Friday, January 27, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 15: What's a Little War Between Fashionable Friends? English respect for the French during the Regency

Welcome to my continuing series on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


Large swaths of British and French history are defined by the two nations, in various forms, waging war against each other. The latter Georgian period was no different. The political shockwave of the French Revolution lead to war with the French Revolutionary forces; wars that England participated in.

Though the 1802 of Treaty of Amiens temporarily ended hostilities between Great Britain and France, 1803 brought the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, which would rage, in one form or another until 1815.

In 1805, Emperor Napoleon's dreams of quickly invading and smashing the British were thwarted by stalwart sailors under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. The dramatic Battle of Trafalgar cost Nelson and many sailors their lives but ensured the nearly 200,000-man army Napoleon had gathered would never be delivered to the English coast.

At the start of the Regency, Napoleon was bogged down in the Peninsular Campaign (the so-called "Spanish Ulcer"), a struggle against Spanish and Portuguese forces (making heavy use of guerrilla tactics) and aided by regular support from the British under Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. The British government poured large amounts off money both into military efforts and espionage. Temporary defeat in 1813 sent the French emperor into exile for a short period. His final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 ended his dream of a unified Europe under his control.

With all the wars leading into the Regency and the wars persisting for a good chunk of the period, one might assume that the Regency English despised all things French. The truth, however, is more complicated.

The bulk of English citizenry were rather anti-French even though there was some debate about how much the country should be involved in the war. There was some concern, even after Trafalgar, about how much blood and treasure it was worth to fight Napoleon. The Royal Navy dominated the seas, and helped disrupt Napoleon's attempts at economic blockade. There was not a significant concern about another French invasion plan.

A perhaps more unexpected attitude, though, prevailed among many fashionable sorts of the upper-aristocracy. France, even as the nation rampaging across Europe, was still seen as a center of fashion and culture. The ability to speak French was considered both fashionable and a sign of respectable education, and not a mark of suspicion.

French fashions and foods remained  popular. Even as Napoleon attempted to strangle trade into Great Britain, the upper-classes still managed to import (or smuggle in) French goods. French fashions continued to influence the English.

Of course, depending on one's perspective that may not seem that odd until you consider it'd be roughly equivalent to the aristocratic elites during World War I and World War II spending a lot of time speaking German at parties, decorating their homes with German objects, being influenced by German fashion, et cetera (insert your own joke about Edward VIII here). The war, for this fashionable elite, was a mere inconvenience.

In the short interval between the Treaty of Amiens and the restoration of hostilities, the fashionable elite did their best to travel to Paris to enjoy its glories before the two nations began shooting each other again. Even after the aborted invasion of England, there was no serious turn by many in the upper-classes against all things fashionably French even if they were limited in their ability to go to France and attempt to hob-nob with top French officials, Napoleon, and the Empress Josephine.

Of course, to many sons of the aristocracy serving as officers either in the Army or the Royal Navy, France was not a source of fashion and fine food, but instead the lead being blasted at them on the battlefield.

Now, as noted earlier, the vast bulk of the citizenry took a dim view of France and all things French, fashionable or not. Love of French culture wasn't universal either among aristocrats, but it still was significant enough that even the Prince Regent himself publicly partook of all things French.


Debra Brown said...

Thank you for this interesting tidbit of history. I had no idea that the aristocracy was clinging to French partying at that time.

J.A. Beard said...

Yeah, some of the stuff I've read, particularly about the 1802 stuff, is kind of surreal.

It wasn't everybody, for certain, but it definitely wasn't some fringe thing either.