It has been written that the British invasion of Washington, and the burning of the Capitol, White House, and other public buildings, was in retaliation for American raids in Canada which caused the destruction and looting of public and private buildings there. A point favoring this view is that the British left the city while it was still burning and did not attempt to hold it.

My question is whether the British, in its wars with other countries, prior to or contemporary to the War of 1812, had ever burned down government building in the capital cities of its enemies as a means to break their enemy's will to fight?

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    Had the British ever entered the capital cities of its enemies prior to 1812?
    – Oldcat
    Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 20:31
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    I hate these "intent" question. Why did Ghengis Khan kill everybody? Why, why why? Who the hell knows. Nobody, its not a factual question. Its a psychological one. Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 0:18
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    @tylerdurden sorry you feel that way, but a lot of historians also ask why? What I've asked though is factual; if GB burned other capitals, then its excuse that burning dc was retaliation is possibly not true. Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 1:23
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    @BruceJames The problem with questions like this is that just create a lot of speculation and guesswork. This is supposed to be an answer site, not a discussion forum. Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 1:42
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    @Tylerdurden not if you read the question and not just the title. The answer calls for a yes or no and then facts. An opinion is not warranted. Either the British burned other cities or not. The outcome of the war was a tie, but each side tried to declare victory and accuse the other of war crimes. A result that repeats itself following many conflicts. Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 2:07

5 Answers 5


The English army, arguably the predecessor of the British, burned Edinburgh in 1544 during the War of Rough Wooing. They failed to capture the castle, though, which was defended.


In 1860, during the Second Opium War with Qing China, combined British and French forces, under British direction, looted and burnt the Old Summer Palace. This was done in retaliation for the killing and torturing of envoys sent for negotiations.

The Old Summer Palace (a.k.a. Yuan Ming Yuan) is a large palace complex situated 8km from the Forbidden Palace (the "center" of Beijing) and was used by emperors to conduct affairs. Being a "public" building complex very close to the capital city, its intentional burning fits the question's criteria, although it takes place almost 50 years later.

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    "was used by emperors to conduct affairs" of State? or of the heart?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 13:49
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    Not relevant to the question, which is about policy before 1812.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Aug 29, 2014 at 19:05
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    Just to repeat Oldcat's apropos comment, the question asks for events BEFORE 1812. Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 18:11

Yes. Only five years previous, in 1807, the British fleet burned down Copenhagen.

This was a huge loss to civilization because previously to that the King of Denmark had ordered that all the old viking manuscripts in the country be collected together and brought to the capital. So, this huge wealth of history and genealogy was destroyed.

  • I would imagine this event, more than any other, would have predisposed the English leadership to consider firing the capital an acceptable response to perceived slights in the North.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 17:41
  • I'd quibble that this was an artillery bombardment, but the Congreve rockets used had no real purpose in this situation other than to set buildings on fire.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 6:17
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    I won't argue this as an answer to the question, but the part about the manuscripts is wrong. Apart from the fact that "Viking manuscript" is just nonsense, AFAIK, the only fire that caused any kind of provable loss of old Nordic manuscripts was that in Copenhagen in 1728, and even at that time, enough copies had been made that most texts survived.
    – andejons
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 7:11
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    To compare the Burning of Washington and the Battle of Copenhagen is stupid. The goal of the Copenhagen Campaign was not to burn the city. Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 10:01
  • @OlePetersen The title question was not a comparison request, was it? The question was "did the British fire any other capitals?" Tyler aptly answered the question as asked. He didn't answer the body's inclusion of intent, but that was (for the most part) off topic anyway.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 17:22

In 1897, Benin city, capital of the kingdom of Benin, was burned and looted. Noticeably, the palace was among the torched and looted buildings, with the removal of the Benin Bronzes. The global amount of destruction was way larger than that of the burning of Washington.


In the 38 minute Zanzibar war, the British destroyed the Sultan's palace. Does that count?

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    If you're not sure, you should post a comment rather than an answer.
    – Spencer
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 23:34

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