21 October 2011

Did Napoleon step on British soil or not?

The Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 was the end of the French/English war, when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by Wellington's army. Napoleon first choice was to call upon the country and renew the conflict. This would not only have perpetuated the foreign war - it would have plunged France into civil war. Clearly a large part of the country had come to the same conclusion as the Allies - that as long as Napoleon was at large, peace was impossible.

So the Frenchman must have been considering his options very carefully. Off the port of Rochefort, north of Bordeaux, only two ships were in harbour – one going to the USA with a completely French crew and one going to Britain with a British crew. Napoleon would have done just about anything to leave Europe for America. But he was terrified of what would happen to him if French sailors got their hands on him. So after brief consideration of an escape to the United States, Napoleon quickly surrendered to the British Captain Frederick Maitland and formally requested political asylum from him, on 15th July 1815.

Captain Maitland took Napoleon aboard the Bellerophon and the ship sailed home to Torbay on the Devon coast; there they were anchored off Brixham by the 24th July. Capt Maitland soon received orders from Admiral Lord Keith who demanded that no-one be allowed on board the ship, except the officers and men who composed her crew.

Napoleon aboard the Bellerophon, painted by Eastlake, 1815.
Displayed at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

In response to his orders, Captain Maitland refused to allow the usual visits of the boats with their fresh food traders. Nonetheless a sailor aboard signalled to the traders that Bonaparte, Europe’s bête noir, was aboard. The news quickly spread.

Soon Bellerophon received orders to proceed to Plymouth harbour where Lord Keith was aboard his flagship HMS Ville de Paris. Why did they choose Plymouth? Perhaps because the city was 310 km away from the excitable London crowds. Perhaps because the Navy's role during war against Napoleon's France had been pivotal; an extremely long breakwater had already been laid, to protect the Plymouth fleet, and a huge naval complex had been not long established.

Napoleon remained on board Bellerophon, and the ship was still kept isolated from the throngs of curious sightseers by two guardships anchored close at hand. But it didn’t help. Even in his short time in Plymouth, Napoleon held court on the ship's deck each evening at 6 PM, waving as adoring British crowds rushed to catch sight of him. This enabled Charles Eastlake to make rapid sketches from life for the portrait (above).

A letter, written by an eye witness in Plymouth, noted admiringly: "Our boat (a very handsome one and filled with Ladies and Officers) having attracted his attention, he came forward and looked at us occasionally with an opera glass, for the space of 5 minutes. He was dressed in a green coat with red collar and cuffs and gold epaulettes and he wore a Star. After staying good naturedly long enough to satisfy the curiosity of the ladies, he sat down to a writing table and we saw no more of him.

He is accompanied by Bertrand and three other superior officers and two ladies with their children and eight servants. Being desirous that the surgeon of the BELLEROPHON should also accompany him, and the surgeon also being willing to go, he was allowed to have him and has promised him 500 a year, in addition to his pay. He has taken with him about 20,000 pounds sterling in French coin. He constantly regretted that he was not allowed to remain in England and domiciliate here, but on taking leave of Lord Keith, he expressed himself satisfied and obliged by his Lordship's civility - and every person who has been near him is pleased with this manner and feels somewhat softened towards him. NORTHUMBERLAND and the squadron bid a final adieu to our coast this morning and sar far as regards Napoleon, Europe may be in peace. But the spirit still exists in France, and I do firmly believe the Bourbons will never reign in quiet."

Napoleon in Plymouth Sound 1815,
painted by Jules Girardet (1856-1938) 
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

He seemed to receive the adoration normally reserved for a world class footballer or pop musician. Perhaps Napoleon forgot that he was a prisoner, saved by the reluctant hospitality of the British Navy. Perhaps the English population had forgotten, in just 6 weeks, the endless wars fought against Napoleon’s  command. Girardet's painting made Plymouth Sound look like a celebrity party scene.

The Plymouth Dock newspaper was horrified: "On Sunday, we regret to say, a large proportion of spectators, not only took off their hats, but cheered him; apparently with a view of soothing his fallen fortunes, and treating him with respect and consideration. His linen sent ashore to be washed, has been held in much esteem, that many individuals have temporarily put on his shirts, waistcoats and neckcloths. Blind infatuation! Our correspondent, who was alongside the Bellerophon on Sunday last, says that the sympathy in his favour was astonishing, that he heard no cheering, but that the hats of the men, and the handkerchiefs of the ladies, were waving in every direction".

On 4th August 1815, Lord Keith ordered Bellerophon to go to sea and await the arrival of HMS Northumberland which had been designated to take Napoleon into exile on St Helena. On the 7th August, Napoleon left the Bellerophon where he had spent over three weeks without ever landing on English soil, and boarded Northumberland which then sailed for St Helena. The Northumberland arrived in St Helena on 15th October.

Let me repeat again - the fear of invasion was a constant of government thinking in Britain and had been since 1793. It had been total war! Napoleon Bonaparte’s domination of Europe only ended when he was defeated decisively at Waterloo in June 1815. Years of dictatorial control and resentment against the Emperor came to an end. I am not surprised that he preferred to throw his lot in with the enemy British navy, rather than risk his life with his own French sailors. Nor I am surprised that the anxious British authorities hurried him into exile. Yet the British crowds dressed up and partied while he was in  Devon!! And to this day, Napoleon remains a figure of huge global fascination.

I am delighted that the blog Reflections on A Journey to St Helena has at least a partial explanation.


the foto fanatic said...

Hard to resist a man in uniform!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
How absolutely fascinating all of this is. Of course we were aware of Napoleon's exile on St. Helena but had no idea about the three week sojourn at Plymouth with the British public paying court rather, as you suggest, in the manner of the treatment of today's 'celebrities'.

Jó hétvégét!

Anonymous said...

Thank your for this most interesting post! An intriguing footnote to the long wars of the period and the end of Napoleon. This was recently discussed on the BCC's 3-part series about the Regency period narrated by Lucy Worsley. She suggested that the Prince Regent did not travel to Plymouth in order not to be outshone by Napoleon, and that much of his life and aesthetic taste (i.e. the decor of Carlton House and the Pavilion in Brighton) were influenced by an almost unconscious need to demonstrate that he (as if personally) had bested his rival.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

irony upon irony, I say!

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

absolutely fascinating, agreed

Why was Napoleon less afraid of the British navy than he was of his fellow Frenchmen, after Waterloo?

Why were the British authorities debating and agonising for weeks about allowing Napoleon off his ship and onto British soil, yet the British public seemed delighted to spend time in his presence?

Hels said...


I haven't heard Lucy Worsley talk on the topic, but what an interesting issue she raises. Thank you for the reference

We can understand clearly why the Prince Regent might have felt overshadowed by Napoleon at his peak of power. Everyone in Europe was terrified that the French might import a revolution to their country!

But once the French had been soundly defeated for the very last time at Waterloo, Napoleon became a defeated general, an unseated Emperor and a homeless citizen. What was the Prince Regent worried about at that stage?

DavidD said...

I wonder why Napoleon didn't escape Europe for freedom in the USA, rather than die in some remote and tiny island in the middle of the ocean.

Hels said...

I shall quote to you from Memoirs of Napoleon.

"On the 8th of July, Napoleon proceeded on board the Saale, one of the two frigates appointed by the Provisional Government to convey him to the United States, and slept on board that night. Very early on the following morning he visited the fortifications of that place, and returned to the frigate for dinner. On the evening of the 9th of July he despatched Count Las Cases and the Duke of Rovigo to the commander of the English squadron, for the purpose of ascertaining whether the passports promised by the Provisional Government to enable him to proceed to America had been received. A negative answer was returned; it was at the same time signified that the Emperor would be attacked by the English squadron if he attempted to sail under a flag of truce, and it was intimated that every neutral vessel would be examined, and probably sent into an English port.

