On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 December 1805

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12Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French

The question of legitimising Napoleon’s rule and establishing a dynasty had come to the fore after a number of assassination attempts against the First Consul. It was also believed that, for Napoleon to be seen as an equal by the monarchs of Europe, he needed to become one of them. ‘A hereditary principle alone could prevent a counter-Revolution,’ Napoleon said. 27 out of 28 councillors approved Napoleon’s becoming an Emperor, and so did the majority of French citizen in a plebiscite.

Because Napoleon and Josephine only married in a civil ceremony, the church didn’t recognise their marriage. In order for Josephine to be crowned as Empress, the couple were married on 1 December in the Tuileries Palace by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, with Talleyrand, Berthier and Duroc as witnesses. The coronation led to many family squabbles. Joseph argued against Josephine being crowned. He was jealous of Louis and Hortense, whose children would be grandchildren of an Empress, while his own children only those of a bourgeois. All three of Napoleon’s sisters refused to carry Josephine’s train. Lucien didn’t attend the ceremony at all, and neither did Madame Mère, who stayed with Lucien in Rome, even though Napoleon bought a large house for her in Paris. She is present, however, in the famous painting of Napoleon’s coronation by Jacques-Louis David, who was told to paint her in. Later she would say about her family’s elevation, ‘Let’s hope that it lasts.’ Napoleon wasn’t impressed by his family’s attitude. He stood by Josephine: ‘My wife is a good woman who doesn’t harm them. I’ve never loved her blindly. If I make her Empress, it’s only an act of justice.’

The coronation was a magnificent affair. ‘If only our father could see us now,’ Napoleon whispered to Joseph as they stood in the majestic Notre Dame de Paris. ‘I swear to maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic, to respect and to cause to be respected the laws of the Concordat and of freedom of worship, of political and civil liberty,’ promised Napoleon in his coronation oath. Napoleon’s coronation was the ultimate triumph of the self-made man who wasn’t born to power but attained it through merit and popularity. The title Napoleon was to assume – Emperor of the French rather than Emperor of France – illustrated that very well.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 November 1809

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9Napoleon tells Josephine he wants their marriage annulled

Although the Imperial couple had developed a close and comfortable relationship, staying married to Josephine had become a road block in Napoleon’s political and dynastic ambitions. It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Napoleon, after all, he loved his wife very much, despite her affair with Hippolyte Charles and his own subsequent infidelities. However, he convinced himself that divorcing Josephine was in the best interests of France.

Josephine must have known what was coming. Napoleon ordered the connecting door between their bedrooms to be walled up long before he mentioned the divorce. ‘All tenderness on the Emperor’s part, all consideration towards my mother has vanished,’ wrote Hortense. ‘He became unjust and vexatious in his attitude.’

For his young dynasty to survive, Napoleon needed an heir and 46-year old Josephine couldn’t give him one. ‘You have children. I have none. You must feel the necessity that lies upon me of strengthening my dynasty,’ he told her. It was a bitter blow to Josephine, who cried and begged him to change his mind, saying she couldn’t live without him.

To be able to remarry in church, Napoleon needed his marriage to Josephine annulled. Absurdly he argued it had been clandestine, there were insufficient witnesses and that he was forced into it by Josephine. The loyal Josephine went along with it, confirming everything he said. No one was duped by this comedy however, and 13 out of 27 of France’s cardinals refused to attend Napoleon’s next wedding.

Napoleon was very good to Josephine in the divorce settlement. He gave her Élysée Palace, Malmaison and another chateau in Normandy. She kept her rank of Empress, and when Napoleon married Marie Louise, there were two Empresses of France in Paris. Josephine’s debts of 2 million francs were paid off and she received 3 million francs per annum income for life. Their marriage was dissolved on 16 December.

