Monday, 31 October 2016

Heroes and villains: the Georgians at war

War and Empire

Benjamin West, 'The Death of General Wolfe'
National Gallery of Canada
Public Domain

The great heroes of 18th century Britain were not monarchs but successful generals and admirals (particularly the latter). The great villains were admirals who had failed. 

For sixty-three of the 144 years between 1688 and 1832 (44 per cent), Britain was at war with France (and sometimes Spain), though intense francophobia coincided with admiration for French culture and the French language. (See here for an example of francophobia in action - a riot in the Haymarket Theatre in 1749 when a French company dared to put on a play there.) The wars were over trade and territory and were fought in Europe, the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, and North America. But they were not purely about trade and the economy. They were seen as part of a 'patriotic', Protestant project to establish Britain as the world's greatest nation. In that respect they succeeded. By the time they were ended in 1815, though Britain had lost the American colonies, it had emerged as a world superpower, the ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

The wars were:
The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-48)
The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48)
The Seven Years’ War (1757-63)
The War of American Independence (1775-1783)
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)

Admiral Vernon

In October 1739 a reluctant Walpole was pushed into a war with Spain which he did not want: the War of Jenkins’ Ear. He told the Duke of Newcastle: 'It is your war and I wish you well of it.'

The war achieved an early success when Admiral Edward Vernon
captured Porto Bello in Spanish-held Panama in November. The news reached England in  March 1740. Vernon was a stern critic of Walpole and he had earlier been opposition MP for Penryn. His victories were the only ones in the war. 

Samuel Scott, 'The Capture of Porto Bello'
Public Domain

On hearing the news, celebrations of his birthday occurred all over the country, most financed by the subscriptions of local merchants and tradesmen. In London a pageant was held in his honour. Prints, poems and ballads appeared at booksellers and print shops. Medals were struck and commemorative pottery manufactured. Thomas Arne composed ‘Rule Britannia’ in celebration. The country road west of London, formerly known as Green's Lane, was renamed Portobello Road.

Vernon’s supporters were a disparate group: opposition politicians, merchants and retailers, Tory country gentlemen, urban radicals. They formed a popular culture in an age of oligarchy. They saw themselves as 'patriots', dedicated to a project that would diffuse wealth among the entire population and protect British trade from foreigners.  (Kathleen Wilson, 'Empire, Trade and Popular Politics in mid-Hanoverian Britain: the case of Admiral Vernon', Past and Present, 121, November 1998, pp. 74-109.)

The War of the Austrian Succession

In the general election in the spring of 1741 the opposition capitalised on Vernon’s hero status. He was put up in seven constituencies and returned in three. Walpole was in political trouble and in February 1742 he fell from power.  In the same year Britain sent troops to the Continent in support of Maria Theresa's claim to the Holy Roman Empire, and George II fought at the battle of Dettingen in June 1743.

George II at Dettingen (public domain)
He was the last British monarch
to fight in battle

Admiral Byng

In 1756 Britain entered the Seven Years’ War against France and Austria. This was one of the most important wars in British history. It made Britain the leading power in Europe and established her dominance in India and North America. 

In March, before the war was officially declared, Admiral John Byng led an expedition to reconnoitre the Mediterranean and to protect Gibraltar and Minorca from French incursions. His fleet was small, for the Admiralty had decided to concentrate its ships of the line in home waters to counter an anticipated French invasion. The British and French fleets encountered each other off Minorca. After a confusing and inconclusive battle, Byng retreated to Gibraltar to repair his vessels. This cost Britain Minorca, an island that, because of its position on the trade route to Italy and the Levant, was strategically important for the protection of her commercial interests in the Mediterranean. 

'The English Lion Dismembered'
Public Domain

This was regarded as a massive national humiliation, and the search for scapegoats was relentless. Byng became a byword for cowardice. Crowds burned his effigy before his country house in Hertfordshire; at Gravesend he was hanged in effigy; at Covent Garden his ‘execution’ was preceded by a skimmington ride in which the effigy was placed in a cart with his back to the horses, and was accompanied by chimney sweeps riding donkeys with their faces to the tails.  

Part of the propaganda against Byng stressed his aristocratic connections (he was the son of Sir George Byng, later Viscount Torrington). Demonstrators at Richmond in Yorkshire decked out their effigy of Byng in a ‘genteel Navy Dress, a la Mode de France’. The aristocratic state was identified with ‘French interests’ and corruption at home and timidity, effeminacy and ignominy abroad.

Though Byng had been guilty of over-caution and incompetent seamanship rather than cowardice, he was court-martialled. On 14 March 1757 after the king brushed aside pleas for clemency, he was shot on his own quarter deck. Two years later Voltaire was to write in his satirical novel, Candide (1759): 

'In England they shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others'. 

The Seven Years' War: General James Wolfe

Four heroes emerged from this war: William Pitt the Elder, who became Secretary of State (Foreign Secretary) in 1757, Robert Clive, who defeated an Indian force at the battle of Plassey in 1756, James Wolfe, who died in the capture of Quebec in September 1758, and Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, who defeated the French navy at Quiberon Bay in November.

Wolfe's hero's death made him a particular legend. It can be seen in the famous painting 'The Death of General Wolfe' by Benjamin West, the Anglo-American folk ballad ‘Brave Wolfe’ (sometimes known as ‘Bold Wolfe’), and the opening line of the patriotic English-Canadian anthem, ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’.
There is a memorial to Wolfe in Westminster Abbey by Joseph Wilton and a statue of him overlooks the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. 

