The Plot to Assassinate Napoleon
We have seen how William Pitt, after he had resigned and installed his friend Lord Addington as Prime Minister, continued to direct the English government. When he returned to power in 1803, he instantly betrayed the peace of Amiens and declared war on France.
Pitt, who was absolutely unscrupulous, wasted no time organizing the assassination of the First Consul of the Republic. He thought that it would be easier to win the war if any one other than Napoleon were at the head of France and its army. He used every means at his disposal to ensure that the crime would be successful. First of all, he provided lavish financial and material assistance (the latter in the form of ships) to the Comte d’Artois, who, ever since he emigrated to London, had been plotting to achieve the same end. He also urged the English diplomatic services in Europe to help ensure the success of the plot, and appointed Lord Whitworth ambassador to Paris. It was Whitworth who had been so successful in the mission to have Tsar Paul I assassinated.
It will be recalled that the first attempt organized by royalist insurgents (the chouans), acting on the orders of the Comte d’Artois, had been the bomb attack in the Rue Sainte-Nicaise. On December 24, 1800, two men, Carbon and Saint-Regeant, had placed a cart packed with explosives in a narrow street along which Napoleon was supposed to pass on his way to the opera. The device exploded less than two minutes after the First Consul’s passage, resulting in several people being injured or killed, including the small girl whom the cowardly Carbon had left to mind the horse.
Carbon, known as Little Francois, was guillotined in the Place de la Grève on April 20, 1803. Before he died, he shouted: “Good people, I did it for the King.” Colonel Saint-Regeant, a former émigré to London, had returned to France in 1799. He was executed along with Carbon.
We will now relate the great Cadoudal-Pichegru-Moreau conspiracy that ended in the arrest and execution of the Duc d’Enghien. On August 23, 1803, General George Cadoudal and a number of companions disembarked from an English ship at Biville, near Dieppe. Cadoual brought with him a large sum of money that he would need to buy the assistance needed to go through with his mission of assassinating Napoleon.
When he arrived in Paris, he worked carefully on the details of his plan, and before carrying it out, awaited the arrival in France of the son of the Comte d’Artois, the Duc de Berry, who was also supposed to land in Biville. On January 16, 1804, in order to increase the plot’s chances of success, Pitt and Artois sent reinforcements: General Pichegru, the Marquis of Rivière and the brothers Armand and Jules de Polignac, who led a group of about thirty émigrés chosen for their devotion to the king.
Here is what the Comtesse de Boigne, who was during that time in London with her father, the Marquis d'Osmont, had to say: “We knew that an upheaval was being planned in France and that Pichegru had been put in charge of the plot ... in everyone’s minds, an assassination for political reasons seemed a matter of natural law. Pichegru was unfailingly prudent and resourceful. None of the indiscretions that were committed can be ascribed to him. Unfortunately, the brothers Polignac acted differently. They made hundreds of farewell visits, took their leave of everyone, and loaded themselves up with errands in Paris. Armand was every bit as stupid as Jules.”
All the conspirators were apprehended and condemned: The Duc d’Enghien who, on the orders of the King of England, was waiting in readiness only a few kilometers from the border near Strasbourg, was captured and brought to trial in Paris on March 20, 1804. The court, made up of General Hulin, five colonels and a captain, declared him guilty of:
1 - bearing arms against the French Republic (with the army of Condé).
2 - offering his services to the English government.
3 - receiving and accrediting agents of the English government, procuring them means of practising espionage in France and conspiring with them against the external and internal security of the State.
4 - being the head of a group financed by England made up of French and various other émigrés, on France’s borders in the regions of Freiburg and Bade.
5 - participating, in Strasbourg, in a conspiracy aimed at stirring up civil unrest in the neighbouring departments.
6 - being one of the instigators of, and accomplices to, the conspiracy conceived by the English against the life of the First Consul.
The judges unanimously sentenced the Duc d’Enghien to death, and he was shot at dawn on March 21, 1804.
