Friday, 25 August 2017

A tale of two houses

Last weekend I visited Chiswick House. It's not far from where I live and it's ridiculous that I don't go there more often.

Chiswick House, like Marble Hill House, which is very close to home, is managed by English Heritage. My visit made me think about what "heritage" means in a country where we are surrounded by things that have been around for a while.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House was designed by Lord Burlington who was impressed by the architecture he had seen on his visits to Italy between 1714 and 1719. Completed in 1729, it’s an excellent early English example of the Palladian style which it popularised in the UK.

The complex of houses (for over the years there have been several) grew as buildings and wings were added or demolished over time. What remains now is an architectural gem, always intended for social gatherings and showing off the artworks which it has always housed. It was never really a home and the service wings that made it habitable were demolished in the 1950s.

Beautiful as Chiswick House is, the gardens are arguably more important than the house itself. Like the house, these have grown and shrunk as land has been acquired or sold off over centuries. The original garden design would have been a standard Jacobean affair of rigid formality, but from the 1720s Burlington experimented with different approaches. The strongest influence was that of William Kent. An architect as well as a landscape gardener, Kent, like Burlington was an enthusiast of the Palladian style. He sought to escape the formal rigidity of 17th century garden layouts in favour of a more informal approach, often called “natural” but not actually natural at all. The extensive gardens at Chiswick House allowed him to work on a grand scale and they became the first gardens to be designed in what became known as ‘English landscape style’.

The gardens were open to the public for a small charge. They remain beautiful and had a significant influence on garden design across Britain.

Marble Hill House

Around the same time that Lord Burlington was building Chiswick house, Lady Henrietta Howard (one-time mistress of George II) was having a house built for herself on the banks of the Thames just outside Richmond. Unlike Lord Burlington, Henrietta Howard was not especially interested in architecture (although she may have had some input into the plans for the house) and had not (as a woman) made the Grand Tour. This leads many people to think that Marble Hill House, like Chiswick a classical Palladian villa, was modelled on Lord Burlington's work. In fact, building started two years prior to Chiswick house. Both Burlington and Lady Howard are likely to have been influenced by the same fashions. Both were friends of Alexander Pope and both worked with the King’s Gardener, Charles Bridgeman.

Marble Hill House, like Chiswick, was intended as a place for entertaining. It was, however, always a home and from 1734 it was Henrietta Howard's main residence. In the 1740s a substantial service wing was added, making it even more suitable as a regular house. As at Chiswick, there were some beautiful paintings, including some that appear to have been specially commissioned for the space, but the collection was never as impressive as Chiswick and the house was (unlike Chiswick) not generally open to the public. Henrietta Howard, though, did host fashionable gatherings with many of the most glittering social figures of the time, notably Alexander Pope. She is said to be the subject of his poem, On a certain lady at court:

I knew a thing that’s most uncommon
(Envy be silent and attend!)
I knew a reasonable woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a friend.

The grounds of Marble Hill House were initially less extensive than at Chiswick Gardens. Henrietta did buy additional land and by 1752 it totalled around 66 acres, the size it is today. Marble Hill Park and Chiswick Park today are very similar in size (some of Chiswick Garden were sold for building land as London expanded), although the open lawns of Marble Hill make the grounds appear smaller.

The garden at Marble Hill represents a transition between the formal Jacobean garden and the English landscape garden. It is a rare surviving example, considered more important because a plan survives showing what it looked like at the time of its creation.

From private gardens to municipal parks

After the death of Lord Burlington and his wife, Chiswick House passed to the Duke of Devonshire, who had married Lord Burlington's daughter. It continued to be used by the Devonshire family until 1862, when they started to rent it out. Until 1892 it was used by a succession of wealthy men (including the Prince of Wales) looking for a grand venue to entertain. It then became an asylum for the treatment of wealthy patients suffering mental health issues. In 1929 it was sold to Middlesex County Council. The House was eventually taken over by the Ministry of Works and later transferred to English Heritage. The grounds became a municipal park which, with local government reorganisation, became the responsibility of the London Borough of Hounslow.

1951-2 saw the start of efforts to restore the gardens. There was a strong feeling that they should return to the way that Burlington had designed them and this approach has guided restoration work since.