Although Napoleon divorced his wife for an heir, ironically it would be Josephine’s grandson who would become the next Emperor of France. It is her direct descendants and not his who still rule Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 November 1812

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27Napoleon crosses the Berezina

The first units of what was left of the Grande Armée reached the 300-foot wide river a week earlier only to find the Russian army under Pavel Chichagov occupying the West bank. The only bridge across Berezina was destroyed. Napoleon’s aim was to cross the river and evade the Russians, who outnumbered him 3 to 1. The situation was so desperate that the army burnt its Eagles on November 24 to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

‘The weather is very cold,’ Napoleon wrote to Marie Louise. ‘My health is very good. Kiss the little king for me and never doubt the sentiments of your faithful husband.’ The temperatures plunges to -33 C and the army struggled with cold and fatigue. When the first units crossed the pontoon bridges safely, Napoleon exclaimed, ‘My star returns,’ a bit of an exaggeration considering the high number of French casualties at the crossing of Berezina, possibly as many as  22,000.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 November 1809

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portraitannapavlovnaNapoleon asks for Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna’s hand in marriage

Even before telling Josephine he wanted a divorce, Napoleon asked his ambassador to Russia, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt, to mention to Tsar Alexander that he desired to marry his fifteen-year old sister, the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna. ‘I do not make a formal request. I solicit the expression of your opinion,’ he said to Caulaincourt.

Although Anna was Russian Orthodox, Napoleon seemed to prefer her to any other candidate. When his divorce was granted, Napoleon ordered Caulaincourt to propose to Anna on his behalf. The Tsar’s family took thirty-eight days to respond, finally asking to postpone the marriage indefinitely on account of Anna’s young age. It was just an excuse – the last thing the Romanovs wanted was a misalliance with the Corsican upstart.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 November 1806

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gerhard_von_kugelgen_napoleon_i_fassung1_1806Napoleon signs the Berlin Decree

The Berlin Decree was aimed to force Great Britain to the negotiating table but would eventually lead to Napoleon’s own downfall, since the desire to enforce it led him to undertake his disastrous Russian and Peninsular campaigns. Berlin Decree created the Continental System, a retaliation on Britain, as Napoleon called it. It imposed a blockade, forbidding the import of British goods into European countries allied with or dependent upon France.

The articles of the decree were as follows:

1. The British isles are in the state of blockade.

2. All trade and all correspondence with the British Isles are forbidden.

3. Every British subject of whatsoever state or condition he may be will be made a prisoner of war.

4. All warehouses, all merchandise, all property of whatever nature it might be belonging to a subject of England will be ceased.

7. No ship coming directly from England or the English colonies or having been there since the publication of the present decree will be received in any port.

Since Britain depended commercially on exports to Continental Europe, Napoleon believed the decree would force the British government to restart the peace negotiations broken off in August. Writing to his brother Louis in December, he explained: ‘I will conquer the sea through the power of the land.’ Later he stated: ‘It’s the only way of striking a blow to England and obliging her to make peace.’ Since French fleet had been destroyed at Trafalgar, there was no direct way to damage Britain other than commercially. However, the decree had an even greater effect on France, hurting its trade badly. Nor could the Continental System be universally imposed. Even Louis and Murat turned a blind eye to smuggling in Holland and Naples. Josephine herself bought smuggled goods on the black market. If Napoleon couldn’t force his own entourage to follow the Continental System, what could be expected from the rest of his territories?

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 November 1801

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211.5_Les_Tuileries_vues_du_LouvreNapoleon appoints the first functionaries for the Tuileries Palace

When Napoleon moved to the Tuileries, he had become the first ruler to live there after the unfortunate Louis XVI. He created a large entourage of chamberlains, chancellors, almoners, equerries, footmen and even meat carvers. These courtiers received instruction in etiquette from Marie-Antoinette’s former first lady of the bedchamber.

