William Crackanthorpe (1790–1888)
Letter to Sarah Crackanthorpe
Florence, 1 August 1814
MS Add. 8908/54
William Crackanthorpe of Newbiggin, Westmorland, cousin of the poet William Wordsworth, described a visit to Elba in a letter to his sister. His party was presented to and enjoyed a long conversation with Napoleon. The Emperor showed an astonishing ‘gaiety and gentlemanlike manner’, and Crackanthorpe noted that his energy was being channelled to the good of the island. From time to time, however, he ‘seemed to relapse into a kind of reverie, when his countenance assumed that fiendish appearance, which the light of the moon which shone upon it, perhaps rendered more horrid than it otherwise was’. In his small house, surrounded by loyal members of the former Imperial Guard, Napoleon maintained ‘all the pomp of a court with the same ceremony as at St Cloud or Versailles’, but to Crackanthorpe he was still ‘a man of little mind… revengeful, obstinate & cruel’.
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August 1st 1814.
My dear Sarah,
I am sadly afraid that you may begin to be uneasy at not having heard from me for so long a time, but I really have neither had the means nor opportunity of writing to you, so much have we been hurried for the last ten days. The first moment therefore that I am able, I dispatch this to give you some details of the lost sheep and I trust also a little intelligence which may not be altogether unacceptable either at Newbiggin or to my other Northern friends – Without any further preamble then we left Venice on the 11th and pursued our rout through Verona, Mantua & Bologna, all extremely interesting towns as well from the remains of antiquity, the fine pictures, and the beautiful peices of architecture, which they contain; as from the recent events which have taken place during this last war, this country being in general the scene of the campagne – It is extremely flat, intersected with innumerable rivers, which during the summer are quite dry, and cultivated to the highest degree of perfection – on all sides indeed no other wood is to be seen than fruit trees with vines twining round them and hanging in beautiful festoons from one to the other, loaded with grapes in the greatest profusion – From Bologna we then came to Florence, crossing the Appenines that chain of mountains which are as it were the back-bone of Italy – in these tho’ I was very much disappointed, expecting to find much more bold & magnificent hills – in some parts tho’ the pass was very romantic and in others it was so steep that for the first time in my life I had the satisfaction of travelling with oxen – all this chain shews strong marks of volcanic irruptions and at this moment indeed flames of phosphoric light may be seen issuing from them. – But no sooner were we arrived at Florence which was very late at night than we found our old friend Mr Baillie, who had passed the winter with us at Vienna and who proposed to us to set out the next morning with a party of English a Mr and Mrs Orby Hunter who are here, to visit the island of Elba – This was too tempting an offer to refuse and accordingly we all packed off immediately for Leghorn – And here we had the good luck to meet with his Majesty’s brig the Charlotte, the Captain of which most kindly offered to convoy us over and bring us back to any point we liked; after a most tranquil voyage there, for it was a calm almost the whole way, we anchored in the harbour of Porto Ferraio the second day and having fired a royal salute went ashore, where with the greatest difficulty possible we procured ourselves a lodging – the next morning we paid our respects to General Bertrand, who under the last dynasty was Marechal de la Cour, a very distinguished military character, and who has followed his Master in all his misfortunes; serving him with the greatest fidelity. He received us very politely and having intimated to him our wish to be presented to the Emperour, he told us he would take his Majesty’s orders thereupon – No answer however was made to us this day and our patience was quite exhausted when early the next morning he came to us and told us that Buonaparte would receive us at nine in the evening, at the same time apologising to us for having kept us so long in suspence; unfortunately we had carried over some unpleasant intelligence about an English Frigate, the Captn of which had been prevented from taking on board the Mother who was coming to pay her son a visit at Elba and who was hourly looked for, which was a great disappointment & put Napoleon so out of humour that he durst not put the question to him about our presentation – At the hour appointed we made our appearance at the Palace and were conducted by a Chamberlain through a suite of rooms into the garden which is upon the ramparts of the Citadel, overlooking the sea, where we were most courteously received by Buonaparte with Bertrand in waiting – He kept us in conversation about an hour, speaking generally upon indifferent subjects but with a gaiety and gentlemanlike manner which quite astonished me, as we were all in uniform, (which by the bye I have no right to wear) he asked many questions about our militia, in all the details of which he seemed much better informed than any of us; he asked us whether we were not formed when he was at Boulogne with his army, fearing an invasion, how many years we served and how we were appointed – With Mrs Orby he talked about the English manufactures, which are made for ladies dresses, and observed that she was not patriotic as she wore a gown of French silk; spoke with her of her family, and all that with an ease and good nature; which I can assure you, pleased us extremely. At intervals though he seemed to relapse into a kind of reverie, when his countenance assumed that fiendish appearance, which the light of the moon which shone