It’s all Greek to me..

This post concludes the story of my great-great-great-grandfather’s naval service that I started a couple of posts ago. On leaving HMS Atholl, he was posted to HMS Blonde.


HMS Blonde by Robert Dampier (1825)

It is unclear how James got to the Blonde because at the time of his joining, the ship was already in the Med, its new captain, Edmund Lyons, arriving with it in Malta in May 1828.

HMS Blonde was a 46-gun frigate, considerably more powerful than either of the ships James Hubsdell had previously served on.

Edmund Lyons was a rising star in the service, described in letters to the fleet commander as “’a man of intelligence and great ability” who was “blessed’ with military competence”.

In October, after having for some time blockaded the port of Navarin (modern Pylos, Greece), Lyons was in charge of directing the movements of the naval part of an expedition ordered to co-operate with the French in the siege of Morea Castle, the last hold of the Turks in the Peloponnesus. During an arduous service of twelve days and nights, in very unfavourable weather, which preceded the castle’s unconditional surrender, he distinguished himself to the extent that he was invested with the insignia of the order of St. Louis of France and of a Knight Commander of the Order of the Redeemer of Greece.

In the summer of 1829 the Blonde conveyed Sir Robert Gordon as Ambassador to Constantinople and thereafter undertook a cruise around the Black Sea to become the first British warship to visit Sevastopol, the Caucasus, and Odessa: 25 years later, Lyons was the only senior officer involved in the Crimean War to have prior knowledge of the Black Sea.

In 1831 Lyons was appointed to command of the frigate HMS Madagascar at just about the time my ancestor James Hubsdell left the service.

After leaving the navy James Hubsdell went on to a number of manual jobs and he lived to a ripe old age for the time. He died just after the census of 1881, aged 80, at which time he was living in his son’s house and although in the intervening years he had described his occupation as everything from “general labourer” to “dairyman”, just before his death he described himself as “sail-maker”…. perhaps recalling a period of his life that meant more to him. Who knows?

An anti-slavery ancestor…

This post continues the story of James Hubsdell, my great-great-great-grandfather who enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1821. He served on three ships during his 10-year service – the Chanticleer, the Atholl and the Blonde. My previous post told of his time with the Chanticleer.

This time I will describe his action-packed time on the Atholl.

hms athollThe Atholl-class corvettes were a series of fourteen Royal Navy sixth-rate post ships built to an 1817 design by the Surveyors of the Navy. HMS Atholl, the first of the type, was built at Woolwich Dockyard. Ordered on 27 October 1816, she was laid down in November 1818, launched on 23 November 1820 and entered service on 9 February 1821.

When James Hubsdell joined her, as a sail-maker, on 6 Oct 1824 she was at Portsmouth.

From there she set off to join the West Africa Squadron based out of Freetown Sierra Leone.

So what was the West Africa Squadron?
In 1807 the British Parliament passed a bill prohibiting the slave trade. The act did nothing to end slavery within the nation’s borders, but did prohibit the overseas transportation and trade in slaves. To enforce the law, Britain patrolled the seas off the coast of Africa, stopping suspected slave traders and confiscating the ship when slaves were found. The human cargo was then transported back to Africa.

By 1818 the squadron had grown to six ships with a naval station established in 1819 at what is now Freetown and a supply base at Ascension Island, later moved to Cape Town in 1832.

The resources were further increased; in the middle of the 19th century there were around 25 vessels and 2,000 personnel with a further 1,000 local sailors. Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.

Intercepting Slavers…

When the Atholl arrived on station off the West African Coast she immediately began to intercept suspected slave ships and the record of some of these actions survives in detail:

“7 Mar 1825, detained in lat. 5° 21′ N., long. 13° 13′ W., in the River Gallinas, the Spanish slave schooner Espanola, Francisco Ramon Roderiguez, Master, 270 slaves on board when detained, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Spanish Mixed Court of Justice, Sierra Leone, and sentenced to be condemned.

1 Sep 1825, detained in lat. 4° 12′ N. long. 5° 33′ W., off Cape Formosa, when bound from St. Thomas in the West Indies to the West Coast of Africa the Dutch slave schooner Venus, Andre Desbarbes, Master, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Netherlands Mixed Court of Justice, Sierra Leone and on 23 Sep 1825 sentenced to be condemned.

