About British Reactions to the French Revolution

A shot from Jack Conway's 1935 adaptation of a Tale of Two Cities 


A shot from Jack Conway's 1935 adaptation of a Tale of Two Cities



The importance of the British Reaction to the French Revolution is not to be underestimated as the political and geographical structure of the United Kingdom allowed commentators a particularly unique insight. Politically Britain and France had been intertwined for just over 700 years at the time of the Revolution and the centuries long feud between the two countries allowed a greater understanding of the revolution and a cooler critical reading of its ultimate conclusion. Britain was also insulated from the Revolution not only by the Channel that bordered the two countries but also by a political solidity granted it by the Civil War a hundred years earlier. Britain had undergone its own revolution during this Civil War and viewed itself as a model of constitutional monarchy and as such Revolutionary ideals were more intellectual than provocative. This security and insulation from the Revolution allowed British commentators to take a more measured and considered approach.

Trends of Discussion

A sartirical cartoon by George Cruikshank from 1819

A sartirical cartoon by George Cruikshank from 1819

Broadly, speaking British views of the Revolution was initially favourable because of the belief that the Revolution would weaken an old enemy and transform France into a constitutional monarchy. The discussion was in the beginning was divided between the Pro group led by the idealistic Thomas Paine and the Anti group whose greatest proponent was Edmund Burke, but in general, a negative view of the Revolution won out after Robespierre’s Terror appalled both the conservative and liberal commentators. Thomas Carlyle’s vitriolic account of the Revolution in the 1830s would cement the idea of the Revolutionaries being an impassioned, barbarous and murderous mob being. This view was to colour the discussion of the Revolution in Britain for a very long time.

Alfred Cobban’s revisionist view of the Revolution was written largely as a riposte to the prevailing Marxist view. He disagreed with the idea of the Revolution being a capitalist one and the categorisation of the Marxists. The Post-Revisionists followed up on his work by looking at cultural issues and the population as a whole and this is where the British reaction to the Revolution has settled. For a more detailed look at the British Trends of Discussion, please click here.

Public Reaction to the French Revolution

A petition from the London Corresponding Society

A petition from the London Corresponding Society

The first real first hand accounts of the French Revolution from members of the public originate from the early 1800s, when in 1802 a tacit peace agreement allowed curious British visitors a chance to explore post-revolutionary France. These tourists found France to be partially in ruins, the spectre of the Revolution still hanging in the air with every tri-colour spotted. The damage done to the infrastructure of France would do much to convince these visitors that Edmund Burke had been right in his skepticism of the revolution. But whilst rampant ‘Oh Dear’ism was the order of the day for nosy British tourists, the Revolution had inspired far more credible reactions back home.

In the early 1790s a political storm was felt in London, as politically marginalised groups sort to ride the wave of revolution. Political dissenters, politicians hoping to roust power from Pitt’s firm grasp on government, and members of the middle lower classes who were denied political office by antiquated contrivance, all worked towards a similar goal on the onset of the revolution. The idea of reformation and revolution was mutually beneficial for all of these camps, and membership of the existing Society for Constitutional Reform and the newly formed London Corresponding Society gained massive support amongst these stigmatised groups. These groups were eventually stymied by political arrests in 1794 and the vilification of the Revolution following the Terror. For more information on the public reaction please click here

The Revolution in British Media

At the height of the French Revolution many European countries essentially closed their borders to information coming out of France. There was a total information lock down occurring in some countries in mainland Europe, in an attempt to quell any spread of the revolution. This lock down didn’t occur in Britain, due to the previously mentioned insulation from Revolution provided by its geographical position and political history, and as such British newspapers were free to report on the Revolution without much censorship. In particular the London Times and Morning Chronicle are fascinating insights into how the Revolution was being relayed to the British public by its media.

The London Times, reporting on the September Massacres on September 10th 1792

“The GOTHS and VANDALS, when they levelled the gates of Rome, and triumphantly entered into the capitol, yet still retained those feelings which distinguished the mind of man from the ungovernable appetite of the brute creation. It is true, they commanded the Roman ladies to attend them with wine under the Plantain Trees, and insisted on the solders acting as slaves—but they neither violated the chastity of the one, nor deprived the others of life. Far otherwise has been the conduct of the French barbarians. They delight in that kind of murder, which is attended with cruelty, and rejoice in every occurrence which can debase and unsex the feelings of man.”

