The French were fighting against the Austrians in Poland. France recruited some superb Polish soldiers. They were promised Polish independence and a few naively believed that Napoleon was sincere. Napoleon was seduced by a teenage Polish princess who was married to a much older man. But this would be Delilah did not make him believe in the Polish cause. He would not give explicit promises. He created a Grand Duchy of Warsaw but was willing to bargain away Polish territory to Russia in return for other concessions.
Relations between Russia and France grew strained. At Tilsit in 1807 Napoleon had met the Tsar Aleksandr I on a barge in the middle of the river. The emperor’s charisma had won over the impressionable young Tsar Aleksandr I. They spoke in French because that was there only common language. Upper class Russians spoke French. There was some common ground between them. They were both anti-British. Part of the Treaty of Tilsit had been for France to assist Russia in her war against Persia (Iran). France provided no help at all. Napoleon wrote to Aleksandr ”Dear Brother Emperor”. He would reply, ”Dear General Bonaparte”. Napoleon was not accepted as a real monarch and this irked him greatly.
Napoleon was also unhappy that he had been unable to have a child with his wife Josephine de Beauharnais. She was the woman he truly loved despite her being six years older than him. Josephe (to give her real name) had a daughter and a son by her first husband and had been unable to conceive since despite a long romantic relationship with the politician Paul Barras. The British press ridiculed Napoleon suggesting he was impotent, ”Not tonight Josephine” was the line attributed to him by cartoonists. In fact Napoleon had a number of children with his mistresses. One of his sons went on to become the French Ambassador to the Court of St James.
The French defeated the Austrians by a crushing margin at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. This was just across the Danube from Vienna. The following peace agreement was signed at the Austrian Emperor’s palace – it was the Peace of Schonbrunn. A major coalition power was thus out of the war. The sacrificial virgin was the emperor’s daughter Marie-Louise. Napoleon had had his childless marriage to Josephine annulled on frivolous grounds. The Pope had jettisoned moral principles in deference to wealth and might as the priesthood usually does. Marie-Louise at 18 wed Napoleon who was 40.
In 1812 the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was talking to his colleagues in a public area of the House of Commons. A man stepped forward drew a pistol and shot Perceval in the chest. The Tory PM Perceval collapsed and died within minutes. The assassin made no attempt to flee. He was seized and was identified as John Bellingham. Bellingham had been imprisoned in Russia a few years earlier. He was aggrieved that this happened as result of the trade dispute against Russia. His repeated requests for compensation had been refused. The assassination was not by a French agent as some at first imagined.
Bellingham was tried and declined to plead insanity. He was hanged a week after the murder. Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. One of John Bellingham’s collateral descendants entered Parliament in 1983 as MP for Norfolk North-West. As a delicious irony; he is a Tory.
The next Prime Minister was a Tory. He was the Earl of Liverpool. Lord Liverpool was a fervent believer in fighting to absolute victory. A few years before the UK had fought single handedly. Fortunately for Lord Liverpool events were going his way. The French were sustaining heavy losses in Spain. Spain was a guerrilla’s natural habitat. The mountain fastness and scarce water in the uplands played havoc with the usual French tactics. The French could not seem to land a blow on the guerrillas who were growing in numbers and experience. Indeed the Spanish invented the word ‘guerrilla’. They were adequately armed by the British and supported by British and Portuguese regulars. Within a month of Lord Liverpool becoming PM Napoleon took the fateful decision to invade Russia. Things were looking up. The UK continued to outspend its enemy by deficit financing. Debt had brought down the Bourbons and Napoleon thought it could bring down him. His preoccupation in avoiding debt was a mistake. He insisted on balanced budgets. This hugely hampered the war effort. The French Revolution had been caused by debt. Napoleon thought if he got into debt he would be overthrown.
The Russians began trading with the United Kingdom. Napoleon threatened them with war if they did not desist. The Russians carried on regardless. Napoleon therefore decided that Russia had to be made an example of. If the Russkies got away with away it then everyone would do it.
