On the night of March 20 to 21, 1804, Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon, the Duke of Enghien and grandson of the Prince de Condé, was shot to death by a firing squad in the moat of Vincennes Château, a few moments after a Military Commission sentenced him to death for intelligence with the enemy, high treason and complicity in a plot.
Nearly all the historical literature characterizes this unfortunate affair as a bloody stain on Napoleon’s memory. A historically correct, single way of thinking became the norm.
But anyone who looks into the event with a minimum of objectivity quickly realizes that Napoleon is the victim of serious defamation and History of a crude manipulation.
If there were no statute of limitations and if the witnesses were still alive, this might be a matter for a lawsuit. That is the method we shall use to shed light on this affair. We hereby summon Napoleon to appear before the Court of History.
We will read out the indictment before undertaking a thorough examination of the facts. From their confrontation shall spring the Truth.
I – Will the defendant please rise?
In French trials, the defendant is asked to stand up as the indictment is read out. In this case, the charges are based on four points that are important to bring out into the open right from the start:
- The abduction of the Duke of Enghien outside France.
- His trial and sentencing to death in a few hours.
- The duke’s immediate execution in ghastly conditions.
- Napoleon’s covering of the culprit responsible for this unforgivable abuse of power.
The dry, bare facts suggest that Napoleon is guilty. There is no denying that appearances point the finger of blame at him.
Napoleon’s countless detractors, always on the lookout for the slightest slip-up, have seized upon this heaven-sent opportunity like a red flag. Their show trial, with its verdict known even before the defendant takes the stand, is worthy of Stalin. Even serious historians have been taken in by this game of smoke and mirrors, magnifying the affair to give it an impact it did not have. The most hateful critics accuse Napoleon of a “crime”, “assassination” or “murder”, while less strident faultfinders use the term “summary execution”, worthy of the Gulag.
It would be tedious to draw up the endless list of these emulators of Saint-Just. One of them, a famous historian, puts the quintessence of the indictment into words. In his Histoire de France, Jacques Bainville wrote, “Napoleon resorted in turn to the equivalent of regicide to give his throne a bloody Republican baptism…. He had the young Prince de Condé forcefully abducted from his home in Ettenheim, Bad-Wurttemberg, and shot by a firing squad after a sham trial . This crime was not even necessary for Napoleon to become emperor!”
Many writers have cast blame on the procedure: a botched preliminary investigation, violation of a sovereign country’s border in blatant disregard for international law, an exceptional court, a hasty unfair trial and summary execution.
All crimes require a motive. There is disagreement on this issue. Bainville and a few others argue that the “crime” can be likened to the ancient pagan custom of human sacrifice. Most claim that Napoleon’s blind ambition to become emperor was the motive.
These rash judgments are nothing more than a matter of personal opinion. But history textbooks and encyclopedias, responsible for instilling young students with official knowledge, are quite another matter.
To illustrate this point, here are some eye-opening samples drawn from three French encyclopedias:
For the Encyclopédia Universalis, which is one-sided to say the least, Napoleon’s motive was hatred of the Bourbons: “ My blood is worth as much as theirs. I shall pay them back with the terror they wanted me to feel.”.
Hachette plays fast and loose with reality and does not bother with niceties. “The duke was living peacefully in Ettenheim”, it writes. He was “ sentenced to death by a War Council meeting illegally.” Napoleon is the one who “ decided to have the Duke of Enghien executed.”. He bears “ the shame of this human rights violation.”
Hachette states that the Cadoudal plot involving Generals Moreau and Pichegru was “ extremely serious” for Napoleon because it “ called into play the army’s loyalty, the bedrock of Bonaparte’s power… He had to deal a serious blow, spread fear and spill blood.” According to this version of the events, Napoleon chose the easy way out and focused on Duke of Enghien because he was “ the only Bourbon easy to arrest .” “One man’s life was not worth much” if it meant helping “ the First Consul to ascend to the imperial throne.” This theory once again takes up the recurring theme of unchecked ambition as the motive.
The Hérodote encyclopedia outdoes them all. The duke “ had done nothing against revolutionary France (sic) except emigrate to the Grand Duchy of Bad-Wurttemberg, a neutral country,” it claims. The Cadoudal plot ostensibly aiming to assassinate the First Consul and topple the regime was merely a “ pretext, provided by a plan for an uprising that a double agent, Méhée de la Touche, passed on to the police.”
The blatant disregard for the facts continues: “ The Military Commission only found the duke guilty of plotting against the State, which is false, and receiving money from England, which is true.” At least they admit that much!
In the final analysis, for Hérodote this was less a plot by Cadoudal than a “ Napoleonic plot” (sic) aiming to “ terrorize the Royalist opposition once and for all…. The murder led to the expected result …. Talleyrand urged the First Consul to commit the crime, which was the prelude to Napoleon’s personal dictatorship.” Bloodthirsty ambition is once again the motive.
Here is a summary of the indictment:
1 – Using the supposed threat of a plot against his life and regime as a “pretext”, Napoleon was guilty of “murdering” the Duke of Enghien .
2 – His motive for the crime was two-fold:
- personal revenge against the Bourbons,
- all-consuming ambition to become emperor as soon as possible.
3 – Basic legal principles were flouted:
- violation of a sovereign state’s territorial integrity
- a sham trial
- summary execution of the sentence.
We shall submit this merciless indictment to the sovereign verdict of the facts in order to determine whether it has any basis.
II – The irrefutable facts:
This testimony hinges on a thorough analysis of how the affair played out, which should help us provide a clear answer to three simple, logical questions:
- Did the Duke of Enghien’s situation justify his abduction on the other side of the Rhine and his court martial?
- Was the trial fair and the sentence just?
- Did his hasty execution respect the rule of law?
Our answer is “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third, but Napoleon does not bear the blame.
Legitimacy of the arrest and charges
The Duke of Enghien affair is inseparable from the Cadoudal-Moreau-Pichegru plot, so it is useful to briefly sum up what that conspiracy was all about.
