The Age of George III

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The Third Coalition (1803-7)

There had been two previous attempts to defeat the French armies of expansion following the French Revolution of 1789: the First Coalition of 1793-1797 and the Second Coalition of 1799-1801. Neither had succeeded and eventually Britain and France were obliged to reach a peace agreement. The Peace of Amiens, concluded between Britain and France in 1802 did not last long. In May 1803 hostilities broke out again. Also in 1803 a third coalition was formed although it did nothing until 1805. The coalition comprised Prussia, England, Austria, Russia and Sweden. A third coalition was necessary because Napoleon began a quest for military Empire in Europe. He invaded Northern Italy, occupied Switzerland and left a French army of occupation in Holland. He contemplated a second invasion of Egypt and refused commercial treaties with Britain.

Napoleon believed that Britain was weak, particularly in the absence of Pitt who had resigned over the lack of Catholic Emancipation following the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland. Also, Napoleon was angered by anti-French feeling particularly in the British press - for example the various cartoons by people such as Gillray. Napoleon also objected to Britain giving political asylum to French émigrés.

By 1803 Napoleon had stabilised France, given it a strong central government, restored Catholicism with the Concordat and now needed military victories to maintain his raison d'être. He became 'a revolution on horseback'.

In 1804 Napoleon became Emperor of France and the following year the third coalition became rather more active. Initially, Britain was alone. French forces tried to capture some British bases in India and landed an expedition in Ireland. Both failed, so Napoleon decided to crush Britain, since Britain was the centre of resistance in Europe, providing sea-power and gold.

In 1804 Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain and coincidentally Pitt returned to power. George III fell ill again between February and April 1804. Britain was isolated when Pitt returned to power. Napoleon called Britain 'the vampire of the north' and 'that nation of shopkeepers'. He was aware that to defeat Britain he had to attack Britain's trade.

The invasion plan

150,000 French soldiers, known as the 'Army of England', were assembled at Boulogne. To get such a huge force across the English Channel, to provide the necessary transport and complete the planning needed much effort, because the British navy could defeat any French invasion attempt. The aim was for the Spanish fleet to sail up the Channel to join the flotilla of barges at Boulogne and protect the Army of England as it crossed the Channel. The main problem was how to get rid of the British fleet. Napoleon's solution was to instruct the Franco-Spanish fleet to make a feint voyage towards the West Indies, shake off the British fleet, return up the Channel and begin the invasion. Villeneuve, who commanded the Franco-Spanish fleet, had been second in command at the Battle of the Nile.

However, Britain was not so weak as Napoleon had hoped. On returning to power, Pitt made instant increases in the army and navy. Volunteer units of about half-million men were set up throughout England to defend the coast. Beacons and Martello towers were built along the coast as a warning, and civilian volunteers formed local units.
Plum Pudding in danger
James Gillray's "Plumb Pudding in Danger", published early in 1805. The cartoon shows William Pitt and Napoleon dividing the world between them. Pitt takes the ocean: symbolically, his fork resembles a trident. Napoleon takes Europe, with the exception of Britain, Sweden, and Russia. This division of the world symbolizes the difficulty each sides experienced in defeating the other. Napoleon possessed a great army, but he could accomplish little at sea. The British possessed a strong navy, but made little headway on the continent. Ironically enough, this etching appeared in the same year although prior to a time when both sides enjoyed their greatest victories in their respective spheres. At Trafalgar, the Royal Navy ensured its maritime supremacy for the rest of the war by destroying a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. At Austerlitz, Napoleon crushed an Austro-Russian army to become the master of Europe for the next seven years.


There was very little support in England for the Revolution by this time: the British attitude had completely changed. European rulers sat back and watched events but British naval power saved Britain.

Map showing the fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. Click on the image for a larger view.

Admiral Villeneuve was to lead the decoy fleet towards the West Indies, but went all the way there and back with Nelson hanging on. When he had almost arrived back to Spain, Villeneuve met up with another British fleet, was sandwiched between Nelson and Admiral Calder, was engaged in battle and ended with a crippled fleet. Villeneuve had to put into Cadiz for repairs. Napoleon was furious because all hopes of an invasion were wrecked; he withdrew his troops from Boulogne and embarked on the conquest of Europe instead, without telling Villeneuve that the Army of England was going elsewhere. Unfortunately, Villeneuve tried to complete his orders and sailed from Cadiz for Boulogne.

The Franco-Spanish fleet met Nelson off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Nelson used unusual tactics and blew the enemy fleet to pieces. Eighteen of Villeneuve's fleet of thirty-four were accounted for in the battle and none ever fought again. Nelson had twenty-seven ships.

Results of victory at Trafalgar: it

The third Coalition collapsed quickly because British naval victories were again counter-acted by French land victories. In October 1805 Austria was defeated at the Battle of Ulm and in December the Austrian and Russian armies were defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon occupied Vienna and forced Austria to sign the Treaty of Pressburg which extended Napoleon's 'Kingdom of Italy' and allowed him to set up the Confederation of the Rhine from lands owned by Austria and by the abolition of the Holy Roman Empire.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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