Jane Austen & the Wars

Part IV: 1803-1806

1803-1804: War Returns

By the spring of 1803, it was patently clear that Napoleon was not living up to his agreements. His behind the scenes machinations could prove a dire threat. Britain also realised that, in many respects, they were stronger than France, although that lead could soon disappear. On May 1, 1803, Britain declared war. Within days British ships were off Brest, and capturing French vessels in the Channel. Napoleon was furious. He immediately ordered the arrest of all British travellers. Henry and Eliza were nearly trapped in France. Fortunately, Eliza’s French was good enough to pass for a national (Henry undoubtedly keeping his mouth shut), and they made a rapid escape to England. Many more were not so lucky. It is estimated ten thousand were interned, many for the next eleven years.

Britain’s insolence spurred Napoleon into a characteristic burst of energy. He massed 160,000 troops on the coast and built several hundred barges to carry them across the Channel. From 1803 though to late 1805, the United Kingdom was never entirely free of the fear of invasion. From time to time, amongst the more excitable, it bordered upon waves of hysteria. On a more whimsical note, English parents frequently used “Boney” as a bogeyman to frighten small children into obedience.

The British Government now had to enlarge the military power of the nation. However, government parsimony hampered any real effectiveness. Great faith continued to be placed upon the Militia and Volunteers. Militia quotas were increased, to be part of Addington’s proposed “Army of Reserve." The Militia was expended to 100,000 (half to be selected by ballot) who would serve a five year compulsory term. (The “Army of Reserve” never became a reality.)

The projected number of Volunteers was 300,000. Within a few weeks this figure was achieved. Volunteering was immensely popular. Young men could don fine uniforms and engage in interesting activities, while being exempt from the militia ballot. It had the additional attraction of an opportunity to thrash a foreigner, and a French one at that. However, numbers were not enough. Clothing these numbers was a fairly minor difficulty, merely transferring civilian talents to a new purpose. Arms were an entirely different matter. A proposal to issue pikes was sneered upon. So popular were the Volunteers that in August the government put a stop to the creation of new units in areas where the numbers were six times that of the Militia. Contemporary records frequently mention bodies of men drilling on the various greens and commons, and of earthworks being thrown up at various points deemed of tactical importance.

Despite these fears, the majority of Englishmen enjoyed the summer, and treated the threat of invasion with a sense of detachment, even if they occasionally cast one nervous eye towards the Channel. The Austens visited Dorset. Brother Henry expanded his business, obtaining the Agency of the Nottinghamshire Militia and the North Devon Militia. Lieutenant Charles returned to the Endymion until he was promoted in October and transferred to the sloop Indian (18 guns, built 1805 at Bermuda) serving on the North Atlantic.

Frank received orders as well,

”Whereas it has been judged expedient for the more effectually preventing the landing of an Enemy in this Country, that the Inhabitants of the Towns and Villages on the Coast, who shall voluntarily offer themselves for its protection, shall be enrolled in their respective Districts, under the name of Sea-Fencibles; and whereas we think fit to appoint you to command all such Men as shall enroll themselves under the description above-mentioned: -- From Sandown exclusive to the No. Foreland inclusive - You are hereby required and directed to repair forthwith to Ramsgate, and take upon you the command of all such Men as from time to time enroll themselves within the said District, for the Defence of the Coast accordingly.”

(Fencibles served under Regular discipline, but could not be sent to serve outside the United Kingdom.) He arrived at Ramsgate in July and did duty there until the spring 1804. While he lived there he was noted for his devoted nature (the officer who knelt in church”). He also met Mary Gibson, they became engaged and only awaited enough prize money to marry

On the other side of the Atlantic, France lost the possession of, or at least the control of, several Caribbean islands, due to British sea power. As winter approached, maintaining an absolute blockade of the Continent became impossible (largely due to storms). This heightened the fears of Napoleon attempting the “jump the ditch” (as he so boasted) while the Royal Navy was temporarily dispersed or in port.

