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Imperial Guests: Napoleon’s British Detenus

by J. David Markham, FINS

When one thinks of prisoners of war, soldiers and sailors usually come to mind. One rather different type of ‘prisoner’ during the Napoleonic period, however, consisted of British citizens who found themselves in France when the Peace of Amiens broke down in May of 1803. Those who found themselves trapped in France by the outbreak of hostilities were mostly upper class British citizens who were in France either on business or vacation when the peace broke down. Referred to as detenus (detainees), or sometimes ‘travelling gentlemen’, they came from politics, law, clergy, medicine, or academia, and often had their families with them. It must also be said, however, that along with the ‘respectable’ members of British society the detenu population included a less savoury group of people.

1802 French Treaty of Amiens Medal

These included a criminal element, debtors, and other people whose motive for being in France was somewhat different than those of the ‘travelling gentlemen’. As James Lawrence, himself a wealthy detenu, points out, this presented an interesting problem for both classes of detenu:

“This involuntary association of the honourable part of the community with individuals of a different character was disagreeable to both parties. It was not only disgraceful to the first, but it made them in a manner The Prefect of the Department of the Somme, responsible for the misconduct of the others; and forced to Mr. G–, Englishman, at Amiens. the latter, who came abroad perhaps with the intention of reforming among strangers, to live among their countrymen, who were not acquainted with their misdemeanours.”

Incidentally, relatively few French found themselves in a similar situation in England. Michael Lewis has a decidedly pro-British bias, but nevertheless writes:

“In those happy days a Frenchman was equally free to travel in Britain at all times – if he wanted to. Normally, however, he did not exercise his privilege to anything like the same extent: not because we were more than usually rude to him in wartime, but because we were apt to be rude to all foreigners always… Besides, where to us Paris was on the road to Vienna or Rome, for the Frenchman the road to London might almost be said to stop there.”

Detunes were not captured, as such, but rather refused passports to depart from France, based on Napoleon’s decree of 23rd May 1803:

St.Cloud,2ndPrairial (ed. Ninth month of revolutionary calender)
Eleventh Year of the Republic

All the English enrolled in the militia. from the age of eighteen to sixty, holding a commission from his Britannic Majesty, who are at present in France, shall be made prisoners of war, to answer for the citizens of the republic, who have been arrested and made prisoners of war by the vessels or subjects of his Britannic Majesty before the
declaration of war. The ministers, each, as far as concerns him, are charged with the execution of the present decree.

St.Cloud,2nd Prairial (ed. Ninth month of revolutionary calendar)
Eleventh Year of the Republic
All the English enrolled in the militia. from the age of eighteen to sixty, holding a commission from his Britannic Majesty, who are at present in France, shall be made prisoners of war, to answer for the citizens of the republic, who have been arrested and made prisoners of war by the vessels or subjects of his Britannic Majesty before the
declaration of war. The ministers, each, as far as concerns him, are charged with the execution of the present decree.
The First Consul (signed) Buonaparte The Secretary of State (signed) B. Maret

This decree was evidently based on the supposition that these people might be liable for military service if they were to return to England, thus presenting a threat to France. Moreover, they served as hostages with potential use in general prisoner exchanges. Once the decision was made, notices were sent to all British citizens who met the criteria. A typical notice read as follows:

I inform you, Sir, of the decree of the government of the republic, dated the 2nd of Prairial, in the eleventh year of which a copy is underneath.
Consequently, within the space of four and twenty hours from the present notification, you will be so good as to constitute yourself prisoner of war, at the house of the Town Major of the City of Amiens.
I tell you before hand that no pretext, no excuse can exclude you, as according to the British laws, none can dispense you from serving in the militia.
After having made this declaration, within twenty-four hours, you will be permitted to remain prisoner upon parole.
In case that you have not made your declaration within twenty-four hours, you will no longer be admitted to give your parole; but you will be conducted to the central point of the military division that will be fixed upon by the
Minister of War.
I salute you

Once informed they were prisoners, they were usually assigned to stay in a town other than Paris. For some reason, Napoleon did not want a bunch of unhappy English aristocrats hanging around Paris! Initially they were sent to Fontainebleau, Nimes, Valenciennes, or Verdun. Once in their new cities, these English ‘guests’ were free to make their own lodging arrangements, and were considered on parole d’honneur. As was the case with military officers, these people were considered gentlemen, and it was assumed that if they gave their word that they would not try to escape. Thus, at least for the well to do, detenus who could afford nice apartments, life often continued much as it had before. Indeed, Napoleon may well have wanted these wealthy British citizens in France for the money that they would bring in more than for the security against military service.

Their initial treatment in these various cities was quite reasonable. They were often expected simply to report once each week or even less frequently, and be in their lodgings by ten in the evening. As time went on, those restrictions increased somewhat. They were free to form clubs, and often mingled with upper class French citizens. On some occasions, when regular prisoners of war would pass the city. A few days through their town, the wealthy detenus would provide dinner, clothes and other necessities. Throughout their stay, detenus often contributed toward schools in the prison depots.

