200 Years after Waterloo, Napoleon Return

Professor Peter Hicks’s talk Who really lost at Waterloo? Great Britain between the bells of victory and the event of Peterloo, the second of three events commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of Waterloo, was delivered last month in virtually impeccable Italian, flavoured with wit and enthusiasm. Prof. Hicks captured his audience completely in the beautiful ex-Clarissan nuns’ cloister in San Micheletto convent, now a restored cultural centre near Lucca’s Porta Elisa.


We were invited to dynamic press agent Anna Benedetto’s office, for an interview with Prof. Hicks before his public presentation. The Bonesprit project has covered everything from the Emperor’s battle strategies, to his horses, to the period’s fashions, to sister Elisa’s time as Lucca’s princess, to his personal traits. It’s a wonderfully abundant project which next year celebrates its tenth anniversary. Roberta Martinelli must be wholeheartedly applauded for this venture, her brainchild.


Peter Hicks is a virtuoso polymath with interests going from music (he’s organist, choir master, conductor and musicologist, re-discovering scores from the Napoleonic era), to his classics education at University College London, to his St John’s Cambridge PhD on Renaissance Greek poems, to his translations of Serlio and Palladio’s architecture, to his fortuitous introduction to Napoleon’s fascinating world via the Fondation Napoléon in 1997 of which, since 2006, he is now an honorary fellow.

This is just touching the surface of Prof. Hicks’s immense energy. He has curated exhibitions, some in Lucca’s ducal palace, is advisor to the new Marengo museum at Alessandria, Italy, translated and edited Napoleon’s only novel, organised events involving virtual reality, in short, is truly what is termed a “renaissance man”, so rare in this age’s pigeon-holed world. Living in Paris, Hicks is also a family man with three talented offspring.  Indeed, my first question to him was how he managed to fit all these activities together. Professor Hicks’s reply was that careful organisation and separation of his different interests enabled him to do it.

I was particularly interested in three aspects regarding Napoleon. First, was that, like the Bourbons, Bonaparte was intent on establishing a dynasty and, in this respect, was very much a child of the eighteenth century. He was not a dictator in the modern sense of being supported by military force but was an absolutist reinforced by the charisma he emanated and the fraternal love from his nation. Indeed, Napoleon was a difficult person to work with: obsessive and a true workaholic with irregular hours. One of the things which wouldn’t have gone down well with many Italians was the shortness of his lunch hour: fifteen minutes to scoff down food which here would have taken a good hour and a half to fully savour!

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Second, although freemasonry was clearly a leading element in the French revolution and was upheld by many of his closest collaborators, Napoleon was never a freemason himself. Freemasonry has been best described as a society with secrets rather than a secret society. Its ideals of brotherhood and equality were essential elements in creating the revolution. Napoleon, however, inclined more towards Rousseau’s philosophy and, especially his 1762 “Social Contract”.

Third, Napoleon’s downfall was largely due to the removal of checks and balances which caused him to make disastrous decisions which marred the latter part of his political career. This, ironically, is not what the emperor wished. As an absolutist he coveted, like any other cultured eighteenth-century gentleman (indeed, like George Washington wanted for America) a stable, peace-abiding, fully employed Europe with firm promises, realisable ambitions and rational fidelity.

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That’s why for so many people, not just on the continent (and especially in Italy) but in the UK itself, the battle of Waterloo was a disastrous victory (if such an oxymoron may be used) for it created more instability and insecurity in the succeeding years than would ever have been imagined in 1815. In Great Britain’s liberal quarters there was a general feeling of dejection. Lord Grey feared ‘the utter extinction of liberty’ and Hazlitt fell into a deep depression.

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The end of years of warring with the French also meant a drastic decrease in production with unemployment often leading to famine.  There was also the feeling that those who fought had not been adequately rewarded. Indeed, to this day there is no official memorial to Waterloo, (although there remains an uncompleted folly in Edinburgh).

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Discontent from large sections of the British public with their living conditions and restrictions on basic rights of liberty eventually led to a second ‘loo’ – the Peterloo massacre of 1819 in Manchester where around fifteen protesters were killed. Ironically, there were Waterloo veterans among both the oppressed and the oppressors! Shelley replied from Italy with his powerful The Mask of Anarchy, a pre-Gandhian plea for non-violent resistance:  “Shake your chains to earth like dew.

Certainly, 1848, the ‘year of revolution’ may not have occurred. But then a ‘what-if’ history is bound to be an unserviceable hypothesis. We must in today’s Europe build upon positive aspects of our past, remember and analyse them. In this respect, Prof. Hicks is a shining light for all those interested in deepening their knowledge of L’empereur. His future projects include further research into those surrounding Napoleon in his last desolate years on Saint Helena, and thorough research into the “poisoned wallpaper theory”.  He is also involved in the restoration of Longwood house in that bleak place whose furniture is now being restored and will be exhibited at the Emperor’s mausoleum in Paris, Les Invalides. May La Gloire continue!

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