Sure enough the French overreached themselves. A huge but inconclusive Battle of Borodino was fought on the road to Moscow. Napoleon was ill and his discomfort led to him being grouchy and unhelpful. He disbelieved intelligence reports and refused to send reserves forward when reinforcements were called for. He was hot tempered just when cool judgment was called for. The French entered Moscow to find it partly burnt. Napoleon lodged in the Kremlin for a month. Then he foolishly chose to withdraw before winter. If he had sat tight in Moscow for spring then his men would at least not have been outdoors in the severe winter temperatures.
On the retreat from Moscow the French were attacked by the Russian regulars but also a rabble army of peasants. The so called French Army was very much diluted in its Frenchness. It included many Prussians, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Dutchmen and Swiss. Napoleon dreamt of uniting Europe under himself with a single currency. There would be identikit European laws – the Napoleonic Code. He did at least emancipate Jews and free the serfs. Jews in Germany sometimes changed their names to Schonteil in his honour. Schonteil is a translation of Bonaparte. Some Germans suspected Jews of being pro-French because Napoleon had freed them. They can hardly be blamed for being grateful to be freed from the ghetto.
Although Napoleon was pro-Jewish he was anti-black. His wife Josephine persuaded him that slavery was right and natural. Napoleon dispatched thousands of troops to the Caribbean to defeat the Haitians. The Haitians had risen up and regained their liberty. Napoleon was hellbent on forcing them back into servitude.
All was not plain sailing for the British in 1812. The United States had continued trading with France despite the UK warning her not to. The USA insisted that they had the right to trade with any country and the British were not entitled to command them what to do. The Royal Navy stopped and searched American merchantmen. They confiscated French goods or goods destined for France. They searched for deserters from the Royal Navy. They pressed some American seamen into British service by claiming these men were deserters from the King’s Navy. Some in the United States spoke of making war on the British. The Federalist Party was dead against it. They were strongest in New England and this region was likely to be the main battlefront since it was adjacent to Canada.
The United States was riled by such provocation. In 1812 Congress declared war on the United Kingdom. It is called the War of 1812. Only 60% of Congress voted for war. This indicated that there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the war. The USA did not throw herself into this war with full vigour and determination. This was mainly a maritime war. There was some talk of invading Canada or the British colonies in the Caribbean. This war weakened the UK. She could not concentrate all her forces on the nemesis – France. The Americans made incursions into Canada. They were repulsed by the Canadian militia and British regulars. Perhaps oddly the French Canadians remained steadfast in their loyalty to the Crown. They practised Catholicism freely in their province of Quebec where French was the official language. They feared that American rule would deprive them of these rights. They were wrong on the former but right on the latter. After all Maryland had Catholicism as a state religion at the time. Many Native American tribes sided with the British. They feared American expansion to the west.
The UK also fought the Nepal War that year and fought in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Four totally separate wars in four theatres was a daunting task. The British seized Ceylon because it was Dutch ruled. The Dutch were allies of the French.
The French defeat in Russia undermined Napoleon’s reputation for invincibility. A rumour spread in Paris that he was dead. There was a coup and for a few hours another general held some key buildings. This man felt himself destined for greater things.
Napoleon was never one to let himself be associated with a debacle. He left his men in the lurch. He is not often rebuked for this in French history books but he ought to be. He had a fast sleigh speed him out of Russia. He abandoned his men as he had in Egypt. He felt he was still destined for triumph. In fairness, there was no military logic to him staying in Russia. In Paris he could control events. Marshall Ney commanded the rearguard and claimed to be the last French soldier out of Russia.
The Russians came hard on the heels of the French. The Austrians were buoyed up and re-entered the fray as did the Prussians. The French were pursued through Germany.
