Article MT033

The Grand Conversation:

Napoleon and British Popular Balladry

The French Wars, 1793 to 1815, had a profound effect on British life and culture.  A few examples from the field of popular music making will make the point.  The training of musicians in the military stimulated popular instrumental playing, increased musical literacy and introduced a significant number of military marches into the repertories of ex-military amateur musicians.  A telling example of this is the French revolutionary song Ça Ira.  Adopted as a military march by the British Army, initially as a means of confusing the enemy on the battlefield, it became widespread in Britain as an instrumental dance tune known as The Fall (or Downfall) of Paris.  As such it crops up in collections of Irish music and in southern English village musicians' tune books.  Other dance tune titles suggest the flavour of the times: Down with the French, The Battle of the Nile, The Rights of Man, The Battle of Waterloo and Bonaparte's Retreat. 1

The wars produced a rich and diverse crop of songs.  Many told of the real or imagined experiences of members of the armed forces.  Separation and death were common themes, for example in such songs as The Plains of Waterloo, The Banks of the Nile, and On Board the Victory.  The great social and industrial changes stimulated and accelerated by the demands of war also produced songs.  Enclosure, the increasing distress of the rural poor who remembered better times in the eighteenth century, and the social presumption of The New Fashioned Farmer made rich for a time by high grain prices are the subjects of a significant body of song.  Jacobins and radicals had their own songs including a parody of the National Anthem, 'God Save Great Thomas Paine / The Rights of Man maintain', but perhaps more interestingly, as my friends Ian Dick and Alun Howkins have shown in an excellent recent paper, the consonance between the rural songs of protest and the speeches and writings of William Cobbett is almost total.  Wartime shortages, high prices and the dislocation of trade all feature as themes.  In the industrial sphere the cloth industry and in particular the Luddite movement, produce a fascinating body of song material.  As the great Scottish folk song collector Gavin Greig wrote, "The twenty years that ended with Waterloo have left more traces on our popular minstrelsy than any other period of our history has done". 2

With the coming of war the long tradition of patriotic songs found an urgent purpose for its outpourings.  The highly popular songs of Thomas Dibden, romantic celebrations of shipboard life fitted the bill admirably.  Great battles and military leaders figure prominently.  Nelson's death made a near perfect subject:

Mourn England mourn, mourn and complain,
For the loss of Lord Nelson that died on the main.
This in fact was a reworking of an earlier ballad on the death of General Wolfe. 3

In this paper I will attempt to illuminate and understand an oddity and a discrepancy.  The oddity is that no military leader is the subject of so many traditional and popular songs as Napoleon Bonaparte; the discrepancy is the difference between the contemporary and the subsequent image of Napoleon in British popular song.

Since the sixteenth century the interaction of print and oral circulation has been a constant factor in the communication and dissemination of popular songs.  The process was often complex, with songs repeatedly passing between printed and oral media in a quite startling way.  Song texts were widely sold as products of 'penny capitalism', on ballad sheets.  Sometimes collections of songs were sold as garlands or chapbooks.  Often printers rehashed old material, and there are examples of songs in print from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.  With an eye for a quick penny, printers were also very willing to put out a piece on a topical event.  Folk song scholars, somewhat disparagingly, have tended to call such products 'street ballads' as they were often sold by ballad singers in the street.

The period of the French Wars and just after saw the first stirrings of the impulse to collect old songs direct from the people who sang them, an impulse that would later give rise to the folk song movement.  Notable here are John Bell and John Clare, the latter better known as a rural poet.  Clare expresses a tension identifiable in folk song collectors working three-quarters of a century later:

I commenced sometime ago with an intention of making a collection of old Ballads but when I had sought after them in places where I expected [to] find them - viz, the hay field and the shepherds hut on the pasture - I found that nearly all those old and beautiful recollections had vanished as so many old fashions & those who knew fragments seemed ashamed to acknowledge it as old people who sing old songs only to be laughed at - & those who were proud of their knowledge of such things - knew nothing but the senseless balderdash that is bawled over and sung at Country Feasts, Statutes & Fairs where the most senseless jargon passes for the greatest excellence & rudest indecency for the finest wit. 4
The theme of the superiority of the product of oral tradition over the product of the broadside press would become a recurring motif in the writings of ballad and folk song scholars such as Francis Child and Cecil Sharp.  Yet ballad sheet material was extremely popular with ordinary people and some ballad printers became rich men from the trade.

