The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of wars declared against Napoleon’s French Empire by opposing coalitions. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly owing to the application of modern mass conscription. French power rose quickly as Napoleon’s armies conquered much of Europe but collapsed rapidly after France’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. Napoleon’s empire ultimately suffered complete military defeat resulting in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France and the creation of the Concert of Europe.
From the end of the Naploeonic Wars in 1815 until World War I in 1914, the United Kingdom played the role of hegemon, where the balance of power was the main aim. It is also in this time that the British Empire became the largest empire of all time. Imposition of a “British Peace” on key maritime trade routes began in 1815 with the annexation of British Ceylon. The global superiority of British military and commerce was guaranteed by a divided and relatively weak continental Europe, and the presence of the Royal Navy on all of the world’s oceans and seas. Following the Congress of Vienna the British Empire’s economic strength continued to develop through naval dominance and diplomatic efforts to maintain the balance of power within a Europe that lacked a pre-eminent nation state.
In this era of peace, it provided services such as suppression of piracy and slavery. Sea power, however, did not project on land. Land wars fought between the major powers include the Crimean War, the Franco- Austrian War, the Austro-Prussian War, and the Franco-Prussian War, as well as numerous conflicts between lesser powers. The Royal Navy prosecuted the Opium wars (1839 – 1842 and 1856 – 1860) against Imperial China, and had no influence on the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 05.) In 1905, the Royal Navy was superior to any other two navies in the world, combined. In 1906, it was considered that Britain’s only likely potential naval enemy was Germany.
The Pax Britannica was weakened by the breakdown of the continental order which had been established by the Congress of Vienna. Relations between the Great Powers of Europe were strained to breaking point by issues such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the Crimean War, and later the emergence of new nation states in the form of Italy and Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Both of these two wars involved Europe’s largest states and armies. The industrialisation of Germany, the Empire of Japan, and the United States of America further contributed to the decline of British industrial supremacy following the late 19th century.
Lady Caroline Lamb was one of the guests at the famous ball given by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Lady Caroline wrote to her mother-in-law Lady Melbourne. In the letter, Lady Caroline said, the “…fatal ball has been much censured; there never was such a Ball – so fine & so sad – all the young men who appeared there shot dead a few hours after.” Ironically, Lady Caroline added a bit of gossip to the letter (from In Whig Society page 172) by telling Lady Melbourne that Lady Frances Webster made the Duke of Wellington late for the battle.
The Allies lost 30,000 men on that fateful day. The majority of Wellington’s aide-de-camps, all members of the nobility were either killed or badly wounded.
Violence also found a home on English shores. People were subject to highwaymen, footpads, muggers, cut throats, etc. No centralized police force existed at the time. The Metropolitan Police Act did not pass until 1829. Even then, the rest of the country had no “established” form of constabulary practices in place for many more years.
The cost of funding the war, plus the open movement of the Industrial Revolution, added to the chaos on English shores. The poorer classes faced the economic crunch with vicious riots. The Luddite riots, a protest against the unemployment generated by new machinery, began in 1811. There were riotous situations over the next four years. Strikes occurred, which were followed by even more riots.
During those years of the Regency, the population of England doubled and nearly half of its citizens lived in cities. The high price of bread and other restrictions took its toll on the poorest of the population. The government responded by positioning troops to respond to the possibility of riots.
People displayed relics from the battlefields (skulls and bones) in their drawing rooms. Public executions were popular about many of the gentry and nobility. Bear-baiting and cock fights were “illegal” past times enjoyed by many of the ton. Men, who had once practiced their marksmanship and sword play, turned to pugilism. Prize fights were well attended. Sparring with “Gentleman Jackson” at 13 New Bond Street was an honour aristocratic males sought with enthusiasm. There was no counterpart on the Continent for England’s love of boxing.
Thank you Regina for a very interesting post!
I am pleased you enjoyed it, Carol. Thank you for stopping by.
Very interesting, Regina.
Thanks, Gerri. I always appreciate your support.
Thanks for your post – what a huge subject! It seems astonishing to us today how gentlemen seemed to delight in such cruel and bloodthirsty sports as bear-baiting and cock-fighting. When Sir William Pulteney MP tried unsuccessfully to introduce a bill to prohibit bull-baiting with dogs in 1800, George Canning (the future Prime Minister) declared that “the amusement inspired courage and produced a nobleness of sentiment and elevation of mind”. How times have changed!
Yours was a fact I did not know. Thank you for sharing that tidbit of information. I’ll add the info. to a file I have the early 1800s.
Oooo, Regina. This article so resonated with me as my novels and even my short stories deal with some of these issues and events. Thanks for the insightful piece.
I am glad the post proved helpful, Regan. The end of my Realm series will take place around 1827. I am doing more research on events after the Regency.
I have been watching Ripper Street on BBCAmerica, and I was a bit shocked to see the difference in the police departments and the overlapping jurisdictions. Ripper Street is set in 1890, after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.
I missed the first in the Ripper Street series (much to my chagrin) and guess I’ll now have to wait for the dvd…is it good?
I love the “science” of Ripper Street – how the police solved the crimes. There is an American physician who does the autopsies. To me, it’s like a “gritty” CSI. If a person loves the Victorian era, the program is an eye-opener. A second season has been ordered. As a Matthew Macfadyen fan, that fact makes me very happy.
thanks for the words on Ripper Street. I may get the dvd when series one is done. Sound a little like the new Sherlock.
Fascinating!!! You amaze me with your knowledge of the era, Regina!! Thank you for sharing, as always!!!
I appreciate your kind words, Katherine.