upon it, perhaps rendered more horrid than it otherwise was and I doubt not that he breathed vengeance within himself against us for having come to see him in his humility. Our audience however was most gracious and although I only saw him as a wild beast in his cage, I nevertheless congratulate myself that I have been presented to the man, who made Europe tremble for so many years and who so nearly accomplished his grand object of universal domination – He still manifests the same restless disposition as ever and has already begun to make great improvements, which in the end will be extremely advantageous to the island although at present the measures which he has taken are rather unpopular, cutting roads through the property of private individuals, raising eighteen months taxes in advance, converting a church into a theatre, (which even in Italy they look upon as a profanation) building a lazaretto, which in so small a port will be of very little use, and raising a regiment to put him in mind I suppose of his former power – He rises every morning at 4, takes a ride to his country house, which he has bought since his arrival, the improvements of which he himself superintends, returns at 8 to breakfast, occupies himself with his affairs, (although I believe he neither writes nor reads a single word of any kind) then takes his siesta for a couple of hours, dines at 5 and returns again in the evening to his villa where he stays sometimes till 10. Bertrand is almost his sole companion and must begin I think to be horribly tired of his sejour at Elba. He has 600 of the old guard with him, who volunteered to follow their master and who are the finest men I ever saw; they are now tho’ beginning to be ennuyès, having nothing to do, and would be very glad to return. They call themselves indeed des esclaves and their officers des prisonniers; at the same time tho’ they speak enthusiastically of the Emperour and declare that nothing should ever induce them to desert le grand Capitain even in his misfortunes. He has also two Mamelukes with him, and about forty Polish lancers who attend him when he goes out – Nothing tho’ can be more wretched than his equipages, for instead of all the fine carriages, which we read in the newspapers of his having brought away, these really are none but the very refuse of his remise – his house indeed, which is very small, is very neatly furnished, and he still keeps up, (upon a reduced scale of course,) all the pomp of a court with the same ceremony as at St Cloud or Versailles. How different is all this from the conduct of Charles the Fifth and how much more noble it would have been to have followed his example and to have retired from the world to have prepared himself for his end. in fact to have performed his own obsequies over himself like his illustrious predecessor. But no doubt he is a man of a little mind and has none of those great qualities, which characterise the heroes of former times; revengeful, obstinate & cruel he has brought upon himself his own ruin, and many years I think will not pass over, before his career will be completely finished – After our interview we then took our leave of Elba, a very pretty little island, containing about 13000 inhabitants, capable of great improvements, producing a great quantity of most excellent wine, and embarked again on board the Charlotte for the Gulph of Spezia which being in the Genoese territory made us escape the the quarantine, which they have imposed I believe as a political measure in Tuscany upon all vessels coming from that island – and there we arrived on the third day and thence proceeded through Lucca, so famous for its olives and its oil for our return to Florence, where I shall stay some little time to see the entrée of the grand Duke as also the curiosities which it contains. It must indeed be an extremely interesting town on many accounts, but I will reserve all my observations upon it for a future letter, when I can enter into the details, of which I know nothing [at] present having been only 24 hours in it – Your letters I am sorry to say [have?] by no means come regularly; that from Charlotte of the 14 of May is the last [and?] as she alludes to a former one from you I presume it is lost; it is most likely however that they will all turn up at Rome, where Sligo I presume has sent them – The heat for the last two days has been rather oppressive having been up as high as 91 & 92 – it is the first time tho’ that I have been at all incommoded by it and the evenings are so charming that I am willing to compound for passing the morning shut up in the house in order that I may enjoy the breezes at night, when all the world go out and seem to enjoy themselves – The harvest of course is long since finished and we have every kind of fruit in the greatest profusion for nothing. There is already a colony of English established here, amongst them a Mr and Mrs Dashwood, a daughter of L[or]d Yarborough’s who I understand are pleasant people. I cannot say tho’ much for the others and shall take good care to avoid them being tolerably well provided with letters for the inhabitants of the place. I am very sorry to hear the news you tell me from Binfield – I wrote them a long letter from Venice and I trust I shall find one from them at Rome. I saw difficulties from the beginning and I am only sorry that I have not been deceived in my calculations. Have the goodness to remember me to all friends, and you may tell Mrs Salkeld that if the Col[one]l wants to take a little trip, she cannot do better than come to Florence as I am sure he would be delighted with the country and everything is very cheap. Don’t forget me to the [Kerry’s?] and with best love to my Mother Aunt & Charlotte whom God bless & preserve believe me your affectionate Brother,
I will write again in a week or ten days.
Postmark: A. AU. 17. 814