How Napoleon made the British
Jacques-Louis David's painting captures the Romantic image of Napoleon.

In 1803, the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to a friend about his relish at the prospect of being invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte. “As to me, I think, the Invasion must be a Blessing,” he said, “For if we do not repel it, & cut them to pieces, we are a vile sunken race… And if we do act as Men, Christians, Englishmen – down goes the Corsican Miscreant, & Europe may have peace.”

This was during the great invasion scare, when Napoleon’s Army of England could on clear days be seen across the channel from Kent. Coleridge’s fighting talk captured the rash of patriotism that had broken out in Britain. The largest popular mobilisation of the entire Hanoverian era was set in motion, as some 400,000 men from Inverness to Cornwall entered volunteer militia units. London’s playhouses were overtaken by anti-French songs and plays, notably Shakespeare’s Henry V. Caricaturists such as James Gillray took a break from mocking King George III and focused on patriotic propaganda, contrasting the sturdy beef-eating Englishman John Bull with a puny, effete Napoleon.

These years were an important moment in the evolution of Britain’s identity, one that resonated through the 19th century and far beyond. The mission identified by Coleridge – to endure some ordeal as a vindication of national character, preferably without help from anyone else, and maybe benefit wider humanity as a by-product – anticipates a British exceptionalism that loomed throughout the Victorian era, reaching its final apotheosis in the Churchillian “if necessary alone” patriotism of the Second World War. Coleridge’s friend William Wordsworth expressed the same sentiment in 1806, after Napoleon had smashed the Prussian army at Jena, leaving the United Kingdom his only remaining opponent. “We are left, or shall be left, alone;/ The last that dare to struggle with the Foe,” Wordsworth wrote, “’Tis well! From this day forward we shall know/ That in ourselves our safety must be sought;/ That by our own right hands it must be wrought.”

As we mark the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death on St Helena in 1821, attention has naturally been focused on his legacy in France. But we shouldn’t forget that in his various guises – conquering general, founder of states and institutions, cultural icon – Napoleon transformed every part of Europe, and Britain was no exception. Yet the apparent national pride of the invasion scare was very far from the whole story. If the experience of fighting Napoleon left the British in important ways more cohesive, confident and powerful, it was largely because the country had previously looked like it was about to fall apart. 

Throughout the 1790s, as the French Revolution followed the twists and turns that eventually brought Napoleon to power, Britain was a tinder box. Ten years before he boasted of confronting Napoleon as “Men, Christians, Englishmen,” Coleridge had burned the words “Liberty” and “Equality” into the lawns of Cambridge university. Like Wordsworth, and like countless other radicals and republicans, he had embraced the Revolution as the dawn of a glorious new age in which the corrupt and oppressive ancien régime, including the Anglican establishment of Britain, would be swept away. 

And the tide of history seemed to be on the radicals’ side. The storming of the Bastille came less than a decade after Britain had lost its American colonies, while in George III the country had an unpopular king, prone to bouts of debilitating madness, whose scandalous sons appeared destined to drag the monarchy into disgrace. 

Support for the Revolution was strongest among Nonconformist Protestant sects – especially Unitarians, the so-called “rational Dissenters” – who formed the intellectual and commercial elite of cities such as Norwich, Birmingham and Manchester, and among the radical wing of the Whig party. But for the first time, educated working men also entered the political sphere en masse. They joined the Corresponding Societies which held public meetings and demonstrations across the country, so named because of their contacts with Jacobin counterparts in France. Influential Unitarian ministers, such as the Welsh philosopher Richard Price and the chemist Joseph Priestly, interpreted the Revolution as the work of providence and possibly a sign of the imminent Apocalypse. In the circle of Whig aristocrats around Charles James Fox, implacable adversary of William Pitt’s Tory government, the radicals had sympathisers at the highest levels of power. Fox famously said of the Revolution “how much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, and how much the best.”