General George Cadoudal, at the time of his arrest on March 9, 1804, killed police inspector Buffet. To the prefect of police who reproached him for killing a husband and father, he replied, “You should have sent a bachelor to arrest me.” Upon learning of the Proclamation of Empire that followed the discovery of the plot to assassinate the First Consul, he exclaimed, “We wanted to make a king, but we made an emperor.” He was guillotined in the Place de Grève.
General Jean-Charles Pichegru, who was arrested on February 26, committed suicide in his cell at the Temple prison on April 6, 1804 by strangling himself with his silk cravate. Before doing so, he placed a copy of Seneca’s Thoughts close to him after underlining the passage: “Let us go my heart; the enterprise that we have contemplated for so long is beginning.”
Marquis Charles-François de Rivière was also sentenced to death, but was pardoned by Napoleon. He was imprisoned for four years in fortress of Joux, then deported. When he returned to France after the Restoration, he was made a Duke and Peer of France. As Governor of the 8th military division, he was the officer in charge of the assassination of Marshal Brune.
The brothers Armand and Jules de Polignac were condemned to ten years’ imprisonment and were successively incarcerated in the fortress of Ham, the Temple and Vincennes
. In 1810, they obtained from the Emperor a transfer to a private hospital. After the Restoration, “Monsieur” (the Comte d’Artois) named Jules Adjudant-General of the National Guard and secretly entrusted him with the post of Minister of Police in the clandestine government that he had formed, known as the Congregation. When he was crowned Charles X, he made Jules de Polignac a prince and hereditary duke, and in 1829, his Prime Minister.
General Moreau was sentenced to two years in prison and deported. He hired out his services to the Tsar and was killed by a French bullet at the Battle of Dresden in 1813.
The preceding provides a rapid, impersonal sketch of the events that led to the creation of the Empire and revealed the abyss that separated the moral principles of Pitt and Artois on the one hand and Napoleon on the other. He too, could have sent assassins against them, if only by way of reprisal. Not only did he never do so, but he never even considered such a course of action, either against them or anyone else.
For a more intimate and detailed view, we will again call upon Méneval, who devoted thirty-five pages to the affair. Since we are obliged to summarize, only the passages between quotation marks correspond exactly to the text of his Memoirs:
At the beginning of January 1804, the atmosphere in Paris was tense. It was known that a conspiracy was under way against the life of the First Consul, but the police were unable to uncover any evidence to back up their suspicions, even less, apprehend the culprits. Napoleon, who put great trust in his destiny, felt reluctant to take precautions; he had lost none of his natural kindness, but he felt indignant about the odious attacks of the English ministers.
Not content with showering gold on the monarchs of Europe to encourage them to resume war against France, they had given orders to all their ambassadors and consuls to direct their energies toward diverting the loyalties of prominent Frenchmen and Generals in order to eliminate Napoleon.
“The plots were conceived by English ministers in collaboration with aristocratic French émigrés in London. They were then orchestrated by diplomats Sir Francis Drake in Munich and Spencer Smith, the brother of the admiral, in Stuttgart. The English agent Wickam had returned to Bern, from whence he played the role of corrupter, as he had done in 1795, 1796, 1797 to enrol Pichegru. Taylor did the same in Cassel.”
Napoleon learnt all this from his intelligence service, in particular from an English agent by the name of Méhée de la Touche, who had been recruited to play the role of double agent.
“An émigré, Monsieur de Mongaillard, who had been let into the secret by the French princes and had been charged to negotiate with Pichegru and Moreau, made revelations on the subject. He agreed to write a report in which he described in detail the circumstances and the extent of Pichegru’s treason, as well as all the plots mounted by the English, with or without the assistance of the French nobles. The Comte de Vauban, the aide-de-camp of the Comte d’Artois, profited from the amnesty to return to France. His memoirs were excruciating for his former Master.”
The publication of the report and the Memoirs sparked popular outrage against the English and the royal princes. In addition to the conspiracies aimed at the assassination of Napoleon, the King of England’s personal cabinet had given the order to all émigrés in Germany to assemble on right bank of the Rhine, under penalty of losing the pensions that were paid out to them. In Londo, and soon over the whole of Europe, the rumour began to spread that the First Consul’s days were numbered and that the Bourbons were going to take power in France again.”
