The Fourteenth-Century Crisis

The Fourteenth-Century Crisis

During the fourteenth-century, the world saw a series of events that we now deem to group together as the ‘fourteenth-century crisis’. The main aspect of this was the spread of the Black Death throughout the ‘old world’, from Burma in 1306, all the way through Asia to France & England by 1348. The plague devastated populations all along trade routes, many created by the Mongol expansions of the previous century. The Black Death hit the world at about the same time as the ‘little ice age’ hit, where world weather conditions were meagre and crop harvests failed. The Plague itself resurfaced every decade throughout the 14th century.
Black Death in Europe
As well as The Plague, much of the world was hit by crop failure and famine. The change in climate heavily affected agriculture and crop production with colder temperatures causing the Great European Famine of 1315-1322, a generation before the plague hit. Furthermore, in china we see the Yellow River flood as the Black Death hits, causing widespread death and famine amongst the Chinese population. We see the Chinese population reduce by 40million people during the fourteenth-century. As well as this, the crisis helped to destroy the Chinese Yuan dynasty’s claim to have a mandate from heaven, leading to a growth in dissident movements and religious sects, such as the Red Turban Movement, who overthrew the Yuan dynasty and established the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Despite this success, it took Zhu Yuanzang, the Hongwu Emperor, twenty years to pacify and reunify China.

Within Europe, we see an even larger crisis. Although previous centuries had seen population increases throughout Europe, the declining climatic situation led to harsh winters and wet summers, resulting in various famines, notably the Great Famine of 1315-1322. Also, the declining quality of arable land, with soils being exhausted, combined with the climatic change, killed millions. As well as the Black Death, which killed 40% of the world’s population, there was also popular dissent. Noble taxes and demands on peasantry led to dissent and, after the events of the famine and Plague, revolts became a common theme in Europe against Feudalism and low pay. After peasant revolts in England in 1381 and France in 1358, we see a change away from feudal culture, with less people to till the land, meaning higher wages and more worker freedom.

English Peasant's Revolt

There was also widespread discontent with the established Church, with peasant dissatisfaction at monk and priest abuse of finances. Rational Christianity declined as poverty and death surrounded Europe, yet spirituality increased as people searched for answers. We see the beginning of the renaissance and the declining influence of the Catholic Church, eventually leading within a hundred years to Luther and the Reformation. As well as the declining influence of the Church, states themselves had to rebuild, and we see dynastic struggles between England and France, the Reconquista in Spain and the beginnings of Portuguese and Spanish search for new trade routes.

The reunification and emergence of states pushed forward competition between them, resulting in a military revolution, the beginning of trade empire, and changing political lifestyles.


Sparta – Part One: Pre-Persian Wars

Sparta700Sparta – Part One: Pre-Persian Wars
Sparta maintains a certain place in our modern psyche as a culture so alien to us that it fascinates throughout the ages. Sparta of c700-371 was a state based upon the principles of military excellence and perfection, dependent upon a system of slave labour and alliance systems in which the aim was to avoid war to ensure survival. By building such a dominant and fearful force, Sparta was often able to avoid conflict. Her system of governance and culture still fascinate and surprise people today, so it is only right that we have a discussion here about the Spartan system.
My main source that I will be using is Xenophon’s Politeia of the Spartans, translated by J. M. Moore (1975).
Sparta was a city situated in the Peloponnese of Greece, the most southern part of the Greek peninsular. As you can see from the map below, Sparta is situated in the South-Eastern Peloponnese, in Laconia. Over the eighth-century BCE, she fought a series of wars with Messenia, her westerly neighbour, and by the end of the century had subdued them, making them helots, or Greek slaves. The Spartan enslavement of fellow Greeks was a peculiarity in Ancient Greece, and something you weren’t seen to properly do. The enslavement of the Messenian helots allowed the Spartans to create a system of life in which the pursuit of military dominance was paramount.
As they possessed vast amounts of Helots who could till the land, Spatran Males were able to concentrate solely on the business of military training. The life of a Spartiate warrior began with the checking of a new born to see if there were any deformities or frailties in the child, and would be discarded if so. At the age of 7, a Spartiate boy citizen would be taken from his family and put through the Agoge system. This system would toughen up the boy, seeing him enter a world where his skills of combat, education and socialising would be directed by the state. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, young men would be placed into a communal system, where bonds would develop under the supervision of elder young Spartiates. Each young Spartiate would be put under the guidance of an older male system, and some argue that this took on a form of sexual nature. At the age of eighteen, the Spartiate, if successful, would be admitted to a mess hall in which all provided equal amounts of food. These men would eat, sleep and live together until the age of 30, creating a strong bond.
Xenophon states that Lycurgus create the Spartan system that we know of today. This consisted of the bare minimum of luxury, basic food, and a remarkably sparse style of living. Although many ancient authors attribute these reforms to the man Lycurgus, it is more than likely that these reforms came about piecemeal through the eighth-century BCE after a series of wars. Both men and women were to achieve the peak of physical fitness; the former for war; the latter for producing strong offspring. Men were not permitted to spend the night with their wives until after age 30, so would have to sneak out to see them during the night. The idea of sneaking and underhand attempts is also seen in the idea of stealing to survive, in effect preparing the men for the hardships of supply in war.
Sparta never possessed a large army, perhaps numbering at its height roughly 10000 citizen soldiers. Their image as a strong military power meant that they rarely fought, and they felt the need to not have a city wall as they believed the men provided the wall of the city. In order to call upon greater numbers of men, the Spartans would call upon the Perioikoi, Lakonians who were not full Spartiates but were freemen, or upon their Peloponnesian League allies.
Sparta became known as an ender of tyrant rule in Greece, opposing one man rulerships where the ruler had usurped power. This she tried in Athens under the king Cleomenes, but ended in failure and subsequently we see the rise of democracy in Athens in 507BCE.
J.M.Moore, ‘Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy’, (L.A; University of California Press, 1975)
Terry Buckley, ‘Aspects of Greek History 750-323BC: a source based approach’, (London; Routledge, 1996)
Paul Cartledge, ‘The Spartans: An Epic History’, (N.Y; The Overlook Press, 2003)
Philip de Souza, ‘The Peloponnesian War 431-404BC’, (Oxford; Osprey Publishing, 2002)

Britain in the Wars with France – 1793 – 1815

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Britain had remained neutral, watching from the side-lines, but in 1793, when French troops occupied Belgian lands, threatening the Dutch as well as British overland trade via the River Scheldt, war was instigated.  British troops were sent onto continental Europe, but were defeated at the battle of Hondschoote in the September of 1793. 

Britain at this time was allied to the major powers of Europe; the Netherlands, Spain, Austria Prussia and Piedmont-Sardinia.  Had they combined and struck at France it is more than probable that the French Revolution would have been put down and the French Bourbon Monarchy restored.  However, the allies failed to decide upon an organised strategy; The British concentrated their forces in overseas possessions, whilst squandering money to help finance her allies, who used the money for differing aims.  By 1796, only Austria and Britain remained united against France, with Austria receiving so much British financial support that the British economy began to strain.  A punitive French expedition in 1796 failed, and William Pitt the younger sued for peace with France. 

1797 saw the Bank of England suspend gold payments, Austria make peace with France, and the Netherlands and Spain join the French cause.  Luckily, a naval battle was fought against the Spanish fleet at Cape St. Vincent, helping to maintain British naval hegemony.  As Pitt again attempted peace negotiations, ultimately failing, this left Britain to fight France alone. 

Napoleon attempted an expedition to Egypt during 1797, and the British send a fleet to try and stifle his attempts at gaining dominance over an important trade area.  After defeating the French at the battle of the Aboukir Bay, and the victory helped persuade Austria and Russia to join Britain in a new coalition against the French.  In 1799 things changed when Napoleon took charge in France, directing his forces well and reconquering Italy, whilst winning the battle of Hohenlinden. 

A Peace treaty was signed in 1802 at Amiens, giving breathing space to both powers.  This however was not the end of the wars.  By 1803, war had been renewed and the Napoleonic Wars had begun.  Britain was primarily a naval power whilst Napoleonic France was a land based power.  After crowning himself emperor in 1804,, napoleon attempted to gain superiority over the English channel for long enough to transport an invasion force to Britain.  However this dream was banished by the defeat at Trafalgar in October 1805.  This defeat, as well as the unprovoked attack upon the Danish fleet in 1807, crippled the French so much so that it would not be able to seriously threaten British naval interests for a decade or more.

Napoleons decision to invade Spain and Portugal in 1808 opened up a theatre of war in which the British took advantage, sending Wellesley with an expeditionary force to combat the French and provide assistance.  This would be a serious hamper and drain on French resources over the next six years.  After napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, a combination of powers managed to push him back in 1813 and by 1814 force him to abdicate.  His attempt to regain the throne in 1815 was defeated at the Battle of waterloo where Wellesley, now Duke of Wellington, with Prussian support smashed the French and ended the war. 


