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Your questions answered

In this video, Chris Woolgar and Karen Robson answer learners' questions about Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo.
KAREN ROBSON: Well, hello, and thank you, everyone, for their contributions to this week’s course. There have been some really lively discussions which we’ve enjoyed reading. I don’t know about you, Chris, but I’ve had a very interesting time sorting through.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: I’ve been through it every day, and there’s been something new each day.
KAREN ROBSON: Yes, indeed. Yes. So what we’re going to do today is actually talk you through four main areas which we’ve identified. I’m going to ask some questions, and Chris is hopefully going to tell us something about these subjects. We’re going to begin with Louis XVIII, relating to his restoration and constitution. And we have a question from William Corbett which says– who’s pointed out a statement about the arrangements for France to be ruled by constitutional framework based around the monarchy had been established with the restoration of Louis. And I’m going to ask Chris if he’d like to comment on that please.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Yes, when Louis XVIII comes back to France, there is a question really about what the pattern of government should be for France. All right, the monarchy has been restored. Louis XVI didn’t rule under arrangements that had a written constitution, although there was a framework for consulting with the estates. Napoleon, however, does bring in a written constitution, and there is a two-chamber parliament. So the question is what is Louis going to do? And this is quite interesting. Louis has been accustomed to running his own business, as it were, in exile. So he’s been used to governing, as it were, although without a country but getting things organised.
But he agrees that there should be a written constitution, and there is a committee that is set up in April and May of 1814 to do the drafting of this. And this produces a situation in which there is a government of ministers that is appointed by Louis but a parliament as well. Now what happens is that Louis has, really, in exile he has aged. He has not been terribly well, and his role in the government in France is not as– is not as prominent as, perhaps, one might have expected. Although he meets with these ministers. He brings– they bring to him things to sign. He doesn’t actually engage with them in much sense.
So in a way, he is more than a figurehead, and people in France do talk again about the King of France quite readily. There’s not a position in that sort of sense, but he’s not really driving the government of France. He has a major problem as well with the military. He has come back to power.
He has with him in exile many people who have served with his brother and with the Royalists– the Royalist army, as it were, before the revolution. The question is what role are they now going to play in France, and how is this going to work out in terms of the army? So he engages with a reform of the army that brings many– well, he would like to bring many of these exiles into service again. But in practise, many of them only have honorary positions, and much of the army really remains Napoleon’s army. There are very, very few of the exiles who have an active role in it. And that is really quite significant for what happens next.
KAREN ROBSON: It is indeed, and actually, it leads very nicely onto the next question. We had a question from Antonia Cretney who was asking about Napoleon and his escape from Elba. And we’re going to consider how he escaped quite so easily and also how he gained support so quickly.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Well, he escaped so easily because his British governors, as it were, were caught napping. And so Neil Campbell had gone on a visit to Italy. So there was really nobody watching him. This is hardly close confinement, and he can make his way to France very effectively, very readily. And I think once he gets to France, we begin to see the inefficacity of Louis XVIII’s government. And the government hadn’t really done much in terms of reforming the army, and as soon as there comes a question of Frenchman fighting Frenchman in France, they really don’t wish to fight each other. And so what happens is most of what is essentially Napoleon’s army will go over to him really quite readily.
KAREN ROBSON: I think there’s also a certain tiredness among the country. I mean, you find the people don’t want to send their sons to fight in another war.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Yes, I’m sure that’s true. I think there is a question that France has been exhausted by war. These large French armies have been put together by conscription, and the age of conscription has been reduced over the last few years. People really do not want this to continue. But it is, essentially, a military coup, and that means that Napoleon does gain purchase, really, very quickly indeed. And the French government, like the British government as well, is unprepared for this. And Napoleon gets to Paris very quickly, within three weeks, really. And nobody has thought about what Louis XVIII– nobody in Louis’s government has really thought about what’s going to happen next.
There’s nowhere in France for Louis XVIII to go, so he has to go to the low countries. He goes to Ghent.
KAREN ROBSON: We now have a number of questions relating to the Congress of Vienna. I wondered if you could say a little bit more about the long-term significance and also perhaps the areas of disputes in the Congress.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Yes, there is a huge amount of business to be settled at the Congress of Vienna.
It does create a framework, a structure, for the security of Europe for I guess really a lot of the 19th century. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t disputes. And there are points of disagreement really quite early on that can’t be solved within this framework. For example, there is a revolution in Spain in 1820. The French King wishes to support the Bourbon monarch in Spain. A French army actually goes into Spain in 1823. So there are– really, very early on, there are major questions. And then there’s a revolution in Portugal as well in 1824. So these things– it doesn’t create stability. So that’s one thing that’s there. It requires governments to create their own, if you like, frameworks as well.
