Hudson Lowe Gets a Bad Rap

Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's jailor

Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon’s jailor

British general Sir Hudson Lowe was the governor of St. Helena during Napoleon’s imprisonment on the island. Napoleon, who reached St. Helena before Lowe did, 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.” (1)

Napoleon’s view of Hudson Lowe

Hudson Lowe was born on July 28, 1769, making him two-and-a-half weeks older than Napoleon. After their first meeting on April 16, 1816, Napoleon pronounced Lowe “hideous; he has a most villainous countenance.” Still, he said,

we must not decide too hastily. The man’s disposition may perhaps make amends for the unfavourable impression which his face produces; this is not impossible. (2)

Napoleon’s impression of Lowe did not improve. It got worse. After a total of six interviews between April and August 1816 (their conversations were conducted in Italian), Napoleon refused to meet with Lowe again. The next time Lowe got a good look at Napoleon was when he saw the Emperor’s corpse on May 6, 1821, the day after Napoleon died.

The details of the relationship are well documented by Peter Friedman on the Fondation Napoléon’s website. For a fuller treatment, I recommend Napoleon’s Jailer – Lt. Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe: a Life by Desmond Gregory (1996), or Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon by Robert Cooper Seaton (1898).

Just doing his job

Although Hudson Lowe could be petty, pedantic and vindictive (see my post about Engelbert Lutyens), he was not the villain Napoleon’s supporters made him out to be. He was a conscientious administrator who adhered, for the most part, to the British government’s instructions. He was also, at times, sympathetic to Napoleon, such as when he convinced London to increase the annual allowance for Longwood from eight thousand to twelve thousand pounds. Lowe lacked the tact and intelligence necessary to handle Napoleon well, but he had a difficult job. Whoever was in the post would have been prey to a clever propaganda campaign designed to paint him as the bad guy. As Napoleon’s companion Count Charles de Montholon wrote, “an angel from heaven could not have pleased us as Governor of St. Helena.” (3) The Duke of Wellington, when asked whether he thought Lowe was an unnecessarily harsh jailor of Napoleon, responded:

Buonaparte is so damned intractable a fellow there is no knowing how to deal with him.… As for Lowe he is a damned fool. (4)

When Napoleon died, Lowe was magnanimous.

[H]e was England’s greatest enemy and mine too, but I forgive him everything. On the death of a great man like him, we should only feel deep concern and regret. (5)

Napoleon’s adherents showed no such generosity towards Lowe. In July 1822 Dr. Barry O’Meara published Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice From St. Helena. O’Meara had been Napoleon’s doctor on St. Helena until July 1818, when he was expelled by Lowe for trying to undermine the governor behind his back. The book showed Lowe in a very bad light, adding to the undercurrent of feeling against him. Lowe wanted to sue for libel, but his lawyers took so long to compile the evidence that the judge declared the time for bringing the case to court had expired. Having spent most of his military life outside England, Lowe lacked a local crowd of friends and supporters. He appealed to the British government to defend him, but received a cool response. The government was content to make Lowe the scapegoat for any criticism of British treatment of Napoleon.

The Duke of Wellington thought Lowe’s treatment shameful. In November 1822, he wrote to Lord Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies, in respect of an unprovoked assault with a whip on Lowe by one of Napoleon’s erstwhile companions, the son of Count Emmanuel de Las Cases.

I hope that government propose to do something upon this outrage committed upon Sir Hudson. If Sir Hudson treated De las Cases [sic] ill, which I don’t believe he did, government ought to disapprove of his conduct. If he did not treat him ill, if, on the contrary, government either approved of his conduct, or took no notice of it at the time, they ought to protect Sir Hudson; and at all events ought not to allow a blackguard to insult him with impunity in the streets for his conduct in the performance of his duty…. [Y]ou may rely upon it that if you don’t take some steps to mark the sense of the government upon this occasion, there is no well-thinking man in either of the military professions who will not feel it; and you will not easily find another who will brave the popular cry to serve you. (6)

Wellington later rose to Lowe’s defence in the House of Lords when, in 1833, another Lord made a disparaging remark about Lowe.

