I’ve been talking a lot about Cawnpore lately because I’ve just republished the book and I’d like you all to have a chance to read it, but this week I’m writing about James Burke and an incident from the very first of my books about him: Burke in the Land of Silver.
A bit of historical background
In 1808 Napoleon “invited” the Spanish king, Charles IV and his heir, Ferdinand VII to Bayonne in France. They never returned to Spain. Napoleon installed his brother, Joseph, as King.
The British had seen this coming. They had evacuated the Portuguese Royal Family ahead of the French invasion of Portugal, moving them to their colony in Brazil. They planned to do the same thing with the Spanish king and queen. In the run-up to the French invasion, Charles had left Madrid for Aranjuez, where he had a new palace. Significantly, Aranjuez was on the Tagus. The British idea was to evacuate Charles and his wife down river and then across the Atlantic to their South American colonies. The British agent charged with arranging this with the Spanish monarchy was James Burke.
James Burke’s role in fiction and history
In Burke in the Land of Silver I have my hero travelling across France and Spain where he approaches the queen and offers her British assistance. He is, however, just too late. Before he can get the king and queen out, the French mount their coup.
It’s a fictionalised account of a real historical event, but last week Rob Griffith, a brilliant military researcher, sent me a copy of a letter he had come across in the National Archives. It is from James Burke and it describes what really happened in 1808. He’s writing from HMS Alacrity off Cadiz. His handwriting is a great deal more legible than that of many other people of this period, but I can’t guarantee that there aren’t errors in my reading of it. All the plans have been made to get the king and queen to safety but before he can land to put them into effect a revolution (the first stage of the French coup) breaks out:
we were favoured with the timely lamentable intelligence of a most unhappy revolution having taken place in the government of Spain
The details clearly differ from the way I tell it in my book, but here we are at that critical point where Burke realises that nothing can be done to save the Spanish monarch and his wife. As in Burke in the Land of Silver he’s all too conscious that he was almost in time. In fact, he was even closer than in the book.
had I been dispatched immediately on my arrival in England I would have prevented that awfully disturbing catastrophe
For me, seeing this letter in his own hand has brought me closer to Burke. It was actually quite an emotional moment.
I do worry sometimes that my fictional Burke is painted as a more significant figure than he was. Actually, this letter suggests that he was heavily involved in diplomacy at the highest levels and was even more significant than my hero. He does seem to have been quite a remarkable man to be so overlooked by history. I hope that, with all their imaginative license, my books will still go some way to restoring this extraordinary figure back to us.
Rob Griffith – writing fact
Huge thanks to Rob Griffith for finding this letter and sending a copy to me. Rob is a remarkable military historian who has featured on my blog before. [https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/riflemen/] I do recommend his book, Riflemen, to anybody interested in British light infantry of the Napoleonic era.
Me – writing fiction
Burke in the Land of Silver is the first of several books about James Burke. His adventures in that one are closely based on fact, while his later escapades are more the product of my fevered imagination, but the character is true to what we know of the real man. The next in the series will see him dallying with the Empress Josephine, which I thought was probably a stretch too far until I realised that they had almost certainly met. Yes, James Burke certainly knew how to live!
You may also be interested in my books about the fictional John Williamson, whose adventures in the mid-19th century are closely based on actual historical events.