An interesting question concerns the relationship between printed text and oral song: which material makes the transition?  Which songs become truly popular in that they come off the sheets and take life in oral tradition?  Clearly some ballads about Napoleon do.

The idea of 'mediation' has become important in recent work in this field.  Clearly Clare discriminated between different types of songs he found among his fellow country people in Northamptonshire.  He wanted 'old ballads' but found mostly 'the senseless balderdash that is bawled over and sung at Country Feasts Statutes & Fairs', that is the contemporary products of the broadside press.  Thus Clare and John Bell record little that can be said to date from the period of the French Wars.  But time is a great healer and although the folk song collectors of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods shared similar attitudes, ballads about Nelson and Napoleon were quite acceptable as they had been subject to the best part of a century of oral tradition. 5

In 1911, a shoemaker named Henry Burstow published his Reminiscences of Horsham.  The book is in fact an early work of oral history, Burstow's reminiscences were taken down by a philanthropic friend, William Albery, the aim of the production being to keep Burstow out of the workhouse and absolute poverty in his declining years.  Burstow was a fascinating man.  A shoemaker by trade, he shared the radical and non-conformist attitudes of many who followed the gentle craft.  His reading included Darwin and Lyle and he was a convinced atheist, this in spite of the fact that he was a well known church bell-ringer.  He was also known as a tap-room singer who had a remarkable memory - he had a list of 420 songs he knew.  He prints this list at the back of his book.  The first six songs on the list are Napoleonic ballads, as is at least one other. 6

Burstow was the most important singer that the first folk song revival encountered, and material was obtained from him by at least four collectors including Lucy Broadwood and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Among other items they took down most of his Napoleonic ballads.  As a singer Burstow was exceptional but not atypical - his repertory (which I have studied in detail) is broadly representative of the material widely sung by working people in nineteenth century England, broadly representative of the oral tradition.  Burstow died just over a century after Waterloo.  In the songs he and the collectors preserved, Napoleon emerges as the romantic hero.  What we are dealing with, as I will show, is an English plebeian version of what Maurice Hutt has called 'the legend of Napoleon'. 7

A strong tradition of patriotic songs existed in the eighteenth century.  The modern popularity of Hearts of Oak and Rule, Britannia! points to the vigour of this tradition.  Such perennial favourites were dragooned into service at the time of the outbreak of wars with France, and new songs were created.  Patriotic songs often worked on traditional images associated with notions of Englishness, often images of food and drink.  The Roast Beef of Old England is a typical and important example.  Here are a couple of others:

The foreigners they praise their wines
('Tis only to deceive us)
Would they come here and taste this beer
I'm sure they'd never leave us.
The meagre French their thirst would quench,
And find much good 'twould do them,
Keep them a year on Gooche's beer,
Their country would not know them. 8
Come drink my brave boys and never give o'er,
Come drink my brave boys as I've told you before
For the French they are coming to find a fresh supply
And swear they will drink old England dry
A-dry, a-dry, a-dry my boys a-dry
And swear they will drink old England dry.

Then up spoke Lord Wellington of courage and renown,
He swore he'd prove loyal to his country and crown
Our big guns shall rattle and our bullets quick shall fly
Before the French shall come and drink old England dry.
A-dry, a-dry, airy my boys a-dry
And swear they will drink old England dry. 9

And so on for three more verses.

The response among the elite to the scare of invasion and fear of the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and equality was very real.  The opposing doctrines of Paine and Burke were articulated at a popular level in ballads.  Such titles as The Tree of Liberty, A New Song, Respectfully Addressed to the Swinish Multitude, by their Fellow Citizen, John England, point to this debate through song. 10  In addition there is some fascinating evidence of the use of ballads as a propaganda tool in a very self-conscious, manipulative and deliberate way.

I first came across the idea that ballads were used very purposely for propaganda in manuscripts of Francis Place. 11  Writing about the activities of 'The Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers', Place tells us: 'The association printed a large number of what they called loyal songs, and gave them to ballad singers; if anyone was found singing any but loyal songs, he or she was carried before a magistrate.

Place believed that such pieces drove out the coarse songs that had been common in his youth.  I was at first sceptical about Place's assertion, but evidence is growing that ballads were used as a significant propaganda medium during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods.  Correspondence of the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers recently unearthed by my friend Roy Palmer is very significant.