That spring of 1804, Frank returned to the sea aboard the Leopard (50 guns, built 1790 at Sheerness) stationed off Boulonge.. About that same time Mrs. Austen became seriously ill. It is believed that sometime during this year Jane began work on the Watsons. On December 2 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. In May of 1804, Pitt returns as Prime Minister. He formed a scheme to raise 80,000 effective militia, as well as the construction of defensive works. However, Pitt’s main focus was upon forging of new Continental alliances. That summer the Austens visited Lyme Regis, which featured prominently in Persuasion, written about eleven years later. The autumn brought a renewed increase in invasion fears.


At the end of 1804, the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon continued to contemplate the elimination of his most dogged annoyance, England. The possibility of invasion remained a persistent threat. In theory, Britain could call on 460,000 to defend the island, but only the Regulars and full-time Militia could really be counted upon. While those bodies were benefiting from reforms and improvements, the Volunteers remained deficient in organisation and discipline, many still lacking arms. Amongst Jane Austen’s military siblings, Henry continued to act as an Army Agent; Charles was still aboard the Indian (stationed at Halifax), and Frank on the Leopard (at Dungeness).

On December 16, 1804, (Jane Austen’s 29th birthday) Madam Anne Lefroy went out riding, fell, and died a few hours later. She was buried on the 21st. Jane's immediate reaction not recorded, but she wrote a series of verses in her honour four years later.

On January 21, 1805, after a very brief illness Reverend Austen, Jane's father, died. She wrote of it to Frank,

“I have melancholy news to relate, & sincerely feel for your feelings under the shock of it….Our dear Father has closed his virtuous and happy life, in a death almost free from suffering…. He was taken ill on Saturday morning, exactly in the same way as heretofore, an oppression in the head, with fever, violent tremultousness & a great Feebleness….his worth & constant preparation for another World, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking nothing….”
On January 29, she wrote to Frank, saying their mother had found a “small astronomical instrument” (she believed a compass and sundial) which belonged to their father, asking if she should send it to him, along with a pair of scissors.

Their father's death greatly reduced the Austens’ circumstances. The sons contributed what they could; Cassandra had a small legacy, but Jane had nothing. Frank, scheduled to be posted to a new ship from which he hoped to earn £500 per year, offered £100 annually for his mother’s upkeep. She accepted half that amount. (Henry chided him for being so secretive about this, saying he would add £50 a year, as did James. Henry calculated his annual income from all sources would be £450. Such dependence upon the charity of her brothers shows just how important those matches depicted in Jane’s various novels truly were.

Early in February Frank had a month’s leave, which he used to take his fiancée, Mary Gibson to London. On March 25, Mrs. Austen and her daughters moved to number 25 Gay Street, Bath.

At the end of March, Prime Minister Pitt who had been ill, rallied. In addition to the various domestic and military issues he had to face, he continued to work on the diplomatic front. His hope was the establishment of a Third Coalition, which would include Britain, Austria, Russia and Sweden (Spain was allied with France). The Continental powers would provide the bulk of the troops, while Britain would contribute supplies and money.

In March, Frank was posted to the Canopus (80) (which also has a passing reference in “Mansfield Park”). The Canopus was formerly the French ship of the line Franklin (after Ben Franklin), which had been captured at the Battle of the Nile. Nelson commented he was pleased to give Frank that ship, “he cannot be better placed…. Captain Austen I knew of a little before; he is an excellent young man.” Admiral Louis raised his flag aboard that ship.

During April, Martha Lloyd (following her mother’s death) moved in with the Austens. The early summer of 1805 was cool, wet and windy. In June 1805, Jane and her mother travelled to Godmersham Farm, near Canterbury, the home of Fanny Bridges. Against this backdrop, Napoleon continued preparations for the invasion of England. Frank and the Leopard were posted to blockade Boulogne where a large number of invasion barges were located.

Napoleon, seeing the Royal Navy as the single greatest obstacle, and one he could not easily defeat in an open battle upon the seas, formulated a plan. He would dispatch Admiral Villeneuve, with a large part of his navy, on a dash across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. There, the valuable sugar islands (and possibly the “sugar fleet”) could be threatened. This, he knew would draw a significant proportion of the Royal Navy away, where they would be unable to oppose the French attempt to cross the Channel. The French fleet would then race back, where they could help support the invasion. Villeneuve set off, followed by Nelson. The British public, knowing only that the West Indies were threatened, and Nelson was not near at hand (should the French try anything) were understandably nervous. Feverish activities could be observed in the French ports. The Volunteers were called up, and outbound convoys were delayed. Jane Austen may, or may not have known that amongst the ships hurrying westward was the Canopus. Meanwhile, England waited nervously for information.

