Celebrating Milestones (2): the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815

~ The life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the French.                            With a preliminary view of the French Revolution by the author of “Waverley”, & c. ~

Edinburgh: printed by Ballantyne & Co.: for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, London; and Cadell & Co., Edinburgh, 1827 (2nd edition)

This is the second feature in our new blog series, Celebrating Milestones…  However this time there is a departure from key happenings in the life and history of the Cathedral, or of ecclesiastical history in general, to a devastating conflict on the international stage – the Battle of Waterloo.  Drawing again upon the Cathedral’s stunning Collections, here we explore an early 19th century book inspired by this fight – a fight for the freedoms of the common citizen, and against despotic rule – by a great Scottish writer and poet, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

European strife: remembered two centuries on

On 18 June 1815, in open countryside just south of Brussels, Napoleon Buonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French, lost to the might of half a dozen nations…  For rich detail on the Battle, its themes, context and personalities, please see the National Army Museum’s Waterloo 200 website and the suggested items for further reading at the end of this blog.

Napoleon enshrined: the book’s genesis

Walter Scott began The life of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1825, only four years after Buonaparte’s death.  Interestingly, he chose to write about the vanquished French tyrant, rather than the British victor, of the notorious Battle of Waterloo.  One cannot help wondering how Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), viewed this arguably unpatriotic gesture…  The book’s genesis sprung from Scott’s close acquaintance with Archibald Constable (1774-1827), a local bookseller, stationer and pioneering publisher[1]: in May 1825 Constable mooted the idea of a four-volume study of the French dictator… and four months later the creative endeavour was underway.  Sadly, their association ended acrimoniously in 1826, when financial calamity struck.  Also, Scott had a domestic connection with France: his wife Charlotte (1770-1826), formerly Charpentier, was French-born – with a somewhat shadowy family history – and spoke with a slightly French accent; she eventually became a British citizen[2].

Scott writes that ‘It was at first intended merely as a brief and popular abstract of the life of the most wonderful man, and the most extraordinary events, of the last thirty years…’ (volume 1, p. i); however, later he was obliged for independent reasons to declare his purpose…  His illustrious standing gained him privileged access to documents, and the book mushroomed into a nine-volume work – despite having been advertised several times in The Edinburgh Weekly Journal, with a gradual rise in quantity of volumes (from five to nine)![3] – published on 28 June 1827.

This ‘most wonderful man’ was a consummate despot, a ruthless empire-builder whose territory spanned Europe from Portugal to Moscow; his zestful leadership ensured him conquest after conquest[4].  However, the human cost was devastating – Napoleon’s men showed him great fidelity, and yet they were wantonly sent to their deaths, in battle or through winter starvation, in scores.  Yet Scott evidently nourished a great interest in, and had some respect for, ‘Bony’ and thus wrote of himself, ‘He will be found no enemy to the person of Napoleon’ (volume 1, p. iv).

Bound for posterity: delicate gold, floral tooling adorns the spine of Scott’s epic nine-volume ‘Life of Napoleon Buonaparte’ (© Durham Cathedral Library)

The vicissitudes of creating a masterpiece…

The life of Napoleon was written in Scott’s splendid, galleried study at Abbotsford, near Melrose.  Overlooking the river Tweed, this attractive residence in the Scottish Baronial style was built for Scott on the site of farmhouse; the study was completed in 1824 and complemented his specially designed library, both rooms accommodating his colossal book collections.[5]

However, Scott needed empirical material to bring his biography alive, and in October and November of 1826 he journeyed to London and Paris to gather information.  In the French capital he gleaned eye-witness accounts, consulting Napoleon’s friends and enemies, including erstwhile colleagues.  He also corresponded with the Duke of Wellington regarding Napoleon’s Russian campaign; what a colourful exchange of letters must have unfolded!

Owing to his celebrity Scott enjoyed free access to government records – for instance the correspondence housed in the Foreign Office pertaining to Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, the isolated Atlantic island where he was sequestered by the victorious British, until his death on 5th May 1821.

Constable diligently sourced the sundry works which Scott needed at Abbotsford to inform his writing, for instance seventy-seven volumes of Le Moniteur universel (the official journal of the French administration, 1789-1869).