Some correspondence of 1872 to John Reeves, Secretary of the Association, makes the point:

It occurred to me, that anything written in voice [?verse] & especially to an Old English tune ...  made a more fixed impression on the minds of the Younger and Lower Class of People, than any written in prose, which was often forgotten as soon as Read ...  By printing copies of the enclosed, as Common Ballads, and putting them in the hands of individuals, or by twenties in the hands of Ballad Singers who might sing them for the sake of selling them, I own I shall not be displeased to hear Reechoed by Every Little Boy in the Streets during the Christmas Holidays - Long May Old England, Possess Good Cheer and Jollity Liberty, and Property and no Equality. 12
In addition to the work of the Association, the publishing activities of Hannah More in the 'Cheap Repository Tracts' used the street ballad form in an attempt to create loyal, patriotic and obedient attitudes among the common people.

Given evidence of this quality it seems reasonable to suspect that at least an important stimulus for, if not every manifestation of, anti-French and anti-Napoleon street ballads came from a very definite attempt to use the ballad medium as a form of political propaganda.  The form had been used in this way numerous times in the past, particularly at key moments of national crisis, for example in the 1640s, in 1688 and 1745.  We should now turn to examples of this genre.

George and England Save

While deeds of Hell deface the World, and GALLIA'S throne in ruin lies
While round the Earth revolt is hurl'd, and Discord's baneful Banner flies.
Loud shall the loyal BRITON sing To arms!  to arms your bucklers bring,
To shield our Country, guard our king and GEORGE and ENGLAND save.

Ne'er shall the desolating woe that shades with horror Europe o'er
To us her hideous image show or steep in blood this happy shore;
Firm as our rock-bound Isle we'll stand with watchful eye and iron hand
To wield the might of BRITAIN'S land, and GEORGE and ENGLAND save.

Oh, happy Isle!  wise order'd State!  Well temper'd work of Freedom's hand!
No Shock of Realms can touch thy fate, if Union bind the sea-girt Land!
Vainly the storms shall round thee ring, while BRITAIN'S sons in concord sing,
We'll shield our Country, guard our King, and GEORGE and ENGLAND save.

This piece, with its heroic style and overblown diction, does not catch the idiom of the popular ballad as well as the next example.

The Voice of the British Isles

Tune - 'Hearts of Oak'

Away, my brave boys, haste away to the shore;
Our foes, the base French, boast they're straight coming o'er,
To murder, and plunder, and ravish, and burn
Let them come - we'll take care they shall never return;
For around all our shores, hark!  the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready,
Steady, boys, steady,
To fight for our Liberty, Laws, and King.

They boast in the dark they will give us the slip:
The attempt may procure them a dangerous dip;
Our bold Tars are watching in Ocean's green lap,
To give them a long Jacobinical nap.
But should they steal over, with one voice we'll sing,
United, we're ready, &c.

They knew, that united, we sons of the waves
Would ne'er bow to Frenchmen, nor grovel like Slaves
So ere they dare venture to touch on our strand,
They sent black Sedition to poison our land.
But around all our shores let the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready, &c.

They swore we were slaves, all lost and undone;
That a Jacobin nostrum, as set as a gun,
Would make us all equal, and happy, and free;
'Twas only to dance round their Liberty's tree.
No, no!  round our shores let the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready, &c.

'Twas only to grant them the kiss call'd fraternal
A kiss which all Europe has found most infernal;
And then they maintained the effect could not miss
We should all be as blest as the Dutch and the Swiss.
No, no!  round our shores let the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready, &c.

With lies, and with many a Gallican wile,
They spread their dread poison o'er Erin's green Isle;
But now each shillalah is ready to thwack,
And baste the lean ribs of the Gallican Quack.
All around Erin's-shores, hark!  the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready, &c.

Stout Sandy, our brother, with heart, and with hand,
And his well-try'd Glaymore, joins the patriot band.
Now Jack, Pat, and Sandy thus cordial agree,
We sons of the wave shall for ever be free.
While around all our shores, hark!  the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready, &c.

As they could not deceive, now they threaten to pour
Their hosts on our land, to lay waste and devour;
To drench our fair fields, and our cities in gore,
Nor cease to destroy till Britannia's no more.
Let them come if they dare - hark!  the notes loudly ring,
United, we're ready, &c... 13

* Three verses omitted.