Napoleon’s Obsession with Britain – Part 4: Conclusion & Bibliography

From what has been discussed, one can see the potential that was available to the French during the period 1803-1812 to damage the British, yet the means available never allowed for the desired affects that Napoleon envisioned in order to bring the British to heel. The two major forms of threat available to Napoleonic France during the decade discussed, that of invasion and that of Blockade, never took on forms in which the damage caused proved to be anywhere near substantial enough to damage the British economy, nor cause enough threat to make invasion a real fear within Britain.
In terms of the threat of invasion, I have argued that although the defeat at Trafalgar was significant, it did not prove fatal. I believe that Napoleon could theoretically have continued his invasion plans up until the seizure of the Danish fleet by the British at Copenhagen, and the flight of the Portuguese navy, in 1807. The combined might of the Danish, Portuguese, Russian and remnants of the Franco-Spanish fleets could quite possibly have allowed Napoleon the invasion that is often seen by modern scholars (such as Lee and Christopher Lloyd ), to have been thwarted at Trafalgar. The argument that I posed in Chapter 1 helps to dispel this myth, but also helps to explain the other reasons as to why Napoleon was never able to strike directly at Britain, and his continually inability to gain the means that would allow his master plan of conquest.
In Chapter 2, I argued that the inability of the Continental Blockade to hamper seriously the British economy falls firmly at Napoleon’s own feet. Despite his claims that he had ‘no other object [but] – the prosperity of France’ , his policy of Blockade in order to damage the British economy led to a situation that represents a ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’ situation. The goods that the Blockade cut much of Europe off from were not those with which Napoleon was capable of providing alternatives. The oceanic trade in goods such as coffee, tobacco and indigo was almost entirely controlled by the British, and had been assured by the practical loss of any French naval competition after successive defeats on the seas, culminating with Trafalgar in October 1805. The loss of such consumer commodities, as well as the damage that the Blockade caused to local economies reliant on engagement in said trade, led to widespread resentment to both Napoleon’s rule and to the Blockade, which led inevitably to the flouting of the Blockade, which allowed British smuggling to take hold. Furthermore, Napoleon’s obsession with the question of Britain led to damaging wars and diplomatic relations, which not only eased the pressure on the British, but also played a major role in jeopardising his own position as Emperor of the French. The flouting of the Blockade by disaffected populace, the unwillingness of Napoleon to allow sufficient resources and manpower to enforce it, alongside the holes that had appeared in the Blockade, and which could not be plugged, proved so damaging to the Blockade that its effectiveness was unsubstantial in order to cause the potential damage that a combined rift with the USA would have caused in the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars.
In this work, I have shown that the potential to damage the British was available to Napoleon during the period 1803-1812. Yet the inability to utilise the potential available to damage Britain meant that any significant threat to Britain never arose. Furthermore, as well as failing to significantly damage the British economy, the Blockade looks to have barely hindered the industrial development in Britain during the period.

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‘Principal (Tory) Order: Blockade Ordinance of November 11, 1807’, in Heckscher, Eli Filip, The Continental System; An Economic Interpretation, (Oxford; The Clarendon Press, 1922), pp393-396
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Napoleon’s Obsession with Britain – Part 3: The Continental Blockade

