Two hundred years ago, this coming Monday, while still in France, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a letter to the Prince of Wales. Though that letter has often been referred to since then as Napoleon’s letter of surrender, the erstwhile Emperor of the French considered it no such thing. In his mind, he was simply requesting asylum, as much from those who had taken control of the French government, as he was from the Allied leaders. He considered the English the most honorable and trustworthy of his enemies. He was soon to be proven wrong, but that is a story for next week.
The odyssey of Boney’s letter to Prinny . . .
After his defeat on the battlefield of Waterloo, Napoleon, at the urging of his senior staff, fled south, back to Paris. He arrived in Paris at dawn on Wednesday, 21 June 1815, filthy and exhausted after his long journey from Belgium. He had not even had his boots off since the morning of 18 June 1815. Though his supporters urged him to go immediately to the two Chambers (the French Parliament), he first wanted a bath and some sleep. He also assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that the news of the defeat at Waterloo had not yet reached the city and he wanted time to frame his remarks to the Chambers in order to ensure they would support his plans to reorganize the remaining French troops and face the Allies when they arrived in Paris.
Unbeknownst to Napoleon, the news of the French defeat at Waterloo had reached Paris the day after the battle, when an unknown messenger left a note scrawled in pencil with the porter at the town home of the Duke of Vicenza. Once the note was shown to him, Vicenza consulted the Comte Carnot, and both of them then took the missive to the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché. Almost from the moment he heard that Napoleon had escaped Elba, Fouché, the quintessential political opportunist, had begun plotting surreptitiously to gain control of the government, should Bonaparte’s military campaign against the Allies go wrong. He was secretly delighted with the news from Waterloo and immediately began cultivating those whose support he would need to oust Bonaparte and his supporters.
With the help of a few well-placed collaborators, Fouché was able to ensure the Chambers demanded Napoleon’s abdication and departure from Paris. Napoleon did finally abdicate the French throne, but only in favor of his infant son, though Fouché and his minions had no intention of honoring that clause. But with that document, Fouché was the de facto head of the French government. Next on his agenda was the removal of the inconvenient ex-Emperor, certainly from the capital, and from the country, if possible. But Napoleon lingered in his apartments in the Tuileries Palace, in the belief the Chambers would come to their senses as the Allied armies approached and he would be recalled to lead the French army. It was not until 25 June 1815, that Napoleon was finally persuaded to leave Paris, when Fouché sent probably false reports that there were assassination attempts being planned. But Bonaparte did not go far enough to satisfy Fouché, since he simply retired outside the city to the Château de Malmaison, the country home he had shared with the Empress Joséphine.
At Malmaison, Napoleon again lingered, spending time with his mother and brothers, while making desultory plans to leave France. He still believed the arrival of the Allied armies would prompt the people to rise up and demand he once again be given command of the French army. While he waited, he gathered his possessions and any moveable wealth he could to take with him into exile. He also requested official safe-conducts for his party from the government to enable him to depart France to the United States or England. In addition, he requested the French government place a pair of frigates at his disposal which were then anchored at Rochefort, to convey him and his party to the destination of his choice. Fouché, no fool, ensured that notice of all of these requests was made to the British government, so they would be aware of Napoleon’s intentions.
The Executive Commission, the five-man organization headed by Fouché and now in control of the French government, temporized for as long as they could on the issue of the safe-conducts for Napoleon’s party. When it became clear that Napoleon would not leave Malmaison without them, Fouché sent him a message indicating that the frigates in Rochefort Roads would be able to set sail without the safe-conducts, the exact opposite of his previous communications. In that same message, Fouché insisted that Bonaparte must leave Malmaison for the coast immediately or he could not ensure the former Emperor’s safety. Finally, at about five o’clock on the afternoon of 29 June 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte took one last, solitary walk through the gardens and house at Malmaison. Then, dressed as the secretary of General Nicolas Beker, who was charged with protecting him, he climbed in to Beker’s carriage and set out for Rochefort.
Traveling incognito most of the way, Napoleon arrived in Rochefort on Monday, 3 July 1815. He had wanted to travel immediately down to the roadstead where the frigates were anchored, but the maritime prefect, Casimir de Bonnefoux, did his best to deter Bonaparte and his party from doing so. Bonnefoux, probably concerned for his own future, with Louis XVIII very likely to return the throne, was not eager to be the man who allowed the former Emperor to slip through the grasp of the authorities. But he did not have the authority, or the courage, to take him into custody. Therefore, he made much of the fact that the port was constantly under observation by ships of the Royal Navy and pleaded with Napoleon to carefully consider his plans for departure.
Fouché made it a point to forward all information about Napoleon’s movements to the British, under the guise of seeking the safe-conducts which the former Emperor had requested for his retinue. This information ensured that ships of the Royal Navy were watching every port along the coast of France from which Napoleon might choose to sail. Captain Frederick Maitland was in command of HMS Bellerophon, which was blockading the Basque Roads in the Bay of Biscay, on the west coast of France. The Slaney and the Myrmidon were also part of the blockade when they were not on other duty.