Ballantyne assumed the mantle of editor, but unfortunately deemed much of Scott’s manuscript riddled with repetitions of phrase and errors of fact.  These were owing, it appears, to Scott’s feverish composition (despite deteriorating health); the fact that some primary sources were necessarily not to hand; and Scott’s turbulent life, as regards both his circumstances and his emotional state – not least the death of his wife, Lady Charlotte Scott, on 15th May 1826.

Laudable intentions: p. i of the first volume, where Scott states his grand biographical and historical purpose (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Scott’s penchant for history

Scott seemed fascinated in the rawness of history, and engaged in an early form of battlefield tourism: he visited Waterloo only a few weeks after the conflict, eager to glean mementoes.  He succeeded in gleaning many, including bullets, banners (‘enemy’ and ‘home’)[6] and buttons[7].  Also, he later managed to procure a couple of the Emperor’s personal possessions: a blotter book and, intriguingly, a lock of his hair.  The curl had passed from Lieutenant Colonel Elphinstone (1782-1842) – one of Wellington’s men – to a Mr. Dalton, who indulged Scott’s acclaimed collecting zeal and sent it to him[8].

The author also wove his knowledge of French history – spanning the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis XIV – into the fourth series of his Tales of a grandfather, created in 1830 for the pleasure of, and dedicated to, his grandson, John Hugh Lockhart (1821-1831).  Scott had already achieved international acclaim in Europe, with his works found in translations galore, including French, Polish, Russian and Spanish.  Writing seems to have been second nature to him: he found it greatly satisfying, and was enviably prolific.

However it proved a time-consuming project, leaving Scott little scope for letter-writing and for his more imaginative work.  He always endeavoured to distance himself from his public, insomuch as he realised fretting about readers’ views on his next opus was rather fruitless.

The Durham connection: the engraved stone plaque which graces the late 18th century Prebends’ Bridge in Durham, taken from Scott’s Icelandic epic poem, ‘Harold the Dauntless’ (1817). Scott, with the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), enjoyed the Bishop’s hospitality at a Durham Castle banquet in 1827 (© Durham Cathedral Library)


The Ballantyne boon…

The life of Napoleon was printed by the Ballantyne brothers, James (1772-1833) and John (1774-1821).  Scott enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the siblings, James attending school in Kelso with Scott.  James later became a solicitor and newspaper printer in the town, printing some of Scott’s work (The minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1802); the author lent him £500 and encouraged him to establish a press in Edinburgh, in the precincts of Holyrood House.  This enterprise thrived and Scott doubled his investment, then having a stake in one third of the company in 1805 (this was a confidential arrangement); John Ballantyne & Co. booksellers prospered (from 1806-1839, in major premises at Paul’s Work, Canongate, peaking at twenty-three presses in 1823) with Scott’s patronage and the printing-house’s high class productions[9].  Archibald Constable procured the copyright for all his works from 1819 into the 1820s[10]; James Ballantyne also had trade and personal dealings with him.

The Constable catastrophe

However, disaster struck in January 1826 with the failure of the heretofore thriving Constable & Co. – perhaps owing to the fatal blend of, firstly, the crash of Constable’s London agents (Hurst, Robinson and Co.); secondly to, in the winter of 1825-26, a national economic crisis with banks’ major retrenchment.  Scott, owing to his benevolence, and Ballantyne, also suffered bankruptcy[11].  The next six years saw Scott overtax himself in working to repay not solely his own crippling debts, but also those of his associates[12]; at his death he had recouped £51,128[13].

Scott continued to collaborate with Constable’s business partner, Robert Cadell (1788-1849), whom he viewed as a good friend.  Scott’s trustees came into ownership of The life of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1827; between 1826 and 1829 Scott wrote a book a year, earning a substantial income for the trust.  Indeed, The life of Napoleon Buonaparte generated the colossal sum of £18,000[14], surely a telling tribute to his mastery.

From pen to press…

Different printers were deployed to produce the various volumes: one was Edinburgh’s John Stark (d. c.1848), in 1827 based at Old Fishmarket Close (and from 1828, Old Assembly Close) off the Royal Mile, a quarter specialising in, amongst other trades, printing and bookbinding[15]; he was the author and printer of Picture of Edinburgh; containing a history and description of the city, with a particular account of every remarkable object in, or establishment connected with, the Scottish metropolis (1806)[16], which ran to six editions.

