1812 was marked by warfare and violence. In England, the Luddite protests continued, with machinery broken at Nottingham, Leeds, Bristol, Sheffield and Manchester to name but some of the areas affected. Troops were sent to Cornwall to put down riots among the miners who demanded reductions in the price of food. The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 made ‘machine breaking’ a capital offence and in May a Special Commission was set up to try captured Luddites.
On 11 May, the UK was shocked by the assassination in the lobby of the House of Commons of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval who was shot at point-blank range by John Bellingham who had a long-standing grievance against the government. When news of the murder reached Nottingham however, the Riot Act had to be read and the military called out to suppress the public celebrations of shouts, huzzas, drums beating, flags flying, bells ringing, and bonfires blazing.
The story of Harry Smith and Juana María de los Dolores de León is one of the great love stories not only of the Regency but also of the nineteenth century. Married within a couple of days of their meeting in 1812, she devotedly followed the drum. She learnt to ride and kept up with the regiment on the long marches through mountainous Spain and over the Pyrenees into France. She accompanied him when possible on his overseas postings and they were rarely parted until his death in 1860. The town of Ladysmith in South Africa is called after her.
If you would like to know more about them, I highly recommend Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride which draws heavily on the memoirs of Harry and other Riflemen to describe the first years of their marriage, up to and including the Battle of Waterloo, and for the rest, I refer you to Sir Harry himself whose autobiography written in a colloquial, anecdotal style is most entertaining. The portraits below were painted three years after their wedding in Paris in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo.
In March 1812 another romantic poet, the twenty-four-year-old Lord Byron, published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and, as he described it, 'awoke to find himself famous'. His passionate verse and brooding, flawed hero appealed to feminine hearts while, as can be seen in the portrait below from 1813, he knew how to present himself in the most romantic light. He was perhaps the first popular heartthrob, idolised by innocent girls and society matrons alike. After meeting him for the first time, the married Lady Caroline Lamb described him in her diary as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’; in other words irresistible to a woman known for her restless spirit and passionate enthusiasms, Soon the couple embarked on a very public affair that was to both scandalise and entertain the polite world of the haut ton for several years.
6 days later, on 24 June, Napoleon invaded Russia. On 14 September he entered Moscow. But what might have been supposed to be one of his greatest triumphs, turned out to be his downfall. The Russians had evacuated the city, withdrawing also the civic authorities but leaving behind them a small detachment charged with firing the city. Composed mainly of wooden buildings, Moscow was burnt almost completely to the ground. Napoleon was left with no choice but to retreat along the same route he had taken to reach the city and which had been denuded of supplies, including fodder for the horses. Starving, and wearing uniforms that were no match for a Russian winter, the Grande Armée suffered devastating losses. After almost ten years, the tide of war had turned.
To read previous posts in this series, click on The Regency Decade in the list of categories on the right and scroll down.