By 1814 the French had been overwhelmed at the Battle of Leipzig – the Battle of Nations as it is called. Austrians, Prussians and Russians smashed the French. Napoleon’s former Marshal Bernadotte, now King of Sweden, turned against him. The French had been driven out of Spain. The Spanish and British had invaded southern France. They invested Toulouse. The Prussians and Austrians were back in the war. The Russians, Austrians and French entered France from the east. The Dutch attacked from the north. Royalists were stirring for a counter-revolution particularly in western France. Napoleon ordered the call up of schoolboys and grandfathers. These soldiers were nicknamed Marie-Louises after Napoleon’s young wife. The situation was utterly dire. The French were hopelessly outnumbered and almost surrounded. Fighting on was not viable. The news was all unremitting gloom.
Napoleon had appointed marshals. These hand picked top commanders were men whom he thought were utterly loyal. Some had been captured by the enemy. Others pleaded with him to spare his people needless bloodshed – he must surrender. Only a few counselled fighting on to the bitter end. One of those who impressed on Napoleon the need to give in was Marshall Ney. It may seem incongruous as this man had been hailed by Napoleon as ”the bravest of the brave” only two years before.
The coalition had been discussing what to do. Some favoured leaving Napoleon to rule a truncated France. Both most governments were legitimist in their views. That meant that they believed that only monarchies that existed well before 1789 were legitimate monarchies. Napoleon and all of his satraps must be deposed. Napoleon and his minions had become pretended monarchs by force. These ‘legitimate’ monarchs conveniently forgot that they own ancestors had also established monarchies by military prowess.
Emissaries were sent out to seek terms. The coalition offered surprisingly generous terms. Napoleon would not be handed over to the Bourbons for trial for high treason. He would be sent to the Italian island of Elba and even allowed to rule it. He would be permitted to take 1 000 soldiers with him. The coalition suggested such leniency because perhaps they feared that Napoleon may yet pull off a miracle.
In April 1814 Napoleon was obliged to surrender tout court. He reviewed his Imperial Guard at Fontainebleau and whispered to them as they wept, ”I shall return before the violets bloom again.” Some called him Papa Violette for this.
Napoleon went to his Italian island. He supposedly said a sentence which is an English palindrome, ”Able was I, I saw Elba.”
His wife the Empress Marie-Louise did not come with him. He was 46, very overweight and suffering with piles. She was 22 and had never cared for the man she was forced to marry as part of terms of surrender. She was given Parma to rule. She took her son Napoleon II with her. Napoleon II had been granted the title the King of Rome by his father. However, Napoleon II was not known by that title. He received the title the Duke of Reichstadt from his Habsburg relatives. Marie-Louise moved to Parma in Italy and there she openly lived in sin with another man and had children by him. Napoleon responded to being cuckolded with typical ill-grace. The coalition found the adultery of Marie-Louise deeply gratifying. They were elated to see Napoleon humiliated.
Napoleon’s titles were junked. Louis XVIII came back. He had lived in exile in London. He was the brother of Louis XVI. Louis XVIII was given a lukewarm greeting by his subjects who had not seen him in over 20 years. He was an enormously obese man, distant and laconic. He inspired little affection even among Royalists. Cartoonists lampooned him as resembling a pear. Louis XVIII was shrewd enough to recognise that some changes effected by the French Revolution were popular. These could not be reversed without arousing violent opposition. He did not confiscate all property from Bonaparte’s former supporters. However, he did abolish the Tricolore as a symbol of the republic and Bonapartism. He restored the fleur-de-lys as the national flag.
Many of Napoleon’s former marshals opted to serve Louis XVIII. Louis XVIII was wiser than to prosecute them though they were technically all guilty of treason. He would have had to have prosecuted almost everyone if he took that attitude. He absolved them despite not actually demanding penitence. The officers and soldiers swore fealty to the king in short order.
With Napoleon defeated the British could turn all their forces on the United States. However, the British were tired of war and anxious for peace. Merchants lobbied that they needed to trade with the USA. In the United States many people were also keen to bring the war to a close. The Federalist Party had never been in favour of fighting. The US national debt had ballooned. The dearth of British trade had all but ruined the economy.