The failure of directly threatening Britain by means of invasion as discussed in the previous chapter led Napoleon to seek desperately an alternative mode of attacking Britain. The focus of this chapter will be on the threat that Napoleon’s Continental Blockade posed towards Britain, and will look at the potential for success that lay in the policy, and its actual reasons for collapse. The Continental Blockade was instigated in response to France’s vastly reduced capacity to attack Britain by military means, and Napoleon’s desire to perfect the blockade led him into areas of conflict that would greatly damage his own powerbase, and eventually allow Britain to gain a military foothold on the Continent, and subsequently open up a gaping hole in the Blockade that could not be plugged.
The focus of this chapter is not on the Continental System that Napoleon created, but rather on the Continental Blockade. This distinction is discussed by Ellis, who states that the Blockade is ‘Napoleon’s commercial war with Britain, along with its related industrial and financial policies’, rather than the System which ‘subsumed all this but also included the military, political, diplomatic, fiscal, legal and social policies pursued in the “Grand Empire”.’ The period of focus of the Blockade here are the years 1806-1812, the time at which Napoleon had reached the zenith of his power within Continental Europe.
Ellis argues that the Blockade had a dual purpose; alongside attempting to destroy the British export industry, he believes that Napoleon’s aims in instigating the Blockade also formed a cog in his desire to create new markets for French industry and agriculture. Ellis also argues that the ineffectiveness of the Blockade in relation to damaging Britain into submission stems from the practical obsession Bonaparte had for perfecting his Continental Blockade, and that his desire to perfect the mechanisms of the Blockade ‘drew him into the major confrontations in the Peninsula…the Dutch and German annexations…[and] the fatal Russian campaign of 1812.’ The decision to focus on a policy of continent-wide blockade was, according to Ellis, due to Napoleon’s realisation that, after Trafalgar, he could no longer strike Britain directly on the seas, and therefore had to resort to ‘indirect means of blockade from the continent.’ Although the ability of Napoleonic France to directly threaten Britain was not firmly snuffed out until after the attack on Copenhagen and the invasion of Portugal in 1807, Trafalgar did diminish the French ability to strike directly at Britain. The long history of commercial warfare that existed between Britain and France provided a basis on which a form of indirect warfare could be levelled toward a state based upon mercantile economics, and one Napoleon viewed as dependent upon its export trade.
The aim of Napoleon’s Blockade was ‘to conquer Britain by excess’ – ‘He assumed that if her industrial products and colonial re-exports were denied outlets in Continental Europe, and her bullion reserves were drained away at the same time, inflation would overtake her currency.’ This would then have the effect of reducing British capacity to fund future Continental coalitions against France. On paper, the policy seemed reasonable. The British economy rested upon her ability to import raw colonial goods, and then re-export her manufactures from these goods. If she could be prevented from landing these goods for sale in Europe, Britain would have a reduced income, whilst as an added positive, would suffer from civil tension as unemployment soared due to lack of demand.
Napoleon’s application of the Continental Blockade was intended to be extended throughout Europe. Between 1805 and 1807, Napoleon was able to establish French hegemony in Europe through the combined application of military force, and diplomatic ties. The defeat of the Third Coalition in 1805 established peace with Austria, resulting in French control of the left bank of the Rhine, hegemony over Italy, control of Venice, establishment of the Kingdom of Naples as a French satellite, and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine, which served as a buffer between the French and Prussian states. By autumn 1806, Napoleon had crushed the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt, resulting in the French taking of control of the North German Hanseatic towns, some of the most important trade centres in contemporary Northern Europe. The defeat of Prussia in 1806 also provided the French with control of much of the South Baltic coast. Prussia possessed ‘a section of Baltic coast with several important ports including cities at the mouths of the Oder and Vistula rivers, both of which served as outlets for large Prussian grain exports.’ The Baltic had long been an important trade centre for British goods, and a vital provider of grain, and it seems plausible that the loss of this trade would provide a stern test for the British economy. With this control, ‘Napoleon’s intensification of the economic war on Britain can be seen as a pragmatic extension of his strengthened military position in northern Europe.’
The potential success of the Blockade almost came about in 1811, due to the combined embargo by the United States, the expanded Continental Blockade, and the recession that hit the British economy. There is much consensus amongst historians that a combined rupture with the U.S and Europe would have caused great damage to the British economy, but this needed strict enforcement of the European coastline to prevent British trade, something Napoleon was never able to effect. Had Napoleon succeeded in Russia in 1812, and then dealt with the War in The Peninsula, the effects of war with the U.S and stricter enforcing of the Blockade in Europe may very well, as Schroeder particularly argues, brought the British to the negotiating table.
In the Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806, Article 1 states that ‘The British islands are in a state of blockade’ , whilst Article 7 states ‘No vessel coming directly from England, or from the English colonies, or having been there since the publication of the present decree, shall be received in any port [under Napoleonic control]’. These two Articles show the basis of the Decree, placing Britain under what in effect was a ‘self-blockade’ of the Continent under Napoleonic hegemony. By preventing trade with the Continent, the aim was to bring the British to peace talks, or so damage them economically that they could no longer continue the conflict against France. This policy makes sense when one looks at the situation of the British economy in 1806, and the areas under Napoleonic hegemony. Heckscher gives the figures that in 1805, 37.8% of domestic goods, and 78.7% of foreign and colonial goods were shipped to Europe. Therefore, a controlled policy of exclusion of British goods on the Continent would remove from the British the market from which over a third of her domestic goods, and almost four-fifths of her re-exports, were sold. The question, therefore, is why did the Blockade not prove to be the threat that it had the possibility to be?
There are a number of reasons for the lack of threat caused by the Blockade. The unwillingness and/or inability of Napoleon to commit the essential resources to establish the Blockade effectively within all ports and major land routes provided various areas in which smuggling and large-scale corruption could take route. This unwillingness also combined with the unwillingness of coastal populations, and merchants, who depended upon overseas trade for their livelihood, to undergo unnecessary damage to themselves in order to damage the British economy. Furthermore, the lack of a fleet to enforce the blockade upon the seas meant that the British could take control of valuable island entrepôts from where they could establish large-scale smuggling into the Continent. These three factors were intertwined, but were then further exacerbated by the obsession of Napoleon to expand and enforce the Blockade throughout Europe, which led France into theatres of war on the fringes of Europe: in Portugal, in Spain, and eventually, into Russia. These needless wars bogged down huge amounts of troops, supplies and money, and helped to open up further gaps in the Blockade. Even considering these failures on the French side, one must also appreciate the strength and willingness in the British economy to withstand the damage inflicted by the Blockade, and the resilience that led to continued industrial expansion, despite the economic warfare. Each of these factors will be discussed below in turn.
One of the major reasons for the inability of the blockade to significantly damage the British was the continued ability of the British to smuggle their wares into Europe. British naval dominance after Trafalgar meant that British merchant shipping could move freely around the coasts of Europe, protected by the Royal Navy from the presence of remaining French privateers, and able to land their goods on British-controlled island entrepôts from which the goods could be smuggled onto the Continent. According to Frank Mclynn, ‘It was contraband that allowed the British economy to survive Napoleon’s assaults.’
The attack on Copenhagen in 1807, as well as putting the Danish fleet into British hands, also allowed the British to wrestle control of the island of Helgoland. Control of this island provided the British with a base in the Baltic from which they could smuggle goods into the Continent. The island provided a thorn in the side for Napoleon’s Blockade, for ‘the British established a Chamber of Commerce’ there, and ‘By autumn 1808, Helgoland contained colonial goods valued at roughly one million pounds sterling’. The importance of the island as a base for British smuggling was paramount, allowing goods to flow into northern Germany, and ‘In the six months following the Berlin Decree, 1,475 ships arrived in Hamburg without impediment, bearing cargos that included British goods estimated at 590,000 tons which were sold as openly as in London without any seizures.’ Of course, the ability of the British to use Helgoland so effectively in trade with the southern Baltic coast relied heavily upon compliance of the local population, as well as the ability to bribe French local officials. The large-scale corruption of French officials is illustrated by the fact that Hamburg ‘spent 1.5 million francs to encourage the…French authorities to overlook trade on the Elbe.’
Avakumovic has discussed the problems that the Continental Blockade had on the trade of the Illyrian Provinces under French control. He states that the population was ‘accustomed to smuggling’ and the problems that the attempt to enforce the Blockade brought about led to a need to reopen trade with the British, particularly due to the destruction the wars had had on the Illyrian salt industry. The resultant policy within the Provinces led to a re-establishment of trade with the British, under the guidance of a Fiume resident, A. L. Adamich, which was caused by ‘The demand [in Illyria] for goods without which customers would not do’. This example shows the extent to which compliance with the Blockade would be avoided in much of the territory under control of France. This stemmed from a desire to obtain products of which only the British could supply, and led to semi-official compliance with British smuggling, with which the lack of resources put into policing the Blockade by Napoleon saw a subsequent inability to prevent it from happening.
The ability of the British to establish these trade ties with Illyria is down to their control of various islands within the Mediterranean. ‘In the Mediterranean, Trieste, Gibraltar, Salonika, Sicily and, above all, Malta were the centres of contraband’ trading and smuggling into the European Continent. Salonika provided a port from which British goods could flow into the Balkan Peninsula, whilst Sicily and Malta provided the British with islands which, like in Helgoland, could be used as depots for colonial goods, which were then in turn smuggled into the Continent. The inability of the French to close off these areas of highly active British commerce, mainly resulting from the loss of an effective navy from 1805, combined with the inability of Napoleon to provide enough manpower to police the ports and trade routes where British goods entered the Continent, prevented the Blockade from achieving the aim of cutting off the British from the European trade theatre.
Another good example of the unwillingness of populations under Napoleonic dominance to adhere to the Blockade is that of the Holland of Napoleon’s brother, Louis. Louis’ refusal to enforce strictly the Blockade in his territory stemmed from an unwillingness to damage the livelihoods of his subjects. The importance of the smuggling trade to the economy of the Kingdom of Holland during the period is stated by Mclynn: ‘The smuggling trade between Britain and Holland was worth £4.5 millions [sic] in 1807-09’. The refusal to enforce the Blockade led to Louis’ abdication and the annexation of the territory in 1810, and the resultant stamping out of smuggling reduced the worth of the trade to £1 million during the period 1810-1812. The importance of smuggling to the continued economic existence of many populations under Napoleonic control is unquestionable.
In continuing the discussion of the unwillingness of local populations to adhere to the Blockade, Napoleon ‘had little understanding of an oceanic trading system and its hold on the Continent’s coastal population.’ The economies of the coastal regions of Western Europe relied upon the trans-Atlantic trade in both raw and consumer goods, a system that had been in place for centuries since the opening of the route to the Americas in the late fifteenth-century. After the imposition of the Blockade in 1806, British smuggling provided an inlet for the goods now unattainable within the Continent, and Napoleon’s ‘attempt to enforce the blockade trapped him in a futile attempt to stamp out the smuggling, which was not only profitable, but also entirely necessary for his coastal subjects.’ Even had Napoleon taken steps to strictly enforce his Blockade in these coastal regions, the damage that this would have caused to coastal economies would have been substantial. It would have led to either a need to abandon the Blockade before coastal economies collapsed and caused internal dissent in the Empire, or led to an insurrection that would have further diverted resources from the enforcement of the Blockade and provided space for the establishment of smuggling. With this in mind, the success of the Blockade in the form that it took seems to have been unattainable. Without the compliance of the populations that the Blockade would most damage, there was no way to strictly enforce the blockade without resorting to military enforcement, which in turn would further deplete the strength of France’s borders, increasing her vulnerability to external attacks, or would have caused huge resentment and damage to Napoleon’s rule.
One of the major aspects of the failure of the Blockade was the seeming unwillingness of Bonaparte to commit the vast resources needed to enforce the Blockade fully. By 1810, Napoleon controlled much of Europe, as shown in Map 1 (above). Although nominally enforcing the Blockade, much of the territory was under-manned and loosely controlled by the French agents tasked with enforcing the Berlin and Milan Decrees. Ellis points out that the main problem in enforcing the Blockade was that the French ‘military apparatus…was depleted during hostilities on the Continent, when troops were needed for combat’, whilst the civilian douaniers much of the time ‘proved to be corrupt.’ In what is discussed below on the Peninsular War, the continued drain on resources in the need to combat the resistance found in Spain prevented the French from extending their military arm into enforcing the Blockade in the ports and main trade arteries of the Empire. We have seen the effects that this lack of resources had above in discussion on the smuggling trades from Helgoland and in Illyria and the Mediterranean.
In particular, an important aspect of the failure of the Continental Blockade was the inability of the French to replace the colonial produce that was lost by cutting the British off from the Continent. The demand for consumer goods such as coffee, sugar, cotton and tobacco – amongst others – was so great that, by preventing official trade (which could be taxed), Napoleon only succeeded in spurring the smuggling which provided these goods for the Continental populations. The problem of smuggling therefore resulted in Napoleon issuing licences to some British re-exports in 1810, generating large amounts of capital through taxes and tariffs, but further reducing the effectiveness of the Blockade.
With the underlying reasons discussed above for the lack of success in the Continental Blockade, one can see the unlikeliness of the policy succeeding in damaging the British economy to such an extent as to bring her to terms. Yet despite these underlying problems, the most destructive events that Napoleon undertook to his Blockade are those that took place in Iberia from 1807 onwards. The impact of smuggling was influential in the continued resistance of the British economy to the policy of Blockade but, alone, smuggling could not have sustained their economy. The influences of the Napoleonic policies in Spain and Portugal, combined with British ability to take advantage of new markets in South America, are tantamount.
