Napoleon at the UK Parliamentary Archives

Napoleon Bonaparte is everywhere in the collections of many British cultural institutions. In the Napoleon section of this website, you can find some Napoleon Trails in a few of these institutions: the Royal Collection, the Wallace Collection, Westminster Abbey. They propose dozens of works of art, archives, and items showing the legacy of the Emperor in the British identity.
Some other institutions agreed to be involved in this Year Napoleon through Curator’s Choices. with just 3 iconic items. Here is the selection of Penny MacMahon and Miriam Gibson, from the UK Parliamentary Archives.

The French version is available here.

The Parliamentary Archives collects, preserves and makes accessible the records of UK Parliament. We provide a records management service for the House of Commons and House of Lords and operate a free public archives service. We hold over 500 years of democratic history in a Victorian skyscraper: the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster.

The Grand Coronation of Napoleon

The Grand Coronation of Napoleon 1st, Emperor of France, from the Church of Notre-Dame, Dec 2nd 1804, by James Gillray, House of Lords Library Gillray collection, Volume X, 23.

Following the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon, the British monarchy and Parliament were fearful that something similar could happen in Britain. This cartoon by James Gillray (a popular British artist famous for his satires) captures this fear while also lampooning Napoleon’s post-French revolutionary ideals by depicting Napoleon’s coronation as extravagant and his reign as brutal.  
Gillray also focuses in on the subjugation of European powers such as Holland, Prussia and Spain by showing them carrying Napoleon’s train. A furtive and wary Pope is also pictured. This reveals British anxiety about Napoleon’s rapid rise to power and dominance over Europe. At the time George III was suffering from mental illness, which raised questions about his ability to rule and put British Royalist in an even more vulnerable position.

A letter from Stewart to Bathurst

Stewart to Bathurst, 7th April 1814, Parliament Archive, LG/F/4/7/15.

This letter, a transcription by Lord Birkenhead and sent to Lloyd George in 1920, was originally sent the day after Napoleon’s unconditional abdication as Emperor of France. Stewart, then the ambassador to Portugal, is concerned that Elba is a risky choice of location for Napoleon’s exile, highlights Elba’s proximity to France and Italy, Napoleon’s continuing support from members of the French army, and the popularity of Napoleon’s stepson Beauhanois and brother-in-law Murat. The fact that Stewart’s fears were proved justified and the events he warns of did eventually transpire, raise the idea that the Hundred Days and the Battle of Waterloo could have been avoided if Napoleon’s first exile had been handled differently. 

The Public General Act, 1856

Public General Act, 56 George III, c. 23, 1816, Parliament Archive, HL/PO/PU/4/33.

Unlike Napoleon’s first exile, his banishment to St Helena was legislated by Parliament. After Napoleon’s initial escape and second defeat, Britain determined that he would never return to Europe or regain power cemented the exile in law. The legislation was strict and thorough. It included a ban on all British ships landing at St Helena unless they had specific orders from a Governor to dock there. The Act closed loopholes by including legislation for captains who may shipwreck on St Helena. This Act reflects Britain’s priorities to preserve its trade routes and protect shipwrecked vessels, while ensuring that Napoleon’s opportunities to escape and communicate were as limited as possible.  

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