank. (3)

The King of France at Hartwell House

Louis XVIII taking a walk with the Duchess of Angoulême in the grounds of Hartwell House, circa 1810

Louis XVIII taking a walk with the Duchess of Angoulême in the grounds of Hartwell House, circa 1810

In August 1808, Louis was joined by his wife, Marie Joséphine of Savoy, and his niece, the Duchess of Angoulême (daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), who had remained at Mittau. To accommodate them, he moved to Hartwell House, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Hartwell belonged to the Reverend Sir George Lee, Baronet. Louis took it on a five-year lease.

The house and gardens, for which he is to pay 550£ per annum, are commodious and pleasant; but the former is hardly half-furnished. Louis XVIII is the first titular King of France who has set foot in this country since the year 1364, when John, taken prisoner by the Black Prince, at the battle of Poitiers, in 1356, died in London, at the Palace of the Savoy, in the Strand. (4)

In November 1809, in honour of the 50th anniversary of King George III’s reign, Louis donated £100 to the poor of the parishes of Hartwell, Aylesbury and Stowe. He also gave an “excellent dinner of roast beef and plum pudding” to the prisoners in the county jail. (5)

Although Louis was not allowed to meet with members of the British government, he corresponded with them. He received visits from French émigrés and was frequently entertained by sympathetic members of the British aristocracy. At one shooting party with Lord Talbot, he was said to be “the most unerring shot in this country.” (6)

Diarist Charles Greville described a visit to Hartwell with his father in 1812.

The house is large, but in a dreary, disagreeable situation. The King had completely altered the interior, having subdivided almost all the apartments in order to lodge a greater number of people. There were numerous outhouses, in some of which small shops had been established by the servants, interspersed with gardens, so that the place resembled a little town.

Upon entering the house, we were conducted by the Duc de Grammont into the King’s private apartment. He received us most graciously, and shook hands with both of us. This apartment was exceedingly small, hardly larger than a closet, and I remarked pictures of the late King and Queen, Madame Elizabeth, and the Dauphin, Louis XVII, hanging on the walls. The King had a manner of swinging his body backwards and forwards, which caused the  most unpleasant sensations in that small room, and made my father feel something like being sea-sick. …

After our audience with the King we were taken to the salon, a large room with a billiard table at one end. Here the party assembled before dinner, to all of whom we were presented – the Duchesse d’Angoulême, Monsieur the Duc d’Angoulême, the Duc de Berry, the Prince and Princess de Condé (ci-devant Madame de Monaco), and a vast number of ducs, &c.; …. At a little after six dinner was announced, when we went into the next room, the King walking out first. The dinner was extremely plain, consisting of very few dishes, and no wines except port and sherry. His Majesty did the honours himself, and was very civil and agreeable. We were a very short time at table, and the ladies and gentlemen all got up together. Each of the ladies folded up her napkin, tied it round with a bit of ribbon, and carried it away.

After dinner we returned to the drawing-room and drank coffee. The whole party remained in conversation about a quarter of an hour, when the King retired to his closet, upon which all repaired to their separate apartments. Whenever the King came in or went out of the room, Madame d’Angoulême made him a low curtsy, which he returned by bowing and kissing his hand. … After the party had separated we were taken to the Duc de Grammont’s apartments, where we drank tea. After remaining there about three quarters of an hour we went to the apartment of Madame d’Angoulême, where several card tables were laid out. The King played at whist with the Prince and Princess de Condé and my father. His Majesty settled the points of the game at ‘le quart d’un sheling.’ The rest of the party played at billiards or ombre. The King was so civil as to invite us to sleep there, instead of returning to the inn at Aylsebury. …

In the morning when I got out of bed, I was alarmed by the appearance of an old woman on the leads before my window, who was hanging linen to dry. I was forced to retreat hastily to bed, not to shock the old lady’s modesty. At ten the next morning we breakfasted, and at eleven we took leave of the King (who always went to Mass at that hour) and returned to London. We saw the whole place before we came away; and they certainly had shown great ingenuity in contriving to lodge such a number of people in and about the house – it was exactly like a small rising colony. (7)

The French royals also did some sightseeing during their years in England. They visited, among other places, Blenheim, Oxford, Woburn Abbey, Arundel Castle, the Isle of Wight, Cheltenham, Gloucester and Bath.

