Volume II

CHAPTER 38

NOBILITY OF THE

FRENCH EMPIRE BY

VIRTUE OF BLOOD

AND MERIT



“I was doing away with the shocking pretension
of nobility of the blood – an absurd idea in
that only one sort of man exists in reality,
as some were not born wearing boots,
and others with a pack-saddle on their back”

Napoleon

The peace treaty that was signed at Tilstit was to mark a pause in the military campaigns that the European monarchies imposed on Napoleon and France. So we shall for a while divert our attention from the tumultuous life of military camps, to turn our attention instead to one of Napoleon's administrative reforms which was, in fact, an innovation of a special kind, the creation of a new nobility.

 

SIXTEEN MARSHALS IN ACTIVE SERVICE,
FOUR HONORARY MARSHALS

Everything started in May 1804 with the reestablishment, immediately after his ascension to the throne on 18 May, of the dignity – and not of the rank- that the French Revolution in its frenzy to erase every trace of the detested past had abolished on 21 February 1793, that of Marshal of France.

By a decision of the Senate, dated 20 May 1804, which dealt with (among other questions) the “Grand Officers of the Empire”, Napoleon sought to reward those of his generals who had played a leading part in his military triumphs, which they had often largely paid for in blood, in other words, the key men of his victories.

In so doing he also hoped not only to calm those who were jealous of the ascension to power of General Bonaparte, but also to reward those who simply considered that they were entitled to some form of recognition for their merit and distinguished achievements.

The bill passed by the Senate ruled that there were to be sixteen marshals, not counting four honorary marshals.

The “Grand Promotion” of 19 May 1804 comprised the names of fourteen soldiers in active service: Lannes, Augereau, Berthier, Soult, Ney Bernadotte, Bessières, Masséna, Murat, Moncey, Davout, Jourdan, Brune, Mortier – plus four honorary marshals, all generals and senators who had already served as overall commanders – Kellerman, Lefebvre, Pérignon, Sérrurier.

Over the years, the number of nominations increased and by the end of the Empire they totalled twenty-six. Grouchy, who was promoted in April 1815, was the last.

This total of twenty-six conveys the idea that Napoleon failed to respect the number that had originally been decreed by the Senate. In reality, with the death of some and the radiation of others when they became foreign princes, like Bernadotte, for example, who became Crown-Prince of Sweden, or Berthier, who was created Duke and Sovereign Prince of Neuchâtel and Valengin, or Murat, who became King of Naples … the number of marshals never exceeded the number that had been determined.

 

TO REWARD ALL TALENTS, ALL MERITS

But rewarding his faithful fellow-soldiers was not enough.

Now that France had become an “acceptable” nation again in the eyes of the world, it was, moreover, necessary to have a social system which was similar to that of other nations and which would be acceptable to European society at the time. A new nobility, with titles which - like the Legion of Honour - would reward all talents, all merits, both civilian and military.

At first, Napoleon's troops had expressed their displeasure upon discovering that this new distinction would also be awarded to civilians, and many had – but they soon changed their opinion – regretted the not so distant past when they alone were rewarded with armes d'honneur (arms of honour).

Antoine de Fourcroy (1755-1809), eminent scientist and researcher, member of the Legion of Honour.


Later on, Napoleon commented their attitude in the following terms:

“If the Legion of Honour were not awarded also for meritorious service to civilians, as well as for courage on the battlefield, it would no longer be the Legion of Honour, as it would be an extraordinary pretension on the part of soldiers to claim that they alone possess honour.”

 

NAPOLEON'S EXPLANATIONS

After the bloodshed and the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Terror, the creation of a new, imperial nobility might have seemed strange. And, not surprisingly, Napoleon thought it necessary to explain the reasons which had made him take this measure:

“In the masses and in revolutions, the aristocracy still exists. Should it be destroyed amongst the nobility, it will find a place amongst the wealthy families of the third estate, destroy it there and it will survive and find refuge among foremen and the lower classes.”

