Last came Anarchy: he rode
And he wore a kingly crown;
(Shelley – The Mask of Anarchy) 1
That was what Shelley wrote in Italy when he heard the disturbing news of the Peterloo Massacre. In Manchester, at least eleven innocent people were killed and hundreds injured after a crowd of people desperate for political representation and reform, were cut down by brutal mounted militia at the behest of British magistrates acting with the full authority of the state. 2
Far away, on the tiny island of Saint Helena, Napoleon was dying a slow, lingering death from arsenic poisoning and had little time left to live. According to most English history books, Napoleon was the scourge of the age, the greatest danger to this country, and responsible for all the wars and bloodshed that had ravaged Europe for two decades. Nothing could be further from the truth.
British subjects were sabred and cut down in cold blood that dreadful year not because of Napoleon, but because the wealthy oligarchy that controlled the country and had paid for other powers to attack France were determined to maintain and even extend their control over the benighted population. The so-called ‘sceptred isle’ was in fact being crushed under the mace of divine right and privilege.
While he was alive, Napoleon was used as a smokescreen by the privileged nobility to obscure the real cause of burning resentment, namely the absolute refusal of the likes of Pitt, Castlereagh, Liverpool and Wellington to share political power with the vast majority of their fellow countrymen. And even when Napoleon was thousands of miles away, they insisted that nothing must change back in Blighty. Not only must Britannia rule the waves, Parliament was sure to waive the rules where the common man was concerned.
British subjects were peasants in all but name. They could be press-ganged and forced to serve in the British Navy; they could not vote; their newspapers were censored and made prohibitively expensive; the Six Acts enforced repression upon them; and Habeas Corpus had been suspended. Oh what bliss was it to be alive in the England of George III.
And the English ‘history’ books still maintain it was all Napoleon’s fault.
The arrogance of power – George III
It is worthwhile comparing the British monarch, his mad-jesty, to the figure in George Cruikshank’s cartoon below– A Free Born Englishman (1819).
To Pitt, Castlereagh, Liverpool and Wellington, even when the peasants weren’t rebelling they were revolting. The cream of British society had little of the milk of human kindness for their fellow countrymen. The Corn Laws were passed in 1815, making extra profits for rich landowners but higher priced bread for the masses, and that same year in April there was the cataclysmic eruption of Tambora, a huge volcano on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. There is an old English saying: ‘It never rains but it pours’ and never was this more apt. Tambora led directly to a period of global cooling, temperatures falling by an average of one degree Centigrade around the world. What followed was the notorious ‘year without a summer’, terrible rains and widespread starvation in Europe. 5
As if that was not bad enough, as bread prices soared, wages fell. Manchester spinners saw their incomes fall from 24 shillings a week in 1815 to only 18 shillings three years later. The pay of weavers had plummeted from 11 shillings to only 6 shillings a week. 6 Trouble was bound to follow. The Government was able to find tens of millions of pounds to prosecute its wars against Napoleon, billions in the pounds of today, but they were basically prepared to let their own people starve. 7
When strikes occurred, blacklegs – people who continued to work - were intimidated, and stones were thrown at some factories. People who are hungry often feel desperate. The Government, rather than help by fixing the price of bread or instituting a minimum wage, became alarmed. The £40,000 they voted to pay off Pitt’s debts would have fed the population of whole towns.
Always looking for sinister and rebellious motives amongst the general population, senior politicians saw this as tantamount to revolution. Sir John Byng, whose table could probably boast a crust or two, wrote to John Hobhouse of the Manchester spinners’ strike in July 1818: “The peaceable demeanour of so many thousand unemployed men is not natural; their regular meeting and again dispersing shows a system of organization of their actions which has some appearance of previous tuition.” By Jove, most of these bounders were well-behaved – this was a very dangerous turn of affairs for the ‘elite’. 8
Many of these spinners had been working from the age of six and had recently been doing 15 or 16 hour shifts with less than an hour a day in breaks. 9 It is amazing that they had the energy to do anything after such a punishing schedule. Yet, despite all this, they were forced to live in squalor and often went hungry. Manchester, like most industrial towns had no MP – no representation in the House of Commons.
