«I’m paying for these
wretched affairs in Spain”

(Napoleon to Caulaincourt)

At the time when his affairs in Spain were causing him much concern and he was about to have to return to “wind up the machine” (See previous chapter) – a diabolical machine which he had started up himself – Napoleon felt the necessity to “take the pulse” of his allies and especially of the most indispensable, if not the most sincere, amongst them: the Tsar Alexander.

As for the latter, news had already reached him of French setbacks in Spain – setbacks which had moreover been greatly exaggerated. And in Russia, as elsewhere, the affair of Baylen had done irreparable harm and all the more so as the Russian aristocracy had always refused to take into consideration the defeats of Austerlitz and Friedland just as they had always remained totally opposed to any form of reconciliation which they judged humiliating with the French Emperor.

Napoleon therefore asked Alexander for an interview in mid-September somewhere in Germany.

The town chosen was Erfurt, in Thuringen, not far from Weimar.

It would be foolish to cherish illusions as to the Tsar’s most inner thoughts at that moment and we must not forget that in June 1807, at Tilsit, he had only signed a treaty with Napoleon because he had been forced to do so after two crushing defeats: Austerlitz and Friedland.

Alexander only accepted to go the Erfurt with one thought in mind: to wring every possible advantage from the difficult situation in which Napoleon now found himself with the disastrous affair in Spain.


In Prussia, Queen Louise, who was the principal and almost only person responsible for the defeat of her country, was dismayed.

The following extract of a letter which she addressed to Alexander at the time is interesting as it not only reveals the Queen’s feelings towards Napoleon – which we already know since Chapter 16 and the following – but also reveals the feelings of the Tsar who had appeared to be so friendly and sincere at Tilsit:

“So you are going to see Napoleon again, who I know, is as repulsive to you as he is to me. I beg of you, do not get involved in doing anything against Austria. For God’s sake [!] do not and think only of saving Europe.”

Europe of divine rights, of course.

Louise of Prussia (1776-1810) who was more hostile than ever towards Napoleon encouraged the Tsar to stand up to him

As for her husband, Frederick-William III, he was presently bemoaning his fate under the burden of the war indemnities which France had exacted after the crushing defeat of the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt. It is interesting to note here that one of the singular peculiarities of the sovereigns of divine rights at that time was that they considered it normal to declare war on Napoleon each in turn and that after having been provoked and having vanquished he should, moreover, have made French citizens foot the bill for defending their country!


Situated in the centre of Germany, Erfurt was perfect for the demonstration of power that Napoleon wished to make as it would be easy for the little kings and princes to come and pay homage to the one who had given them their crown.

So would they be invited by the master or not?

This cruel incertitude soon tormented all the little kings. Thus, the King of Bavaria bewailed his lot in the following terms:

“Will I alone be excluded? If he does not send for me if only for twenty-four hours, he will inevitably make me lose part of my political influence and will, moreover, distress me personally.”

Maximilien, King of Bavaria (1756-1825)

Left, Frederick-Augustus, King of Saxony (1750-1827), and Frederick of Wurttemberg (1754-1816)

There was a simple explanation to his anguish: the King of Saxony and the King Wurttemberg had received the Imperial invitation to go to Erfurt before he had. Their eagerness to pay servile homage to Napoleon then only made the eagerness with which they turned away from him when his star was on the wane more revolting.


It was on the occasion of the meeting at Erfurt that Napoleon made an inconceivable error of judgement by inviting his ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Talleyrand, to participate. Ex-minister as a result of a difference of opinion which had sprung up about the future alliances which had to be concluded. Talleyrand was in favour of a solid alliance with Austria, whereas Napoleon was in favour of an alliance with Russia. Thus, in 1807, the Emperor had withdrawn his portfolio from him and had named instead Jean-Baptiste Nompère de Champagny, Duke of Cadore, who was easier to deal with and especially more trustworthy.

Since then Talleyrand played the role of the victim of the “despot” so that when the time was right – in other words in the event of the downfall of Napoleon – he might present himself as a last resort. A situation which was likely to get him the only thing that really mattered in the eyes of this immoral individual: money.

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838) who was notoriously venal only had one sovereign: money

If Napoleon acknowledged his ability he also knew that Talleyrand’s loyalty was more than dubious and that he belonged to the highest bidder. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons he had lavished honours upon him in the past.

And yet despite the fact that the Emperor was aware of his disloyalty and greed he could hardly have expected what was about to happen at Erfurt – and which he would never know anything about. It was Talleyrand himself who was impudent enough to relate the affair later on in his memoirs.


“Make your arrangements to leave. You must arrive at Erfurt a day or two before me. During the trip you should seek every opportunity to see the Tsar Alexander often. You know him well – speak to him in terms which are agreeable to him.”

This was the mission that Napoleon had given to Talleyrand who set off on 16 September. Eight days later he was at Erfurt.

It was not by chance that Napoleon chose the
town of Erfurt, in the centre of Germany, for his meeting with Tsar. He wanted to entertain him right in the middle of “his” States of the Confederation of the Rhine

At 9 a.m. on the 27th, Napoleon arrived also.

At 2 p.m. he rode off again to meet the Tsar whom he had been informed was approaching by the road which led to Weimar.

When the two sovereigns met they literally fell into each other’s arms. One witness wrote, “The atmosphere was exactly the same as at Tilsit.”