And to reassure those who were afraid of going back to the past and of the return of the old social order, he defined his measure as follows:

“I am not offending [the people] by awarding titles which are given to such or such a man regardless of the question of birth, which is totally out-of- date now. I am establishing a monarchy in that I am creating a right of inheritance, but I am still in the Revolution in that my nobility is not exclusive. My titles are a form of civil distinction – they may be earned by achievements…”

 

THE FIRST DUKE OF THE EMPIRE

Thus, the creation of the new nobility was established progressively, as it was a perilous measure to adopt and a subject which was much more delicate to deal with than the institution of the Legion of Honour.

The first step was taken on 27 May 1807, when Marshal Lefebvre (1755-1820) was created Duke of Dantzig.

For it was under his command that French troops had seized the town of Dantzig – a feat which had given Napoleon the opportunity of ennobling the first member of his new aristocracy by bestowing a title on a man who was of very humble origin.

Thus, Napoleon was perfectly in keeping with his declarations, quoted above.

Then, nothing further happened until 1 March 1807, when an Imperial Decree completed the institution of the new nobility of the Empire. By taking this measure, the Emperor sought to bring about the amalgamation of the old nobility with the middle classes which had emerged during the French Revolution. It was a step which he hoped would ensure lasting social harmony and peace in France.

It was for the same reason that in 1801 he had instituted Religious Peace, with the Concordat.

 

NO FRENCH TITLES

A typical old soldier of the days of the Republic, Marshal François Etienne Kellerman (1735-1820), shown left wearing a uniform of the Republican army. He earned his title of duke at Valmy, on
20 September 1792.

From then on, hereditary titles – like the Legion of Honour - were awarded to both civilians and soldiers alike.

Hence, princes, dukes and counts successively made their appearance… bearing the names of their many victories: Augereau, Duke of Castiglione (19 March 1808) ; Berthier (already mentioned), Prince of Wagram (1809); Bessières, Duke of Isrie (28 May 1809),

Davout, Duke of Auerstaedt (1808), later Prince of Eckmühl (15 August 1809) ; Kellerman, Duke of Valmy (3 June 1808) ; Lannes, Prince of Siewers, in Poland, a title which he never used, except in official documents (19 March 1808), Duke of Montebello (15 June 1808) ; Macdonald, Duke of Tarent (9 December 1809) ;

Marmont, Duke of Ragusa (28 June 1808); Massena, Duke of Rivoli (24 April 1808) and Prince of Essling (31 January 1810) ; Moncey, Duke of Conegliano (25 July 1808) ; Mortier, Duke of Trevisa (2 July 1808); Murat, already Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves (15 March 1806), King of Naples (15 July 1808) ; Ney, Duke of Elchingen (6 June 1808) then Prince of the Moscova (25 March 1813) ; Oudinot, Duke of Reggio (14 April 1810) ; Soult, Duke of Dalmatia (29 June 1808) ; Suchet, Duke of Albuefera (24 January 1812) ; Victor, Duke of Bellune (10 September 1808).

Not one of the titles of this illustrious cohort is French and Napoleon was unambiguous on the subject, when he stated:

“It would have caused a great deal of discontent among the people. If, for example, I had created one of my marshals Duke of Burgundy, instead of bestowing a title taken from one of his victories upon him - it would have caused much alarm in Burgundy because people would have thought that there were some feudal rights connected to the title which the duke would have wanted to claim. The Nation felt so much hatred for the ancient nobility that the creation of a title which was a reminder of the past would have stirred up general discontent, and in spite of all my power, I would not have dared to lay myself open to criticism.

There was, however, one exception: Kellerman, who was created Duke of Valmy, but his title, had no connotation whatsoever with the past.

Junot, who was not a marshal, received the title of duc d'Abrantès in reward for his victory, in 1807, in Portugal, and Duroc, the Grand Marshal of the Palace, received the title of duc de Frioul…

Some, like Brune and Jourdan, were never ennobled.

Others, like Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, Grouchy, Pérignon and Serrurier, received the title of count, but no allowance.

Bernadotte, who was created Prince of Ponte-Corvo, on 5 June 1806, was a unique case in that it was a purely civilian title and Napoleon never bestowed a duchy on him to reward him for one of his military feats which, after all due consideration, were undeniably of questionable value.