At the start of the Consulate, the royalists fiercely unleashed their hateful opposition to the First Consul, even resorting to blind terrorism. On December 24, 1800, Napoleon miraculously escaped the fiendish attempt on his life in the rue Saint-Nicaise. Despite widespread disapproval, the royalists continued their efforts to assassinate the First Consul. The English Prime Minister, Pitt, fomented and backed the homicidal plans of the Count of Artois, the late Louis XVI’s younger brother, who had emigrated to London with his son, the Duke of Berry, and a cohort of unscrupulous royalists. The other leading figures of royalty in exile raised no objections.
Even before the peace of Amiens was broken in May 1803, another plot on an unprecedented scale was taking shape in London. Cadoudal was the mastermind, with the at least tacit complicity of Generals Moreau and Pichegru. The goal was to eliminate Napoleon and restore the monarchy in France.
By the summer of 1802, Desmarets, the political police chief, was hot on the conspirators’ trail. In late 1803, he had two of Cadoudal’s cronies, who went by the names of Querelle and Sol de Grisolle, arrested. Three second-rate royalist accomplices were also caught in the sweep.
On January 13, 1804, the Councilor of State in charge of the police, Real, found out that Pichegru had arrived in Paris, answering the call of Cadoudal, who was apparently already in the capital. Hoping to avoid the death penalty, Querelle turned chatty and told everything he knew, in particular confirming that Cadoudal and Pichegru were in Paris and in touch with Moreau.
The investigators learned that Cadoudal had landed at the foot of the Biville cliffs in Normandy on August 20, 1803. From there, a logistical system to bring over the resources and henchmen in charge of killing Napoleon was set up. The method changed. The indiscriminate slaughter in the rue Saint-Nicaise proved damaging to the image of royalism. This time, the conspirators planned to abduct the First Consul on his way from the Tuileries to Malmaison or Saint Cloud. A large detachment of thugs armed to the teeth would attack the First Consul’s escort and capture him dead or alive.
For five months, the police, despite its reputation for effectiveness, had not known that Cadoudal was in Paris. Napoleon was still alive only because of the long delays necessary to plan this veritable military operation.
Was it uncalled for, then, to use all means necessary to stop this terrorist endeavor that would destabilize France’s institutions, and to bring the full brunt of the law to bear on the plotters?
On January 29, Real received the directions of the operation under the judiciary control of Grand Judge Régnier. Murat, the military governor of Paris since January 15, and Savary, commanding officer in charge of the elite gendarmerie, gave him their full backing. A state of siege was declared in Paris.
The situation changed quickly. Real apprehended two important individuals: a certain Picot, Cadoudal’s servant, and, especially, Bouvet de Lozier, a former general in the army of princes that had fought against France during the Revolution. Lozier was Cadoudal’s right-hand man.
Bouvet de Lozier
He needed little coaxing to tell everything all he knew about the plot. Lozier confirmed all of Querelle’s revelations and provided details about the relationship between Cadoudal, Moreau and Pichegru. Fortunately for Napoleon and France, they had failed to settle their differences. Moreau agreed to the elimination of the First Consul—as long as he could succeed him. The bloodthirsty Cadoudal, a fanatical advocate of a royalist Restoration, flew into a rage and scornfully said that he preferred Napoleon! The break was irreparable. Cadoudal pursued the adventure alone, with the tacit complicity of Moreau and Pichegru.
The consular police continued working fast and well. On the night of February 26 to 27, 1804, Pichegru, the brothers Armand and Jules de Polignac and Ribière, leading figures in the militant royalist movement, were arrested. So were a few small fry.
The conspirators’ confessions added a new, decisive twist: a “young prince”, supposedly unknown to them, was part of the plot. His role was to “rally” the country after the First Consul’s assassination and to drum up support for a royalist Restoration.
This is when the Duke of Enghien affair took shape.
The plot’s scenario was now known. The First Consul ordered the government to take all the necessary steps to render Cadoudal harmless and find out who the young prince was.
The Duke of Enghien’s name quickly appeared in a police report. The suspect fit the description perfectly: he was a young prince (32) with a notorious past. In exile since 1789, he had taken up arms against France, first in the émigré army commanded by his grandfather, Condé, then, after the latter’s pitiful dispersion, in the Austrian army. The duke had distinguished himself in the Belheim affair, the attack against the lines at Wissembourg, the capture of the village of Bertheim, the defense of the fort at Kehl and the battle of Biberach against Moreau. He had successfully covered the Austrian army’s retreat. His name had long featured prominently on the list of traitors to his country. There could be no doubt about his fate if he fell into the hands of justice. He already risked the death penalty for high treason, in accordance with the laws in force.
For two years, the Duke of Enghien had been living a few kilometers over the Rhine in Ettenheim, a town in Bad-Wurttemberg, where he split his time between his passionate love for his fiancée, Charlotte de Rohan-Rochefort, and his unbridled activism in the turbulent émigré circles around Offenburg.
The Duke of Enghien
Charlotte de Rohan-Rochefort,
the Duke d’Enghien’s fiancée
Police spies revealed that the duke had visited Strasbourg to try and lure soldiers away from the French army and set up a deserter-smuggling ring. Other information added that he had secretly traveled to Paris once in order to meet unidentified figures.
The least that can be said is that the investigation was not based on a presumption of innocence!
In this context, can anyone in good faith criticize Napoleon for having a clear conscience in this affair? In a cabinet meeting, the First Consul’s ministers were unanimous in urging him to be as firm as possible.
Talleyrand and Fouché argued the most strongly in favor of arresting the duke.
General Moncey was put in charge of actively pursuing the investigation. He dispatched Sergeant Lamothe of the Gendarmerie Nationale to the scene, who sent his report to the First Consul on March 10.