In the context of what would later be called jingoistic song, the contemporary image of Napoleon that emerges from ballad material is in many ways quite predictable.  He is Boney 'The Corsican Drover', 'The Corsican Monster' and 'The Corsican Pest'.  He is patronized and brought down to size as 'master Nap', as 'this little Boney', 'Little Boney A-cockhorse', as 'like a bantam cock', 'the little bantam Emperor', described as 'not five foot six with shanks like sticks', as 'Boney the pigmy' and as 'a little man', although this is qualified as 'this mighty little man'.  His inability to get an heir by Josephine is ridiculed in 'The Young King of Rome'.  He is referred to as 'great hero' but only by the devil and compared to Oliver Cromwell.  The devil refers to him as 'Brother Boney', but if cooked in Hell the resulting smell would be too much for the inhabitants:
Then each Devil suppose, closely stopping his nose,
And shrinking away from the smell,
'By Styx' they would roar, 'such a damned Stink before
Never entered the kingdom of Hell'. 14

One is reminded, of course, of the caricatures of Gillray, George Cruickshank and others which have many characteristics in common with these ballads, which share the same cultural moment, the same structure of feeling and were sometimes printed with ballad material.

John Bull and Bonapart set to the popular Scottish air The Blue Bells of Scotland gives a sense of defiance in the face of invasion whilst at the same time ridiculing the opponent.  A broadside issued in 1814, a mock epitaph rather than a ballad, gives a good summation of the expression of a similar type of anti-Napoleon writing.

Cruce Dignus


Underneath a GIBBET over a DUNGHILL

Underneath this Dunghill
Is all that remains of a mighty Conqueror


Who, with inflexible Cruelty of Heart,
And unexampled Depravity of Mind,
was permitted to scourge the Earth, for a Time,
With all the Horrors of war.

Too ignorant and incapable to do good to Mankind
The whole force of his mind was employed
In oppressing the weak, and plundering the industrious.
He was equally detested by all:

His enemies he butchered in cold blood:
And, fearing to leave incomplete the Catalogue of his Crimes,
His friends he rewarded with a poisoned Chalice.

He was an Epitome
Of all that was vicious in the worst of Tyrants;
He possess'd their Cruelty, without their Talents;
Their Madness without their Genius;
The Baseness of one, and the Imbecility of another.

Providence at last, Wearied out with his Crimes,
Returned him to the Dunghill from which he sprung.


Ere you pass by,
Kneel and thank thy God,
For all the Blessings of thy glorious Constitution;
Then return into the peaceful Bosom of the Family and continue
In the practice of those virtues
By which thy Ancestors
Have obtained the Favour of the Almighty. 15

To my knowledge very few ballads containing sentiments of this type survived in manuscript song books and in oral tradition in the repertories of singers like Henry Burstow or in the log-books of whaling ships, to be collected by the late Victorian and Edwardian folk song collectors. 16  The material that did survive in such sources is in total contrast.  These ballads, as I will show, illuminate Napoleon in a very different light.

Ironically the Napoleonic ballads have been little studied by writers on folk song.  They are missed altogether in the most important work yet written on the subject, A L Lloyd's 'Folk Song in England'. 17  In its forerunner, 'The Singing Englishman', Lloyd gives the subject a couple of paragraphs.  Discussing the decline of the folksong tradition in the early nineteenth century, Lloyd tells us: 'That decline in feeling was something common to the early nineteenth century and the causes are clear enough.  But for a time yet, the best of the street songs still had something of the old folksong dignity, as The Bunch of Roses had, a very popular song (pretty certainly Irish originally) celebrating with great impersonality the retreat of the Grand Army from Russia.  "The bunch of roses" was a common name for the redcoated British Army.'

