Ridley Scott’s latest film, Napoleon, includes a scene that’ll get a few history buffs talking: Wellington meeting Napoleon onboard HMS Bellerophon (pictured above). Although this scene is fictional and no meeting ever took place, the setting is based on historical fact.
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated and made plans to travel to America. He travelled to the port of Rochefort with a small entourage, hoping to board two French ships that might make the journey, if they could get past the British ships in the area. However, with time passing and enemy forces closing the net around him, Napoleon decided to surrender to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon.
Captain Maitland was later presented this sword by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) for successfully negotiating the surrender. This sword is part of the Sim Comfort Collection, owned by the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
On 15 July 1815 Napoleon boarded Bellerophon, where he was treated as a respected guest. He was given the Captain’s after-cabin, which he quickly established himself in. So much so that he received Admiral Hotham and a small entourage that same day. If Napoleon had met Wellington on the Bellerophon it would have been at around this time, as Wellington was also in France.
While onboard Bellerophon, Napoleon was quite friendly. He dined with his hosts, asking questions about the workings of a Royal Navy ship and crew. He also wanted to know more about British customs.
One morning, Bellerophon’s detachment of Royal Marines formed a captain’s guard on deck, and Napoleon took the time to inspect them. He famously commented that, “How much might be done with a hundred thousand such soldiers as these.” This is a compliment that the Royal Marines have taken pride in ever since.
Napoleon inspecting the Royal Marines on the 74-gun ship HMS Bellerophon, by Major John Searle Hicks, Royal Marines. Painted in 1932, it demonstrates the lasting effect that Napoleon’s compliment has had on the Royal Marines. This artwork is part of the NMRN collection.
Bellerophon soon sailed back to Torbay, on the south coast of England. When they arrived the news that Napoleon was onboard quickly leaked out. Hundreds of small boats surrounded the ship on a daily basis as people tried to catch a glimpse of the most famous man in the world.
To increase security Bellerophon was moved to Plymouth, although the crowds there were just as fierce. It was in Plymouth, on 31 July, that Napoleon received his most distinguished guests; not Wellington, but Admiral Lord Keith (Commander of the Channel Fleet) and Major General Sir Henry Bunbury (Under-Secretary for War). It was these men who informed Napoleon that he was to be exiled on St. Helena.
You can see the original figurehead of HMS Bellerophon at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Housed in our Victory Gallery, you can also learn more about Napoleon’s other great adversary Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. Our Ultimate Explorer Ticket also includes entry to HMS Victory, Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar.