The middle year of the Regency, 1815, saw a number of significant events, perhaps the most important of all, the final end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s power in France. This same year saw one of the most devastating natural disasters in history, a disaster which would reach the Continent and the British Isles the following year. But there were a number of less violent events in this same year, from literary milestones to entertainments. There were also both births and deaths of notable people in this year.
Some of the notable events of 1815 . . .
On the second day of the new year, Lord Byron married Annabella Milbanke. Less than a week later, the last, and unnecessary, battle of the War of 1812 was fought outside New Orleans, resulting in the death of Major-General Edward Pakenham, Wellington’s much-respected brother-in-law. Another loss followed soon thereafter, though with much less notice. On 15 January, Lady Emma Hamilton, the love of Lord Nelson, died in Calais, France. She had traveled to France to escape her many creditors, forgotten or ignored by nearly everyone she had known. Ten years after Nelson’s death, the woman he had willed to the care of the nation died in poverty, of amoebic dysentery, at the age of forty-nine.
In February, the Treaty of Ghent officially brought the War of 1812 to an end. In that same month, Napoleon escaped exile on the island of Elba and made his way to Paris. On 15 March, the first Corn Laws were passed in England. Before the month was out, Napoleon was once again in power in France. In early April, the volcano Mount Tambora erupted, spreading incredible devastation across the region of the Indian Ocean.
By June, the Duke of Wellington was in Brussels, where he was assembling the Allied army with which he would face Napoleon and the French army. Many people had flocked to the Belgian capital and there was a glittering array of social events taking place. The most famous, of course, is the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, on the night Wellington got the news that Napoleon had marched into Belgium. Early the next morning, the Allied Army marched out of the city, heading south to meet the French. The campaign which ended on the battlefield outside the village of Waterloo cost thousands of lives, but ended with the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.
Napoleon was not captured at Waterloo, but fled with a small military escort back to Paris. He found no welcome from the civil authorities there. Despite desperate political maneuverings on his part, and that of his brothers, Napoleon was forced to retreat to the Château de Malmaison, the country home of his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. By the end of June he was forced to flee to the coastal city of Rochefort. From there, in mid-July, he and a small party were rowed out to the British ship, HMS Bellerophon, anchored offshore. Since Napoleon did not believe he had surrendered to the British, but was requesting asylum, he expected to be allowed to settle in England. The Bellerophon sailed back to England, but for several weeks, Bonaparte and his party were kept on board. Despite Napoleon’s claim that he had not surrendered, after his escape from Elba, no one in Europe wanted him free in the world. In August, he was trans-shipped to HMS Northumberland, which carried him south to exile on the remote island of St. Helena. He would die there six years later.
Late in the summer of 1815, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, was published for the first time. It was published in Denmark, in the scholarly language of Latin, but this milestone would eventually bring this significant work of Anglo-Saxon literature to the attention of British scholars. Other publications this year included The Adventures of a Donkey, a children’s story about a young donkey’s life, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a lewd book about the supposed sexual escapades of the deposed Napoleon Bonaparte. Byron’s poem, She Walks in Beauty, written in 1813, was finally published in 1815, and was a best-seller. The second of the Waverly novels, Guy Mannering, was published this year. As had been the first novel, Waverly, this one was also published anonymously, by Sir Walter Scott. It was a huge success, the first edition selling out in a single day. Later that year, Thomas Love Peacock, a friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published his first satirical novel, Headlong Hall. [Author’s Note: the novel was published in 1815, but was dated 1816, as was Jane Austen’s Emma, which was published a few weeks later.] Though not as successful as Walter Scott’s novel, Headlong Hall sold well enough to encourage Peacock to continue writing. Just two days before Christmas, Jane Austen’s latest novel, Emma, was published by the house of John Murray.
On the entertainment front, the first panorama of the Battle of Waterloo went on display in Edinburgh in early November of 1815. This massive painting was the work of James Howe, the deaf son of a parish minister with a talent for capturing scenes quickly and accurately. Returning Waterloo veterans were invited to view the panorama at no charge. The panorama went on to be exhibited in Glasgow, then toured the country for at least a year. That fall, another unique entertainment took place in London, at the Drury Lane Theatre. A recreation of the famous victory masquerade ball, thrown by the members of Watier’s Club, at Burlington House in honor of the Duke of Wellington in July of 1814, was staged at the theatre. One of the hosts of that grand ball, Lord Byron, donned a costume to disguise himself and took the stage as one of the actors.
In addition to the loss of Edward Pakenham and Emma Hamilton, other noted people passed away in this year. Among them was Robert Fulton, the famous American inventor and erstwhile panorama promoter; Franz Mesmer, physician, astronomer and the developer of the concept of animal magnetism and thus, mesmerism; the Italian composer, Domenico Puccini; the English caricaturist, James Gilray and the American painter who relocated to England, John Singleton Copley. This year also saw the loss of too many young men who served in the armies of Europe, most during the campaign of Waterloo. Born in this year were the German politician, Otto von Bismark; the author, Anthony Trollope; the mathematician, George Boole and, of course, Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, Augusta Ada Byron.
In November of 1815, the Treaty of Paris, actually four treaties, between the four great Allied powers, was signed on Monday, 20 November. This treaty terminated all hostilities on the Continent, where peace would flourish under its terms for more than half a century. An additional article was appended to this treaty which finally brought to an end the French slave trade. The Duke of Wellington was made Commander-in-Chief of a British army of occupation that was stationed in France. That army would not be withdrawn until 1818, when Wellington finally returned to live permanently in England.
Without doubt, the most significant event of 1815 was the Allied defeat of Napoleon and the French at the Battle of Waterloo. However, there were quite a number of other notable events which took place in that year with which a Regency author might choose to embellish a tale set during that twelvemonth. There were the passing of the Corn Laws and the grand parties in Brussels that spring, not to mention the circus atmosphere in Plymouth Sound that summer, as people tried to get a look at Napoleon on board the Bellerophon while the government sought a legal means by which to exile the defeated French Emperor. The lure of Paris was strong after Napoleon’s downfall, and many Britons traveled to the French capital once Louis XVIII was back on the throne. The War of 1812 also came to an end, improving relations between Britain and the United States. Several important literary publications were released this year, for both adults and children. Lord Byron trod the boards, in disguise, at Drury Lane, while in Edinburgh, the first panorama of the Battle of Waterloo went on display. What other events might serve a purpose in a Regency romance set in 1815?