Betting on Napoleon’s Life

Napoleon in 1814, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, 1862

Napoleon in 1814, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, 1862

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?

The wager

Sir Mark Masterman Sykes was born on August 20, 1771. Descended from a line of wealthy Yorkshire traders turned landowners, he was educated at Oxford. In 1795-96, he served as High Sheriff of Yorkshire. In September 1801, upon the death of his father, Sykes inherited the title of baronet and the estate of Sledmere House, 25 miles northeast of York.

On Saturday, May 29, 1802, Sykes and his wife hosted a dinner party for friends. After the ladies retired from the table, the bottle was liberally passed around and the conversation turned to European politics. Napoleon Bonaparte – whom the French Tribunat had recently voted to make Consul for Life – was thought to be in a precarious situation. Sykes and his friends were likely influenced by newspaper reports such as this:

The situation of Bonaparte at the present moment is beyond doubt extremely critical. It is easy to conceive that…it would not have been easy for him to reconcile his military followers to the tranquil obscurity and the torpid poverty of a peace establishment. That Massena, Delmas, Bernadotte…should, in the littleness of their present lives, become dissatisfied with the prize they hold in the lottery of the Revolution, compared with that of others, is extremely probable…. Indeed it may be questioned whether any class of the people are very eager to indulge Bonaparte in this object. (1)

Some of the company expressed the opinion that attempts would be made to assassinate Napoleon. Sykes said he considered Napoleon’s life to be in such great danger that if anyone would give him 100 guineas (equivalent to 105 pounds sterling), he would pay them one guinea per day for the rest of Napoleon’s life.

Reverend Robert Gilbert, Rector of the local parish of Settrington, immediately said, “Will you, Sir Mark? I’ll take you – done!” Sykes appeared surprised and somewhat displeased that the offer was so hastily accepted. The others cried out, “No bet, no bet.” Observing the general displeasure, Gilbert said to Sykes, “If you will ask me as a favour, I will let you off.” Sykes replied “that he would not ask any favour or make any concessions at his own table, or in his own house.” His lawyer later explained that Sykes “felt that he could not lay himself under a pecuniary obligation to a person who had entrapped him in consequence of a hasty expression.” (2)

On Monday, May 31, Robert Gilbert paid Mark Masterman Sykes 100 guineas. Thereafter, Sykes paid Gilbert a guinea a day, usually in weekly amounts of 7 guineas. He continued the payments until December 25, 1804. In 1805, Sykes asked a friend to call upon Gilbert and relay the message that he would give £500 to have the bet cancelled. By then Gilbert had received a total of £970 from Sykes. Gilbert said he would refer the question to the Jockey Club. Sykes heard nothing more from Gilbert and assumed the matter was settled.

The trial

Sir Mark Masterman Sykes, who wagered on Napoleon’s life

Sir Mark Masterman Sykes, who wagered on Napoleon’s life

In 1807, Sykes (a Tory) became the Member of Parliament for the city of York. In January 1812, Gilbert sued him for breach of promise. He sought damages of £2,296 and seven shillings – the amount he calculated he would have received if Sykes had continued to pay him a guinea per day.

The case was tried in March 1812 at the York Lent assize court. Two witnesses from the original dinner party testified. In addition, a Mr. Anderson – a messenger for the American chargé d’affaires in London – was called to certify that Napoleon was still alive. He said he had seen Napoleon in December or January, reviewing troops at the Tuileries. Sykes’ counsel asked how Anderson could be positive it was Napoleon, since the messenger seemed to have been unable to distinguish anything but a white horse.

Witness replied that it was him, but that it was not easy to approach while he was reviewing 30,000 troops; he believes that he also passed him when travelling rapidly in his carriage from an hunting excursion, and was present when Napoleon Bonaparte made his grand entrance into Amsterdam in October last, being not more than the distance of the table from him. Witness knows his person, and can distinguish him from his brothers, having seen them all, except Lucien Bonaparte.