August 18, Nelson and Victory arrived at Portsmouth during a burst of summer heat. The West Indies had been saved. After he had reached the Caribbean, Villeneuve made a few minor raids and threatened the sugar trade. When he learned Nelson was also in the area, Villeneuve promptly headed back a cross the ocean. Upon reaching England, Nelson received a rapturous welcome, a victory that was that much more cherished after a long string of failures and disappointments.

In her letter to Cassandra (Godmersham Farm, August 30) Jane reveals how the war could impact even rather mundane social activities.

”Next week seems likely to be an unpleasant one to this family on the matter of game. The evil intentions of the Guards are certain, and the gentlemen of the neighbourhood seem unwilling to come forward in any decided or early support of their rights. Edward Bridges has been trying to arouse their spirits, but without success.”

It is thought that the reference to the Guards, was that of the Coldstream and Scots Guards marching from Chatham to Deal. There had been activity reported on the Continent (Napoleon was actually shifting troops from the coast to the Danube). It is possible that the fear was the officers would indulge in a bit of shooting themselves, to the detriment of the local hunters.

On the morning of September 6, a tremendous storm broke over southern England, followed by a period of heavy rain; the remainder of the month was sunny. In the third week of September, England learned that Austria and Prussia were leaning towards war. Then on October 20, came news that Napoleon was on the Danube. At Ulm, the slow moving, and tradition bound Austrian army was no match for the rapid marching and tactically flexible French, ending in a resounding defeat. Vienna was occupied, while another Austrian army was beaten in Italy. Rumours of this defeat were confirmed on November 3. Two days later came news of the victory of Trafalgar (fought on October 21; Admiral Croft of Persuasion was created as a veteran).

Prior to that engagement, Nelson had formed a plan that did away with traditional “fighting instructions” of two long lines of ships meeting. Instead, he proposed to break the enemy’s line at right angles at two points. On morning of Oct. 19, topsail yards were sighted in Cadiz harbour and soon after the French fleet was leaving. At daybreak the Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships was engaged. Realising he could not outrun the British Villeneuve turned to fight. Nelson was mortally wounded at the height of the battle. The engagement ended with eighteen ships captured. In England the public response was very mixed, “The Combined Fleet is defeated but Nelson is no more.” The nation went into shock. There were no illuminations, speeches or other signs of celebration. Public feelings were a mixture of “sensations of transport and anguish.”

Jane needed not have been anxious for her brother, as she would have found Canopus missing from the list of ships engaged. During September, Nelson had been concerned about the fleet’s supplies. On September 28, he dispatched the Canopus along with other ships for provisions and water. Nelson assured Admiral Louis it was unlikely he would miss any action. Those ships spent three days provisioning at Gibraltar before heading to Tetuan for water. A frigate arrived with orders to take five ships of the line and three frigates and escort a convoy bound for Malta, as far as Cartagena. On October 21, just after leaving the convoy, intelligence was received that the French fleet had left Cadiz. Louis’ squadron fought contrary winds in a race to join the expected battle. Frank wrote Miss Gibons at this time,

“I do not profess to like fighting for it’s own sake, but if there has been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious one of my life.”

However, on the 27th, he learned about the Battle of Trafalgar,

“Alas! my dearest Mary, all my fears are but too fully justified… this splendid affair has cost us many lives…to lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience; but, as I cannot write upon that subject without complaining, I will drop it for the present….”
Not only did Frank miss the honour of having been in one of history’s greatest naval battles, he also lost out on the Prize money. (My research has only turned up a single, unverifiable figure of £973 granted to Captains who participated in the battle.) On October 31 Francis was again off Cadiz, buoyant to have escaped his Mediterranean “prison." The evening before he had boarded the Euryalus and met the captured Admiral Villeneuve. He found the Frenchman, “has not much the appearance of a gentleman.” Canopus being one of the fittest ships was assigned to maintain watch over Cadiz (close blockades were also kept on Brest, Cartegena and Toulon).