British and American delegations met at Ghent in the Netherlands. They negotiated for months whilst fighting raged. In December 1814 they hammered out an agreement. It was the Peace of Ghent. It took weeks to relay the news to the USA and Canada
In February 1815 General Pakenham led the British Army in an attack on New Orleans. The city was ably defended by General Andrew Jackson. The British were beaten off with heavy losses. The Americans sustained only a few casualties. It was the most decisive American victory of the war. It was also totally unnecessary. The war had ended weeks earlier but neither side at this battle knew that. Hundreds of men died for nothing.
THE HUNDRED DAYS
Napoleon observed the situation on the mainland with close interest. He saw the Great Powers fall out with each other. They were bickering amongst each other. Soon they might go to war over the spoils of victory. The British had dispatched their battled hardened troops to Canada to fight the Americans. French soldiers who had been prisoners of war had been released. It had taken a few months for some of them to get home. By February 1815 they were all back in France. However, coalition soldiers who had been taken prisoner by France had also been set free. The aristocratic emigres who returned to France had been lording it over others. Maladministration by Louis XVIII would turn people into Bonapartists again – so the ex-emperor told himself. Napoleon calculated that the factors militated in his favour. Perhaps he struck too soon. Had he waited a few months then war might have broken out between countries in the coalition. Then one side or other might have welcomed support from Napoleonic France. However, there was also a reason to stage a comeback sooner rather than later. Napoleon was informed that the Peace of Ghent had been signed in December 1814. This brought the War of 1812 to a close – the United Kingdom was now at peace with the United States. Most of the British Army’s veteran troops had been sent to North America. Now they would be recalled. It would take a few months to get them all home. Napoleon reasoned that he had better strike before the British got their best men home. All things considered he decided that the time was ripe in February 1815.
The former emperor landed at Golfe Juan on la Cote d’Azur.
Napoleon returned. As he approached Grenoble the townsfolk tore off the gates of the city and laid them at his feet. Some soldiers were dispatched by Louis XVIII to arrest the Corsican parvenu. He had very few soldiers at his back so he knew that using force was a non-starter. He approached the soldiers alone and unarmed. The king’s soldiers leveled their muskets at him. He opened his coat as if to make it easier to aim at his heart. He had not lost the old magic. The soldiers lowered their muskets and cheered ”Vive l’empereur!”
Marshall Ney was then sent by the king to capture Napoleon. Ney vowed to return with Napoleon in a cage.
When news reached London that Napoleon had landed in France there was pandaemonium. Scenes of consternation were replicated in all the courts of Europe. All government were of one accord – stop Bonaparte. They knew that his comeback would mean him proclaiming war on sundry nations.
Soldiers sent to arrest Napoleon went over to his side. As he approached Paris Louis XVIII sensed that he was less popular than the man rightly regarded as an insatiable war monger. The king fled. The redoubtable Marshall Ney went over to Bonaparte.
Bonaparte was somewhat ostracised. His relaunching of war met a muted response. People felt subdued. They had had a surfeit of war. He had misread the public mood. People were aware that other countries would be leagued to defeat Napoleon. Napoleon’s restoration could only mean war. People knew that the Great Powers would never assent to Napoleon’s resumption of governance.
In Paris Napoleon summoned the National Assembly. They would not agree to all of his proposals. He gathered La Grande Armee. Most of his marshals came back to him. He anticipated an enemy invasion any time. He ordered a general mobilisation. Some did not respond. Soldiers who had recently spent several years as prisoners of war did not necessarily want to return to the battlefield.
Napoleon’s adored Josephine had died the previous year. Yet her influence on him had not died. As the daughter of a plantation owner in Martinique she was stridently anti-black. Napoleon absorbed her racial prejudices. Corsican people were often anti-African partly because the island was often raided by corsairs from North Africa. The flag of Corsica features a black man’s head! In 1815 he found time to issue an edict ordering that the black people of the Caribbean be forced back into servitude. One would have thought that with the enemy counter mobilising he might have had more pressing matters to attend to.
