In July 1815 the captured Napoleon Bonaparte was waiting to hear his fate on board HMS Bellerophon. After his escape from Elba the previous year and subsequent defeat at Waterloo the British Government was debating what should be done with the ex-emperor. He had arrived at Plymouth Sound on the 26th July but his presence was causing such chaos that it was decided that the ships should be moved to a more secluded anchorage – Cawsand Bay. But there was another motive for moving him to this quiet corner of Cornwall too. A crafty game of cat and mouse was afoot!
The Napoleonic Wars in Cornwall
The Napoleonic Wars were undoubtedly a turbulent time for Europe and in Cornwall the effects of the conflict were just as real for our quiet, rural population as they were closer to the action. There was a constant threat to shipping and, just like during the time of the Spanish Armada, a palpable fear of imminent invasion. There was an economic effect too, the war meant that the lucrative sale of pilchards to the European markets had almost completely stalled causing financial hardships and uncertainty for Cornwall’s fishing communities.
So while the conflict raging on the continent in Cornwall the people read the papers with concern. They raised money for “the relief of the Russian people” and celebrated Wellington’s victories with lavish diners, parades and “illuminations”.
“On Monday evening the villages of Newlyn and Madron were illuminated in honour of Lord Wellington’s victory. Three tar barrels were set on fire on the top of Madron tower, which had a singular appearance and was discernible for several miles round.”West Briton, 27th August 1813
After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 the bells in the tower of St Michael’s Mount were rung and the summit was “magnificently lighted”. While in Mousehole fishermen burnt an effigy of Bonaparte in the street.
After Bonaparte’s escape from Elba in March 1815 the conflict re-ignited and then came the Battle of Waterloo. Lieutenant General Richard Hussey Vivian of Truro commanded the 6th Cavalry Brigade during this famous fight and this unit was credited with carrying out the final charges that ultimately led to victory. The 32nd Cornwall Regiment of Foot saw hundreds of Cornish men fighting in the same battle.
Eventually Napoleon was forced to surrender for a second time, on this occasion to the captain of a ship that hailed from Cawsand.
“It was from the hamlet of Cawsand, near Rame, that the Bellerophon sailed, following the escape of Napoleon from Elba. Maitland, her captain, little dreaming that his voyage to Rochefort was to be marked by surrender of the Emperor to him.”Arthur Mee, Cornwall, 1937
In Plymouth Sound
Napoleon was placed under the ‘care’ of Lord Keith, the Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Force of the Royal Navy while it was decided what to do with him. At 4pm on the 26th July the Bellerophon anchored in Plymouth Sound near the breakwater. The ship was accompanied by the frigates Slaney and Myrmidon, which were said to “have the baggage of the ex-emperor and his suite on board.”
Within hours rumours of Napoleon’s arrival began to spread.
Even on that first evening ‘sightseers’ were making their way out to the ships from Plymouth and undoubtedly Saltash.
“As soon as the Bellerophron cast anchor every boat in the port of Plymouth was put into requisition but by the order of the government guard boats were stationed around her preventing any near approach of curious observers . . . About 6 o’clock Bonaparte appeared on deck and instantly every officer there, British as well as French, uncovered [took off their hats].”West Briton, 28 July 1815
The veritable scrum of puzzled onlookers forced the navy to take action.
A number of longboats each fitted with a small canon were positioned in a ring around Napoleon’s ship. And to further keep the spectators at bay a constant barrage of blanks was fired, the noise was such that even the war-weary Emperor himself complained about the din.
Three days after the arrival of the Bellerophon the Sound had become something of a circus.
The Plymouth & Dock Telegraph reported on Sunday 29th July that “as many as 10,000 people in a thousand small boats” circled the ship. Every boat that could float was charging visitors to take them out onto the water in the hope of catching a glimpse of the infamous captive, it’s said that sightseers travelled from as far away as Glasgow.
Entrepreneurial types were taking advantage of the situation too, the sailors on a ship called ‘Billy Ruffin’ were keeping the public informed with a chalkboard on which they posted Napoleon’s every move. They gave notice of when he was eating breakfast, who was visiting him and when he was likely to appear on deck.
A Falmouth man and later secretary of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, Robert Hunt, was one of the “curious observers” who went to try and catch a glimpse of the great man. When he was still a young boy he was taken out in a rowing boat by his uncle Richard Hunt and wrote about his memories of that day many years later.
“In 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte was on board the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound I was taken on three different occasions into the Sound by my uncle to see the ex-emperor. Large boats were constantly rowing round the man of war to keep a clear space between the ship and the boats crowded with curious people. The boats were a compact mass beyond this space around the Bellerophon”.The Western Antiquary, Notes and Queries, 7th series, June 4 1887
On one occasion Napoleon appeared to take a stroll on deck, possibly to survey the manic scene in the last of the evening sunshine. The crowds were so numerous and in such a state of agitation that the West Briton reported that a pleasure boat carrying a “very respectable party” was actually fired upon by a sentinel for sailing too close to the stern of the ship.
With so many vessels on the water, all jostling for position, accidents were inevitable. There were collisions and capsizings and one man called Boynes, a mason from the dockyard, drowned when he fell from a boat that had crashed into another while trying to get a better view.