Meanwhile, on March 8 Moreau wrote a letter to Napoleon in which he acknowledged his contacts with the conspirators but asserted that he had rejected their proposals. On March 9, Cadoudal was arrested in the Odéon quarter after a bloody skirmish. He arrogantly declared his intention to assassinate the First Consul and confirmed the involvement of a prince, claiming to be unaware of his identity. He was awaiting his arrival in Paris to act. Moreau’s coachman, Léridant, corroborated his employer’s statements.
Cadoudal was obviously in a position to know who the “young prince” was. Napoleon vehemently rejected some of his aides’ suggestion to use torture to make him talk, preferring standard police investigation methods. A real, bloodthirsty tyrant would not have hesitated a single instant to use the barbaric but effective practice of torture.
The Lamothe report strengthened suspicions about the duke’s guilt. The traitorous general Dumouriez and a certain Smith, probably the notorious British plotter, must have been with him in Ettenheim. The duke often traveled to Strasbourg and Offenbourg, where he met with all the region’s fanatical royalists. Suspicion about the duke’s involvement grew stronger as the intelligence poured in. Everything pointed to him as the “young prince” expected in Paris.
There was no time to lose. During another meeting, the cabinet unanimously decided to arrest and try the duke. Once again, Talleyrand and Fouché were the most enthusiastic.
The arrest and trial implicitly clear Napoleon of summary murder. If the desire to shed Bourbon blood had been his motive, it would have been much easier for him to hire hit men, who would have quietly performed the deed without ado.
What was illegitimate about this decision? A plot was afoot to violently topple a government and kill its leader. All the clues pointed to a prince who was the assumed ringleader of the biggest conspiracy in French history. After the men who were to carry out the coup were caught, should Napoleon have let the ringleader get away, giving him a chance to try again? It would have been the height of irresponsibility for any government to let matters lie where they were.
The arrest had to confront a tricky point of international law. There was a choice between two solutions: issuing an extradition request in good and due form to the margrave of Bad-Wurttemberg or abducting the duke by surprise. The first option was quickly dismissed as unworkable. Extradition is a drawn-out, public process that would have given the suspect time to escape. What’s more, it would have put the margrave in an extremely awkward position that was certain to draw hostility from one or the other of the two parties. This was confirmed afterwards in his very timid reply to the government’s letter of apology. It is even said that he let out a huge sigh of relief.
The government had to fall back on the abduction plan. There was no lack of objections to this solution, which was tantamount to attacking a foreign country. But Napoleon had no choice and took the responsibility, with the approval of his main advisors.
At the time, the idea of territorial integrity did not have the same importance it does today. Border violations were a fairly common occurrence. In a Council meeting, Napoleon justified his decision based on the spirit but not the letter of the conventions in force. “ Territorial inviolability ,” he said, “was not conceived in the interests of the guilty, but in those of the independence of peoples and the dignity of the sovereign prince.”
It is important to emphasize that the margrave tolerated the duke and his friends in Ettenheim only on the condition that they “not conspire against the French government, a friend and ally.” Their conduct had to be “ peaceful and well-behaved”—an agreement they clearly broke.
To keep the international outcry to a minimum, the blow had to be swift and not cause any collateral damage. Napoleon personally planned the operation’s details.
On March 10, General Ordener, who had been put in charge of a 1,000-man military detachment, received the order to “march to Ettenheim, surround the town and abduct the Duke of Enghien, Dumouriez, an English colonel and any individuals in their retinue.”
Despite efforts to keep the operation under wraps, the duke’s entourage suspected that a threat was imminent. Advice to leave Ettenheim came in from all sides. But the noble was always a fearless man and disregarded the warnings, as though he wanted to seal his fate himself.
On the night of March 14 to 15, Major Charlot’s gendarmerie detachment arrested the duke without bloodshed. It was not a total surprise. Although they were armed, the duke and his followers offered no resistance, much to Charlot’s surprise.
Charlot did not find Dumouriez and Smith in Ettenheim, but the Marquis of Thumery and a certain Lieutenant Schmidt. Sergeant Lamothe had been misled by the German pronunciation of their names. But that changed nothing fundamental about the affair. The main suspect was the duke, who was now in the hands of the gendarmerie. So were highly compromising papers that he had not had time to hide or destroy. He was immediately taken to Paris under Charlot’s capable escort.
On the way, the duke was chatty with his guard. He regained his natural poise and carelessly loosened his tongue. He expressed astonishment that Dumouriez was thought to be with him, but said “ it was nonetheless possible that he might have been asked to bring instructions from England.”
That confession bolstered the suspicion that the duke and the “young prince” were one and the same. Realizing that he had made a huge blunder, the duke hastily added that he thought Bonaparte was “a great man” . But soon his pride once again got the better of him. “ As a prince of the Bourbon family, he hated him and the French, whom he would fight at every opportunity.” The duke was ensuring his own death sentence even before he entered the courtroom.
When Charlot asked him why he gave up without resisting, he seemed somewhat embarrassed and replied “ that he was sorry he did not shoot himself, which would have settled his fate gun in hand.”
Here it should be stressed that the duke shamelessly spit out his hatred for his fellow countrymen. True to Bourbon form, he gave the reason why they had been overthrown. In losing their love for their people, which was their ancestors’ cardinal virtue, the last Bourbons were the cause of their own downfall. The Kings of France had forgotten to be the kings of the French.
The papers seized in Ettenheim reached Napoleon’s hands on March 19. They confirmed, if that were necessary, the duke’s intelligence with the enemy. They proved that he was in the pay of the English cabinet and led a multi-branched anti-Republican network.
In a letter to Sir Charles Stuart, he basely offered his services to his country’s hereditary enemy, which would have had the Capetians rolling in their graves. He wrote, “ The Duke of Enghien respectfully entreats his British Majesty to be so kind as to graciously cast his glance on him and to use him against his implacable enemies by deigning to entrust him with the command of a few auxiliary troops…” The duke’s “ implacable enemies” were the French. After this overwhelming proof, can there still be any doubt that he was guilty of treason and intelligence with the enemy, even if there was no evidence that he was the awaited “young prince”?