And not without good reason as the Tsar wished to obtain the blessing of his great ally to annexe the provinces of Moldavia and Walachia. As for Napoleon, he expected the Tsar to do all he could to check Austria’s war plans as he had already been informed of their war preparations.

For the occasion the French Emperor has gone to great lengths and had made arrangements to bring along the troop of actors of the Comédie-Française, which was directed by the famous French actor Talma (1763-1826) who was the star of the institution.

François-Joseph Talma (1763-1826) was the greatest French actor of his day. Napoleon promised him an audience of kings at Erfurt – a promise which he kept

On 4 October, during the representation of the play, l’Œdipe, by French writer and thinker Voltaire, as the actor pronounced the famous line:

“The friendship of a great man is a gift of the gods”
, there was a moment of great emotion (which was false) as the Tsar who was a first rate actor clasped Napoleon’s hand in his and pressed it with so much (sham) emotion that the spectators who were taken in by this low comedy were bowled over with emotion.

Indeed, their entente cordiale appeared to be so perfect that future Marshal Suchet (July, 1811) wrote to his brother:

“He [the Tsar] lives in close familiarity with the Emperor. They spend their lives together and it is impossible to nourish doubts as to the harmony that exists between them and the friendship that binds them.”


Thus, everything seemed to be going well and the Emperor could, quite logically, hope to obtain the support he expected from Alexander and leave for Spain serenely to “wind up the machine.”

Then, he suddenly noticed a change of attitude in the Tsar. After first being relatively complaisant, he became reticent and very firm.

Napoleon had insisted that the Tsar should intervene to incite Austria to calm down. At first, Alexander had seemed to agree with this idea, and then he had suddenly become more evasive while at the same insisting on obtaining the provinces of the Danube.

Napoleon could not understand what was going on:

Upon greeting Baron de Vincent (left), the representative of the Austrian Emperor, the Emperor hardly suspected that the Tsar, after having been indoctrinated by Talleyrand, was going to assure the Austrian envoy of his neutrality

“I was unable to take one step forward”, he told Talleyrand who must have smiled on hearing this as it revealed his master’s incomprehension.

As the one responsible for this sudden change of attitude in Alexander was none other than Talleyrand himself.

In the course of one of their informal meetings, Talleyrand had asked the Tsar abruptly:

“Sire, what have you come here for? It is up to you to save Europe, and you will only succeed by standing up to Napoleon. The French people are civilized, their sovereign is not. The sovereign of Russia is civilized, his people are not. It is therefore up to the Russian sovereign to be the ally of the French people.”

And to make his meaning even clearer, he had added perfidiously:

“The Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees are the conquests of France. The rest is the Emperor’s conquest France does not care for it.”

Talleyrand had just struck his sovereign a treacherous blow which was lethal after the latter had placed his trust in him for the difficult negotiation under way.

Even if he had no means of verifying whether Talleyrand’s affirmation was an established fact, pure invention, or simply an act of treachery to take his vengeance, for the Tsar these words were a shock.

Alexander decided to interpret Talleyrand’s words in the manner which suited him best: by accepting them as true.

And following Talleyrand’s suggestion, he had a long interview with the Austrian representative, Baron de Vincent, and in order to reassure him he assured him that, “No one has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a state.”


So this was the explanation for the Tsar’s bad temper, his ill-will, his insistence on obtaining immediately what Napoleon only wanted to grant in exchange for serious guaranties while he was away in Spain… Alexander understood only too well that the one who had defeated him in 1805 and 1807 now had his hands tied.

The second Austrian campaign, in 1809, would be one of the consequences of Talleyrand’s treachery.

To confirm Talleyrand’s treason – if need be here is an extract of a report addressed to the Austrian Emperor by Prince Metternich, the Austrian ambassador in Paris at the time:

“Twenty discussions that I had with the latter [Talleyrand] before my departure from Paris never differed from the following point of view: “That in the interest of France herself the powers capable of standing up to Napoleon should unite to form a barrier against his insatiable ambition; that Napoleon’s cause is no longer the cause of France; that finally Europe will only be saved by the close reunion of Austria and Russia.”

A mere glance at a map of Europe of the time is enough to see that Austria’s appetite was far from small either!

Clement Wenzel von Metternich (1773-1859), Austrian diplomat and statesman who became Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire in 1809, a post he held for nearly forty years. Throughout his career he was opposed to the growth of democracy and nationalism, ideas spread by the French Revolution

Finally, Napoleon who was in a hurry to leave for the Peninsular and to join up with his Grand Army which was already on its way there, instructed Champagny to give the Russians satisfaction and to allow them to take possession of the provinces of the Danube.

On the 14th, the two sovereigns left together by the road which leads to Weimar and exactly where they had met again a few days earlier, they parted. Although their alliance had been solemnly renewed, it was no more than a scrap of paper adorned with two illustrious signatures.

Savary reported that after taking leave of his strange ally, the Emperor returned to Erfurt slowly without saying a word and that he “seemed to be dreamy and thoughtful.”

The two men would never see each other again.

The meeting between Alexander I and Napoleon at Erfurt who still appeared to be the best of friends. But the Russian sovereign who had done all he could to win Napoleon’s friendship after his two defeats at Austerlitz and Friedland knew now that due to his affairs in Spain he was in a very difficult situation. The show of friendly understanding between the two men at Erfurt was no more than make-believe


To be continued…