In 1807, ‘with Russia, Austria, Prussia and Denmark cut off from trade with England, Napoleon sought to tighten the noose by denying Portugal to British commerce.’ Portugal had provided the British with a market for her wares for generations, so long in fact that George Rudé goes as far as to call her ‘Britain’s oldest trading ally’, and that the bond was so close that ‘she was almost a colony’ of the British. Portugal was Britain’s last remaining ally on the Continent and, after making demands for her to close her ports to British trade and seize all British goods, Napoleon sent an army under General Junot to invade, taking Lisbon on 30th November, a day after the Portuguese monarchy and fleet set sail for Brazil. Although Black has argued that Portugal was ‘a major British trading partner’ , Muir has pointed out that the loss of Portugal to British trade was not substantial, due to the fact it had taken only about 4% of all British exports in 1806. Despite the small proportion of the entire British export trade that Portugal held, the importance of her to the Blockade was imperative. As Napoleon shut off other major inlets of British goods and manufactures, Portugal, and the port of Lisbon in particular, could provide the British with a major inlet in which to offset the loss of others.
The failure to capture the Portuguese royals and their fleet was to prove significant in the resultant failure of the Blockade. The failure allowed the British to be content with the opening up of Brazil, which ‘gave a new perspective to Britain’s interest in South America.’ Without a significant French naval presence in the Caribbean and South Atlantic, the British could replace some of the lost markets in Europe with those of Brazil. By 1808, Brazil had been opened as an expanded market, one in which Napoleon was incapable of preventing the British from trading with. Even if Junot had succeeded in capturing the Portuguese royals, there is no saying that Brazil would have recognised the Pro-Napoleonic regime that inevitably would have been imposed upon Portugal. It is more than logical therefore to argue that, like in the Spanish Colonies (discussed below), the government of Brazil would have ignored the policy of her colonial master, and engaged in the profitable Atlantic trade system that the British by now almost singularly controlled.
One of the major influences that France’s conquest of Portugal had upon the eventual collapse of both the Blockade, and the Napoleonic regime of France, was the subsequent further involvement in Spanish internal affairs. The problems caused by the Spanish Queen’s favourite, Godoy, in the running of the Spanish state had led to deteriorating relations with Napoleon, and by 1807 Napoleon seems to have seen the opportunity to plant a trustworthy ruler on the throne of Spain as too good to pass. The general weakness of Spain after Trafalgar had been proven to Napoleon through her subsequent failures to provide resources and troops, and the need for a reliable Spanish monarch seems to have forced Napoleon’s hand in order to secure the effectiveness of the Blockade. By imposing on the Spanish a monarch that was a pro-Napoleonic vassal, Napoleon could ensure that the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula were entirely closed off to British trade. This would, therefore, give him control over almost the whole of the coastal regions of Europe, except for those of the Ottoman Empire.
Before delving into the importance of Napoleon’s Spanish policy on the failure of the Blockade to damage Britain, it is perhaps a good point to discuss the influence that the British Orders in Council of 1807 had on the effect of Napoleon’s Blockade. If one looks at the British ‘Principal (Tory) Order: Blockade Ordinance of November 11, 1807’, we can see that the Order states that any neutral vessel not complying with the licences is to be ‘condemned as lawful prize to the captors’. This aspect of the Orders in Council provoked huge resentment and hostility between the British and the U.S, resulting in the U.S Embargo Act of 1807 , which directed an embargo against trade with both France and Britain, preventing U.S citizens from engaging in trade with them. The combination of this rupture of trade with the U.S, and the damaging of trade caused by the Continental Blockade in Europe, meant that ‘During the first half of 1808 British exports were 60 percent less than in the preceding year.’ The fact that the total rupture with the U.S did not come until 1812 meant that at the times when the Blockade was tightly enforced in Europe, between mid-1807 and mid-1808 as well as mid-1810 to mid-1812, the British could offset the damage in trade by attempting to increase exports to the U.S, and the double rupture never coincided long enough to make a large impact on the British economy.
It is obvious to suggest that Napoleon’s Continental Blockade may have caused greater damage to Britain had it not been for his policies in Spain. Although Portugal had been invaded in 1807 in an attempt to force her to adhere to the Continental Blockade, the decision to replace the Spanish royals with his brother Joseph was a miscalculation of epic proportions by Bonaparte. His decisions to occupy Spain and dethrone the Spanish royals – despite being in alliance with them – plunged the French state into a war that it did not need. Napoleon had managed to establish peace in on the Continent at Tilsit in 1807 and, without the need to fight a war, could have then policed his ports and inroads into the Continent to prevent British commerce from breaching the system. Instead, the opening of a new front created a huge gap in the Continental Blockade, and any economic troubles felt in Britain from the combination of the Continental Blockade and the U.S blockade in late 1807 and early 1808 were ‘relieved by the opening of the Peninsular War.’
The policy seemed reasonable; the way in which it was carried out was far from. Problems between Godoy and the Spanish Crown Prince Ferdinand deteriorated to such an extent that Napoleon had sent an army, under Murat, to Madrid in early 1808 to help overthrow the former. After a military revolt broke out in support of Ferdinand – before Murat reached Madrid – Charles IV abdicated and Godoy was imprisoned. At this time, had Napoleon decided to place Ferdinand, who was universally popular in Spain, on the throne he more than likely would have been able to avoid the subsequent embroilment in the Peninsular War. By placing Ferdinand on the throne, Ferdinand would have been in Napoleon’s debt and would owe his position to him, therefore ensuring Spanish compliance with the Blockade and ensuring that the whole peninsula was shut off to British trade. Instead, by placing his own brother on the throne, Napoleon ignited a powder keg of popular resistance, and embroiled himself in an unnecessary, and highly damaging, war – a war that he was never able to win.
The savage repression in Madrid of the Dos Mayo Uprising on 2nd May 1808 helped to ignite rebellion throughout Spain, which subsequently began on a large scale from the last week of May. Encouraged by the uprisings in Spain, the Portuguese also broke out in revolt during June, allowing the British to use their naval supremacy to land a force of 13,000 men in Portugal in August 1808. With the defeat of Junot’s forces at Vimiero on August 21st, and the resultant Convention of Cintra nine days later, the French forces were forced out of Portugal, leaving Lisbon open to British trade, and the British with a foothold on the Continent that Napoleon could not rob them of.
The decision to become embroiled in Spain was one of Napoleon’s most damaging, in terms of both his Blockade, and even his later downfall. The problems that it caused in the policy of his Blockade became increasingly insurmountable, and ‘By the end, the Peninsula War had cost France perhaps 300,000 men and 3000 million francs in gold’. Mclynn is a little over-exuberant in his claim that ‘The Spanish Ulcer not only drained France of blood and treasure but also saved the British economy.’ It is true that the involvement in Spain opened up the Spanish state to British trade but, in 1808-1809, the British economy was not at breaking point, nor yet at risk of fatal damage. At the time of the combined rupture with the Continent and Europe at the end of the period discussed here, the Peninsular did provide an essential outlet for British goods, but this outlet had already been available for four years, and cannot be the only factor in the survival of the British economy. However, Mclynn does make a good point about the importance of Spain to the British economy. After 1809, both Spain and its remaining Latin American colonies were opened up to British commerce, and alongside this, the Grand Army’s stationing to the Peninsular War in the years 1809-1811 made the contraband trade of northern Europe far easier, as it depleted the manpower available to the French to enforce the Blockade.
What is important to look at is the effect that the re-opening of much of Spain and Portugal to British trade did relieve some of the troubles that had begun to surface in the British export industry. Markham states that ‘Though the total volume of English exports for the year 1807 was satisfactory, the figures conceal the fact that there was a serious drop in the second half of the year, and this continued through the first half of 1808.’ As above, it is evident that, although it did not alone save the British economy, the opening of the Peninsular War did in fact relieve the ever-increasing pressure that was building on the British economy under the strains of the Continental Blockade.
As discussed above, the problems for Napoleon’s Blockade created by the opening of Brazil as a market for British trade can also be seen within the colonies of the Spanish Empire. By deposing the Royal family and stirring resentment and patriotic fervour in Spain, Napoleon had found himself facing ‘the refusal of the Spanish colonies to acknowledge Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, as king of Spain, [which] meant that English trade with South America was now open and official.’ The opportunities that Napoleon’s involvement in Spain created for British trade therefore played down the significance of his aggressive anti-British economic policies within Continental Europe. Although by no means suitable alone as a replacement for the lost markets of Europe, the potential creation of new South American markets allowed the British to relieve at least some of the pressure building against their economy, and lessening any blows aimed at it from Napoleonic policies. Rudé points out that Buenos Aires in particular became an important outlet for British trade, and the subsequent independence of much of the Spanish Americas further provided the British with ample reward for their naval dominance, with which they could engage in trade and warfare with Franco-Spanish colonies without much resistance from their regular forces.
On discussion of the attack on Copenhagen in the previous chapter, the negative consequences of the Danish policies that emerged after were barely adhered to. Despite the overwhelming success of denying the Danish fleet to the French, the attack firmly placed Denmark in the French camp, forcing her to make common cause with France and Russia in declaring war on Britain. The major fallout from the attack was that it ‘served…to extend the Continental System to the Baltic region’, and stimulated Russia, and then Austria, to close their ports to British commerce. The extension to the Baltic of the Continental Blockade would have proved disastrous to Britain if fully enforced, for the bulk of her naval supplies were sought out from that region. By late 1807, Sweden alone provided the only official outlet for British commerce in the Baltic, but was forced to comply in 1808 after facing a Russia invasion. The Baltic had previously been one of the staple areas of British exports, and had Napoleon taken the chance to enforce fully his economic policies after the British seizure of the Danish fleet, and forced Sweden into line, there may have been ample opportunity to damage the British export industry. Yet, by no means could Napoleon have enforced a complete embargo of British goods in the Baltic without significant naval forces, and as discussed above this was one thing he was unable to achieve. Had he forced through the policy to gain the remaining two neutral Baltic powers into his camp, and ensured that their ports and major infrastructural networks were properly policed, the amount of commerce entering the Baltic trade system from British ports would have been significantly reduced.
Time must be taken here to quickly assess the impact of the Blockade using trade figures. Napoleon’s Blockade can be seen to have failed if we look at the figures available for British trade in the Mediterranean between 1807 and 1812. Exports to the Mediterranean averaged £4 million per year by 1805, yet between the years 1807-12 export values had reached over £9 million per year, and had increased from 12% of total British exports to 33%. The increase in exports to this region can be understood when looking at the situation during this period. British possession of Malta and the independence of Sicily provided bases from which British merchants could penetrate their trade into the vast areas of coastline that could not be protected by French troops. Muir particularly focuses on the ‘Spanish rising of 1808, which removed the Cadiz and Carthagena squadrons from the ranks of her enemies’, allowing unhindered access and control of the Mediterranean by British shipping.
Further into the Blockade, by issuing licences to French and American merchants after the Decrees of St. Cloud and Trianon in 1810, Napoleon hit himself with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, by allowing trade with the British, even with high trade tariffs helping to replenish the French financial resources, the aim of damaging the British economy by preventing her from trading was lost. On top of this, the decision to only issue licences to French and American citizens, and not to merchants from the allied and vassal states, Napoleon created further resentment throughout Europe to his rule. Rudé emphasises this latter fact as having a major influence on ‘the chain of events that led through Portugal, Spain and Russia to the downfall of the Empire.’
As well as all the above reasons for the failure of the Blockade, another important factor was the deteriorating relations with the Russian Tsar after the successes of the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. The cooling of relations between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander stemmed from a number of reasons. Firstly, the decision by Napoleon not to await an answer from the Tsar on his proposal of a marriage between himself and the Tsar’s sister, Catherine, before securing a marriage alliance with Austria through himself and Marie-Theresa, was taken as a disrespectful decision in Russia. After this, the decision to award the Austrian West Galician provinces to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw instead of Russia further damaged relations, as did the unwillingness of Napoleon to adhere to Russian proposals on the partition of the Ottoman Empire. The former of the last two points in particular caused a spike in hostile relations, for Napoleon also refused to ratify an agreement preventing the revival of a Polish state. With these reasons in mind, it is not hard to see why Alexander ‘imposed high tariffs on Imperial imports and opened Russian ports to neutral ships, and thereby to English trade.’ Had Napoleon treated the Russians on a more equal footing after Tilsit, instead of taking all he could whilst giving little, There may not have been the break in Franco-Russian relations that in time led to the invasion of Russia in 1812. By following a stubborn and selfish policy that alienated Russia, Napoleon invited her to no longer adhere to the Blockade, and therefore create a major gap within the system that in the end spelled the end of the Blockade as a viable attempt to subdue Britain.
In terms of the success of Napoleon’s Blockade, one can look at the trade figures of various British ports. If one takes the figures given by Heckscher for coal shipments from Newcastle and Sunderland in the periods 1801-05 and 1807-12, we can see that shipments in fact grew by 15.29%. Another example of the lack of damage that the Blockade caused is by looking at the amount of exports clearing the port of Hull during the period. Although total exports fell, the fall of exports to both the Baltic and Northern Europe was countered by an increase in exports to the Mediterranean, USA, British colonies in the west and to new markets. The Blockade failed in its objective to cause the British to bow under economic pressure, and furthermore the damage that the policy caused to the economic development of France severely hindered its ability to undergo industrialisation, and led to continued reliance on an agricultural economy.

