Story of England - S. B. Harding

England and the French Revolution


Causes of the French Revolution; execution of the King; reasons why England went to war with France; victories of Napoleon Bonaparte over England's allies; England protected by her seas.

England's victories at Cape St. Vincent; Napoleon invades Egypt; Nelson wins the Battle of the Nile; Napoleon made Emperor; French and Spanish fleets destroyed at Trafalgar; death of Nelson; death of William Pitt, the younger; what he did as Prime Minister.

Napoleon's "Continental System"; revolt of Spain against French rule; Wellington aids Spain in the "Peninsular War"; Napoleon's defeat in Russia; uprising of Europe against Napoleon; he is overthrown, but returns from Elba; Battle of Waterloo; final overthrow of Napoleon.

England's War of 1812 with the United States; increase of the British Empire; new problems for England.

The last and greatest of the wars of England against France grew out of the French Revolution, in which the people of that country put to death their King, set up a republic, and sought to extend their principles to other countries.

The common people, in France, were not so badly off as were the peoples of Germany and the countries of eastern Europe, but their lot was worse than in England. In the towns, the old "guilds," or companies of workers, controlled the different industries, and the introduction of machinery had scarcely begun. In the country, the peasants were burdened with many payments and services which were absent in England. The nobles and clergy paid almost no taxes, while the "third estate" (as the common people were called) paid very heavy ones.

"I should be lost," said one peasant who had managed to get together a little property, "if it were suspected that I am not dying of hunger."

But, while the government took so much from the people, it gave them very little in return. The money was wasted on the foolish pleasures of the King and his court, in useless wars, and in reckless gifts and pensions to the great nobles. The King imprisoned people at his pleasure, and there was nothing like the English system of trial by jury to safeguard personal liberty. His power was absolute, and there was no assembly like the English Parliament to vote taxes and check his will.

Not content with the proceeds of heavy taxes, the French government recklessly borrowed great sums of money, without stopping to think how they should be repaid. In the end, the government became practically bankrupt. No more money could be raised by ordinary means, and it was necessary to take some extraordinary step.

This was done in 1789, when the Estates General was called together. This was a legislative assembly which had been used in the Middle Ages, but had been discontinued for nearly three hundred years. The representatives of the "third estate" took control, and bound themselves by an oath not to separate until they had given France a constitution. King Louis XVI. and his Queen, Marie Antoinette could not make up their minds frankly to accept these changes, so the Revolution grew more radical. Finally, when their friends stirred up Austria and Prussia to make war on France, in order to restore the French King and Queen to their former power, a republic was established. Soon after, Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette were put to death by the "guillotine" (an instrument for beheading). A Reign of Terror was then established, which drove into exile, or put to death, all nobles and clergy who would not support the new republic.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding


The watchwords of the Revolution were "Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality"; and in the interests of "fraternity," or brotherhood, the French offered helping hands to all peoples everywhere, who sought to change their governments.

"All governments are our enemies," cried one of their speakers, "all peoples are our friends! We shall be destroyed, or they shall be free!"

The French tried, therefore, to stir up revolution in England. Moreover, they annexed Belgium and other neighboring states to France, and threatened to conquer Holland, which was England's old ally. As a result of these acts, and of the horror felt in England at the execution of the French King, war soon broke out between England and France, which lasted (with two brief intermissions) from 1793 to 1815.

This war was on a greater scale than any in which England had ever before been engaged. All of the countries of Europe were forced, at one time or another, to take sides in it. Until late in the war, Great Britain sent no soldiers to fight, on the Continent, against the armies of France. Her part was to supply the money which enabled her allies to maintain their armies, and to guard the seas with her fleets.

Three years after the beginning of the war, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to be the chief general of the French armies. He was then only twenty-seven years old, and was so short and thin that his soldiers nicknamed him "the little Corporal." But his mind was remarkably quick and intelligent, and he acted with energy and determination. When he took command of the French Army in Italy, he addressed it in these words:

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Napoleon Bonaparte

"Soldiers, you are ill-fed and almost naked. The government owes you much, but can do nothing for you. Your patience and courage do you honor, but procure you neither glory nor profit. I am about to lead you into the most fertile plains of the world. There you will find great cities and rich provinces; there you will win honor, glory, and riches. Soldiers of the army of Italy, will you lack courage?"

Fired by the spirit of their commander, and guided by his genius, Bonaparte's soldiers soon conquered all northern Italy, and forced Austria to make peace. France was left free to carry on her war with England, for her other continental enemies made peace before the Italian campaign began.

