The story of the Norfolk squire who became the British government’s principal agent engaged in stirring up Royalist opposition to the French revolution and Napoleon.
I’ve mentioned before how often I’m struck by the similarities between events in the 18th-century and those of recent times. I’ve known about this particular set of events for some time, but I hadn’t looked into it in any detail until now. When I did, I was surprised by the similarities between Winston Churchill’s S.O.E (Special Operations Executive) of World War II, which he charged with “setting Europe ablaze”, and the attempts by the government of William Pitt the Younger, during the wars against Revolutionary France and Napoleon, to use French royalists as a kind of Resistance. What made it even more interesting to me, was that one of the main guiding hands behind this effort to incite rebellion and guerrilla warfare was William Windham, a Norfolk squire.
William Windham of Felbrigg Hall
Windham was the third owner of Felbrigg Hall near Cromer to bear that name, but the only one of his family to make a substantial career in politics. He was an MP and, in time, became both a national figure and a cabinet minister. He is rather forgotten today, perhaps because he never made it right to the top. However, in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries, he played a key role in the British government’s clandestine campaign against the French.
For much of this period, Windham held the post of Secretary at War — roughly the equivalent of today’s Minister of Defence — and was primarily involved in the administration of the war effort. He resigned with Pitt in 1801 and went into opposition, then briefly returned to the cabinet and active politics in the so-called “Ministry of All the Talents” of 1806-7. Throughout his political life, he was a controversial character, vilified by some for ‘changing sides’ to join Pitt, but never really trusted by those who he served in government either.
Indeed, in many ways, Windham was always an ambivalent figure. Maybe it was his chronic indecision, his tendency to philosophise, or his lack of charisma. Many commented on his intelligence and fine gifts as an orator, as well as his tendency to be influenced by more powerful characters like Burke. Yet he could also be cold-hearted and dismissive of others. His main weaknesses seem to have been a lack of emotional insight and a poor understanding of his fellow humans. He had started his political career as something of a liberal in his attitudes. However, as time progressed, he became more and more rigidly conservative and reactionary; a deep-dyed monarchist, who publicly supported bear-baiting, camp-football, bare-knuckle boxing and similar violent ‘sports’ on the grounds that they were traditional and ‘built character’.
Failure as an Organiser of Covert Operations
Lord Malmesbury certainly thought Windham was a bad judge of men, whose enthusiasm could be too easily engaged for fundamentally ill-judged projects, so long as they accorded with his preconceptions. These were too often drawn from the influence of Edmund Burke, which never left him, despite his mentor’s death in 1797. Malmesbury wrote of Windham:
“Windham is uncommonly and classically clever, but has the very fault he attributes to Pitt – no real knowledge of mankind; not from not living in the world, but from not being endowed with those qualities (inferior in themselves) which would enable him to judge of their real designs and character. For this reason, he was the dupe of every emigrant who called on him; and he still persists in the idea of the bellum internecinum [a monarchist rebellion leading to civil war], and the invading of France. Burke spoilt him, and his genius still rules him.”
Windham served as MP for Norwich for many years. Finally, his ardent support for an increasingly unpopular war, and his lack of attention to local views, saw him defeated and forced to turn to a ‘rotten borough’ to retain a seat in parliament. And that was despite spending some £11,000 of his own money, it is claimed, in bribing voters — something like £1.5 – 2 millions in today’s terms!
Windham’s Hatred of Republicanism
At the beginning of his political career, Windham was a Whig and a supporter of Charles James Fox. When the Terror began in France, he seems to have been as horrified as many others in the country. At around the same time, he came under the influence of the arch-conservative Edmund Burke, who had become the most influential opponent of the revolution in France. As noted above, Burke’s influence stayed with Windham for the rest of his life. Though he claimed to remain a Whig in Party terms, he thereafter served as part of Pitt’s Tory administration, becoming an ardent supporter of the exiled Bourbon monarchy and a bitter opponent of Napoleon and everything connected with him.