The British landed in the Netherlands and linked up with the Dutch. Hanover was a sister kingdom of the United Kingdom. Hanoverians marched west to join the British and Dutch. The Prussians mobilised and moved west. The Austrians also marched on France. The Russians mustered their forces.
Napoleon’s stratagem was as always to defeat the enemy in detail. He must pick them off one by one before they could unite into a force so vast that he could never beat it. He must neutralise the most immediate threat first. That meant the Dutch and British. He moved before they could. In fact they were sitting tight until they received reinforcements from the Prussians. Napoleon would strike north into the Netherlands. He would deal the Dutch a knockout blow. Then he could deny the Dutch ports to the British. With luck he would also capture the Dutch Fleet in harbour which he could turn to serve French purposes. At this point some of the coalition may choose to make peace or even change sides.
Napoleon entered the Netherlands in mid June. This was the southern part of the Netherlands which is what we would call Belgium. Napoleon fought a whirlwind campaign. Luckily for him the Prussians had not yet linked up with the Dutch, British and Hanoverians. There were two minor battles – Quatre Bras and Ligny. These were both victories for France but not resounding ones. Neither side went all out for victory.
The Duke of Wellington was in command of the Dutch, British and Hanoverians. The British HQ was Brussels. The Duchess of Richmond held her famous ball on 17 June. The next day the British, Dutch and Hanoverians formed up on a hill near Waterloo. They blocked the road to Brussels.
There was heavy rain the night before. On the morning of June 18 it took hours for the ground to dry out enough for cannon to be moved. Napoleon insisted on having a grand battery in the middle as always. He refused to engage his infantry and cavalry without artillery support. This was possibly a fatal mistake. Time was not on his side. With every passing minutes Britain’s allies were marching closer. Napoleon had left Marshall Grouchy miles to the east to hold off the Prussians under General Bluecher. Grouchy was heavily outnumbered and could only fend off the Prussians for so long. Grouchy and Bluecher engaged each other at Wavre.
The Duke of Wellington may have been tempted to come down from the escarpment and give battle on the plains before Napoleon could get his artillery into position. However, the duke chose not to risk it. He sat tight. He rightly reasoned that every passing hour brought Bluecher and therefore victory closer. There was no sense in making a bold move.
Finally Napoleon began the attack. Wellington has spread out his men sufficiently that surrounding them was all but impossible. On the other hand units were not so far apart that they could be defeated piecemeal. Napoleon’s haemerrhoids irked him. He was sceptical of intelligence reports and refuse to release reserves. It was the same scenario that dogged him at Borodino. The French attacked a farm called La Hougemont. The British managed to hold it. Marshall Ney ordered his cavalry to charge unbroken squares of infantry with predictable results. The cavalry sustained heavy losses and the squares held firm. He did not use artillery on the squares. The British artillery near the squares were forced to take cover in the squares and leave their guns unmanned. He also failed to have his men spike the British guns which would have made the artillery unusable for the rest of the battle. The Britishers might have spike their own guns to prevent the French using the artillery against the squares.
Officers were expected to show sang froid. The Earl of Uxbridge famously had his leg blown off and remarked nonchalantly, ”My God I have lost my leg!” The Duke of Wellington remarked, ”My God you have sir.”
The Imperial Guard was sent to attack. They thought they were facing but one line of British infantry. Several lines of British infantry were hidden in the fields of corn. As the Imperial Guard approached the British infantry lines stood up. One line would fire and then duck down. The next rank would fire and then duck down. The Imperial Guard were raked by volleys. For the first time they broke and ran.
Wellington ordered a general advance. All was not lost for Napoleon. Wellington prayed, ”Give me night or give me Bluecher.” Dark uniforms were seen on the eastern horizon as twilight approached. Was that the French navy blue or the Prussian black? It was the Prussian black. Grouchy had been routed. The Prussians would give Wellington a 2-1 advantage over the French. The French had already taken considerable casualties. Napoleon sounded the retreat. The Imperial Guard rallied and insisted on making a last stand. ”The Imperial Guard dies but does not surrender.” The Prussian band was soon playing ”Nun danket alle Gott” – ”Now thank we all our God.”