For the next ten days, Bonaparte and his party remained at the Ile d’Aix, which overlooked the Basque Roads, while they considered their best options for a successful departure from France. Though a number of plausible plans with a high chance of success were put forward, Napoleon seemed unable to settle on any one of them, though everyone knew time was growing short. Some scholars have suggested this inability to focus was due to the fact that he was not well, while others believe he was still harboring the hope that the French government would recall him to lead the army against the Allies. Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, had joined the party and urged his brother to accompany him to the United States, which was still on better terms with France than England in the aftermath of the War of 1812, which had concluded earlier that year. Joseph himself was already making plans to sail to America and for a time, it seemed his brother would agree to join him.
On 10 July 1815, Napoleon sent two emissaries, the Comte de Las Cases and General François Lallemand, under a white flag of truce, out to the Bellerophon, which was anchored just outside the Basque Roads. Captain Maitland met with them, and though he was non-committal about Bonaparte’s reception in England, he did assure them that if the former Emperor came aboard the Bellerophon, he would not be handed over to Louis XVIII. When Napoleon’s younger brother, Lucien, had been captured by the British while trying to flee his brother’s efforts to force him to give up his American wife, he was allowed to settle in a country house in Worcestershire. Napoleon had every expectation that he would be shown the same consideration if he threw himself on the mercy of the British. It seems he also resisted the idea of traveling to the United States because he did not want to be that far from Europe.
Based in part on the reports of Las Cases and Lallemand’s discussions with Captain Maitland, and in part on his own belief that he would be shown the consideration due to a crowned head by the British, Napoleon eventually resolved to request asylum directly from the Prince Regent. On Thursday, 13 July 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte drafted his request for asylum in Britain. In his letter, he likened himself to Themistocles, a General of Ancient Greece, who was given asylum by Artaxerxes I, the King of Persia and his former enemy.
Napoleon wrote his letter in French. It is quoted below, in translation, in full:
Your Royal Highness
Exposed to the factions which distract my country, and to the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, I have ended my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself on 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
Once he was satisfied with his draft, he had the Comte de Bertrand, who was serving as his Grand Marshal, make a fair copy. Napoleon signed that copy and directed General Gourgaud, his Councilor of State, to deliver it to the Prince Regent in person. A second copy of the letter was made for Captain Maitland and Las Cases and Gourgaud then rowed out to the Bellerophon at about seven o’clock. They showed Maitland the copy of Napoleon’s letter to the Prince Regent, along with a letter from Bertrand. That second letter said that Bonaparte would come on board the Bellerophon the next morning, explaining that the Emperor would prefer safe-conducts for his party for the United States, but if that was not possible, he would be willing to be taken to England where he wished to live as a private citizen. The letter also asked that Maitland make provision for Gourgaud to travel to England as soon as possible so that he could present Napoleon’s letter to the Prince Regent himself.
Maitland told the Emperor’s emissaries that he would be happy to receive Bonaparte on board his ship the next day and that he would send Gourgaud to England aboard the corvette, Slaney, which was part of his flotilla. However, he did explain that he could not guarantee that Gourgaud would be allowed to disembark when the ship reached England. He said that it was possible the General might be detained in the port or on board the ship. Which was exactly what happened. When the Slaney docked in Plymouth, Gourgaud was not allowed to leave the ship, so Napoleon’s letter to the Regent remained safely tucked inside his portfolio. Gourgaud was transferred to the Bellerophon when in arrived off Plymouth with Napoleon and his party aboard. Soon thereafter, the Admiralty ordered the Bellerophon to remove to Torbay as there was too much excitement in Plymouth, where people were clamoring to see Bonaparte.
A few days after the arrival of the Bellerophon, Admiral Lord Keith, who was in charge of handling Bonaparte for the British government, under absolute secrecy, was horrified to learn that an English translation of Napoleon’s letter to the Regent was known by some in Plymouth. Initially, he assumed that Captain Maitland was responsible, but further investigation revealed that Las Cases’ son had made a copy for himself soon after it was written. The young Las Cases had befriended one of the midshipman aboard the Bellerophon and had allowed his new friend to translate the letter into English as an exercise. Fortunately, the midshipman had only shown the letter to a few friends and the Admiralty was able prevent any further circulation of the letter in Plymouth or Torbay.
It was not until 26 July 1815, that Admiral Keith finally sent Napoleon’s letter to Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, along with his dispatches with regard to Bonaparte and his party on board the Bellerophon. It was Lord Melville who eventually forwarded the letter along to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. It is believed that it was Liverpool himself who finally delivered the letter to the Prince Regent. By which time, all in the government knew its contents and knew the Regent would not be allowed to make any reply. The Prince was to have no say in the disposition of Bonaparte and his party.
It is believed that the Regent received Napoleon’s letter on the last day of July, when he finally read it, almost three weeks after it had been written. After he read it, the Regent is reported to have said, "Upon my word, a very proper letter: much more so, I must say than any I ever received from Louis XVIII." At least one scholar speculates that that was due to the fact that Napoleon addressed the Regent as Altesse Royal, (Your Royal Highness), while Louis XVIII had always addressed him simply as Monseigneur, (my Lord), because, unlike Louis, he was not yet a king.
In Napoleon’s mind, he wrote his letter to a fellow monarch and assumed he would be treated as such by the British when he requested asylum. He seems to have been completely unaware how little the British trusted him, nor how much they wanted him completely removed from the theatre of Europe. His letter is now in the Royal Collection and is currently on display with other artifacts of the Waterloo period at Windsor Castle. It will remain on display until January of 2016.
Next week, an overview of the time Bonaparte spent on board the Bellerophon.