No wonder Cruickshank was so scathing about a ‘free born Englishman’.
To the aristocracy, the working population was best treated like a coach-and-four. They were to be bridled, kept in the traces and whipped occasionally to make them go a little faster. What they didn’t want was for any mavericks to come along and ‘organize’ the underclass in protest against the status quo.
Hence the hymn - ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ which goes:
The poor were by definition disorder incarnate, almost halfway towards anarchy when they were born. Hence the gentry, the clergy and the aristocracy were determined to crush the first signs of any questioning of the Almighty’s scheme of things. They felt it their divine right to do so. After all they were working for his divine majesty the King.
This state of affairs has a long history in Britain and is seldom covered in our schools and in our history books. The infamous Enclosure Acts passed by Parliament between 1750 and 1850 stole from many of the poor what little they had. As Richard Muir states, common land was: “shared among the leading farmers in the course of parliamentary enclosure. Each parish had its own Act of Enclosure, issued by parliament when petitioned by the leading landowners of a locality…it changed the face of many lowland counties and sent the old peasant society to its destruction.” 11 He adds: “ that the English countryside operates according to the Biblical maxim ‘to him that hath shall be given’.” 12 And so it proved time after time.
Taking one example, Luddington-in-the-brook in Northamptonshire was enclosed in 1807. Amazingly, the village stream wasthe main road into this village. It wasn’t much of a place but the locals were probably well content with it as it was. After the Enclosure Commissioners had done their survey, the place began to change. Although new dwellings were built by a modern road the old village area became deserted, such that by 1886: “the attractive little medieval church was left with only a farmstead for company as its wonderfully grotesque gargoyles glowered over the empty pasture.” 13
As the ‘elite’ slowly destroyed the fabric of old England, that same year 1807, some 2,000 Danes were massacred in a brutal bombardment of Copenhagen by the British Navy. In equality of destruction and mayhem, the aristocratic gargoyles in Parliament saw to it that there was plenty to go around. Canning was almost sure that the neutral Danes were going to ‘give’ their powerful navy to Napoleon, so he destroyed it – just in case.
Muir details how the “Gods of Profit” were the new deities worshipped in the City of London. 14 As if the above litany of woe was not bad enough more was to follow in Scotland with the so-called ‘Highland Clearances’. But it is worth pausing here to remark that
between the years 1816 to 1825, 78,400 men and women were transported to Australia because: “Unrest in the wake of the Corn Laws prompted the suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the notorious ‘Six Acts’ gave the agricultural squirearchy, most of whom were magistrates, swingeing powers.” 15 In other words, anyone who dared question what was happening in the countryside as well as the new industrial towns could find themselves on a long voyage to the antipodes. So much for England being a green and pleasant land.
In Dorchester in Dorset, there is a cattle bridge still bearing the warning: ‘Anyone found damaging this bridge, in any manner, will be liable for Transportation for Life. 1820.’ And that ‘damage’ would include slogans against the Government! 16
So much for a Home fit for Heroes for those soldiers who fought against Napoleon. Now they had done their bit the Authorities would crack down hard if even they ever dared to step out of line.
Now, if the English suffered, the Scots suffered even more. Nothing in England can compare with the terrible Highland Clearances and especially the notorious and callous actions in Strathnaver by the agents of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.
Elizabeth Gordon, the 19th Countess of Sutherland had agents like Patrick Sellar who turned cruelty into an art. In order to ‘improve’ the land, it was decided to get rid of the folk who were trying to scrape a living there. 17 It was like a mini Harrying of the North of 1069-1070 AD – that terrible time when William the Conqueror had his men kill everyone and destroy all the settlements between York and Durham after the Saxon peasants had dared to revolt. 18 Although Sellars and his employees didn’t directly murder the Highlanders they made it impossible for them to go on living there. Their favourite tactic was to set the crofts ablaze to drive people away.