Many vivid accounts exists of this battle because it was such a seminal moment in European history. To meet one’s Waterloo has come to mean to experience a total and definitive downfall. History has bestowed a fine reputation on the Duke of Wellington who was regarded by his contemporaries as a competent rather than an outstanding commander. The French did not do especially badly in the battle. However, the deck was stacked in the coalition’s favour. If the French did not carry the day decisively then by default they lost it. This battle was remarkably international. The British side was more German than many Britishers care to admit and it was certainly not mainly English. As George Bernard Shaw said it was a case of, ”An English Army led by an Irish general against a French Army led by an Italian general.”
The Duke of Wellington had estimated Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield as being worth 40 000 men. Napoleon certainly had a magnetic personality. He had persuaded his men to fight for him against heavy odds. Wellington also remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was ”a damn close run thing.” This seems counterintuitive now as it appears that the coalition won fairly easily. However, at the outset it may not have seemed that way. Moreover, hindsight is 20:20.
Tens of thousands of men were killed. The duke remarked that the only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost.
Napoleon fled in his coach. He raced to Paris and spoke of defending the city. His lieutenants told him the game was up. There would be no more fighting. He was despondent. He had once said, ”To die is to die once but to live defeated is to die every day.” He chose to take his own life. The Corsican had worn a vial of poison on his necklace for years. He swallowed it. The poison had gone off and failed to kill him. He mused about seeking asylum in the United States. However, the Royal Navy was frenetic in patrolling the Atlantic Coast of France to forfend his escape. He surrendered to the British.
General Bonaparte was put on HMS Bellerophon. As it sailed away he gazed on France for the last time. The ship anchored off the United Kingdom for a while. Sightseers came to gawp at Boney. Boney was a nickname bestowed on him by the British press. He was transported to exile in Saint Helena. He lived in a comfortable retirement that he had denied to over 1 000 000 people killed in his wars. The British governor Sir Hudson Lowe kept a close eye on Napoleon in case he escaped. Hundreds of soldiers were there to forfend this. Napoleon immersed himself in stories about his campaigns and endlessly wrote self-regarding accounts of his campaign to depict his generalship and his motives in the most favourable possible light. He died in 1822. He was possibly poisoned by arsenic. Then again there was arsenic in many products at the time. Many people inadvertently slowly poisoned themselves with hair oil at the time. The British could not risk him restarting his wars which is why it is credible that they secretly exposed him to small doses of the toxin that were fatal over a period of several years.
Louis XVIII came back again. There then began the concert of Europe. This was a series of diplomatic conferences to tidy things up are the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars.
Marshal Ney was arrested. He had served Napoleon and then served under Louis XVIII. He had deserted Louis XVIII and re-ratted to Napoleon. The king could forgive this in an ordinary soldier but not in a general. Ney was tried for treason and found guilty. He was sentenced to death. As a soldier he would die by firing squad. Ney said he had done right according to his lights since Napoleon represented a mighty France.
At the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, Marshal Ney was to meet his end. There were very few witnesses but two British officers who happened to be passing watched. They noted that highly unusually he gave the order to fire. He seemed to fall even before the first shot rang out. Unaccountably the officer in charge of the execution did not administer the coup de grace shot to Ney’s head.
There have been rumours that Ney was not killed. He was a Freemason like Wellington and Freemasons are obliged to avoid killing a brother Mason unless in battle. Some believe that the Duke of Wellington arranged for Ney to be put through a fake execution. Ney connived at this and pretend to fall dead when the was about to be shot. The soldiers had had gunpowder in the muskets so there was a muzzle flash and bang but there were no musket balls in them. It is said that Ney was smuggled to the United States where he worked as a teacher and lived under a false name. He used the maiden name of his British mother. He spoke of hoping for a Napoleonic comeback. On his deathbed he revealed his true identity.