In 2005, English Heritage and Hounslow set up the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust to run the house and the gardens as an integrated project. In practice, it seems that English Heritage has taken the lead in this with substantial archaeological research being carried out in the grounds. English Heritage used the results of their research to guide the partial restoration of the original planting schemes, abandoned by Hounslow when it had adopted a more cost-efficient municipal approach – for example replacing gravel paths with asphalt.

There is a cricket pitch on one side of the grounds, screened from the rest of the park by trees.

Marble Hill House remained in Henrietta Howard's family until 1824. In 1825 it was bought by Gen Jonathan Peel the younger brother of the Prime Minister. The grounds were used for rearing racehorses and growing hay. One of the horses, Orlando, won the Derby in 1844.

This magnificent Black Walnut at Marble Hill may pre-date the building of the house

Henrietta Howard had planted mainly traditional British broad-leafed trees in the grounds. Peel added imported trees, such as cedar and some conifers. The result is a wonderful treescape with an unusually wide spread of varieties.

Cedar at Marble Hill

Peel remained at Marble Hill until he died in 1879 and his widow lived there until her death in 1887. The property was then bought by the Cunard family with the intention of demolishing Marble Hill and developing a housing estate. There was strong public opposition to this and in 1902 the land was bought by the London, Surrey, and Middlesex County Council's, the Richmond Corporation, and the Twickenham Urban District Council.

From 1902 Marble Hill was run as a municipal park with the house owned by local government. Eventually, local government reorganisation led to its being owned by the Greater London Council. It was an early example of open green space being preserved at a time when the London suburbs were expanding very fast. On the abolition of the GLC, the House and park were transferred to English Heritage. There was some resentment of this at the time, as the Park, which had been purchased using local funds, was transferred to a national body and out of local control.

The character of the parks today

Chiswick House Gardens and Marble Hill Park are both municipal parks open to the public, and both a very similar size. However, the character of the two parks is very different. This is reflected in their names. The gardens at Chiswick House are essentially public gardens. The amount of wooded and shrub land, with winding paths, led to them being seen as a potentially dangerous place for families and children, but when the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust was set up it established a Ranger force staffed by ex-service men and women and the area is now seen as very safe. It is widely used by dog walkers and is popular with families and children. There is a small children's playground. However, apart from the cricket field, there is relatively little open land.

Chiswick Park, although a valued local amenity, is cut off from the community around it by high walls and busy roads. (One boundary is the A316 and another is the A4.)

Marble Hill Park, by contrast, is largely open space. There is a cricket pitch and nets, rugby pitches, and a hockey pitch. There are dog walkers, of course, but also people doing keep fit or jogging, teenagers playing football or throwing frisbees, and kids flying kites. It's a popular place for picnics.

The two main boundaries of the park are simple fences, one running along the Thames path. There is a large children’s playground adjacent to the park and people are constantly walking along the suburban road that marks its northern boundary.

Northern boundary fence at Marble Hill

There is a small area of woodland along the eastern boundary. English Heritage did want to increase the amount of shrubbery in the park to create something like sweet walk that may have been there in the the 18th century, but at a public meeting a few years ago there were strong objections to this on the grounds that it would create the sort of environment that could lead people to feel unsafe. At the moment the park is generally seen as a safe space with a playgroup for under-fives and an adventure playground for older children open in the summer.


The problem with history is that it keeps changing. The archaeological research already suggests that the pattern of planting in the 18th century altered. Since then, of course, it has changed a great deal more. What, in 2017, is the “heritage” that we want to protect? Is it the gardens of Henrietta Howard? Is it the park after Henrietta Howard when her grotto (a dubious reconstruction of which was built in the 1980s) was buried and lost? Or is it the municipal park of the early 20th century? There is at least an argument that the historic importance of Marble Hill as an early example of the protection of public open space from private development is as significant to the heritage of modern London as Henrietta Howard's garden design.

The grotto at Marble Hill (an unfortunate 1980s reconstruction)
The restoration of Chiswick Gardens to something more similar to their original appearance made obvious sense because what existed in 2005 was essentially a degraded form of the gardens that were originally laid out. Marble Hill Park, though, is not a degradation of anything. Its current form reflects its development from private park to public open space in the 20th century.

Chiswick and Marble Hill were both built at a period when public land was increasingly being brought into private ownership, through a series of parliamentary Inclosure Acts. Neither park enclosed common land (although the main road was eventually re-routed to put more garden between Chiswick House and the public highway) but the privatisation of public space was the historical background against which the development of these grounds was taking place. 