9 Sep 1825 the when in company with the Esk and Redwing, detained in lat. 2° 23′ N. long. 4° 17′ E., the Portuguese slave schooner Uniao, Jozé Ramos Gomis, Master, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone, and 21 Oct 1825 sentenced to be condemned.”

The Uniao was a notorious slaver that had made numerous runs across the Atlantic. After interception, the slaves being carried aboard were all listed and the first page of the list from the Uniao comprises entirely children.

uniao roster

The Atholl’s busy time on the African coast continued:

“15 Sep 1825 departed Prince’s Island in company with the Maidstone, Esk, Redwing and Conflict, who departed in execution of their various orders.

17 Oct 1825, detained off Whydah, the slave brig George and James, whch was sent for adjudication to the Vice-Admiralty Court and sentenced to be condemned.

11 Nov 1825 boarded the Activo off Elmina.

12 Nov 1825, detained off Elmina Castle, the Dutch slave schooner Amable Claudina, Claudio Picaluga, Master, with 36 slaves on board when detained, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Netherlands Mixed Court of Justice, Sierra Leone and sentenced to be condemned.

25 Nov 1825, detained in lat. 3° 31′ N. long. 0° 54′ E., when bound from Lagos to Bahia the Brazilian slave brigantine San Joao Segunda Rosalia, the late Amara Joze da Silva, Master, with 258 slaves on board when detained, 72 of whom died on the passage up to Sierra Leone. Was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone, and was condemned on 9 Feb 1826.”

As an indication of the type of experience these bare facts describe, I thought I would include a couple of illustrations.

Below is a drawing of a slave ship detained in 1822, around the time of the Atholl’s patrols, showing how the slaves were housed:

slave ship vigilante 1822

The following excerpts are from an account by the Reverend Robert Walsh who served aboard one of the ships assigned to intercept the slavers off the African coast. On the morning of May 22, 1829, a suspected slaver was sighted and the naval vessel gave chase. The next day, a favorable wind allowed the interceptor to gain on its quarry and approach close enough to fire two shots across her bow. The slaver heaved to and an armed party from the interceptor scrambled aboard her. We join Reverend Walsh’s account as he boards the slave ship:

“When we mounted her decks we found her full of slaves. She was called the Feloz, commanded by Captain Jose’ Barbosa, bound to Bahia. She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, 336 males and 226 females, making in all 562, and had been out seventeen days, during which she had thrown overboard 55. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatchways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other’s legs and were stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day. As they belonged to and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep with the owner’s marks of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me with perfect indifference ‘burnt with the red-hot iron’…

But the circumstance which struck us most forcibly was how it was possible for such a number of human beings to exist, packed up and wedged together as tight as they could cram, in low cells three feet high, the greater part of which, except that immediately under the grated hatchways, was shut out from light or air, and this when the thermometer, exposed to the open sky, was standing in the shade, on our deck, at 89 degrees. The space between decks was divided into two compartments 3 feet 3 inches high; the size of one was 16 feet by 18 and of the other 40 by 21; into the first were crammed the women and girls, into the second the men and boys: 226 fellow creatures were thus thrust into one space 288 feet square and 336 into another space 800 feet square, giving to the whole an average Of 23 inches and to each of the women not more than 13 inches…

It was not surprising that they should have endured much sickness and loss of life in their short passage. They had sailed from the coast of Africa on the 7th of May and had been out but seventeen days, and they had thrown overboard no less than fifty-five, who had died of dysentery and other complaints in that space of time, though they had left the coast in good health. Indeed, many of the survivors were seen lying about the decks in the last stage of emaciation and in a state of filth and misery not to be looked at…
While expressing my horror at what I saw and exclaiming against the state of this vessel for conveying human beings, I was informed by my friends, who had passed so long a time on the coast of Africa and visited so many ships, that this was one of the best they had seen. The height sometimes between decks was only eighteen inches, so that the unfortunate beings could not turn round or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great that the Negroes, like the English in the Black Hole at Calcutta, are driven to a frenzy…”

But even if such vessels were intercepted, their fate was still not certain as the last example from the Atholl’s log shows.

