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Les Détenus - Napoléon's British Civilian Prisoners

Détenus list 



We have been spending quite a lot of time at Vincennes lately, where we came across a little oddity in the archives' collection: a number of files devoted to individual cases among the détenus

At the start 1803, most unusually, Britain and France were not at war. Napoléon was busy taking over Europe with some pretty fancy military strategies, which did nothing to intimidate those proud cross-channel tourists, each visiting and sneering at the other's country and considering that activity the acquisition or extension of a cultural education. Then, each side stole ships and cargo belonging to the other and, from the 18th of May, Britain and France were once again at war. 

On the 23rd of May, 1803 Napoléon signed an edict that was quickly carried out "to detain every male Briton between the ages of 18 and 60 then on French soil, whether 'service' or 'civilian'. No exceptions were made."* Actually, it was simpler and went further than that: every Briton in France or in territory held by France was arrested and interned.  This included women and children (as listed in the document shown above), even British spouses of French citizens. These people were at first referred to as "hostages" and later as detainees, or détenus. In some rare cases, they were allowed to return home or  -- if they had manufacturing skills -- to go on a sort of work-release, but the majority remained in camps until they died or until 1815 or so, after it all was finally up with the Corsican. 

Of the many thousand détenus, only about one thousand seemed to have been interesting or vocal enough to have merited a specific file. Some of these files contain a single document, others as many as sixty, and all tell a story.


  • John Cobham Pennie begged for his liberty because of failing health
  • James Payne had worked in the Imperial library. He died in France and his detained widow struggled to gain his estate.
  • Maria Bowater was the widow of Admiral de Graham, who had served Louis XVI and was beheaded for it, as was her son. She had returned to France during a moment of peace to settle her affairs, and was detained.
  • John Synge Blount, doctor, for some reason thought his friendship with the actor Kemble would gain his release.
  • Richard Gutch, hatmaker, hoped that his skill would gain him permission to work outside of prison.

John Goldworth Alger tells the tale with some spirit: Download Napoleon's British Visitors and Captives 1801-1815  (Beware! Very long to download as it is the entire book.) He gives a list of detainees, but it is certainly not exhaustive. No one knows just how many there were, how many died in France, how many married and stayed on, how many children were born in captivity.


Fascinating small corner of Anglo-French genealogy.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

*Lewis, Michael. Napoleon and His British Captives. London : George Allen & Unwin, 1962. P. .20