The Peace Celebrations
Now, there are times when an author gets extraordinarily lucky and history provides a setting for a mystery more perfect than any writer would dare to imagine!
During June of 1814, Britain threw a grand party in London to celebrate the end of nearly twenty years of war against France. It brought together a host of royals and dignitaries from the Allied victors—including Tsar Alexander I, King Frederick William III of Prussia. Prince Metternich and Field Marshal Blücher—for a spectacular fortnight of sumptuous parties, gala outdoor entertainments, horses races at Royal Ascot and a sojourn to Oxford for a banquet and a special awards ceremony, all to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon and his exile to the isle of Elba.
As science says, Nature abhors a vacuum, and with Napoleon gone (or so they thought!) there was all sorts of subtle—and not so subtle—jockeying for power among the erstwhile allies. In that day and age it was very rare to have such a cast of leaders assembled in one place, so it occurred to me that it was only natural that some skullduggery should take place. Suffice it to say, that there was plenty of opportunity for intrigue and treachery to take place.
There were real-life kerfuffles going on. Jealous that the British public liked the handsome and charismatic Tsar of Russia better than they did him, the Prince of Wales made a point needling Alexander I with a number of small snubs. The Tsar in turn made a point of being late to a number of receptions so that he stole the show when he entered. Throw into a few more kings, emperors, and military generals, and it was a rather volatile mix of personalities rubbing shoulders with each other. It’s a wonder the dueling was only verbal!
As I started doing research it was such fun to discover all the over-the-top entertainments that were designed to impress and astound both the foreign visitors and the British public. Sir William Congreve, who designed experimental rockets—the famous Congreve rocket—for both the army and the navy during the war, was in charge of creating the fireworks for the two major extravaganzas held in Hyde Park.
The first was a mock naval enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar on the Serpentine, the large lake just north of Rotten Row, with two “fleets” made up of small scale-model war frigates sailing against each other at night. The French and Spanish “fleet” all had gunpowder bombs in their hulls, lit by timed fuses to explode at the same moment. The fireworks were also choreographed to ignite at the same time, filling the sky with colorful bursts of fire Needless to say, it was a roaring success with the spectators!
Just as impressive was the Temple of Concord. An elaborate towering structure was built in the park. The outer walls were made of painted canvas to look like a medieval castle. The night of the extravaganza, a troop of cavalry staged a mock attack on the castle, and at a prearranged signal, the canvas fell away, revealing a magnificent Temple of Concord—or Harmony—hidden inside, an homage to the camaraderie of the victorious allies. Again, Congreve’s fireworks lit up the night sky, delighting the massive crowds assembled to watch the show.
Glittering balls, soirees, parades, concerts, pomp and pageantry—London was ablaze with activities every day until the wee hours of the morning. The fortnight ended with a grand naval review in Spithead before the leaders returned to the Continent, some heading home while others journeyed to Vienna to begin a conference on how to build a lasting peace in Europe.
It was quite an international gathering, full of drama and spectacle . . . and for me, provided perfect “color and flash” for a twisty mystery.