Jane Austen & the Wars

Part V: 1806-1807

From Bath to Castle Square

In the summer of `1806, Napoleon was firmly in power. In July he created the “Confederation of the Rhine”, which placed the German states under French auspices. On August 6th Archduke Charles laid aside the title of head of the “Holy Roman Empire”, only retaining the emperorship of Austria.

After leaving Bath (July 22), the Austens visited Clifton before moving on to Aldestrop, the home of Mrs. Austen’s cousin Reverend Thomas Leigh. This was part of the estate where the younger Mr. James-Henry Leigh and his family lived. Meanwhile, Frank married Mary Gibson at Ramsgate (July 24). In early August the Adlestrop family went to Stoneleigh Abby. In mid August they visited the Coopers at Hamstall Ridware, for five weeks.

On September 2, news arrived in England from Italy. Back in January 1806, 7,000 British troops had joined 14,000 Russians in the Mediterranean. After receiving news of Napoleon’s string of victories, the Russians withdrew to Corfu. On July 1st Major General Sir John Stuart, without orders, landed in Italy, intent upon making a raid. . On July 4, the French advanced against them at Maida. Despite being outnumbered (7000 to 5000) the steady British line, and reverse slope tactics threw off repeated attacks. However, Stuart lacked the resources to continue the campaign and withdrew to Sicily. Although it was a relatively minor engagement, and changed little strategically, it was a major psychological victory for the British. The legend of French invincibility was broken. It also validated the new tactics the British were adopting – something not lost upon the future Duke of Wellington.

Elsewhere, British military fortunes had not gone so well. In September news arrived from Buenos Ayres. Sir Home Popham had gathered a force of units “borrowed” from the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena, landed and captured that city in June. Resistance was disorganised and the viceroy fled with treasury. Popham tried to impose an oath of loyalty, but the citizens refused. He also seized the treasury, worth about one million dollars. However, the enemy rallied and in August Buenos Aires was recaptured, and General Beresford surrendered. In the interval, the British government severely criticised the irregularity of Popham’s actions, but banked the gold to great cheers from the mob. In October, a relief force was sent out from Britain, and gained most of their objectives within a month. However, Buenos Aires held out and the attackers found themselves engaged in costly street fighting and finally had to negotiate an evacuation.

Enclosed in a letter from 1807, in Jane’s handwriting, was a brief poem,

Of a Ministry pitiful, angry, mean,
A gallant commander the victim is seen.
For promptitude, vigour, success, does he stand
Condemn'd to receive a severe reprimand!
To his foes I could wish a resemblance in fate:
That they, too, may suffer themselves, soon or late,
The injustice they warrant. But vain is my spite,
They cannot so suffer who never do right.
On September 13, Prime Minister Fox died. During the previous month he had undergone two operations for dropsy. Despite his doctor’s protests he had continued to attend the House of Commons. Although he had not gained peace, he had at least gained time for England. His last speech had been against the slave trade. The opposing vested interests failed to unite and the resolution abolishing that practice was carried by both Houses and gained Royal Assent on May 1, 1807.

Meanwhile, major developments were taking place on the Continent. On October 14, news arrived of Prussia’s mobilisation, and their demand that all French troops withdraw from Germany. Although, Britain had been suspicious of Prussia’s real intentions, many hoped that Prussia’s Army would live up to their reputation. These hopes were soon dashed, for on that same day the armies collided at the Battles of Jena and Auerstadt. The Prussian armies were completely routed and collapsed, along with any organised will to resist. Stories filtered back of Prussian fortresses surrendering to single cavalry squadrons. Berlin was occupied.

During that October the Austens called at Steventon, joining Frank, waiting his next assignment, and his wife Mary. Mary was nearing confinement during a difficult pregnancy, complete with fainting spells. They then all took lodgings at Southampton. Jane found this new situation called on her to deal with more visitors than she preferred, ”Our acquaintance increase too fast. He [Frank] was recognised lately by Admiral Bertie, and a few days since arrived the Admiral and his daughter Catherine to wait upon us.” Some modern commentators have surmised JA was also at this time depressed by their reduced circumstances and her various bereavements.