British support for the King of France

Though it was reported that “the unfortunate Prince [did not have] patrimony of his own sufficient to buy himself a brown loaf,” Louis XVIII had some family jewels, an annual British pension of £16,000, and the equivalent of £1,600 a year from Portugal and £4,000 from Russia. (8) When Louis’s wife, Marie Joséphine, died of edema at Hartwell House on November 13, 1810, the British government paid part of the cost of her funeral, which was held at Westminster Abbey.

The Prince of Wales (future King George IV), a strong supporter of the Bourbons, promised to restore Louis XVIII to the French throne at a time when few thought such a feat was possible. On June 19, 1811, Louis XVIII and his family were the guests of honour at the Prince’s lavish fête at Carlton House in London, to celebrate his new position as Prince Regent of Britain. Some 2,000 guests attended.

The august personages arrived about ten o’clock in the evening, and were received in a room reserved expressly for them, hung with sky-blue satin embroidered with fleurs-de-lys in gold. This refined attention seemed to express, in an ingenious allegorical manner, the peace and prosperity which will one day, and perhaps before long, be for the universe the result of the re-establishment of legitimate authority in the place of the present disorder….

These illustrious and unfortunate victims of a revolution, of which 22 years have not relaxed the activity, nor softened the rigours, were received by all the assembly with the most delicate marks of respect and attention. It was the first time that his Majesty Louis XVIII and the interesting daughter of Louis XVI had appeared in public in England, and received the homage due to their rank and to their times. All eyes were naturally turned towards them, and to their august Host, who thus did them the honours of the nation. (9)

Threatening letters

Not everyone felt warmly about the presence of the King of France and his family in England. The Bourbons received various threatening letters, extracts of which were released to British papers.

You are of a bad Race, mercy is in the Protestant, you imposing Vagabonds Die by nostra manns. I visit your House every week you damn’d Villain – look at your Effigie inclosed.

Bone has offered a Dutchy for your Head he shall have it. Mind, a good Boat and many of us Prisoners of War will seize on you, put you into it at Yarmouth you Enemy of Europe. A Man can die but once you Vagabond Louis.

Your proceedings will not do, our intentions have been delayed in hopes of something being abjured or done on your part and the Prisoners of War your countrymen, restored to their Native land our party increase very strong against you and only temporize for a time, but many are near your own Person of our Party which makes us sure of our designs. So if I do not get my Friends home you shall be arrested, murdered, shot or slain. Charlotte Corday shall visit you first. You are at our Bar and renounce, adjure, or die by our hands.

You shall be attacked from us in our Prison Wincanton, Crediton, Tiverton, and other Places.

If there be any commotion among the People. The Populace know the Road to the House you live at. Resign your pretensions, live in peace, or be overcome in L’Assyle. Given at our association of Warning. (10)

The war ends

In general, British public opinion favoured the Bourbons. Napoleon’s defeat in Russia strengthened this enthusiasm. Louis XVIII issued a proclamation to the people of France, dated Hartwell, Feb. 1, 1813. It began:

The moment is at length arrived when Divine Providence appears ready to break in pieces the instrument of its wrath. The Usurper of the Throne of St. Louis, the devastator of Europe, experiences reverses in his turn. Shall they have no other effect but that of aggravating the calamities of France? And will she not dare to overturn an odious power, no longer protected by the illusions of victory? What prejudices, or what fears, can now prevent her from throwing herself into the arms of her King; and from recognizing, in the establishment of his legitimate authority, the only pledge of union, peace, and happiness, which his promises have so often guaranteed to his oppressed subjects? (11)

In the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh denied any British participation in the proclamation and said he had no intention of making the restoration of the Bourbons the basis of peace negotiations between the Allies and France. At the same time, the British government provided Louis with the financial means to print the declaration, and there were rumours that copies had been sent on board British ships for distribution on the coast of France. Dispatches from Hartwell House to European capitals were carried by British couriers.