I have the honour to know Sir Hudson Lowe, and I will say, in this House or elsewhere, wherever it may be, that there is not in the army a more respectable officer than Sir Hudson Lowe, nor has His Majesty a more faithful subject. (7)

Hudson Lowe’s sad end

In 1825 Hudson Lowe became commander of British forces in Ceylon. After returning to England in 1831, he petitioned the government for an office in recognition of his services. But O’Meara’s and others’ uncontradicted lies had done their work, and Lowe was not given a high post. Neither was he given a pension. In 1842 the King of Prussia advanced Lowe to the First Class of the Red Eagle of Prussia, recalling his “signal services to the common cause in the glorious campaigns of 1813-14.” (8) The next year Lowe was belatedly given the Grand Cross of St. Michael and St. George.

Hudson Lowe died on January 10, 1844 in relative poverty at the age of 74. He was buried in the crypt of St. Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, London. St. Mark’s is no longer used as a church and is generally kept locked. Judging from this slide show, it has a lovely interior. According to Peter Friedman, Lowe’s grave has never been located; only a plaque remains on the church wall, citing his burial. (9)

Seaton closes Lowe’s biography with apt words from an unnamed “military writer”:

To have been charged with an amount of responsibility from which most men would have shrunk aghast; to have performed a painful duty with sleepless vigilance; to have been exposed from circumstances not of his own seeking to an amount of obloquy almost without parallel in the annals of party; to have firmly carried out what he had reluctantly undertaken – the safe custody of a baffled tyrant; to have ‘obeyed instructions,’ and then to have been rewarded by coolness and neglect when he might have expected cordiality and praise, seems a hard destiny. It was that of Sir Hudson Lowe. (10)

You might also enjoy:

General Bonaparte vs Emperor Napoleon: The Sad Case of Engelbert Lutyens

Napoleon and Longwood House

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

Charles de Montholon: Napoleon’s Murderer or Devoted Bonapartist?

The Duke of Wellington: Napoleon’s Nemesis

  1. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Hélène (London, 1823), Vol. 4, p. 48.
  2. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 35. Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, whose memoirs are considered to be more accurate than those of Las Cases, reports Napoleon saying after that first meeting: “This man has a repulsive appearance and does not have an honest gaze. We must not rush to judge him, but I need to have his behavior reassure me about his physical appearance. His looks remind me of a Sicilian thug.” Proctor Jones, ed., In Napoleon’s Shadow: Being the First English Language Edition of the Complete Memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, Valet and Friend of the Emperor, 1811-1821 (San Francisco, 1998), p. 403.
  3. Major Basil Jackson, “A Slight Tribute to the Memory of Sir Hudson Lowe,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine, March 1844, p. 420.
  4. Herbert Maxwell, ed., The Creevey Papers: A Selection from the Correspondence & Diaries of the Late Thomas Creevey, M.P. (New York, 1904), Vol. 1, pp. 288-289.
  5. Walter Henry, Events of a Military Life: Being Recollections After Service in the Peninsular War, Invasion of France, the East Indies, St. Helena, Canada, and Elsewhere (London, 1843), Vol. 2, p. 80.
  6. Arthur Richard Wellesley, Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington (London, 1867), Vol. 1, pp. 517-518.
  7. Robert Cooper Seaton, Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon (London, 1898), pp 220-221.
  8. Ibid., p. 222.
  9. Peter Friedman, “Emmanuel Augustin Dieudonné: The Real Victor of St. Helena,” First Empire Review, Issue 111, March/April 2010, pp. 35-43;, accessed October 14, 2013.
  10. Seaton, Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon, p. 229.

