Oxford’s 1814 celebration of Napoleon’s imprisonment proved premature, but the University had managed to line up a world-beating array of dignitaries to crow about it. Two centuries after Bonaparte’s escape in February 1815, Christopher Danziger looks back on a party to remember.
Above: Marshal Blücher gives Napoleon a good hiding in this etching by George Cruikshank
By Christopher Danziger
Just over 200 years ago excited crowds, three and four deep, were lining the High Street in Oxford. There was someone perched in every tree and up every lamp post. A substantial military presence ensured law and order. It was still mid-morning, but night would reveal that almost every Oxford college had made arrangements to be lavishly illuminated, some picking out the outlines of their façades.
What was the cause of this excitement? The well-born and the famous have always beaten a path to Oxford’s door, but June 1814 must have been the only time in its history when it hosted an emperor, a king, four future kings, a chancellor of the Austrian empire, two future and two past British prime ministers, many world-famous generals and enough peers to burst the House of Lords. One would imagine that there would be all sorts of memorials to the event and blue plaques announcing that ‘Tsar Alexander I’ or ‘Marshal Blücher slept here’, but it has been curiously overlooked even in Oxford.
The occasion was the celebrations of the defeat and abdication of Napoleon, the ‘enemy of order, liberty and religion’. After rendering him harmless (or so they thought) on the island of Elba, the victorious sovereigns gathered in Paris for mutual congratulations. The Prince Regent, as head of the state which had most consistently opposed Napoleon and largely financed the resistance to him, invited them to continue their celebrations in England. The offer was enthusiastically taken up. One of the things the allied sovereigns wanted to do in England was to visit the famous university town of Oxford, one of the very few places in the country, incidentally, where the Prince Regent could rely on a warm welcome. At the prospect, ‘every heart fluttered with expectation and delight’.
The Chancellor of the University, Lord Grenville, himself a previous prime minister and the son of another, had issued meticulous instructions to everyone involved ‘according to the plan agreed on in 1703’. Apparently this 111-year-old blueprint still served its purpose well.
However, a hitch cropped up with the very first step, when the Prince Regent (the future George IV) arrived from Dorchester so punctually on Tuesday 14 June at Magdalen Bridge that the Chancellor’s welcome party, which had assembled in Exeter College, had only reached the gates of Magdalen College. With the Prince was the Prince of Orange and his own brother Frederick, Duke of York, better known as the butt of the rhyme about marching up to the top of the hill.
Above: Reception of Doctors at Oxford’s University, a French caricature showing the presentation of honorary degrees to the allied sovereigns in the Sheldonian Theatre on 15 June 1814. In the centre is the Prince Regent; on his right is the Tsar and on his left the King of Prussia
First stop for the royal party was the Divinity School, where the Chancellor gave a grovelling speech of loyalty to the King (whose insanity sadly prevented his presence in person) and to his Royal Highness. The Prince Regent was then escorted to his quarters in Christ Church to wait for his royal guests. First to arrive at their lodgings in Merton College were ‘the noble, the modest, the warrior-like Tsar Alexander’ and his sister — ‘lovely, amiable and interesting’, in the opinion of the Oxford scribe, but dubbed ‘intolerable’ by the Prince Regent and ‘ignorant of how to behave’ by Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister.
Then came King Frederick William III of Prussia, and his two eldest sons, both of whom would rule Prussia in turn until as late as 1888. Another slight embarrassment arose because they ‘preserved the same simplicity of appearance’ so successfully that they were not recognised. They were lodged in Corpus Christi, where a guard of honour raised the Prussian eagle.
When the royals were assembled, all credit to them that they did not let the grass grow under their feet. They immediately visited the hall in Christ Church, pronounced by the Tsar to be ‘one of the finest rooms he had ever seen’, the Cathedral and the Library, before moving on to Merton and All Souls and — apparently the spot which most took their fancy — New College Chapel. Then tirelessly on to the Clarendon Press and the Bodleian Library before returning to their lodgings.
There they had hardly more than an hour’s turnaround time before they re-assembled in the hall of All Souls College. From there they made their way over a specially laid red carpet to the Radcliffe Camera for the celebratory dinner, which was the highlight of the visit. The Upper Gallery of the Camera was thrown open to the public. They ascended by one of the small stone staircases and a smooth flow was supposed to be ensured by a specially constructed wooden staircase at upper-window level. That would have been fine if people had been content to keep moving.
Naturally they preferred to dally, taking in the unique spectacle beneath them. Soon there was such a crush that ‘hats, caps and shoes were flying in all directions . . . and gowns and coats were torn in pieces’. This aggressive voyeurism was only brought to a halt by the arrival of the military.
Meanwhile, at ground level, a table sumptuously decorated with silver had been placed directly under the dome. From this radiated five spokes, each seating about 40 diners. The whole space was ablaze with ‘brilliant patent lamps and a profusion of candlesticks’. A lavish spread was cooked in the kitchens of Brasenose, the college best-placed for the job, but a chef, suitably named Mangeans, had been brought in for the evening from the Clifton Hotel.
