Victorians in Arms: The French Invasion Scare of 1859-60

Robert E. Zegger describes the alarming dip in Anglo-French relations, half way through the reign of Napoleon III.

Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to France in 1972 marked an end and a beginning in Anglo-French relations, an end to a decade of estrangement over entry into the Common Market and the beginning of a new era as equal partners in the European future.

The occasion recalls a similar visit by Queen Victoria during the Crimean War when a British sailor named William Pegg wrote:

‘It is a grand and glorious sight to see how the march of civilization has formed a bond of unity between two nations that have for so many years been at war; or continually suspected and hated each other - England and France - those rivals full of bitterness, have shaken hands across the Channel.’

Anglo-French relations have, indeed, taken many twists and turns, although at no time did these occur so abruptly as during the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon, from 1851 to 1870.

Within a few years of Victoria’s visit, Anglo-French relations had deteriorated to the point where Britons like Pegg expected an enemy assault upon their island at any moment. This curious invasion panic of 1859-60 provides instructive clues to understanding certain Victorian attitudes, especially towards their French neighbours.

Clearly, Britons ran the gamut of emotions over Louis Napoleon from the time of his regime’s inception through the coup d’etat of 1851. The event provoked a flurry of denunciations from the press, the Court’s disapproval, and Palmerston’s abrupt dismissal from office for having presumed to give the Government’s approval to the usurpation.

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