by M.M. Bennetts
It may seem almost impossible to imagine, now, 200 years on...but in the early years of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte--the French Emperor--was the most hated and feared man on the planet.
When he wrote the opening of War and Peace, which begins with a discussion in which Napoleon is referred to as the great Antichrist, the literary giant, Tolstoy, wasn't indulging in a fit of hyperbole: "Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don't tell me this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist--I really do believe he is Antichrist--I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend..." He was telling the truth.
Yet by the summer of 1814, all that seemed to be in the past.
For from his calamitous invasion of Russia beginning in the summer of 1812, Napoleon had suffered one ruinous disaster after another, one blistering defeat after another, losses France could no longer afford.
Thus in the spring of 1814, with France invaded in the east by the Allied armies of the Russians, Austrians, Prussians and Swedes and in the west by Wellington and his British troops, Paris fell, the Generals capitulated, and Napoleon abdicated power and was on his way to exile on the island of Elba.
All of Europe rejoiced--many of them in the cafes and gambling clubs of Paris.
And as they cobbled together the Peace of Paris, the Allied Sovereigns considered their next move. Obviously a European lap of honour was required, and where better to start than in Great Britain, the country which had funded the decades-long fight against Bonaparte and his Grande Armee?
Equally, (with the exception of Peter the Great's visit in 1698) this would be the first time in over two centuries, since the days of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, that foreign crowned heads were paying a visit to Britain--a not insignificant event, then.
From the British point of view, there were a few minor problems though. With the exception of the rather run-down and lived-in-by-his-ailing-parents Windsor Castle, the Prince Regent didn't have a superlative setting for statecraft--there were no Hermitages or Palais du Louvre or Versailles here. (Which may go some way to explaining his later mania for building and improving the royal residences...)
Instead, the royal Dukes were chucked out of their apartments in Cumberland House and their rooms rapidly refurbished: the Duke of Cambridge's rooms assigned to the Emperor of Russia and his royal aides, the Duke of Cumberland gave up his rooms for the Emperor of Austria, and Clarence's rooms were to be used by King Frederick William III of Prussia.
In early May, it was announced that Princess Charlotte would marry--in the presence of all those Crowned Heads (!)--William, the Prince of Orange, who had already arrived in Harwich and was travelling under the name of "Captain H. George". This royal wedding was to be the highlight of the royal visitation!
It was all to be a Peace Celebration such as the world had never seen, and the Brits were ready to party! Or were they?
May went by without any royal visitors arriving. By the end of the month, it was said that the Austrian Emperor would not be visiting at all, and that the Tsar's visit was also delayed.
Then, at last, on 3 June, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, arrived back in Dover (following his six months abroad representing Britain in the Allied sovereigns' control tent) with the details of the Treaty of Paris which had ended France's hegemony in Europe, and the announcement that the sovereigns would be arriving on the following Monday.
The Dover Road was besieged by those wishing to get a glimpse of the Royal Liberators. Carriages and foot-traffic alike battled for position along the road. Union Jacks were flying as were the flags of the Allied nations--Prussia, Russia and Austria. But they were to be disappointed.
The sovereigns didn't land until late that night. Word also spread that other illustrious visitors had slipped ashore late Sunday evening--a company of Don Cossacks, the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Metternich, the Russian commander, Count Barclay de Tolly...
London waited too as the east wind grew colder.
The veteran Prussian field marshal, Gebhard von Blucher, hero of Leipzig and Paris, was the first to arrive--in an open carriage--to the rapture of the crowds. And he delighted the huzza-ing press--women were waving handkerchiefs and begging for even one of his white hairs--with his courteous bowing and his broken thank yous: "Me ferry tankvoll! ferry, ferry tankvoll..."
Two military bands played, competing, all afternoon on the forecourt of Cumberland House. The crowds waited, drooping, then went home. Eventually, the tall (he was over six feet), blond, athletic figure of Alexander I, his Imperial Highness, Emperor of all Russia, (accompanied by his poodle) was seen on the the balcony of the Pulteney Hotel in Picadilly, where already a new crowd had gathered, cheering wildly...(for the Tsar and/or his attendants had judged the offered rooms in Cumberland House not up to snuff and had gone elsewhere...)
What followed was a month of delight and intrigue.
