Blog category: British History

  • Betting on Napoleon’s Life

    Betting on Napoleon’s Life

    November 17, 2017

    In 1812, a case went to trial in England involving a wager on Napoleon Bonaparte’s life. Ten years earlier, Sir Mark Masterman Sykes had rashly committed to pay Reverend Robert Gilbert one guinea per day as long as Napoleon lived. Famous at the time, the case raised the question: was it legal to bet on the assassination of a national enemy?

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  • The Girl with Napoleon in her Eyes

    The Girl with Napoleon in her Eyes

    October 6, 2017

    In the years after Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1815 defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, London hosted numerous exhibits related to the fallen French Emperor. Napoleon’s carriage was displayed, his battles formed the subjects of panoramas, the events of his life were depicted, and his portrait and various effects appeared on show. The oddest exhibit was a girl with Napoleon in her eyes.

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  • When the King of France lived in England

    When the King of France lived in England

    September 22, 2017

    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.

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  • How to Spend Summer in London in the early 19th century

    How to Spend Summer in London in the early 19th century

    August 11, 2017

    In the early 19th century, fashionable and would-be fashionable residents of London considered it desirable to leave the city for at least part of the summer, “when there is nobody of any consequence in town, excepting a few mad dogs.” If one couldn’t get out of London, it was important to pretend to. “An unfortunate Marchioness and two Countesses were yesterday ascertained to be in town by ‘White’s men.’ Expulsion from Almack’s next season will most certainly be the consequence.”

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  • When the King & Queen of the Sandwich Islands visited England

    When the King & Queen of the Sandwich Islands visited England

    April 7, 2017

    One of the things I try to bring out in Napoleon in America is how Europeans in the early 19th century tended to regard Native Americans and other indigenous people as exotic savages. Such views are illustrated by the tragic visit of the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to England in 1824. King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu travelled to London hoping to meet King George IV. The trip cost them their lives.

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  • Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

    Panoramas: 19th century virtual reality

    November 18, 2016

    Like transparencies, panoramas were extremely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A panorama was a large circular painting that aimed to give the viewer the experience of being physically present in the scene being depicted, whether that was a landscape, a city, a battle or other historical event. Panoramas served as mass entertainment, popular education and propaganda. Visiting them was more like going to the theatre or the opera than to an art gallery. At their best, panoramas provided convincing illusions of the real, transporting the audience to another place and time.

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  • When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

    When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

    November 11, 2016

    While Napoleon took a dim view of the Duke of Wellington, his wife Marie Louise was more forgiving. Wellington met Marie Louise at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and again at the Congress of Verona in 1822. By this time, Marie Louise was the Duchess of Parma and married to Count von Neipperg (Napoleon had died in 1821). As Wellington tells Dorothea Lieven in Napoleon in America, he played cards with Marie Louise and paid in gold Napoléon coins. Marie Louise’s warmth towards Wellington at Verona inspired Lord Byron to write a poem.

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  • Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

    Sweetbreads, Sweetmeats and Bonaparte’s Ribs

    September 30, 2016

    Would you rather eat sweetbreads or sweetmeats? While sweetbreads might sound like sugary buns, they are actually a form of meat. They consist of the pancreas or thymus glands of an animal, usually a calf or a lamb. The first known use of the word occurred in the 16th century. To further confuse things, actual sweets – candies, cakes, pastries, preserves – used to be called sweetmeats. Some popular 19th century British sweetmeats took their names from prominent figures of the Napoleonic Wars.

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  • Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

    Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

    September 23, 2016

    In the same way that early 19th century British caricaturists portrayed Napoleon Bonaparte as a devilish tyrant, British parents and teachers used Napoleon as a threat to scare children into good behaviour during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the word “bogeyman” is sometimes said to be derived from “Boney,” the popular British nickname for Napoleon, even though it actually comes from the Middle English bogge/bugge (hobgoblin).