Lloyd then quotes The Bonny Bunch of Roses and continues: 'After Waterloo there was a whole crop of songs about Napoleon with fine sonorous titles like The Grand Conversation on Napoleon or The Illumination of the Royal Corsican, with long striding Myxolydian tunes of very wide compass, often running more than an octave and a half, which made them very satisfactory for shouting in the streets by balladmongers, who did a roaring trade in such ballads during the general rejoicing that followed the Treaty of Amiens. 18

The greatest folk song scholar of his generation, Frank Kidson, wrote in the early years of this century, "I suspect all these ballads having Napoleon for their hero (in both senses of the word), have emanated from an Irish source, or from that large party of Englishmen who, originally holding the opinions of Thomas Paine, drifted, themselves and their successors into chartists". 19

Within the folk song revival there has been a common assumption, perhaps prompted by Kidson, that the pro-Napoleon songs indicated a view of Napoleon as a potential liberator. I am not sure about such a view; it seems to contain an element of left-wing wishful thinking, and wishful thinking is not a good basis for any politics. Yet there is some good evidence for such an interpretation. The ballad Napoleon's Dream, a song quite rare in oral tradition but known by Burstow and alive in the repertory of the great old Norfolk singer Sam Larner who died in 1965, certainly places Napoleon in the role of liberator.

The narrator of the ballad has a dream in which he is transported to a place where he has a conversation with 'the once famed Napoleon'.  Napoleon comments that the stranger ventures 'From the land of your sires - "old England" [Larner interpolates] - where they boast they are free'.  There is no disputing the estimate of Napoleon in the ballad:

My banner, the eagle, was ever unfurled,
To the standard of freedom all over the world.
Heroic tragedy and progressive politics appear to come together in this ballad.  The last stanza runs:
Now as a soldier I've borne both the heat and the cold,
I've marched to the trump and the cymbal.
By the dark deeds of tragedy I have been sold,
Though mortals around me did tremble.

Those rulers and princes their stations demean,
Like scorpions they spat out their venom and spleen
But liberty all over the world shall be seen
That's the dream of the once famed Napoleon. 20

Napoleon's Dream is more explicit in its politics than many other Napoleonic ballads, yet one hears echoes of its note in other texts.  Interesting as it is, I do not think the evidence is sufficient to construct an interpretation that says the dominant popular view of Napoleon in the nineteenth century was that of the political liberator.  It was, nevertheless, an available interpretation.

A central problem remains: why should ballad singers celebrate Napoleon after the Treaty of Amiens when they reviled him before?  Why should material which treated Napoleon as a romantic hero attain a wide acceptance in oral tradition and remain alive for a century and more when the large number of songs that vilified him seem to have sunk almost without trace?

Opposing points of view were available within the tradition.  There were some songs which stood the test of time which dealt with the British victory: Little Boney is an example.  It is a bellicose ballad celebrating Wellington's victory at Waterloo.

Have you heard of a battle that's lately been won,
By our brave British Troops under Duke Wellington?
How they bang'd the French army and made Boney run
Before the brave lads of old England
Then Hurrah for Old England's brave boys.

Little Boney brought all his best troops in the field,
Determined to conquer, he swore not to yield,
But pricked by our bayonets, they staggered and reeled
Before the brave lads of old England
Then Hurrah for Old England's brave boys....

In this glorious battle some thousands were slain,
The slaughter was dreadful, I tell it with pain,
They all fought like lions the victory to gain,
A custom with lads of old England
Then Hurrah for Old England's brave boys.

Now Boney's defeated, his army's destroyed,
No Emperor now, all his titles are void,
May Peace with all Europe at length be enjoyed
A reward for the lads of old England
Then Hurrah for Old England's brave boys. 21

Its tune is that perennial favourite for patriotic songs 'The Roast Beef of Old England'.  (Three verses omitted here.)

Much more typical of what survived in oral tradition is The Grand Conversation on Napoleon.  This is how Henry Burstow had the song:

'Twas over that wild beating track, a friend of the bold Bonaparte
Did pace the sands and lofty rocks of St Helena's shore;
The wind blew in an hurricane, the lightening flash around did dart,
The seagulls were shrieking and the waves all round did roar.

Ha hush, rude winds, the stranger cried, while I do range this dreary spot
Where alas this gallant hero his heavy eyes did close;
But while his valiant limbs do rot, his name shall never be forgot,
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

Ha England, he cried, why did you persecute that hero bold?
Much better had you slain him on the plains of Waterloo.
Napoleon was a friend to heroes all, both young and old,
He caused the money for to fly wherever he did go.

Plans were arranging night and day, this bold commander to betray,
He cries, I'll go to Moscow and then it will ease my woes,
If fortune shine without delay, all the world shall me obey,
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

Thousands of thousands he then did rise, to conquer Moscow by surprise,
He led his men across the Alps oppressed by frost and snow
But being near the Russian land he then began to open his eyes,
All Moscow was a-blazing and his men drove to and fro.