Tsar Alexander had brought his favourite sister and confidante with him, the widowed Duchess Oldenburg Holstein, the Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia--and she was determined to break off the engagement between Princess Charlotte and William of Orange.
At the first of many grand and multi-course meals given by the Prince Regent at Carleton House, the Grand Duchess wore black and insisted she was still in mourning and then, as the Italian musicians sought to fill the evening air with music to dine to, Catherine announced, "Music makes me sick!"
It was either the commencement or the confirmation of a mutual violent hatred between the Grand Duchess and the Prince Regent. Which, curiously, played well in London where the Prince was not loved, but badly in the rest of the country, where they liked him fine, and hence was a serious diplomatic and political error on the Duchess's part.
Alexander, on the other hand, could not have been more popular. By the second day of his visit, already a protocol was established. The great crowds of people would gather beneath his balcony, give a huzzah, and the Emperor and Grand Duchess would come out onto the balcony as the cheers grew ever louder. Alexander would bow repeatedly for three minutes, then disappear inside...this was a royal who had rapport with the crowds.
There was a grand military review in Hyde Park. And nightly, there were the most amazing Illuminations, sponsored by various individuals, by commercial businesses, by enterprise.
The most spectacular Illuminations were at the Bank of England, where 50,000 lamps were arranged in columns and rows to border the pediments and columns, while in the midst was a vast transparency meant to represent the "genius of France reviving".
Oxford Street, where the preparations had gone on for weeks, was now formed of two parallel lines of light. Carleton House was lit up with yellow and green flares which glowed between huge palm trees in painted tubs. Many houses were lit up with transparencies of "Peace". There were firework displays in Hyde Park. And even Lord Castlereagh's home at 18 St. James's Square was illuminated with the transparency of a Dove with an olive branch in its beak.
Every night saw many grand dinners, private balls and soirees, all of which were thrown to honour the visiting conquerors of Napoleon.
So much so, that the 71 year old Field Marshal Blucher eventually wrote: "The French could not succeed in killing me, but the Regent and the English are in a fair way to doing it...I am inhumanly exhausted...It will be a miracle if I don't go crazy...I have to watch myself that I don't make a fool of myself." But he would also say just before departing, "I have come out of England alive, but worn and weary. Words fail to express how they treated me; no one could have had shown to him more kindness or goodwill..."
Among other honours, Oxford University had conferred upon Blucher the degree of Doctor of Law, while Cambridge University had entertained him at a grand dinner at Trinity College, and had awarded him the degree of Doctor of Civil Law.
(Also, in recognition of the sacrificed endured by their allies, at this time, the British public contributed £100,000 for those living in the villages around Leipzig, while Parliament voted to add another £100,000 to this fund--which is among the earliest examples of a foreign nation recognising the need for and sending monetary aid to a war-ravaged area and its inhabitants. Which I think is quite cool...)
However, by the time the monarchs departed at the end of June, relations between them and their hosts had soured. There was the expense, of course, which Parliament hadn't much liked. Princess Charlotte, egged on by Catherine, had broken off her engagement to the the bewildered Prince of Orange.
And, Tsar Alexander had confounded everyone by his unflagging ability to party all day and night--for example, he attended the evening ceremonies at Oxford on the 14th, then drove through a thunderstorm that night to reach London, where he changed his clothes, then danced from two until six in the morning at Lady Jersey's ball; and was at ten announcing his plans for that day--which would include a dinner at Lord Castlereagh's home, followed by a performance at Drury Lane Theatre, after which he turned up at a ball at the Marchioness of Hertford's home.
On the 22nd, the Prince Regent accompanied the Allied sovereigns to Petworth House in Sussex, where Lord Egremont offered them an early dinner in the Marble Hall, there. From thence, the monarchs travelled through Sussex and Kent--the roads of which were decorated with arches and trophies of laurel and oak leaves and flags--to Dover. On Monday, 27th June, the Prussian King boarded HMS Nymphen and sailed away. That evening, Catherine and her brother, the Tsar, boarded the Royal Charlotte...
The Prince Regent returned home. The first party was over...but after twenty years of continuous war, the party here in Britain was just beginning. And would continue all summer.
May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period. A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.
For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at www.mmbennetts.com