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, http://www.archive.org/details/ulmandtrafalgar00canngoog, accessed 16/03/2012

[15] Benjamin West, ‘The Death of Nelson’, 1806, Walker Art Gallery, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/19c/west.aspx, 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

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