The Battle of Waterloo, fought 200 years ago today (18 June), was the start of a new world order. The British see it as the defining moment in the history of Europe, the defeat of the tyrant Napoleon and his Frenchified ways: au revoir to liberté, egalité and fraternité.
It was the return of business as usual for the despotic crowned heads of Europe and an end to the career open to talent represented by Napoleon’s empire.
What’s not told, is the role played by gay men in the events leading up to Waterloo, and how a different outcome might have radically changed the world in which they lived.
Britain in 1815 was a grim place to be gay. It’s what had sent the sexually versatile Lord Byron on his travels in 1809 to be able, among other things, to pursue his love of men.
On his return in 1811, an old friend, Charles Matthews wrote an appallingly comical letter outlining all the gay scandals that would greet the poet. A ‘club of gents’ had been arrested in the White Swan in Vere Street, London, and had been put in the public pillory, a particularly nasty form of humiliation which some didn’t survive.
Two veterans of the French campaigns, an officer and a drummer, were to be hanged. The press (plus Ã§a change) was having a field day, it seems, reporting with relish how the Swan was supplied with sumptuous retiring rooms and a chapel for same-sex weddings.
Patrons came from all walks of life – many serving soldiers who were something of a speciality of the place. In the Swan, these men could be true to themselves. Fanny Murray, Miss Selina and Blackeyed Leonora were in everyday life respectively an athletic bargeman, a Bow Street Runner, and a regimental drummer. ‘We must risk our necks,’ wrote Matthews, ‘and are content to risk them.’
Revolutionary France had effectively decriminalized homosexuality in 1791, a piece of enlightened policy confirmed by Napoleon’s own Penal Code.
Men like Jean Jacques Régis de CambacérÃ¨s, who drafted the Civil Code and was Arch Chancellor of France in 1815, could be openly gay, affectionately known as ‘Auntie Screamer’. Napoleon’s own brother Lucian was constantly nagged by his desire for men, but at least he wasn’t a criminal.
Joachim Murat, the Emperor’s brother-in-law, was a mad-cap battlefield dandy, who didn’t give a flamboyant fig about conventional sexuality. When faced with an Austrian firing squad in 1815 after Waterloo, he implored them to ‘spare the face’.
The situation in Britain, by contrast, reads like a litany of woe for gay men. A spike in prosecutions was, unsurprisingly, blamed on decadent continentals rather than relentless bloodhound policing by a press, seemingly rabid for gay men’s blood. The Morning Chronicle complained that with ‘[a] crime horrible to the nature of Englishmen… the sending our own troops to associate with foreigners… may truly be regarded as the source of the evil’.
For soldiers, leave or peace brought only trouble. William Bankes, a college friend of Byron who would go on to explore the Middle East and become Britain’s first Egyptologist, had been an aide-de-camp of the Duke of Wellington. On his return to England his life was dogged by accusations of homosexuality; during one such scrape Wellington himself acted as character witness, proving the Iron Duke had a soft spot for at least one gay man in his entourage. Poor William was forced to flee England in 1840 after one too many sodomy charges.
Even foreign royalty was not immune when serving in the British Army. Crown Prince William of The Netherlands fought with Wellington in Spain and was wounded during the intense fighting at Waterloo. With the peace came blackmail for what one contemporary called his ‘shameful and unnatural lusts’.
The law embraced toffs and toughs without prejudice, but outcomes could be starkly different. In 1819 John Hobhouse, another of Byron’s buddies, lamented the execution of John Markham, a veteran demobbed in 1815 with ‘tis dreadful hanging a man for this practice’. Another veteran of Wellington’s campaigns, Duncan Livingstone, was hanged for sodomy in Rochester in 1820.
Two years later the aristocratic Bishop of Clogher was caught with his cassock up and his breeches down in the Haymarket, London, with yet another guardsman. To avoid the ignominy of it all the good bishop fled to France, the words of a popular song no doubt ringing in his ears: ‘The Devil to prove the Church was a farce / Went out to fish for a Bugger./ He baited his hook with a soldier’s arse / And pulled up the Bishop of Clogher.’
His soldier-lover faced the noose until Clogher’s nephew stumped up the bail that allowed him to escape too. The most spectacular fall out from this case was the suicide of Lord Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary at the time of Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna that followed, who told King George IV that he too was an unmentionable of the Clogher type, before slitting his own throat.
How different it was on the Continent. Hippolyte Auger, a young Frenchman in Napoleonic Paris, described the times in his remarkably frank – and horny – memoirs following the Russian army to St Petersburg in 1814.
He recalled finishing up with a military commission and a love affair with a young revolutionary with whom he returned to Paris where they planned a romantic escapade in South America. No one cared.
Auger went on to pose as Madame du Barry, a famous French royal mistress, at the Duc de Berry’s summer masquerade.
So a lot was at stake on the field of Waterloo for gay Britons. How different their plight might have been had Napoleon won the battle.
Sensibly, much of Europe decided to keep Napoleon’s civilized Penal Code after the Emperor’s fall, but the British, if anything, became more savage in their persecution, and as the century progressed, things only got worse.
Let’s think about that as we commemorate Britain’s ‘victory’ over the French.