22 commments on “Hudson Lowe Gets a Bad Rap”

  • Lally Brown says:

    Poor Sir Hudson Lowe, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him, caught up in ‘La Politique de Longwood’. The Lowe Papers in the British Library state that after his last disastrous meeting with Napoleon on 18th August 1816 Sir Hudson told Major Gorrequer ‘to treat with General Bonaparte one must be either a blind admirer of his faculties or a yielding instrument to work with, a mere slave in thought to him’.
    At least he had a friend in Wellington!
    On a positive note, I understand Sir Hudson was instrumental in abolishing slavery on St. Helena.
    Love your blog and really looking forward to the book.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I feel sorry for Sir Hudson too; he was not the right man for the job, but he did his best and ended up being treated badly. I hadn’t come across that quote after his last meeting with Napoleon – it’s very good. I gather a few people thought that about the Emperor. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! Book is coming soon…

  • Bob Fletcher says:

    Hudson Lowe was the British Commander at the fall of Capri, having to evacuate it October 1808. Lowe had been involved in Italian campaigns with Italian and Corsican troops.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Bob. That probably explains why he was fluent in Italian.

  • Sheldon says:

    Lowe received the typical ‘English’ treatment, which doesn’t value loyalty but rather practicality. Winston Churchill sum it up nicely: ‘We have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests’.

    Remind me of captain Kidd who was wrongly accused of piracy. When questioned by parliament, he ‘refused to name names’ and ‘naively confident his Whig MP would reward his loyalty by interceding on his behalf. ‘ Eventually executed with his body gibbeted over River Thames for three years.

    Compare Lowe to Neil Campbell who let Napoleon slip away from Elba, was ‘promoted to Major General in 1825 and served as governor of Sierra Leone in 1826’. Simply because he was friend of Lord Castlereagh.

    Poor guy, I guess Lowe hasn’t really figured out what’s being British after all.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Lowe really was treated shamefully, particularly compared to Campbell. I didn’t know that about Captain Kidd. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Adan says:

    Blackard is a bad guy. There is no blackguard.
    The British and Irish love team players.
    So always support your team.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for the comment, John. Blackguard (pronounced blaggard) is an old-fashioned term for a scoundrel. There probably was some “team support” involved in Wellington’s defence of Lowe.

  • Fay says:

    I am attracted to this site at the moment as I have a good friend who is from St. Helena. It’s quite unusual to see a reference to it and it catches my eye.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Fay. I’m glad the St. Helena posts are of interest. I’ve found it fascinating to do the research about Napoleon’s time on the island.

  • Andrew says:

    An interesting book by Thomas Keneally “Napoleon’s Last Island” about the initial host family on St Helena, the Balcombes who it seems were despatched by Hudson Lowe for being too friendly with Napoleon

  • Charles Reilly says:

    It probably would’ve served British interests far better if they had never sent Napoleon to St. Helena in the first place. But after experiencing his escape from Elba, they most likely felt that they had no other choice but to send him to the most obscure island they could think of. As for Sir Hudson Lowe, he was handed a thankless job that no one else wanted. Lastly, Wellington was never considered for the job of Napoleon’s jailer. He was also against sending him to St. Helena. That didn’t matter to Napoleon who forever blamed the Duke for his miserable existence on the island. “General” Bonaparte died a very unhappy man.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    How true. Thanks for your comments, Charles.

  • #letshearitforlowe says:

    Very interesting blog! Have been taken with story, and Thomas Keneally’s book on the Balcombe girl has prompted me to look at another angle. Thinking laterally, am doing something myself on investigating how Lowe, as an outsider, born in Ireland, and the original archetype of the loyal soldier only carrying out duties, might have fared against the master manipulator and tearer up of the rule book, Napoleon himself. Its a fascinating episode. Particularly how the careers of the two mirrored each other. I am reminded of the Salieri Mozart relationship in the play Amadeus, and also the old film kiss of the spider woman. Thank you for sharing your research. Appreciated.

  • Gary Schotel says:

    I own a book written by him. Printed 1830. It has his signature in it. His memoirs about St. Helena.