But there was also other contentious business that is a hangover from– well, it’s one of the main things that remains to be discussed, really. It’s flagged up in the Treaty of Paris in May 1814, and that’s the question of the slave trade. It is one of the things that is up for discussion. And neither Spain nor Portugal is ready to debate this in a way that the other allies wish them to to proceed with. It ties up, really, to their colonial interests. And Spain, in particular, has pretty much lost their overseas colonies who hold a series of revolts and things and suspects the British hand in encouraging these revolts. So that’s one aspect of it.
There is a territorial dispute between Portugal and Spain over Olivenza. And also, when Ferdinand VII returns to Spain as a Bourbon monarch, he wishes to establish himself again as an absolute monarch. And he also wishes to claim those territories really to which the Bourbons had rights, not necessarily in Spain in the Iberian Peninsula, but particularly in Italy. And the claim to the Bourbon principalities in Italy is the reason, at the end of the day, why Spain does not sign up to the final act of the Congress of Vienna. The allies wish everything to be settled. Spain wants to reserve her position over these Bourbon principalities. So what happens is the Spanish don’t sign, basically.
KAREN ROBSON: Our final question really relates to economics and the financing of the army. And three people who’ve sent in queries are Alan Beswick, Han van Son and Steve Robillard. So I just wondered if you could say a little bit more about the economics and finance.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: I think one of the most extraordinary things about this war is its duration. This is something that starts in the early 1790s and continues through to 1814. And then we have a reprise in 1815. Wars on this scale have rarely been fought before. And one of the key things about them is that their duration has almost always been limited to no more than six or seven years, quite simply because countries run out of money. So how does this work? Well, one of the things about it is that Britain sees this as really a war for survival, but it’s also about Britain as a trading nation.
And it is that link to the British economy, which really does very well through the war years, that enables Britain to keep fighting. And it gives the government sufficient strength to raise money as loans on capital markets, to invest in British military efforts. It’s also possible for the British government to raise a certain amount of hard cash, as it were, cash in gold to pay for things. But it’s not only British forces that the British government has to pay for. One of the key things about this long period of war is that the British strength is in fighting at sea.
We need allies who will fight on land, and those allies are quite literally fighting in countries that– our allies are countries whose economies have been devastated by this war, place like Prussia, Austria, and, indeed, Russia. And it is really, very important that Britain finances these countries as well. So this strength in trade enables Britain to do this. The East India trade, for example, prospers throughout this period. Trade with North America, as well. In 1813, something like 900,000 muskets are made in this country and sent overseas to Britain’s allies. So there is a huge investment.
Now, almost as soon as the allies at Vienna learn that Napoleon has escaped and that there has to be a military response, the emperor of Russia comes up to Wellington and says, well, if I’m going to put an army in the field, you’re going to have to pay me subsidies. And Austria and Prussia are not far behind in this queue either. So there is a sense in which this war keeps going because of the strengths of the British economy.
KAREN ROBSON: And there are actually very defined subsidy agreements as well, aren’t there?
CHRIS WOOLGAR: There are, indeed, for paying the forces. There is a sort of separate issue as well about how the French managed to keep fighting for this length of time. And their approach to warfare is markedly different. And the whole practise of living off the land, of exacting contributions from captured territories. It is an enormous imposition. The impact on Spain, for example. We can see Spain is bled dry of cash and equipment and provisions and things. So that is really how the French keep going. But France is a very prosperous agricultural country, and as long as the crops are good, she can continue to feed people. Britain, on the other hand, needs supplies from overseas.
KAREN ROBSON: So we’ll be turning to next week. We’ll be considering the Battle of Waterloo itself. There will be material about the battle, its aftermath, and the occupation of France. We’ll also be considering how we know about the battle. We’ll be looking at accounts of soldiers, as well as Wellington’s official Waterloo dispatch itself. And you wanted to say something about–
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Well, yes. There is a step in the–
CHRIS WOOLGAR: –in the course next week which is a– you find me talking about the Waterloo dispatch. If you’re able to come to Southampton on the 18th of June, and we have sent you around a link for registration, I will in fact be giving a longer version of that lecture. But there will be a chance to see an exhibition here in the university library at Southampton of Wellington’s manuscripts relating to the Waterloo campaign. And indeed, we look forward to reading your comments on next week’s steps. They’ve been very interesting, indeed, and I’ve much enjoyed reading them. Thank you very much.
KAREN ROBSON: Thank you.

In this video (15 minutes) Chris answers four of the questions you asked – about Louis XVIII, Napoleon’s escape from Elba, the Treaty of Vienna, and the economics of war.

If you are able to come to Southampton for our free special event on the afternoon of 18 June, there are still a few spaces available – see the Eventbrite page for more details and online registration

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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo

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