Donald McLeod, a crofter himself, was an eyewitness to the clearances: “The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and helpless before the fire should reach them…I myself ascended a height about eleven o’clock in the evening, and counted two hundred and fifty blazing houses, many of the owners of which I personally knew…” 19
At Strathnaver, an old man, one Donald Macbeth was almost burned alive while his son was at a christening, despite Hugh Macbeth having begged the authorities to wait until he could remove his sick father. Donald was still clinging to life when Hugh returned to find him “lying in the open where Sellars’ men had dumped him”. 20
As Richard Muir says: “The bulk of these clearances took place between 1811 and 1820 and so far as virtually everyone in the remainder of Britain was concerned, the events might have been taking place on Mars.” 21 Certainly the landed gentry elsewhere were more likely to take this as an example to be copied rather than behaviour to be condemned.
In 1814, Patrick Sellar decided he’d like some of the land for himself. Notice was therefore given to existing tenants to vacate their land. Not surprisingly, they stayed put and then their own religious leader, their Minister, told them they would be damned if they did not accept this abominable and hellish treatment. Sellars’ own demons set fire to their homes and an old woman, confined to her bed, died of wounds, and a pregnant woman died when she fell through the roof of the burning home she was trying to save. When Sellars was tried for murder in 1816, he was acquitted. 22 Meanwhile British subjects were being transported for far less than this. But, of course, they were not from the ‘upper and superior classes’.
It is hardly surprising, as Mark Urban has said: “Back at the time of Napoleon there were actually plenty of people in this country and Parliament who didn’t believe in fighting the French. Many didn’t want to pay for war, some radicals even longed for a little more liberty, equality and fraternity in this country.” 23
Below is a little picture of the death of Nelson – in fact it was a very little event when compared to all the above.
The French were given permission to leave the city with all the honours of war, their lives guaranteed. The treaty was signed by both sides, by Russian and Turkish representatives and by Captain Troubridge of the British Navy. Then along came Nelson. 24
Nelson had written to Troubridge: “Send me word some proper heads are taken off, this alone will comfort me”. 25 Nelson also wanted to try King Ferdinand’s failed generals for cowardice and “if found guilty… they shall be shot or hanged…I ever preach that rewards and punishments are the foundation of good government”. 26
When Nelson arrived at Naples the treaty appalled him. The French were already in vessels ready to leave port and all the signatories refused to renege on the previous arrangements. Then, at the last minute, the King and Queen of Naples cancelled the treaty. The Queen wrote to Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, to tell him: “to treat Naples as if it were a rebellious city in Ireland” – a statement revealing in more ways than one. 27
The French and their allies were now cooped up on their ‘rescue’ ships without food and amidst squalor and disease. Ruffo resigned in disgust but Nelson wrote to his wife claiming victory: “Nelson came, the invincible Nelson, and they were all preserved and again made happy.” 28
The ‘victor’ now decided to punish over 8,000 refugees who were tried for treason. At least 100 were executed, probably more, but as Ferdinand later had the records destroyed, the true number will never be known. Caracciolo, the most important prisoner was executed at Nelson’s behest. Hanged like a common criminal, his body was tossed into the sea. Nelson refused his family permission to take the corpse for proper burial. 29
King Ferdinand gave the Dukedom of Bronte to Nelson as a reward, some 30,000 acres and an income of £3,000 a year. 30 Not bad pay for mass murder. This was the work of one callous and incredibly vain British aristocrat on his ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. The more he lost bits of himself, the more Nelson grew in his own estimation. What an odious man he was.
Back in England, William Hazlitt was strongly opposed to British foreign policy. He wrote widely on political corruption and the need for reform. As Tom Paine had written in The Rights of Man (1791): “What is government more than the management of the affairs of a Nation? It is not, and from its nature cannot be, the property of any particular man or family, but of the whole community, at whose expense it is supported…” 31 That was not the way George III saw it.
Repression not only continued, it increased.
As early as 1780 Charles Fox had supported reform, especially the scrapping of rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs, and of giving the freed seats to the new industrial towns. Fox had described the French Revolution as the “greatest event that has happened in the history of the world”, but he was horrified by the execution of Louis XVI. Yet when war broke out between Britain and France he desired a negotiated end to the conflict. Although he would not go as far as Paine, Fox wanted existing ‘freedoms’ to remain. He was all for male suffrage but not universal suffrage. 32
William Pitt had once looked up to Fox and they had both advocated peace with the Americans and political reform. But, when the French Revolution occurred, Pitt changed his tune. He soon began slapping taxes on just about everything he could think of – including horses, tobacco, tea, spirits, and sugar. Finally, in 1798 he introduced a temporary income tax – which British residents have been cursed with ever since. 33
Pitt didn’t much like criticism. At the opening of Parliament in 1795 cries of ‘bread’, ‘peace’ and ‘no Pitt’ were heard. So he decided to change the law on treason. Things got so bad that Pitt had to have an armed bodyguard. When the King went insane, rather than allow the nation to discuss what should happen to the body politic, he decided to regulate or suppress the nation’s newspapers. His default position seemed to be to make any bad situation worse. 34
He ought never to have been short of a bob or two himself, as we say in England, as his income as Prime Minister was £10,500 a year – over a million pounds in today’s money. 35 Yet he still died owing that £40,000. As he could not even balance his own ‘budget’ perhaps it is no wonder that the country was going to the dogs.
As if all the above and having a mad King was not enough for the country to stomach, his heir ‘Prinny’ was a self-obsessed spendthrift. Even as early as 1795 he had debts of £650,000 – which would be billions in today’s money. 38 Prinny was a great supporter of the hard-line taken by Liverpool’s government. When the Luddites broke new shearing frames that would put them out of work, the Prince Regent offered £50 to anyone who would give information on the perpetrators. 39 In 1812, Parliament made frame-breaking a capital offence and 12,000 troops were sent to areas of ‘trouble’. That same year thirteen men in Lancashire were transported and twelve executed for attacking cotton mills while in York fifteen more suffered the ultimate punishment. 40
The Prince of Wales is famous for his rebuilding of the royal Pavilion at Brighton. But a bright ’un he was not, insisting he had led the charge at Waterloo to his dinner guests. The cost of that pavilion, by the way, and his other profligate expenditures could have been of immense help to the starving unemployed poor. But, being so regal and in the celestial heights, there is little indication that he knew of their plight and still less that he would have cared had he known. He mocked his own father’s affliction in London clubs. By the time he became King he was addicted to alcohol and laudanum, having been addicted to flattery and praise all his life. 41
When someone threw a missile through the glass of Prinny’s coach, this was enough for Parliament to introduce the Gagging Acts. Not only did they forbid meetings of over 50 people, magistrates were now empowered to arrest anyone suspected of encouraging sedition – the exact meaning of sedition always being at the whim of the individual magistrate. 42
In reaction to all this, Byron lambasted the Government in his own inimitable and cutting style, saying in ‘Wellington: The Best of Cut-Throats’ (1819):
The dichotomy between the living standards of the rich and the poor in early C19th Britain was immense. Sometimes, as we have seen, it was literally a matter of life and death. The fat cats in those days had claws and the full panoply of the powers of the State. And they were neither unwilling, nor afraid to use them. The shades of the Conqueror’s avenging army still stalked the land.
As to the problems in the Manchester area, the radical newspaper ‘The Black Dwarf’ put this bluntly in an issue on September 30th, 1818: “These evils to the men have arisen from the dreadful monopoly which exists in those districts where wealth and power are got into the hands of the few, who, in the pride of heir hearts, think themselves the lords of the universe.” 44
Napoleon had different ideas. In terms of personal wealth, to quote Rhett Butler, he ‘didn’t give a damn’. Jean-Roch Coignet describes how Napoleon marched into Berlin after the battle of Jena wearing the drabbest uniform amongst all his glittering entourage and wearing a one sou cockade – a few pennies in today’s money. He saved most of his pay as Emperor and used it for the defence of France in1814. When Napoleon abdicated that year, the first thing Louis XVIII wanted to do when back in France was to get his hands on the ex-Emperor’s personal fortune.
