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Battle of Waterloo: Outlawry of Napoleon

This article describes the legal and military response of the Allied Powers to Napoleon's escape.

Napoleon’s deposition at the end of more than 20 years of war against France in April 1814 had by no means been a foregone conclusion, and it had required considerable skill in negotiation to convince the allies that it was necessary: the allied powers were not united in their purpose. It was now necessary to make sure that their resolve continued. This step looks at how the formal legal response made by the allies was developed.

What was the response of the allies to Napoleon’s escape?
Napoleon’s escape from Elba threatened again to bring Europe into a war of French aggression and unimaginable consequences. The news reached both London and Vienna on 7 March — it came to the latter from Austrian diplomats at Genoa and from Lord Burghersh, the British minister at Florence. There was immediate agreement among the allied powers that they would unite to preserve the Peace of Paris and that they should wait a little to see what Bonaparte did before deciding on a course of action. Diplomatic business continued: on 8 March, the Duke of Wellington, one of the British plenipotentiaries at the Congress, Prince Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, and Prince Talleyrand, the principal minister of Louis XVIII of France, went together to Pressburg (now Bratislava), to see the King of Saxony, to persuade him to accept the award of arbitration that ceded some of his lands to Prussia. They remained at Pressburg in this unsuccessful attempt until 11 March: Wellington believed that the King delayed in part to see what might follow from Bonaparte’s return — and on the return of the trio to Vienna, the allied powers confirmed the cession of parts of Saxon territory to Prussia.

Drafting a legal response
At Vienna, further news was waiting of Napoleon’s progress in France, and on the evening of 12 March the plenipotentiaries of the eight powers that had signed the Treaty of Paris of 1814 met to affirm their intention to maintain it and all its articles, by force if necessary. This affirmation was to be made by a declaration: Wellington was able to enclose a draft in his despatch of that day to Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary in London, ‘which, with the alteration of some expressions and the omission of one or two paragraphs, will, I believe, be adopted’. This was to become known as the ‘declaration of outlawry’. It was agreed the following day, and Wellington sent a copy of the declaration to Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Hardinge in Paris on 14 March, to communicate to the authorities in France. The legal basis for war was thus made plain.

A further treaty
Further diplomatic moves followed, including a formal treaty, first drafted on 18 March, which recreated the alliance against Napoleon and reaffirmed the Treaty of Chaumont. The Treaty of Vienna was agreed on 25 March. It committed each of the four allied powers to provide 150,000 troops, of which not less than 10% were to be cavalry, along with a suitable proportion of artillery. A separate article allowed Great Britain to use subsidies to pay for soldiers of other powers to make up her contingent. The treaty committed the parties not to lay down arms until Napoleon had been completely defeated. The challenge was there: Napoleon was rapidly to gather a significant force about him — the Bourbon monarchy had not become sufficiently re-established in eleven months to command widespread French loyalty, and especially not from the military. Over the next three months, there were hurried preparations to assemble sufficient troops to oppose the returned Emperor. Immediately after signing the treaty, Wellington left Vienna for the Low Countries to take command of the allied army that was to assemble there in the campaign that was to lead to Waterloo. The process of bringing together other allied forces, elsewhere in Europe, those of Prussia, Russia and Austria, was also set in hand.

Why do you think it was important to establish a legal basis for war? What is unusual about this particular declaration?

Document: Letter from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Castlereagh, 12 March 1815
In this despatch (a formal letter), Wellington reports to his political master, the British Foreign Secretary, the steps that were being taken by the allied powers in response to the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. He notes progress with drafting the ‘declaration of outlawry’.

Vienna, 12 March 1815

My Lord

We received here on the 7th instant a dispatch from Lord Burghersh of the 1st giving an account that Bonaparte had quitted the island of Elba with all his civil and military officers and about 1200 troops on the 26th of February.

I immediately communicated this account to the Emperors of Austria and Russia and to the King of Prussia and to the ministers of the different powers and I found among all one prevailing sentiment, of a determination to unite their efforts to support the system established by the Peace of Paris. As it was uncertain to what quarter Bonaparte had gone, whether he would not return to Elba or could ever land on any part of the Continent, it was agreed that it was better to postpone the adoption of any measure till his further progress should be ascertained; and we have since received accounts from Genoa stating that he had landed in France near Cannes on the 1st of March, had attempted to get possession of Antibes, and had been repulsed, and that he was on his march towards Grasse.

No accounts had been received at Paris as late as the middle of the day of the 5th of his having quitted Elba, nor any accounts from any quarter of his further progress.