On November 21, Napoleon issued his Berlin Decree, creating “The Continental System”, a blockade of Great Britain and the closure of the Continent to British Trade. For a brief time England’s commercial interests despaired, but soon rallied. When Prussia joined and closed her ports, the Royal Navy retaliated, and soon seized 3000 vessels. Early in 1807, Britain countered with a series of Orders-in-Council. At first they authorised the seizure of any neutral vessel sailing between ports closed to the British. Later this was modified to only apply to those carrying goods between French territories. The close of the Continental trade hurt England, but she was able to diversify her markets.

In early February (1807) the bloody but indecisive Battle of Eylau, was fought between the French and Russians. It was a victory for the latter, but they were unable to follow up their victory. On February 17, a British squadron under Admiral Duckworth forced the passage of the Dardenelles, but had to retreat in March with the loss of two ships. In March the British occupied Alexandria and held it until September when Turkish military pressure led them to withdraw.

In February the Austens moved into a larger home on Castle Square (Southampton) with a pleasant garden, a short walk from city wall which afforded a view of Isle of Wight (Fanny Price’s “the Island” in Mansfield Park).

In March the British government fell. The Whigs had had noble intentions but had mismanaged the war, dispersing resources into far too many minor side-shows. Lord Grenville was talented, but he lacked breadth of vision, as well as being unable to focus on the key to the nation’s problems. The Duke of Portland led the Tories. While he did have the ability to reconcile differences, it did not always extend to his ministers, who were largely old Pittites.

Frank had long hoped for, and been promised, command of a frigate (which represented his best chance to capture prizes). On March 23, he was given command of St. Albans (64, 1764 Blackwall) then fitting out at Sheerness. His assignment was convoy duty to South Africa, China and the East Indies. Getting her ready for sea kept him away from home and he missed birth of his first child, Mary-Jane. The St. Albans left Sheerness May 21, arriving at Spithead a few days later. He may have been able to attend Mary-Jane’s christening on the end of the month. . Frank then spent a month at home before sailing for the Cape on June 30.

Charles also had good news. Since 1804 he had been on Right of Search Duty off the coast of the United States, ensuring neutral countries (like the US) were not trading with France. While stationed in Bermuda, he met the Chief Justice, Mr. James Christie Esten, and his sister in law, Miss Frances Fitzwilliam Palmer. They became engaged in the spring of 1806, and married on that island on May 19, 1807. However, it would be four years before they were able to come to England. In April, James Tilson, one of Henry’s Oxfordshire Militia friends joined his partnership. and they moved their office to Covent Gardens.

That summer England learned that on June 14, the Russians had been defeated at the Battle of Friedland. This loss, plus increasing bitterness felt over the paltry financial aid coming from Britain, led the Russians to make peace with Napoleon. The Tsar and the Emperor met on a raft in the middle of the Neiman River and signed the Treaty of Tilst. (July 7).

To the ill news coming from the Continent, the stifling heat of the summer added to the nation’s discomfort. It was so hot that haymakers working in Buckinghamshire fainted. There were also rumours that the successful French Army might turn their attention back to England.

At the end of July, Admiral Lord Gambier anchored off the Skaw, Denmark. The Government, fearing the French might seize the Dutch navy for their own use, had sent an offer to the Francophile Crown Prince. The British offered to “rent” the Danish navy for the duration of the war at £100,000 a year. This was rejected, largely because nearby France was a far greater danger. On the morning of August 16 British troops landed, overcame limited opposition and reached the outskirts of Copenhagen. On the evening of September 2, the fleet began a three-day bombardment of the city, compelling the Danes to surrender. The British gained fifteen battleships and thirty smaller vessels. While some in the Opposition decried this interference with a nominally non-hostile nation, most in England applauded the operation.

During August the Coopers visited Southampton. After they left Mrs. Austen and her daughters went to visit Edward at the Chawton Great House, James brought his family as well. (Edward had inherited property in Steventon and Godmersham as well.) On September 11 the Austen ladies, plus Edward and his family, returned to Southampton.


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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