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  • How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

    How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

    July 8, 2016

    Somewhere in the range of 3.5 million to 6 million people died as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1803 to 1815. This includes both military and civilian casualties, and encompasses death from war-related diseases and other causes. Estimates of the number of soldiers killed in battle range from 500,000 to almost 2 million. What happened to all of those bodies? What did Napoleonic battlefield cleanup entail?

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  • When Princess Caroline met Empress Marie Louise

    When Princess Caroline met Empress Marie Louise

    May 13, 2016

    It’s like a set piece from a movie: the wives of two famous enemies meet, gossip about their estranged husbands, and have a lovely time together, ending in the singing of a Mozart duet. Such was the scene in the Swiss city of Bern on September 23, 1814, when Princess Caroline of England visited Empress Marie Louise of France. Caroline was the lusty, eccentric 46-year-old wife of England’s Prince Regent, the future King George IV. Marie Louise was the 22-year-old second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time, Napoleon was in exile on Elba.

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  • Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

    Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

    March 4, 2016

    While Napoleon Bonaparte provided rich fodder for caricaturists throughout his reign, his exile to Elba in 1814 (see last week’s post) occasioned a burst of gleeful activity among the cartoonists of the time. England had been fighting against France for over 20 years. Audiences there were jubilant about Napoleon’s defeat and receptive to anything that made fun of the fallen French Emperor. Here’s a look at some caricatures related to Napoleon’s sojourn on Elba.

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  • How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

    How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

    February 26, 2016

    In April 1814, with a European coalition occupying Paris, Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to abdicate the French throne. He was sent into exile on Elba, a small Mediterranean island located 260 km (160 miles) south of France and 10 km (6 miles) west of the Italian coastline. Ten months later, in one of those life-is-stranger-than-fiction episodes, Napoleon managed to spirit himself off the island and regain the French crown. How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

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  • Last Words of Famous People

    Last Words of Famous People

    February 19, 2016

    Though not as well-known as Napoleon’s last words, here are the reported last words uttered by some of the other famous historical figures who appear in Napoleon in America. King Louis XVIII died suffering from obesity, gout and gangrene at the Tuileries Palace in Paris on September 16, 1824, at the age of 68. He had a long, slow decline, and many of the things he is claimed to have said in his dying days sound like official propaganda. The most credible account is from his good friend Madame du Cayla.

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  • Bonypart Pie and Questions for Christmas

    Bonypart Pie and Questions for Christmas

    December 24, 2015

    There is no mention of Napoleon Bonaparte doing anything special for his first Christmas in exile on St. Helena. One of his companions, Count de Las Cases, wrote on December 25, 1815: “The Emperor, who had not been well the preceding evening, was still indisposed this morning, and sent word that it would be impossible for him to receive the officers of the 53rd, as he had appointed. He sent for me about the middle of the day, and we again perused some chapters of the Campaign of Italy.” Napoleon nonetheless occasioned some Christmas cheer in England, judging from a seasonal recipe appearing in a London newspaper.

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  • Napoleon’s arrival at St. Helena

    Napoleon’s arrival at St. Helena

    October 16, 2015

    In October 1815, former French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at his final place of exile, the island of St. Helena. What were his impressions when he first saw it, and what did the inhabitants of St. Helena think of him?

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  • The intriguing George Canning

    The intriguing George Canning

    September 18, 2015

    George Canning, who appears as Britain’s foreign secretary in Napoleon in America, later became the country’s shortest-serving prime minister. Canning was a clever, ambitious and controversial politician who held important government posts during the Napoleonic Wars and aftermath. A skilful propagandist, he promoted the scathing caricatures of Napoleon that appeared in Britain at the time. In 1809 Canning fought a duel with the war secretary, Lord Castlereagh, which severely damaged his career. Supported by his friend, Lord Liverpool, Canning returned to government after Napoleon’s defeat. Though most of his colleagues disliked him, and King George IV hated him, the Tories couldn’t stay in power without him.

