Walter Runciman : Nelson and Napoléon ép. 1

« Napoleon, when at the height of his fame, was looked upon by the European Powers as a man whose lust for conquest was a terrible menace to all constituted authority. The oligarchies thought themselves bound to combine against him in order to reseat the Bourbons on the throne of France and restore law and order to that distracted country. What a travesty of the actual facts ! »1.

This was the Big Lie told to generations of British children and to which most English historians have subscribed. Baptized in this polluted historical font they have drenched their pages with liberal drops of venom and bile – proclaiming Napoleon to be a veritable Anti-Christ. Thus initiated, they have continued to casually toss mistruths and misrepresentations between themselves until they have constructed a catechism of calumny they all endorse. It is an original sin that few contemporary historians can escape from. At its most basic it is Orwellian : England Good – Napoleon Bad.

The truth was very different : « The people of France had risen against the tyranny and oppression of the French Kings and nobles, and out of the welter of the Revolution Napoleon rose to power and, by his magnetic personality, welded the chaotic elements into unity, framed laws which are still in operation, and led his country to wonderful heights of glory »2.

Walter Runciman

Walter Runciman was born on July 6th 1847 in Dunbar, Scotland, little more than a quarter of a century after the death of Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena. It could be said that that the young Scotsman had salt water in his veins. In 1855 the family was visited by three sailors over six feet three inches tall, a grandfather and two greatuncles. These seadogs had fought at Aboukir Bay, Copenhagen and Trafalgar and each of them had boarded Spanish and French vessels brandishing cutlasses. How the small boy must have revelled in their tales of the death of Nelson, storms, seamanship and derring-do. Not surprisingly young Walter soon saw himself as a « powder monkey » in the making. However, three of his mother’s brothers had drowned at sea and her own father had been ruined by the infamous pressgang, so she was far from happy when he left home at twelve to become an apprentice seaman3.

In his book Drake, Nelson and Napoleon written while the First World War was still raging in 1917 4, Runciman’s love of the sea is obvious. Of Drake, he remarks that : « Having smashed his antagonist, he regarded it as plain duty in the name of God to live on his beaten foe and seize their treasure of gold, silver, diamonds, works of art, etc., wherever these could be laid hold of » 5, and he says of Queen Elizabeth Ist : « She was never mentally disturbed by the moral side of the great deeds that brought her vast stores of plunder » 6. This should be borne in mind by British writers who castigate Napoleon for seizing art treasures in Italy in 1796 on the orders of The Directory. Brought up to see Nelson as a hero and Napoleon as the enemy, Runciman was surprised to find that many British sailors had a lot of sympathy for the fallen Emperor – there were many songs and sea shanties written about him. Nevertheless, when he purchased a copy of Walter Scott’s Napoleon 7 to while away a long voyage, he expected his then anti-Napoleon views to be substantiated. However, he was so struck by the one-sided nature of the biography that he came to the conclusion that it was little more than an Establishment stitch-up. Its dual aims were to absolve the British Government of any wrongdoing during the so-called Napoleonic Wars and to damn Napoleon in the eyes of contemporaries and posterity.

Horatio Nelson

In regard to Nelson and Napoleon, Runciman states in the preface of his book that : « It would be futile to draw a comparison between the two men. The one was a colossal human genius, and the other, extraordinary in the art of his profession, was entirely without the faculty of understanding or appreciating the distinguished man he flippantly raged at from his quarterdeck »8.

Although he admires Nelson and sees him as a great national figure, Runciman is one of the few British historians to point out that he was a hero with feet of clay and a very flawed human being. In particular he describes the catastrophic effect that two women had upon him – Queen Caroline of Naples and his real femme fatale, Emma Hamilton. Nelson had an almost childlike need for adoration and approbation, especially from women. When his ego was flattered he became as putty in their hands. Their baleful influence led him to make terrible mistakes both as an individual and as a representative of his country. He was also incredibly self-obsessed. He might accept that the earth revolved around the sun, but he was convinced that the universe was centred upon him personally : « Nelson was always an attractive personality and by no means the type of man to allow himself to be forgotten. He believed he was a personage with a mission on earth, and never an opportunity was given him that did not confirm this belief in himself »9.