Sir Charles II Stuart
Recent letters to his grandfather, Condé, advising him to be careful, confirmed his unbridled activism and furthered suspicion that he was the “young prince”. “Now ,” he wrote, “ as His British Majesty’s Privy Council urges émigrés to travel to the banks of the Rhine, I would not under any circumstances stray from these worthy and loyal servants of the monarchy.” Note the passage making a clear reference to London’s involvement in the plot.
Other letters to his grandfather reinforced the suspicion of the duke’s participation in the Cadoudal plot. One of them was particularly compromising: “… I want to stay near the border for, as I just said, at this point a man’s death might lead to a total change…” Wasn’t the man whose death was in question Napoleon and the “ total change” the overthrow of the regime? The duke was at least guilty of being an accomplice in an assassination plot.
Before moving on to the trial, we can assert without the shadow of a doubt that the duke was guilty of treason and intelligence with the enemy. There is no hard proof that he was the awaited prince, but he nonetheless acknowledged complicity in the plot. His arrest and trial could not have been more legitimate. The unauthorized intrusion into Bad-Wurttemberg was a mere trifle compared to the seriousness of the affair.
The famous prisoner reached the château of Vincennes on the evening of March 20. That afternoon, Napoleon had convened his Council at the Tuileries Palace to issue a decree ordering the trial. The following text was legally adopted without any objection from the Council: “ Based on the report by the Grand Judge, Minister of Justice, on the execution of the orders that the government issued on the 16 th of this month with regard to the conspirators who had gathered in the electorate of Bad-Wurttemberg, the government hereby decrees that the Duke of Enghien, accused of bearing arms against the Republic, being in the pay of England and participating in the plots that that power has hatched against the Republic’s interior and exterior security, will be tried in Vincennes by a Military Commission made up of seven members appointed by the Military Government of Paris.”
Military Commissions were not exceptional courts. They had been set up by the Convention. The First Consul had softened their harshness. They were commonly used. In 1803-1804, they tried over 50 cases.
Murat, the military governor of Paris, had little time to appoint the Commission’s members. He made almost random choices from the officers of the Paris garrison. General Hulin, Commander of the Guard Grenadiers, was named the chairman. Murat
gave him Napoleon’s verbal order, passed on by Savary, who headed the elite gendarmerie, to “ try the defendant without mercy and get it over with by sunrise”, in other words to remain in session until reaching a sentence. The phrase “try the defendant without mercy and get it over with by sunrise” took on great importance afterwards.
In addition to Hulin, six colonels in command of regiments, a captain-rapporteur and a bailiff made up the Commission. The colonels were Guiton (1 st cuirassier regiment), Bazancourt (4 th light infantry regiment), Ravier (18 th line regiment), Barrois (96 th line regiment) and Rabbe (2 nd Paris Guard regiment). The captain-rapporteur was named Dautancourt. Nothing in their backgrounds made it possible to cast doubt on their impartiality, as the trial proceedings confirmed.
Savary was in charge of security. As such, he was the trial’s all-powerful observer. There was no legal reason for him not to be in attendance: a trial in camera had not been decreed. What’s more, other officers observed from further away.
The Commission received the trial brief at approximately 10 p.m. It contained the above-mentioned government decree setting up the Commission, Murat’s order appointing its members, Real’s summary report and the incriminating evidence made up of the duke’s compromising papers confiscated in Ettenheim.
Dautancourt questioned the defendant. At no point did the duke request a lawyer, although he knew he had the right to. Dautancourt took his time in order to leave no stone unturned. The duke vehemently denied having anything to do with the Cadoudal plot, but readily, and even with a certain relish, acknowledged his notorious past fighting against the French army, impertinently added that he would do it all over again if he had the slightest opportunity. He pledged total allegiance to England, which was at war with France, and confirmed his hatred of “Bonaparte”, whom he could nevertheless not help admiring.
Before signing the minutes of the interrogation, he added a thinly-veiled handwritten request for a pardon: “ I am making with insistence the request to have a private audience with the First Consul. My name, my rank, my way of thinking and the horror of my plight give me hope that he will not reject my plea.” His request was perfectly legitimate.
At around half past midnight, Dautancourt ushered the defendant into the courtroom. A very attentive Savary was standing in corner.
Facing his judges, who were peering at him intensely, the duke kept his haughty attitude. Colonel Ravier immediately asked for the floor. “General,” he said, “ I would like to point out that we are not meeting the conditions required by law: no witnesses have been asked to testify and the defendant does not have a lawyer. I wonder if we have the right to sit in these circumstances.” The chairman replied to this important question by saying, “ We were not formed as a War Council but as a Military Commission, a special court set up by the Convention in the Year III with discretionary powers and the right to pass judgment without appeal. The defendant has not requested a lawyer.” The Commission therefore sat completely legally.
Then the rapporteur read the minutes of the interrogation, ending with the duke’s request for an audience with the First Consul. Colonel Barrois asked for the floor. “ I believe it is our duty,” he said, “ to pass this request on to General Bonaparte. That will not keep us from sitting in the meantime. A rider with a good horse can take the message to Malmaison and bring us the reply in less than four hours.” Savary leapt up shouting “ The request is inappropriate!” What difference could it make to him?
In a brave display of its independence, the Commission overrode him and decided to take up the matter at the end of the trial.
The duke straightforwardly answered General Hulin’s questions based on the interrogation minutes. He confirmed his notorious past as a warrior against the French army and being in the pay of England, his country’s enemy. He repeated his confession with provocative relish.
Commission members futilely tried to give him the chance to show that there was some attenuating circumstance. It was no use; the stubborn duke stubbornly dug in his heels. “ A Condé can never return to France unarmed. My birth and opinions make me the enemy of your government forever.” The duke’s dashing bravado sealed his fate.