“1 Feb 1826, detained in Lat. 4° 24′ S. Long. 9° 37’ W., en route from Badagry to Pernambuco, the Brazilian slave brig Activo, 149 tons, José Pinto de Araujo, Master, with 166 slaves on board when detained, 2 of whom died on the passage up to Sierra Leone, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone on 17 Feb 1826 which was subsequently restored to her master, having been detained south of the Equator, despite the fact that the slaves were embarked north of that line.”

This last case shows how ridiculously complicated the rules were around slave trading during this period when different countries were gradually tightening their rules on the trade – the trade south of the equator was deemed still to be legitimate as Brazil had not signed up to any agreements and their trade was off limits to the Navy’s blockade. As a result of the inquiry into the capture of the Activo, Captain Murray of HMS Atholl was ordered by the court to pay the slavers over £11,000 compensation, the equivalent of  £1.2m today.

Shortly after this episode, the Atholl was detached from the West Africa Squadron and sent to the East Indies on diplomatic and anti-piracy duties. She was recorded as being in Madras on 29 May 1826 before departing for Rangoon on 14 June. It wasn’t until early 1827 that she set sail for home.

James Hubsdell left the ship in October 1827 and joined HMS Blonde the following year. But that is for another post.

The Chanticleer

James Hubsdell was my great-great-great-grandfather, born in about 1800 in Gosport who enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1821. He served on three ships during his 10-year service – the Chanticleer, the Atholl and the Blonde – as shown in his service record.

james hubsdell service record

During his time with each vessel it seems like he must have seen some “interesting” service and the first was HMS Chanticleer.

HMS Chanticleer was a Cherokee-class 10-gun brig and was launched on 26 July 1808. She served in European waters (mainly the North Sea) during the Napoleonic Wars and was paid off and laid up at Sheerness in July 1816 at the end of those wars. It is unclear when she was brought back into service but on 23 October 1821 Captain Henry Eden took command. He sailed her to the Mediterranean, where he was “very efficiently occupied during the revolution in Greece.”

Commander Burton MacNamara replaced him in July 1822 and for the next two years the ship was employed in a number of mostly diplomatic missions around the Mediterranean.

During that time her ship’s surgeon William Black wrote an account of the cruises and illustrated it himself. The following is from his book:


Chanticleer in the Port of Pireus, Athens

When piracy out of Algiers recommenced under Huseyn Dey the Chanticleer was sent to join the fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Neal which bombarded Algiers. This action was notable as the first recorded use of a steam ship in action.

Shortly afterwards, Charles James Hope Johnstone took command of the Chanticleer in September 1824 when my ancestor transferred to the Atholl, bound for the west coast of Africa….

…the subject of a separate post.

A catechism of Terror…

robespierre_cropMaximilien Robespierre, the architect of the Terror during the French Revolution in which the state killed tens of thousands of its own people, penned his own catechism of Terror on the eve of coming to power in 1793. Like the Catholic catechism it mocked, it was structured in the form of questions and answers.

The central section concerned overcoming the “ignorance” of the common people.

Question: What are the obstacles to their enlightenment?
Answer: The paid journalists who mislead the people everyday by shameless distortions.
Question: What conclusion follows?
Answer: That we ought to proscribe these writers as the most dangerous enemies of the country…

trump_angryDuring his presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump pursued a systematic policy of disparaging the mainstream media. Since becoming President his attacks have become more specific and vitriolic.

On 17 Feb 2017 he Tweeted the following:

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

I may be mistaken but I doubt if Trump or his advisers have read Robespierre’s catechism of Terror. Maybe they have read the work of Friedrich and Brzezinski who, in the 20th century, formalised the defining characteristics of totalitarianism, I don’t know. But one of the six defining characteristics they list is the control of the means of communication.

People argue about whether or not we can learn anything from history.

Well it’s about time America woke up and smelled the coffee.

A naïve and sentimental super-hero…

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Cochrane became one of the most celebrated naval heroes of his day. Napoleon dubbed him Le Loup des Mers (literally ‘The Wolf of the Seas’) and his career inspired C.S. Forrester’s fictional hero Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey. He was an inspiring leader and innovator, yet his political naivety and radical outspokenness almost cost him everything.