  • Karen Ronan says:

    He had a thankless job, but if you read Gorrequer’s diary, Hudson Lowe was a very, very strange person. He was like Humphrey Bogart in the Caine Mutiny! Gorrequer hated him and he had no sympathy for Napoleon. [Gorrequer never spoke about St. Helena after returning to Europe.] Another person who hated Hudson Lowe was Sturmer, the Austrian commissioner, who had a nervous breakdown. Balmain, the Russian commissioner, who married Lowe’s stepdaughter, also thought Hudson Lowe behaved very erratically. But Gourgaud had no problem with Lowe–they had a friendly relationship–and he advised Napoleon on how to relate to him (advice not taken).

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I agree, Karen. Lowe seems to have been an odd and not very likeable person. I wonder how things would have worked out had Napoleon taken Gourgaud’s advice.

  • peter hicks says:

    Dear Shannon, after 15 years looking at the St Helena incident, I come down on the side of Admiral Pulteney Malcolm. That although Lowe was meticulous he was not the right man for the job. Balmain put it thus “the man who knew only how to obey was faced with the man who only knew how to command”. Lowe was put to the test by the arch-Machiavel, it is true, but he DID fail. He lied and was dishonest (read Watson on Piontkowski), he doctored his reports, he was a bully, he had spies everywhere (Thomas Reade was sent to Coventry by the entire crew of Newcastle because he carried tittle tattle, not even important information, to Lowe). He failed to manage O’Meara. There were to be sure political differences between the two men (right versus left), but there was no political dexterity on Lowe’s part and he pushed Barry in N’s arms. The expulsion of O’Meara (an event which Lowe catalysed, having pushed O’Meara to become Napoleon’s man) was an act whereby he deprived himself of his man inside Longwood – a shot in the foot if ever there was one. Then came the expulsion of Stokoe (on even more specious grounds), another error, then the stubborn refusal to accept that N was ill (spoiler alert, he was!), even though the orderly officers, first Nicholls and then again Lutyens (neither of whom had reasons to lie) said he was, giving eyewitness accounts of N’s inability to walk. Gorrequer’s memoirs show how machiavellian Lowe was, but uselessly so. Lowe even managed to annoy thçose he worked with, admiral Plampin (who before had been his faithful servant), even Wynyard for heaven’s sake. Only Jackson stayed faithful, but Jackson loved Lowe like a father (I even thought he might have been his son) and from 1840 was behind literally all the acts of defence of Lowe (ie the rewriting of Henry’s memoirs, the ‘Slight tribute’ was by Jackson, and Jackson was the eminence grise behind the first and second versions of Lowe’s defence, eventually published by Forsyth) Obviously his memoirs published much later put the cherry on the cake. BTW the “Longwood Policy” is first mentioned by Gourgaud but only after he had left Longwood and when he really hated Napoleon (and Montholon) at the time. I really think it’s hard not to agree with Cockburn, Pulteney Malcolm, Balmain, Sturmer, even Wellington I believe, that guards on the coast would have been sufficient to keep him from escaping. BTW the comparison with Elba and Campbell can’t stand because Campbell was only observer there, not governor of the island. Napoleon was sovereign of Elba and and Campbell was not a commander of troops guarding Napoleon. Napoleon left Elba in one of his own Elban navy’s ships for heavens’ sake! Even the imperial title question was dealt with woodenly by Lowe. There were even books not sent up to Longwood because they had the title ‘Emperor’ in them. There was a bust of the King of Rome not sent up to Longwood because, well, no-one really knows why. Yet another shot in the foot. Lowe was carrying on a war with Pulteney Malcolm and O’Meara in London because he knew that there were plans afoot to have him recalled. Yes Napoleon didn’t escape. But his chances of escape were minimal, even with guards on the coast. After 1821, Gorrequer found Lowe intolerable, O’Meara beat him like a drum (Lowe’s management of the intended court case was wretched). Baxter his preferred doctor abandoned Lowe before the end. Dr Shortt, the only independent doctor (and not in the least favourable to Napoleon), was made a pariah by Lowe and his wife. It is hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job…

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The man’s disposition may perhaps make amends for the unfavourable impression which his face produces.

Napoleon Bonaparte