Jane Austen & the Wars

Part III: 1801-1803

At the end of 1800, Napoleon wielded great power upon the Continent. Only Turkey and Portugal were not under his sway. Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia formed the Armed Neutrality League, which in effect, established a blockade of England. A great fleet was outfitting in the Baltic, a further threat. In February 1801, Austria made peace with France.

In war-weary England, wheat was four times what it was at the start of the war; the 6d loaf had risen to 17d. However, that nation remained Napoleon’s most irksome opponent. Within a few months half of the shipping in the Baltic had been taken by the British. Pitt authorised an army of 220,000 regulars and Fencibles, and 80,000 Militia, plus a fleet of 220 ships of the line and 250 frigates. The cost was estimated at 68 million pounds. A few days later, the King showed signs of his old madness and by month’s end his health was despaired of.

On January 1st, the Union with Ireland was proclaimed despite opposition from the more fanatic elements of the Protestant minority and the dissolute aristocracy. This welded Britain and Ireland into a single kingdom, abolished the Dublin parliament, established the Anglican Church, and allowed Ireland to kept its own Courts of Justice and civil laws. The Union (“Jack” is a term that technically only applies when flown from a ship), the United Kingdom’s current flag, was adopted. However, no Catholics were allowed to hold public office, and there was no Catholic Emancipation. At best, it was a temporary expedient, buying a breathing space during a troubled time. It settled nothing in the long term.

That January, Henry resigned his commission in the Oxfordshire Militia, to become an Army Agent. Along with Henry Maunde (a fellow ex-officer of the Oxfords), he established H.T. Austen & Co. About a month later they became the official Agent for their old Regiment. In February, the Austens were preparing for their move to Bath. A message came that Charles, on his way home, was becalmed off Plymouth.

In March the King was reported much improved. On the 14th, Pitt resigned as Prime Minister, replaced by Henry Addington. On April 2, Nelson attacked Copenhagen, sparking the “telescope to the blind eye” myth. British gunnery overwhelmed the Danish defences and smashed much of their fleet. The Danes soon after withdrew from the Northern Convention, dissolving that alliance.

During March the British landed in Egypt. Following some initial successes the situation was sealed when the British, rather than the French, fleet arrived with reinforcements. This news, the first real defeat of French arms since 1793, arrived in England in May. Despite these military successes, the outlook on the home front continued to look bleak. The sixth bad harvest in a row, plus the stoppage of Baltic grain, led to continued shortages which drove the price of foodstuffs even higher. This sparked even greater discontent, strikes and demonstrations. Fortunately, in mid-May, Russia raised the embargo on British ships.

The Austens moved to Bath in May. At the end of the month they went for a holiday in the West Country. In September they visited Steventon and Ashe, before returning to Bath in early October. In a letter, dated May 26 Jane wrote,

“The Endymion came into Portsmouth on Sunday, and I have sent Charles a short note…. He has received £30 from his share of the privateer and expects £10 more, but of what avail is it to take prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaz crosses for us; he must be well scolded….”
These crosses and chains found their way into the story Mansfield Park written about ten years later.

While England, and the Austens were enjoying the summer, Napoleon was forming a sham invasion force. Troops were assembled and boats built and moved to locations along the Channel coast that were a potential threat to Essex and Kent. Some were alarmed, but most simply went about their daily lives, with one eye cocked to the south. By the end of the year, even if they were not fighting a hot war, both France and Britain were plainly exhausted.

On 27 March 1802, the Peace of Amiens was declared. Britain recognised French hegemony on Continent, and returned the West Indian islands captured from the French (Trinidad and Ceylon), and returned the Cape to the Dutch. France recognised the Republic of the Seven Ionian Islands, and restored Malta to the Order of the Knights of Malta. Some British leaders were ashamed of the Treaty's terms, but the majority accepted it as less costly than a continued conflict. The breathing space it gave England was seen as its greatest benefit. For most, it was simply welcomed as a chance to get back to normal.

Peace of Amiens, 1802

In England, news of the Peace was greeted with illuminations, fireworks, feasts, sermons and other expressions of joy. Addington abolished the income tax, and other levies. Within weeks the military establishment was reduced, the army was almost halved to 95,000, plus 18,000 in Ireland. The Militia likewise fell to about 50,000, plus half that number in reserve. Henry’s business was, of course, substantially reduced. Charles left the Endymion and visited the family in Bath and accompanied them on their summer holiday. Frank, who had been appointed Captain of the Neptune (98 guns, built 1797 at Deptford), stationed at Portsmouth, was preparing to be paid off. His parents (without his sisters) visited the ship.

The end of war brought everything French back in fashion. Thousands crossed the Channel to tour France and the Continent. Many travellers found conditions in France better than before the Revolution, and the populace surprisingly friendly. Order and prosperity were slowly returning. Only the old estates and churches failed to show signs of repair. Most travellers were charmed and exited by what they saw, a few found France lacked taste and refinement. Thousands of exiles returned. Many, hoping to regain some of their property and set up home again. Amongst the returnees were Henry and Eliza hoping to recover at least part of the de Feuillide estate.

On August 2, Napoleon was named “Consul for Life”. Many in England saw this as an incidence of growing absolutism in France. This, and other incidents lead to a rise in anti-French sentiments. Behind the facade, France was perceived as a military culture where political power was held at the point of the bayonet, and the ability to criticise the Government was prohibited, very unlike England. It became increasingly clear another war was coming. Addington, re-instituted the income tax (although at a lower rate), and the naval establishment was increased. Pitt, meanwhile, gave the impression of cooling his heels and staying out of public life.

On the evening of December 2, Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Jane, and she accepted. By the following morning she had changed her mind. Jane and Cassandra returned to Steventon, and then set off to Bath immediately. Over the winter, Jane revised Susan (NA), selling it that spring to the publisher Crosby of London. (Who failed to use it.)


Further details on the Royal Navy ships mentioned in this series can be found at Ships of the Old Navy.

If you are interested in commenting or discussing anything in this series the Dregston Chronicle Board has graciously been made available.

The author may be contacted at: jeverett@sympatico.ca

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