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.

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.

18 thoughts on “The Napoleonic Wars–Who Started Them?

  1. Napoleon might not have declared himself king, but he did declare himself emperor. He even crowned himself . He set out to conquer the European continent and England. During the Peace of Amiens he built up his army. There was a force sitting at a coastal town ready to invade England as soon as the time was right. The trumpets of the camp could be heard in England when the wind was right.
    People were evacuated from the coast and plans were made to move the royal family to a position further inland than Windsor.
    Both sides cheated on the peace and both committed acts that led to the end of the Peace, though it was true Napoleon wanted the treaty in place long enough for him to get asll his forcesd in place for the invasion of England. The French had tried to get to England through Ireland in 1798 but that attempt fell through.
    The threat of invasion was only diminished by the victory of the British navy over that of the French fleet at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
    Quite a few of the poets and young politicians and nobles were sympathetic to the French revolution until the reign of terror and lost all sympathy for Napoleon when he crowned himself emperor . Byron was incensed at the British foreign office who allowed the return of the Bourbons after the abdication of Napoleon in 1814/1815. he, and others, thought that such a restoration made a mockery of all the lives lost to defeat Napoleon. Napoleon succeeded in conquering most of Europe and was defeated by the Russians, a Russian winter, and disease before his first abdication. The deaths of 1815 are to be laid wholly at the feet of Napoleon who couldn’t resist one more attempt at power .
    So, though who first broke the treaty of Amiens in 1803 is disputed, Napoleon’s lust for power would have ensured the continuation of the war nyway.

    • Yes, Napoleon crowned himself emperor. One of the differences you’ll find between that and the crowning of, say Louis XVI, is that Napoleon earned the position rather than having it handed to him. And I don’t think anyone’s arguing that Napoleon tried to conquer Europe. It is rather comical Britain had objections to this, given their penchant for conquering and colonizing places across the globe.

      Throughout the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic War, Britain was hardly supportive of the average French citizen. Their main objective was to try to reinstate the French king, a position designated through birth rather than merit. The French people had suffered terribly at the hands of their Bourbon monarchs. I’m very interested to know what Europe would have looked like had Britain and their allies not declared war on France in 1793. If the French people were allowed to figure out their government by themselves, maybe Napoleon would never have had the chance to make such a name for himself through his military conquests.

      It’s all very interwoven and complicated. But I obviously don’t subscribe to the theory that France caused all the trouble in Regency Europe. And don’t forget France and England had been at war off and on for hundreds of years.

      • Naomi,
        Napoleon did not “earn” his position of being crowned emperor. He declared himself emperor, plain and simple. He may not have been born into it, but make no mistake, he was a despot!

        There is nothing comical–or even ironic–about Britain objecting to Napoleon’s attempts to conquer Europe–Yes, the British had many colonies, but they never planned on overthrowing all Europe. (Personally, I’m grateful they included the “New World” in their colonization efforts!)

        You say “Britain was hardly supportive of the average French citizen.” FRENCH citizen. Is Britain supposed to champion the citizens of other nations? Also, “If the French people were allowed to figure out their government by themselves”–Well, that’s basically what the Revolution was, an attempt by the French people to figure out their own government–and the French people failed, dismally.

        No one suggested that “France caused all the trouble in Regency, England,” by the way. You’ve taken on a really broad subject and treated it simply.

  2. And in addition, when I wrote A Necessary Deception, I had to stop and ask my Regency friends why Napoleon was so bad.

    It comes down to this: he was a benevolent dictator, and the English were striving for more and more freedom, freedoms the French people did not have under Napoleon. The guillotine was still very much in evidence during Napoleon’s reign and those who spoke against the Empire found themselves with their necks under the balde as fast as any aristocrat during the Reign of Terror.

  3. Wow, what an interesting post! Thank you for sharing this super-cool knowledge with us!

  4. I’m of the opinion that your average French citizen had a much better standard of living under Napoleon than under the Bourbon monarchs, and the fairness of France’s judicial system made England’s look like a joke. Napoleon was very much a dictator. I don’t think anyone’s arguing that. And it could well be that he had people executed. The guillotine was France’s standard method of execution until only 31 years ago, 1981. So people executed during the Napoleonic Wars would have been guillotined.

    I’m also of the opinion that both countries put a lot of effort into fortifications along the English Channel. Napoleon wasn’t an idiot. He knew the English navy was much stronger than the French navy, and he well understood the advantage controlling the English Channel would give him. Everything (and I literally mean everything) I’ve read about the Napoleonic Wars and the English Channel site control of the waterway as Napoleon’s reason for plans to invade England. I haven’t found a single source that claimed his true aim was to overthrow the British crown and force all British citizens into subjection.

    And despite how much we want to argue other points of the Napoleonic Wars or Napoleon’s rule of France, England declared war first and then captured two French ships. Though France often get’s blamed for it, England made the first move on the chess board. That’s rather indisputable history.

    • It is not who started a war in 1803 but who started the war the treaty of 1802 was supposed to end. The war was renewed in 1803 . It didn’t originate then.
      There were many Englishmen who agreed with your assessment of the conditions in the two countries. However most of the Francophiles came to regret his actions. He rid them of the Bourbons only to replace them with his own newly minted royalty.
      Napoleon did make things better for some of the French people, but he didn’t share that benevolence among the rest of Europe. If he had been willing to be satisfied with ruling France, he would probably have been allowed to do so unimpeded.

