A sympathetic ear: Napoleon, Elba and the British – from History Today (1994), vol. 44

Author(s) : MACDONOGH Katharine
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Was Napoleon's escape from his first exile unwittingly aided by his erstwhile opponents from Albion? Katharine MacDonogh, author of a biography on Empress Josephine's step-daughter and sister-in-law, Hortense de Beauharnais, weighs up the enigmatic response that certain British citizens showed towards their imperial prisoner.

HISTORY TODAY 1994 vol. 44.
On February 26th, 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba. On March 2nd, Lord Burghersh, His Majesty's Minister in Florence, wrote to the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, regretting:
… that a feeling has very generally been excited at Elba, at Leghorn, and to a degree at this place, that the English were privy to and connived at the escape of Bonaparte. This report originated in the language of Bonaparte's officers, who were perhaps instructed to hold it. A dissatisfaction with the King of France's governement was given as a reason why the English wished again to see Napoleon in that country. The British sloop-of-war Partridge was stated to have brought him a letter to that effect on Friday.
Napoleon did foster these rumours of British complicity, with a view to creating mayhem among the Allies, his ploy was unwittingly seconded not only by his British admirers but also by the bungling of the Foreign Office itself.
The Treaty of Fontainebleau, drawn up five days after his abdication on April 6th, 1814, granted Napoleon the 'the free possession and the peaceable enjoyment in full sovereignty of the island of Elba, and of the Duchies of Parma, Placentia, and Guastalla', generous pensions for himself and his family and the right to retain his rank and imperial title. Castlereagh, shying at the latter article which, fraught with dynastic ambiguities, he could see would play into the hands of the Whig Opposition at home, refused to sign and only acceded to the treaty's territorial provisions. Castlereagh was in Dijon with the Emperor of Austria and Metternich during those crucial first ten days of April when peace was being negotiated in Paris. They were waiting for the French themselves to declare for the restoration of the old dynasty (rather than having the Bourbons unilaterally imposed by the Allies) and wishing, as Castlereagh explained to the Duke of Wellington on April 14th, to:
… avoid a dictatorial pledge, which might give his [Napoleon's] adherents in France, as well as the Opposition here, the handle to represent the support of the Bourbons as a foreign and not a French cause.
This diplomatic delicacy was nonetheless shortsighted: it gave the policy advantage to the Tsar, Alexander I, who had entered Paris with Frederick William III of Prussia on March 31st. Of all the Allies, Alexander had the least to lose and the most to gain from the presence of Napoleon in the Mediterranean. His dislike of the Bourbons and admiration for Napoleon were further factors in his readiness to award lenient terms of exile to the fallen emperor.
The abdication and exile of Napoleon not only spelt the apparent conclusion of twenty years of warfare but gave access to a continent from most of which the British had been barred since the rupture of the Peace of Amiens in 1803. They flocked across the Channel in their hundreds, to the delight of the French tradesmen and caricaturists who revelled in the idiosyncratic dress and mores of a people straved of Gallic civilisation for eleven years. With the resumption of the Grand Tour the British swarmed south, skirting the island where 'the man of a thousand thrones, who strew'd our earth with hostile bones' had become an object of such curiosity that alabaster busts in his image had sold out in the Florentine shops by August. Whether souvenir-hunters or more serious art patrons like Lord John Russell, the future prime minister, who was in Italy with his father the Duke of Bedford to commission Canova, most tourists found the lure of 'the lion's den', as the Princess of Wales called Elba, irresistible.
The lion's claws appeared to have been drawn. 'At Elba', recorded Lord Holland, 'Napoleon seemed absorbed in domestic details, the arrangements of the petty concerns of the place and the reception of his English visitor's. Their exact number is hard to establish: some sixty-one allegedly travelled across to Elba from Livorno. Others would have sailed from Genoa or Naples, which, as a kingdom still ruled by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Murat, was not subject to Allied passport controls. Napoleon appreciated that he was 'an object of great curiosity to them; let them stare, then they can go home and amuse the gentlemen by distorting my words and gestures… They have won the game and hold the cards'. Chevalier Mariotti, French consul in Livorno and Talleyrand's agent in the peninsula, had recruited a spy on the island, known as the Oil Merchant, who was baffled by 'the extreme curiosity to see Bonaparte and when they succeed they do not take their eyes off him'. Curiosity was deemed a sufficiently good reason for visiting the island to pass muster at the passport office.