Napoleon dauntless viewed the flames and wept in anguish for the same,
He cried, Retreat my gallant men, for time do swiftly go.
What thousands died on that retreat, some were their horses forced to eat,
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose.

At Waterloo his men they fought, commanded by great Bonaparte,
Attended by Field Marshall Ney and he was bribed with gold.
When Blucher led the Prussians in it nearly broke Napoleon's heart;
He cried, My thirty thousand men are slain and I am sold.

He viewed the plains and cried, "'Tis lost," 'twas then his favourite charger crossed,
The plains were in confusion with blood and dying woes,
The bunch of roses did advance and boldly entered into France,
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose. 22

The broadside adds another stanza Burstow forgot or never knew:
The Buonaparte was plann'd to be a prisoner across the sea,
The rocks of St Helena, it was the fatal spot,
Doom'd as a prisoner there to be till death did end his misery,
His son soon followed to the tomb, it was an awful plot.

It's long enough they have been dead, the blast of war around is spread
And may our shipping float again to face the daring foes.
And now my boys when honours call we'll boldly mount the wooden walls,
This grand conversation on Napoleon arose. 23

Burstow may well have 'lost' the last verse; it is confusing in sentiment, mixing admiration of Napoleon with patriotism.  The song is neither the best nor the worst of the products of the broadside press, it is even signed - by George Brown, not a particularly Irish-sounding name. 24  Yet in other ways it fits A L Lloyd's description very closely.  The stanzaic form and something of the melodic quality have an Irish sound to them, it has a long striding myxolydian tune of wide compass, it has dignity and what could be described as great impersonality.  What is most significant to us is the treatment of Napoleon.  He is a subject worthy of 'a grand conversation'.  He is 'the bold Bonaparte', 'that hero bold' 'this gallant hero', 'this bold commander' possessed of 'valiant limbs', he is 'a friend to heroes all' and he is 'Napoleon dauntless'.  The terms of adulation tumble out of the ballad.  He is also the hero surrounded by treachery.  The singer asks England, 'Why did you persecute that hero bold?' Field Marshal Ney 'was bribed with gold' and he and his son's death were 'an awful plot'.  Like many of the Napoleon ballads a link can be seen between the suffering hero of classical story and neo-classical art and depictions of Napoleon in British popular song.  I must reiterate that historical accuracy is not the point here but popular image; ideology not fact - Napoleon crosses the Alps on the way to Moscow in more than one ballad.

These ballads do not lose sight of the fact that Napoleon was Britain's enemy but seem to take a detached view.  The Deeds of Napoleon, a catalogue of military exploits in ballad form, negotiates this difficulty in a interesting way:

Then the Norfolk hero bold, he was never bribed by gold,
Great honour to Lord Nelson, now a long time dead.
To Copenhagen, and the Nile, he led them rank and file,
But alas!  at Trafalgar he fell and bled.

When Captain Hardy he did his duty so free
And Collinwood [sic] he acted like a true Britannia's son,
He made a dreadful crash, and there enemies did thrash
But now I must tell the deeds of bold Napoleon.

Thus the ballad swerves back on to course after a short patriotic diversion, 'The Norfolk hero bold' and 'bold Napoleon' are but a stanza apart. 25

Some of the best Napoleonic ballads are elegiac in mood.  The Green Linnet survived in oral tradition in Ireland but it was issued as a broadsheet by the most important London ballad printer of the first half of the nineteenth century, James Catnach of Seven Dials, and is also recorded in the logbook of the whaling ship Cortes in 1847.  Gale Huntington has called it 'another true lament for the loss of the great hope that the Irish had in Napoleon'. 26  In the ballad Napoleon is symbolized as 'The Green Linnet' (an interesting look backwards to Jacobite songs which portrayed the Bonnie Prince Charles in bird form), he is seen as the reliever of the oppressed with the Goddess of freedom on his side.

Let me consider the question of the Irish origin of these pieces a little more.  There is no doubt that in the wake of 1798 many Irish patriots saw Napoleon as a potential liberator, and this is stated in contemporary and subsequent songs.  The Shan Van Vocht ('The Tight Old Hag', one of the many personifications of Ireland) is a classic example:

O the French are on the sea
Says the Shan Van Vocht
O the French are on the sea
Says the Shan Van Vocht
O the French are in the bay
They'll be here without delay
And the Orange will decay
Says the Shan Van Vocht.