The late 19th and 20th centuries saw this process reverse. The first urban park (in Preston in 1833) was soon followed by the first purpose built publicly owned urban recreational park in England: the Derby Arboretum, which was opened in 1840. The importance of public open space in and around towns was reflected in a series of parliamentary acts, including the Public Health Act of 1875, which enabled local authorities to maintain land for recreation and to raise funds for this purpose. In 1878 the Epping Forest Act preserved the Forest as "an Open Space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public". The legislative high point of the process of opening private land to the public was probably marked by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which gave 'the right to roam'.

The 21st century has seen a move back to the expansion of private rights over once public land. Increasing amounts of London are now 'privately owned public spaces' (pops). Major developments, such as Canary Wharf, Granary Square and More London along the South Bank near Tower Bridge are private land, owned and policed by private companies which can restrict public access. It is not my intention here to join the lively argument being conducted as to whether this is a useful way to improve publicly accessible space without state spending or the effective privatisation of public assets. It is, however, a significant change from the early to mid-20th century notion that the best way to preserve publicly accessible space was to take it into public ownership. To see how a space like Marble Hill has moved from being a private home to (under Gen Peel) essentially a commercial exercise to land being bought for straightforwardly commercial development by the Cunards and then being taken into public ownership is to see the history of much open space in this country. Arguably the transfer from the GLC to English Heritage (a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, or quango) demonstrates the shift from straightforward public ownership back towards something that is at least partway to privatisation.

Cricket on the lawn - Marble Hill

The social history of Marble Hill Park is important to anybody who wants to understand, in its broadest sense, England's heritage. The park as it is today reflects all of those changes. 

History tells us as much about the present as about the past. The decision as to whether Marble Hill should be restored to reflect the period when it was private space or whether it should reflect its later history is not a decision taken outside the social and political context of the 21st century. Those of us who are fascinated by British history and the way that it has shaped this country might well feel that it should be preserved as it is, rather than developed as another bit of quaint nostalgia for the Jane Austen tourist market.

A word from our sponsor

James Burke, the hero of my Napoleonic Wars series, was born in 1771, well after the houses I write about here were built. He grew up, though, at a time when grand houses like these were being used as family homes by the families that had built them. The wars with France started the process that eventually ended that way of life, ushering in the Victorian era when this sort of house was no longer viable. My books about James Burke are essentially adventure stories about a soldier-spy, but they also chart the end of an era.

The books can be bought through Simon & Schuster in the USA and will soon be republished by Endeavour Press in the UK. Watch out for them.


Chiswick House and Gardens Trust (2012) 'Report on The Chiswick House and Gardens Trust for Chiswick Area Forum'

Richmond Libraries' Local Studies Collection 'Marble Hill House'

Thorpe D (2006) 'A history of greenspace and parks'

Tittenbrun J (2013) 'The privatisation of public space' The Conversation

White R (2001) 'Chiswick House and Gardens' English Heritage

For a more detailed discussion of the plans for Marble Hill Park, see my post HERE.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Guest post - Marsali Taylor

I thought we'd have change from talking about the Napoleonic Wars this week. UK readers may have noticed that my books are currently unavailable outside North America, although Endeavour Press will be republishing them soon. So this seems a good time to give some space to Marsali Taylor to take us further back in history and write about the Viking background to her contemporary stories set in the Shetlands.

Over to you, Marsali.

Vikings and Shetlanders

I’ve written only one published historical novella, Footsteps in the Dew, but history
keeps cropping up in my contemporary Cass detective novels. The Vikings ruled Shetland for over
five hundred years, from their arrival in the north around 735 to the hand-over to the Scots in 1468, and their influence is everywhere you go in modern Shetland.

All our places were named by the Norse settlers, though the meanings aren’t as exotic as
the names, for they’re simple descriptions: Swartaskerry, the black rock.  Scarvataing, the
point of the cormorants, or scarfs. Aith, or Eid, my own village, is old
Norse for 'isthmus' - it occupies the land between two bays.  Roe (from the same Viking word as the Scots Gaelic 'ruaidh'), means 'red' - the island of Muckle Roe is the big, red island.  Brae, where Death on a Longship (the first of the Cass novels) is set, means 'broad' - it's a wide inlet.  When my heroine, Cass, guides her replica longship into the Hams of Roe, she reflects that, 'This would be my big test as skipper, to bring the ship in to shore without an engine, just as the Vikings had done, and in this place too.  Hams came from the old Norse ‘hamar’, a landing place.   I liked that idea.'