 

SUMPTUOUS ENDOWMENTS

All these titles bestowed by Napoleon almost always went together with sumptuous endowments, as the Emperor wanted his new “noblemen” to keep up their positions.

In passing, let us mention the example of the 1,060,411 francs – of the period, of course – awarded to Berthier and the 933,375 francs allotted to Massena.

Davout, for whom Napoleon apparently had little sympathy – yet these endowments were under his sole responsibility – nevertheless received almost 820,000 francs, whereas Lannes, who was unquestionably one of the Emperor's favourites and one of his rare close friends “only” received 250,000.

This, however, was decidedly better than Brune and Jourdan, who received no allowance at all!

 

CIVILIANS ALSO

Hugues Bernard Maret, Duke of Bassano
(1763-1839)

Officer of the Imperial Household

Jean-Baptiste de Nompère de Champagny (1756-1834), negociated Napoleon's marriage with Marie-Louise.

Civilians were not forgotten and we find dukes of Bassano (Maret), de Massa (Claude Amboise Régnier, member of the Council of State and Minister of Justice), de Cadore (Champagny, successor to Talleyrand, Minister of Foreign Affairs), de Rovigo (Savary), d'Otrante (Fouché), de Gaète (Gaudin, the Minister of Finance, who was the founder of the Cour des Comptes and the Banque de France )…

Those who had either contributed to the new economical prosperity or those who had enriched the intellectual, artistic or scientific reputation of France were not forgotten either. Amongst them, we find scientists and scholars such as Monge and Chaptal, artists like Vivant-Denon, industrialists like Delessert, philosophers and orientalists like Volney, doctors, like Corvisart, who was Napoleon's - and later Empress Marie-Louise's - personal physician, a few financiers, prefects and magistrates…

 

AND…THE NOBILITY OF THE ANCIEN REGIME

It is also interesting to note that not all the ancient families were hostile to the new régime, as its members represented some twenty-three percent of Napoleon's new nobiliary hierarchy, the most famous of whom were probably Talleyrand and Caulaincourt, who were from two of the oldest and most distinguished French aristocratic families.

Among Marshal Berthier's staff, at the Grand Etat-Major Général, the illustrious names of some of the oldest aristocratic families were not rare: the de Noailles, Mortemart and Castellane… Nor were they rare at the Emperor's side, but he was never really deceived by those who had rallied to his cause out of self-interest as this phrase which sums up his judgement on them shows:

“The ancient nobility served me; they rushed in to crowd my antechambers, there was no appointment they would not have accepted, asked or begged for. They performed curvets like a well-trained horse, but I could feel them quiver.”

Nobiliary titles were not imparted on the marshals alone as they also descended down the ranks.

Thus, the title of count was bestowed on some of the generals such as Mouton, Vandamme, Clarke, Becker…, while others were created baron, like General Walter, and even colonels like Dode (who became de la Brunerie). For some, the titles went together with an endowment…

But there would never be time for this new nobility - which was based in essence on personal merit - to become well-established and to reach maturity like the ancient nobility founded over the centuries and it would probably be more appropriate to describe them as persons of high rank who had been ennobled rather than of being of noble birth.

 

NAPOLEON ABANDONNED BY HIS NOBILITY

As we shall see later on, when Napoleon's fortune ultimately changed and he encountered nothing but adversity, it is sad to note that it was especially his nobility which proved the most disappointing, as all the newly created dukes, both civil and military, were the first to abandon him and to seek the favour of their new masters, the Bourbons who were restored to the French throne, in the hope of retaining all the advantages and honours that their previous master had bestowed upon them.

In spite of their defection, the Emperor was indulgent and chose to overlook their failings:

“I was abandoned more that betrayed.”

All things considered, do all these fine titles really matter?

At a time when France was only just emerging from the Revolution, creating a nobility of the Empire, which had no distinction of social origin, was a daring initiative. By this act, Napoleon expressed his consideration for all men, for as he said so well in epigraph, “no one is born wearing boots or with a pack-saddle on his back” – which is a quality that his detractors have always denied him.

 

To be continued…