Napoleon’s Obsession with Britain – Part Two

Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was almost doomed to fail from the beginning. Napoleon’s misplaced understanding of naval expertise and naval warfare, combined with a fleet severely limited in its capabilities through years of neglect, placed his desire to allow a crossing of the Channel relying on ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, rather than driven by a focused and realistic policy. Napoleon argued he needed ‘but 72 hours’ control of the Channel, and he also believed he could have taken London within three days of landing, yet the weakness of French naval power by the early 1800s severely limited any capacity of a successful invasion of England. Napoleon’s innate inability to accept the limitations placed upon the French navy, and the differences needed for an invasion by sea, provided the British with ample opportunity to destroy the memories of the previously successful French fleet that so embarrassed Britain during the American War of Independence. Napoleon’s desire to invade Britain in 1803 was not a new idea. Napoleon had been appointed to the command of an invasion force as early as 1797, but this force had never launched due to misgivings aired by Napoleon against it in early 1798. The renewal in hostilities after the breakdown of Amiens in 1803 fell at a time when Napoleon had reached almost the height of his power within France, and an invasion of England could be directed under his complete control, ordering resources and necessary manpower where he felt it was needed.
Reasons for the failure of the French invasion attempts vary. The growing gap between the quality of the French and British naval forces underpin the inevitable failure of a future French invasion attempt. Jeremy Black has highlighted the continued lack of investment in French naval forces from the time of the Revolution as a major aspect of the inevitable defeat by Britain on the seas. Continued naval defeats at the hands of the British reduced the numbers of experienced French sailors and the availability of vessels, and sapped morale, all of which proved fatal by the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The terminal decline of the French navy in the years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars prevented significant threats to Britain from achieving success.
The limitations of French naval power
Roger Knight’s chapter in ’Trafalgar in History’ presents a firm argument as to the marked superiority the British had around the time of Trafalgar, and that this was not purely down to numbers – ‘In terms of numbers of ships on active service, it was…a [close] run thing.’ The state of the French navy in the early 1800s is an important aspect of the lack of feasibility in a successful invasion of England. Knight states that in the past 20 years, the ‘first area of broad agreement [among historians] is that the French Navy was no longer at the peak of condition or performance that it reached in the middle of the American Revolutionary War, and that the Spanish Navy had similarly declined.’ ‘The French navy had never recovered from the havoc wrought by the Revolution’ so that by 1803, it was in a state of disrepair, with only 13 out of 42 ships of the line capable of active service. This had led the British to ‘quickly [take] command of the seas’ and blockade the French fleet in harbour. The blockade of the French fleet within harbour led to an inability to effectively train crews on the high seas, reducing their battle readiness and general seamanship skills. This lead to a paradoxical effect: the longer that the French navy went without being able to train properly, the more ineffectual it became and the less likely it would be able to fight the British who were anchored outside French harbours. We must discuss each aspect of the French limitations in turn.
In terms of numbers of ships, the Imperial navy suffered a decline throughout the 1790s and early 1800s. Successive defeats had seen the ‘French Mediterranean fleet…to a large extent annihilated’ whilst in 1797, the Spanish and Dutch suffered decisive defeats at Cape St. Vincent and Camperdown, which saw them lose 4 and 7 ships of the line respectively. There was also an inability by the Directorate, then Napoleon, to invest in the fleet to help replenish the French loss of 11 ships of the line at the battle of the Nile in 1798. The defeat at Trafalgar, as well as the loss of a further two Spanish line of battle before the central engagement of the battle, further reduced both the French and Spanish naval forces, and Horne has claimed that this meant that ‘ultimate victory would henceforth always elude [Napoleon].’ Horne is wrong to state this, for Trafalgar did not end the Napoleonic threat to Britain, it merely stalled further threat for the immediate future. By the time Villeneuve met Nelson outside of Cadiz, Napoleon was already marching east with his Grand Army to meet the Austro-Russian forces of the Third Coalition.
An inability and unwillingness to divert resources to the replenishment of both ageing vessels and vessels lost in battle allowed the British to overturn any advantage that France had gained, by attaining the navies of both the Dutch and Spanish, in terms of ship numbers. The persistent British blockade of the ports under Napoleon’s command in the years between 1803 and 1805 subsequently prevented the scattered Napoleonic squadrons from forming into a stronger singular body, preventing any attempted crossing of the Channel from having naval numerical superiority. Had Villeneuve evaded Nelson in 1805, there remained the problems of encountering the 44 ships under Cornwallis in the Channel, as well as the potential emergence of the North Sea and Baltic fleets.
Emphasis has also been placed in the inferiority of the French navy’s ship quality by revisionist scholars such as Knight. ‘Both the French and Spanish navies had…for different reasons [been] starved of funds from 1790’ and this lack of investment had jeopardised both navies’ abilities to man and maintain effective standing units. Lee has reinforced the argument of Knight about an ingrained naval weakness amongst the French fleet, emphasising that their vessels ‘were poorly rigged and quite incapable of resisting the stress of a strong gale.’ Down to a ‘combination of second-rate equipment, poorly rigged and canvassed vessels and lacklustre crews’, the French fleet was incapable of maintaining any significant presence against the Royal Navy at sea, and the times that they did present any potential for threat, we see a series of significant defeats for their forces. Furthermore, we can see the inadequate state of the French navy in the fact that, on the resumption of hostilities in 1803, as stated previously, only thirteen out of France’s forty-two ships of the line were capable of active service. Napoleon would have done well to put his focus into maintaining the fleet he already held before attempting to lay plans for an assault against Britain.
In terms of naval tactics, the French and British navies differed in their style of battle. Martin van Greveld argues that the difference in fighting tactics of the two combatants gave the British a marked superiority; the British relied on entering ‘battle with the wind at their backs…, which enabled them to bear down on an enemy’, whereas the French tended to enter battle facing into the wind, allowing for an easier line of escape should efforts fall short. Grevald also argues that the difference in gunnery tactics – with the British focusing on battering an enemy hull whilst the French looked to dismast an enemy and destroy her rigging – combined with French reliance in small arms fire against an enemy deck whilst the British focused upon artillery fire, meant that the Royal Navy ‘were usually able to emerge as victors, despite the fact that many of their ships were smaller, slower, and less well-designed.’ The marked superiority in British naval tactics during this period, combined with the ingrained inferiority of French vessels by 1805, meant that the chances of a successful invasion attempt were slim.
It is highly unlikely that any landing upon the British Isles would have been more than likely a debacle. History provides us with a series of examples as to the importance of maintaining regional naval supremacy in order to prevent an invasion force from becoming a lost force. Even had Napoleon’s grandiose plan to avoid the British fleets of Nelson and Cornwallis, eventually his forces would have had to face either one of these fleets, or more worryingly, the prospect of facing a combination of the two fleets.
In a rather excellent article, David Thomson has argued the feasibility of a French invasion fleet assisted by steam driven vessels designed by Robert Fulton. The access to Fulton’s inventions, and his plan for a steam-powered assault on the British Isles, were known to Bonaparte, and in many ways the potential for success using said plan seems great. Had the French possessed steam driven vessels capable of transporting the invasion flotilla across the Channel they may well have found it easier to avoid the Royal Navy, launching without the need for favourable winds, and land Napoleon’s troops without much naval resistance. However, Thomson argues that, despite this at first seeming a potential advantage had Napoleon taken up Fulton’s plans, use of these steam vessels ‘might have guided Napoleon Bonaparte straight into the jaws of ruin.’ His reasoning for this statement lies on the fact that the steam engines available to use on the designated vessels were by no means powerful enough to give the French a significant advantage over the Royal Navy vessels. With the steam ships that were planned, Bonaparte would have still needed relatively calm seas, and unfavourable winds on the British part, without which ‘with one breath of wind the British frigates would have been among the steamboats like wolves among a flock of sheep.’ The idea of an invasion fleet supported by steam-driven vessels was a more than feasible concept, had Napoleon grasped it when Fulton dangled his plans in front of him. Yet, as Thomson argues, the chances of success were low, for the need to avoid the British navy for the matter of hours needed to transport the forces were only the beginning of the troubles – the ability to continually supply the invasion forces overseas, against a superior naval power, could not be guaranteed. Furthermore, this returns us to the point that, regardless of the success of the initial landings and ferrying of troops across the channel by avoiding the Royal Navy, the impending Third Coalition could have then attacked and invaded France itself whilst Napoleon’s ‘Army of England’ were cut off overseas. Thomson is right in stating that had Napoleon taken up the option of using Fulton’s ideas to invade England, ‘Napoleon…would have been driven from power in 1805 instead of 1815’.
Napoleon’s claim to be able to subjugate Britain in 1805, establish a new regime or impose a favourable peace settlement on Britain, then return to the mainland without Villeneuve and his fleet facing a number of British fleets and being able to provide cover for his triumphant return are almost laughable. Had the proposed invasion landing succeeded, Napoleon does not seem to have taken into account the potential for a British fleet – whether Cornwallis’, Nelson’s, or even a combination of the two – to have rounded on the covering French fleet, defeated it, and cut Napoleon and his invasion army off from the Continent. Although obvious a French army led by Napoleon on British soil was a threat to the British, the impending Third Coalition would have faced an unorganised resistance in French territory, with the possibility of sweeping into France unopposed by Bonaparte, and without the cream of the French army to deal with. It is therefore logical to suggest that had Bonaparte succeeded in crossing the Channel, the inevitability of his army becoming cut off from the mainland could have ended Napoleonic France much earlier than 1815.
