With the government in London, and the Allies at the Congress in Vienna, still unaware that anything was amiss, Napoleon continued his march northwards. On Sunday 5th he arrived at Sisteron, where he was not greeted with any great enthusiasm, but he pushed on to Gap where he arrived on Monday and was joined by the 7th Regiment of Infantry under its colonel, Charles de la Bédoyère.
By Tuesday 8th Napoleon reached Laffrey, 77 kilometres from the coast and 26 kilometres south of the significant city of Grenoble. The road was barred by a battalion of the 5th Regiment of the Line. Napoleon rode out in front, within pistol range, dismounted, walked forward, threw back his greatcoat to show his uniform and challenged the soldiers to shoot their Emperor. Instead they cheered and surged forward to surround him – it was a significant moment.
That day news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba reached the Congress in Vienna – but without any information about where he was.
Meanwhile Londoners had violence of quite a different kind to be concerned about – the Corn Law Riots. With the end of war there was a drop in demand for wheat for the army. At the same time the removal of the danger to merchant shipping allowed grain imports to flow in unimpeded and the price of wheat fell. This was a serious threat to landowners, just as it was a great relief for the poor, for whom bread constituted a major part of the diet, especially in the industrial towns.
The Corn Importation Bill was put before parliament in February and prohibited the import of foreign wheat at under 80 shillings a quarter, and also set minimum prices for other grains. It proved to be the start of one of the most furious political debates in British history and one that continued to divide opinion for thirty years.
Landowners argued that low wheat prices would prevent farmers from making a profit, they would have to cut labourers’ wages and the whole economy would suffer from a decline in purchasing power. It would also put the country at the mercy of foreigners. The cartoon below shows landowners refusing foreign wheat. The women and children harvesters are from a bat-print dish of about 1820.
Samuel Whitbread, the brewer, pointed out that by this argument, the recent war had been a good thing as it had prevented the French exporting their wheat and that on those grounds, “it would be better to set Boney up again.” He was about to get his wish.
In the industrial towns, which were virtually unrepresented in parliament, there was furious opposition to the Bill. Petitions flooded in – for example one from Bristol signed by 40,000, and the petition from the City of London speaking of “unexampled distress and privation.” The newspapers were full of column after column detailing the petitions. Parliament panicked and the Bill was hurried through – within three weeks it was already receiving its third reading.
On Monday 6th the chanting of the mob outside Parliament could be heard in the Chamber “No Corn Bill! No Corn Bill!”
Although the mob was dispersed, violence broke out that night, supporters of the Bill had their houses attacked and violent disorder continued through the nights of Wednesday and Thursday. The army was called in, mob rule and revolution was feared and the Society pages noted that the Marchioness of Camden’s rout & card party at the family town house in Arlington Street was thin of company because of the unrest in the streets. Even the bad news of the retreat of British forces on 18th Jan, after an initially successful attack on New Orleans on 23 December, was lost in the furore over the riots and the Bill.
Then on Friday Napoleon entered Lyons in triumph and the garrison, in the process of being reviewed by King Louis XVIII’s brother, the Comte d’Artois, changed sides, pulling faces at the helpless prince. The same day the news of his escape finally reached London. The Corn Law Bill was pushed out of the headlines.
In the words of the next day’s Morning Chronicle, “An extraordinary sensation was yesterday produced by the intelligence from France, of the landing of BONAPARTE at Frejus… the first notice of this most memorable event was announced by Mr Rosschild [Nathan Mayer Rothschild, shown left], the Exchange Broker, who sold stock to the amount of 600,000l. on the receipt of the news by express from France.”
At the same time as the Rothschilds’ efficient intelligence network delivered the news, the British government received dispatches from Lord Fitzroy Somerset in Paris and the confirmation that Napoleon was in France reached Vienna.
Thanks to the stage and mail coach network the news spread across the country with incredible speed. James Oakes of Bury St Edmunds wrote in his diary on the 10th, “This morning by mail the acct came of Bonaparte’s making good his landing in France with 10 or 20,000 men.”
That day, the 10th March, the Corn Law was passed by 245 votes to 75 – without any disturbances on the street whatsoever.