Las Cases affirms that Napoleon was recommended to proceed to England by Captain Maitland, who assured him that he would experience no ill-treatment there. The English ship Bellerophon then anchored in the Basque roads, within sight of the French vessels of war. The coast being, as we have stated, entirely blockaded by the English squadron, the Emperor was undecided as to the course he should pursue. Neutral vessels and chasse-marees, manned by young naval officers, were proposed, and many other plans were devised".

Napoleon disembarked on the 12th at the Isle of Aix with acclamations ringing on every side. He had quitted the frigates because they refused to sail, owing either to the weakness of character of the commandant, or in consequence of his receiving fresh orders from the Provisional Government. Many persons thought that the enterprise might be undertaken with some probability of success; the wind, however, remained constantly in the wrong quarter."

In other words, he had no choice.

Xenophon said...

Nice interesting article. I want to mention only one little thing.
You write: "painted by Jules Girardet, 1816."
That look like the painting was done in 1816, but Jules Giradet lived 1856-1938.
So the date refers to to painted scene.
I don't want to be picky, only because the paintings are catching my eyes first.

Anonymous said...

Hels, you asked: "What was the Prince Regent worried about at that stage?" ... Since he was so disliked by the British public at large and Napoleon, even as a dreaded and defeated enemy, received such celebrity-like interest and adulation from the people he still felt second-fiddle to the grandeur of the the man. Perhaps.(?)

Hels said...


that sounds true. No other explanation has been forthcoming, and I HAVE looked. Another ironic element in a very unstable time.

Hels said...


you are 100% correct - I made the change immediately.

Thank goodness for alert readers :)

Viola said...

What a fascinating post! I really don't think much of the crowds being sympathetic to Napoleon. He gave GB a hell of a lot of trouble. Also I am supposed to be distantly related to Lord Nelson - he wouldn't approve!

I am not surprised that he trusted the British more than the French!

Hels said...


Over the years I have often read and written about Napoleon, especially about the early and ambitious part of his career. But the last couple of posts that I have written about Napoleon have had to become more subtle and nuanced than I had expected.

albertuk wrote some very thoughtful responses to my post on Napoleon on St Helena Island, suggesting that French historians might view the historical evidence very differently from Anglo Saxons.

Heather on her travels said...

I never realised that Napoleon came so close to stepping on English soil but I'm amazed that he was treated with such adulation - I thought that he would have been considered the greatest of enemies by the English Public

Hermes said...

Internet still erratic but there is a interesting family history of one of the sailors at the scene:


Hels said...


to this day I am utterly amazed that he became an instant celebrity with the English public. He and his army had conquered much of Europe and had made peoples' lives a misery.

The only thing I can think of is that the public did not represent the thinking of the English authorities, both civil and military. They were still very afraid of his past power and his potential threat.

Hels said...

you find some super stuff, thanks. Happily it confirms what other historians have said. Plus something special ..."in the scramble to get even closer, boatloads of spectators sank".

Albertuk said...

There would be a lot to comment about this good post, so I would focus on the two questions below:

