Supporters of Napoleon in England

Notwithstanding the unflattering caricaturesmocking songs, and other portrayals of Napoleon Bonaparte as the number one enemy of England, the French Emperor had British sympathizers during the Napoleonic Wars. They were primarily liberal Whigs, who opposed the ruling Tory Party, criticized the absolute monarchs of Europe, and did not want the Bourbons restored to power in France. Here is a look at some of the most prominent supporters of Napoleon in England.

Introduction of Citizen Volpone & His Suite at Paris, by James Gillray, 1802. Caricature of Napoleon receiving Charles James Fox and his wife, as well as Lord and Lady Holland., supporters of Napoleon from England.

Introduction of Citizen Volpone & His Suite at Paris, by James Gillray, 1802. Caricature of Napoleon receiving Charles James Fox and his wife, as well as Lord and Lady Holland.

Charles James Fox

Whig politician Charles James Fox initially disapproved of the coup that brought Napoleon to power in November 1799. Less than nine months later, however, Fox wrote to a friend that he had “entirely forgiven [Napoleon] and am willing to think him one of the best as I am sure he is the greatest of men…. He certainly has surpassed, in my judgment, Alexander & Caesar, not to mention the great advantage he has over them in the cause he fights in.” (1)

After Britain signed the Treaty of Amiens with France in 1802, Fox went to Paris and met with Napoleon. In November of that year, Fox stated that Napoleon “will do everything that he can to avoid war.” In December, he wrote, “I am obstinate in my opinion that Bonaparte’s wish is for peace – nay, that he is afraid of war to the last degree.” (2) For such sentiments Fox was portrayed in the newspapers and the House of Commons as an “apologist of France” and an “agent of the First Consul.” (3)

In March 1803, Fox wrote that if war between Britain and France were to resume – which it did, two months later – “it is entirely the fault of [our] ministers, and not of Bonaparte.” (4) Fox continued to believe in Napoleon’s peaceful intentions. When he became British Foreign Secretary in February 1806, he entered into peace talks with Napoleon’s foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand. Fox was soon dispelled of his illusions. By August, he admitted, “In the present disposition of the French government, there is, I fear, little probability that peace can be concluded on such terms as are alone admissible.” (5) One of his contemporaries wrote, “Charley Fox eats his former opinions daily and even ostentatiously, showing himself the worse man.” (6)

Charles James Fox died shortly thereafter, on September 13, 1806.

Lord and Lady Holland

Bust of Napoleon in the garden at Holland House

Bust of Napoleon in the garden at Holland House

Fox’s enthusiasm for Napoleon was equaled by that of his nephew Henry, and especially Henry’s wife Elizabeth Vassall-Fox, otherwise known as Lord and Lady Holland. Lord Holland was a Whig politician who served as Lord Privy Seal in 1806-1807. Lady Holland was a wealthy heiress who married Holland in 1797, two days after her first husband divorced her on grounds of adultery. Together they hosted elite political and literary gatherings at Holland House, their mansion in Kensington, which was then just outside of London.

The Hollands met Napoleon and his first wife Josephine in Paris in September 1802. Lady Holland wrote to her sister-in-law Caroline Fox:

I was presented last Sunday to the Consul and Madame; they were both very gracious. Her figure and tournure are perfect; her taste in dress exquisite, but her face! ghastly, deep furrows on each side of her mouth, fallen-in cheeks, shocking, disgusting, a worn-out hag, prematurely gone, as she is not above forty years old. His head is out of proportion, being too large for his figure. It is well shaped; his ears are very neatly shaped and small, his teeth fine. The gracious smile he puts on is not in unison with the character of the upper part of his face; that is penetrating and severe and unbending. (7)

In 1814, during Napoleon’s exile on Elba, Lady Holland visited the “fatal room” at the Palace of Fontainebleau where Napoleon had signed his abdication. “Alas! Alas!” she wrote. “Why did he go to Russia and why was he so headstrong?” (8)

