Saturday, October 06, 2012

Your Peninsular War veteran hero: common errors and how to avoid them

Every once in awhile, when I'm judging the historical category of an unpublished romance contest or even reading a published book, I'll encounter something like this in a story set in 1812 or so:

"Sebastian Grey has just come home to claim his title as Earl of Wolfcliff. I wonder what he's like now. He's been with the Duke of Wellington on the Peninsula since 1805."

This inevitably sets me to sputtering because there are two glaring errors that tell me the author didn't do the research, even to the most basic degree--i.e. checking Wikipedia.
Sir Arthur Wellesley in 1804

First of all, there was no such person as the Duke of Wellington in 1805--nor, indeed, in 1812, though by that point I'll admit I'm splitting hairs with that statement. Of course the man known to history as the Duke of Wellington was around then, that just wasn't his name yet. Arthur Wellesley was born the third son of an earl, so he didn't inherit his titles--they were granted to him as a reward for his service and accomplishments. In 1805, he was still a young major-general whose talents were just beginning to become apparent, and he'd recently been made a Knight of the Bath. So if you met him in a ballroom, you'd call him Sir Arthur.

But you'd be unlikely to meet him a ballroom in 1805, and you certainly wouldn't find him on a battlefield in Portugal or Spain. He began the year in India, where he'd been serving since 1797, and spent months of it on a ship returning to England.

In fact, you wouldn't find ANY British troops fighting the French on the Iberian Peninsula at that point. You see, in 1805, Spain and France were allies. The force Horatio Nelson and the British navy defeated at Trafalgar was a combined French and Spanish fleet. That alliance didn't break until 1808, when Napoleon, not content with simply marching through Spain on the way to Portugal (which he'd successfully invaded in 1807), began pushing more troops into Spain and meddling with Spanish court politics--which, admittedly, were such a mess before he stepped in that he seems to have honestly expected to have been greeted as a liberator when he put his brother Joseph on the throne.
Joseph Bonaparte in 1808

Instead, his actions triggered a popular uprising...and made the Spanish willing to work with their long-time enemies from Britain and Portugal to gain their liberation. All of which gives us the Peninsular War--which from a British perspective ran from August 1808 till April 1814.

As for Arthur Wellesley, you and your characters can begin calling him Wellington as of the latter part of 1809, when he was made Viscount Wellington after his victory at the Battle of Talavera. He then became Earl of Wellington in early 1812 and Marquess of Wellington a few months later, but he wasn't created Duke of Wellington until May 1814.

Because I've researched the Peninsular War and Wellington in some depth, I know everything in the quick summary above off the top of my head. But you know where I went to confirm I had my dates right? Wikipedia.

I'd never counsel using Wikipedia as your only source for any piece of history that plays more than a superficial role in your writing, but it's a good place to start. Really, if you have an internet connection--and you must, if you're reading this blog--there's not much of an excuse for botching names and dates as in my Sebastian Grey example above. And while I made up that quote, I've seen those two errors again and again.

The thing about the Napoleonic Wars, and the French Revolutionary Wars that preceded them, is that they're plural, and with a few brief interruptions lasted a quarter of a century. Alliances shifted, dissolved, and re-formed, and the theater of war encompassed pretty much all of Europe and a good chunk of the rest of the world. (Just to name two well-known examples, Napoleon invaded Egypt, partly because he hoped it would be a gateway to breaking the British hold on India. And in a world with no Napoleon, the War of 1812 wouldn't have happened.) 

So if you want to have a hero with a military or naval background in a Regency, the possibilities are all but infinite--but keep in mind that what works for 1810 wouldn't make sense in 1805 or 1800, and do a little homework. Trust me, it's fun, and if you want to go deeper than Wikipedia, I'd be happy to point you toward some good sources.

Susanna Fraser's next Carina release, An Infamous Marriage, is now available for preorder from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

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