The great problem, in attacking Great Britain, was how to reach her. Ireland seemed to be the most promising place for an attack, for there the people were of a different race and religion from England, and would welcome and invading force. Already a French expedition had been sent to that country, but it had been scattered by storms, and failed. Better luck might attend a second attempt; but, first, the English fleet must be reckoned with.

France now controlled the fleets of Holland and Spain, in addition to her own; and if these three could be united they might be more than a match for that of England. The danger to Great Britain was very great, but her seamen were equal to the occasion. Before the Spanish and Dutch fleets could be united with that of France, they were met separately, and practically destroyed. The defeat of the Spanish fleet took place near Cape St. Vincent, the southwestern point of Portugal. It was largely due to the efforts of a man who was to become England's greatest naval commander—Horatio Nelson.

These victories of Great Britain renewed her command of the sea, and for some time rendered hopeless any plans for invading her.

Bonaparte, however, secured the consent of the French government to another plan, which would injure England, while it would also enrich France and further Bonaparte's own ambitions. This was the conquest of Egypt, which was in name a province of Turkey. Egypt, in French control, it was hoped, might be made a base for attacking England's power in India. In 1798, Bonaparte set out with a great expedition, and reached Egypt, without meeting Nelson's fleet, which was in the Mediterranean. A single battle, fought near the Great Pyramids, put Egypt almost completely in Napoleon's control.

A few days later, Admiral Nelson found the French fleet at anchor, near the mouth of the river Nile. It was superior in numbers and in guns to the English fleet, but that did not hinder Nelson. He skilfully sent one division of his fleet between the French ships and the shore, saying—

"Where there is room for a French ship to ride at anchor, there is room for an English ship to sail."

By this means, he was able to attack the leading ships of the French line from both sides, and overpower them. The battle lasted until far in the night, the scene being lighted not only by the flashing of the guns, but by the French flag-ship, which took fire and finally exploded. Nelson himself was severely wounded in the head, but when a surgeon ran up to attend to him, out of his turn, he said:

"No, I will take my turn with my brave fellows."

This battle of the Nile was a complete British victory. Bonaparte's army was cut off from return to Europe, and it was not until more than a year later that he himself landed, almost alone, upon the shores of France.

Soon after this, Bonaparte overthrew the government which ruled France, and set up a new one, of which he was the head, with the title First Consul. A little later, he had his term of office as First Consul extended for life; and finally, in 1804, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the French under the name Napoleon I. All of these changes were submitted to the vote of the people, and were approved by large majorities. It seemed that Napoleon was right when he said of the French:

"What they want is glory, and the satisfaction of their vanity. As for liberty, of that they have no idea. The nation must have a head—a head which is rendered illustrious by glory."

Napoleon gave glory to France in fullest measure. In the next few years, he overran the greater part of Europe, and fought battle after battle, nearly always winning brilliant victories. He more than doubled the territory over which France ruled, and both the government of France, and the geography and governments of all Europe, bear the impress of his influence to this day. But, with all his power, and all his genius, he could not conquer the "nation of shopkeepers," as he called the English. In 1802, a peace was made between England and France. It was in this treaty that the English King finally gave up the title "King of France," which had been used by the English sovereigns since Edward III.

Within a little more than a year, the two countries were again at war. Napoleon established a camp at Boulogne, on the English Channel, and gathered together a great fleet of boats, to invade England. But soon he was obliged to break up his camp, and march his armies against other enemies. A few weeks later, all hope of invading England was taken away by the destruction of the last French fleet, at Cape Trafalgar.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

British Soldier

The battle of Trafalgar was Nelson's last and greatest victory. The French fleet had slipped to sea, and joined what remained of the Spanish fleet; then the combined fleet had sailed for the West Indies. Nelson followed after it, and when he could not find it in American waters, he rightly guessed that the move was a blind to draw him away from Europe. Hastily he retraced his course, and found the missing fleet in the harbor of Cadiz. By keeping some of his ships out of sight, he tempted the French admiral to come out and give battle. Nelson had twenty-seven ships, and the French thirty three, but Nelson sunk or captured all but thirteen of the enemy's vessels. Nelson himself was killed, by a bullet fired from a French ship, alongside which his flag-ship, the Victory, was lying. The last signal which he gave to his fleet shows the spirit of his life. It was this: "England expects every man to do his duty."