Napoleon however seemed to enjoy all the attention. He would appear on deck twice a day in his uniform and wave to the gawping onlookers with white gloved hands.
A Cunning Plan
All the time that the ex-emperor was bobbing about in the Sound he was under the impression that he would be offered some kind of sanctuary in England. Napoleon saw himself spending the rest of his days on some quiet English country estate. But by the end of July 1815 it was becoming clear that this wasn’t what was going to happen.
The rumours were unequivocal, Napoleon was going to be sent into exile on the isolated island of St Helena for life and this was going to happen imminently. A new plan was needed to force the British government’s hand.
Napoleon was not without his supporters however and one, a West Indian lawyer called Anthony Mackenrot, came up with a clever and rather devious plan. It was simple, if the emperor could be subpoenaed to appear in a British court of law he would have to set foot on British soil, and the moment his boots touched the ground he would automatically be under the protection of British law. Napoleon would be entitled to “the protection of the act of Habeas Corpus” which stated that, in simple terms, an inhabitant or resident of England could not be sent as a prisoner to places overseas. He could not therefore be exiled to St Helena.
Mackenrot set the wheels in motion by calling Napoleon Bonaparte as a defence witness for a libel case in which he was involved and a writ was issued. Now all that had to be done was to put that writ into the hands of the ex-emperor’s custodian on the Bellerophon, Lord Keith.
The Final Chase
Fortunately, Admiral Lord Keith, Commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet, had been warned of the plan and decided that this was the moment to move his prisoner and the ships guarding him to a quieter part of the coast where he felt he couldn’t be so easily ambushed – Cawsand.
Word was sent to those guarding Napoleon’s ship that no matter the circumstances no stranger was to be allowed on board. Lord Keith had to make sure that there was no way that Mackenrot could serve that writ.
He acted not a moment too soon as some reports claim that even as the Bellerophon was weighing anchor on the evening of 2nd August 1815 a strange vessel was seen approaching the ship’s stern. Mackenrot was on board it, writ in hand. Though the actual sequence of events is confusing it appears that the lawyer literally chased Lord Keith over land and sea over the next few days.
“There is some doubt whether Mackenrot was actually a lawyer or a West Indies merchant but he did have a writ and it was now imperative that he was not able to serve it. Admiral Keith spent most of the 3rd August being rowed from ship to ship, pursued by Mackenrot waving his writ and when Mackenrot finally gave up and left a note in Keith’s office requesting a meeting, Keith put to sea himself rendezvousing with the Bellerophon . . .”Gordon Corrigan, Waterloo, a new history of the Battle, 2014
Even as this somewhat bizarre cat and mouse drama was playing out off the coast of Cornwall apparently the government was actually concerned enough to try and rush through a change in the law to ensure that they could still send Napoleon into exile. Meanwhile it is said that Mackenrot continued to pursue Lord Keith and the Bellerophon even turning up in Cawsand village itself.
Cawsand Bay stretches from Penlee Point to Picklecombe Point and the main settlements are the twin villages of Kingsand and Cawsand. These picturesque places huddled together amongst high hills and once owed their existence to fishing and smuggling. And between them and Plymouth Sound is the dramatic Rame Peninsula, this was the setting for this strange pursuit.
“The lawyer had chased the admiral on land till he fled to his barge at Rame Head and pursued him out to sea until Keith’s ship hauled anchor and bolted.”Arthur Mee, Cornwall, 1937
But Mackenrot’s valiant efforts came too late.
On the 7th August Napoleon was transferred from the Bellerophon to the Northumberland, the ship that would take him into exile.
The Last Farewell
In an article written in The Oldie in 2019 the writer claims that Napoleon was anchored in Cawsand Bay for a month, in reality it was just a matter of days. But when eventually the Northumberland sailed for St Helena on 9th August 1815 Napoleon’s last sight of England, indeed his last sight of Europe, was the Cornish coast. As the ship wended its way south the ex-emperor might well have noticed the many defences that the war fought in his name for roughly twenty years had sprouted. Polhawn Fort as he rounded Rame Head or the redoubts at Maker Heights perhaps.
While he had been anchored in Plymouth Sound Napoleon had been treated as a sort of sideshow, at best a infamous figure people wanted to catch a glimpse of and at worst a kind of grim, freakish oddity. After all, he was ‘Boney’, the bogeyman who had been used to scare children for decades. Yet we know that he would rather have remained here than face exile.
It is said that as Napoleon took his last look at the coast of Cornwall he commented to Captain Maitland “Enfin, ce beau pays – Finally (or at last), this beautiful country.”
I can’t help but wonder exactly what he meant.
Napoleon died on St Helena in May 1821 and after his death it seems it became fashionable for people to try and claim some connection to him in his final hours. They would say that they were the last person to see him alive, they had been present for his last breath or heard his last words, that they had seen him laid out in his coffin etc etc – and most of these stories were untrue. Just a way of getting an extra drink at the bar or simply gaining notoriety through such a famous association.
In May 1840 the Royal Cornwall Gazette carried a story which claimed that there was a woman living in Gwennap whose husband had served Napoleon on St Helena. The article said that she had followed him there and had been the one to close Napoleon’s eyes after his death. Her name isn’t given and I have been in unable to confirm or disprove this idea.