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Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 12:18 UK
Ryedale's Napoleonic connection

By Paul Brunyee
Author of Napoleon's Britons

Thornton-le-Dale, North Yorkshire
Matthew Grimes would end his life in North Yorkshire

In 1815 Napoleon was decisively defeated at Waterloo by the combined forces of Britain, Holland, Belgium and Germany. Fleeing the battlefield he returned to Paris, where he was forced to abdicate for the second time.

He then agreed to leave France and travelled to the west coast port of Rochefort where he finally surrendered to a Royal Navy squadron commanded by the Yorkshireman, Admiral Sir Henry Hotham.

Britain had been at war with France almost continuously since 1793 and most of it with Napoleon as France's leader. The scale of the war's impact on the country can be gauged by looking at the number of memorials to Napoleonic soldiers scattered across Yorkshire.

In perhaps every fourth or fifth old church, somewhere there will be a memorial to someone who had served in those wars from Egypt to Waterloo.

Napoleon had previously been allowed to retire to the island of Elba after his first surrender to the European Allies in 1814 and suddenly, here he was setting Europe on fire once more.

The Allies agreed that Britain, should imprison him and so he was sent to St Helena, arriving on the 16th October 1815; a tiny, craggy island in the South Atlantic, barely 13 miles long by eight miles wide.

Private Grimes and the Emperor

In 1819, Private Matthew Grimes of the 84th Regiment, who had already spent most of his service in India, landed at St Helena as part of a recruiting party returning to Britain from India. Matthew became one of those guarding Napoleon.

Napoleon Bonaparte
In defeat, the Emperor was exiled to the remote Island of St Helena

In 2004 I visited the island and walked down into Lemon Valley, where Matthew had been initially stationed. It was a very special moment as very little has changed on this island since his time. With a copy of a military map drawn up in 1811, I could see the outlines of all the fortifications and buildings that Matthew would have known.

Soldiers like Matthew were scattered across the island the manning defensive works which blocked the many steep sided valleys which open out on to the ocean.

There would have been little for them to do, but the government back in London was concerned that Napoleon might attempt to escape from the island. Consequently, the island governor had them rebuilding the roads during the day and keeping watch at night just in case a modern style commando raid was mounted to free the Emperor.

Matthew was on the island when Napoleon died on 5 May 1821 and probably attended his funeral which was held four days later. Matthew then returned to India with the 20th Regiment until his discharge from the army in 1830.

The North Yorkshire connection

He was born in the town of Northampton in the county of Northamptonshire in 1789. So why did he travel to North Yorkshire? My guess is for employment.

On his army documents he had given his trade as that of a paper maker. Only four hundred yards from St Hilda's church in Ellerburn, where he was to marry Mary Marshall in 1836, is a former paper mill, High Paper Mill Farm. Perhaps this was the source of his first employment in the district.

Thornton le Dale and the Emperor

He and Mary were typical working people of their time. The church records show him signing his own name whereas Mary only made 'her mark' which was in turn countersigned by the curate who officiated at their wedding. There were four witnesses to their marriage and again only two of them were able to sign their names.

On the road between Pickering and Thornton Dale is Hagg House and immediately behind it Howldale Wood. For many years Matthew looked after the wood, living with his wife in a simple two roomed cottage on the edge of the wood. Even today the remains of that cottage can be found on a modern map.

The legend of Matthew Grimes

Matthew lived to the great age of 86, and at some time he lived in a cottage directly behind where he is is buried today. Curiously neither he or Mary appear in any of the census returns of the Victorian period. But if he spent most of his life in that cottage in the woods it's likely that hard pressed officials would have turned a blind eye to the couple who lived far away in that distant wood.

He died in 1875 and such was his local fame that he received two obituaries. By then the dreams and hopes of local people had built up an image of Matthew Grimes as a man who had 'fought in the Peninsular', 'fought at Waterloo', and had been a bearer at Napoleon's funeral.

Whatever it stated on his memorial though he had stood guard over the greatest man of the age and perhaps that was fame enough for Matthew.

Napoleon's chair found in storage
06 Jul 09 |  England
Thornton le Dale and the Emperor
01 Oct 09 |  History


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