How the Revolution broke Britain and France apart

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION WAS LIKE A TORNADO which threatened to tear up the foundations of Europe. Though there had been many changes before, it is probably fair to say they were mostly dynastic. One ruler or family of rulers gaining or losing territory at the expense of another.

Even the Reformation, though it re-drew boundaries in people’s minds as well as on the ground, had been largely contained by the forces of the status quo. England’s Civil War of the 1640s and 1650s changed our country’s course into the future, but its impact was mostly retained within Britain – and Ireland, of course, though the results of those choices had only just begun to appear in 1789.

Whose ‘Enlightenment’?

For most of us who studied history a while ago, The Enlightenment was explained as principally a French phenomenon, driven by intellectuals like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. Only in recent years has it become clear that all of these saw The Enlightenment as a British export, stemming from the ‘enlightened’ system of government that arose after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Unlike most of Europe, Britain enjoyed considerable freedom from censorship, an elected government and a monarchy whose power was contained by law. The major thinkers of the French Enlightenment were convinced Anglophiles.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a good many Whigs in England welcomed revolution in France at the start. They imagined a France governed by a constitutional monarchy much like that in Britain. A France that might become a useful trading partner, rather than a constant antagonist. They were, in modern terms, pro-French and pro-revolution. They wanted the revolution to succeed – but only if it was the kind of revolution that Britain had in 1688.

Executions and Mob Rule

Of course, events turned out quite differently. My book, An Unlamented Death, is set in 1792, after it had become clear that Revolutionary France was set on exporting its ideas throughout Europe, but just before the war broke out that was to dominate British life for the next 22 years. By setting it then, I have tried to show how quickly the Revolution affected even rural parts of England, seemingly far removed from London and the ferment of ideas associated with firebrands like Wilkes or Tom Paine.

The French failed to act as pro-revolutionary opinion in Britain wanted them to. Their revolution was bloodier, more radical and more republican in its essentials than most British people could stomach. There had long been enthusiasts for republican government on this side of the Channel too, but politicians here had learned from the way the monarchy returned after Cromwell’s death. The French, then as now, we’re more idealistic and intellectual in their aspirations. The British were mostly pragmatists, wedded to what they knew worked already and distrustful of ‘fancy ideas’.

British response

The government under William Pitt the Younger faced a host of challenges in the 1790s. The more Tory elements of the ruling elite, supported by some of the leading Whigs, like William Windham, MP for Norwich, were strongly monarchist. After the execution of Louis XVI, they wanted to overthrow Republican France and the anti-monarchist ideas it stood for.

Many of them also feared radical agitation at home, which they suspected was inspired and encouraged by French and Irish agents, as well as home-grown radicals. They wanted to retain the English hold over Ireland. That meant preventing the Irish from rebelling, suppressing Irish nationalist ideas as quickly as possible and stopping the French from fomenting or assisting any uprising. They wanted some reform, perhaps, but only based firmly on the status quo.

All of these threads come together in the situation facing Dr. Adam Bascomb. As well as local and even domestic motives, he must be aware of the looming threat of France and the radicalism it inspired. Like most Englishmen of his time, he was loyal to King and Country. As France tore itself away from the ideas of the rest of Europe, there was never any danger to those loyalties he had grown up with – even when he finally encountered a situation where love and loyalty proved to be the causes of a terrible crime.

My new mystery, ‘An Unlamented Death’, is now available on Kindle everywhere.



About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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