Just over a week after Waterloo, Daniel Sykes, a Yorkshire lawyer, businessman and MP for Kingston-upon-Hull, wrote to his sister, Marianne Thornton. Recent events perplexed him: ‘I cannot help … lamenting that thousands upon thousands of human beings should be slaughtered to settle the Question, (to me an indifferent one) who is to be the monarch of France’.
Sykes’s pacifism reflected his humanitarian leanings, but also his religiosity, Marianne’s marriage to the MP Henry Thornton cementing her family’s place in the influential evangelical cousinhood around William Wilberforce.
Sykes’s letter reflects the ambivalence of religious groups across Europe towards the growing cult of the nation. Enlightened humanism died hard, even in conservative Britain: Sykes deplored how patriotism ignored the achievements of ‘Philosophers[,] Legislators and Divines’ worldwide. And while in Britain and across the continent many clergymen acted as pulpit cheerleaders for wartime crusades, others were deeply uncomfortable with the state-driven subordination of spiritual concerns to official needs.
For the time being preachers and propagandists hailed Waterloo as a providential victory. But in the decades after 1815, Catholics and Protestants alike came increasingly to reassert their allegiance to a higher power. Sykes was a harbinger of things to come.