The influence of morale is a significant factor that must not be disregarded in this discussion. ‘Confidence is a vital military resource, and victory both brought it to Britain and denied it to France’. The successive naval defeats at the hands of the British throughout the revolutionary period both sapped the French of experienced sailors in battle fatalities and POWs, and resulted in losses of pride and memories of naval success gained at the expense of the British during the early 1780s. The combination of a severe morale drain gained from years of naval failure, with an inability to give new recruits experience at sea due to naval blockade, reduced the French naval forces into a state of resignation under British superiority. Lee uses Villeneuve’s claim that ‘even if Nelson’s squadrons were a third weaker than those of the French, still the British would win’ to emphasise that by the mid-1800s there was a persistent belief in all areas of the French navy that there was a undermining view held that British naval supremacy could not be undone by French challenge.
Ingram is right in claiming that Trafalgar ‘did not in itself make England safe from invasion’ , and the significance often placed on its role in the defeat of Napoleon is extremely over-emphasised. Napoleonic France did not end for another decade, and the potential for military threats against Britain remained. Yet, ‘the elimination of the French fleet was to be a most important factor of the European conflict: it condemned Napoleon to an inability to attack Britain except in continental Europe’, resulting in grave implications for the potential of a French victory in the wider conflict of Europe.
Post-Trafalgar failure
The potential for an invasion of Britain, still in the offering despite defeat at Trafalgar, was ended by the winter of 1807. The reasoning behind 1807 being the important year of the destruction of the invasion threat is down to the events at the Treaty of Tilsit. By the terms of Tilsit, Napoleon and Alexander of Russia established an alliance of cooperation against Britain. Napoleon furthermore planned the forcing of adherence to his Continental Blockade and use of the navies of the Kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Portugal, in a policy that threatened the British position in Europe. The destruction of his fleet at Trafalgar was a mere hiccup in his desire to attack Britain by military means, and it is possible to go as far as saying that due to the state of the French navy by 1805, the best chance Napoleon ever had of gaining naval mastery of the channel for his invasion flotilla rested upon acquiring the navies of the remaining neutral maritime powers of Europe. Had Napoleon succeeded in gaining Danish and Swedish naval support, he would have gained 29 ships of the line to add to the remnants of the Franco-Spanish fleet. These forces, combined with the 20 ships of the line of the Russian Baltic fleet, would have allowed Napoleon to once again threaten Britain with invasion.
The fact that no renewed invasion attempt came about in 1807 can be attributed toward three factors: Firstly, the pre-emptive attack by Britain on Copenhagen in September 1807 that prevented a Napoleonic acquisition of the Danish fleet; secondly, the failure of French forces to reach Lisbon in time to prevent the escape of the Portuguese fleet; and finally, the decision by Napoleon to replace the Spanish monarch with his own brother, which removed the remainder of the Spanish fleet from his grasp. These three factors will be looked at in turn, enabling one to understand why a military threat to Britain never came about after 1805.
Copenhagen, 1807
The major, and most controversial, of actions that threatened British interests after Tilsit was the potential of the Danish fleet being obtained by Napoleon’s forces. ‘The Danish navy remained a force to be reckoned with’ even after the defeat at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 , and the potential for French possession of it caused fear in Britain. Debate is rife amongst scholars as to the rights and wrongs of the British attack on Copenhagen in international law, but the focus here in upon the influence this event had on the French threat to Britain. Scholarship on the subject of the 1807 attack on Copenhagen has very much discussed the aspects of fear present in Britain at the potential French acquisition of the Danish fleet. Carl Kulsrud describes ‘the suspicion of [the Anti-Napoleonic States] that Denmark was yielding unnecessarily to Napoleon’ and discusses a long process of Danish actions that increasingly raised British suspicion of Denmark leaning towards Napoleonic France, leaving the strategically important straits into the Baltic in Napoleonic control.
Furthermore, Munch-Peterson has argued at length in ‘Defying Napoleon’ that there was persistent fear within Britain that the Danish would follow Russia in joining the French sphere of influence, both extending the Continental Blockade into the Baltic, and the acquisition of the Danish fleet, which would significantly increase the potential of a renewed invasion attempt. As mentioned above, Napoleon intended to force Denmark into his camp and to declare war on Britain, or face war with France, and this left her in a precarious position. The pre-emptive attack by the British in August and September 1807 prevented the threat posed by Napoleon’s desire to obtain the Danish fleet, but forced the Danes into the French camp. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the action, it was important that the French were prevented from obtaining the fleet, and this action indeed reduced the potential renewal of further invasion attempts and/or the prevention of much needed naval supplies being gained from the Baltic due to a strong Napoleonic naval presence.
The attack on Copenhagen provoked controversial debate within contemporary Britain, but with hindsight, one can argue that the potential acquisition of the Danish fleet by Napoleon would have reopened a potential of invasion. A combined Russo-Danish fleet would have presented a challenge to the small British Baltic squadron, and, if sailed toward the Channel, would have been able to hit Admiral Cornwallis’ Channel fleet in the flank as it blockaded the French channel ports. The major influence of the desire to bring Denmark into the Napoleonic European structure focused mainly upon the desire to plug the Baltic hole that had appeared in Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, but the importance of the potential naval threat to Britain had Napoleon succeeded in bringing the Danish navy into his camp should not be underestimated. Muir in particular discusses the significance that this potential threat had on British policy. Muir maintains that the British action against Denmark ‘established British domination of the Baltic for the rest of the war, for both Russia and Sweden were anxious to avoid any serious hostility with Britain at sea.’ The importance of the events at Copenhagen are therefore serious. The decision to mount a pre-emptive attack against a neutral strong maritime power that was edging toward the Napoleonic camp was decisive in preventing any renewed invasion threat. Chandler believes that the attack on Copenhagen allowed the Royal Navy a means to demonstrate its power, and it indeed did, whilst further strengthening the Royal Navy by the acquisition of more ships of the line. The attack also had the secondary effect of forcing Russia to reconsider her potential of attacking Britain at sea. After Copenhagen, the Anglo-Russian naval war in the Baltic ‘remained a low-key affair’ as ‘neither side felt an interest in pushing matters to extremities’.
Tilsit has more than often been overlooked in the terms of the threat that its treaties posed to Britain, but they must be taken into consideration in any discussion of Napoleonic threat to her. It brought Russia into an alliance with France, and if Britain rejected terms of mediation between her and France, would plunge Russia into the struggle against Britain. When this happened, it put into Napoleon’s grasp control of the Russian Mediterranean and Baltic fleets – a powerful tool in which to threaten British naval dominance. By the terms of Tilsit, both Russia and France were to compel Denmark, Sweden and Portugal to close their ports to British shipping, and to declare war on Britain. This possibility presented an even greater threat to Britain than perhaps that with which Trafalgar has often been attributed to have prevented – a combination of the Russian, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish and remnants of the Franco-Spanish fleets, which would threaten British naval supremacy, as well as a cutting off from the Baltic naval supplies that the Royal Navy depended on. Despite the reluctance of full blown maritime warfare in the Baltic as previously discussed, the potential for a regenerated invasion threat to Britain was serious had the Tilsit policies succeeded.
However, Napoleon’s next move, his decision to invade Portugal, damaged France more than the intended aim to damage British commerce. The lack of urgency of his forces in the campaign against Portugal allowed the Portuguese royal family to flee to Brazil with their navy intact, and his subsequent decision to depose the Spanish monarchy embroiled the French in the Peninsular War (the reasons for which will be discussed in the next chapter). ‘Due to the Peninsular War, Napoleon lost the Spanish navy, and the six French ships of the line sheltering in Cadiz and Vigo surrendered to the Spanish in 1808.’ These continual failures, and losses in ships, damaged France’s abilities to damage the British militarily, and furthermore, opened up gaping holes in his Continental Blockade, as well as enabling a British expeditionary force to land in Portugal and fight an active land campaign that was to drain French resources for the next 6 years. Napoleon’s desperation to re-find a naval threat to British interests in fact damaged more his own position and, combined with the significance of the actions of Copenhagen, destroyed any remaining hope of future direct action against Britain in the short to medium term.
Ingram is right in claiming that Trafalgar ‘did not in itself make England safe from invasion’ , but his further argument that ‘as soon as the British destroyed one of his battle fleets, Napoleon built another or acquired it by conquest’ holds untrue. The statement may read correct if put that Napoleon tried to build another or acquire by conquest, which indeed he did, but his efforts as shown in this chapter fell on jagged rocks, preventing an invasion force from attempting to land on the shores of Britain. Further, the combination of the destruction of Danish naval power at Copenhagen alongside the failure to obtain the Portuguese fleet when invading Portugal withheld significant naval potential from Napoleon, and left him relying on indirect means of attack to threaten Britain.
This chapter has shown that there was more than enough potential for Napoleon to threaten Britain from direct invasion, but the capabilities alluded him, due in part to the years of British naval growth coinciding with dangerous levels of neglect to French naval forces from each and every French government between the outbreak of Revolution and Napoleon’s invasion attempts. Furthermore, his inability to grasp the problems posed by both logistical and supply troubles, which would have been laid bare had his force been able to make the landing by evading the Royal Navy, were tantamount to a debacle taking place that could easily have resulted in the destruction of the Napoleonic Empire a decade before it eventually fell in 1815. Although it is unquestionable that Napoleon indeed intended to invade Britain, the ability to provide the requirements to make such an attempt viable were never realised. Naval supremacy of the Channel would always have been needed for more than just the few hours that Napoleon envisioned, and without making either substantial gains in ship numbers and quality, or without gaining a significant naval victory over a major British fleet in battle, the required supremacy was not an achievable aim during the Napoleonic Wars. Even had Napoleon made available all the requirements needed to establish a significant naval challenge to Britain, the lack of experienced sailors, as well as the continued naval blockade of French ports by the Royal Navy, prevented the French from making even the slightest dent in the growing void between the maritime capabilities of the two combatants.