And their camp it will be where
Says the Shan Van Vocht
And their camp it will be where
Says the Shan Van Vocht
On the Curragh of Kildare
And the Boys will all be there
With their pikes in good repair
Says the Shan Van Vocht

Then what will the yeomen do
Says the Shan Van Vocht
What will the yeoman do
Says the Shan Van Vocht
What will the yeomen do
But throw off the red and blue
And swear that they'll be true
Says the Shan Van Vocht

And what colour will they wear
Says the Shan Van Vocht
What colour will they wear
Says the Shan Van Vocht
What colour should be seen
Where our fathers' homes have been
But our own immortal green
Says the Shan Van Vocht

And will Ireland then be free
Says the Shan Van Vocht
Will Ireland then be free
Says the Shan Van Vocht
Will Ireland then be free
From the ventre to the sea
Then hurrah for liberty
Says the Shan Van Vocht. 27

This song is thought to date from 1797-8 but even if it is later it makes the point about the relationship between Irish nationalism and the French Revolution.  The hope embodied in the song came to be focused on Napoleon, and Napoleon's defeat the at least temporary dashing of that hope.

But Irish nationalism does not explain the persistence of the Napoleonic ballads in England or for that matter Scotland and North America.  Irish nationalism does not explain Henry Burstow's repertory with its fine set of songs celebrating Napoleon.

The Bonny Bunch of Roses is probably the most widespread of these songs.  It takes the form of a conversation between Marie Louise and her son.  It tells a short version of Napoleon's life; the ambition of 'The young Napoleon' reflects that of his father.  The 'bonny bunch of roses' is the British army and symbolically the union of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  Even in defeat the song has a sting in its tail.

By the margins of the Ocean, one morning in the month of June,
Where feathered, warbling, songsters, their charming notes did sweetly tune.
There I beheld a female, she seemed to be in great grief and woe,
Conversing with young Bonaparte,
Concerning the bonny bunch of roses, O.

Then up and spoke young Napoleon, as he was seated all by his mother's knee,
O mother dear have patience, just wait and you will surely see.
I will raise a mighty army, and through tremendous dangers I will go,
And in spite of all the universe
I will conquer the bonny bunch of roses, O.

O son don't speak so venturesome, for England she is the heart of oak.
And England, Ireland and Scotland, their unity has ne'er been broke.
O son think on your father, in St Helena his body lies Low,
And you might follow after,
So beware the bonny bunch of roses, O.

For he took three hundred thousand men and kings and princes to join his throng
He was so well provided, he might have carried the world along.
But when he came to Moscow, they were overpowered by driving snow,
And Moscow was a-blazing
And he lost the bonny bunch of roses, O.

Now it's mother adieu for ever, for now I'm on my dying bed,
If I'd lived sure I might have been clever, but now I hang my drooping head,
And whilst my bones lie mouldering and weeping willows all over me do grow,
The deeds of brave Napoleon
Will sting the bonny bunch of roses, O. 28

John Holloway's comment, 'possibly this confusing piece is an Irish ballad but pro-English' 29 seems to miss the point entirely.  I have no problem in agreeing that the piece is Irish in origin; it has the diction and metre common to many English language Irish ballads.  But the evidence is that it was widely printed and long remembered in England and elsewhere.  The song certainly is cast in the form of a warning against ambition but it is not a celebration of English military prowess.  It was at Moscow 'overpowered by driving snow' that Napoleon lost to the British.  Whereas Holloway speaks of confusion I would speak of ambiguity, but even here there are limits - even dead 'The deeds of brave Napoleon will sting the bonny bunch of roses, O.'.

Maurice Hutt has written eloquently of 'The Legend of Napoleon' in terms of what he describes as the cult, 'the popular sentiment clustering round him and his memory', and the explanation, 'a blend of history and surmise, a version of the events of his reign combined with 'if-onlies' and with 'might-have-beens''. 30  I hope, if nothing else, I have shown that 'The Legend of Napoleon' was alive and well in the towns and villages of nineteenth century Britain.