When asked about Napoleon’s health, Anderson replied:

I am very sorry to inform you that he will probably live 30 or 40 years longer; when I saw him near 5 years since (crowned Emperor of France) he had an oval Italian face, but is now grown fat, and as good-looking, and quite as en bon point as yourself. (3)

The defence argued that Sykes’ proposal was not meant as a serious bet. It was “an unguarded expression, used in a moment of jollity, at his own table, amongst those whom he imagined his friends,” for which he had already paid a considerable sum to Gilbert, the minister of an extensive parish with a benefice of £1,400 per annum. However, if it was a real wager,

there may eventually be an interest revealed inconsistent with the public safety. The idea of invasion is now generally laughed at, but sometimes these things which are laughed at become serious realities, and putting the case that Bonaparte should, at the head of his army succeed in effecting a descent upon this country, it is clear that the Plaintiff would have an interest in protecting that life, which every true subject and friend of his country would be interested in destroying; he would have an annuity of 365 guineas per annum depending upon the personal safety of this inveterate enemy of our Country. (4)

After a brief consultation, the jury ruled in Sykes’ favour, on the grounds that the wager had not been seriously made and should be considered null and void.

The appeal

Gilbert appealed to the Court of King’s Bench in London for a new trial to be granted. The question was argued before the court on June 8-12, 1812. Here the case turned on the legality of the wager. The Justices decided it was illegal, on the grounds that it gave Gilbert an interest in preserving Napoleon’s life and Sykes an interest in assassinating Napoleon. In delivering the judgment, Chief Justice Lord Ellenborough said:

The objection to this wager was its tendency to produce public inconvenience and mischief. At a time when the enemy’s threats of invasion were actual, and when they were deprecated weekly in every church, could it be said that in case of Buonaparte landing, the interest of 365 guineas per annum to preserve his life was too remote? Besides, one great object of the nation ought to be to obviate the suspicion of attempting the assassination of Buonaparte…and to prevent a war of assassination, with which any attempt of that kind would not fail to be revenged. (5)

Ellenborough concluded:

Wherever the tolerating of any species of contract has a tendency to produce a public mischief or inconvenience, such a contract has been held to be void…. I consider it as a wager against public policy and of immoral tendency, and that no new trial should be granted. (6)

The other justices agreed. They also deplored the waste of time and “inconvenience of countenancing idle wagers in courts of justice.” (7)

Shortly thereafter, a satirical poem about the case, called “The Death of Bonaparte: or, One Pound One. A Poem, in Four Cantos,” was published under the pseudonym “Cervantes.” It included this stanza:

At last the reverend jockey brought,
This moral matter into court;
O justice! justice! wer’t thou napping,
That such a thing as this could happen!
Thou shoulds’t have ta’en a good horsewhip,
And made both knight and parson skip;
A case replete with such disgrace,
Should ne’er have come before thy face. (8)

The aftermath

Reverend Robert Gilbert died on December 30, 1820 at the age of 69. He was survived by daughter Elizabeth and sons Robert and John. His wife Ann had died in 1801.

In 1820 Mark Masterman Sykes retired from his parliamentary seat due to ill health. He died at Weymouth on February 16, 1823 at the age of 52. He was survived by his second wife Mary Elizabeth Tatton Egerton. He had no children.

Sykes was a knowledgeable book collector, with an extensive library that included many rare volumes. He also collected pictures, bronzes, coins, medals and prints. His collections were sold at auction in 1824. The book sale, at which “most of the opulent London Bibliopolists…enriched their collections,” continued for 11 days and fetched nearly £10,000. (9) The sale of Sykes’ pictures brought in nearly £6,000.

Napoleon died on the island of St. Helena on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51.

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  1. “Bonaparte,” Hampshire Telegraph & Portsmouth Gazette (Portsmouth, England), May 24, 1802.
  2. Report of a Cause, the Reverend Robert Gilbert versus Sir M.M. Sykes, Bart. M.P. tried at the York Lent Assizes, 1812 (York, 1812), pp. 7-12, 19-20.
  3. Ibid., p. 16.
  4. Ibid., p. 23.
  5. “Law Report,” The Times (London), June 13, 1812.
  6. Edward Hyde East, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of King’s Bench, Vol. 16 (London, 1814), pp. 157, 160.
  7. Ibid., p. 162.
  8. The Critical Review, or, Annals of Literature, Series 4, Vol. II (London, 1812), p. 663.
  9. The Edinburgh Annual Register for 1824, Vol. 17 (Edinburgh, 1825), pp. 312-313.

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At a time when the enemy’s threats of invasion were actual, and when they were deprecated weekly in every church, could it be said that in case of Buonaparte landing, the interest of 365 guineas per annum to preserve his life was too remote?

Lord Ellenborough