Napoleon in England?
Updated: Apr 13
caption: Napoleon aboard HMS Bellerophon, by Sir William Quiller Orchardson, 1880, Collection of the Tate
I love to include real events in my stories, and since the action revolves around a newspaper and its publisher I needed a couple of doozies to be worthy of the attention of the reporters in my novel A Note of Scandal. So imagine my delight, when reading about ships-of-the-line and other nautical footnotes, I came across the story of Napoleon’s sailing to England after Waterloo.
What? Napoleon in England? Well, English waters, at least. After the British government turned down the French request for a passport for Bonaparte to travel to the United States, he and his followers debated whether to ask again for a passport or to make a run for it, challenging the British blockade near Rochefort, France—or to request political asylum. Knowing that the British had a tradition of harboring political refugees, he chose the latter. He dictated a letter to the Regent:
“A victim to the factions which distract my country, and to the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, I have terminated my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself upon the hospitality of the British people. I put myself under the protection of their laws; which I claim from your Royal Highness, as the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies. -- Rochefort 13 July 1815”
His negotiators, though, treated with Captain Maitland, who while he agreed that Bonaparte and his motley crew could come aboard under a flag of truce made no promise of asylum, and even hinted that his government might not agree that Maitland had any authority in the matter at all. The French envoys saw his declarations as overly careful and were very encouraged; and after all, Napoleon’s younger brother, Lucien, had been captured by the British in 1810 and was now settled in a cozy country house near Worcester. It didn’t seem to occur to them that the British might not see the conqueror of Europe in the same light.
On the morning of July 15, Napoleon and some 33 retainers, including women and children, boarded the Bellerophon. “I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and your laws,” he said to the captain. After a day of settling in, including stringing nets along the sides so the children wouldn’t tumble off, they set off for England.
They arrived early on July 24, and immediately were an object of interest for the locals. Maitland had received orders not to let “anyone” off the ship, so the sailors dropped anchor deep in Brixham Harbor, chasing off the usual bread and goods merchants who’d come out in their shore boats. But they couldn’t hide the news, and soon every inn was full, and people in boats and yachts came from up and down the coast to see if they could catch sight of the most famous man in the world. Two days later, the Bellerophon sailed for Plymouth, where it met with the same reception. A lieutenant estimated the crowd on July 27 at 10,000 people, seeing roughly a thousand vessels, each with more than 8 people aboard.
A week later, Napoleon had his answer:
“It would be inconsistent with our duty to this country, and to His Majesty’s Allies, if we were to leave to General Bonaparte the means or opportunity of again disturbing the peace of Europe, and renewing the calamities of war: it is therefore unavoidable that he should be restrained in his personal liberty… The island of St Helena has been selected for his future residence…”
On August 4, the Bellerophon and its attendant ships weighed anchor, to rendezvous with the Northumberland, which would take the former emperor and a few retainers to St Helena.
As I rewrote and edited my story, I had a copy of this painting by John James Chalon, Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815, from the National Maritime Museum. I love the idea of thousands of people in little boats riding up and down on the waves to see a famous (or infamous) man.
A classic Zebra Regency romance that also makes use of the events in Plymouth is The Perfect Bride (aka The Perfect Match), by Jo Ann Ferguson (2004, Zebra Books). I’d love to find others – do you know of any?
Wikipedia entry on the Bellerophon and Napoleon’s surrender,
“A Sympathetic Ear: Napoleon, Elba and the British,” Katharine MacDonogh, from History Today (1994), vol. 44, via Napoleon.org
The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon. David Cordingly, 2003, Bloomsbury