Thomas Cochrane was born at Annsfield, near Hamilton, in Scotland in 1775, the son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald. He joined the navy at the age of 17 on the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 as a midshipman serving in HMS Hind, a frigate commanded by his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane.

In less than three years Cochrane was promoted lieutenant and then in 1800 promoted to commander, taking command of the brig-sloop HMS Speedy later that year. In his 13-month cruise aboard the Speedy, Cochrane captured, destroyed or drove onshore over 50 enemy vessels. His most notable exploit was the capture of the Spanish xebec frigate El Gamo, on 6 May 1801. El Gamo carried 32 guns and 319 men, compared with Speedy’s 14 guns and 54 men. Cochrane flew an American flag and approached so closely to El Gamo that its guns could not depress to fire on the Speedy’s hull. The Spanish tried to board and take over the ship but each time they massed to attack, Cochrane pulled away briefly and fired on the concentrated boarding parties with his ship’s guns. Eventually, Cochrane boarded El Gamo, despite being outnumbered about five to one, and captured her.


HMS Speedy captures the frigate El Gamo

Given command of the new frigate HMS Pallas (32) in 1804, he cruised the Azores and French coast capturing and destroying several Spanish and French vessels. Transferred to HMS Imperieuse (38) in August 1806, he returned to terrorizing the French coast. Now a master of coastal warfare, Cochrane frequently led cutting out missions to seize enemy ships and captured French coastal installations.

But in 1809, his star came crashing down.

At the Battle of the Basque Roads in April of that year, Cochrane’s initial attack using fire ships greatly disrupted the French fleet. But his commander, Lord Gambier, failed to effectively follow up to completely destroy the enemy. Elected to Parliament in 1806, Cochrane had sided with the Radicals and frequently criticized the prosecution of the war and campaigned against corruption in the Royal Navy. These efforts had lengthened his list of enemies in higher office. Publically criticizing Gambier in the wake of Basque Roads, he alienated many more senior members of the Admiralty. Their retribution was swift and Cochrane was removed from his command and denied any other. Though loved by the public, he became isolated in Parliament as he angered his peers with his outspoken views.

In 1814, his fall was made humiliatingly complete. Cochrane was implicated in a stock market fraud based on the rise of government stock following false rumours of Napoleon’s death. In June with five others he was brought to trial for fraud in a trial presided over by the harsh, overbearing and Radical-hating Lord Ellenborough. The outcome was never going to be in question and, even though the prosecuting counsel admitted the evidence was circumstantial, Cochrane was found guilty.


An 1815 caricature “Things as they have been. Things as they are now.” depicting Cochrane as the naval hero on the left while the right side shows him as the disgraced and imprisoned civilian

Cochrane was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, fined £1,000 and was ordered to stand in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange for one hour. In subsequent weeks, he was dismissed from the Royal Navy by the Admiralty and expelled from Parliament following a motion in the House of Commons. Cochrane was further humiliated by the loss of his knighthood in a degradation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. His banner was taken down from the Chapel of Henry VII in the Abbey and physically kicked out of the chapel and down the steps outside.

Persona non grata in his own country, Cochrane elected to sell his military services overseas. He went on to command the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies, helping them fight for independence. In 1831 he succeeded to his father’s title, becoming 10th Earl of Dundonald.

Returning to Britain, Cochrane was finally pardoned in May 1832 at a meeting of the Privy Council. Though restored to the Navy List with a promotion to rear admiral, he refused to accept a command until his knighthood was returned. This did not occur until Queen Victoria reinstated him as a knight in the Order of Bath in 1847. Now a vice admiral, Cochrane served as commander in chief of the North American and West Indies station from 1848-1851. Promoted to admiral in 1851, he was given the honorary title of Rear Admiral of the United Kingdom three years later. Troubled by kidney stones, he died during an operation on October 31, 1860.