From 1792 Britain was at war with revolutionary France, and this mix of new ideals and longstanding religious divides boiled over into mass unrest and fears of insurrection. In 1795 protestors smashed the windows at 10 Downing Street, and at the opening of parliament a crowd of 200,000 jeered at Pitt and George III. The radicals were met by an equally volatile loyalist reaction in defence of church and king. In 1793, a dinner celebrating Bastille Day in Birmingham sparked three days of rioting, including attacks on Nonconformist chapels and Priestly’s home. Pitt’s government introduced draconian limitations on thought, speech and association, although his attempt to convict members of the London Corresponding Society with high treason was foiled by a jury. 

Both sides drew inspiration from an intense pamphlet war that included some of the most iconic and controversial texts in British intellectual history. Conservatives were galvanised by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a defence of England’s time-honoured social hierarchies, while radicals hailed Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, calling for the abolition of Britain’s monarchy and aristocracy. When summoned on charges of seditious libel, Paine fled to Paris, where he sat in the National Assembly and continued to support the revolutionary regime despite almost being executed during the Reign of Terror that began in 1793. Among his supporters were the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the utopian progressive William Godwin, who shared an intellectual circle with Coleridge and Wordsworth. 

Britain seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Bad harvests at the turn of the century brought misery and renewed unrest, and the war effort failed to prevent France (under the leadership, from 1799, of First Consul Bonaparte) from dominating the continent. Paradoxically, nothing captures the paralysing divisions of the British state at this moment better than its expansion in 1801 to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The annexation of Ireland was a symptom of weakness, not strength, since it reflected the threat posed by a bitterly divided and largely hostile satellite off Britain’s west coast. The only way to make it work, as Pitt insisted, was to grant political rights to Ireland’s Catholic majority – but George III refused. So Pitt resigned, and the Revolutionary Wars ended with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, effectively acknowledging French victory.

Britain’s tensions and weaknesses certainly did not disappear during the ensuing, epic conflict with Napoleon from 1803-15. Violent social unrest continued to flare up, especially at times of harvest failure, financial crisis, and economic hardship resulting from restriction of trade with the continent. There were, at times, widespread demands for peace. The government continued to repress dissent with military force and legal measures; the radical poet and engraver William Blake (later rebranded as a patriotic figure when his words were used for the hymn Jerusalem) stood trial for sedition in 1803, following an altercation with two soldiers. Many of those who volunteered for local military units probably did so out of peer pressure and to avoid being impressed into the navy. Ireland, of course, would prove to be a more intractable problem than even Pitt had imagined.  

Nonetheless, Coleridge and Wordsworth’s transition from radicals to staunch patriots was emblematic. Whether the population at large was genuinely loyal or merely quiescent, Britain’s internal divisions lost much of their earlier ideological edge, and the threat of outright insurrection faded away. This process had already started in the 1790s, as many radicals shied away from the violence and militarism of revolutionary France, but it was galvanised by Napoleon. This was not just because he appeared determined and able to crush Britain, but also because of British perceptions of his regime. 

As Yale professor Stuart Semmel has observed, Napoleon did not fit neatly into the dichotomies with which Britain was used to contrasting itself against France. For the longest time, the opposition had been (roughly) “free Protestant constitutional monarchy” vs “Popish absolutist despotism”; after the Revolution, it had flipped to “Christian peace and order” vs “bloodthirsty atheism and chaos.” Napoleon threw these catagories into disarray. The British, says Semmel, had to ask “Was he a Jacobin or a king …; Italian or Frenchman; Catholic, atheist, or Muslim?” The religious uncertainty was especially unsettling, after Napoleon’s “declaration of kinship with Egyptian Muslims, his Concordat with the papacy, his tolerance for Protestants, and his convoking a Grand Sanhedrin of European Jews.” 

This may have forced some soul-searching on the part of the British as they struggled to define Napoleonic France, but in some respects the novelty simplified matters. Former radicals could argue Napoleon represented a betrayal of the Revolution, and could agree with loyalists that he was a tyrant bent on personal domination of Europe, thus drawing a line under the ideological passions of the revolutionary period. In any case, loyalist propaganda had no difficulty transferring to Napoleon the template traditionally reserved for the Pope – that of the biblical Antichrist. This simple fact of having a single infamous figure on which to focus patriotic feelings no doubt aided national unity. As the essayist William Hazlitt, an enduring supporter of Napoleon, later noted: “Everybody knows that it is only necessary to raise a bugbear before the English imagination in order to govern it at will.”