Statue of General Wolfe, Westerham, Kent

 Wolfe is buried under the Church of St Alfrege, Greenwich, where there are four memorials to him: a replica of his coffin plate in the floor; The Death of Wolfe, a painting completed in 1762 by Edward Peary; a wall tablet; and a stained glass window.

In 1761, as a perpetual memorial to Wolfe, George Warde, a friend of Wolfe's from boyhood and the second son of John Warde Esq of Squerryes Court, Westerham, instituted the Wolfe Society, which to this day meets annually in Westerham for the Wolfe Dinner to his 'Pious and Immortal Memory'.

1759, the year of Quebec and Quiberon, was called the annus mirabilis, and David Garrick composed 'Heart of Oak' in celebration. You can listen here.

Admiral Rodney: a flawed hero

Admiral Sir George Rodney (1718-92) was an unlikely hero, who repeatedly misappropriated public money and abused his powers of patronage, but Britain’s unsuccessful war with America and her allies, France and Spain, eventually restored his reputation. 

On 19 October 1781 General Cornwallis surrendered Yorktown to the Americans and French. This effectively meant that the war was over. American independence was now accepted, but the war with France and Spain continued.  

In the spring of 1782 Rodney was in the West Indies, watching the French fleet from St Lucia. On 8 April the French Admiral, de Grasse, sailed from Martinique, with thirty-six ships, heading for a rendezvous with the  Spaniards. Rodney followed with thirty-seven ships. After four days, on 12 April, the two fleets engaged in the battle of the Saintes.

Admiral George Rodney
National Maritime Museum
Public Domain

In the thick smoke of the battle the British ships broke the French line in three places, allowing Grasse’s flagship to be cut off and surrounded. A new naval tactic, to be used later by Nelson, had been discovered. However, it allowed the bulk of the French fleet to escape and the victory was less decisive than it might have been.

1785 engraving of de Grasse
surrendering to Rodney

Nevertheless, coming after the ignominy of Yorktown, the battle was a psychological boost and it was greeted in Britain with extraordinary national rejoicings. Rodney was rewarded with a barony and a pension of £2,000 per annum, though the orders for his dismissal had been sent before the battle. He was now a national hero, though he probably did not deserve the adulation. (N. A. M. Rodger The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815Penguin, 2004.) He is today commemorated in many pub names!

Nelson: British icon

‘His greatness lay in rising to every challenge, in working above and beyond the professional expertise of a naval officer to become a strategist and statesman in pursuit of his nation’s interests. He had the courage to act when others waited for orders, and the genius to be right on almost all occasions.’ Andrew Lambert, ‘Nelson, Trafalgar and the Meaning of Victory’, History Today, Volume 54, Issue 11 November 2004.
Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott (1797)
National Maritime Museum
Public Domain

Nelson became a national celebrity when he returned, armless, from the unsuccessful attack on the Canaries in July 1797. The attack had been a fiasco but his sufferings made him a hero. He went on to win two great victories before Trafalgar. At the battle of the Nile in August 1798 he destroyed the French fleet and marooned Bonaparte’s army in Egypt. At Copenhagen in April 1801 he removed Denmark from the anti-British alliance, the Armed Neutrality. 

But he faced his greatest challenge in 1805 when the combined French and Spanish fleet, led by admirals Villeneuve and Gravina, sailed across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. This was a ploy to lure the British fleet away from the Channel. Once the Royal Navy was in the West Indies, the Combined Fleet was to sail back to Europe ready for the invasion of England. 

In May Nelson reached Martinique, where he learned that the Combined Fleet had sailed back to Europe. He sailed in pursuit and sent despatches by fast frigate warning of the enemy approach. The result was that the element of surprise was lost. On 22 July Admiral Calder intercepted the enemy fleet off Cape Finisterre. The battle was indecisive but it achieved the purpose of preventing the invasion of England.

In September Napoleon issued ordered the Combined Fleet into the Mediterranean to cover troop movements in southern Italy. On 20 October, Villeneuve and Gravina sailed their 33 ships out of Cadiz for the Straits. Waiting out of sight over the horizon was the British fleet of 27 ships of the line. The two fleets sighted each other at about 6am on 21 October but the wind was light and the first shots were not fired until nearly midday. At 11.50 Nelson issued his famous message: 'England expects every man to do his duty'.

J. M. W. Turner, 'The Battle of Trafalgar'
National Maritime Museum
Public Domain

As planned, the British fleet split into two divisions. One, led by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in the 'Royal Sovereign' headed for the rear of the enemy line, while Nelson aimed his division directly at the centre. When the battle ended at about 4.30 seventeen enemy ships had been captured and another was a blazing wreck.  Nelson was fatally wounded by a shot from the 'Redoutable' and died three and a quarter hours later. 

There is a discussion of the historical significance of Trafalgar here.

On 5 November news of his death reached London. In January 1806, after lying in state in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, Nelson’s body was borne up the river and buried at St Paul’s. His magnificent state funeral was far more magnificent than that afforded to any monarch.

A poster of 1805 celebrating Trafalgar
Attribution: JW1805 at the English language Wikipedia


  1. For much of the Georgian period, Britain was at war with France.
  2. The wars were for trade and territory, but they had an ideological dimension as manifestations of British patriotism.
  3. The great heroes (and sometimes villains) of the period were admirals and generals.

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