'The Paris Commune' 1792, artist unknown

'The Paris Commune' 1792, artist unknown

The Morning Chronicle, also reporting on the September Massacres on September 8th 1792

“Can we go with confidence to meet the enemy, and leave traitors in existence behind us?” [ . . . ] —”Let us cut the throats of every traitor!” Such was the horrid proposition made in the Assembly of the Federates, in the Hall of the Jacobins!—Such were the exclamations of the [—] that crowded the streets! The blood freezes in our veins while we relate the effects of this monstrous proposition. The mind revolts from the [—], as a horrible calumny on our common nature, but truth demands the sad and shocking reality.”

As you can see these two newspapers certainly had a Burke inspired view of the Revolution, although its worth noting that at the time there were literally hundreds of papers in circulation so its impossible to fully comprehend the true nature of British Newspapers views on the Revolution from these two articles. If you wish to read more articles from The Morning Chronicle and The London Times you can find a half dozen articles from the period here .

In the literary world the most famous British interpretation of the French Revolution is of course Charles Dickens’ classic novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ published over 31 issues of periodical in 1859. Inspired heavily by the writing of Thomas Carlyle the book was largely based on juxtaposition, not only of Paris and London but of the brutality of pre-revolutionary France and the Brutality of the Revolution itself. Equally shocked and appalled by the horrendous subjugation of the peasants by the artistocracy as he was by the violence of the Terror Dickens’ reignited the images of mob rule and mass slaughter during the Terror that had been so popular in the late 1790s.

The final moments of Jack Conway’s 1935 filmic adapatation of A Tale of Two Cities

A shot taken in 1905 of Fred Terry as the Scarlet Pimpernel

A shot taken in 1905 of Fred Terry as the Scarlet Pimpernel

Feeding into this idea of the brutality of the terror were the Scarlet Pimpernel novels of the early to mid 20th Century. These books, written by Baroness Emma Orczy, depicted a secret cabal of nineteen English Aristocrats who under the guidance of the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel smuggled French nobility out of the murderous grip of the revolution. Full of bravado, nationalism and a general disdain for the French the books were massively popular at the time and cemented the vision of the revolution as being an ugly and vulgar thing. This idea would never really be challenged and literary figures would instead focus on the Napoleonic Wars to represent the Revolution, rather than the revolution itself.

For those interested the original Scarlet Pimpernel novel can be found at Project Guttenberg here.

“We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.”

For more information on the British Media’s reaction to the Revolution Please Click Here


Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History, 1837

Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, 1964

Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities, 1859

William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 1990

Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 1981

Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution, 1980

E.J Hobswam, The Age of Revolution, 1962

Gary Kates, The French Revolution (Rewriting History), 1997

Gwynne Lewis, The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate, 1993

Baroness Emma Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel Series, 1905-1940

Excerpts from the Morning Chronicle and The London Times taken from http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/research/around-1800/

Images taken, with the owners permission, from the following sites:

The Radical’s Arms is taken from the Online Archive of California 

The London Corresponding Society Petition is taken from The National Archives

The Scarlet Pimpernel Image is taken from The Collectors Post



  1. Hi! I am a student who is writing a paper on The Scarlet Pimpernel and the French Revolution. It is a research paper, so I need to insure that the referenced I use are accurate. Your site is really good, and I would like to use your information in my paper. I was wondering if you could e-mail me your name and information that I can put on my work sited page. I would greatly appreciate it!
    Thank you,
    Savannah Jones

    • If you’re looking for a citation it would be

      Tom Marshall, ‘About British Reactions to the French Revolution’ Leeds Trinity and All Saints College, 2009

      It was a project for a History Degree course. Most of the stuff is sourced from the links below.

  2. I like what you guys are up too. Such smart work and reporting! Keep up the excellent works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my web site :). “Blessed is he who has found his work let him ask no other blessedness.” by Thomas Carlyle.

  3. This really helped on on this project I had to do. Thanks!

    • Glad this could be of help to people.

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