The French Revolution and its relevance to Poldark

War is a hot topic during the Poldark series finale – but why did the revolutionaries across the channel pose such a threat to the British establishment?

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The latest series of Poldark is fraught with talk – and threat – of the French Revolution, the bloody uprising taking place across the channel. 

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Winston Graham’s Poldark novels are set between 1783 and 1820 but books three and four – which this second series is adapted from – take place between 1790 and 1793. 

The French revolution first began in 1789 and received an initial enthusiastic response across the channel in Britain, especially from those who had already been calling for domestic political reform. Among its early supporters were the likes of William Blake and Thomas Hardy with the latter setting up the London Corresponding Society in 1792. 

But there were many who campaigned against the revolutionaries and what they stood for. With the French sweeping aside their feudal system – and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793 – the government were fiercely opposed to the revolution’s supporters, especially in 1792 when the French government promised armed support for allies on British soil. 

Said supporters included Richard Price whose 1789 sermon hailed events in France:

“Behold all ye friends of freedom… behold the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes and warms and illuminates Europe. I see the ardour for liberty catching and spreading; …the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.”

His comments were met with a pamphlet from Whig Edmund Burke whose 1791 response, Reflections on the Revolution of France, predicted the destruction of civilisation in France – a statement that prompted its own responses, including pamphlets from Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.  

In 1793, following Louis’s death, Britain declared war on France – a war that would last on and off until Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Then, after an attack on King George III’s coach in 1795, the government cracked down on large political meetings and – with the threat of invasion from the French – the momentum swung towards loyalists. Meanwhile, in Ireland, radicals did succeed in launching a full-scale insurrection in 1798, only to be repressed before French armed forces could arrive in support. 

So, how does this all relate to Poldark? Well, if you recall, Ross Poldark is an advocate for the poor and their rights just at the time when those classes were beginning to question their rotten lot. With first the American and then the French revolutions, those in poverty looked to blame the upper classes and those who governed them while the rich became anxious about the loss of their wealth and privilege – hence the anxiety around Ross’s trial earlier in the series and the need to ‘make an example’ of him. 

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Fast-forward to the series finale and that same French revolution is the very cause calling away Ross and Dwight when France declared war on Britain in 1793 – the British Army’s recruitment drive was aimed at sourcing troops to combat the thousands of conscripted soldiers gathering across the channel to fight in revolutionary wars that continued on and off until 1802 (swiftly followed by the Napoleonic Wars which stretched out to 1815).