“A satirical pamphlet entitled “Assassination is not murder” that had been written against Cromwell, was reprinted with allusions aimed at Napoléon. The newspaper L’Ambigu, written by the émigrés, published the First Consul’s portrait with a black cord around his neck.”
It was Napoleon’s own clear-sightedness that made it possible to defuse this situation. While studying a list of prisoners who had been imprisoned for various reasons, he noticed a certain Querel, who had been Cadoudal’s aide-de-camp. From the revelations provided by this chouan, they finally learned that George was in hiding in Paris with about fifteen of his partisans. Querel also revealed that a certain Troché, a clock and watch maker from Eu, was used as a relay between Dieppe and Paris. Savary, at the head of an armed detachment, went at once to Eu, then to Biville, where he learned that a landing was expected.
“Because of a strong storm, the conspirators, whose leader was purportedly the Duc de Berry, the son of the Comte d’Artois, could not disembark on the planned evening and the ship lay off shore for a few days, before setting back for England.”
A chain reaction was initiated that brought to light revelations that led to the arrest of Pichegru, Moreau and Cadoudal. The latter declared that before he could act, he had to await the arrival of a prince in Paris. It was also learned that Pichegru, Cadoudal, Rivière and Polignac had held a meeting with a person to whom they demonstrated the deepest respect. The various members of the royal family were passed in review.
“The whereabouts of the Comte de Lille - Louis XVIII - the Comte d’Artois, the Dukes of Angouleme and Berry, the Prince of Condé, the Duke of Bourbon and the Princes of Orleans were known. There remained only the Duc d’Enghien, whose place of residence they did not know.”
When it was learned that he was in Ettenheim, on right bank of the Rhine, that he had contacts with the émigrés who gathered in this area, and that he often went to Strasbourg, it was deduced, logically, that he must be the prince that Cadoudal was waiting for. Napoleon hesitated to make a decision on the matter, but Talleyrand and Fouché were able to convince him of the need to act quickly. Fouché was no longer a minister of police, but it was thanks to him and to the agents that remained attached to him that the majority of the arrests were made.
“At 10 p.m., on March 10, 1804, Napoleon dictated to me a letter to General Berthier, Minister of War, giving him the order to dispatch, that very night, his aide-de-camp General Caulincourt to Strasbourg and General Ordener to Schelestadt, in order to arrest the Duc d’Enghien at Ettenheim.”
This was followed by detailed orders for the operation that ended in the Duc d’Enghien being brought to Paris on March 20. Papers that were seized proved that the duke had taken part in the plot aimed at restoring the monarchy in France. On the day of his arrival in Paris, Napoleon wrote a note, which was published in Le Moniteur: “While the English were sending Cadoudal, Pichegru and a band of assassins to Paris, he was buying the services of every émigré in Germany. Each day, the right bank of the Rhine throngs with these new legionnaires whom England recruits as the toys and victims of its cruel Machiavellism...The movement is led by a prince of the royal family and his staff and the Prince of Guéméné is supposed to arrive on March 25 to complete the organization of the gangs.”
The Duc d’Enghien made a written request to be received by the First Consul, but it was never transmitted. If it had been, Napoleon would certainly have agreed to receive him, and most likely, the duke would not have been executed. The proof of this is that on the evening of March 20, when the interrogation had already begun, he gave orders to Secretary of State Maret to write a letter ordering State Councillor Réal to go to Vincennes immediately to speak to the Duc d’Enghien and then return with a report of the meeting.”
“Réal got the letter at 10 o'clock in the evening. He had gone practically without slept for eight days and lay down that evening, exhausted. He had forbidden his servant to wake him before five in the morning. When he awoke, Réal dressed in haste and rushed to Vincennes, only to learn that the execution of the duke had just taken place. I am persuaded that Napoleon, sufficiently comforted by the humiliation that he had inflicted on his enemies by thwarting their plot, would have been inclined to leniency and saved the life of the prince.”
However, he assumed the entire responsibility for the execution. His dignity would not allow him to evoke the excuse that destiny had decreed what would happen on the night of March 20 to 21. The people of Paris and the whole of France expressed immense joy when they learned that their hero had once more escaped a serious threat to his life.