British seamen proved to be keen visitors. Indeed, Napoleon had embarked for Elba on April 28th, aboard the frigate HMS Undaunted, whose captain, Thomas Ussher, wrote home on May 1st: 'It has fallen to my extraordinary lot to be the gaolor of the instrument of the misery Europe has so long endured'. By the end of the month, the man whom Ussher could not even bring himself to name had become his 'bon ami', and had given him 2,000 bottles of wine, and a diamond encrusted snuffbox. In return Ussher presented Napoleon with a barge, which he flatteringly reserved for his own exclusive use. Notwithstanding the British Government's refusal to recognise Napoleon's royal and imperial titles, Captain Towers placed a throne on deck when Napoleon attended a ball held on board HMS Curaçao on June 4th, to celebrate George III's birthday. By August 21st, Admiral Hallowell had to tell Colonel Sir Neil Campbell, the British Commissioner on the island, that he 'disapproved most strongly of several instances of voluntary court and unnecessary visits paid by naval officers at Portoferrario', and issued orders to stop these 'pilgrimages' forthwith.
The more privileged visitors were entertained to lunch by Pons de l'Herault, administrator of the iron mines, whose observation that 'what all the English had in common, regardless of their class, was their praise of the Emperor' is vindicated by the surviving records of those who had conversations with Napoleon. The MP Hugh Fortescue, Viscount Ebrington, who saw Napoleon for the first time on December 6th, 1814, related how:
His manner put me quite at my ease almost from the first, and seemed to invite my questions, which he answered upon all subjects without the slightest hesitation, and with a quickness of comprehension and clearness of expression beyond what I ever saw in any other man.
John Henry Vivian, major in the Royal Stannary Artillery, reckoned he had 'never passed an hour, or indeed an hour and a quarter… more agreeably' than that spent on January 26th, with 'that wonderful man'; Lord John Russell described Napoleon as 'extremely good natured… his manner seems studied to put one at one's ease by its familiarity; his smile and laugh are very agreeable', though he alone seemed to notice that Napoleon's state of mind was 'very far indeed from the tranquillity of a philosopher'; John Barber Scott, later Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge, and his companions:
… were so delighted with the reception he gave us that I must confess we drank Napoleon unanimously, in a bumper, on our return – a part of the afternoon of which, upon reflection, I feel rather ashamed.
And the MP John Nicholas Fazakerley eulogised:
I would rather have crossed the Alps twenty times for this scene, and would rather give up the recollection of anything I saw, than of these four hours.
Napoleon relished these conversations with his British visitors. They helped to relieve the monotony of his life in exile, surrounded by a Lilliputian court. Well-educated, wellborn and well-informed, they also kept Napoleon abreast of events in mainland Europe at a time when all but the most clandestine channels were closed to him. After his audience on December 24th, Lord John Russell recalled:
He inquired if I had seen at Florence many Englishmen who came from there (France) and when I mentioned Lord Holland, he asked if he thought things went well with the Bourbons. When I answered in the negative he seemed delighted, and asked if Lord Holland thought they would be able to stay there.
Lord Holland had met Napoleon in 1802 when he visited Paris with his uncle, Charles James Fox; his opinions were of particular value insomuch that Holland was the head of a cabal of Whigs who subscribed to Byron's view that the restoration of the Bourbons represented 'the triumph of tameness over talent' and had sworn 'mortal hate to all royal entails'. Most of the Whigs who visited Elba were close colleagues of Holland and habitués of Lady Holland's London salon. An ardent Bonapartist, it was Lady Holland who supplied Napoleon with the October 19th issue of the Courrier in which the idea of exiling him to St Helena was first publicly aired. Her own plans to visit Elba were foiled by Napoleon's escape, news which, according to her husband, 'set Lady Holland's spirits in such a flurry and agitation that I suppose she will not be calm and sedate enough to enjoy the improving gravity of Doric architecture'.
