Walter Runciman : Nelson and Napoléon ép. 5

Napoleon is a colossus compared to the diminutive British Admiral : « In every way he excels the Louis of France, the Georges of Great Britain and Hanover, the Fredericks of Prussia, and the Alexanders of Russia. The latter two he puts far in the shade, both as a statesman, a warrior, and a wise, humane ruler who saw far into futurity, and fought against the reactionary forces of Europe, which combined to put an end to what was called his ambition to dominate the whole of creation »47. When the Government in London paid massive subsidies to their Allies to attack Napoleon – he fought back. Wasn’t that a wicked thing to do ? It was even more ‘bad form’ when he usually licked his adversaries completely as at Austerlitz and Jena. What a bounder the chap was ! Another point made by Runciman was that England wasted an inordinate amount of time, effort, blood and gold in reseating useless selfish monarchs on their thrones – Ferdinand of Naples being a prime example : « No whitewasher, however brilliant and ingenious, can ever wipe out the fatal action of the British Government in embarking on so ill-conceived a policy as that of supporting the existence of a bloodsucking government, composed of a miscreant ruling class headed by an ignoble king, all living on the misery and blood of a semi-civilized population. It is a nauseous piece of history, with which, under sagacious administration, we should never have been connected »48.

Portrait du roi Ferdinand de Naples et Sicile – Anton Raphael Mengs

Nelson helped perpetuate the rule of Ferdinand and Caroline who literally let their people starve. Naples did far better when Napoleon placed his older brother Joseph on its throne in February 1806 : « Joseph ruled with marked moderation and distinction, sweeping away much of the foul canker of corruption and introducing many beneficent reforms during his two years of kingship »49. This should be remembered when so many partial British historians claim again and again that Napoleon and his family were little better than the mafia or were all simply well-dressed Corsican bandits with a love of the vendetta and bent on feuding and revenge. Even when a very reluctant Murat was put in charge of Naples he proved himself to be a better leader than the useless Bourbons : « His reign lasted from 1808 until 1815, and was no less distinguished than that of Joseph’s. The fall of the Napoleonic regime was followed by the fall of Murat, and the despicable and treacherous Ferdinand became again the king, and brought back with him the same tyrannical habits that had made his precious rule so disastrous to the kingdom and himself »50.

During all the sad and sorry saga of Nelson and Emma, our foremost sailor had made himself a laughing stock. The tolerance of his superior Admiral Keith was stretched to breaking point. Nelson had repeatedly disobeyed orders so that he could remain at the Court with the Queen and Emma. In a letter to her sister from Florence, Lady Minto wrote that Lord Keith had told Caroline that Lady Hamilton had had command of the fleet long enough,’ remarking of Nelson : « His zeal for the public service seems entirely lost in his love and vanity, and they all sit and flatter each other all day long »51.

However, the real blame lies with the politicians in London who supported such corrupt and reactionary rulers : « The benighted policy of keeping in power a mawkish Sicilian Court, saturated with the incurable vices of cowardice, falsehood, dishonesty, and treachery, failed ; and the Government of the day was saddled with the crime of squandering human life, wealth, and energy without receiving any commensurate return »52. The whole attitude of the British ruling class and government towards Napoleon and the French was rank with self-justification and hypocrisy : « We had no real grounds of quarrel with France nor with her rulers. The Revolution was their affair, and was no concern of ours, except in so far as it might harmfully reflect on us, and of this there was no likelihood if we left them alone. The plea of taking the balance of power under our benevolent care was a sickly exhibition of statesmanship, and the assumption of electing ourselves guardians of the rights of small nations mere cant. It was, in fact, the canker of jealousy and hatred on the part of the reactionary forces against a man, a principle, and a people »53.

Runciman adds : « Had we approached Napoleon in a friendly spirit and on equal terms, without haughty condescension, he would have reciprocated our cordiality and put proper value on our friendship »54. He is absolutely frank when he turns to the leadership of Britain and the antics of politicians like Pitt, Castlereagh, Canning and their ilk : « we helped to impose on Europe twenty years of slaughter and devastation. Our dismal, plutocratic rulers, with solemn enthusiasm, plunged England with all her power and influence on the side of Prussia and her continental allies, and, in conjunction with the Holy Alliance, pledged themselves never to lay down arms until France was mutilated and the master-mind which ruled her beaten and dethroned »55. He also thought their baleful influence was responsible for the First World War : « Their task was long, costly, and gruesome. What a ghastly legacy those aggressively righteous champions of international rights have bequeathed to the world ! But for their folly and frenzy we should not be engaged in a European war to-day »(1917)56. With another castigating reference to Naples and the consequences of our involvement, he says : « History is not altogether faithful to the truth in its honeyed records of the ministerial pashas who tranquilly increased the national debt, inflicted unspeakable horrors on the population, and smirched our dignity by entering into a costly bond of brotherhood with an inveterate swarm of hired bloodsucking weasels »57. I think it fair to say that Runciman was not impressed.

Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, peinture de Henry Howard au Greenwich Hospital

When Nelson received his mortal wound on the Victory on October 21st 1805 at Trafalgar he asked Hardy for the famous kiss and told him to give ‘dear Lady Hamilton his hair and other belongings,’ and asked that his ‘body should not be thrown overboard’. Just before he died he told Doctor Scott that ‘he had not been a great sinner’58. All this contrasts very badly with his cruel treatment of Caracciolo whose family was denied the very corpse that Nelson dumped into the sea without a qualm. It was murder most foul. But then, the self-appointed elite in British society and the officers in the British Navy were utterly convinced that God was on their side. Collingwood’s General Order of October 22nd written on the Eurylus off Cape Trafalgar stated that : « The Almighty God, whose arm is strength, having of his great mercy been pleased to crown the exertions of his Majesty’s fleet with success, in giving them a complete victory over their enemies, on the 21st of this month; and that all praise and thanksgiving may be offered up to the throne of grace, for the great benefit to our country and to mankind, I have thought it proper that a day should be appointed of general humiliation before God, and thanksgiving for his merciful goodness, imploring forgiveness of sins, a continuation of his divine mercy, and his constant aid to us, in defence of our country’s liberties and laws, and without which the utmost effortsof man are nought ; and therefore that [blank] be appointed for this holy purpose »59. The British state was extremely generous to the memory of its dead hero. Nelson’s widow was given £2,000 a year for life ; his brother was made an earl and given £6,000 a year ; £15,000 was given to each of his sisters and £100,000 provided to enable an estate to go with the title60. These colossal sums contrast with the terrible conditions that the ordinary people had to cope with as a result of the British Government’s wars against Napoleon. The ‘liberties and laws’ that Collingwood spoke of were of precious little use to them. Of Collingwood, Runciman says : « I have already drawn attention to Nelson’s blind prejudice to and hatred of the French. Collingwood was tainted with the same one￾sided views, but tempered them with more conventional language »61. Pleased by a letter from his daughter written in French, Collingwood ‘exhorts the mother to see that she converses when she can in that language, and to remember that she is never to admire anything French but the language… « that it is the only thing French that she needs to acquire, because there is little else in connection with that country which he would wish her to love or imitate »62. Surprisingly, Collingwood did have a few words of backhanded praise for his enemy Admiral Villeneuve : « he was a well-bred man, and a good officer, who had nothing of the offensive vapourings and boastings in his manner which were, perhaps too commonly attributed to the Frenchmen »63. Of Nelson and Collingwood, Runciman adds : « Neither of them knew the character or purpose of the exalted man on whom their Government was making war. Like simple-minded, brave sailors as they were, knowing nothing of the mysteries of political jealousies and intrigue, and believing that the men constituting the Government must be of high mental and administrative ability, they assumed that they were carrying out a flawless patriotic duty, never doubting the wisdom of it… »64.

Although Collingwood’s ‘naval qualities were quite equal to Nelson’s,’65 and he played a vital part at Trafalgar, he did not get the same reward. He wanted his title to go to his daughters because he did not have any sons. In a letter to Mr. Blackett he says : « I was exceedingly displeased at some of the language held in the House of Commons on the settlement of the pension upon my daughters ; it was not of my asking, and if I had a favour to ask, money would be the last thing I would beg from an impoverished country. I am not a Jew, whose god is gold ; nor a Swiss, whose services are to be counted against so much money. I have motives for my conduct which I would not give in exchange for a hundred pensions »66. The prejudices and stereotypes of his day are obvious. Napoleon’s greatness is exemplified by the fact that he could see such attitudes in his own contemporaries yet he still gave Jews equal rights throughout his Empire.

Turning to the fate of Villeneuve himself there has long been controversy. In his book The Savage Storm the author David Andress makes a claim that Napoleon had him murdered. He gives no footnote and no source whatsoever for this assertion : « Captured in battle, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was exchanged back to France in early 1806, and discovered, dead, in a Rennes hotel room that April. A total of seven stab wounds to his chest made the official announcement of suicide a subject of much grim humour in the British Press »67. The Savage Storm is one of the most one-side books ever written and the prolonged diatribe proves that the author had made up his mind long before he put pen to paper. He admits in the preface that : « I do not like the Emperor Napoleon, »68 – only Esdaile’s The Wars of Napoleon exceeds it in terms of sheer partiality69.

Let us turn to what Walter Runciman has to say on the matter, he who spent many long hours in the British Archives and gives detailed references for every statement that he makes : « There is not the remotest foundation for the unworthy report that was spread that he was put to death by Napoleon’s orders. The Emperor was too big a man, occupied with human projects too vast, to waste a moment’s thought or to stain his name over an unfortunate admiral who had brought his fleet to grief by acting against his instructions. It is only little men who write, not that which is founded on fact but that which they imagine will appeal to the popular taste of the moment ; and so it was with the French Emperor ; a lot of scandal-mongers were always at work hawking hither and thither their poisonous fabrications »70. The Savage Storm vanishes in a puff of wind – it amounts to little more. Napoleon never once responded in kind to the many attempts of Pitt and select members of the British Cabinet to assassinate him. He forgave, dismissed or ignored the dozens of traitorous acts of political sharks like Talleyrand and Fouché. To think that he would stoop to crush a minnow like Villeneuve is ridiculous. This is what Napoleon said to Dr. O’Meara on Saint Helena :« Villeneuve when taken prisoner and brought to England, was so much grieved at his defeat, that he studied anatomy on purpose to destroy himself. For this purpose he bought some anatomical plates of the heart, and compared them with his own body, in order to ascertain the exact situation of that organ. On his arrival in France I ordered that he should remain at Rennes, and not proceed to Paris. Villeneuve, afraid of being tried by a court-martial for disobedience of orders, and consequently losing the fleet, for I had ordered him not to sail or to engage the English, determined to destroy himself, and accordingly took his plates of the heart, and compared them with his breast. Exactly in the centre of the plate he made a mark with a large pin, then fixed the pin as near as he could judge in the same spot in his own breast, shoved it in to the head, penetrated his heart and expired. When the room was opened he was found dead ; the pin in his breast and a mark in the plate corresponding with the own in his breast. He need not have done it, as he was a brave man, though possessed of no talent »71.

Runciman is forthright in his defence of Napoleon : « I have given this communication in full as it appears in O’Meara’s book, because the scribes would have it that Villeneuve was destroyed by the Emperor’s orders. There was not at the time, nor has there ever appeared since, anything to justify such a calumny on a man who challenged the world to make the charge and prove that he had ever committed a crime during the whole of his public career »72. He makes another telling point about Napoleon and his acts of magnanimity :« It is more likely that Napoleon wished to save him from the consequences of a court-martial, so ordered him to remain at Rennes. He rarely punished offenders according to their offences. After the first flush of anger was over, they were generally let down easily, and for the most part became traitors afterwards »73.

If he could forgive Talleyrand and Fouché – he could forgive anybody! British writers who condemn Napoleon for his supposed treatment of Villeneuve forget that Admiral Sir John Byng was court-martialled and shot after an engagement with the French off Minorca on May 20th 1756 for a mere error of judgment, while Admiral Sir Robert Calder who was victorious at Finisterre against the French, was court-martialled and ruined because the victory was deemed not great enough! For his repeated disregard of orders and abandoning his post during a time of war, Nelson might have suffered the same fate had he not been so victorious at Aboukir Bay and Trafalgar and perhaps, even more, been such a favourite with the British public. So Collingwood’s remark about ‘our countries liberties and laws’ can be taken with a large pinch of sea salt. If this was how the British Establishment treated its admirals – God help ordinary members of the public.74

To be continued…


  1. Ibid. 53-54
  2. Ibid. 59
  3. Ibid. 58
  4. Ibid. 59
  5. Ibid. 66
  6. Ibid. 66-67
  7. Ibid. 67
  8. Ibid. 67
  9. Ibid. 67
  10. Ibid. 67
  11. Ibid. 58
  12. Ibid. 101
  13. Ibid. 105-106
  14. Ibid. 109.
  15. Ibid. 110
  16. Ibid. 110
  17. Ibid. 111
  18. Ibid. 111-112
  19. Ibid. 112
  20. Ibid. 112 My italics
  21. Andress David The Savage Storm (London: Little Brown, 2012)
  22. Ibid. Preface xiv
  23. Esdaile Charles Napoleon’s Wars (New York: Penguin Books, 2007)
  24. Runciman Ibid. 113
  25. Ibid. 113 My italics
  26. Ibid. 113
  27. Ibid. 114
  28. Ibid. 114