Porte Chaussée, Verdun by Dudva

In December of 1803, all detenus were ordered to report to Verdun. Some went on their own, while others were given escort (at their expense). Once they arrived, they were required to give their parole in writing, and then allowed to find lodging. They soon were well established, and the wealthy began to spend their money to make their new life as comfortable as possible. It should that the detenues were fewer in number than military prisoners of war, which included not only men kept in the citadel but officers on parole as well.

This sudden influx was quite good for the local economy. Indeed numerous cities sought to have the British kept within their gates for this very reason. Metz for example made repeated efforts to have the British sent there. . Napoleon was well aware that Verdun’s citizens were likely to gouge the British. In a letter to Fouche he warned them to keep the rents down or he would have the Minister of War send their guests elsewhere. It seems that rents had risen from 36 francs to 300 francs. Napoleon was apparently not amused.

For most of those who were reasonably wealthy, life at Verdun was reasonably comfortable. They had clubs, horse racing, gambling, theatre, and numerous other distractions. As such, their stories often do not make for exciting reading. From time to time, however, this was not the case. A Mr. Garland, for example, played a rather major, if unwanted, role in the politics of Verdun. General Wirion was the commandant of Verdun, and he and his wife were notorious for exploiting his power for their own financial gain, bribery, the sale of passports, and taxes levied on every club at Verdun were complemented by a series of other fraudulent measures. Mr. Garland had been intimidated into buying Lady Wirion large quantities of clothes, and his wealth had been plundered by Wirion, his wife, and his aide on many occasions. Indeed, Wirion even manipulated Garland’s choice of female companionship. When Garland selected a lady that Wirion felt might interfere with his constant abuse of Garland, he had his soldiers remove her forcibly and send her back to her former lover. Lewis says that Garland was charged with attempted rape, but that seems a bit of a stretch.

In another incident, Garland, who had been deceived into thinking that he was a favourite friend of Wirion’s, was allowed to live, accompanied by a young lady, outside the city. A few days later, an order was given that all living outside the city must return, but Garland was assured that he was excluded from the requirement. However, in the middle of the night he was arrested and brought to the citadel. There Wirion threatened to have him shot, but was ‘persuaded’ not to do so when Garland offered him £5000.

The deal fell apart however, when Garland’s banker, suspecting that something was wrong, refused to honour a note of that sum. While Wirion ultimately got his money, the swindle was soon common knowledge and the detenu community was outraged. Word got back to England, and Charles Sturt publicised it. widely. Lord Lauderdale and others protested to Talleyrand and Minister of War Clarke and Wirion was called to Paris to answer for this and many other complaints. Rather than face Clarke, Wirion committed suicide and was not missed by anyone in Verdun, Personal accounts by all levels of prisoners of war and detenus go to great lengths to which he would go to enrich himself at the expense of the English.

One interesting exception to the rule of non-Parisian residency was Bertie Greatheed and his family. A Squire whose son (also named Bertie) was a notable artist, Greatheed ran in very high circles, which included military luminaries Junot, Berthier, and Cambaceres, artists David and Gerard, and politician Talleyrand, as well as Napoleon, Josephine, and Madame Mere (Napoleon’s mother). With these connections, it is no wonder that he was allowed to stay in Paris, though it is somewhat surprising that he was unable to obtain his release from detainment in France.

General Jean Andoche Junot held in Palace of Versailles Collection

Greatheed’s journal is full of interesting stories and impressions of Paris, Napoleon, and other important persons of the time. Talleyrand “is a nasty looking dog” Napoleon’s “apprehension is quick, and he frequently repeats your answer” and Josephine’s “person is good and her manners elegant and pleasing”. Despite Greatheed’s connections, his sudden change in status comes as a complete surprise: May 23, Monday. Went for my passport for England and was informed we were all prisoners of war and [to be] sent to Fontainebleau in 24 hours on our parole. I have been with Junot and have permission to stay at Paris. These notes may be dangerous. I will send them home by Maclaurin.”

Eventually, Greatheed was able to obtain passports to Germany, and again his connections worked in his favour. “He [Colonel Green] had dined with Junot pressed him to grant our passports. Murat was there and spoke very kindly in favour of it.” Before he left, his wife paid two calls on Napoleon’s mother.

Another detenu who met Napoleon and had some success at obtaining release was George Sinclair. He was arrested in 1806 near Jena, and was suspected as a spy. Sinclair and his companion Rigel were immediately brought before Napoleon by Count Frohberg, whom he found in a dressing gown and white nightcap, After numerous questions that were “remarkable by their perfect clearness” and in which Napoleon “omitted nothing that was necessary; he asked nothing superfluous”, the conversation then turned to Greek and Roman writers. Sinclair later wrote;

When taken before him, I had the strongest prejudice against him. I considered him the enemy of my country and the oppressor of the rest of Europe. On quitting him, the grace and fascination of his smile and that superior intelligence which illumined his face had entirely subjugated me.

Sinclair produced some family letters to bolster his story, and after the battle of Jena was put back on parole. Napoleon’s imperial guests, combining as they did the concepts of prisoner, hostage, and civilian, played a unique role in the conflict between England and France. With the rarest of exceptions, civilians of no other nationality were ‘trapped’ in France or England other than the English and French. As such, they are yet another of the many reasons why this period still holds such fascination to so many people.

from: Waterloo Journal Dec 98, edited from original for website.