More subtly, conservatives introduced the concept of “legitimacy” to the political lexicon, to distinguish the hereditary power of British monarchs from Napoleon’s usurpation of the Bourbon throne. This was rank hypocrisy, given the British elite’s habit of importing a new dynasty whenever it suited them, but it played to an attitude which did help to unify the nation: during the conflict with Napoleon, people could feel that they were defending the British system in general, rather than supporting the current government or waging an ideological war against the Revolution. The resulting change of sentiment could be seen in 1809, when there were vast celebrations to mark the Golden Jubilee of the once unpopular George III. 

Undoubtedly British culture was also transformed by admiration for Napoleon, especially among artists, intellectuals and Whigs, yet even here the tendency was towards calming antagonisms rather than enflaming them. This period saw the ascendance of Romanticism in European culture and ways of thinking, and there was not and never would be a greater Romantic hero than Napoleon, who had turned the world upside down through force of will and what Victor Hugo later called “supernatural instinct.” But ultimately this meant aestheticizing Napoleon, removing him from the sphere of politics to that of sentiment, imagination and history. Thus when Napoleon abdicated his throne in 1814, the admiring poet Lord Byron was mostly disappointed he had not fulfilled his dramatic potential by committing suicide. 

But Napoleon profoundly reshaped Britain in another way: the long and grueling conflict against him left a lasting stamp on every aspect of the British state. In short, while no-one could have reasonably predicted victory until Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812, the war was nonetheless crucial in forging Britain into the global superpower it would become after 1815. 

The British had long been in the habit of fighting wars with ships and money rather than armies, and for the most part this was true of the Napoleonic wars as well. But the unprecedented demands of this conflict led to an equally unprecedented development of Britain’s financial system. This started with the introduction of new property taxes and, in 1799, the first income tax, which were continually raised until by 1814 their yield had increased by a factor of ten. What mattered here was not so much the immediate revenue as the unparalleled fiscal base it gave Britain for the purpose of borrowing money – which it did, prodigiously. In 1804, the year Bonaparte was crowned Emperor, the “Napoleon of finance” Nathan Rothschild arrived in London from Frankfurt, helping to secure a century of British hegemony in the global financial system. 

No less significant were the effects of war in stimulating Britain’s nascent industrial revolution, and its accompanying commercial empire. The state relied on private contractors for most of its materiel, especially that required to build and maintain the vast Royal Navy, while creating immense demand for iron, coal and timber. In 1814, when rulers and representatives of Britain’s European allies came to Portsmouth, they were shown a startling vision of the future: enormous factories where pulley blocks for the rigging of warships were being mass-produced with steam-driven machine tools. Meanwhile Napoleon’s Continental System, by shutting British manufacturers and exporters out of Europe, forced them to develop markets in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

Even Britain’s fabled “liberal” constitution – the term was taken from Spanish opponents to Napoleon – did in fact do some of the organic adaptation that smug Victorians would later claim as its hallmark. The Nonconformist middle classes, so subversive during the revolutionary period, were courted in 1812-13 with greater political rights and by the relaxation of various restrictions on trade. Meanwhile, Britain discovered what would become its greatest moral crusade of the 19thcentury. Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery in France’s Caribbean colonies created the conditions for abolitionism to grow as a popular movement in Britain, since, as William Wilberforce argued, “we should not give advantages to our enemies.” Two bills in 1806-7 effectively ended Britain’s centuries-long participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Thus Napoleon was not just a hurdle to be cleared en route to the British century – he was, with all his charisma and ruthless determination, a formative element in the nation’s history. And his influence did not end with his death in 1821, of course. He would long haunt the Romantic Victorian imagination as, in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, “the figure every man who broke with tradition could identify himself with.”