While British troops were away fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars, a concerted war effort was being carried out on the home front. These years saw a proliferation of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in many forms. The government needed to whip up patriotic fervour not only to promote a general spirit of resistance against the French, but also to inspire volunteer recruits for the army and navy, and to persuade people that raised taxes were necessary for Britain’s very preservation.
The genuine popular demand for anti-Napoleonic propaganda gave lyricists, dramatists and others a rich fund of material to work with. This was a good time in particular to be a talented caricaturist. Napoleon (also known as ‘Boney’ and ‘the Corsican Monster’) was lampooned in prints by all the leading illustrators of the day, including Gillray and Cruikshank. By all accounts, the publishers of these satirical prints did a roaring trade. One French émigré wrote to the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan of the enthusiasm surrounding a new print, describing the ‘madness’ as ‘people box their way through the crowd’ to the print shop. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, another French observer described ‘a large crowd that had gathered in front of a shop on the Strand. The meeting was a noisy one and the agitation suggested that some people were actually boxing. We soon learned that a new caricature was the reason for all the upheaval. What a triumph for the artist!’
The caricatures themselves veered between bold assertions of Britain’s superiority, staunchly supporting the regime, to personal attacks on Napoleon, condemning everything from his short stature (a complete myth, incidentally), to the colour of his skin (suspiciously dark), to his troubled private life. For the personal attacks, nothing was considered too vulgar, as the following few caricatures show.
The first night of my wedding, or, little Boney no match for an Arch Dutchess (1810)
Marie Louise: Still says sly old Hodge, says he, Great talkers do the least d’ye see. Well well there’s one hope left – I shall quickly carry him to his Journeys end
Napoleon: Mort de ma Vie I must I must brush off to Compiegne and order seperate Beds
The Arch Dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her Nap
Marie-Louise: My dear Nap. your bed accommodations are very indifferent! Too short by a Yard! I wonder how Josephine put up with such things over as long as she did!!!
Napoleon: Indeed, Maria I do not well understand you: the Empress Josephine who knew things better than I hope you do, never grumbled – Le Diable! I see I never will be able to get what I want after all!!!
This print mocks both Napoleon’s alleged stature and the fact that his first wife, Josephine, was sexually experienced when he met her, whereas Marie-Louise was meant to be the blushing virgin who would give him a healthy heir, a role she fulfilled admirably.
More politically-oriented cartoons spanned a broad spectrum, ranging from the brash trumpeting of British superiority to more subtle takes on Napoleonic foreign policy.
TIDDY-DOLL the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings. – his Man, Hopping Talley, mixing the dough (before 1806)
This 1806 cartoon mocks Napoleon’s political re-shaping of Europe. In the ‘New French Oven for Imperial Gingerbread’, Napoleon is baking three new rulers for the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden. Below the oven lies an ‘Ash-Hole for broken Gingerbread’, which includes Holland and Italy; they have been swept there by the ‘Corsican Beson of Destruction’. The basket to the left contains ‘true Corsican kinglings’, referring to the family members Napoleon put on the thrones of other countries. The cupboard on the right contains drawers for ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘Crowns & Sceptres’ and even ‘Suns and Moons’, suggesting that Napoleon wants to reshape the universe itself.
Little Boney gone to Pot (1814)
This caricature was drawn towards the end of Napoleon’s career. It shows the defeated emperor exiled on the island of Elba with no-one to keep him company except the Devil. He sits on a chamberpot, the toy cannon is all that remains of his military ambitions, and he seems ready to commit suicide with the gun offered to him by his satanic tormentor.
Caricatures were, of course, not the only form of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in Britain. Handbills denouncing Napoleon and containing gruesome accounts of supposed French atrocities were manufactured almost daily and distributed throughout the kingdom, probably reaching even the illiterate sections of the population. Patriotic plays were put on to whip up national sentiment, and anti-French broadside ballads were common. Clergy thundered against the Corsican Monster from the pulpit, and millenarian preachers warned that Napoleon’s evil empire was surely a sign of the end time.
Eighteenth-century English men and women were characterised as ‘a polite and commercial people’ in Paul Langford’s contribution to the New Oxford History of England. When it came to anti-Napoleonic propaganda, the English were hardly polite, but some of them were certainly commercially-minded. Canny manufacturers took advantage of popular sentiment and produced all sorts of anti-French memorabilia. Perhaps the most remarkable example I have seen is a chamber-pot featuring a small bust of Napoleon in the middle. How edifying it must have been for those consumers who were now able to express patriotic sentiment even when exercising their most basic functions!