Jane Austen & the Wars

Part VI: 1807-1809

From Bath to Castle Square

In England the impact of the Continental System had been severe. In two years the value of exports to Northern Europe had fallen from ten to two million pounds. Mills and factories closed. This led to pressure from merchants and the declaration of an Order-in-Council in January 1808. This stipulated that all ports that excluded ships flying the British flag were to automatically be declared blockaded; neutrals could trade if they stopped off at a British port and paid a reshipment duty. This was intended to hurt France and her allies, but it was also hard on English trade, and equally, if not more so on neutrals. Shortly afterwards, the United States passed the Embargo Act, confining American ships to home waters, and preventing foreign vessels from leaving or picking up cargoes.

Napoleon was incensed at Portugal’s failure to join the Continental System. In October he assembled an army to invade that country. The Portuguese Regent attempted to placate both his nation’s oldest ally (Great Britain) and the Emperor to little avail. (Napoleon had previously arranged a deal with Spain to divide Portugal.). The French marched rapidly into Portugal. On November 8, terrified at the speed of the French advance, the Portuguese Regent declared he must adhere to the terms of the Continental System. Napoleon ordered Marshal Junot to press on,. On November 29 the Regent was evacuated to Brazil. The following day Junot entered Lisbon at the head of 2,000 men.

On December 17 the French countered the Orders-in-Council with the Milan Decree. This outlawed any neutral vessels that submitted to search, or touched at British ports, making them legitimate targets for French privateers. Despite the Royal Navy’s best efforts there were still about 200 privateers operating in the Caribbean, and more in the East Indies.

In January 1808, Frank was back at Spithead, but he returned home briefly. Jane wrote to Cassandra (February 20),

”Frank's going into Kent depends, of course, upon his being unemployed; but as the First Lord, after promising Lord Moira that Captain A. should have the first good frigate that was vacant, has since given away two or three fine ones, he has no particular reason to expect an appointment now. …Frank has got a very bad cough, for an Austen; but it does not disable him from making very nice fringe for the drawing-room curtains.”
He soon got an assignment, escorting a convoy of East Indiamen from St. Helena, a British provisioning station.

In March 1808, 100,000 France invaded Spain under the pretext of guarding the coast against a British attack. They coerced Charles IV into abdicating in favour of his son Ferdinand. He in turn renounced the throne, and Napoleon replaced him with his brother Joseph Boneparte. This resulted in a widespread popular uprising in May, which forced the French out. By the end of June the insurrection had expanded to Portugal. However, the French returned in strength and after bitter fighting recovered Madrid on July 20. Another French army marching on Cadiz was surrounded by Spanish forces at Baylen, and compelled to surrender (partially from lack of water). This pushed the British government to hastily organise a force and dispatch it to Portugal.

Things were not going well in Britain. The Orders-in-Council continued to harm trade. It effectively stopped the importation of American cotton, ruining many weavers. (It was estimated a weaver needed to work six fifteen-hour days in a week to earn a mere six shillings.) On May 24, thousands poured into Manchester, where a charge by the 4th Dragoons and local Yeomanry dispersed them. Jane and Henry were in London at this time.

On the Atlantic, Charles Austen aboard the sloop Indian captured the French privateers Jeune Estelle, and Exchange (June 19, 1808). He undoubtedly held high hopes for what financial rewards that this would bring.

The summer also brought the return of Frank and the St. Albans, escorting a convoy of East Indiamen. On June 30, Jane wrote from Godmersham, “I give you all joy of Frank’s return, which happens in the true sailor way, just after our being told not to expect him for some weeks. The wind has been very much against him, but I suppose he must be in our neighbourhood by this time.”

However, on the way Frank’s ship encountered the brig Raven, which delivered news that France had occupied Spain. Rather than returning to port, he was directed to the English Channel where Brigadier-General Anstruther and his staff came aboard (July 22). The fleet consisted of twenty-three transports, plus escorts. The troop and supply ships were bad sailers, so they did not clear the Channel until August 5. Upon reaching Corruna, they were redirected to Figuero Roads, Mondego Bay, where they landed. The first British success was the capture of the village of Rolica (August 15). It was about this time that Wellesley learned overall command had fallen upon Lieutenant-General Sir Hew Dalrymple, Governor of Gibraltar, who was nearly sixty and had not seen active service since 1794.