These victories, won by Nelson, led a British poet of that time to sing:

"Britannia needs no bulwarks,

No towers along the steep;

Her march is o'er the mountain waves,

Her home is on the deep.

With thunders from her native oak

She quells the floods below,

As they roar on the shore,

When the stormy winds do blow!

When the battle rages loud and long,

And the stormy winds do blow."

The Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the greater part of this period, was William Pitt, a younger son of the great Earl of Chatham who had saved England during the Seven Years' War. Pitt, the younger, became Prime Minister before the war began, when he was only twenty-four years of age. For a time, his position was very difficult, for he was opposed in the House of commons, not only by the Whigs under Fox, but by the Tories under Lord North. But his good sense and ability brought the people over to his side. After a new election was held, in 1784, a majority of the House of Commons supported his policies. He was not so great an orator as his father, but he was a sound and energetic statesman, and his services were of the highest value.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

William Pitt, the Younger

"England has saved herself by her exertions," he said at one time in this war, "and she will save Europe by her example."

Under Pitt's guidance, Great Britain contributed much more than her example. Her money, in large part, paid the armies of Napoleon's enemies, and her fleets interfered to spoil French plans of conquest. He died in 1806, but his death brought no slackening of efforts in the great war.

When Napoleon found that he could not invade England, he tried to conquer her by striking a blow at her commerce. By his "Continental System" he closed all the sea-ports of Europe against English goods, and he punished with war the countries which would not adopt to his system. Up to this time, the peoples  of Europe had sympathized with France, although their governments fought against her. Now, Napoleon's tyranny turned the people against him, and from this time on his efforts began to fail.

The Spanish peninsula was the region where national resistance to Napoleon first broke out on a large scale. The kingdom of Spain had been seized by Napoleon, and his brother Joseph set up as King; and the royal family of Portugal escaped capture, at Napoleon's hands, only through the aid of a British warship, which took them to their South American colony of Brazil. When the Spanish people rose in revolt against French rule, the British government aided them, by sending, for the first time, a British army to fight against Napoleon. England's sea power enabled her to land troops freely in Portugal, and this became their base of operations in the six years' "Peninsular War" which followed (1808-1814).

In this war, the Duke of Wellington, who was the British commander, proved more than a match for Napoleon's generals. It would take too long to tell of the wavering fortune which he encountered, and the battles which he fought. In the end, he was successful, for Napoleon was too busily engaged elsewhere to give this war his personal attention. By 1811, he succeeded in driving the French from Portugal; and he then advanced into Spain. In 1812, the south of Spain was recovered from the French. In 1813-14, the north was freed, and the defeated French were driven headlong across the Pyrenees Mountains. Then Wellington prepared to follow them into France itself.

This was made possible by Napoleon's folly in going to war with Russia, in 1812, and marching upon her capital, Moscow. His army numbered half a million men, drawn from "twenty nations." The Russians wisely refused to fight pitched battles, and retreated as he advanced. Moscow was captured, but next day a fire broke out—probably started by the Russians—which burned nine-tenths of the city, and made it impossible for the French to hold it.

Then began Napoleon's retreat. The Russians followed after, cutting off stragglers. Zero weather came on, and scores of thousands perished—from cold, hunger, wounds, and sickness. Of the mighty host which had set out, only a handful crossed the Russian frontier on the return.

This great disaster to Napoleon encouraged the oppressed states of Germany to revolt against his rule. Throughout the year 1813, the terrific contest was fought. In spite of all his desperate efforts, Napoleon was slowly but surely forced back to the river Rhine, and across it into France itself. Then, in 1814, while Wellington invaded France from the south, the Russians, Austrians, Prussians, and Swedes invaded it from the east and north.

Against such odds, Napoleon could not hope to succeed. After desperate battles, and most brilliant generalship, he was obliged to make peace. He had rejected earlier and more liberal offers, so the allies obliged him to give up his crown and go into exile. He kept the title of "Emperor," and was given the little island of Elba (between Corsica and Italy) to rule over, and was to receive an annual pension. On the whole, they did not treat him badly.

But it was not in Napoleon's nature to be content with a tiny kingdom. Louis XVIII., who had been placed on the French throne, had learned nothing from the misfortunes of his family, and the French people began to long for the return of Napoleon. The allies, too, were quarreling over the division of the territories taken from Napoleon, and he hoped that their union would be broken. So, in March, 1815, Napoleon slipped through the guard ships placed about his island, and soon all Europe was startled to hear that he was again in France.

