« Up to the treaty of Tilsit, the wars of France were essentially defensive ; for the bloody contest that wasted the continent so many years was not a struggle for pre-eminence between ambitious powers, not a dispute for some accession of territory, nor for the political ascendancy of one or other nation, but a deadly conflict to determine whether aristocracy or democracy should predominate ; whether equality or privilege should henceforth be the principle of European governments ».1
« This animal is very bad ; when attacked it defends itself ».2
England’s wars against Napoleon can be summed-up in one word: privilege. Those that had it – the aristocrats and the Monarchy – were determined to defend it with every resource that was available to them and so the continent of Europe was plunged into warfare for two decades. As in every war, it was the common people who suffered most – but no one seems to care about them. As Nietzsche says in Twilight Of The Idols : « Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate those distressing states… Because it is at bottom only a question of wanting to get rid of oppressive ideas, one is not particular about what means one uses to get rid of them… ».3
Thus resulted the wars, the assassination attempts and the black propaganda that the English oligarchy resorted to in their efforts to get rid of Napoleon and the hated notion of democracy. Human beings do not like change and disruption and as they age they resent it all the more. Those that « have » fear the « have nots » and project onto them an animus that results from their own insecurity. To the European Royals and their aristocracies, therefore, the peasants were always revolting whether or not they were actually up in arms against their oppressive rulers. Those that had wealth and power wanted to keep it and they wielded it with a righteous sense of their own superiority and entitlement. They saw themselves as eminently worthy of their privileges and convinced themselves that their high status was solely a result of their own incarnate wisdom, qualities and accomplishments.
As Carl Sagan says in The Dragons of Eden : « In general, human societies are not innovative. They are hierarchical and ritualistic. Suggestions for change are greeted with suspicion : they imply an unpleasant future variation in ritual and hierarchy ; an exchange of one set of rituals for another, or perhaps for a less structured society with fewer rituals. And yet there are times when societies must change… much of the difficulty in attempting to restructure America and other societies arises from the resistance by groups with vested interests in the status quo. Significant change might require those who are now high in the hierarchy to move downward many steps. This seems to them undesirable as is resisted ».4
People like to feel important and not to feel small and insignificant. They want their lives to have meaning and purpose. Similarly, societies need a focus and a reason to exist. Yuval Noah Harari explains the importance of this in Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind : « Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people ».5
The British collective myth has endured and appears to be much more long-lasting: Napoleon was seen as an existential threat to this nation, an ogre who threatened to trample our cherished liberties into the dust. None of this was true. The vast majority of the British people had no basic rights at all, millions lived in utter squalor, deprivation and misery, many literally starved to death during periods of economic turmoil and hardship. Yet they cheered the victories of Nelson and Wellington while remaining virtually enslaved by their aristocratic masters. They kissed the metaphorical chains, doffed a respectful forelock, and shook the hands of those who wielded the whip of social control.
Harari also states a basic truism : « Yet it is a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family ».6
As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, it is as if the rich rise above a cloud and no longer see the people beneath them. It was not apartheid however, it was more like a caste system – the British poor were there to be used and taxed by the state and otherwise kept in their place.
Harari says this of Wellington : « When the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis, enlisted in the British army at the age of eighteen, he was immediately commissioned as an officer. He didn’t think much of the plebeians under his command. « We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers », he wrote to a fellow aristocrat during the wars against France. These common soldiers were usually recruited from among the very poorest, or from ethnic minorities (such as Irish Catholics). Their chances of ascending the military ranks were negligible. The senior ranks were reserved for dukes, princes and kings ».7
To them that hath shall be given.
This higher status and extravagant self-opinion led to an overweening arrogance amongst the British upper classes that coloured and blighted our history for centuries. As their empire expanded they saw themselves not only as the greatest power and most civilised nation upon the earth, but as the most advanced and civilised nation that had ever existed. In 1834 Henry McClellan, a young man from Boston who had come to study here after graduating at Harvard, reported : « In England, condition, title and wealth are everything ; character, person, humanity comparatively nothing. All yields to the dazzle of wealth and hereditary influence. This aristocracy predominates everywhere ».8
Things had certainly not changed since Wellington was a young man. He for one liked things exactly as they were and throughout his life he found any talk of change absolutely abhorrent.
The famous American artist George Catlin was likewise upset when he visited this country. In 1842 in a letter to his father he said : « I am… sick of the insolence of wealth and the wretchedness of poverty which belongs to this great polished nation, with its boasted institutions – its wealth, its refinements, its luxuries ».9
As Peter Pagnamenta adds in Prairie Fever : « Catlin’s nephew Burr was also indignant about the inequalities he saw in London, with the destitute starving in the streets, ‘while the Lords and Gentry are giving their Grand Balls and Soirees and spending thousands nightly ».10 What bliss it was that dawn to be alive, but to be rich was very heaven, Laurence James in Aristocrats, Power, Grace & Decadence, states that : « A new breed of aristocrat appeared in the sixteenth century… The modern aristocrat shared with his ancestors the conviction that virtue was genetically transmitted, was proud of his ancestry and believed that leadership in war and peace was his birthright ».11
Thus was the British aristocrat born, in the best of all possible worlds.