The Vikings also left their language, and in spite of the 500 years of Scottish overlords that came after them, the Shetland dialect is still scattered with the words they spoke.  In that last paragraph, I had to think for words like 'bay' and 'inlet' instead of the word that came naturally: voe, a long sea inlet.  There are words for strength of wind: a grain o wind, a flan, a stour, a flying gale.  There are two words for you; if you were speaking formally, you'd use the English 'you', but with a friend, you'd say 'thee' and 'thou', except that 'th' is pronounced 'd' in Shetland, so it’s 'dee' or 'du':  'Noo dan, boy, foo's du?  Is dee midder aboot?'  ('Now then, boy, how are you?  Is your mother about?') - and notice the grammer, foo is du? how is you? instead of the English how are you?  Older Shetlanders insist that if they talk broad dialect in Norway, they have no difficulty making themselves understood.

The architecture is Norse too. The traditional crofthouse is long and low, with the house, barn (for hay) and byre (for animals) all in a straight line, just like the Viking house excavated at Jarlshof.  They used to say, too, that there were no remains of Viking houses in Shetland - well, not where archeologists could get at them, for canny Shetlanders weren't going to waste a good trodden floor and stones to hand.  When the old crofthouse was past living in, they re-built on the same site.  The Viking foundations are there, all right, but they're still being used. 

The Vikings were sailors, first and foremost.  When Cass launches her restored longship, she marvels at their boatbuilding skills: 'Ah, they were seamen, those long-dead Vikings.  She breasted the waves as if she was rejoicing in the sea.  We raised the yard, and the ochre and red striped cotton sail billowed out, caught the wind, and Stormfugl rose with it, the helm suddenly lightening.  I looked forward at the milky horizon, at the great curve of sail above me, and sent up a thanksgiving for the day.'  Go to Shetland's museum, in Lerwick, or better still, to any country regatta, and you'll see Viking boats: double-ended yoals, rowed by six crew, or the light-weight flyers called Shetland Models, crewed by three, and some still with the single sqaure sail hanging from a horizontal yard, just as on a Viking ship.  Even the everyday rowing skiffs are double-ended.  

Like their ancestors, the Shetlanders used the sea as transport.  It wasn't a barrier, it was a road.  A map of the North Atlantic puts Shetland in its proper place.  Before land transport took over, we were the centre of the northern trading universe.  Those Vikings who built their house at Jarlshof were fish traders, selling provisions to the ships going on to Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, America - we know this because of the size and quantity of fish 'lug bones' found.  Later, in medieval times, Shetland was the centre of the Hanseatic League, trading between north Germany, Norway, Denmark.  The Dutch fishing vessels filled the muddy bay of Lerwick so thickly that you would walk across them to the island of Bressay, a mile away, and little boys had fun creating chaos by swapping round their wooden clogs, neatly lined up outside the Muckle Kirk while the fishermen worshipped inside.  

Later still came the whaling vessels, on their way to Jan Mayen island for seals, then to Baffin Bay.  While the women worked the laand, Shetland men went to sea from March to September, to earn cash to pay their rent.  In the two world wars, more Shetland men were lost, proportionately, than from any other county in Britain, mostly as merchant seamen.  Don't under-estimate the little old man in his cap and boiler suit; in his days with 'the Merchant service' he's probably seen more foreign lands than you've ever dreamed of.

And the people themselves, have they kept that Viking look?  Well, yes, many have.  I was in Yell recently, north of Mainland, where the Scots word 'tatties' (potatoes) comes out as the Norwegian-sounding 'tauties', and the man taking the money on the ferry could have come straight from a Viking ship: not very tall, but broad-shouldered, with red-gold hair, worn long, and a magnificent red beard.  Tall, fair girls are rarer, but you still see them, particularly on the east coast.  If you asked a Shetlander which he felt closer to, the Norwegians or the Scots, there'd be no hesitation about the answer: 'The Scots were interlopers.  The Norskies, they're our cousins.'

