Napoleon’s English adventure

In a long and spectacular military and political career, Napoleon dominated most of Europe. Of all his enemies, only one remained permanently out of his grip – Britain. Napoleon couldn’t conquer England and was ultimately vanquished by a coalition of allies led by the British. This didn’t stop the defeated Emperor finally seeing the country that had beaten him with his own eyes. For two weeks in 1815, Napoleon came to England.

His Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, the Emperor of the French, King of Italy Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine, Mediator of the Helvetic Confederation did not lack for titles. This collection of styles was not the meaningly braggadocio of an upstart – if anything they underplayed his power and influence at the height of his reign. From Madrid to Moscow, Narvik to Naples, Napoleon and his allies held sway over most of Europe.

Napoleon crosses the St. Bernard by Jacques-Louis David (1800) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most of the territories that fell outside his control or influence were inconsequential – he could do without the trouble of the Balkans and the crumbling Ottoman Empire and didn’t need control of Sweden to bolster his dominance in the Baltic. The only real thorn in his side was Britain and her empire. Napoleon had concrete plan to pluck this thorn and maybe add another title to his august collection.

Up to 200,000 men had been gathered in the Pas de Calais as the Armée des côtes de l’Océan. They would be carried the short distance over the Channel in a national fleet gathered as the Flottille de Boulogne. The English Channel was the great defensive moat that held back French advance. Napoleon had claimed: “Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world.”

This was, however, easier said than done and British sea power proved unbending against the combined might of France and Spain. After the Battles of Cape Finisterre and Tragalgar, French seapower was smashed and the invasion called off. A quote attributed to Admiral John Jervis was telling and ultimately proven correct:  “I do not say they [the French] cannot come – I only say they cannot come by sea”.

Admiral John Jervis (1735-1823), 1st Earl of St Vincent By Domenico Pellegrini (1759-1840) (National Maritime Museum website) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thus ended Napoleon’s plans for conquest of England. But this did not stop the emperor from seeing the cursed land of shopkeepers in person. On his way to permanent exile in Saint Helena, the most remote outpost in the British Empire, Napoleon was brought to the ports of Brixham and Plymouth on board HMS Bellerophon.

Napoleon surrendered to the captain of the Bellerophon, Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland, and requested political asylsum. He had originally wanted free passage to the United States or Latin America, but this had been denied. Thus Napoleon found himself a prisoner of the English, and the English found themselves in the uncertain position of how to handle so formidable a foe.

Napoleon on the deck of HMS Bellerophon Charles Lock Eastlake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Maitland kept a diary and noted that on 23 July 1815, English land came into view. The high peaks of Dartmoor were visible on the horizon, and Napoleon was informed that the coast of England was now in view. According to these memoirs, Napoleon: “put his great coat on over his dressing gown and came on deck, spending a considerable time looking at this ‘enemy land’”.

The Bellerophon first sailed to Brixham, on the south coast of Devon. The Admiralty had given strict instructions that no one should be allowed onto the ship without proper credentials. Napoleon had slipped away once before, and no chances would be taken this time. News still reached the shore, and boats soon swarmed the Royal Navy frigate with sightseers hoping to catch a glimpse of the emperor. Some were rewarded with a glance, as Napoleon walked the decks watching the commotion on the sea below.

HMS Bellerophon and Napoleon John James Chalon [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Bellerophon was then ordered to Plymouth and spent most of its time in Plymouth Sound. Once again, it became popular to see the ship that held the great enemy and the titan that had bestrode Europe for years. Once again, Napoleon obliged the visitors, usually taking the deck at around 6pm to take a walk and be viewed by the sightseers surrounding the ship.

The scene became famous beyond the port city, as it was depicted in paintings by Charles Lock Eastlake and JMW Turner and engravings which were featured in the popular press. The national press covered the arrival of Napoleon in great detail, fuelling visits to Plymouth and also feeding Napoleon’s worries that his ultimate destination would be a remote outcrop rather than the quiet corner of England he had hoped for.