The next major clash was the Battle of Vimeiro (August 21), a victory for the British, who were unable to follow it up due to lack of cavalry. This affair could plainly be seen by the fleet, the officers observing though their spyglasses. Frank Austen would have had a ringside seat. The next day the navy sent all the boats ashore to assist in taking off the wounded to the hospital ships. French prisoners were likewise taken on board of the transports. On September 2, the ships arrived at Spithead, delivering their cargo to the hospitals and hulks. Frank was in British waters until January 1809, during which time he and his family moved to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight

Any advantage Wellesley had gained through combat and manoeuvre was negated when Dalrymple, instead of pressing the enemy, agreed to the Convention of Cintra (August 30). By this, the French agreed to evacuate Portugal with their arms, men, and baggage (including a large quantity of booty), carried to France in British ships. This was naturally widely criticised, leading to Dalrymple’s court-martial. Junot’s evacuated force represented only a portion of the French Army in the region, so the war continued elsewhere.

In September at the Congress of Erfurt, Napoleon summoned Alexander of Russia, four lesser kings and 34 Princes, to reinforce the Franco-Russian alliance. In mid October, the British under Moore began their march into the northeastern mountains of Spain, which was soon slowed by torrential rains. The French, however, were not idle. By the end of November they had 120,000 troops in Spain, with the Emperor himself arriving to take charge. That month the French were victorious at Burgos and Espinsa. On December 13, Madrid capitulated. This turn of events forced Moore into a nightmare fighting retreat to Corunna. Bad weather and the lack of provisions almost destroyed the army. Yet a large portion managed to reach that port and were evacuated (January 16-17, 1809). In the fight to cover the embarkation a cannonball struck Moore, removing his left shoulder, and he died shortly afterwards.

Jane learned that Frank would take part in the evacuation, “ The “St. Albans perhaps may soon be off to help bring home what may remain by this time of our poor army, whose state seems dreadfully critical." (Jane to Cassandra, 10 Jan 1809)

The long disastrous retreat to Corruna, and the death of Moore, did much to dishearten the nation. Moore himself was saved much of the blame through his death. The General had spent his last hours issuing orders and directing that specific officers be singled out for recognition and promotion. Jane wrote, ”This is grievous news from Spain. It is well that Dr. Moore was spared the knowledge of such a son’s death.” (Jane to Cassandra, 24 Jan 1809) In her letter to her sister of January 30, 1809, she elaborated further,

We were very glad to know Aunt Fanny was in the country when we read of the fire. Pray give my best compliments to the Mrs. Finches, if they are at Gm. I am sorry to find that Sir J. Moore has a mother living, but though a very heroic son he might not be a very necessary one to her happiness. Deacon Morrell may be more to Mrs. Morrell

I wish Sir John had united something of the Christian with the hero in his death. Thank heaven! we have had no one to care for particularly among the troops -- no one, in fact, nearer to us than Sir John himself. Col. Maitland is safe and well; his mother and sisters were of course anxious about him, but there is no entering much into the solicitudes of that family."

The situation indeed looked bleak for England. The expedition to Spain had cost 8,000 of the original 35,000 sent out. The army and its leadership had, in many eyes, performed poorly. The Spanish were viewed as completely lacking in bravery, energy and trustworthiness. However, the British retained a toehold in Lisbon with 10,000 men, Cadiz and Seville were still resisting, and the guerrilla war continued.

On December 1, Charles’ cruise came to an end. Jane wrote to Cassandra (Jan. 24) that he feared his French prize, a schooner loaded with sugar, never reached Bermuda. Bad weather parted the two vessels, and he heard nothing more of her. Worse, it had twelve of his men including two midshipmen aboard. He expected to sail the following Tuesday with a small convoy to St. Domingo with the schooner Vesta (10, 1806 Bermuda), and once there would open his sealed orders.