Marsali Taylor

Marsali's web site is at and her Facebook page is

Marsali has written a non-fiction study of women's suffrage in Scotland, as well as contemporary detective stories. Her heroine, Cass, keeps colliding with history. In The Trowie Mound Murders, she gets shut inside a Neolithic tomb; she falls foul of a modern coven in Scalloway, the last place in Scotland to burn witches, in A Handful of Ash. The Body in the Bracken gives her an encounter with the Norse folklore malevolent water spirit, njuggle, and she patrols an archaelogical site in Ghosts of the Vikings - but, as they say in the Shetlands, those are tales for another time.

Friday, 11 August 2017


Last week's post on Napoleon proved popular with readers, so this week I'm writing about the other great protagonist of the Napoleonic Wars: Wellington.

The Duke of Wellington was born Arthur Wesley in 1769, the same year as Napoleon. He was born in Ireland to a Protestant family which traced its ancestry back to 12th century Somerset. He was sent to a preparatory school in Chelsea to ensure that he did not grow up with an Irish accent.

The Duke of Wellington, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Painted c. 1815–16, after Waterloo

He went to Eton, but it is unlikely that he really said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields there, if only because he was noted for his lack of interest in sports.

As the third son of a family without much money, Wellington was doomed to join the Army, though, a talented violinist, he might have preferred a career in music like his father, the Professor of Music at Trinity College, Dublin. His mother (not a notably sympathetic figure) was clear. He was “food for powder and nothing more”.

At sixteen he was sent to the Royal Academy of Equitation in Anjou in preparation for military life. Despite its name, the Academy offered training in swordplay, fencing, mathematics and the humanities as well as riding. Arthur appears to have flourished there and returned to London in time to join the 73rd Highland Regiment in 1787.

For several years Arthur's military career stagnated. He moved from one regiment to another, his family buying him commissions until he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, but his role was limited to ordering up wine and entertaining the ladies as aide de camp in Dublin Castle. It was not until 1794 that he first saw action with the 33rd Foot in the disastrous Dutch campaign commemorated in the nursery rhyme about the Duke of York who marched 10,000 men to the top of the hill and back again. In fact, all too many of the 10,000 did not make it back again and Arthur was one of the few commanders whose men had any success in combat, beating the French at Boxtel on 15 September 1794.

The failure of the Dutch expedition left Arthur back in Dublin. Another purchase made him a full colonel, but with no immediate prospect of action. It wasn't until 1796 that he was to set off for India.
India was to be the making of him. It was the era when Britain was still consolidating its power with the annexation of the princely states and, though Arthur was repeatedly denied command of any really large campaigns, he fought a number of small ones to great effect. India gave a young colonel the opportunity to command huge armies. In the invasion of Mysore, Arthur commanded not only the 33rd but ten battalions of sepoys, ten thousand miscellaneous horsemen, and twenty-six guns. 

Arthur was by now calling himself Wellesley, an older version of the family name, favoured by his brother, who aspired to a peerage and thought that reverting to this spelling of the name might help his plans for upward social mobility. Arthur, who was apt to go along with this sort of thing, started signing his name as ‘Wellesley’ from May 1798.

Wellesley achieved a number of notable military victories in India. His triumph at Assaye was lauded by the Governor-General of India as a "most brilliant and important victory" but, as the Governor-General was his brother, he may not have been totally impartial. Still, there is no doubt that the battle was an important success and Wellesley always considered it his greatest victory, though (as, much later, at Waterloo) he was distressed by the scale of British casualties.

Wellington at Assaye - National Army Museum

India also gave Wellesley the opportunity to demonstrate his administrative skills. In his post as adviser to the Rajah of Mysore, he was effectively the British government's representative to a court which was obliged to accept the reality of British rule, albeit exercised through the Rajah. Wellesley proved efficient at imposing a firm and just rule, reducing corruption, amongst both the native officials and the British military.

Arthur Wellesley returned to England in 1805 with an established reputation as both an extraordinarily successful fighting general and an effective administrator, but found himself with no immediate role. He spent some time as Chief Secretary to Ireland, with an interlude to invade Denmark in 1807. Ireland bored him. Desperate for a more active role in the fight against Napoleon, he wrote to the Canning (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), : "I… am ready to set out for any part of the world at a moment’s notice.”