Napoleon’s Obsession with Britain – Part One: Introduction

In this study, I will focus on the threats to Britain from Napoleonic France in the years 1803-1812, with my aim being to argue that the threats that France posed during these years were never truly significant.  My argument will show that, despite the potential available for Napoleonic France to damage the British, to such an extent as to impose peaceful relations, the policies, and failures to take advantage of these situations in an intelligent manner, of Napoleon prevented France from either imposing her hegemony over the British Isles, or establishing peaceful co-existence between the two powers.

My discussion will focus on two areas.  Firstly, I will discuss the possibility of a successful invasion from the Boulogne Flotilla project of 1803-1805, and then move to argue that there was potential for a renewed invasion attempt up until the events of 1807 in Denmark and Portugal.  Secondly, I will discuss the Continental Blockade enforced by Napoleon in 1806, and the fatal flaws and weaknesses with which it was established, which resulted in its failure to significantly damage the British economy.  With the resumption of hostilities in May 1803, I believe Napoleonic France had lost her best chance of co-existing with Britain.  Furthermore, the resulting years saw any potential ideas of threat toward Britain evaporate in a slow, declining policy of stubborn perfectionism on the part of Napoleon.  The focus on these two areas avoids the discussion of a third potential threat toward the British dynastic possessions on the Continent, namely Hannover.  Although there are elements of scholarly debate on the significance of the reoccupation of Hannover as a threat to Britain[1], the influence of it is minor, and when discussion is relevant to the question it is more in tune to the Continental Blockade than as anything independent.  A minority of scholars have looked to this as a major aspect of the damage, both real and potential, that Napoleon did to Britain, and the insignificance of it in terms of this discussion means that it will not be looked into as an impact of Napoleonic policy toward Britain.

The historiography of the subject has gradually changed over time.  Early twentieth-century scholars such as Eli Heckscher believed the Continental System to pose a large threat to Britain, arguing that the British economy was heavily damaged by the economic policies Napoleon pursued, yet failed in large part due to Napoleon’s poor grasp of economics.[2] With Felix Markham[3] and Georges Lefebvre[4] in the 1960s, we see an emphasis toward Marxist perspectives on the French threats to Britain.  Lefebvre particularly argues that the potential for the incitement of the working classes of Britain was great, instigated by the damage that Napoleon’s Continental Blockade caused to the British manufacturing and re-export trades.  Markham, who has pointed to the potential terminal damage that a rupture with the United States would have caused the British if the Blockade had been tightly enforced in 1811, also puts this argument forward.  The focus of these historians to the influence of class conflict reduces the validity of their arguments in terms of Napoleonic threats, a view upheld by most modern scholars who disregard the influence of internal British class conflict as a factor in the threats posed by Napoleon.  Both Lefebvre and Markham also looked to play down the influence of invasion post-Trafalgar, and do not focus upon the effects that Trafalgar played in the wider scope of the war.  J. M. Thompson[5] is a contemporary scholar of both Markham and Lefebvre, yet takes a different perspective on the threat posed by Napoleon.  In contrast to the Marxist interpretation, Thompson assesses the Blockade as insignificant, stating it was bound to fail, as France could not force Britain to export gold, nor enforce the Blockade everywhere it nominally controlled.  

Geoffrey Ellis[6] provides a revisionist perspective on the influence of the Blockade as a threat.  He argues that the Continental Blockade would have posed a significant threat to Britain, but that the deviations from policy and eventually being dragged down into the quagmire of the Peninsula War prevented effective implementation of the Continental Blockade, therefore practically ending the threat to Britain whilst she continued to hold mastery of the waves.  The threat of invasion has also become a renewed topic of debate amongst contemporary scholars.  Both Rory Muir[7] and Jeremy Black[8] have argued that the damage caused to the French fleet due the neglect dealt to it during The Revolution, combined with the damage caused to French morale by successive defeats to the English, meant that there was an air of inevitability in the failure of the French fleet to fail to make an impact in its attempts to gain control of the English Channel in the period between Amiens and Trafalgar.  This is a position also held by François Furet[9], who has argued that the capacity of the French fleet was wildly overestimated by Napoleon in its capability to challenge the Royal Navy.  He also argues that post-Trafalgar, ‘it was impossible to resume the invasion plan.’[10]  The other side of the debate is taken up by Christopher Lee, who maintains that the threat posed by an invasion in the period 1803-1805 was only prevented by the defeat at Trafalgar.[11] 

Focusing on the period following Trafalgar, the debate on the potential of a Napoleonic invasion rages just as strong.  Muir has also argued that the constantly improving British coastal defences would have made a landing extremely difficult.  Richard Glover[12] has taken a differing view in comparison to this.   His argument as to the threat posed to Britain is that it remained just as significant, but rather due to the potential of Napoleon to create and/or acquire a significant fleet capable of enforcing a seaborne invasion of Britain post-Trafalgar.  Although he does not consider the argument of British coastal defence as mentioned by Muir, the view he portrays is that had Napoleon commanded a new fleet, coastal defence would not have played too significant a role.  His belief is that post-Trafalgar, the realistic threat to Britain was in fact far higher than during ‘the supposed invasion years of 1803-5.’, and argues that the British attack on Copenhagen in 1807 prevented him acquiring the use of 17 Danish ships of the line, as well as ‘[preserving] from him the Swedish fleet of twelve line of battleships.’[13]  The argument he presents suggests that with the combination of these two fleets, added to the remnants of the Franco-Spanish fleet, and supported by the Russian fleet, France could have invaded Britain. Although based much on theory, Glover’s work provides an alternative viewpoint in the potential to threaten Britain and is not as far-fetched as some may presume. 

In terms of Trafalgar, English Nationalists and Whig politicians have generated a myth ever since the last guns at the battle stopped firing.  Immediate reactions to Trafalgar, such as the poem Ulm and Trafalgar by George Cannings, attempted to impose an exaggerated importance of Trafalgar into the British role in the struggle against Napoleon, contrasting it with the Austrian capitulation at Ulm.[14]  Paintings such as that by Benjamin West[15], showing the death of Nelson, created a myth of the heroic martyr, and have continued into the British conscience today.  That ‘between 1805 and 1905 the British Library catalogue records 174 works published under the title word Trafalgar’ shows that the myth generated about Trafalgar, which I will dispel in the subsequent chapter, was established into the British conscience due to it being the last major British naval victory before the outbreak of the First World War.[16]  Its significance in the outcome of the war has been widely over-exaggerated amongst British historians, and the basis of this ideal rests upon the ‘whiggish’ rhetoric post-Trafalgar, and the importance that Nelson and Trafalgar were subsequently granted, particularly in the establishment of Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column in the 1830s-40s.

The significance of the potential threats that Napoleonic France posed to Britain have been consistently and deliberately exaggerated to promote an over-exaggeration of the significance that the few British military and naval victories of the Napoleonic wars played in the overall outcome.  The chance of an invasion through the Boulogne Flotilla, which I will discuss in Chapter One, succeeding was relatively low, owing to the prevalent disorganisation and poor maintenance of the French fleet, together with the increasingly dominant naval position that Britain held from the late 1790s.  The realistic threat posed by the Continental Blockade, to be discussed in Chapter Two, was perhaps more significant.  The unwillingness on the part of both the French leadership to enforce the policy strictly, and the reluctance of various client and allied states to cut off themselves off from their only supply of New World commodities, prevented the Blockade from ever becoming a significant force. 

Therefore, in this discussion I will aim to dispel the myth of Trafalgar as the significant event that saved Britain from invasion. Rather than Glover’s theory that Napoleon looked to rebuild a fleet, I will show that instead there was serious potential for a Napoleonic invasion of Britain until 1807 based upon a Napoleonic acquisition of the fleets of the other major European maritime powers.  In the discussion, I will also look to discuss the idea of the Continental Blockade, and why it posed a significant threat to Britain, but then I will discuss the reasons that the Blockade never came to fruition as a serious danger to the British.  I will challenge the idea of the Marxist perspective of the threat to the British export trade, and elaborate further on the reasoning behinds its inability to exert heavy pressure on the British economy.  I will show that Trafalgar did not end the threat of invasion for Britain, and that this threat realistically ended in 1807.  I will also argue that the means by which Napoleonic France could have damaged Britain economically were not grasped by Napoleon, resulting in him damaging his own position more than he could damage that of the British.