Cochrane was buried in the central part of the nave of Westminster Abbey. The inscription, written on his tomb by Sir Lyon Playfair, reads:


Madame Bubbles…

veuve clicquot

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in December 1777 and was the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer and politician in Reims.  Through her father’s political nouse and careful choosing of sides the family survived the Revolution relatively unscathed and in 1798 Barbe-Nicole married  Francois Clicquot, whose family was active in textiles and wine. The young man was particularly interested in wine, and his new bride joined him in learning the business but they struggled to make it work.

In 1805, Francois Clicquot died suddenly, leaving behind a 27-year-old wife, a young daughter and a failing business. The widow Clicquot, rather than withdrawing into domesticity or finding herself another husband, instead threw herself into the business, focused on wine production and changed the company name to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. “Veuve” being the French for “widow”.

veuve-clicquot-labelThe task before her was daunting with the Napoleonic Wars raging across Europe, disrupting trade and flattening national economies. But her father-in-law believed in her and backed her with sufficient finances.

Under her management and her skill with wine, the company enhanced the production of champagne using a novel technique called riddling.



Prior to this invention the second fermentation of wine to create champagne resulted in a very sweet wine with large bubbles and sediment in the bottle from the remains of the yeast used in the fermentation. This residue resulted in the wine being cloudy. Veuve Clicquot’s technique still used the original English technique of adding additional sugar, but after this second fermentation was complete the bottles were held upside down. They were then turned a fraction each day so that the dead yeast would all gather near the cork. This is what became known as remuage (or riddling in English). Once the settling was complete, the wine near the cork was removed and topped up with fresh wine to refill the bottle.

The widow’s commercial breakthrough came in 1814, ironically with the defeat of France by the allied forces ranged against her. She managed to ship her 1811 vintage, regarded as the first truly modern champagne, to St. Petersburg where it was an immediate hit and opened the door to the Russian market which Veuve Clicquot would dominate for the next 50 years. Pushkin, Chekhov and Gogol all praised her champagne.

The company went from strength to strength. By the 1820s Veuve Clicquot was exporting 175,000 bottles of champagne a year. By the time of her death in 1866 the widow’s house was the largest champagne producer in the world. Now the company has a revenue of over one billion pounds a year.

By way of a footnote, in 2010, diver Christian Ekstrom discovered 46 bottles of Veuve Clicquot near the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. The bottles had been lost en route to Russia, dated back to 1825-1830 and were likely made by the widow. They were remarkably well preserved due to the dark and cold of the seabed and one of the bottles was auctioned in 2011, fetching €30,000 which was a new record for a bottle of champagne at auction.

auction bottle

The most expensive bottle of champagne in history

One other bottle was chemically analysed and showed some interesting results. The level of sugar was much higher than modern champagne. There were also much higher levels of salt, iron, lead, copper, and arsenic(!) compared with modern vintages. The iron probably came from nails used in the wine barrels, and the lead leached from brass valve fittings of the winemaking equipment. It is believed the arsenic and copper originated from antiquated pesticide applied to the grapes.


Up, up and away…!

Sophie_BlanchardSophie Blanchard was a provincial lady with a nervous disposition. Ordinary carriage trips frightened her. Yet she was to go on to become the most famous balloonist of the Napoleonic age and the first female professional balloonist in the world.

Sophie couldn’t claim the title of the first woman balloonist. On May 20, 1784, four society ladies had taken a trip on a tethered balloon in Paris. Sophie also wasn’t the first women to ascend in an untethered balloon. Citoyenne Henri had that honour in 1798. However, Sophie was the first woman to pilot her own balloon and the first to make ballooning her career.

Sophie married Jean Pierre Blanchard, the first professional balloonist in the world, and the couple travelled round Europe giving demonstrations of balloon flying. Although Sophie only began to fly in 1804 in an attempt to draw greater audiences and salvage their business which, through poor business acumen, Jean Pierre had brought close to bankruptcy. They hoped the novelty of a female balloonist would untangle their finances and so it proved.

In 1809, Jean Pierre Blanchard died after he fell from his balloon in the Hague following a heart attack. Thereafter, Sophie continued to ascend alone and began to specialise in night flights combining firework displays with her flights with the fireworks launched from her balloon to add to the spectacle.