From this time onwards, Windham was consistent in his support of almost any French émigrés willing to carry the fight against the Directory and Napoleon onto French soil. Most were fantasists, but he seems either not to have realised that; or else been blinded by an urge to destroy all the French revolution stood for. He provided these émigrés with money from secret funds, supported their plans and ideas in cabinet, and ran a number of secret agents charged with stirring up local rebellions. In this he was aligned with the Foreign Secretary of the time, Lord Grenville, and George Canning — a leading Tory politician.
When Napoleon seized power in 1799, Windham, Grenville and Canning were already planning an all-out effort on behalf of the royalists for the following year. Although Napoleon, on coming to power, made overtures of peace to Pitt, these three were able to persuade him to continue the war, albeit somewhat half-heartedly.
Probably the peak of Windham’s activities on behalf of the French royalists came in 1800, when a group of exiled royalists hatched a plot to assassinate Napoleon. People of the time regarding assassination as a terrible crime, so a pamphlet, “Killing no Murder” was circulated to try to justify such a course of action. Even so, the royalist group made a pretence of claiming to want to kidnap Napoleon rather than kill him; while, as we shall see, Windham, on behalf of the British government, made a pretence of refusing direct involvement. The following quotations are taken from Windham’s own diary:
“31st July, 1800. Saw General George [Cadoudal], who … predicts that Buonaparte will be cut off [assassinated] before two months are over; though he professes not to know specifically of any such intention. Seems to think such [a] course of proceeding legitimate, and had thrown out the idea to Pitt, as he had done before to me. Not necessary to say that no countenance was given to it.”
“16th September, 1800. He [Cadoual] talked of the designs to cut off Buonaparte by Assassination; second of the general instability of his government, to which latter opinion I felt inclined to assent. On the other, having before expressed my opinion I did not now say anything.”
“19th September, 1800. [Met Rivière, aide de camp the the comte d’Artois, who produced] wild proposals of carrying off or cutting off Buonaparte, which I pointedly declared a Brit. Ministry could give no countenance to.”
It’s quite clear that these denials cannot be taken at face value. Windham arranged for the Royal Navy to provide transportation for the conspirators to return to France, together with a very substantial amount of money to finance their activities. It seems most probable that his intention throughout was to allow the British government to deny involvement in any assassination, not to prevent it being attempted.
The Fall of Pitt’s Government
The plot, of course, failed and Napoleon’s continued success finally forced the British government into making peace in 1801. Pitt resigned, ostensibly over the king’s refusal to grant emancipation of Irish Catholics, though many thought this no more than a convenient pretext. Windham, vehemently opposed to any peace, resigned as well.
In opposition, Windham continued his attacks on Napoleon and the French government, praying that, “God avert a peace with a Jacobin Republic!” And while Pitt secretly supported the new ministry in negotiating the so-called Peace of Amiens, Grenville and Windham steadfastly opposed both the negotiations and the final agreement. Windham also seems to have orchestrated support, perhaps using Grenville’s money, for various newspapers and other publications which continued to attack the peace and decry any rapprochement with France. He even continued to meet with French royalists and supply them with money for their activities, whether from his own pocket or from other people is not clear.
After the collapse of the short-lived peace in 1803, a vigorous campaign of propaganda was put in place against Napoleon, aided and abetted by the opposition in Parliament, which now included not only Grenville and Windham, but also Charles James Fox.
By 1804, Addington’s government had finally had enough and brought a prosecution against William Cobbett, the principal mouth-piece for Grenville and Windham, charging him with seditious libel. He was found guilty and fined the enormous sum of £1500. Then, when Addington fell in 1806 and Grenville became Prime Minister, William Windham returned to the Cabinet. That administration lasted barely a year. By now, however, Windham’s star was on the wane and he left politics for good. He died in 1810, never having seen the final overthrow of the man and the regime in France he had so doggedly opposed.
Was his failure to create a viable opposition uprising in France due to ill luck, poor judgment or simply backing the wrong groups? It certainly wasn’t due to lack of effort on his part, nor lack of funds. Nevertheless, since history is often hard on the losers, Windham has been relegated to the sidelines — even the footnotes — in most historical accounts of the time. I leave it to you to judge how far this is deserved.