Lady Holland persuaded Colonel Neil Campbell, the British commissioner on Elba, to take some English newspapers to Napoleon. One of these contained a paragraph reporting that the allies were considering moving Napoleon to St. Helena. This may have been a factor in leading Napoleon to plot his departure from Elba. While in Italy, the Hollands visited Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte. They also commissioned a bronze bust of Napoleon from sculptor Antonio Canova, to be placed in the garden at Holland House. In Naples (where the Hollands heard of Napoleon’s escape from Elba), they were entertained by Napoleon’s sister Caroline and her husband Joachim Murat. In June 1815, the Hollands were in Germany when they learned that Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. They visited the battlefield on their way back to England.

In July 1815, Countess Granville arrived at Holland House to find Lady Holland “seated on the grass…very cross and absurd about Buonaparte, ‘poor dear man,’ as she calls him.” (9) Dining at Holland House later that year, Countess Granville noted of her hosts that “[t]heir politics seem to be reduced to adoration of Buonaparte.” (10)

The Hollands were particularly upset by the British decision to exile Napoleon to St. Helena. In April 1816, Lord Holland entered a protest in the House of Lords against the bill on Napoleon’s detention.

To consign to distant exile and imprisonment a foreign and captive chief, who, after the abdication of his authority, relying on British generosity, had surrendered himself to us, in preference to his other enemies, is unworthy the magnanimity of a great country, and the treaties by which, after his captivity, we bound ourselves to detain him in custody at the will of sovereigns to whom he had never surrendered himself, appear to me repugnant to the principles of equity, and utterly uncalled for by expedience or necessity. (11)

As detailed by John Tyrrell on his Reflections on A Journey to St. Helena blog, the Hollands tried to influence Sir Hudson Lowe, the newly-appointed governor of St. Helena, to treat Napoleon with leniency. In March 1817, Lord Holland made a motion in the House of Lords regarding the treatment of Napoleon at St. Helena, “to rescue the character of parliament, of the Crown, and of the country, from the stain which must attach to it if any harsh or ungenerous treatment had been resorted to.” (12) Lady Holland regularly sent Napoleon gifts on St. Helena, including food, eau de Cologne, an ice machine, and over 1,000 books and periodicals.

As a token of esteem, Napoleon in his will bequeathed to Lady Holland a gold snuffbox that Pope Pius VI had given him. It was delivered to her by Generals Henri Bertrand and Charles de Montholon. Lord Carlisle urged Lady Holland to throw the snuffbox into the River Thames.

LADY, reject the gift! ‘tis tinged with gore!
Those crimson spots a dreadful tale relate:
It has been grasp’d by an infernal Power;
And by that hand, which seal’d young Enghien’s fate.

Lady, reject the gift: beneath its lid
Discord, and Slaughter, and relentless war,
With every plague to wretched man lie hid–
Let not these loose to range the world afar.…

The warning Muse no idle trifler deem;
Plunge the cursed mischief in wide Ocean’s flood;
Or give it to our own majestic stream –
The only stream he could not dye with blood. (13)

In a parody of Carlisle’s poem, Lord Byron urged Lady Holland to keep the gift.

Lady, accept the box a hero wore,
In spite of all this elegiac stuff;
Let not seven stanzas written by a bore,
Prevent Your Ladyship from taking snuff! (14)

In Napoleon in America, Lord and Lady Holland are among the guests at the party at which the Duke of Wellington learns of Napoleon’s (fictional) escape from St. Helena

Lord Byron

Romantic poet Lord Byron saw Napoleon as a heroic figure – filled with republican ideals, embodying talents of action, and illustrating human possibility. In many respects, he identified with the French general, presenting himself as “[t]he grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme.” (15)

In February 1814, when Napoleon was battling the coalition armies advancing towards Paris, Byron recorded in his journal:

All seems against him; but I believe and hope he will win – at least, beat back the invaders. What right have we to prescribe sovereigns to France! (16)

Byron was dismayed when Napoleon decided to abdicate rather than fight to the death or take his own life. However, he was thrilled upon learning of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and return to France.

It is impossible not to be dazzled and overwhelmed by his character and career. Nothing ever so disappointed me as his abdication, and nothing could have reconciled me to him but some such revival as his recent exploit. (17)

When Napoleon abdicated for a second time, after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Byron was again crestfallen. Like a number of Whigs, he had pinned hopes for political reform in Britain on Napoleon’s continuing success against the absolute monarchs of Europe.

Every hope of a republic is over, and we must go on under the old system…. [T]he luck which Providence is pleased to lavish on Lord ** is only a proof of the little value the gods set upon prosperity, when they permit such **** as he and that drunken corporal, old Blucher, to bully their betters. (18)

Between 1814 and 1816, Byron wrote five poems about Napoleon: “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte”; “Napoleon’s Farewell”; “From the French”; “On the Star of ‘The Legion of Honour (From the French)’”; and “Ode (From the French).” While the first is critical of Napoleon, the others laud him.

In 1821, when Byron’s friend Thomas Medwin told him that he could not reconcile the contradictory opinions Byron had expressed of Napoleon in his poems, Lord Byron responded:

How could it be otherwise? Some of them were called translations, and I spoke in the character of a Frenchman and a soldier. But Napoleon was his own antithesis…. He was a glorious tyrant, after all. Look at his public works; compare his face, even on his coins, with those of the other sovereigns of Europe. I blame the manner of his death; he shewed that he possessed much of the Italian character in consenting to live. There he lost himself in his dramatic character, in my estimation. He was master of his own destiny; of that, at least his enemies could not deprive him. He should have gone off the stage like a hero: it was expected of him. (19)

When Napoleon’s widow Marie Louise appeared on the Duke of Wellington’s arm during the Congress of Verona in 1822, Byron expressed his disapproval.

William Hazlitt

Writer William Hazlitt admired Napoleon’s “infinite activity of mind” and called him “the greatest man in modern history.” (20) Like Byron, Hazlitt saw Napoleon as a romantic man of action and regarded his triumphs as victories for liberty and reform. Regarding Napoleon’s escape from Elba and return to France in 1815, Hazlitt wrote:

[M]en listened with delight and wonder…to the unbarring and unbolting of those doors of despotism which they thought had been closed on them forever. All that was human rejoiced; the tyrant and the slave shrunk back aghast, as the clash of arms was drowned in the shout of the multitude…. Therefore Buonaparte seemed from his first landing to bestride the country like a Colossus, for in him rose up once more the prostrate might and majesty of man; and the Bourbons, like toads or spiders, got out of the way of the huge shadow of the Child Roland of the Revolution. (21)

In 1815, a gentleman meeting Hazlitt for the first time found him “staggering under the blow of Waterloo” and resentful of the captivity of Napoleon on St. Helena “as if he had sustained a personal wrong.” (22) A friend wrote:

[I]t is not to be believed how the destruction of Napoleon affected [Hazlitt]; he seemed prostrated in mind and body; he walked about, unwashed, unshaved, hardly sober by day, and always intoxicated by night, literally, without exaggeration for weeks. (23)

Hazlitt’s obsession with writing a massive biography of Napoleon (The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, four volumes, 1828-1830) contributed to the end of his second marriage.

John Cam Hobhouse

Politician and diarist John Cam Hobhouse shared his friend Lord Byron’s sympathy for Napoleon and dislike of the Bourbon dynasty. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, Hobhouse hurried to Paris and chronicled events there until the defeat of this “extraordinary mortal” and the restoration of Louis XVIII to power. He noted “the injustice and impolicy of bearing back the Bourbons in triumph, over the trampled necks of Frenchmen.” (24)

Hobhouse’s reflections were published anonymously in 1816 as a two-volume series of letters in which the author attempted “to disabuse his fellow countrymen on the subject of the return and last reign of the Emperor Napoleon.” (25) The book met with criticism in England.

In the restorers of Buonaparte’s government [the author] sees nothing but pure patriotism and enlightened humanity – in Buonaparte himself he sees, and he alone, that grandeur of soul, and those regulated dispositions, which offered to France the surest pledge of political freedom under a mixed monarchical sway. In Paris he sees engaged under what he calls the last reign of the Emperor Napoleon, in the great work of political regeneration, an august body of senators, bred in the school of the revolution, and perfected for their great undertaking by the lessons and example of Napoleon the great. What may be the standing in life of this ingenious writer we know not; but the probability is that he has never heard of the horrid transactions of the revolutionary period, but in company with the stories of giants and enchanters, and cruel uncles and step mothers, related to him in his nursery; and that all these tales of blood, whether recorded of Bluebeard or Buonaparte, are forgotten together, or if remembered are no longer a subject of terror, but appear in the bright and innocent colours of infantine associations….

After fighting for so many years against Jacobinism, and the child and champion of Jacobinism, against principles of universal conquest and military despotism, against a hate avowed towards this country exceeding the measure of common hostility, after a successful termination of this unparalleled struggle, the letter-writer takes it cruelly amiss that we should presume, with our conquering army at the gate of Paris, to assist in the restoration of that state of things which seemed most likely to accomplish the end for which we had been contending, – a satisfactory and secure peace, or, in other words, our existence as an independent nation. Instead of keeping at peace with Napoleon, of whose equitable views and magnanimous moderation we have had such decisive proofs; we have ‘blasted by one vast and unnatural effort the fairest promise of rational freedom that the imperfection of humanity could admit of being displayed in France, or any other country.’ (26)

You might also enjoy:

When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s Wife

What did the Duke of Wellington think of Louis XVIII?

Napoleon and the Ice Machine on St. Helena

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena

Songs about Napoleon Bonaparte

Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon Scared Children

  1. “A Morning Among Autographs,” Putnam’s Magazine, Vol. I (New York, 1868), p. 692.
  2. John Russell, ed., Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, Vol. III, (London, 1854), pp. 384-385.
  3. Ibid., p. 205.
  4. Ibid., p. 404.
  5. Papers Relative to the Negotiation with France, Presented by His Majesty’s Command to Both Houses of Parliament, 22 December, 1806 (London, 1807) p. 87.
  6. Orlo Williams, Life and Letters of John Rickman (Boston, 1912), p. 141.
  7. The Spectator (London), November 8, 1913, p. 17. The Spectator Archive, http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/8th-november-1913/17/napoleon-and-lady-holland. Accessed September 19, 2018.
  8. Linda Kelly, Holland House: A History of London’s Most Celebrated Salon (London, 2013), p. 87.
  9. Harriet Leveson Gower, ed., Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, Vol. I (London, 1894), p. 57.
  10. Ibid., p. 80.
  11. C. Moylan, ed., The Opinions of Lord Holland, as Recorded in the Journals of the House of Lords from 1797 to 1841 (London, 1841), pp. 86-87.
  12. The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time, Vol. 35 (London, 1817), p. 1138.
  13. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. XV (Edinburgh, January 1824), pp. 43-44.
  14. Thomas Medwin, Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron: Noted During a Residence with His Lordship at Pisa (London, 1824), p. 235.
  15. George Gordon Byron, The Works of Lord Byron: Complete in One Volume, edited by Thomas Moore (London, 1842), p. 716.
  16. Thomas Moore, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron: with Notices of His Life (Paris, 1834), p. 170.
  17. Ibid., p. 207.
  18. Ibid., p. 212.
  19. Medwin, Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron, pp. 223-224.
  20. R. Waller and Arnold Glover, eds., The Collected Works of William Hazlitt (London, 1902), p. 45.
  21. William Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Second Edition, Vol. IV (London, 1852), pp. 118-119.
  22. Charles Lamb and Thomas Noon Talfourd, The Complete Works of Charles Lamb (Philadelphia, 1879), p. 308.
  23. Tom Taylor, ed., Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter, from his Autobiography and Journals, Vol. I (London, 1853) p. 279.
  24. John Cam Hobhouse, The Substance of Some Letters Written by an Englishman Resident at Paris During the Last Reign of the Emperor Napoleon (London, 1816), Vol. I, p. 137; Vol. II, p. 154.
  25. Ibid., Vol. I, p. xiii.
  26. The British Review and London Critical Journal, Vol. VII, No. XIV (London, 1816) pp. 499-500.

20 commments on “Supporters of Napoleon in England”

  • Paul-Napoléon Calland says:

    An interesting article, which highlights some of the more fanciful views of anti-Napoleonists in the United Kingdom (in this case, in England in particular) during the period, and indeed ever since. The criticism, levelled in the closing quotation against Hobhouse, portraying Napoleon the Great as a warmonger motivated by hatred of his English island neighbours, completely misses out the belligerent spirit and unjust aggressions of the English establishment and Royal Navy that provoked Denmark and Russia into alliance with France (1801 & 1807), and the United States of America into war (1812). It praises “our conquering army”, led by a general who made his name conquering and subjugating the peoples of India for the profit of the commercial “élites”, and derides Napoleon’s magnanimity and noble principles (the emancipation of religious minorities, for example) in defence of oligarchic tyranny, bigotry and oppression (Catholics and Jews, for example, being disbarred from office in the UK).

    All in all, well worth reading, as much for the courage of the subjects listed above, in the face of anti-English anglo-jingoism from those under the sway of the privileged few, as for the show of bad faith by the champions of a Royal house whose partisans would have us weep for a Duke*, but show no remorse for their cowardly murder of a young child sacrificed (along with many other innocents) during their Christmas Eve terrorist attack in 1800.

    *Under the laws of England and Wales, Enghien would have been liable to be hanged, drawn and quartered, for high treason (i.e. bearing arms against his country).

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your comments, Paul-Napoléon.

  • Hels says:

    I know you are describing only a few and mainly elite British sympathisers, nonetheless the general question about how the English regarded Napoleon is still ambivalent. Especially once Britain restarted the battle against Napoleonic France and continued until Waterloo in 1815. I am sure the fears of a Napoleonic invasion of England were well founded.

  • Maria says:

    Love your articles and really appreciate the effort you put into them. Very thankful.

  • Ben Myring says:

    Worth noting that pro-Napoleon sympathy isn’t merely found among the British elite, but in many British folk songs too, especially from Scotland, the North of England, and of course Ireland (formally part of the UK at the time). A great example is the song ‘The Isle of St Helena’, which contains the verse:

    “Oh you parliament of England
    And you Holy Alliance
    To a prisoner of war
    You may now bear your defiance
    But for all your base intrigues
    You never could demean him
    So you sentenced him to die
    On the Isle of St Helena”

    Other verses indicate ambivalence towards his militarism. But many of the commonfolk clearly didn’t buy the official propaganda that he was some sort of tyrannical monster.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    This is certainly the case with songs written after Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena, and particularly with those written after his death, like the one you cite, Ben. You might enjoy my post on “Songs About Napoleon Bonaparte.”

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Very interesting article, as usual, especially for me, as a French.
    I was aware that Napoleon had some “supporters” in Great Britain, like the Hollands who acted generously when he was in St Helena.
    It is fascinating and sometimes, I must confess, a little exasperating to see how, today, almost 200 years after his death, Napoleon is generally seen in the anglosphere: a dwarf tyrant responsible for many wars (after all, they call them the Napoleonic wars, not the coalition wars…).
    In fact, it seems that many people, even well read, are not able to distance themselves from the cliches and from the good old propaganda.
    Luckily, some people like you, with your wonderful blog, show another side of the story, a more balanced one.
    Thank you!

  • Kathleen Baldwin says:

    This is brilliant! Thank you, Shannon!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your kind words about the blog, Marie-Noëlle.

  • Geoffrey says:

    Very nice to have you back!
    Edwardes Square in Kensington was built near Holland House, and I believe there was some apprehension that it was being inhabited by Bonapartists who might stage a coup.
    Incidentally, I believe Lady Holland’s wealth was built on Jamaican slavery. Didn’t Nap restore slavery in some French possessions?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Geoffrey! That’s interesting about Edwardes Square. You’re right, Lady Holland’s grandfather made a fortune in Jamaica and left his plantations in trust for her, provided her future husband took on the name of Vassall. When her first marriage ended, her ex-husband got her fortune, but when he committed suicide in 1800, the Jamaican property reverted to Lady Holland and her second husband. Lord Holland thus supported abolition of the slave trade despite being a slave owner. You’re also correct in thinking that Napoleon restored slavery and the slave trade in Martinique and some other West Indian colonies (the 1802 law did not apply to Guadeloupe, Guyane or Saint-Domingue).

  • John Tyrrell says:

    Hi Shannon
    I think it is possible for us to make some generalisations about this phenomenon. If you were a Foxite Whig or a Radical you were unlikely to buy the Loyalist caricature about Napoleon. If you were a nonconformist or a Catholic you were also less likely to accept the Loyalist narrative about Napoleon. I have been much impressed by Oskar Cox Jensen’s, “Napoleon and British Song, 1797-1822” which argues that “The historical reality is that across the British Isles, both during and especially after the Napoleonic Wars, the eponymous Bonaparte was better loved and respected by the general populace than Wellington, Pitt or the Prince Regent.” Of course the general populace had no political power.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    There’s a lot to be said for that assessment, John. The general populace was certainly more curious than hostile when Napoleon appeared off Plymouth in 1815. According to Las Cases: “At first, people merely looked toward the ship, they ended by saluting; some remained uncovered, and, occasionally, went so far as to cheer. Even our symbols began to appear amongst them. Several individuals of both sexes came decorated with red carnations.”

  • John Tyrrell says:

    I forgot to say what a great post. You always write so beautifully.
    I have not figured out how to attach your blog to my reading list. Perhaps it is not possible to attach from this platform to blogger.
    At present I am doing a short piece on the original Duke of Sussex, a Whig and probably the most popular royal in his day, apart from Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent/George IV (another supporter of Napoleon incidentally).
    Unfortunately my post will not be as polished as yours.
    John

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks very much, John. I’ve just read your excellent post on the Duke of Sussex (https://johntyrrell.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-duke-of-sussex-and-napoleon-peace.html), and I encourage other readers to do the same. It’s a great follow-on to this piece, as you eloquently highlight the Duke’s sympathy for Napoleon. Regarding Queen Caroline, if you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy my post about her encounter in 1814 with Napoleon’s wife Marie Louise: https://shannonselin.com/2016/05/princess-caroline-met-empress-marie-louise/.

  • John Tyrrell says:

    I had not seen your post on the meeting of the two. Thank you for pointing it out. What a fascinating encounter. I was interested to read that Caroline told Marie Louise that she might go to Elba to visit Napoleon. My understanding is that Napoleon turned down her proposal of a visit – for political reasons I assume.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    According to Marchand, when Caroline wrote to Napoleon asking if she could come to Elba (probably in November 1814), “[t]he Emperor, deeply involved with construction and workmen, could not receive her graciously, and asked her to put off this little trip.”

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I am willing to think him one of the best as I am sure he is the greatest of men.… He certainly has surpassed, in my judgment, Alexander & Caesar.

Charles James Fox