1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates

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1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A social, political, and military history of England in the year 1815, describing in some detail the state of the country and its people, the events leading up to Waterloo, the battle itself and its immediate aftermath
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 324 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781858219

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The idea of taking a pivotal year from the past and devoting a whole book to the theme, embracing political, social and military history, is a very interesting one. Stephen Bates did so successfully not long ago with 'Two Nations: Britain in 1846', and here he does the same again, taking a step three decades back.

For those of us who were brought up on a traditional diet of great historical dates, 1815 is indelibly associated with ‘that battle’. The narrative of these pages leads us there but takes a gentle path through the state of the country first. We are brought face to face with a country that stood at the head of an empire with ever-expanding boundaries but at the same time a country not at ease with itself. The industrial revolution was changing the face of the landscape, particularly in the Midlands and Wales where coal mines and ironworks were becoming the major source of employment. The birth of the railways was opening up a means of transport hitherto undreamed of. In the south-east, the city of London was growing apace, absorbing nearby villages and growing into a vast metropolis with a varied social mix where rich and poor lived alike – geographically, if nothing else. Reform was in the air, challenging a system of representation in which Members of Parliament were returned by virtually non-existent electorates from Old Sarum and the Suffolk coastal village of Dunwich while expanding cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester had no representation at all. Dissident political movements were being infiltrated by an anxious government which found the only way to curb free speech was ever-more repressive legislation. Some feared that an economic crisis and growing discontent on the part of the working class, combined with the spirit of revolution which had upset the status quo in France, could yet bring about a similar upheaval on the other side of the English Channel.

Some sections of society remained comfortably immune to the hardships endured by many Britons. Parliamentary grants to the royal family, be it the remarkably frugal King George III (now incurably insane) and Queen Charlotte or their notoriously extravagant son and heir, the Prince Regent. The future King George IV, labelled with no little irony as ‘the Adonis of loveliness’, was a flamboyant figure of ridicule, all too recognisable on the rare occasions that he appeared in public from the venomous prints and caricatures of him produced by Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruickshank and other satirists, the Private Eye or Spitting Image artists of their day. Just below the prince and his brothers were the leaders of society and the other feckless rich, notably George ‘Beau’ Brummell, the uncrowned king of style and fashion until forced to flee abroad in order to avoid paying his debts.

Yet, to coin a phrase, ‘it wasn’t all bad’. Jane Austen was at the peak of her short career, writing ‘Emma’; Humphrey Davy was patenting his miners’ safety lamp, and John Nash was contributing towards the makeover of London by designing Regent Street. Sporting activities were allowing a degree of social interaction between the classes, with cricket, boxing and horse racing helping to bring all together as almost nothing else could. No less importantly, Britain had begun to lead the way, and the world, towards the abolition of the time-honoured but increasingly contentious and inhuman process of slavery. Lone voices, which would not be thus for long, were also starting to object to the evils of bear-baiting, and of employing small children down the mines and in ‘dark Satanic’ cotton mills.

However, the tale starts and ends with war. At the beginning, we read of a disastrous British defeat just outside New Orleans in January 1815. The centre of action then moves to the Congress of Vienna, where European statesmen were drawing up the map of post-Napoleonic Europe. Then came the great escape as Napoleon Bonaparte, the enemy and disturber of the peace of the world down but not yet out, escaped from Elba in a last-ditch attempt to reclaim his former glory as Emperor of France. As Tsar Alexander I of Russia told the Duke of Wellington to his face, it was for him ‘to save the world again’.

Almost exactly halfway through the year, the great forces of Europe met close to a hamlet near Brussels. A vivid picture is painted of the march to Waterloo, and the battle which Wellington, the hero of the day, rightly described as ‘the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life’. There is a touchingly human portrait of this most self-effacing of commanders, the man who fell asleep on a camp bed with exhaustion afterwards, to be woken by a doctor in the small hours with a casualty list, including the names of several of his staff. In tears, he said that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery was a battle won.

While this book may be fairly kaleidoscopic in nature and not go very deep into the subjects covered, it is an absorbing read. The author writes very well and readably and paints a lively, sometimes amusing, sometimes sad and very authoritative picture of Britain, and to some extent her place in the world, at a tumultuous time. The eight pages of largely colour plates, the majority being contemporary prints and cartoons, complement the text admirably. Any general history reader who is fascinated by the early nineteenth century will love it.

You could shelve this book alongside Waterloo Voices 1815: The Battle at First Hand by Martyn Beardsley.

If this appeals, may we also recommend the life of a sometimes overlooked personality of the age, Sir William Knighton: The Strange Career of a Regency Physician by Charlotte Frost, or for a portrait of cultural life during the regency, The Immortal Dinner: A famous evening of genius and laughter in literary London, 1817 by Penelope Hughes-Hallett. For another date that century, try 1864: The forgotten war that shaped modern Europe by Tom Buk-Swienty.

Booklists.jpg 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo by Stephen Bates is in the Top Ten History Books 2015.

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