Above: A vase of Siberian jasper sent to Merton College by Tsar Alexander I and his sister, Ekaterina Pavlovna, in thanks after lodging there on the night of 14 June 1814
From their vantage point the crowds had a bird’s eye view of the appetite and table manners of the assembled kings and generals. Frequent toasts were drunk and whenever one met with public approval, the Prince Regent, who was said to be ‘in high spirits’ (not a euphemism, I think), waved enthusiastically to the gallery. There below them among many others sat Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor; Chernikov, the Russian Chancellor; Count Lieven, the Russian ambassador; Lord Aberdeen, the future British prime minister — and the crowd’s two great favourites, Sir Charles Stewart, whose much bemedalled uniform and weak head for alcohol always made him worth watching, and the Prussian Marshal Blücher, who took too much ‘strong beer and cognac’ and became extremely drunk.
Blücher’s transcendental moment at Waterloo was still more than a year away, and his delusion that he was about to give birth to an elephant was not universally known, but his martial ardour and total inability to accept defeat had made him a household name throughout Europe. When he arrived in Oxford, the crowds had tried to unhitch his horses and pull his carriage themselves but had been restrained by the proctors. One enterprising shoemaker threw a pair of new boots into his carriage and ever after advertised himself as ‘bootmaker to General Prince Blücher’.
Throughout his stay, crowds gathered under his windows in Christ Church, where he could be seen through an open window, sitting on the end of his bed smoking a long pipe. From time to time he would move towards the window and bow. At 11pm the party broke up to allow the diners to see the superb illuminations in the streets. Between the lights hung posters and paintings, ‘some [of which] displayed a tolerable share of John Bull’s humour’. Royalty mingled freely with the crowds until 1am, when a torrential thunderstorm sent everyone scurrying indoors and extinguished the illuminations. By any standards it had been an exceptional day. However, there was more to come.
On Wednesday 15 May, Oxford was again up early to stake places in the Sheldonian Theatre to confer honorary degrees on their distinguished visitors. Until 8am only ladies in evening dress were allowed entry. Then the doors were opened to the public and all seats were taken in ten minutes. There was such a crush that the undergraduates relieved the heat by ‘breaking every window within reach’. At 10am the main doors were thrown open and the organist, Dr Crotch, struck up a march. The three sovereigns and their entourages entered to the rousing notes of Dr Crotch’s organ.
They were then honoured with the award of DCL (Doctor of Civil Law). The public orator orated and was followed by no less than eight congratulatory addresses in verse, probably to the mystification of the foreign sovereigns. The Prince Regent then led his party out. The official Oxford account quoted him as saying he ‘was never present at any assembly where everything was so well conducted’, but other reports claimed that when Blücher fought his way out of the ceremony, he said that ‘it was the hottest struggle he had ever been in’.
Their next commitment was another ceremony in the City Council Chambers. Quite rightly, town had to be given the same respect as gown. The town clerk gave them another address of welcome, for which the Prince Regent immediately knighted him. Mr Taunton was so overcome that he had to be led away by friends. The Father of the City was similarly honoured but declined on account of his great age. The mayor had no such scruples. The City Council responded by conferring the freedom of the city on all the dignitaries. Honour had been satisfied on all sides.
The party then moved on for a tour of the Observatory (pictured right in a contemporary illustration) before breaking ‘to partake of an elegant breakfast’ at All Souls. Was their royal highnesses’ curiosity sated? Not a bit of it. After lunch, the Tsar and the King of Prussia were off again, to visit Blenheim Palace and Stowe. Meanwhile the Prince Regent held a levee in the Upper Library at Christ Church which, reading between the lines, may have been rather sparsely attended.
However, by 6.30pm all those remaining were back on parade to dine in Christ Church Hall. The High Table was vastly enlarged, and 400 members of the college crowded into the dining hall. Toasts were proposed, including one by Blücher ‘in a powerful voice and most expressive energy’ (the result again of immoderate consumption) to the Prince Regent, which the Prince Regent graciously paraphrased himself for the benefit of fellow diners. And, finally, just to emphasise that kingship is not all a bed of roses, there was another ball in the Town Hall that evening, again attended by every visitor of note. When the royal party left the following morning at 11am, the cheering crowds prompted an Oxford commentator to observe that ‘a warm and enthusiastic regard to the sovereign is the native growth of a British bosom. . . . It needs but the smile of approbation to bring forth the sacred fruits of loyalty and obedience.’
There was one nice final touch when, three weeks later, to commemorate the peace, a great dinner for 4,000 of the poor but respectable inhabitants of Oxford was held in Radcliffe Square. Huge applause greeted the closing toast to ‘the General Peace, the best of all generals’.
Of course all these celebrations were a year premature. Nine months later Napoleon escaped from Elba and the allies’ long-winded and quarrelsome negotiations at Vienna came to an abrupt end. When Napoleon was eventually defeated again at Waterloo, there was much less junketing. But places like Oxford had had their day in the sun. Very few cities in the world have ever enjoyed anything similar. Oxford does not normally underplay its successes; perhaps the bicentenary is a good opportunity to revive memories of this one.
Christopher Danziger specialises in Russian and Napoleonic history, which he teaches at Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education.
This article first appeared in the Trinity 2014 issue of Oxford Today. ‘The Plumb-pudding in Danger’ (preview image) © National Portrait Gallery, London, under Creative Commons licence. ‘Old Blücher Beating the Corsican Drum’ and ‘A Reception of Doctors at Oxford’s University’ © Trustees of the British Museum. Photograph of Merton College vase by Colin Dunn (Scriptura Ltd), by permission Of the Warden And Fellows Of Merton College. ‘Radcliffe Astronomical Observatory 1814’ © Oxford University Images / Museum of the History of Science.