In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French expeditionary forces, having marched inland from the coast, reached Peking (Beijing).
On September 29, two envoys, Henry Loch and Harry Parkes went ahead of the main force under a flag of truce to negotiate with the Prince I at Tungchow. After a day of talks, they and their small escort of British and Indian troopers (including two British envoys and a journalist for The Times) were suddenly surrounded and taken prisoner. They were taken to the Board of Punishments in Beijing where they were confined and tortured. Parkes and Loch were returned after two weeks, with fourteen other survivors. Twenty British, French and Indian captives died. Their bodies were barely recognizable.
On the night of October 6, French units diverted from the main attack force towards the Old Summer Palace. The palace was then occupied only by a few eunuchs, the Xianfeng Emperor having fled. Although the French commander Montauban assured the British commander Grant that "nothing had been touched", there was extensive looting by both French and British. There was no significant resistance to the looting, even though many Imperial soldiers were in the surrounding country.
On October 18, the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin retaliated to the torture and executions by ordering the destruction of the palace. Destroying the Old Summer Palace was also thought to be a way of discouraging the Chinese Empire from using kidnapping as a bargaining tool.
It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, taking a total of three days to burn. Only 13 royal buildings survived intact, most of them in the remote areas or by the lake side. The palace was sacked again in 1900 during the Eight-Nation Alliance invasion, and was completely ruined.
Charles George Gordon, then a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers who later made his name in the Sudan, was part of the 1860 force and wrote:
We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money...I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.
One consolation for the Chinese was that the British and French looters preferred porcelain (much of which still graces English and French country houses) while neglecting bronze vessels prized locally for cooking and burial in tombs. Many such treasures dated back to the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties and were up to 3,600 years old. A specific exception was the looting of the Haiyantang Zodiac fountain with its twelve bronze animal heads.
Once the Summer Palace had been reduced to ruins, a sign was raised with an inscription in Chinese stating "This is the reward for perfidy and cruelty". The burning of the palace was the last act of the war.