The circle over which Lord Holland presided was cosmopolitan, liberal and aristocratic. Immediately prior to his departure for France in July 1814, he had entertained both Metternich and the Tsar at Holland House. A month later in Paris, at a dinner hosted by Talleyrand, (an old friend from the days of the latter's exile in England during the Revolution) Holland not only met Napoleon's ex-minister of police, Fouché, but several of the military chiefs most opposed to the Bourbons. The calibre of information Holland's friends could place at Napoleon's disposal was therefore exceedingly high. As prominent members of the Opposition they were also able to provide valuable insights into the state of the political parties at Westminster at a time when Europe appeared again to be on the brink of war.
From the moment he abdicated, firm in his belief he would be recalled to the throne within six months, Napoleon brashly advised the Bourbons to change nothing but his sheets. On December 4th, Campbell reported to Castlereagh that Napoleon was convinced 'the sovereigns of Europe will find it necessary for their own repose to call upon him'. By the beginning of 1815, events seemed to vindicate his confidence: the differences between the Allies had reached such a pitch that the Austrians, French and British had drawn up a secret alliance against a Russo-Prussian axis. Yet none of the Powers convened at Vienna was blind to the fact that the French army's disenchantment with the Bourbons made it an unreliable fighting force, or that, for all Talleyrand's bluff, Louis XVIII's authority was dwindling: as Wellington recognised, 'the King of France without an army is no King'.
In Paris, where the British were held responsible for the Restoration, anglophobia waxed as Bourbon popularity waned: Louis XVIII was denounced as the viceroy of England and Wellington narrowly escaped assassination. Nor did the British Government escape criticism at home: opposition to Tory foreign and fiscal policies was so pronounced in Parliament that Lord Liverpool perceived his ministry to be on the point of collapse and repeatedly demanded the recall of Castlereagh from Vienna: 'In truth, as the government is now circumstanced, we could not go on without it'.
It was against this backcloth that Napoleon's conversations with his Whig sympathisers took place. His was a highly polished performance: whilst giving the impression that he was entirely resigned to his fate, no longer 'goaded by ambition's sting', Napoleon nonetheless reminded his audience that France remained a mighty nation. Nor did he omit to mention his popularity with his soldiers, with the tacit implication that he could be recalled to power if the army were not mollified. It was no idle threat: the French army's reputation for invincibility had been tarnished, but not lost, at Leipzig. Napoleon's very presence on Elba was a tribute to French military might insomuch that it represented the price the Allies were obliged to pay for his decision, in April 1814, to lay down his arms.
Napoleon's successful return to power largely depended on the attitude of Great Britain, pay-masters of the four coalitions which had finally brought him down. The Whigs opposed renewed hostilities on the Continent, not only out of antagonism to the conservatism of Castlereagh, Metternich and Talleyrand, with their insistence on the 'legitimate' dynasties in Europe, but because, as great landlords, they largely shouldered the enormous financial cost of the wars. The long Recess (Parliament only sat for three weeks between July 1814 and February 1815) which now enabled some of these Whig MP's to travel abroad and sit at the feet of the fallen emperor was, ironically, orchestrated by Liverpool in order to forestall their criticism of government policy. They returned home more intractable than when they had left and proved enthusiastic supporters of the motion introduced by Samuel Whitbread on April 28th, 1815, opposing intervention in the internal affairs of France.
