Thursday, 13 March 2008

The death of Pitt

In spite of its iconic significance, Trafalgar did not decide the invasion. Napoleon had started to break up the camp at Boulogne on 23 August two days after the Combined Squadron entered Cadiz and at a point when he was faced with an alternative choice of swift action in Europe.

On 2 December the French defeated a combined Austrian-Russian force at Austerlitz (‘the battle of the Three Emperors’). On 6 December France signed the Treaty of Pressburg with Austria, which, in effect, ended the Holy Roman Empire. Francis II, the former Holy Roman Emperor, became Francis I of Austria.

When Pitt heard the news he was devastated:
‘Roll up the map; it will not be wanted these ten years’.
One of his last acts as Prime Minister was to erect a formidable coastal defence along the Channel. The landing beaches on either side of Dungeness were isolated by the Royal Military Canal. This programme was substantially in place by the end of 1806. However this did not decisively rule out the threat of a French invasion. Napoleon’s strategy now depended on outbuilding and outgunning the British navy - and his empire’s shipyard resources were fully capable of this undertaking.

From the end of 1805 Pitt’s health began to fail. When he received the news at Trafalgar, he was staying at Bath. He set out for London on 11 January. As he reached his rented house at Putney, Hester Stanhope was deeply shocked by ‘the changed tone of his voice and his struggle for breath as he climbed the stairs’. He died in the early morning of 23 January, leaving debts of up to £50,000. Fox:
‘One feels as if there was something missing in the world - a chasm, a blank that cannot be supplied.’
But there was no closing of ranks. With Pitt’s death Parliament was deeply fractured. Windham opposed an address for his monument in Westminster Abbey. The Common Council of London decided by only 77 votes to 71 to erect a monument to him in the Guildhall. On 22 February he was buried at Westminster Abbey.

The Talents Ministry
The passing of Pitt ushered in a new era of politics. The first priority was an urgent need to form a government. This forced George III to abandon his greatest political prejudice. In the aftermath of Pitt’s death he tried to shake the alliance between Fox and Grenville, but when he failed he recognized that it would not be possible to form a government without Fox. Grenville took office and appointed Fox Foreign Secretary - but on the understanding that the Catholic question was not raised. This was a serious blow to both Fox and Grenville and compromised them in the eyes of their supporters. But Fox gave way because he had two aims that he thought achievable: peace with France and the abolition of the slave trade. He failed to achieve the first aim though he lived to see the beginnings of the successful parliamentary drive for abolition.

He died on 13 September at the duke of Devonshire's house at Chiswick, leaving behind the memory of an intrepid (though flawed) reformer, whose memory would provide the inspiration for Victorian liberalism. His bust shows him in the garb of a senator of the Roman Republic - a fitting representation.

With the passing of Pitt and Fox a remarkable period in British political history had ended. But the war still went on.