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The Congress of Vienna

Peace negotiations among the major European powers had begun in 1814, once the ultimate defeat of Napoleonic France was inevitable.  In September of that year, with Napoleon exiled to the island of Elba, the Congress of Vienna was convened.

This lengthy peace conference – it ended only on 9 June 1815, barely a week before Waterloo – was chaired by Prince Metternich, foreign minister of the Austrian Empire. The four Great Powers: Britain, Prussia and the Austrian and Russian empires conducted the major negotiations, with Bourbon France, represented at the Congress by its wily foreign minister, Talleyrand, as an intermittent and often disruptive fifth party. Britain was represented by its foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), until February 1815, when he returned to London, to be replaced until March by Wellington.

The Congress’s negotiations were protracted and difficult. As well as the major powers, representatives of more than 200 smaller European states were in attendance, as well as numerous civil and religious bodies and special interest groups.  After twenty years of European war Metternich’s aim, generally shared by Britain, was to ensure a lasting peace by creating a balance of power on the continent. France’s borders would revert to their pre-war limits and Austria, Prussia and Russia gain significant areas of territory.

The nationalist and sometimes republican aspirations of many of Europe’s peoples were firmly quashed in the interests of satisfying and balancing the major powers. Poland, for example, was carved up between Prussia and Russia, with Tsar Alexander I ruling most of it as a separate kingdom. This alarmed Britain and Austria, who feared the prospect of a dominant Russia in alliance with a growing Prussia.  Talleyrand, seeing an opportunity to secure France a seat at the Great Powers’ table, proposed a secret treaty of guarantee between Britain, France and Austria, and this was duly signed on 3 January 1815.

Manuscript text showing a register of correspondence maintained by the Foreign Office for January 1815Register of correspondence maintained by the Foreign Office for January 1815The image shown here forms part of a register of correspondence maintained by the Foreign Office in London during Castlereagh’s absence in Vienna, with entries for January 1815 visible. The left-hand page lists outgoing correspondence, the right-hand page correspondence received.

Among the former are references to secret and confidential exchanges with Talleyrand in relation to the Polish question and to correspondence about the slave trade;  Britain’s attempts to persuade other European powers to condemn  - and ultimately abolish - the slave trade was one of Castlereagh’s main priorities at the Congress. On the right -hand page Metternich and Wellington are listed, among many other correspondents. 

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