In 1808, it looked as if he might be packed off to South America to liberate the Spanish colonies there. (This features in Burke in the Land of Silver.) Napoleon's invasion of Spain, though, put an end to these plans. The British decided to provide military help to the Spanish resistance and the force that had been conceived as the Army of the Americas was diverted to meet this new requirement. In July 1808 Wellesley was on his way to Spain and the start of the Peninsular War.

What was the Peninsular War and why did it matter?

In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain. In May, the people rose up in rebellion in Madrid – a rising that was put down with extreme brutality. (There's an account of this in Burke in the Land of Silver.) As is so often the case, the brutal response to the unrest led to a growth of resistance. Soon Spanish troops loyal to their old King and supported by irregulars who gave us the word guerrilla were in open warfare against the French.

Goya's famous depiction of French reprisals after the Madrid Uprising
The Shootings of May Third 1808

The Spanish forces were no match for Napoleon's troops, but the British saw the opportunity to take the fight to the French and sent substantial forces to the Iberian Peninsula, landing in Portugal and marching into Spain. This was the start of a long and bloody conflict. Against the drama of Napoleon's sweep eastward through Europe and the disaster of the Retreat from Moscow, it is easy to see the Peninsular War as a sideshow. The fighting in Spain, though, may well have been decisive to the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, because for significant periods of time the British presence in the peninsula was the only threat to Napoleon in Western Europe. The fighting there was effectively a second front and, if European history has taught us one thing, it is that a country fighting a two front war starts at an enormous disadvantage.

For years the war in Spain was inconclusive. The British would advance, at one stage taking Madrid, and then be driven back toward Portugal. Some of the reverses saw them suffering terrible losses, but over time the French were gradually driven back toward the Pyrenees and by 1813 Wellesley was able to cross into France, reaching Toulouse by April 1814. He had high hopes of driving north to Paris and bringing down Napoleon, but by then Napoleon was already under attack by the Russians, Austrians and Prussians (Britain’s allies in the Sixth Coalition). Paris fell at the end of March and, as the news of Napoleon's abdication reached Toulouse, the Peninsular campaign was finally over.

Wellington and James Burke

Wellington features in two of the Burke books. We meet him first in Burke in the Land of Silver when Burke is assigned to his staff to plan the invasion of Argentina - the one that was aborted when Britain decided to invade Spain instead. Wellington meets him again in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo (Burke at Waterloo), when Burke foils an attempt on his life. Both these books are currently unavailable in the UK, but can be bought in the US through Simon & Schuster's website.

All my books are shortly to be republished in the UK by Endeavour Press, who will also be publishing a new book about Burke's adventures fighting under Wellington in the Peninsular War.

Friday, 4 August 2017


My books about James Burke are largely set in the Napoleonic Wars - the only wars I can think of named after a person. Despite Napoleon's obvious importance, even more than 200 years after the end of his rule, there seem to be gaps in the "things that everybody knows" about him. Many people know that Napoleon wrote the palindrome 'Able was I ere I saw Elba' (actually, he didn't). But what was Napoleon doing on Elba in the first place? Who exactly was he and why did he become so important?

I'm nervous of adding to all the blogs about Napoleon, but I've finally decided to give it a go. This could grow into something bigger, so I'd be interested to know what you think. I know that the odd Napoleon buff reads this, so I'd like to hear what I've got wrong too. Email me at

A (very) short introduction to Napoleon

Anyone visiting the site of the Battle of Waterloo might be forgiven for thinking that Napoleon won it. Waterloo is famous as the battle that finally defeated the French emperor. Napoleon may well have been the loser, but it's fair to say that, even now, he occupies a far more splendid place in history than the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the forces that beat him. But who was Napoleon and why does he matter?

The popular image of Napoleon as the little corporal from Corsica who went on to conquer Europe is, at best, misleading. It underestimates his height, ridicules his rank and, by concentrating on his military achievements dismisses far more significant aspects of his impact on European history.

It is said that for every day since the Battle of Waterloo there has been one book published with "Napoleon" in the title. There's no need to add another to the list, but to understand Waterloo and its importance, it helps to have some notion of who Napoleon was.

Napoleon's achievements are systematically underrated in Britain for a very good reason: British wartime propaganda during the years of our conflict with France was remarkably effective and, after his defeat, there were few in Britain who wanted to speak up on his behalf. Over 200 years later, though, it's perhaps worth getting some of the details right.