As the year drew to a close, British hopes for victory were rising. Ulm and the death of Nelson had been low points, but other smaller victories, and what Trafalgar really meant, were beginning to sink in. However, on the last day of 1805, news came of the Battle of Austerlitz (December 2). Napoleon had decisively beaten the combined armies of Austria and Russia. The former asked for truce, the latter retreated.

The “year six” (1806) of ”Persuasion” opened gloomily with the news of defeats on the Continent and the funeral of Nelson (January 9), whose body arrived at Portsmouth on December 5. That month Jane visited Steventon with her mother and Cassandra, returning to Bath at the end of month.

On January 23, Prime Minister William Pitt died.. The Tory government could not survive his death. Gradually a coalition of Pitt’s old foes emerged under the leadership of Lord William Grenville. Its makeup was very diverse, including new and old Whigs and many other factions. It was dubbed “The Ministry of all Talents." However, it was clear that the real leader was Charles Fox. Fox had many qualities, he was intelligent and little escaped him. Overall he was good humoured and tolerant. However, he also had the ability to enrage both his friends and foes, and at times showed a lack of energy. In addition, his light touch appalled many at such a critical point in time. The new Ministry lacked any real focus. While most were resolved to see the war through to its conclusion, many did so with a pessimistic undertone. The biggest problem was they lacked the aptitude to govern or lead. Quite simply, the Whigs had been out of power far too long.

The nation was shocked at this turn of events, but was resigned to the future. Hopes were raised that peace might still follow. Napoleon responded, but only as a sham to buy time while seeking other advantages. Despite these sentiments and drawbacks, the army was strengthened, short-term enlistment was allowed and a bill provided for 4,000 Irish Militia to be transferred to the Regulars each year. Legislation was also passed for the creation of a true “militia” based upon County; with no substitutes being allowed or bounty given. The aim was to organise and train a potential 300,000 men.

The early year was also marked by a number of successes. In January, six thousand men were sent on an expedition to capture Cape Town. In February, a naval action off San Domingo advanced the careers of Francis Austen. Back in December 1805, Sir John Duckworth, commanding six ships of the line (including the Canopus) and two frigates learned that two French squadrons had managed to break from Brest and headed west. He set off in pursuit, caught his quarry off Santo Domingo, and engaged them on February 6.

The first three ships of the British line engaged the French, Alexandre, Imperial and Diomede. The Canopus, leading the lee squadron, fired a broadside into Alexandre, taking down her tottering masts. Captain Austen then steered for Imperial and Diomede. The first stood towards land, followed by the Canopus which continued firing until her foe ran aground with such force her masts toppled over the side. Five vessels were taken, only a single French frigate and some small boats made their escape. In his letter to Mary Gibson, Frank described how the first broad side from the Canopus “brought our opponent’s three masts down at once” and at the close of battle he ”had the satisfaction of giving the three-decker a tickling which knocked all his sticks away.”

In early May, the squadron returned to Plymouth with three prizes. Frank was presented with a silver vase worth 100 vase from Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund. He also received a gold medal upon leaving the Canopus. This money, and the expectation of a quick reassignment probably helped Frank and Mary set July 24 as the date of the marriage. Likely feeling it would be best for everyone, he arranged for a move to Southampton (not far from Portsmouth), with Mary living with them. Later Frank used some of his prize money to join Henry in setting up Austen, Maunde and Austen, Agents. Amongst their clients were the Derbyshire Militia, and of 4th Garrison Regiment.

(Later, when Jane was writing "Persuasion", Captain Wentworth was “made commander in consequence of the action off St. Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806”, were he met and engaged Anne Elliot.)

On July 2, 1806, the Austens left Bath, with Jane expressing, “happy feelings of escape."


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

Details on St. Domingo can be found online in Maggie Sullivan's article, "Wentworth Makes His Bones The Battle of St. Domingo: February 4, 1806 in the Jane Austen Centre Magazine.

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

               < < Part III                                                    Table of Contents                                              Part V > >

Sophia's Home page