By 1714 there were only 250,000 voters, less than five percent of the population.12 However, « What is beyond doubt is that the aristocracy did enjoy an astonishing ascendancy in public life thanks to those networks of obligation and reciprocity, which, together with adroit Parliamentary and electoral management, kept it in power ».13 James lauds them because : « Aristocratic politicians had overseen the transformation of Britain into a commercial, industrial and maritime power and contrived and implemented the strategies which facilitated imperial expansion… »14 But then, no one else had been given the chance and the history books do not tell of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who eked out an existence in the shadows while their betters basked in their own reflected glory.
Captain Gronow gives an interesting perspective : « I have lived long enough to find hundreds of my countrymen participating in a real knowledge of the French, and believing with me that they are a brave, intelligent and generous nation… They are less prejudiced than we islanders, and are much more citizens of the world than ourselves. I have received an immense amount of courtesy in France ; and if there be less solid friendship – which, however, in England is based too often on a similarity of birth, position and wealth – in France, you have, at least, a greater chance than in England of making a friend of a man who neither looks to your ancestors nor your amount of riches before he proffers you the most sincere intimacy and, if necessary, disinterested aid, purely on the ground of your own merit and character ».15 He also adds : « Intelligent Englishmen have lived long enough to appreciate the genius of Napoleon I… But I remember a period when probably not a dozen Englishmen could have been found to speak of the first emperor with the most ordinary common sense ».16
Gronow also speaks of the sheer brutality then prevalent in the British Army. One man who forged coins was given an incredible 800 lashes for making counterfeit Spanish dollars out of pewter spoons. He makes his own feelings on this matter perfectly clear : « As he had before been convicted and flogged, he received this terrible sentence and died under the lash. Would it not have been better to have condemned him to be shot ? It would have been more humane, certainly more military and far less brutal ».17
William Napier who served with Wellington in the Peninsular War and who wrote a six volumed history of that war, contrasted the life of lowly « army scum » with that of the glittering British aristocracy that whipped them as if it had been a sport : « Napoleon’s troops fought in bright fields, where every helmet caught some gleams of glory ; but the British soldier conquered under the cool shade of aristocracy. No honours awaited his daring, no despatch gave his name to the applauses of his countrymen ; his life of danger and hardship was uncovered by hope, his death unnoticed ».18
Every French soldier knew that he had « a baton in his knapsack » and that their acts of courage and individual bravery would be noticed and perhaps even rewarded. Captain Coignet as a filthy impoverished boy looked after oxen in the depths of a forest where the bright eyes of wolves blinked back at him in the darkness. This unlettered nobody joined the Grand Army and had adventures galore across Europe and into Russia, gaining the Legion of Honour and eventually becoming the chief wagon master for the Emperor himself. Lasalle’s exploits were renowned throughout the military service, as were those of Lannes, Murat, Ney and many more. A one-time grubby smuggler called Massena held the destiny of France itself in his hands at Zurich and became a Marshal under Napoleon.
The disparity in income between the rich and the poor in those days was almost unbelievable. Thanks to his victories in the Peninsula, Wellington went from being Viscount Wellington of Talavera to Duke of Wellington in only five years. The financial rewards that accompanied these titles were extremely generous. He got £400,000 « to buy estates to uphold the ‘dignity’ of his dukedom ».19 This was a colossal sum. Even in 2022 this would be a very decent windfall, back in the early C19th it was riches beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary people.
There is always a difficulty in trying to convert sums from the past into today’s money. Edward Ist spent over £1,000 on some of his Welsh castles in the Middle Ages. This would not even buy a dog kennel in London today. In Wellington’s time, £1,000 would be approximately equal to £1,000,000 now – so he was given, in effect, £400 million in our money. This could have fed all the poor in this nation for years – but that is another story. Just like the British Government « found » £400 billion during the recent Covid crisis, those in power in the C18th and C19th could always find plenty of cash for « one of their own ».
Great Britain’s decimal currency became legal tender on February 15th 1971. No one under the age of sixty can remember « old money » – the pounds, shillings and pence. But to give a little context, when the author went to teacher training college in 1973 the starting salary for a newly qualified teacher was just £1,300 – £26 a week. It is around £30,000 today. Since the 1970s there has been massive inflation and money has lost a lot of its value. As I write Great Britain is facing this same problem all over again. But it was pounds, shillings and pence that existed for most of our history.
Young Arthur Wellesley played the fiddle as a boy and he was quite good at it. The common people thought that most of the politicians of the day were « on the fiddle ». Corruption, sinecures, rotten boroughs and graft were endemic in the « Mother of Parliaments » – another of our sacred institutions. Meanwhile, as depicted in Hogarth’s famous print « Gin Lane », the poor were reduced to drowning their sorrows, getting drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence.20 Even babies were given gin to quieten them down and quell their hunger pangs. What hell it was that dawn to be alive – and to be poor.