But he continued to vehemently deny any involvement in the Cadoudal plot, saying that the method was unworthy of him. However, driven into a corner by General Hulin, he eventually let out a half-confession that clinched his downfall. “ My intention was to not remain indifferent,” he said. “ I had asked England if I could serve in her army, and she replied that I could not, but that I should stay on the Rhine, where I would soon have a role to play, and I waited. Sir, I have nothing more to tell you !”
Was the duke the “young prince” the conspirators were waiting for without his knowing it? Afterwards, it became known that the Duke of Berry was the prince in question—which does not rule out the possibility that the Duke of Enghien might also have been expected. In any case, the question had become moot.
When the debate was over, the duke was led to his cell, where he awaited the verdict. The Commission deliberated less than two hours. No court has ever had to try such a cut-and-dried case. The defendant signed his own death warrant. What’s more, his provocative attitude gave the judges no reason to show him mercy. The death penalty was unavoidable. The Commission’s verdict was unanimous. The Duke of Enghien was found guilty of:
“1 – bearing arms against the French Republic.
2 – offering his services to the government of England, the enemy of France.
3 – receiving and accrediting agents of the English government, procuring the means for them to gather intelligence in France and conspiring with them against the interior and exterior security of the State.
4 – leading a group of émigrés and others, in the pay of England, on the border with France in Freiburg and Bad-Wurttemberg.
5 – gathering intelligence in Strasbourg and attempting to foment an uprising in the surrounding departments to create a diversion favorable to England.
6 – being one of the ringleaders and accomplices of the conspiracy hatched by the English against the life of the First Consul and, in the event of the conspiracy’s success, bringing about the invasion France.”
All the motives correspond to the established facts and the defendant’s confession. He was not recognized as being the “expected young prince”, but as an accomplice in the Cadoudal plot. Anyhow, the question had become moot in light of the other charges.
Much ink has been spilled over the harshness of the sentence, probably because it was pronounced against a royal prince. Legally, the verdict is unchallengeable. The laws of March 28, 1793 and 26 Brumaire, Year III set down the death penalty for the crimes of treason and intelligence with the enemy, which were clearly proven and even claimed by the defendant. Justice had to be the same for all without discrimination. If anything, a high social position was an aggravating circumstance! Dura lex, sed lex. The jury had no choice. Napoleon himself could not have overturned the sentence. All he could have done was grant a pardon.
The sentence was also challenged on a technicality. The Commission knew the laws it applied but not their exact dates. They were temporarily left blank. That minor imperfection changes absolutely nothing in the trial’s substance.
An unfortunate incident occurred as the sentence was being written up. At the bailiff’s request, the first draft, already signed by all the Commission members, had to be cancelled for technical reasons. They immediately started writing a second draft without bothering to destroy the first, which remained in Chairman Hulin’s private papers. Later on we shall see how some people dishonestly use them to discredit the legal procedure.
We have just reviewed the groundless criticisms usually made of the legal procedure. Until now, everything took place according to established rules. But the final act, an unforgivable abuse of power by Savary, seriously tarnished the execution of the sentence.
The odious blunder of the execution
When the judgment was handed down, General Hulin immediately took up the duke’s earlier request for an audience with the First Consul. Savary objected again:
- “ What are you doing ?” he harshly asked the general.
- “ I’m writing to the First Consul to express the wishes of the Commission and the prisoner.”
- “ Your business is over,” Savary sharply retorted, snatching the pen out of his hand. “ Now it’s mine!”
In Explications offertes aux hommes impartiaux (1823), General Hulin wrote that he understood Savary to mean it was his responsibility to inform the First Consul, which is why he did not pursue the matter. That is an explanation but not a justification. In such serious circumstances, the Commission chairman never should have assumed that anyone else would have done the duty it was his to perform. Inconsolable remorse plagued him the rest of his life. Some have blamed Hulin for the hasty execution. He defended his honor in the above-mentioned book. “ I want to dispel the idea that I and my colleagues acted in a partisan manner…” he wrote. “ Yes , in the name of all my colleagues I swear that we did not authorize the execution… The second draft of the sentence, the valid one, did not bear the order to ‘execute’ the prisoner immediately, but merely to ‘read’ the sentence to him… Only a higher authority could have legally issued the execution order… We do not know whether the man who so cruelly hastened this terrible execution was following orders. If he wasn’t, he alone is to blame.” Of course, the man in question was Savary.
General Hulin’s justifications can be given credence. Savary alone bears the responsibility for the glaring violation of the law, which granted prisoners sentenced to death the right to request a pardon.
As the long night of March 21, 1804 drew to a close, Savary did not give anyone time to thwart his deadly plan. He ordered the governor of Vincennes to immediately move the prisoner to the moat around the château, where an atrocious, upsetting and surrealist tragedy that made the affair so notorious was to occur.
When the duke reached the moat, a light drizzle was falling. He realized that all was lost. In the glimmer of lanterns, he noticed a row of gendarmes with muskets at their sides. A non-commissioned officer holding a lantern walked towards him and read the sentence aloud.
A paradigm of self-control, the duke asked if anybody could loan him a pair of scissors. A gendarme stepped forward to honor the unusual request. The duke snipped off a lock of his hair and slipped it, with the ring he wore on his finger, into the envelope of a letter he was writing when he was arrested. Then he said to the gendarme, “ Would you kindly see to it that this reaches Princess de Rohan-Rochefort?” The officer agreed to grant this last wish.
Then the duke, still calm, requested a priest. That was his last wish and nobody had the right to raise an objection. But Savary, piling up one infamy after another that night, objected. From the drawbridge spanning the moat where he presided over the execution, his voice boomed out, “No cassocks!”
The duke, still a picture of dignity, walked over to a nearby shrub, got down on his knees and began to pray. Not one to be moved by this heart-rending scene, Savary impatiently shouted, “ Officer, give the order to fire!”
A few minutes later, the duke’s lifeless, bullet-riddled body was lying on the ground. The gendarmes had a hard time moving away his dog, Mohilof, whom he had been allowed to take with him from Ettenheim. The corpse was thrown into a nearby ditch that had already been dug, attesting to Savary’s criminal premeditation.