      • The French Revolutionary Wars started in April of 1792 when France declared war on Austria (or the Holy Roman Empire) and Prussia. The monarch of the Holy Roman Empire was Marie Antoinette’s brother, and King Leopold wasn’t too fond of the French putting their king in prison. The beginning of the Revolutionary Wars centered mainly on continental Europe.

        Britain didn’t get involved until almost a year later, after France executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The biggest reason for the war was monarchical Europe’s frustration with France over deposing and then executing their king.

        I had considered doing a blog post on this, but didn’t think it would get much interest. You’re making me reconsider, Nancy. :-) Thanks for the good discussion today!

  5. Naomi wrote, “The biggest reason for the war was monarchical Europe’s frustration with France over deposing and then executing their king.” Yet, this ignores the fact that Napoleon was ambitious and did attack other nations. As Nancy said, if he had been satisfied with ruling just France, it is highly likely that he would have been left to do so. We’ll never know, because he wasn’t satisfied with just France. The very term “Emperor” denotes a monarch who rules more than one domain–and this is the title he chose for himself.

  6. Not invade England without intention to conquer? Really? Sorry, Naomi, I don’t buy that. When he had conquered every other country, or aimed to do so, with an eye to ruling them, or indeed ruling them through his appointees, why would England have been different?

    And my point about the guillotine stood. Anyone who spoke against the Republic got beheaded, not just the normal kinds of executions like murder and whatever else. I think England had seven things at this time, but not sure about France. No First Amendment rights for the French. Even the English ahd more free speech rights than did the French. And other freedoms. Frenchmen could barely move about, without falling under suspicion. The country was run by Napoleon with the help of the military.

    Saying the French were better under Napoleon than the Bourbons is like saying the Russians were better off under Joseph Stalin than under the Romanovs–sure, if you like living in fear.

  7. All right, I did a little more research, because the information I’d found and some of the information others were giving didn’t seem to match. And here’s where I think the difference in opinion lies. Most of these arguments opposing Napoleon were true in 1813, ten years into the Napoleonic War. But they weren’t necessarily true in 1803. In 1803 when Britain declared war, Napoleon was not emperor but first consul. There was also a second and third consul, so he was one of three heads of state. ( He hadn’t tried conquering Europe yet, though his campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars were certainly bloody. He slowly amassed power until the Senate allowed him to be emperor, but even the electorate voted on the referendum. And he didn’t even become emperor until a year after the war had started.

    So I still don’t see “Napoleon was a monster” as a good reason for war in 1803. In 1813 perhaps it would have made a good reason, but in 1803?

    • Whether Napoleon was leading the French forces in 1802/1803 or not doesn’t matter. The truth was that the French used the Peace of Amiens to build up the army of for invading England. They did not disband this army. That was known because of the size of the camp . It is also true that there were Englishmen who refused to believe that France had ever planned to attack England .
      Napoleon was a genius in many ways. he had a great talent for organization and he was one who. seemingly by sheer force of will, brought the country out of chaos. He put through the Code Napoleon .
      No matter who started it — it would have resumed shortly anyway as long as England felt itself under attack– .
      Also, a point that must be noted. History is written by the victors.

  8. Several sites on line say that the peace was broken on May 16 and the UK declared war again on the 18th when France refused to leave a part of the Netherlands. During the Peace, Switzerland had come under the control of the French.
    Also, because the French needed money, they sold the USA what we call the Louisiana Purchase.
    In January 1804, a young woman wrote to her mother about the Invasion fears and the stubbornness of some English to believe that Napoleon had ever planned to invade England. She mentions Napoleon specifically and not just the French.

    I think you can take it for granted that there is strong opposition to your contention that if the English had not broken the peace of Amiens and restarted the war, that it probably would not have broken out again. I also think we shall never convince the other of our own opinions.

    • Hi Nancy, it was never my intention to say that Europe would have avoided war were it not for the British declaring war first. I completely believe that Europe would have gone to war thanks to Napoleon. But my point is that he didn’t do it all by himself. Britain is often portrayed as an innocent country in all of this, and that was hardly the case. Both countries signed a treaty. Neither honored it from the get-go. And looking back at the original post, I think that message is clearly conveyed. Though I’m sorry if I misled you somewhere in our discussion.

      It’s been great interacting with you about this and fascinating to hear the different opinions. Thanks!

      • Naomi,
        Before you brush off Nancy’s comments, you should know that Nancy is an expert on the Regency. If she takes issue with something you say (or I say) then it means you (or I) should take a long hard look at what was said.
        You wrote:
        “Both countries signed a treaty. Neither honored it from the get-go. And looking back at the original post, I think that message is clearly conveyed.”
        I have to disagree. Your message was that France was compelled to resume a war that might have ceased were it not for the British.
        It’s an honor to have Nancy here, and I appreciate her comments. I’m sorry if this comes across as contentious, but I felt a little honor was lacking–if nothing else, respect your elders!

  9. Much evidence that Napoleon intended to conquer Europe. He called himself an emperor, for goodness sake. And by 1802, he had already plowed through the Alps and had taken over Venice.

    Sorry, I will never buy that no one believed, or no evidence showed, that Napoleon didn’t intend to conquer Europe, including from the French perspective. My minor was in French in college, which meant much reading in French and study of the history. I also spent some time in the country learning from the French themselves. This is their story too, and they admire him. I admire him. He was a genius.

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