In the meantime the sovereigns and all persons assembled here are impressed with the importance of the crisis which this circumstance occasions in the affairs of the world. All are desirous of bringing to an early conclusion the business of the Congress in order that the whole and undivided attention and exertion of all may be directed against the common enemy, and I don’t entertain the smallest doubt that even if Bonaparte should be able to form a party for himself in France capable of making head against the legitimate government of that country such a force will be assembled by the powers of Europe directed by such a spirit in their councils as must get the better of him

The Emperors of Austria and Russia and the King of Prussia have dispatched letters to the King of France to place at His Majesty’s disposal all their respective forces and Austrian and Prussian officers are dispatched with the letters with powers to order the movement of the troops of their respective countries placed on the French frontiers at the suggestion of the King of France.

The plenipotentiaries of the eight powers who agreed the Treaty of Paris assembled this evening have resolved to publish a declaration in which they will in the name of their sovereigns declare their firm resolution to maintain the peace and all its articles with all their force if necessary. I inclose the draft of what is proposed to be published which with the alteration of some expressions and the omission of one or two paragraphs will I believe be adopted.

Upon the whole I assure your lordship that I am perfectly satisfied with the spirit which prevails here upon this occasion, and I don’t entertain the smallest doubt that if unfortunately it should be possible for Bonaparte to hold at all against the King of France he must fall under the cordially united efforts of the sovereigns of Europe.

[From University of Southampton Library, MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/453/7. Crown copyright: reproduced by courtesy of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.]

Document: Declaration of the Powers who signed the Treaty of Paris, assembled at the Congress of Vienna, on the escape of Bonaparte
The ‘declaration of outlawry’ exists in several drafts, with the paragraphs in a slightly different order. The text given here is a translation of the one that was sent to Paris on 14 March 1815, to Sir Henry Hardinge, to be published there.

Vienna, 13 March 1815

The Powers which signed the Treaty of Paris, assembled in congress at Vienna, and informed of the escape of Napoleon Bonaparte and of his entry into France with force of arms, owe it to their own dignity and the interest of the social order to make a solemn declaration of their sentiments on this occurrence.

By thus breaking the convention which established him on the island of Elba, Bonaparte has destroyed the only legal title on which his existence depended. By reappearing in France, with ambitions for disorder and upheaval, he has deprived himself of the protection of the law and has demonstrated, in the face of universe, that there can be neither peace nor truce with him.

While they are intimately persuaded that the whole of France, rallying round its legitimate sovereign, will ceaselessly reject this last attempt of a criminal and impotent delerium, all the sovereigns of Europe, actuated by the same sentiments and guided by the same principles, declare that if, against all calculation, any real danger whatsoever should result from this occurrence, they would be ready to give the King of France and the French nation, and any other government that is attacked, as soon as a request is made, the assistance necessary for re-establishing public tranquillity and to make common cause against all those who should attempt to compromise it.

The Powers declare that, as a result, Napoleon Bonaparte has placed himself beyond the pale of civil and social relations, and that, as an enemy and disturber of the peace of the world, he has rendered himself liable to public vengeance.

At the same time, they declare that, having firmly resolved to maintain intact the Treaty of Paris of 30 May 1814 and the dispositions sanctioned by that treaty, and those that are decided or still remain to be settled to complete and consolidate it, they will use all their means and will reunite all their efforts so that the general peace, which is what Europe wishes and the constant goal of their labours, might not be troubled again, and to guarantee it against all attacks that threaten to plunge the peoples into the disorder and misery of revolution.

The present declaration, inserted in the protocol of the Congress meeting at Vienna in the session of 13 March 1815, will be made public.

Done and certified as true by the plenipotentiaries of the eight Powers signatories of the Treaty of Paris

Signed in alphabetical order [in French] of court:

Austria: Metternich; Wessenberg
Spain: Gomez Labrador
France: Talleyrand; Dalberg; Latour du Pin; Alexis de Noailles
Great Britain: Wellington; Cathcart; Clancarty; Stewart
Portugal: Palmella
Prussia: Hardenberg; Humboldt
Russia: Rasumowsky; Stackelberg; Nesselrode
Sweden: Löwenhielm

[Translated from the French text printed in J. Gurwood, ed., The dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, KG, during the various campaigns … from 1799 to 1818 (13 vols., new edition, London, 1837–9) [cited hereafter as WD], xii, pp. 269-70]

© University of Southampton 2015
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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo

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