The execution only took a few minutes. The Commission members were still in the château when they heard the shots ring out. Stupefied, they shuddered with dread.
The Duke of Enghien died with dignity. His unquestionable bravery would have deserved better than the defense of a few nostalgic, outdated, privileged individuals who put their interests above those of their country.
Early in the morning on March 21, 1804, Savary arrived at Malmaison to make his report to the First Consul, “ in execution of his orders”, he had the nerve to say.
Napoleon was dumbfounded when he heard about the execution. Suddenly aware of the extreme seriousness of this hasty conclusion, the First Consul felt the earth move beneath his feet. He was staggered. Due to a horrible combination of circumstances, a dreadful political mistake had just been made against his will. The precious possibility of a pardon had just evaporated.
The vile Savary tried to justify himself with a far-fetched explanation. He put his hand over his heart and swore that he had understood the phrase “ try the defendant without mercy and get it over with by sunrise” meant to carry out the sentence immediately. If a representative of the First Consul had been in attendance, he certainly would not have had the sentence carried out immediately without his consent, he said hypocritically.
Anger followed stupefaction. Napoleon let loose a memorable barrage of insults mentioned by almost no observers, who were preoccupied with preparing his future trial.
Napoleon quickly got hold of himself. His legendary realism took over. A wrong had been tragically, irremediably done. What mattered now was to limit the political fallout resulting from this appalling blunder. Later we shall see why he did not publicly distance himself from the detestable Savary.
In keeping Savary by his side, Napoleon laid himself open to the outrageous charge of having ordered the duke’s summary execution. Napoleon’s trial was to make everybody forget about the duke’s. His critics were to pounce upon the situation and organize a cabal against him, ignoring key evidence that totally cleared him. We saved it for last.
Napoleon knew the people around him. The insistence with which some of his senior subordinates urged him to be inflexible made him fear a misplaced excess of zeal. To prevent a blunder, the First Consul decided to put his own representative in the judiciary. As the Commission was preparing to sit, he dictated a note to his secretary of state, Maret, and had it sent to Real:
“Go immediately to Vincennes to interrogate the prisoner. Here are the questions you will ask him:
1 – Have you borne arms against your country?
2 – Were and are you in the pay of England?
3 – Have you no shame when you call the French people your cruelest enemy?
4 – Did you offer to raise a legion and entice the troops of the Republic to desert, saying that your two-year stay near the border put you in intelligence with the troops on the Rhine?
5 – Did you have any knowledge of the plot hatched by England to overthrow the government of the Republic and, after the plot succeeded, were you planning to enter Alsace and even go to Paris, depending on the circumstances?”
Napoleon knew full well that this questionnaire was an exact copy of the one in the Commission’s brief, but it was a good pretext to have his own man at the trial, thus ensuring his control of the legal process. As long as Real will not have made a report on his mission, nothing irreparable or irreversible could happen.
Unfortunately, a lethal combination of circumstances, which History sometimes takes pleasure in inflicting on the human race, spoiled everything, destroying the safety lock installed by the First Consul. When his message reached Real’s home at 10 p.m., he was already fast asleep, exhausting by his long, painstaking investigation. His role was finished. It was time for the wheels of justice to take over. He ordered his valet not to disturb him under any circumstances before five o’clock in the morning. When he woke up and learned about the document, he made a frantic dash for Vincennes but it was too late. The irreparable had been done.
Would Napoleon have pardoned the duke if his request had reached him? In the memoirs he wrote on Saint Helena, he indicated that he would have: “ Had I seen the letter he wrote me, and which was not given to me, God knows why, until after he was dead, of course I would pardoned him.” The phrase “which was not given to me, God knows why, until after” is heavy with meaning. There can be doubt that Napoleon meant what he wrote fifteen years after the facts. But that could not have been assumed in the turbulent times of 1804. The decision probably would have depended on the duke’s attitude when he found himself face to face with Napoleon.
Napoleon’s secretary, Meneval, dwelled on the affair and gave him the benefit of the doubt. “ I am convinced ,” he wrote, “ that Napoleon, sufficiently comforted by the humiliation he had inflicted on his enemies by foiling their plot, would have leaned towards mercy and sparing the prince’s life.” Coming from someone who was familiar with Napoleon’s private side, that comment cannot be taken lightly.
In any case, Napoleon’s letter to Real unquestionably clears him of the charge that he committed a crime against the Duke of Enghien.
The dark cloud of suspicion hanging over the Duke of Enghien fully justified his arrest and trial, which was short and simple but nevertheless legal. The sentence, handed down by a legal, impartial court, complied with the law. Only his odious hasty execution is reprehensible, but as we have just seen, Napoleon was neither guilty nor responsible.
Thus, in the iniquitous trial intended to demonize Napoleon, the stubborn facts shatter the fallacious charges against him.
The cause should be heard, but despite the evidence, Napoleon’s relentless critics persist in maintaining the black legend from this dark chapter of French history.
III - A falsification of history
In the absence of convincing arguments and irrefutable proof, the neurotic, relentless attempts to sully Napoleon’s memory lead some authors to resort to disinformation, slander, forgery, the use of false documents and historical untruths.
An air of slander
The memoirs written by the main players in the affair, pouring their scorn on Napoleon, have an air of slander about them. Naturally, these fearless men waited until after the emperor died to publish their prose!
Regicides and their accomplices, they had much to be forgiven for by France’s new royalist rulers. They did not hesitate between honor and political comfort. These leading figures of the Napoleonic era, who owed everything to Napoleon, gave in to a disgraceful anti-Bonapartist zeal in order to enter the good graces of the masters of the hour —unsuccessfully, by the way. Is it any surprise that Savary was probably the most loathsome one of all?
Do these disreputable figures deserve any credibility? How can anybody believe their gossip, insinuations and lies?
The manipulation of documents is even more reprehensible.
