Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts: The Thief of Europe comes to England

Wonders, Curiosities and Found Facts. An occasional series exposing the dimly lit recesses of history. In the course of writing books set in various historical periods, I continually come across remarkable details known only to a few people.

Today: Napoleon Bonaparte on England’s shores – and an unusual witness.


BY JULY 1815, NAPOLEON BONAPARTE was a beaten man. The previous month, his renewed bid for power had come to a bloody end at Waterloo. Accompanied by his mistress and a small retinue of followers and advisers, the defeated Emperor fled Paris, heading for the coast.

He hoped to board a ship for America, where the government was sympathetic to his cause. However, the French ports were blockaded by the British Royal Navy. Escape was impossible, and in mid-July Napoleon offered his formal surrender to Captain Maitland, commander of the British man-of-war HMS Bellerophon

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Napoleon in captivity, 1815 (sketched aboard HMS Northumberland en route to St Helena).

With Bonaparte and his retinue aboard (occupying the best cabins on the ship, to the disgruntlement of some of the officers who had to give up their berths), Captain Maitland set a course for England, and a few days later dropped anchor in Tor Bay, off the coast of Devon. A messenger was despatched to London to inform the government. The Times took great satisfaction at the news of Napoleon’s capture:

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Should Bonaparte be executed? Imprisoned, exiled? While the government wrestled with the problem of what to do with the monster now that they’d got him, Maitland waited … and waited. For safety, he upped anchor and sailed for the more sheltered waters of Plymouth Sound, arriving on Wednesday 26 July.

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The ship’s arrival caused a sensation. Plymouth in those days was Britain’s premier naval base, and the Sound and the Tamar estuary were lined with warships. Now, with Napoleon’s arrival, the waters became even more crowded. Every man, woman and child in England wanted to lay eyes on the tyrant, the bloody usurper, the “Thief of Europe”. They travelled from all over country to Plymouth, where their carriages clogged the roads for miles; they hired boats and cruised about HMS Bellerophon and her escorts, hoping for a glimpse of the Emperor. Napoleon’s vanity was legendary, and he revelled in the attention, making a point of showing himself on deck or at the stern windows. Women in particular were thrilled by the sight of him.

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Sightseers surrounding HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, July 1815.

The press of boats became so intense that cannon and muskets were fired to warn them off. According to Maitland:

The crush was so great, as to render it quite impossible for the guard-boats to keep them off; though a boat belonging to one of the frigates made use of very violent means to effect it, frequently running against small boats, containing women, with such force as nearly to upset them, and alarming the ladies extremely. The French officers were very indignant at such rude proceedings, saying, ‘Is this your English liberty? Were such a thing to happen in France, the men would rise with one accord and throw that officer and his crew overboard.’

Every man and woman strained to witness every detail of the great man:

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Among the people who witnessed the spectacle was Dr James Barry, a young Army surgeon based at the Military Hospital in Plymouth. It was of particular interest to him, because Napoleon was not the only French arrival that month; thousands of his soldiers captured in the Waterloo campaign were brought through Plymouth en route to the prison at Dartmoor, and hundreds of their wounded were treated by the British surgeons at the hospital. Again the Times reported:

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JB Miniature cam2In his way, Dr James Barry was as remarkable a figure as Bonaparte; a rather slight and effeminate person, who could be variously charming and foul-tempered, Barry was in fact a woman in disguise.

Dr Barry's real name was Margaret Bulkley; she had adopted the persona of “James Barry” in 1809, in order to study medicine. Circumstances had trapped Margaret in her disguise, and she had taken advantage of it to fulfil her girlhood fancy of being a soldier.

In August, Napoleon was transferred to a different ship and taken to his final exile on the island of St Helena. The following year, James Barry also left England behind, sailing for his first overseas posting, to the Cape Colony in southern Africa. There his distant connection with Bonaparte would resume, when he became physician to Napoleon’s adviser, the Comte Emmanuel de las Cases – the man who had originally negotiated the Emperor’s surrender and was subsequently sent into a separate exile at the Cape.

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Napoleon and his followers aboard Bellerophon. Las Cases is the figure in civilian dress in the centre of the group at left.

Many years later, after Napoleon’s death, James Barry found himself serving as medical officer on St Helena – he had a volatile time there, and just as Napoleon had arrived there a prisoner, James Barry departed as one, bound for England under military arrest.

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You can read the the whole story of James Barry’s incredible life and career – including his relationship with las Cases and his arrest in St Helena – in Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time by Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield, coming August 2016 from Oneworld Publications.

Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time has been selected for BBC Radio 2’s Fact Not Fiction Book Club – find out more and download a free extract.

© Jeremy Dronfield 2017