Wordsworth and the Convention of Cintra

This post is a summary of a talk given at Grasmere in April 2015 by Major General Charles Vyvyan. If you are interested in reading the full text, or  hearing a recording of the talk, please email Jeff Cowton at J.Cowton@wordsworth.org.uk.

By 1807 Napoleon dominated continental Europe, either by treaty or by military force; Britain alone remained undefeated, isolated, and subject to an economic blockade. By the end of the year France had removed the ruling families in both Spain and Portugal, and occupied the countries with upwards of 75,000 troops, thereby generating national uprisings. In July 1808 Britain sent an expeditionary force under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley to Portugal to support the uprising. In late August Wellesley defeated the French forces under General Junot at Vimiero. At the request of the French an Armistice was subsequently agreed; and a week later, at the end of the month, the Convention of Cintra signed. Its generous terms, which ensured the removal of the French forces from the country, nonetheless attracted considerable hostility in England; Parliament established a Court of Enquiry, which largely exonerated the Generals, and Wordsworth wrote a Sonnet on the subject and subsequently a 125-page Tract.

Most immediately the Tract was designed to achieve three objectives: to reflect the ‘rage and indignation – such an overwhelming of stupefaction and sorrow’ that the Convention clearly aroused in the country; second, to identify the causes of the incompetences among the leaders which had allowed the terms to be agreed; and finally to express his fundamental belief that it was only in trusting the people that a nation could prosper.

However, it goes beyond a mere damning commentary on the Convention; Wordsworth uses it as a vehicle for the expression of his political philosophy for the moral regeneration of Europe – his belief that national and political independence was the foundation for the establishment and development of civil liberties, and that ‘the true welfare of Britain is best promoted by the independence, freedom, and honour of other nations’. Thus Britain had a moral, and a prudential duty to do what it could to ensure the liberation of those peoples under the French heel; and when that aim was achieved Britain would then be able to address the ‘incompetences’ and inadequacies of its own systems and so ensure that the ‘the cause of the people …..is safe while it remains not only in the bosom, but in the hands of the People; or…..in those of a government which, being truly from the People, is faithfully for them.’