To his mighty arrogance and undoubted bravery was allied a real penchant for selfdramatizing, particularly when it came to his own physical health. To avoid a situation he did not like he would often plead illness, even when it was obvious to those around him that he was not really ill at all. At times this aspect of his behaviour made him appear a virtual hypochondriac. At the Battle of the Nile he received a head wound that caused a piece of skin to fall over his good eye. In panic he called out to Captain Berry : « I am killed, remember me to my wife »10. Despite being reassured by the ship’s surgeon, he was convinced that it was a mortal blow. Ever since a gypsy had told him years before that he would die early, his mind was forever plagued by the idea. Perhaps that is why he always seemed to be in such a rush to meet his destiny11.

Although he momentarily lost his head at Aboukir Bay, his victory over the French was to cost him his heart and some might say, his very soul. For it was after this battle that Emma Hamilton wrote a letter to him gushing with praise and hero worship. As if being made a baron and a pension of £2,000 a year was not enough reward, he received the undying affection of the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples. He had met the couple in September 1793 during a brief visit to the Kingdom. Runciman describes the missive that came out of the blue five years later : « Every line of the letter sends forth crackling sparks of fiery passion. She begins, ‘My dear, dear sir’, tells him she is delirious, that she fainted and fell on her side ‘and am hurt’, when she heard the joyful news. She ‘would feel it a glory to die in such a cause’, but she cannot die until she has embraced the ‘Victor of the Nile’. Then she proceeds to describe the transports of Maria Caroline. ‘She fainted too, cried, kissed her husband, her children, walked, frantic with pleasure, about the room, cried, kissed and embraced everybody near her’. Then she continues, ‘Oh ! brave Nelson ! Oh ! God bless and protect our brave deliverer ! Oh ! Nelson, Nelson ! Oh ! Victor ! Oh ! But my swollen heart could now tell him personally what we owe to him »12.

Nelson lapped all this up like a kitten does cream. When his vessel the Vanguard arrived at Naples the Ambassador’s wife virtually threw herself at him and he was a lost man. He : « allowed himself to be flattered with refined delicacy into a liaison which became a fierce passion, and tested the loyalty of his closest friends to breaking-point. How infinitely pathetic is the story from beginning to end ! »13 Nelson became Emma’s toy and she played with his emotions from then on. He could not resist her tsunami of affection and praise and amidst it all he found himself beached on the notoriously corrupt shores of the Kingdom of Naples and under the sway of a Queen who would also use him at every opportunity. So smitten was Nelson that he even told his wife that Emma was the very best woman in the world and what an honour it was to have her as his friend. The poor chap was in love and he had to tell everybody about the object of his affections. In a letter to Lord St. Vincent he spoke of his ‘angel’ and how she was his personal gobetween to the Queen. He oozes : « Our dear Lady Hamilton, whom to see is to admire, but to know are to be added honour and respect ; her head and heart surpass her beauty, which cannot be equalled by anything I have seen »14.

And so the disasters began…

Emma was his intermediary with the Court of Naples and : « it was on the advice of the Queen and Emma that Naples entered into a war, the result of which was the complete defeat of the Neapolitans »15. As a result the King and Queen and the whole Court had to flee to Palermo in Sicily. There, Nelson lived with Hamilton and his wife in a ménage à trios. The love struck Nelson provided a sea-taxi service via the Vanguard to save the royals and their £500,000 fortune. Nelson had a mission, one that was very personal : « Nelson was a true descendant of a race of men who had never faltered in the traditional belief that the world should be governed and dominated by the British. His King, his country, and particularly.the profession to which he belonged, were to him the supreme authorities whose destiny it was to direct the affairs of the universe »16. Nelson put it succinctly in his own words : « I hate your pen-and-ink men. A fleet of British warships are the best negotiators in Europe »17.

His fellow countrymen – at least those in power – had a similarly blinkered view of reality : « The British were not only jealous and afraid of Napoleon’s genius and amazing rise to eminence… but they determined that his power should not only be acknowledged, but destroyed, and their policy after twenty years of bitter war was completely accomplished »18.

To be continued…


  1. Runciman Walter Drake, Nelson and Napoleon (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919) 121 ( Project
    Gutenberg ebook when printed off on A4.)
  2. Ibid. 121
  3. See Significant Scots – Sir Walter Runciman
  4. The book was published in 1919 just after World War One ended.
  5. Runciman Ibid. 7
  6. Ibid. 12
  7. Scott Walter Napoleon (1827)
  8. Runciman Ibid. 3
  9. Ibid. 24
  10. Ibid. 25
  11. Ibid. 46 As a young man he had a reading done and the gypsy said: ‘I can see no further than
  12. Ibid. 29-30
  13. Ibid. 30
  14. Ibid. 30
  15. Ibid. 30-31
  16. Ibid. 26
  17. Ibid. 35
  18. Ibid. 27