In January 1814, conferences took place among Louis XVIII, the Bourbon princes, Lord Liverpool (the British Prime Minister) and the Foreign Office. On January 22, the Count of Artois, the Duke of Angoulême and the Duke of Berry left for the continent with British passports. In February, the Count of Artois arrived in Eastern France. One of his companions wrote:

We have been received in all the French towns and villages with acclamations by the whole of the people, and with cries of Vive le Roi Louis XVIII. Vive les Bourbons. … Every place desires to surrender to Louis XVIII. All France is ready to rise. … Had he been an angel from heaven the people could not have shown more eagerness to come to see him. (12)

On March 12, British and Portuguese troops under the Duke of Wellington arrived at Bordeaux. The Duke of Angoulême, who had been for some time at Wellington’s headquarters, made a triumphant entry into the city. On March 31, the Allies entered Paris.

Return to France

On April 6, 1814, Louis XVIII was proclaimed King of France. On April 20, dressed in the uniform of the Marshals of France, his hat surmounted with a plume of white feathers, the King of France left Hartwell. He was accompanied by the Duchess of Angoulême, the Prince of Condé, the Duke of Bourbon and their households. They were met by the Prince Regent at Stanmore. The party continued to London in a procession of six royal carriages, each drawn by six horses ornamented with white ribbons, together with outriders and attendants.

On the entrance of the procession into Hyde Park…the motion of the crowd in the wide part of the park became like a torrent. The procession arrived at Hyde Park Corner exactly at half past five o’clock, and proceeded along Piccadilly at a slow pace, amidst the shouts of the populace and congratulations of crowded houses, the compliments of the royal party at Pulteney Hotel, &c. Among the emblems of rejoicing, Devonshire House was the most conspicuous: over each gate were new English and French colours, and boughs of laurel.

A little before six o’clock, the cavalcade arrived at Grillon’s Hotel, Albemarle Street. The band of his Royal Highness the Duke of Kent was stationed near the hotel, who played, ‘God save the King’ as the distinguished persons alighted. As the carriage with the cream-coloured horses approached, in which were his Majesty Louis XVIII, and his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, the people unanimously huzzaed, the ladies from the windows waving their handkerchiefs. His Majesty had hold of the Prince’s arm, who conducted him to the principal apartment prepared for the French monarch by the especial order of the Prince Regent, fleurs de lis being embroidered in gold upon hangings of crimson velvet. In this superb room, the Earls of Buckinghamshire, Bathurst, and Liverpool, the Russian, Austrian, and Spanish Ambassadors, and about one hundred and fifty of the ancient French Noblesse were in attendance to receive his Majesty, who seemed much fatigued, an arm chair was brought, in which his Majesty seated himself, the Duke of York on his left, his Royal Highness the Prince Regent and the Duchess d’Angoulême on his right, the Prince de Conde and the Duc de Bourbon facing him, with all his suite surrounding him. The Marquis of Hertford and the Earl of Cholmondeley were behind the chair.

The Prince Regent then addressed his Majesty to the following effect:

‘Your Majesty will permit me to offer you my heartiest congratulations upon that great event which has always been amongst the warmest of my wishes, and which must eminently contribute to the happiness, not only of your Majesty’s people, but to the repose and happiness of all other nations. I am sure I may add that my own sentiments and feelings are in union with those of the universal British nation, and that the triumph and transport with which your Majesty will be received in your own capital can scarcely exceed the joy and satisfaction which your Majesty’s restoration to the throne of your ancestors has created in the capital of the British empire.’

His Majesty’s reply:

‘Your Royal Highness will accept my most sincere and grateful thanks for your Royal Highness’s congratulations – for the invariable kindness with which I have been treated by your Royal Highness and by every member of your illustrious house. It is to your Royal Highness’s councils – to this great country, and to the constancy of its people, that I shall always ascribe, under Providence, the restoration of our house to the throne of our ancestors, and that state of affairs which promises to heal the wounds, to calm the passions, and to restore the peace, tranquillity, and prosperity of all nations.’ (13)

The King of France then invested the Prince Regent with the Order of Saint Esprit. Later, at Carlton House, Louis XVIII was elected a Member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and given a Knighthood.