Forgery and the use of false documents
Above we mentioned how the first draft of the sentence of the Duke of Enghien was put aside and immediately rewritten on account of a technicality. Then the first draft was seized in General Hulin’s private papers and used to show that the trial was illegal. The hoax was discovered, but the suspicion has remained.
Worse was the forgery of a document by Napoleon to Murat ordering him to “ Tell the Commission members that they must finish by the end of the night and order them to sentence the defendant to death, immediately execute the penalty and bury the body in a corner of the fort”. The forgers took a while to realize that the document contradicted Napoleon’s more or less concomitant official letter to Real. The falsification was so glaringly obvious that they had to back away from it. But today there is still no certainty that the doubt has been completely dispelled.
The comparison between the indictment and the facts speaks for itself. We have already dispelled most, but not all, of the historical untruths. Here are the rest.
- Absurdity of the sacrificial crime theory
First, let’s sweep away this preposterous argument, which seriously discredits the historian who suggested it. According to this theory, the Duke of Enghien’s death was the immolation of a Capetian on the altar of the Empire in order to consecrate the new dynasty in blood. These incredible ravings totally ignore Napoleon’s inherent nature. He was a man of the Enlightenment, and this pagan ritual was diametrically opposed to his philosophy. He always found any kind of crime utterly repellent, as he wrote about the Bourbons on Saint Helena: “ More than once I was made the offer of their fates. I was offered their heads, from the first to the last. I rejected these propositions with horror. I would have regarded it as base, gratuitous and cowardly.”
To rise to power, Napoleon had no need to commit a sacrificial or even a political crime.
- Baselessness of the political crime theory
Some people still claim that Napoleon framed the Duke of Enghien to use the case as a springboard to the Empire. He needed to draw the final curtain on the royalty and guarantee the next regime’s republican intangibility. That motive set many Jacobin heads spinning, as we shall see below, but it was the furthest thing from Napoleon’s mind. Did he still need to prove his unfailing attachment to the Republic? Since 1789, he had shown it in everything he did. Neither the people, nor the Bourbons, nor the European monarchies had the slightest doubt about it for a long time. Hadn’t he replied to the Count of Provence’s official advances that “ the Pretender will have to march over one hundred thousand dead bodies to reach the throne ”?
There is no doubt that the criminal plots against Napoleon were the decisive factors behind the regime change. But the cause had already been heard by the time of the Duke of Enghien affair. People had been mentally preparing for months. The last constitutional texts were abolished. And less than two months later, the Empire was proclaimed to the cheering nation.
The charge that Napoleon was seeking to settle a personal score with the Bourbons doesn’t stand up. Despite a few spontaneous outbursts, Napoleon was too politically astute to subordinate his action to a personal grudge.
The First Consul’s domestic policies had everything to lose by reviving the civil strife of the revolutionary period. Napoleon had been obsessed with reconciling the French since the advent of the Consulate over three years earlier. It was the heart and soul of his domestic achievements: peace with the Chouans, amnesty for the émigrés, signing of the Concordat, etc. In 1804, he was on the brink of finishing this tour de force. It would have been senseless to take the suicidal risk of endangering all he had achieved in one fell swoop. On the contrary, letting the duke live would have been a masterful political stroke. Most of the royalists had ignored Napoleon’s offers of reconciliation. A high-minded pardon might have rallied many nobles to his side.
Now let us turn to the claim that remorse gnawed away at Napoleon’s conscience.
- The inanity of Napoleon’s pseudo-remorse
Many writers have insidiously suggested that Napoleon was tormented by remorse for the rest of his life. They base that claim on the idea that he felt the need to justify his actions in his testament.
They say things that the testament does not. A case in point can be found in the Universalis and Hachette encyclopedias (they probably copied each other): “ It was a sacrifice necessary for my safety and my greatness.” Let’s compare that with what the testament actually says in the eighth paragraph: “ I had the Duke of Enghien arrested and tried because it was necessary for the safety, interest and honor of the French people when the Count of Artois confessed that sixty murderers were in Paris. In such circumstances, I would do the same again.” A comparison of these passages catches the writers in the act of falsifying history.
Napoleon made one last clarification on his deathbed. He took full responsibility for the duke’s arrest and trial as a legitimate decision. But he felt no guilt about the execution order and therefore had no reason to feel remorseful. At most, he felt frustrated about not having been able to pardon the duke. To him, the accusation that he had committed a crime was a profound injustice.
The emperor had no reason to feel guilty. As we have seen, his senior collaborators not only approved his decisions but urged him to make them — for murky reasons, it must be said.
Another thing that some writers attempt to conceal is the approval of the general public.
- Approval in France and Europe
The impact of a lie is directly proportionate to the importance of the event. The emotion and so-called disapproval caused by the Duke of Enghien’s have been wildly exaggerated.
To heap more blame on Napoleon, many writers claim that the First Consul’s advisors and close collaborators advised him to proceed with moderation as soon as the affair began. That is the opposite of the historical record. Let’s give the floor to Napoleon on Saint Helena again: “ As for the various objections I encountered and the many requests that were made of me, nothing could be further from the truth. They were made up to make me seem more despicable.”
They may not have been entirely made up, but the grieving that took place in Napoleon’s personal entourage when the duke’s death was announced, in particular by Josephine, has been exaggerated, That same night she accompanied her husband to the opera without the slightest reluctance, and they were cheered as never before!
Public opinion openly approved the duke’s execution, considering it an example of equality before the law. The blood of a prince, went the thinking, must be worth no more than that of a mere commoner.
In the execution’s aftermath, many enthusiastic messages of approval reached the First Consul from the Grande Armée, which was stationed at the Camp de Boulogne. They also poured in from all over the country. All of France approved the First Consul, except the royalist opposition. Chateaubriand did resign from his diplomatic post in Italy, but that was an isolated act performed in the heat of the moment by a man who was unaware of the actual facts.