Q. Why was Napoleon less afraid of the British navy than he was of his fellow Frenchmen, after Waterloo?
A. It was a matter of fear. Napoleon had many options. For example, seeing that the British were blockading the port, he could have landed on French soil again and take the head of the Loire valley which was still intact, with some 50,000 soldiers, and could join the Grouchy army who didn't take much role in the Waterloo campaign. He could have also easily escaped to America, like his brother Joseph did. He had many proposals to escape. But who was he to escape France like a running wolf? He had been emperor, ruled most of Europe for many years, and had a young son (grandson of the emperor of Austria) who would, in time, have claims to a political role in Europe. In his shoes and in face of History and the dynasty you had created over the years, would you run away hidden in a barrel of wine? or disguised as a travelling merchant? I guess no.
So his best choice was to come on board a British ship, and seek political asylum, as did Louis 18 before him. Napoleon expected fair treatment from his previous enemy. He, himself, never treated badly a crowned head: remember Francis and Alexander after Austerlitz, or the various dukes and kings of now Germany. Even the Spanish king from whom he took power: he settled him in a French chateau, with all the court he wanted, and even authorixed him to travel to meet with the Pope. Napoleon never treated a ruler so badly as he, in turn, was treated by the British who even went further to name him "General Buonaparte" while all Europe knew him since 1799 as Napoleon. Hence his bitterness during his captivity in St. Helena and the treatment he received. He had fallen, by the rule of war, but he was nonetheless the "Emperor Napoleon" because this was a title granted to him by France at the time. Not something you lose over a battle. A general doesn't lose his rank if defeated. A duke or prince or count doesn't lose his title if ruined. The French people adored Napoleon (and this explained he could come back to Paris in spring 1815 without firing a shot) but were tired by the wars. Napoleon made the mistake not to seek peace, at all costs, as much as he could easily go to war. One who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.

Q. Why were the British authorities debating and agonising for weeks about allowing Napoleon off his ship and onto British soil, yet the British public seemed delighted to spend time in his presence?
A. Because the British nation was, and still is, admirative of the underdogs. Once defeated, Napoleon was no longer a case of fear etc. The people of Britain would have openly welcomed him as a policial asylum. But the British Govt of the time had other plans. They were "ultra" with a politics to engage into war with Napoleon, at all cost. They engaged in the campaign of Waterloo without parliament debate, while Napoleon (who was back to Paris and changed the political system in France with a Chamber, was seeking peace rather than war). They exiled Napoleon to St. Helena without parliament debate. It was near to what could be called dictatorial measures, and put the public in front of de facto situation. They later behaved with the British public like they behaved with Napoleon: contemptuously. After a short grace period, all this ultra conservative govt was very unpopular.

Hels said...


thank you for a very detailed and carefully thought out response. I actually agree with most of what you said, at least about Napoleon's options after Waterloo.

About the formal British response to Napoleon being in British waters, I suppose I have to differ. My reading on the topic was entirely British (not French) and it reflected the fear the British authorities had for the once-rampant French general. Hatred for what Napoleon had done to Europe in the past, and real fear for what he could do to Britain, if he was tolerated on British soil.

I am coming back to Napoleon next week, as it happens, but in a totally different context.

blodwyn said...

The original painting is breathtaking.the colours of tbe crowds costumes so vivid.we have a print of it on canvas in our home a stones throw from Plymouth Sound. Wendy Coulton, Plymouth, Devon,England.

Hels said...


I presume you mean the Jules Girardet painting of the crowd scene, excitedly waiting for the celebrity ex-emperor on board the ship.

Yesterday in a lecture on Napoleon's time in British waters, I showed a few paintings in Plymouth Sound. They were not as amazing as the Girardet, but pretty impressive in their own right.

Needless to say, the students and I had some trouble explaining the celebrity-welcome for Napoleon in Britain.

Hels said...

Let me add a reference to "Britain Against Napoleon: the organisation of victory 1793-1815", written by Roger Knight and published in 2013.

Jonathan Cape London said...

Napoleon: For and Against by
Geyl Peter picks up the ambivalence French historians have over what Napoleon stood for. Was he the saviour of the Revolution against the forces of reaction and the architect of French greatness OR was he a Corsican arriviste who used France as a platform for his ambitions as usurper, tyrant and warmonger?

Discover Britain said...


good question. The British response left no doubt, according to Nigel Jones. In 1803, when Napoleon threatened a cross-Channel invasion, Dover Castle was put into the hands of a military engineer, William Twiss. They poured endless money into Dover, transforming its defences. They made the castle into a giant gun platform, building a huge horseshoe-shaped rampart and brick bastions to carry the guns. When they ran out of space, they dug into the cliffs beneath, creating miles of tunnels and underground barracks housing thousands of soldiers.

Anything to stop the warmonger, it would seem.