When William Pitt the Younger died in 1806, the British Parliament « found » £40,000 to pay off his debts. Those in power can always feather their nests even if the British taxpayers end up feeling like plucked chickens. It makes one wonder, how on earth could an individual, leave alone someone who was Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, accumulate debts of £40,000 in the early C19th. Pitt liked his port – but that is £40 million today!
Gronow says of Wellington : « Throughout the whole of his eventful career, the Duke of Wellington always placed first and foremost, far above his military and social honours, his position as an English gentleman ».21 Nelson wallowed in the same privileged font : « … like most great men, he took for granted that all those above or below him in rank and station should be subordinate to his whims and actions. He could only accommodate himself to being subordinate to his King, the King and Queen of Naples, and the exhilarating influence of Lady Hamilton… in fact Nelson could not tolerate being placed in a secondary position by any one ».22 Nelson sometimes said that he hated the French as the Devil hated holy water.23
And it goes without saying, that God was on the side of the English.
When it came to the Royal Families of Europe, this innate blue-blooded arrogance reached stratospheric levels. Runciman contrast these vapid nonentities with Napoleon : « Well may the crowned heads of Europe have feared this man, whose genius put all their mediocre and unenlightened achievements in the shade. Had they been blessed with the same visions as he, they would not have opposed but co-operated with him, by introducing into their own constitutions saner laws such as some of those of the Code Napoleon. But instead of this, they began a campaign of press vilification, and Napoleon’s every act was held up as the deed of a monster of iniquity. Plots, open and secret, to dethrone him. Were continually in progress, only to be frustrated by the genius of the man of the people ».24
We must remember too, that Britain and France had been fighting each other for centuries. In The Sunday Times of July 4th 2021, in his regular column, the American Irwin Stelzer comments on Andy Haldane’s final speech as Bank of England chief economist : « He reminded his audience that when the Bank was founded, in 1694, it had an additional objective, fighting the French ».25
At the time, the whole of Europe recoiled after hearing of the Reign of Terror in France. However, in The Wars Against Napoleon, Ben Weider and Michel Franceschi point out that : « Britain had quietly encouraged the disorders of the Revolution in order to weaken France. The records of a Russian diplomat include the following information : The English agents Clark and Oswald are members of the Jacobin Club. It would have been more honourable [for Britain] to make war on France than to foment the troubles and massacres that have horrified all humanity ».26
Tim Clayton opens the can of worms in regard to the culpability and influence of British spies in his book This Dark Business. The blurb of this volume encapsulates the politics of the period succinctly : « This Dark Business tells the story of the British government’s determination to destroy Napoleon Bonaparte by any means possible. We have been taught to think of Napoleon as the aggressor – a man with an unquenchable thirst for war and glory – but what if this story masked the real truth: that the British refused to make peace either with revolutionary France or with the man who claimed to personify the revolution was the reason this great war continued for more than twenty years. At this pivotal moment when it consolidated its place as number one world power, Britain was uncompromising. To secure the continuing rule of church and King, the British invented an evil enemy, the perpetrator of any number of dark deeds; and having blackened Napoleon’s name, with the help of networks of French royalist spies and hitmen, they also tried to assassinate him ».27
To be continued…
- Napier W.F.P. History Of The War In The Peninsular Book I. Volume I. p.1 (John Murray,
- The Oxford Library Of Words And Phrases I. Quotations p.5 Quote 15 (La Menagerie, by
Theodore P.K., 1828) From the French.
- Nietzsche F. Twilight Of The Idols, The Anti-Christ p.51 Translated by R.J. Hollingdale,
(Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1977) First published 1889.
- Sagan Carl The Dragons Of Eden p.189 (Hodder And Stoughton, London 1978)
- Harari Y.N. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind p.36 (Penguin, Random House, London
- Ibid. p. 152-153
- Ibid. p. 174-175
- Pagnamanta P. Prairie Fever p. xiv (Duckworth Overlook, London, 2012)
- Ibid. p. 76
- Ibid. p. 76
- James L. Aristocrats, Power, Grace & Decadence p. 97-98 (Abacus, London, 2009)
- Ibid. 147
- Ibid. 187
- Ibid. 187-188
- Gronow Captain The Reminiscences Of Captain Gronow p.35-36 (The Folio Society, London,
- Ibid. 36
- Ibid. 17
- Napier W.F.P. Peninsular War (1810), Vol.ii, Book xi, Chap.iii
- James op.cit p.201
- Tuppence is ‘two pence’ in old money. Just to remind readers, there were 12d (pence) to
the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound – £.s.d. until February 15th 1971.
- Gronow op.cit. p.59
- Runciman Walter Drake, Nelson and Napoleon ps. 63 and 65 Project Gutenberg e-book
March 9th 2005 text 15299 (T. Fisher Unwin Ltd, London 1919)
- Ibid. p.55
- Ibid. p.121
- The Sunday Times Business July 4th 2021 p.7
- Franceschi General and Weider Ben, The Wars Against Napoleon p.7 (Savas Beattie, New
- Clayton Tim, This Dark Business, Blurb on flyleaf. (Little, Brown, London, 2018)