Napoleon championed Sophie and designated her the “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals,” making her responsible for organizing ballooning displays at festivals and other events.

On May 4, 1814, when Louis XVIII entered Paris after being restored to the French throne, Sophie ascended from the Pont Neuf  in her balloon as part of the celebration.  The King enjoyed her performance so much that he appointed her “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.”

Sophie’s fame spread throughout Europe and she attracted large crowds to watch her ascents. She even crossed the Alps by balloon, a trip in which icicles formed on her hands and face.

death of sophie blanchard

The death of Sophie Blanchard

On 6th July 1819 she performed her final flight above the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. In particularly windy conditions her fireworks ignited her balloon and it fell from the sky. Hitting the roof of a house in the Rue de Provence Sophie was pitched out of the gondola and fell to her death. She thus achieved her final “first”, being the first female fatality in an aeronautical accident.

Daughter of a soldier, wife of a soldier, mother of a soldier, and the widow of a soldier…

This was the remark of Marie Tête-de-Bois, summing up her own life. She was perhaps the best known vivandière, one of the women who received patents from divisional generals to provide provisions for their men. With their wine, spirits, food and tobacco, their tents provided one of the few havens of comfort and conviviality in the otherwise bleak conditions of military campaigns.

vivandiereTypically they dressed in a modified version of the uniform worn by the unit they were associated with, a cut down tunic worn over the top of heavy wool skirts and sturdy shoes; but their ubiquitous mark of distinction was their canteen strapped over a shoulder.

While some 19th century prints show romanticised images of vivandières as trim and jauntily costumed girls, in reality most of them were probably as hard as nails and about as feminine (Marie was nicknamed Tête-de-Bois because  of her legendary ugliness). The nature of war frequently put them in harm’s way and the rigours of campaign were unforgiving particularly for an army in retreat. The horrors of the war in Spain and in Russia particularly drew no distinction between combatants and non-combatants and camp followers suffered terribly. They had to be tough and take every trial in their stride.

vivandiere 1Catherine Beguin, a vivandière with the 14th Light Regiment once carried her wounded husband for two leagues (about six miles) on her back until she reached the field hospital.

Marie Tête-de-Bois, pregnant at Marengo, gave birth near the battlefield. A passing soldier yelled, “Hey, Marie, you dropped something.” Her son would go on to become a drummer boy at the age of ten (this was common in many regiments), would become an officer and later be made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.

Though the average vivandière may have been a bit of a battleaxe, nevertheless they were often married to a string of NCOs as death claimed one husband after another – for on campaign they were as eligible as any pub landlady 🙂

Catherine BallandThey were brave too as the vivandières were not protected from the dangers of the battlefield.

Catherine Ballard with the 95th Line Regiment, honoured by Lejeune in his painting here, received the Legion of Honour in 1813.

The vivandière of the 63rd Line Regiment was decorated during the Russian campaign of 1812 when she killed a Cossack and saved the life of the commander of the brigade. Elzear Blaze in his memoirs spoke of “the courage of these women which sometimes equalled that of the old grenadiers”.

Inevitably some vivandières came too close to the fighting and became casualties. This was ultimately the fate of Marie. In fighting around Paris in 1814 her husband was killed and she was seriously wounded but she was back by the Hundred Days. At Waterloo she was serving with the 1st Grenadiers of the Guard in her 17th campaign with the army. Around 8pm, near the very end of the day’s fighting, she was killed by a cannonball.

Bonaparte’s close-run thing…

“This battle is lost but there is still time yet to win another.”

Battle of Marengo

Battle of Marengo

It was 5pm on the 14th June 1800 and Napoleon Bonaparte was on the brink of defeat in the vineyards and corn fields of the plain of Scrivia in northern Italy. But his faithful lieutenant, General Louis Desaix, mud splattered and sweating after a frantic ride cross-country, was undaunted, confident that victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat.

louis Desaix

Louis Desaix

The battle of Marengo, the climax of my novel Bitter Glory, had been underway for ten hours already. Lannes’ and Victor’s divisions had held the line unsupported against the bulk of the Austrian army for almost five hours before they were forced into a fighting retreat eastwards. As they withdrew, the Guard Infantry, sent forward to plug the gap between them had become isolated and had been cut to pieces by Austrian cavalry.