Claire Tomalin in her “Jane Austen, A Life” comments that Jane had reached the age of 39, and was settling into the role of maiden aunt. Letters from this time period indicated Jane had recovered her spirits and was actively taking part in the social life at Southampton. On January 30, 1809, she wrote Cassandra,

“A letter from Hamstall gives us the history of Sir. Tho. Williams's return. The Admiral, whoever he might be, took a fancy to the "Neptune," and having only a worn-out 74 to offer in lieu of it, Sir Tho. declined such a command, and is come home passenger. Lucky man! to have so fair an opportunity of escape. I hope his wife allows herself to be happy on the occasion, and does not give all her thoughts to being nervous.”
(Williams was one of Charles’ former captains, and was married to Jane Cooper, JA’s niece.) In February Charles wrote from Bermuda with news of the birth of a daughter (Cassendra Esten, Dec. 22, 1808). Later in the year, Charles was again on the North American station with the Indian . His duty was chiefly sailing along the US coast, engaged in “right of search” for British deserters, and looking for illicit trade in violation of the Orders-in-Council.

In January of 1809, Joseph Bonaparte was crowned King of Spain. However, the conflict was far from over. England, despite a string of defeats, remained unbowed. British military strength had been reduced to 200,000 effectives, including 22,000 in the Mediterranean, and 63,000 overseas. Lisbon held out, as did Seville and Cadiz, and the Royal Navy continued to keep the French confined to the Continent. The Spanish armies had been smashed, but resistance continued.

In February the scandal of Mrs. Clarke (the Duke of York’s former mistress) selling commissions at bargain rates broke. This particular disgrace had a fairly short life. While there was much anger towards the Tories, the public was not convinced the Whigs could do better. Nor were they seen as patriotic enough. People disliked the government, but hated Napoleon more. On March 13, King Gustavus IV of Sweden was arrested and forced to abdicate (March 29), and his uncle, Charles XIII became monarch. In the middle of the month news arrived of the capture of Martinique, with further operations in the area expected.

In April Archduke Charles announced that the Austrian army was on the march and appealed to the whole German people for a war of Liberation. Only Tyrol rose in revolt. In a rapid string of victories the French smashed the Austrian army. On May 13 Napoleon captured Vienna, but that did not end the war. He then crossed the Danube and fought the Battles of Aspen and Essling (May 21-22), where he was defeated and forced back across the river. He joined forces with the Italian Viceroy, Eugene, recrossed the river and won the Battle of Wagram (July 5-6.) The war ended a few days later.

Meanwhile, fears arose when the French fleet escaped from Brest. However, they only moved to a new anchorage under the guns of Aix Roads, close to the Spanish frontier. On April 11, the Royal Navy attacked with fireships. Little damage was done, but several ships ran aground attempting to flee.

On April 22, Wellesley landed in Portugal. At first the outcome seemed uncertain. In the lead up to this operation the British Government had made arrangements to arm and train the Portuguese army under Major General Beresford. It was proposed that the new campaign would utilise 20,000 British, 3,000 Hanovarians, and 16,000 Portuguese regulars. While the lines near Wellesley remained relatively calm, the French army captured Oporto (May 21) with an orgy of rape and murder. By June Wellesley was ready to march into Spain. The timing was ripe. A large part of the French army had gone eastward to Austria or to the north-west to fight insurgents. However, lack of specie and transportation, vital in an area with little food, delayed him until the end of the month. Wellesley launched a speedy advance that caught the French flat-footed. His crossing of the Druro (May 12) was so audacious that it met little resistance.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Austen fell ill during March. Frank was off to China, and his wife and daughter moved into a cottage near the Austens. On April 5 Jane was attempting to publish Susan. She corresponded under name of Mrs. Ashton Dennis with Crosby & Company. She received a curt reply expressing lack of interest, and an offer to return the manuscript if she repaid them the £10. Another author had published a novel with the name “Susan” that June, prompting Jane to retitle the book Northanger Abby and change the main character’s name to “Catherine”. On May 15, Mrs. Austen and her daughters arrived at Godmersham. News of Wellesley’s successful crossing of the Druro reached London on the 22nd, which greatly heartened the country. The Austens received their own good news, they would be moving into Chawton Cottage in early July.


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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