Far from acting as a deterrent, rumours of his removal to St Helena redoubled Napoleon's determination to quit Elba and his fears of being intercepted by the Royal Navy were largely allayed by the promise of asylum held out by some of his British visitors. In the course of summarising the conversation he had enjoyed with Ebrington over dinner in early December, Napoleon told Sir Neil Campbell they had spoken:
… of removing him to England. There he would have society, and enjoy an opportunity of explaining the circumstances of his life, and doing away with many prejudices, such as was not possible in the island of Elba. In England he could even see and communicate with his partisans better than at Elba; four-fifths of the French people were in his favour.
According to Ebrington's own account, Napoleon asked him whether he would be stoned if he came to England:
I replied that he would be perfectly safe there, as the violent feelings which had been excited against him were daily subsiding now that we were no longer at war.
That Ebrington was not only profoundly impressed by his host but aware too of the likelihood of his leaving the island is evident from a letter written by the Duke of Bedford, whom he joined on his return to the mainland in December 1814, to that baroque' Bonapartist Lady Holland:
Lord Ebrington has just come from him and everything I hear of this most extraordinary man, increases my desire to see him. Rely upon, it, he will again (author's italics) be numbered on the great scene of history.
Napoleon's consideration of the possibility of asylum in England may also explain why he declined to receive the Princess of Wales, (an honoured guest, at the time, of King Joachim Murat in Naples) whose visit would have antagonised the Prince Regent profoundly.
On December 29th, Campbell noted in his diary:
I think his inviting Lord Ebrington to dine with him, without me, was intended as a marked slight, for the purpose of inducing me to quit Elba entirely.
The removal of Campbell was not in Napoleon's interest – he was admirably inefficient – but to pique him into frequent absences was highly expedient. Campbell needed little encouragement: he had a mistress, Countess Miniacci, in Florence (quitte possibly an agent of Napoleon's), was bored with his 'sultry confinement' and progressively denied access to the imperial presence. Napoleon used these audiences to feed Campbell, and, by extension, the Allies, with misinformation:
I do not think of anything beyond my little island. I could have sustained the war for twenty years if I had wished it. I exist no longer for the world. I am a dead man. I am occupied in nothing but my family and my retreat, my house, my cows, and my mules.
Yet Campbell's absences were no less valuable than the principle of his presence which, by inferring Napoleon enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy, acted as a safeguard against the Barbary pirates, who terrorised shipping in those waters, or any other amphibian force that might threaten Napoleon's safety. Equally, the Allies were reassured by the residence on Elba of a British commissioner who seemed to guarantee Napoleon's captivity. As Campbell recorded in his diary on December 29th-31st:
It is universally supposed in Italy, and publicly stated, that Great Britain is responsible to the other Powers for the detention of Napoleon's person, and that I am the executive agent for this purpose. Napoleon believes this.
On March 3rd, shortly after Napoleon's escape from Elba, Burghersh wrote to Castlereagh:
From an unwillingness to act unkindly towards an officer of Sir Neil Campbell's merit, I have abstained from bringing under your lordship's consideration the improper manner in which, I felt, he did the duties of the situation in which he was placed. His absences from the Elba (sic) were constant, and at times of considerable duration. I represented my feelings to him at various times, and begged – at least till the Congress was over and the world placed at rest – he would remain steadily at his post. Sir Neil felt that his situation about Bonaparte was unpleasant, and that the duty was better done by occasional visits. This opinion was at variance with mine… I do not mean that any residence of a British officer could have prevented the event which has taken place; information, however, with regard to the intention might have been obtained.
When, on March 9th, Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales, met Captain Adye of the Partridge in Nice and heard his account of Napoleon's escape, she concluded:
At best this is a blundering business; I should think either Sir Neil, or the ministry, or both, must answer for it with their heads, or at least with their reputations. All that is said by way of excuse for Sir Neil Campbell, does not appear to me to exonerate him from the greatest blame; indeed, I cannot fathom the whole affair, and do not wonder foreigners throw the blame on the whole nation.