The Corsican Corporal

Napoleon was, indeed, from Corsica. Corsica had been part of the Republic of Genoa until 1768 and at the time of Napoleon's birth, in 1769, people from mainland France looked down on Corsicans as not really French. This was particularly true for poor young Napoleon, who spoke French very badly and with a strong Corsican accent.

Napoleon's family were a minor branch of Italian nobility and, as his father (a prominent lawyer) supported the new French government of Corsica. This encouraged the French to recognise the Bonapartes (Buonapartes, as they then spelled their name) as aristocrats, despite their misfortune in being born Corsican.

When Napoleon was a young man there was a move by the government to encourage young men from the minor nobility to join the army. Ironically (by today’s standards) this was seen as an attempt to professionalise the army, which had become dominated by rich people often, in the view of the aristocracy, from unsuitable backgrounds. Whatever the merits of the idea (and the results suggested that it wasn’t entirely stupid), Bonaparte, as the son of a minor noble family in Corsica, qualified for a place at the prestigious École Militaire in Paris, which he joined in 1784. Although he is supposed to have been nicknamed ‘The Corsican Corporal’ by other officer-cadets at the school, he was never actually an NCO. Indeed, he graduated as an officer in one year instead of two, as the death of his father while he was in Paris left him running out of money. He was the first Corsican to graduate from the school.

It’s worth mentioning that Napoleon was of average height for the time. Cartoons published in Britain typically showed him as short and running to fat as part of a propaganda effort to (literally) belittle him. It was so successful that the image has stuck for two centuries. In fact, early portraits of Napoleon show a handsome young man.

Napoleon by Andrea Appiani c1801

A professional soldier

The idea of the École Militaire was to produce professional soldiers and Bonaparte was soon making his reputation in the army. He had a natural aptitude for mathematics and joined the artillery, where his skill rapidly brought into the notice of senior officers. Throughout his life, Napoleon was to be notable for his effective use of artillery.

Napoleon’s early military career featured Corsica quite heavily. As a Corsican he was posted there at a time when the locals were threatening to revolt against French rule. Napoleon’s sympathies were torn – he had strong personal ties with one of the rebel leaders – but eventually he committed himself to Paris. When the inevitable revolt finally broke out, the man who was to become one of history’s greatest generals had to retreat to France, driven out by a few rebels.

In fairness, Napoleon had been in an impossible situation, without the force he would have needed to suppress a population who had risen en masse against French occupation. Back in his adopted country, he returned to the artillery corps, rising through the ranks as he acquired seniority. By 1793 he was a captain. His general used to refer to him as “Captain Cannon”.

Napoleon first distinguished himself when the British, taking advantage of the unrest in France that followed the execution of Louis XVI, seized Toulon. In the fighting to recapture the town, Napoleon took the place of an artilleryman who had been killed at his post and burned himself handling a ramrod when it was too hot to be used safely. Foolish as this may have been, his action was seen as that of a brave front-line soldier as well as the excellent artillery tactician that he had already shown himself to be. His reward was to be promoted to general of brigade.

He came to national attention when, in 1796, he was given command of the Army of Italy. France had declared war on Austria and the French government’s plan was for Napoleon to invade northern Italy in what was designed as a diversionary attack to draw Austrian troops away from the Rhine front where the main French offensive was to take place. Instead, though, while the offensive on the Rhine failed, Napoleon led an outnumbered French force to a series of victories that ended with him entering Milan in triumph after only two months.

By 1797 Napoleon was carrying the fight to the enemy, with French troops moving into Austria. By April, he was threatening Vienna and the Austrians began negotiating for peace. 

Napoleon returned to Paris a hero. The republican government (called the Directory) was concerned that he might build on his popularity to become a political actor in France. In order to prevent this, he was sent to lead an invasion of Egypt. The invasion was one of Bonaparte’s few outright military failures. He eventually abandoned his force in Egypt and returned to France. (The French general he left in charge was unimpressed, telling his fellow officers: "That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit."  The French eventually surrendered to the British two years later.)

Despite the failure of the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon had had some success in battles against Turkey and, on his return home he was greeted as a conquering hero. France was in chaos and Napoleon saw the chance to move from a military to a straightforwardly political role. As he said, "I will arrive in Paris. I will chase out that bunch of lawyers who are making a mockery of us and who are incapable of governing the Republic. I will install myself at the head of the government and I will rally all parties in my support.” As was often the case with Napoleon, what sounded like simply a grandiose boast was a straightforward summary of the action he intended to take. 