Volume six states at the end of the book that it was ‘Reprinted by the heirs of D. Willison’.  David Willison was an Edinburgh printer based at Craig’s Close, another centre of printing, which was partly demolished in the 1930s; he died in 1821[17].  There is a connection to Scott and his book trade circle through Willison’s daughter Mary: she became the wife of Archibald Constable in 1795[18].

The book’s reception:

There was some criticism of Scott’s assessment of Napoleon’s character, and his perception of his policies; detractors were both French and English.  However, the book gained an enduring readership and proved most lucrative, a boon in helping Scott repay his considerable debts.  Indeed, he was one of few early nineteenth century literary figures able to prosper financially through their writing.  However, Scott outshone all authors of his time; he influenced how the public digested history.

Bibliophile’s delight: the book’s elegant armorial binding, incorporating a border of intricate, rolled decoration in gold (of alternating dots and leaves) (© Durham Cathedral Library)



[1] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Constable, Archibald, bookseller, stationer and publisher, Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 7 May 2015)

[2] Edinburgh University Library (2015) The Walter Scott Digital Archive: Williamina, Charlotte and Marriage.  Available at: http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/biography/marriage.html (Accessed: 12 June 2015)

[3] McMullin, B. J. (1992) ‘Notes on cancellation in Scott’s “Life of Napoleon”’, Studies in Bibliography, 45, pp. 222-231

[4] Snow, Dan. (2015)  ‘The French should end their love affair with Napoleon – he was an utterly brutal and callous dictator’.  Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11472205/The-French-should-end-their-love-affair-with-Napoleon-he-was-an-utterly-brutal-and-callous-dictator.html (Accessed: 12 June 2015)

[5] Abbotsford Trust (no date) The House.  Available at: http://www.scottsabbotsford.com/visit/the-house/ (Accessed: 6 June 2015)

[6] BBC (2008) Waterloo flags find at Scott home.  Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/south_of_scotland/7458741.stm (Accessed: 27 May 2015)

[7] Abbotsford Trust (no date) A great many trophies: Scott’s visit to Waterloo.  Available at: http://www.scottsabbotsford.com/event-registration/?ee=51 (Accessed: 6 May 2015)

[8] Abbotsford Trust (no date) Lock of Napoleon’s hair rediscovered at Abbotsford.  Available at:  http://www.scottsabbotsford.com/lock-of-napoleons-hair-rediscovered-at-abbotsford/ (Accessed: 6 May 2015)

[9] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Ballantyne, James, printer, Kelso and Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 7 May 2015)

[10] Hewitt, David.  (2004) ‘Constable, Archibald (1774–1827)’, in Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 13).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 2-7

[11] Hewitt, David. (2004) ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’, in Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 49).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 490-510

[12] Scottish Printing Archival Trust. (1990) A reputation for excellence: volume 1: Edinburgh. Available at: http://scottishprintarchive.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Vol-1-Edinburgh.pdf (Accessed: 7 May 2015)

[13] Hewitt, David. (2004) ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’, in Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 49).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 490-510

[14] Wood, John W. (no date) An answer to William Peterson’s autumn ‘Spectrum’ article: the Bible and the French Revolution: an answer.  Available at: http://www.andrews.edu/library/car/cardigital/digitized/documents/b18434885.pdf (Accessed: 12 June 2015)

[15] The Post Office Annual Directory for 1827-28 (1827) Edinburgh: General Post Office

[16] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Stark, John, printer, bookseller and stationer, Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 28 May 2015)

[17] The Scots Magazine (1821) ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths’, May, p. 496

[18] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Willison, David, printer, Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 11 June 2015)


Further reading:

  • O’Keeffe, Paul. (2015) Scott on Waterloo.  London: Vintage
  • O’Keeffe, Paul. (2015) Waterloo: the aftermath.  London: Vintage
  • Suarez, Michael F. and Turner, Michael L. (eds.) (2009) The Cambridge history of the book in Britain: volume v, 1695-1830.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press – please see the index for various references to Scott
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