For hour after hour the dogged retreat continued. Though the French divisions held their discipline, Bonaparte knew that only the arrival of Desaix’s force could prevent a disaster. What he had expected to be a battle of annihilation, the total destruction of the Austrian army in front of Alessandria, was turning out to be the destruction of his own force.

Thinking to prevent the Austrians slipping away, Bonaparte had sent Desaix south to cut off any escape route there but the great man had been duped, partly due to false reports provided by a double agent in the service of the enemy. Desaix’s mission was a wild goose chase as the Austrians had no intention of trying to get away. Instead they launched their own attack and by 5pm they thought victory was theirs. Their commanding officer, Field Marshal Melas, with an injured hand, had withdrawn from the field, handing over to subordinates for the mopping up exercise.

Meanwhile, to the east, as Desaix’s men gradually arrived on the battlefield, a hastily improvised attack plan was put into action. Desaix attacked at the head of a fresh infantry brigade. Though he was killed by a shot in the chest almost immediately, his men pressed home the attack. The extended columns of the Austrian infantry were taken completely by surprise and then thrown into confusion and flight by a devastating charge by Kellerman, son of the hero of Valmy, at the head of his dragoons. His charge criss-crossed the Austrian columns creating havoc and when an ammunition carriage exploded behind the now panicked Austrians, they broke and fled.

death of desaix

Death of Desaix

This created a chain reaction of panic and rout in the Austrian army. They had been so convinced that victory was theirs that the sudden reverse was utterly devastating for them. Their morale collapsed. By 6.30pm they were in total retreat with thousands falling prisoner to the now rampant French forces.

When the fighting finally ended due to darkness and exhaustion at around 10pm the French forces were back to the positions they started in that morning and the battlefield was littered with thousands of dead and wounded.

Fifteen years later Wellington would famously describe Waterloo as a “damned close-run thing”, but there have been few battles in history that have seen a change of fortune so dramatic and so decisive as Marengo.

Hortense de Beauharnais

Hortense de beauharnais


Hortense Eugènie Cécile de Beauharnais was born on the 10th of April 1783 in Paris, the second child and only daughter of Alexandre and Rose (now better known as Joséphine) de Beauharnais. At the time of her birth, her parent’s marriage was all but over and her premature birth was used by Alexandre’s vindictive mistress, Laure de Longpré, to persuade him that he was most likely not even her father.

From this point onwards the hypocritical Alexandre stoked up his campaign to tarnish his wife’s reputation and she was forced to take up residence in the convent of Panthémont in the Faubourg St Germain, which acted as both a school for aristocratic girls and a refuge for wealthy ladies, who were able to live there unmolested with their children. Things between the couple came to a head in 1785 when Alexandre kidnapped his son Eugène from the convent and Joséphine was forced to legal action to get her boy back. The resulting settlement forced Alexandre to drop his allegations about Hortense’s paternity and her childhood thereafter was pleasant enough with two years spent in Martinique with her mother.

The reason I dwell a little on this is that these events early in Hortense’s life must have influenced her because later in life she was devoted to her mother and readily gave up her own desires to comply with her mother’s wishes.

When Revolution swept through France, Alexandre eventually came under suspicion and, following his failure to defend Mainz during the siege of 1793, he was imprisoned. Joséphine followed him into imprisonment a month later; Hortense and her brother were left in the care of a devoted governess.

Alexandre de Beauharnais was guillotined in July 1794. It looked like Joséphine would follow him but the coup of Thermidor put a stop to the Terror and she was eventually freed in August 1794. Relieved to be alive, Joséphine now threw herself into the fashionable life that had sprung up in Paris after the fall of Robespierre and became a leading light in society thanks to her friendship with Madame Tallien, who had helped to secure her release. With an eye to the political situation she was conscious of the need for a protector and her social standing allowed her to meet many candidates. One particularly caught her attention, an up and coming young general  – Napoléon Bonaparte.