"I shall reach Paris," Napoleon predicted, "without firing a shot."

The French soldiers who were sent to capture him went over to his side. Louis XVIII. fled from the kingdom, and Napoleon again seized the throne.

This news reunited the allies, and they once more set their armies in motion. Napoleon's policy was always to strike first. He now marched hastily into Belgium, to attack the British, under Wellington, and the Prussians, under Blucher. There he fought the great battle of Waterloo, on June 18, 1815.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Duke of Wellington

Two days before this battle, Blucher had been defeated and separated from Wellington. Without Blucher's troops, it would be impossible for Wellington to hold his position, at Waterloo. How anxiously, then, through that long day, did Wellington scan the horizon for the promised aid of the Prussians! But the roads were soft from recent rains, and the Prussians found it slow work dragging the heavy cannon through the mud. Meanwhile, the battle raged fiercely—here, there, all over the field! In this battle, Wellington earned the name of "the Iron Duke," for he—

"Taught us there

What long enduring hearts could do,

In that world-earthquake, Waterloo!"

At last, six miles away, a dark moving mass appeared. The field glasses showed that they were men—troops! But were they the promised aid from Blucher, or the reinforcements expected by the French?

"They are French; they must be French!" cried Napoleon.

But no! It was the advance guard of the Prussians!

The French fought desperately, but they had now to face two foes. Soon they gave way. Then the defeat became a rout. The new recruits flung aside their guns, and the shameful cry arose, "Let each save himself!"

In vain Napoleon's Old Guard stood firm. "The Guard dies," it was said, "but it does not surrender!"

This defeat of Napoleon caused his final downfall. For the second time, Paris passed into the hands of the allies. Napoleon tried to find a ship in which he could escape to America, but could not. At last, to avoid falling into the hands of the Prussians, he went on board a British man-of-war, and surrendered to its commander.

He was taken to England. Then, by the unanimous resolve of the allies, he was carried to the island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he was kept a captive, until his death, in 1821. He had staked everything on making himself master of the whole of Europe, and had failed. He was one of the greatest generals in history, and in his few intervals of peace showed that he could be a great statesman and reformer. But his policy was coldly selfish, and the sufferings of France in his wars failed to move him. His overthrow was a real benefit to all the nations of Europe, and indeed of the world.

In the midst of her war against Napoleon, Great Britain fought her second war against the United States (1812-1815). The struggle between the giants of Europe had led both countries to interfere unjustly with the commerce of neutral nations, and American trade was practically destroyed. In addition, Great Britain forced many American seamen to serve on board her warships, claiming (truly or falsely) that they were British subjects. The United States chose to go to war with Great Britain alone, and American vessels won some notable victories over separate English vessels. The Americans failed, however, to conquer Canada, as was planned; and a British expedition captured the city of Washington and burned many of the government buildings. The battle of New Orleans, which General Andrew Jackson and his sharpshooters won against the British, came after peace had been agreed to, and so was without result. The treaty which ended the war left things just about as they were when it began. Nevertheless, the war accomplished two things for America: it caused Great Britain to respect her late colonies; and it united the States more firmly, and taught them that they were a nation.

In overthrowing the Emperor Napoleon, Great Britain had played the chief part. As was only natural, she profited by the war, through her conquest of the colonial possessions of France and of the countries allied with France—Spain and Holland. Thus she secured the Cape of Good Hope, Malta, Ceylon, Trinidad, and other important parts of the present British Empire.

But these gains were dearly bought. Her public debt increased to four times what it was at the beginning of the war, and has ever since remained a heavy burden. The prices of goods rose enormously, until wheat sold for about four dollars a bushel; but wages rose very little. The war left Great Britain, therefore, with many serious problems to solve. Moreover, fear of the French Revolution had stopped the movements toward democracy and reform, which existed before the war, and had left the rigid Tories in complete control of the government.

The wiping out of these effects of the struggle against the French Revolution was the work of the next twenty years of British history.


  1. Read an account of Napoleon Bonaparte's boyhood and rise to power.
  2. Read an account of the Battle of Trafalgar (Southey's "Life of Nelson," Ch. ix).
  3. Write and account of the Battle of Waterloo.
  4. Read aloud Byron's verses on the festivities at Brussels the night before Waterloo ("Childe Harold," canto III., stanzas xxi-xxv).
  5. Show how men like Drake and the Earl of Chatham had prepared England for her victory over the French Revolution. Show that Hargreaves and Watt had contributed to this same end.