On April 23, the King of France and his family left London for Dover. The papers reported:

Every house, even the meanest, is full of lights from top to bottom. … The inhabitants are parading the town with white cockades, and every Frenchman who passes is sure to receive a hearty salutation of welcome. The appearance of the road from London to Dover was, if possible, still gayer than Dover itself; it seemed a universal holyday. … [E]very town, village, and even hamlet poured out all its inhabitants dressed in their choicest attire and their pleasantest smiles. …[T]he most splendid military spectacle was at Chatham, where several hundreds of the Guards were standing at their arms; next to them were stationed large bodies of cavalry, partly of the line, and partly yeomanry and volunteers. At Canterbury seemed to be collected half the population of the county, who hailed with the warmest marks of friendship and brotherhood the passing of the different parties of French, and were enthusiastic at the appearance of the Regent and the King of France. (14)

The whole of the road from London to Dover was one continued bustle, the villages and towns crowded to excess. A poor man, a parish clerk, was pushed by the crowd under the King’s carriage, and the wheels went over him; he was not killed, but extremely injured. The circumstance affected his Majesty very much, and he put out a 10£ bank of England note to be given to the poor man’s family; and he pledged himself, that, in case death was the consequence of the accident, he would provide for his family. (15)

The Prince Regent received the King of France and his companions on board the royal yacht the Royal Sovereign, which he was lending for the trip to France. The yacht was escorted by the British frigate Jason, under the Duke of Clarence (Admiral of the Fleet and future King William IV), and the French frigate Polonais. On April 24, the King of France and his entourage set sail. The Duchess of Angoulême was on deck, waving a white handkerchief and kissing her hand, saying farewell to the inhabitants of England. Two hours and ten minutes later, the ship arrived at Calais.

Twenty-three years after leaving France, Louis XVIII was back home. He had to leave again 11 months later, when Napoleon escaped from Elba. That exile was only a few months, spent in Ghent. Louis XVIII never returned to England, but he always had fond memories of the country. Among other things, he kept at the Tuileries Palace the white wooden desk he had used at Hartwell House. He is sitting at it when he learns of Napoleon’s (fictional) escape from St. Helena in Napoleon in America.

The Count of Artois, who in 1824 succeeded Louis XVIII as Charles X, did return to Britain. He and his family sought asylum there when they were exiled after the French Revolution of 1830. The Bourbons lived at Holyrood Palace for two years, before moving to Prague. They never regained the French throne.

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  1. The Morning Chronicle (London), November 2, 1807.
  2. Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), November 5, 1807.
  3. The Ipswich Journal (Ipswitch), November 14, 1807.
  4. The Hull Packet and Original Weekly Commercial, Literary and General Advertiser (Hull), August 16, 1808.
  5. The Morning Post (London), November 10, 1809.
  6. The Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Advertiser (Cheltenham), December 10, 1812.
  7. Charles C. F. Greville, The Greville Memoirs, edited by Henry Reeve, Vol. II (London, 1874), pp. 345-346.
  8. The Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Advertiser (Cheltenham), September 3, 1812. Philip Mansel, “From Coblenz to Hartwell: the Émigré Government and the European Powers, 1791-1814,” in The French Émigrés in Europe, and the Struggle against Revolution, 1789-1814, edited by Kirsty Carpenter and Philip Mansel (London, 1999), p. 13.
  9. The Morning Chronicle (London), June 25, 1811.
  10. The Times (London), September 10, 1811.
  11. The Morning Post (London), March 13, 1813.
  12. The Morning Chronicle (London), March 10, 1814.
  13. Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh), April 25, 1814.
  14. The Times (London), April 25, 1814.
  15. The Hull Packet and Original Weekly Commercial, Literary and General Advertiser (Hull), May 3, 1814.

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The Count de Lille appears greatly delighted with the residence of Gosfield, which presents a very striking contrast to the bleakness of the country which he has quitted. He walks a great deal; but, from his size, has now left off riding.

The Ipswich Journal