The Napoleonic Wars–Who Started Them?

Whenever I read a Regency novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, I’m interested to see how the war and France are portrayed. Of course France was hated. They were, after all, the bad guys, trying to invade England, take over Europe, and end the world in with some sort of nuclear holocaust (well, maybe not quite that extreme, but you get the picture). And then after you look at France the country, there’s it’s leader: Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican Monster , tyrant, etc.

Yet as the British are sitting on their nice little island, thinking of names to call France’s new ruler, they quite happily forget that Napoleon was much less of a tyrant to the French people than King Louis XVI. Or King Louis XV. Or King Louis XIV. In fact, the average Frenchman and Frenchwoman had a much better life under Napoleon’s rule than under Louis XVI’s.

(Heaven forbid we actually let the French people choose their own ruler rather than foist another wasteful, birth-ordained monarch on them.)

French citizens aside, anyone familiar with the Napoleonic Wars will tell you Napoleon had a lust for power. Though he never claimed to be a king, he did aim to conquer much of Europe.  And so, it stands to reason that we’re all lucky England was around to protect the rest of the world from the big, bad Mr. Bonaparte. Correct?

Not exactly.

At the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, England was much more of a big, bad bully than France. In fact, England—with all its outrage against the Corsican Monster—was the one to start the Napoleonic Wars.

Look at this:

Yes, that’s right. England picked a war with France, not the other way around.

England and France had been enjoying a tenuous peace, as delineated in the Treaty of Amiens, which lasted from the spring of 1802 to 1803. Neither France nor England was doing any of the things it promised to do in that treaty. In fact, England was much more aggressive than France, gathering another coalition of nations to fight France. Napoleon, however, withdrew troops from certain territories he’d agreed to evacuate. In all fairness, both countries signed a treaty that neither intended to honor.

When this finally became clear to England, the country did what it was so very fond of doing two hundred years ago. It declared war. Then the British navy promptly captured two French ships within a matter of days. I can just imagine the conversation between the British and French soldiers as the French were once again losing two of their ships to the Brits.

Frenchman: “But you can’t capture our ship. We’re at peace. Remember that treaty our countries signed last spring?”

Brit: (Laughs cruelly) “We decided to call off the treaty and declare war two days ago. Hadn’t you heard?”

Frenchman: “No! We’ve been at sea for the past three months.”

Brit: “Oh well, we’re taking your ship anyway, and you’ll need to come with us. I’m sure you’ll have a nice time moldering in one of our prison hulks until you die in about three months time.”

Ah yes, England was quite the picture of benevolence two hundred years ago.

So in retaliation, Napoleon rounded up all the Brits visiting France on holiday and interned them in a citadel located in northwestern France.

England was outraged, of course. How dare Napoleon actually fight back!

And so there you have it, the story of how England started the Napoleonic Wars.