The same was true abroad. Sweden (for a very short time), England and, above all, Russia were the only countries that voiced hostility. And Czar Alexander I was not exactly in the best position to lecture Napoleon. He was suspected, not without reason, of complicity in the assassination of his father, Paul I, a short time earlier, at the instigation of the English cabinet because of his closeness to Napoleon. None of Europe’s other monarchies reacted.
The letters of protest from the Count of Provence, the future Louis XVIII, were returned to him without even being opened.
Oddly, the Bourbons of Spain, Naples and Florence did not even go into mourning! The queen of Etruria even rejoiced over the event in her own personal way: “ If something could have consoled the Queen when she learned of the prince’s death, it was the delicate way that the First Consul announced the event to her.”
Nearly everywhere, the Duke of Enghien’s death was perceived as a normal political and legal affair. Nobody except Napoleon’s sworn enemies, with their inexhaustible supply of bad faith, could have sincerely dreamed of laying the blame at his doorstep.
The last untruth provides the key to the affair’s regrettable conclusion.
One plot hid another
The real culprits in the Duke of Enghien’s summary execution are to be sought in the clique of regicides and their accomplices, including Fouché, Talleyrand and Savary.
Since the advent of the Consulate, the prospects of the Bourbons’ returning to the throne of France and the inevitable settling of scores that would take place afterwards sent chills down their spines. They were gripped by the “Monk syndrome”
The French Revolution of 1789 bore some similarities to the English Revolution in the mid- 17 th century. Both resulting in sentencing a reigning king to death. Cromwell won the English Civil War and proclaimed the Republic after Charles I was beheaded in 1649. After he died in 1658, anarchy rocked the country. His successor, General Monk, eventually restored Charles II Stuart to the throne in 1660.
In the early Napoleonic period, the Jacobins knew that the pretender to the throne of France, the future Louis XVIII, was repeatedly making attractive offers to the First Consul, who scornfully rejected them. Nonetheless, they were worried that Napoleon might one day follow Monk’s example.
The Duke of Enghien affair provided them with a heaven-sent opportunity to provoke an irreparable break between Napoleon and the royalists. The regicides and their accomplices urged him to show no mercy right from the start. They displayed a suspicious zeal, as Napoleon expressed in the memoirs he dictated to Las Cases: “Everything had been planned in advance. The evidence was ready, there was nothing more to do but sign. And the prince’s fate was sealed.” There is a sense that Napoleon would have wanted to elaborate on the matter. But at the time he was a persecuted political prisoner and could not afford to make more serious accusations without appearing to sacrifice his former collaborators to improve his plight. So he continued to take responsibility for their crime.
A death sentence cannot be handed down and carried out unless the accused is found guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. The hard-core Jacobins had to keep Napoleon from pardoning the duke at any price. That was the role of the contemptible Savary, who did the regicides’ dirty work.
Questions have been raised about Real’s role. His presence at the trial would have prevented the tragedy. The reasons suggested for his absence are hard to believe. There is no proof that he was guilty of complicity.
One key question remains. Why didn’t Napoleon distance himself from Savary and his accomplices? When Savary himself told him about the duke’s death, he immediately realized that he had just fallen into a diabolical trap set by some of his closest aids, who presented him with a terrible fait accompli. Napoleon was in a dreadful dilemma, caught between his moral comfort and France’s higher interests.
In those cases, he never squealed and always took the blame for his subordinates’ missteps.
Realism was necessary to limit the political damage. If Napoleon had turned his back on Savary, he would have been accused of passing the blame on to a devoted subordinate and making him the expiatory scapegoat for his “ crime ”. His popularity might have sustained a lethal blow. Defiance would have emerged in the heart of power, shattering its cohesiveness. In those uncertain times of institutional transition, that attitude would have been devastating for the regime’s stability. In addition, there is nothing better than holding a sword of Damocles over the head of a compromised collaborator to ensure his fidelity come hell or high water — at least as long as one is alive. That’s how Savary was able to pursue a brilliant career at the emperor’s side, before posthumously stabbing him in the back in his memoirs.
Once something is started, it has to be finished. Some good must be found in misfortune. A bloody break with the royalty was imposed upon the First Consul. Fine! Since it was irreversible, why not reap the political profits? Now everybody knew that the royalty would not be restored as long as Napoleon stayed in power. At the very time when the threat of a military invasion was taking shape, that was the guarantee of powerful support for the many people who would have had much to lose from a Restoration. The humblest strata of the population no longer held back their adoration for the “ little corporal ”. The beneficiaries of the sale of property confiscated during the Revolution no longer feared a reversal of fortune.
But of course, Napoleon wasn’t fooled by the dirty trick that had been played on him. Remember the feigned surprise that Las Cases said he expressed on Saint Helena about the failure to transmit the duke’s request for an audience. His “ God knows why ” speaks more volumes than a long speech.
In fact, the dark shadows of Talleyrand and Fouché hovered over the whole affair right from the outset. It might be said that this episode marked the start of their betrayal of Napoleon, which became worse as time went by.
Nor was King Louis-Philippe fooled. If he had thought of Napoleon as an ogre thirsty for royal blood, would he have sent his son, Prince de Joinville, to collect the emperor’s remains on his behalf in 1840? Would he have organized a funeral worthy of a god?
King Louis Philippe
Prince de Joinville
Some people still think they have to be “ more royalist than the King”.
The way the Duke of Enghien affair has gone down in history is a landmark case of disinformation, especially in France.
Napoleon’s unconditional critics have made it the basis of their efforts to tear down his image. But in the end it turned out to be a bag of hot air, which we have just had no trouble deflating.
The Duke of Enghien affair teaches us some lessons. It eloquently illustrates how far off course historiography can stray. It attests to the enormous cheek and impunity of paid falsifiers of history.
We’ll conclude on an upbeat note. The malicious intent of a few authors has come back to haunt them, casting doubt on all the other false assertions about Napoleon. That’s great news for his admirers.
Thank you for them and for Napoleon!
Casaperta, June 2005