Bell ringing in Worcester: identifying celebrations of Napoleonic victories

During a recent search into the Cathedral archives for records on the Napoleonic period, a set of treasurer’s books from 1807 to 1815[1] were consulted, containing a record for bell ringing during the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars, celebrating many of the crucial British victories. Bell ringing in the United Kingdom is most associated with religious occasions, but as shown here it was also a prominent form of communication and celebration throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The records themselves are rather vague on the occasions for the extra expenditure, with some merely detailing ‘a victory’[2]. However, through some careful research we believe that we have managed to identify most of the expenditures to the victories that were celebrated.

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The records begin in 1807 when the bell ringers were paid 10s to ring for the ‘Surrender of Copenhagen’ on the 17th September[3]. The record is clear that the chimes signalled the conclusion to the Second Battle of Copenhagen (16th August – 5th September) which was part of the Dutch Rebellion. News of the victory did not reach the UK until the 16th September, which explains the late celebration of the victory[4] but is also a common theme throughout the records. The victory itself received mixed reactions from the UK, with some seeing it as a crucial step towards victory as an attempt to prevent Denmark joining Napoleon and others claiming the battle as an unforgivable offence against a previously neutral nation[5]. Despite the concerns, the Danish defeat ultimately led to their alliance with France, although significantly weakened through their defeat.[6]

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The records show no other victories celebrated until 1809 with two commemorations in April and May. The first is an ambiguous ‘Victory in Basque’ on the 22nd April[7], which is mostly likely related to the Battle of the Basque Roads. However, the dates of the battle (11th – 25th April) throw doubt on the connection, with the battle ending after the initial celebration. The second is simply titled ‘Sir Arthur Wellesley victory’ (later Wellington) on the 26th May[8], which is possibly in connection with a victory of the Anglo-Portuguese forces over the French. Due to the brief titles of the celebration, there are a few battles which it could apply to, the most likely being the Second Battle of Porto on the 12th May.

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Once again there is no record of further celebrations until there is a ‘Victory over Marmont’ on the 17th August 1812[9]. It is possible this refers to the Battle of Salamanca (22nd July), but similar to the Second Battle of Copenhagen, the dates are almost a month apart from each other, casting some doubt on the connection. However, this is the only battle around this time that spelled a disastrous loss for the French under Marmont’s leadership and a decisive victory for the Anglo-Portuguese forces. Presuming the dates do refer to the Battle of Salamanca, this victory would mark the most significant victory for Wellington in the Peninsula Wars and confirmed his position as a national hero[10].

Across 1813 there are two further expenditures on the bell ringers for victories on the 4th and 26th November[11]. The grounds to work with here are too thin to be certain what they are referring to, but it is possible that at least one of these victories relates to the Battle of Nations (October 1813, otherwise known as the Battle of Leipzig). If this is the case, there is a need for additional research into the pattern for the Cathedral’s celebrations during these wars.

Up until this point, the only commemorations recorded by the Cathedral have been for significant British victories in either the Napoleonic or Peninsula Wars. Yet the Battle of Nations is only connected to Britain through the Sixth Coalition, which was formed between Great Britain and many other European states against the French Empire and its allies[12]. The British army and navy were absent from the Battle of Nations, being fought by Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Saxony and Wurttemberg, under the leadership of Tsar Alexander I, against the French Empire directly under Napoleon’s command, leaving us asking: why did the Cathedral choose to commemorate this victory? It is possible Worcester sought to celebrate the victory of the Sixth Coalition as one of the earliest defeats of France directly under Napoleon’s leadership[13], but the motivation behind this sudden celebration of a non-British victory is still uncertain.

However, despite the unclear motivation behind these two celebrations, 1813 marks a change in the tone for the Cathedral’s relationship to the wars. Across the end of 1813 and the first half of 1814 there is a quick succession of significant victories for the Sixth Coalition and crucial events, marked by the Cathedral through the bells, that hail the end of the wars.

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

In 1814, there are four occasions across April to June[14], which allude to crucial events that restored a temporary peace to Europe. On the 6th April the bells are rung for the ‘allies in Paris’ as the Russian army took control of Paris for the Coalition, marking an unofficial end to the conflict. By the 9th April the Cathedral celebrates Napoleon’s abdication (‘Bonaparte dethroned’)[15] as it became clear he had lost control of his Empire.

On the 3rd June the bells were rung for the ‘preliminaries of peace’[16] which is too vague to be accurately identified. However, my best guess is that this refers to the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which was signed by France and Austria to officially recognise Napoleon’s abdication from the French throne on 11th April[17]. Once again, the enormous stretch of time between these two dates makes it difficult to be certain, but it is possible that the news reached Britain more slowly because of its indirect involvement in the agreement.

Finally, one last toll was rung for ‘peace’[18] on the 6th June. This, I believe, refers to the Treaty of Paris (1814) which officially brought an end to the war with France on the 30th May for the United Kingdom and several other Coalition nations[19], as well as establishing the provisions for the Congress of Vienna to settle the crisis caused by the French Empire in 1814-1815[20].

The treasurer’s books kept by the Cathedral have offered a tantalising look into Worcester’s   celebration of major victories during the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars. Through the selection here, an underexplored local perspective of the familiar Napoleonic narrative has emerged in the decision to commemorate a select few victories, rather than any victory during the campaigns. The identifications of battles suggested in this blog are subject to scrutiny, as the records are too ambiguous to be accurate. However, I believe they are realistic without further evidence to work with.

Elizabeth Moore

Bibliography:

Alison, A. (1860) History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Busch, O (1992) Handbuch der preußischen Geschichte vol.3. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Gates, D. (2003) The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. USA: Da Capo Press.

Headley, J. T. (1851) The Imperial Guard of Napoleon. New York: Charles Scribner.

Hinde, W (1973) George Canning. London: Purnell Book Services.

Omen, C (1914) A History of The Peninsular war, vol.5 V. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ryan, A. N. (1953) ‘The causes of the British attack upon Copenhagen in 1807’ English Historical Review, 68(266) pp.37-66.

 

[1] WCM A314 – WCM A322

[2] WCM A321

[3] WCM A314

[4] Hinde, 1973, pp.173-175

[5] Hinde, 1973, p.175

[6] Ryan, 1953, pp.37-55

[7] WCM A316

[8] WCM A316

[9] WMC A319

[10] Cited in Omen, 1914, p.58

[11] WCM A320

[12] Sixth Coalition was formed by Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and nine of the German States: Baden, Bavaria, Berg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Regensburg, Saxony, Westphalia, Wurttemberg and Weisberg.

[13] Headley, 1851

[14] WCM A321

[15] WCM A321

[16] WCM A321

[17] Alison, 1860, pp.187-188, 197; Gates, 2003, p.259

[18] WCM A321

[19] Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal and Sweden

[20] Büsche, 1992, pp.73-74

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