Campbell's absence from Elba for the ten days preceding the escape, despite the protests of Burghersh who urged him most strongly to return on the 24th, was unquestionably a dereliction of duty. Yet, far from being pilloried by the Government, his conduct was whitewashed in the House of Commons by Castlereagh who was hamstrung by his own failure to issue Campbell with clear instructions. The only brief Campbell ever received was at Fontainebleau on April 16th, 1814:
Conduct yourself, as far as the circumstances will permit, with every proper respect and attention to Napoleon, to whose secure asylum in that island it is the wish of his Royal Highness the Prince Regent to afford every facility and protection.
By July 15th, in response to his request for more specific ordres, Campbell's position was defined as 'British resident in Elba without assuming any further official character'. In refusing to recognise Napoleon's imperial and royal titles, Castlereagh placed Campbell in an invidious position which Napoleon had been careful to exploit.
The absence of diplomatic clarity bred distrust both at Vienna, where Castlereagh was regularly lampooned, and in the peninsula. Mariotti, who suspected the entire Royal Navy of being under Napoleon's sway, complained to Talleyrand on August 9th, 1814, that 'every British captain has his portrait in his cabin'; he was unaware that this was not an act of idolatry but the result of an order from Ussher, to facilitate recognition should Napoleon try to escape to America. The Oil Merchant, who knew February 26th was the appointed day, was so distrustful of the British that he refused to divulge the fact to Adye, the one man who could have alerted the Royal Navy in time and foiled the escape as soon as Napoleon put to sea. Captain Adye may not have carried packages on February 24th, 1815, as was alleged, but his flamboyant admiration for the exile left him vulnerable to the accusation and alienated the very men with whom he should have been in confidence. Furthermore, it was his indiscretion that signalled the date for the escape insomuch that he informed Bertrand of the precise movements of the Partridge at this crucial hour. When Wellington heard the news of the escape, he wrote to Burghersh:
We should have known of his intention before he put it into execution, and then we might have hoped to have had some of our six sail of the line, now in the Mediterranean, off the island by the 26th.
Writing on March 7th, to inform Louis XVIII of Napoleon's escape, Talleyrand accused the English of having surveyed Napoleon 'with a negligence they will be hard put to explain' and virtually all the Austrian agents reporting on the event to their chief of police, Hager, mentioned the widespread rumour:
The English have allowed him to escape in order to recapture him or to have an excuse for treating him with the utmost severity; others say it was not an escape at all but a departure arranged by the English who perhaps wish to send him to America.
Much the same view prevailed in France where John Cam Hobhouse noted on March 21st, the day after Napoleon's return to the capital, 'the English were in great odium, even with the Bourbonists, the report being that they had let loose Bonaparte to cause a civil war in France'.
To the Tsar's question: 'Why did you let him escape?' Wellington laconically replied: 'Why did you place him there?' The proximity of Elba to the mainland was the single most important factor in Napoleon's escape. Admiral Sir Sidney Smith wondered whether it were not likely:
… that before Napoleon left Fontainebleau he looked at the map? Is the distance between Elba and the Southern Coast of France of any significance to a man who has marched from one end of Europe to the other?
By the time Castlereagh arrived in Paris on April 10th, 1814, the Treaty of Fontainebleau, with its stipulation of Elba, was a fait accompli in which the fallen emperor had had more say than the British Foreign Secretary. Castlereagh's efforts to steer a hazardous course between the Scylla of French public opinion on the one hand and the Charybdis of the Whig Opposition on the other, left in their wake Allied misgivings about British intentions. Napoleon, for whom success ultimately depended on the rupture of the Quadruple Alliance, did his utmost to foster these suspicions. By supplying him with information and encouragement, Napoleon's British visitors proved his willing accomplices.


Jean Tulard, (trans. Theresa Waugh), The Myth of the Saviour (Methuen, 1985); J.C. Herold, The Age of Napoleon (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1969); Norman Mackenzie, The Escape from Elba (Oxford University Press, 1982); E. Tangye Lean, The Napoleonists (Oxford University Press, 1970); A.P. Herbert, Why Waterloo? (Methuen, 1952).

Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
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