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  • Napoleon’s birthday at sea

    Napoleon’s birthday at sea

    August 14, 2015

    Napoleon Bonaparte celebrated his 46th birthday – August 15, 1815 – as a prisoner on a Royal Navy ship off the northwest coast of Spain. How did he spend the day? After losing the Battle of Waterloo, abdicating from the French throne, and giving himself up to England (see my post about why Napoleon didn’t escape to the United States), Napoleon was taken to Plymouth Sound on the British frigate Bellerophon. On August 7, 1815 he was transferred to HMS Northumberland, a 74-gun ship of the line, and placed under the supervision of Rear Admiral George Cockburn.

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  • Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

    Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

    June 26, 2015

    Why didn’t Napoleon follow through on his plan to start a new life in the United States in 1815? After losing the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, Napoleon returned to Paris with the aim of shoring up his domestic support before continuing the war. When he arrived on June 21, the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Peers called for his abdication. On June 22, Napoleon relinquished the throne in favour of his son, Napoleon II, whom the provisional government soon deposed.

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  • Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?

    Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?

    June 12, 2015

    If you’re ever visiting the Duke of Wellington’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, take a moment to look for the bust of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Nearby you will find a plaque sacred to the memory of Captain Alexander Macnab, a Canadian who died in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Macnab, one of thousands killed in the battle, did nothing special to distinguish himself. How did he wind up being commemorated in such a place of honour? Macnab was not the only Canadian at the Battle of Waterloo.

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  • Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts

    Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts

    October 31, 2014

    Sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued and a diplomatic force to be reckoned with, Princess Dorothea Lieven became another one of my favourites when researching Napoleon in America. As the wife of the Russian ambassador to Great Britain from 1812 to 1834, Dorothea had easy access to royalty, ministers, diplomats and politicians. This, combined with her considerable social skills and political acumen, gave her more influence than any other woman of the time. Her letters provide scintillating commentary on the notable persons and events of the post-Napoleonic years.

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  • Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

    Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

    January 17, 2014

    Napoleon Bonaparte and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley never met or corresponded, and they fought only one battle directly against each other, on June 18, 1815. The fact that it was the Battle of Waterloo, which resulted in Napoleon’s permanent removal from the French throne, cemented them together in history. Here’s what they thought of each other.

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  • Lord Liverpool was not a Ninny

    Lord Liverpool was not a Ninny

    January 10, 2014

    Lord Liverpool (Robert Banks Jenkinson) was an accomplished Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Napoleonic era, though not exactly a social success.

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  • Hudson Lowe gets a bad rap

    Hudson Lowe gets a bad rap

    December 6, 2013

    British general Sir Hudson Lowe was the governor of St. Helena during Napoleon’s imprisonment on the island. Napoleon reached St. Helena before Lowe did and looked forward to the arrival of a fellow soldier. “Did you not tell me,” he reportedly said to his companions, “that he was at Champ Aubert and at Montmirail? We have then probably exchanged a few cannon balls together, and that is always, in my eyes, a noble relation to stand in.”

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  • General Bonaparte vs. Emperor Napoleon: The sad case of Engelbert Lutyens

    General Bonaparte vs. Emperor Napoleon: The sad case of Engelbert Lutyens

    November 29, 2013

    Captain Engelbert Lutyens, a member of Britain’s 20th Regiment of Foot, was the orderly officer at Napoleon’s residence of Longwood on St. Helena from February 10, 1820 to April 26, 1821. This meant he was the officer in charge of security. Lutyens was required to confirm Napoleon’s presence on a daily basis, preferably by actually seeing him. This was a sensitive task as Napoleon threatened to shoot anyone who invaded his privacy.

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  • Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

    Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

    November 22, 2013

    The premise of Napoleon in America is that Napoleon has escaped from St. Helena. That was the island to which he was banished after being forced off the French throne in 1815 following his defeat at Waterloo. A volcanic speck in the South Atlantic Ocean – 1,200 miles (1,900 km) west of Africa and 2,000 miles (3,200 km) east of Brazil – seemed an ideal place to stash a public menace, especially one who had earlier in the year managed to escape from the considerably less remote island of Elba.

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We must confess that fate, which sports with man, makes merry work with the affairs of this world.

Napoleon Bonaparte