When Joséphine married Napoléon Bonaparte in 1796, Hortense was just shy of her thirteenth birthday. Initially she and her brother were very reserved with respect to their mother’s new husband, but their reticence soon changed to unreserved admiration. Napoléon, for his part, was to act very affectionately towards them. It would turn out in time that his step-children were far more loyal to him than his own siblings.

When she was seventeen, Hortense fell in love with Géraud Duroc, a senior aide to her step-father. She was tall and slender with blonde hair, large blue eyes, a heart-shaped face and fine features; unquestionably a beauty. Napoleon would have allowed a marriage to Duroc, but Josephine, constantly mindful of a need to reinforce her position and her links to the Bonaparte family, had her sights set on a political marriage for her daughter and as a result of her scheming, Hortense was married to Louis Bonaparte on 4 January, 1802.

Louis Bonaparte

Louis Bonaparte

The marriage was not a happy one but the couple had three sons who they confusingly named:

  • Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte (10 October 1802 – 5 May 1807)
  • Napoleon Louis Bonaparte (11 October 1804 – 17 March 1831)
  • Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (20 April 1808- 9 January 1873)

In 1806, Napoleon made his brother the King of Holland, and Hortense reluctantly accompanied her husband to The Hague. Though she was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome she received from the public, she hated her stay there because of her bad, and deteriorating, relationship with Louis. She took up water colour painting and was an accomplished amateur musical composer, supplying the army with rousing marches, including Partant pour la Syrie. She also enjoyed playing games and was even better at billiards than her mother.

hortense beauharnais


When her son died in 1807, Hortense returned to Paris. This tacit separation suited Hortense, and she therefore refused the divorce that Louis wanted, caring little for her own titles and position in the court but looking to her children’s future, a characteristic she had obviously inherited from her mother.

When the marriage of Joséphine and Napoléon came to its inevitable sad end in January 1810, Hortense was on hand to offer support to her devastated mother. Though, both she and her brother made it clear to their stepfather that they would never cease to care about him. Perhaps that was some comfort to him too as he had grown to genuinely love his stepchildren over the years and they never let him down unlike his own family.


de Flahaut

A few months later, when his Dutch kingdom was taken away from him, Louis remained in Holland, turning to writing and poetry.

This left Hortense free to respond to the romantic overtures of the man whom she had long admired, Colonel Charles Joseph, Comte de Flahaut. He was a sophisticated, handsome man rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Talleyrand. They soon became lovers and, early in 1811 Hortense realised she was pregnant again. Confessing all to Eugène and trusting in the loyalty of her household, she went to Switzerland where she gave birth to a son, Charles Auguste Louis Joseph ( 21 October 1811 – 10 March 1865). The success of the expedition reveals how much Hortense was able to trust her entourage.

She had used poor health to explain her prolonged visit to Switzerland, the journey having been arranged by Adélaïde, mother of de Flahaut. Hortense cleverly disguised her pregnancy (she was, by then, in her sixth month), during the baptism of Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II when she was chosen to be one of the child’s godmothers, an honour she shared with Madame Mère, mother of the Emperor.

During the first Bourbon Restoration of 1814, Hortense had bewitched Tsar Alexander I with her famous charm and. Keen to show his appreciation for the lovely Hortense, Alexander had encouraged the incoming Louis XVIII to show her some favour and give her the title of Duchesse de St Leu.

During the Hundred Days, however, Hortense supported her stepfather and brother-in-law Napoleon. This led to her banishment from France after his final defeat. She traveled in Germany and Italy before purchasing the Château of Arenenberg in the Swiss canton of Thurgau in 1817. Arenenberg became the centre of a small court, a new Malmaison where, accompanied by faithful retainers, Hortense sang, painted and charmed her guests, from Madame Récamier to Alexandre Dumas.

Napoleon III

Napoleon III

In 1837, Hortense then fell ill when her surviving son, Louis-Napoléon, was in the USA. He returned to Arenenberg just in time for his mother to die in his arms on 5 October at the age of fifty-four. She is buried next to her mother Joséphine in the Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul church in Rueil-Malmaison.

Her husband, Louis Bonaparte survived her by nine years, eventually dying in July 1846. Their youngest son would become Napoleon III in 1852. He in turn would make his half-brother, the son of Hortense and de Flahaut, the Duke of Morny.