[1] Brendan Simms, ‘An odd question enough’. Charles James Fox, the crown and British policy during the Hanoverian crisis of 1806’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 3, (Sept., 1995), pp567-596

[2] Eli Filip Heckscher, The Continental System: An Economic Interpretation, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1922)

[3] Felix Markham, Napoleon, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963)

[4] G. Lefebvre, Napoleon Vol.2, From Tilsit to Waterloo, 1807-1815, translated by J.E.Anderson, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1969)

[5] J.M. Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte, His Rise and Fall, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell & Mott Ltd., 1963)

[6] Geoffrey Ellis, The Napoleonic Empire, (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1991)

[7] Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807-1815, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996)

[8] Jeremy Black, Western Warfare, 1775-1882, (Chesham: Acumen Publishing Ltd, 2001)

[9] François Furet, Revolutionary France 1770-1880, translated by Antonia Nevill, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1992)

[10] François Furet, Revolutionary France 1770-1880, p257

[11] Christopher Lee, Nelson and Napoleon: The Long Haul to Trafalgar, (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2005)

[12] Richard Glover, ‘The French Fleet, 1807-14; Britain’s Problem; And Madison’s Opportunity’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 39, No. 3, (Sept., 1967)

[13] Richard Glover, ‘The French Fleet, 1807-14; Britain’s Problem; And Madison’s Opportunity’, p233

[14] George Cannings, ‘Ulm and Trafalgar, 2nd edition’, London, 1806, Oxford University,, accessed 16/03/2012

[15] Benjamin West, ‘The Death of Nelson’, 1806, Walker Art Gallery,, accessed 15/03/2012

[16] Andrew Lambert, ‘The Magic of Trafalgar: The Nineteenth-Century Legacy’, in David Cannadine, Trafalgar in History: A Battle and its Afterlife, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p157

Sparta and the build-up to the Peloponnesian War – Part One

Sparta700Sparta and the build-up to the Peloponnesian War – Part One

Sparta maintains a certain place in our modern psyche as a culture so alien to us that it fascinates throughout the ages. Sparta of c700-371 was a state based upon the principles of military excellence and perfection, dependent upon a system of slave labour and alliance systems in which the aim was to avoid war to ensure survival. By building such a dominant and fearful force, Sparta was often able to avoid conflict. Her system of governance and culture still fascinate and surprise people today, so it is only right that we have a discussion here about the Spartan system.
My main source that I will be using is Xenophon’s Politeia of the Spartans, translated by J. M. Moore (1975).
Sparta was a city situated in the Peloponnese of Greece, the most southern part of the Greek peninsular. As you can see from the map below, Sparta is situated in the South-Eastern Peloponnese, in Laconia.

Over the eighth-century BCE, she fought a series of wars with Messenia, her westerly neighbour, and by the end of the century had subdued them, making them helots, or Greek slaves. The Spartan enslavement of fellow Greeks was a peculiarity in Ancient Greece, and something you weren’t seen to properly do. The enslavement of the Messenian helots allowed the Spartans to create a system of life in which the pursuit of military dominance was paramount.
As they possessed vast amounts of Helots who could till the land, Spatran Males were able to concentrate solely on the business of military training. The life of a Spartiate warrior began with the checking of a new born to see if there were any deformities or frailties in the child, and would be discarded if so. At the age of 7, a Spartiate boy citizen would be taken from his family and put through the Agoge system. This system would toughen up the boy, seeing him enter a world where his skills of combat, education and socialising would be directed by the state. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, young men would be placed into a communal system, where bonds would develop under the supervision of elder young Spartiates. Each young Spartiate would be put under the guidance of an older male system, and some argue that this took on a form of sexual nature. At the age of eighteen, the Spartiate, if successful, would be admitted to a mess hall in which all provided equal amounts of food. These men would eat, sleep and live together until the age of 30, creating a strong bond.
Sparta never possessed a large army, perhaps numbering at its height roughly 10000 citizen soldiers. Their image as a strong military power meant that they rarely fought, and they felt the need to not have a city wall as they believed the men provided the wall of the city. In order to call upon greater numbers of men, the Spartans would call upon the Perioikoi, Lakonians who were not full Spartiates but were freemen, or upon their Peloponnesian League allies.
Sparta became the dominant Land based power, and took the leadership of the Greek cities during the Persian Wars of 480/79 BCE, whilst Athens provided the leadership of the navy under a Spartan general. After a failed undertaking in the Ionian Greek part of Anatolia, Sparta recalled her general Pausanias, and took no further part in the war against Persia. In the meantime, the Athenians took over from the void left by the Spartan withdrawal, forming the Delian League in 478 and continuing to attack Persian landholdings in Anatolia.

J.M.Moore, ‘Aristotle and Xenophon on Democracy and Oligarchy’, (L.A; University of California Press, 1975)
Terry Buckley, ‘Aspects of Greek History 750-323BC: a source based approach’, (London; Routledge, 1996)
Paul Cartledge, ‘The Spartans: An Epic History’, (N.Y; The Overlook Press, 2003)
Philip de Souza, ‘The Peloponnesian War 431-404BC’, (Oxford; Osprey Publishing, 2002)

The causes of the Peloponnesian War – The Megarian Decrees

The Causes of the Peloponnesian War: Part 3 – The Megarian Decree

As we have previously discussed, there were three suggested reasons from our ancient sources of the spark for the outbreak of the War. The Megarian Decree was the final spark that ignited the 27 year long struggle for dominance between Athens and her empire, and the Spartans and her allies. Thucydides glosses over the Decrees, and we can understand this as he was an Athenian citizen and inclined to see Athens as the victim in the struggle. However, The Decrees formed a major part of the outbreak of major hostilities and deserves a post devoted solely to it.
The Megarian Decree was a series of 4 decrees (questionably four…but for the sake of the blog we will go with the idea that there was four) were designed to break Megara through economic isolation. Megara was a city state situated on Just to the East of the Peloponnesian Isthmus and was a member of the Spartan Peloponnesian League. PeloponnesusCities

The reason for the Decree was accordingly due to the cultivating of sacred Athenian land and the killing of an Athenian herald. There is little evidence for this in the sources that we have available, and the Decree itself reduces the belief that this was the reason. All Megarian citizens were excluded from trade within the Athenian Empire, and if it were down to the cultivating of sacred land, it would seem weird to have the merchants and other citizens of Megara punished rather than merely the Megarian agriculturalists.
After the war over Corcyra and the subsequent treatments of Potidaea and Aegina, the Corinthians were on bad terms with the Athenians and Megarian ships had taken part on the Corinthian side at the Battle of Sybota. Jona Lendering argues that the Megarian Decrees were an attempt to isolate Corinth further by imposing sanctions on cities that supported the Corinthian cause. The Megarians complained to Sparta, her hegemonic power, and subsequently saw the Spartans threaten war unless the Decrees were revoked. The Idea that the Spartans were ordering the Athenians to do something, rather than take it to arbitration under the terms iof the treaty of 446 meant that the Hawkish faction in Athens were able to take the ascendancy. Pericles (the greatest of the Athenian Democrats in this period) believed he could isolate Corinth, but was mistaken in his belief of the Spartan reaction. The rejection of the demand to revoke the Decree gave the Spartans justification for war.

Further Reading:

Jona Lendering, Megarian Decree

Terry Buckley, Aspects of Greek History, Chapter 17

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Chapter 1

Robert J Bonner, ‘The Megarian Decrees’, Classical Philology, Vol. 16, No. 3 (JUl., 1921, pp238-245

The causes of the Second Peloponnesian War, 431 – 404 BCE – Part Two: Athens’ treatment of Potidaea and the complaints of Aegina

The causes of the Second Peloponnesian War, 431 – 404 BCE – Part Two: Athens’ treatment of Potidaea and the complaints of Aegina

Last time we spoke about the issue surropunding the Athenian alliance with Corcyra, and the deterioration in relations and descent into war between Corinth and Athens. Athens was as yet not at war with the Spartans, rather precariously placed instead, in a war with Corinth. The next major flashpoint occurred in consequence to the events with Corcyra. The Chalcidice
In 432, immediately after the events at Corcyra according to Thucydides, the Potidaeans were ordered by the Athenians to demolish one of their walls, give hostages to the Athenians, and to expel and no longer permit Corinthian magistrates to the city. Potidaea was founded by Corinth, and was a Corinthian colony based in the Chalcidice of Greece, but was subjected into the Athenian’s Delian League C458/7, and therefore was a tributary ally of Athens. Thucydides argues that the Athenians took these measures as a precaution against Corinthian subterfuge in the areas of vital importance to Athens, such as the Chalcidice and the Black Sea, where Athens imported much of her timber (essential for her shipbuilding) and grain supplies. Thucydides states that:
“It was feared that they might be persuaded by Perdicas [the Macedonian leader] and the Corinthians to revolt, and might draw the rest of the allies in the direction of Thrace [Modern European Turkey, Eastern Greece, and Bulgaria] to revolt with them. These precautions against the Potidaeans were taken by the Athenians immediately after the Battle of Corcyra.”
Thucydides is very defensive of the Athenian actions, and understandably so when we know of his background, yet the argument arises over the Potidaeans decision to approach both Athens and Corinth with delegations, the former in an attempt to persuade the Athenians to rebuff their demands, and the latter to gain support if Athens were to attack. Theoretically, if the treaty of 446 is stuck to, the Corinthians broke the truce by accepting the demands of the Potidaeans for support, and by helping a listed Athenian ally to revolt. This attempt to undermine the Athenians resulted in a force of 2000 Corinthian and Peloponnesian volunteers, not state directed, being sent to Potidaea, whilst the Athenians sent two forces, combined equalling 3000 hoplites and 70 ships. After a hard fought battle outside Potidaea between Potidaea, the Volunteers and their allies in the Chalcidice, and Athens, the latter emerged victorious and laid siege to the city, lasting into the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431, and only coming to a conclusion in 429BCE.
What is interesting about this event is the persistence of the Corinthians to break the treaty of 446, and to attack Athens wherever she could. The Athenians were understandably aggrieved at the introduction of Corinth into what essentially was an internal Delian League dispute. Yet there was another event, against Aegina, which Thucydides alludes to, but does not provide any detail. Terry Buckley rightly defines this event as another major catalyst in the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities, and although it is still open to interpretation as to the reasons for the Aeginetan’s complaints in secret to the Corinthians, it is obvious that this had a factor on the eventual decision for war by the Spartans. It is possible the Aegina was a listed ally in the 446 treaty, or that she was unable or unwilling to pay the full amount of her tribute to Athens in 432, but what isn’t disputable is the fact that there was hostility and grounds for complaint by the Aeginetans.