In October 1799, Napoleon arrived in Paris. The Directory, which had been the ruling junta since 1795, was by then seen as corrupt and incapable. It was brought down in a coup early in November. Government by the committee of the Directory was replaced by government by three consuls. Napoleon, widely seen as both popular and strong, became First Consul.

More than just a soldier

For the British, even today, it is quite natural that we should see Napoleon mainly in terms of his military skill. British contact with Napoleon was mainly limited to contact on the battlefield. Elsewhere in Europe, Napoleon's genius as a ruler and administrator is more properly appreciated.

Napoleon saw himself as an embodiment of the Age of Reason. When he was eventually crowned emperor, in December 1804, he placed the crown on his own head. His position as emperor came about not because of a Divine Right, but by his own efforts.

He wanted to see Europe unified under French rule with a rational system of law. He introduced the Code Napoleon which is, even today, the basis of Western European legal systems. One of the difficulties that Britain has faced in harmonising with the other countries of the European Union has been that, because Britain was never part of the Napoleonic Empire, we have retained an older and completely separate legal system.

Napoleon replaced traditional systems of weights and measures throughout continental Europe. He introduced the metric system, which was based on careful Rationalist principles in which weights and measures were derived from precisely determined scientific principles. (If it turned out later that the distance between the North Pole and the Equator is not, in fact, exactly 10 million metres, this is a detail that we have found it easy to overlook.)

Napoleon was not simply a "big picture" manager. He had an almost obsessive interest in details. From ordering the cleaning up of rubbish in city streets to arranging for junior officers to marry their sweethearts, he was involved at every level of running his Empire.

What did Napoleon think was his greatest achievement? The 30 km of vaulted sewer that started the Paris sewer network that is still there today.

One thing Napoleon wasn't responsible for is the poplar trees planted along French roads. Although they are often said to have been ordered by him so as to shade his troops, they are clearly shown on the initial plans for the roads which date from the time of the monarchy.

Not tonight Josephine

Even the briefest of accounts of Napoleon's life would be incomplete without some mention of his wife, the Empress Josephine.

Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in the West Indies in 1763. She married a French general, Alexandre de Beauharnais. Her husband was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. When Napoleon was in Paris after his successes in Italy, Josephine’s son, Eugene, approached Napoleon’s staff to ask if his father’s sword, confiscated at the time of his execution, could be returned to the family. Napoleon arranged for this and is supposed to have been present when the young man, seeing his father's sword again, burst into tears. Napoleon was touched by his sensibility and was so kind toward him that Josephine waited on him the next day to thank him for his attention.

Josephine had been working her way through a string of lovers and had soon added Napoleon to the list. They married in March 1796.

Josephine and Napoleon had a tempestuous relationship. Both had other lovers, but they do seem to have kept strong feelings for each other – why else would their quarrels have been so violent? 

However, like so many rulers, Napoleon was desperate for an heir to carry on his dynasty and he and Josephine had no children. In the end he had to divorce her, which he did early in 1810, leaving Napoleon free to marry Marie-Louise of Austria.

Further reading

For a discussion of the origins of the palindrome 'Able was I ere I saw Elba', have a look at Quote Investigator's excellent blog post at

For a discussion of admission criteria for the École militaire, see Harold Guizar 'Entering the École militaire: Proofs of nobility and the example of the girls’ school at Saint-Cyr' Historia 7:37-60 June 2015

An excellent account of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (which I drew on for Burke and the Bedouin) is Paul Strathern's Napoleon in Egypt (Vintage Books, 2008)

Buying my books

Apart from a passing reference to Burke and the Bedouin, there are no book plugs in this post. This reflects the fact that my books are no longer available from Accent Press in the UK. They will soon be available from Endeavour Press. (Feel free to write and tell them how much you are looking forward to that.) However, I do know that many of my readers are in the USA and you lucky people can still buy all my books through Simon & Schuster. You can even gift e-books through them, as one kind person has explained, having done just that.

Last month my blog had twice as many US readers as readers in the UK, yet my books hardly sell in America. If you enjoy reading the blog, it would be much appreciated if you would buy some of the books.