I find it hard to explain why this image of Napoleon was so persistent and perhaps I should leave it as a matter for debate.  Some may have seen Napoleon as a radical hero, the defender of the Revolution of progress and liberation, others may simply have been impressed with the epic and heroic quality of his story.  A whole range of responses is possible.

What is not in doubt is the amazing contrast between the propaganda pumped out in ballad form during the French Wars and those songs which survived the test of time in popular memory.  The wartime propaganda sought to denigrate and vilify Napoleon, 'the little Corsican', 'the Corsican Monster' whose murdering trade amounted to no more than 'rape, plunder, fire and slaughter'. 31  Such material showed little ability to survive in popular tradition.  The lingering memory, so totally differently kept alive by a Horsham shoemaker and a Winterton fisherman among countless others, was of 'that hero bold', of 'brave Napoleon' and of 'Bonaparte, the Frenchman's pride'.

Vic Gammon - Chairman of the Oral History Society - 26.3.99


  1. See Vic Gammon, Popular Music in Rural Society: Sussex 1815-1914 (University of Sussex D.Phil thesis, 1985) for a general background and Capt Francis O'Neill, The Dance Music of Ireland: 100 Gems. (Dublin, n.d., pp. 811, 957. 962, 980).
  2. The best Place to study such material in Britain is The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library and I should like to thank the Librarian, Malcolm Taylor, for his long-term and continuing assistance. Ian Dick and Alun Howkins, "The Time's Alteration": Popular Ballads, Rural Radicalism and William Cobbett' (History Workshop 23, Spring 1987, pp. 26-38). Gavin Grieg, Folk Songs of the North East (Peterhead, 1914, article 2, p. 25)
  3. Roy Palmer, The Sound of History (Oxford, 1988, p. 275)
  4. George Deacon, John Clare and the Folk Tradition (London 1983, p. 43) and D. I. Harder and F. Rutherford, Songs from the Manuscript Collection of John Bell (The Publications of the Surtees Society, Vol. CXCVI, 1985).
  5. Deacon, op. cit., p. 49.
  6. Henry Burstow, Reminiscences of Horsham (Horsham, 1911, passim and pp. 114-19)
  7. Gammon, x98S, Chapter 6; Maurice Hutt, Napoleon (London, 1971).
  8. Thomas Geering, Our Sussex Parish (London 1925, p. 127).
  9. Frank Purslow, The Foggy Dew (London 1974, P. 24)
  10. Palmer, 1988, p. 257.
  11. British Library, Francis Place Papers, Add. MS. 27825, fol. 144.
  12. Palmer, 1988, 17; BL Add. MS. 16922, fol. 45.
  13. BL, Add. MS. 16920, fol. 119.
  14. John Ashton, English Caricature and Satire on Napoleon I (London, 1888, pp. 185-7, 296, 216).
  15. Ibid., p. 385.
  16. Gale Huntington, Songs the Whalemen Sang (New York, 1970, pp. 205-15)
  17. A L Lloyd, Folk Song in England (London, 1967).
  18. A L Lloyd, The Singing Englishman (London, n.d. [1945?] pp. 46-7)
  19. Frank Kidson in an appended note, Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol. II, No. 8 (1906) p. 188.
  20. Sam Larner, 'A Garland for Sam', 12 inch LP Record, Topic 12T44. I have taken the liberty of restoring what I take to be corrupt elements in the oral text.
  21. Purslow, 1974, pp. 49-50, text of source singer completed from a Pitts broadside, 'Boney's Total Defeat; or, Wellington Triumphant'.
  22. Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Broadwood Collection.
  23. Journal of the Folk Song Society, Vol. 11, No. 8 [1906], pp. 188-9.
  24. John Holloway and Joan Black. Later English Broadside Ballads, Vol. 2 (1979, p. 208).
  25. Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol. II, No. 8 [1906], pp. 186-7. Ballad sheet by R. Barr of Leeds c. 1830.
  26. Huntington, 1970, pp. 214-l5.
  27. Colm O'Lochlainn, More Irish Street Ballads (London 1978, pp. 1201).
  28. Version known by the author.
  29. Holloway and Black, 1979, p. 205.
  30. Hutt, 1972, pp. 170-l.
  31. Holloway and Black, 1979, p. 194.

Article MT033

This article was first published in the RSA Journal Vol. CXXXVII No.5398 September 1989.

Top of page Articles Home Page Reviews News Editorial

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services  Updated: 18.10.02