Viscount Castlereagh was the Foreign Secretary for most of this time. His name was Robert Stewart but he is known by his title Castlereagh. Lord Castlereagh was a formidable Irishman and an outspoken Tory. He was raised to the title Marquess of Londonderry but is generally known by his lower title – Castlereagh. Castlereagh was a hate figure among radicals. Shelley in ”The Mask of Anarchy” wrote, ”I met Murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh.”
The Concert of Europe took place mostly in Vienna. France was returned to her frontiers prior to 1792. She had annexed north-west Italy and Illyria (Slovenia and some of Croatia). Prussia seized some territory in the Rhineland. These conferences persisted until 1820. To some extent it was a knees up for the well connected.
In 1815 a very wealthy British family went on holiday – for five years. They were the Nightingales. They had been unable to travel for years because of the wars. They were multimillionaires in modern terms. Their eldest child was born in Naples and she was named Parthenope – ”virgin faced” in Ancient Greek. Parthenope is the original name of Naples. Their second daughter was born at Firenze and she was known by the English name for that city – Florence.
Trade could resume as normal. As foodstuffs flooded into the United Kingdom this lowered food prices. This was a boon for consumers. This was bad news for farmers. To protect the landed interest the government passed the Corn Laws. This put an import tax on corn to try to keep the price artificially high. This was deeply unpopular among the urban working class. The Corn Laws impacted heavily on them. Parliament was very much dominated by landowners at the time. Not just the Lords but the House of Commons was mostly peopled by those who owned huge farms.
As the danger had passed many people demanded that security legislation be repealed. Draconian laws restricting radical agitation had been enacted during the Napoleonic Wars. The definition of sedition had been broadened unduly. There was no longer any excuse for this. The Tory Government refused to abolish these laws.
In 1819 thousands of people gathered at St Peter’s Field near Manchester for a protest. The yeomanry were there to watch from a distance. A magistrate commanding the yeomanry shouted ”clear the crowd”. The cavalry charged and they were overzealous. Several people were knocked to the ground by horses and trampled under hooves. Some yeomen drew they sabres and slashed the demonstrators. Several people were killed.
This incensed radical opinion and even mainstream Whigs. It caused Shelley to pen the Mask of Anarchy. ”As I lay asleep in Italy/ There came a voice from over the sea/ And it forth led me/ To walk in visions of poesy.” In this poem he railed against the hideous massacre.
The massacre was known as Peterloo since it took place at St Peter’s Field. The ‘loo’ suffix was an ironic allusion to Waterloo which had taken place only four years earlier.
This was a period of frenetic street politics. Many people campaigned for reform. They wanted Parliament to reflect public opinion more closely. They wanted greater free speech. Some people protested against the Corn Laws. Ordinary Britishers had fought against a dictator only to suffer from a semi-dictatorial government at home.
Increased international commerce did little for ordinary folk. Most people were hardly sufficiently nourished. Many children did not attend school. Those who works in mines, mills and factories laboured for long hours in return for paltry wages. Work was noisy, filthy and dangerous. The Combination Act outlawed trades unions. It was called ”combination” because they could not combine to try to pressurise their employer to raise wages or ameliorate conditions.
The Earl of Liverpool and his Tory administration seemed as firmly in control as ever. Lord Liverpool ruled as PM from 1812 to 1827.
THE DEMISE OF GEORGE THE THIRD.
In 1820 the unloved King George III died. He had been blind and raving mad for several years. Few mourned the cantankerous and aloof monarch.
It is said that the boys of Eton went into mourning to grieve for their sovereign lord. George III was an Etonomaniac. He used to walk down Eton High Street giving out gold coins to schoolboys and talking to trees. However, the tale about Eton’s black tailsuits dating to George III’s funeral are surely bogus. There is a painting several years after the king’s demise. It shows the boys sporting tailcoats of variegated hues.
The death of a sovereign precipitated a general election as the law required at the time.