Napoleon benefited the whole Continent, not just his adopted country. As Hywel Williams states: “Napoleon’s rationalist reforms of French administration, together with his legal code, shaped most western European states.” 45 Clive Emsley, Professor of History at the Open University goes even further: “Go to Continental Europe and people don’t have the same negative image of Napoleon. Many see his Empire as modernizing, as rational, enlightened, trying to be just. All right it was despotic but there were careers open to talent.” 46 Whereas Rumsfeld would have slotted in nicely between Liverpool and Castlereagh, in Napoleon’s France he would have got nowhere because under Napoleon, careers were open to talent.
Napoleon knew the value of education for all classes of people. He founded free schools throughout his Empire. 47 He wasn’t afraid of capable and remarkable men, he actively encouraged them to take up positions in his government and administration and in the Army.
And he was more tolerant of different religions. Whereas the Jews were persecuted elsewhere in Europe, Napoleon gave them equal rights. Catholics in Protestant Britain were actually barred by law from going beyond major in the British Army, neither could they be magistrates. In France people could worship God in their own way without fear it might harm their career. 48
The rigid class system in Britain held back reform and industrial improvement. Yes, it was the ‘ home’ of the Industrial Revolution, but that was mainly due to brilliant engineers and industrialists, not the men in Parliament. In fact, one such man, William Cockerill from Lancashire went so far as to leave the country and seek his fortune abroad. No one wanted his machines in England, so he settled in what is now Belgium in 1799, the year of Napoleon’s coup. There he set up a firm that by 1997 employed 28,000 people and had become an industrial giant. Similarly, it was Napoleon who in 1803 personally decided to have a port constructed at Antwerp – and it has gone from strength to strength ever since. The myth that Napoleon ‘destroyed Europe’ with constant warfare is just that – a myth. 49
Emsley puts it this way: “Love him or loathe him, there’s no dispute that Napoleon launched modern Europe. He completely redrew the map, he swept away ramshackle governments, modernized administrations, and he didn’t just do this in France, but in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and… in what is now Belgium.” 50
The poisonous class system in Britain, the very foundation of which was privilege and heredity, made this country a ‘septic isle’. George Ist, the first of the Hanoverian Kings, was born in Saxony and could not speak a word of English. His grandson George III often talked nonsense. George II wasn’t even born in this country. His son was the notorious ‘butcher’ Cumberland who conducted the ethnic cleansing in the Highlands after the rout of the Scots at Culloden in 1745. The later clearances like Strathnaver had this infamous pedigree. 51
The British Monarchy later became known as the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. It only became known as the House of Windsor in 1917 as, with German U-boats sinking British vessels, that name was not really patriotic! Princess Diana used to call her in-laws ‘The Germans’.
American readers will be aware of the part played by the mercenary Hessians during their War of Independence and how Washington crossed the Delaware to give them a treat at Trenton. Of the 61 million people living in Britain today, probably barely a handful know that German mercenaries were used in Ireland and that: “They were… notorious for their atrocities and brutality toward the population of Wexford in 1798”, 52 or that the military were used as ‘police’ by magistrates at this time. As has been seen recently in Iraq – when soldiers are used as a police force, problems invariably follow.
Lord Byron said in Parliament: “As the sword is the worst argument that can be used, so should it be the last.” 53 But no one seemed to be listening. On August 16th 1819, in Saint Peter’s Field in Manchester over 50,000 people gathered peacefully to listen to Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and others. Only ten minutes after he had begun his speech, the local magistrates decided that “the town was in great danger” and called for his arrest. When the crowd tried to prevent this, drawn sabres flashed in all directions as they were unleashed upon the crowd. Then mayhem followed - as the crowd fled they were slaughtered as if they had been French soldiers being pursued by the Prussian cavalry after the Battle of Waterloo. 54
Paul Fitzgerald has called this: “An extraordinary event. If you like, it was Manchester’s equivalent to Tiananmen Square.” 55 No politician ever apologized for this outrageous act, on the contrary Parliament passed the Six Acts and prohibited all such future gatherings. Well might Cicero say: “The evil implanted in man by nature spreads so imperceptibly, when the habit of wrong-doing is unchecked, he himself can set no limit to his shamelessness”. 56
British bombardment of Copenhagen 1807 – another great ‘victory’
©John Tarttelin 2009