Within six months the Prussian ambassador to Paris noted that ‘everything around First Consul and his wife is resuming the general character and etiquette of Versailles.’ It got to a point when some people were wondering why France had bothered to decapitate Louis XVI only to get another monarch.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 November 1796

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15Battle of Arcole

The battle was fought between the French under General Bonaparte and the Austrians under József Alvinczi, 25 kilometres southeast of Verona during the War of the First Coalition. The first two attacks on strongly held and barricaded Arcole by Pierre Augereau were repulsed. When Napoleon ordered another attack, Augereau seized the flag and, advancing in front of his soldiers, cried, ‘Grenadiers, come and seek your colour.’

Napoleon followed his example with another flag, determined to lead the charge himself and inspire his men by his bravery. His plan didn’t work. According to Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Joseph Sulkowski, the men displayed extraordinary cowardice. A number of officers were killed by Napoleon’s side. The general himself had to be pulled into the marshy ground behind the bridge, which in all probability saved his life.

The bridge at Arcole was captured two days later by Augereau and Massena. Although Napoleon wasn’t there when Arcole fell, the image of the brave Republican general storming the bridge under the enemy bombardment was used widely as propaganda by the Directory, the Consulate and the Empire. ‘It took good luck to defeat Alvinczi,’ Napoleon later admitted.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 November 1812

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14The first day of the Battle of Krasnoi

A desperate and bloody battle of Krasnoi was fought between November 14 and November 18 on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, as Eugene’s, Davout’s and Ney’s severely depleted corps tried to smash through Kutuzov’s army to reach the Berezina. Some 13,000 French were killed and 26,000 captured, including 7 generals. The battle left Napoleon virtually without cavalry or artillery. Kutuzov also suffered many casualties.

Napoleon believed that Marshal Ney’s entire corp had been destroyed on the way back from Krasnoi. When on November 23 Ney caught up with the main army at Orsha with only 800 survivors of what once was a regiment 40,000 strong, Napoleon was overjoyed. ‘I have more than 400 million francs in the cellar of the Tuileries,’ he said, ‘and would gladly have given the whole for the ransom of my faithful companion in arms.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 November 1799

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bouchot_-_le_general_bonaparte_au_conseil_des_cinq-cents18th Brumaire

18th Brumaire was the first day of the bloodless coup that would see General Bonaparte assume power as the First Consul. This is how Napoleon described his rise to power many years later, when he was in exile on a remote island of Saint Helena: ‘I returned to France at a fortunate moment when the existing government was so bad, it could not continue. I became its chief. Everything else followed, of course. There’s my story in a few words.’ The coup was not Napoleon’s idea but the brainchild of Abbé Sieyès. Joseph Fouché, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Napoleon’s brother Lucien were also involved. With the plot underway, the conspirators needed a sword, a popular but not too ambitious general who would ensure everything went smoothly. Their first choice was Barthélemy Catherine Joubert but he had been shot through the heart at the Battle of Novi on Napoleon’s birthday, 15 August 1799. It was Talleyrand who had persuaded Sieyès to turn to Napoleon on the basis of his impeccable Republican record. ‘You want the power and Sieyès wants the constitution. Therefore, join forces,’ he told Napoleon.

The legislative Council of Ancients, under Sieyès, passed a decree  moving the venue of the session of the Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred to St Cloud under the pretext of a Jacobin plot but in reality to place them away from the city and under the intimidation of Bonaparte’s troops. Napoleon delivered a speech for the Elders at the Tuileries Palace, calling for national unity, which was well received. ‘You are the wisdom of the nation. I will faithfully carry out the mission you have entrusted to me. Nothing in history resembles the end of the eighteenth century,’ he said. As Napoleon rode past Place de la Révolution, the scene of so many executions, including those of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, he remarked to his co-conspirators: ‘Tomorrow we will either sleep at the Luxembourg or we will finish up here.’

On day two, 10 November or 19 Brumaire, Napoleon rode to St Cloud with his troops. He blundered his way through his speech to the Ancients. ‘You are on the volcano. The Republic no longer has a government,’ he said. ‘The Directory has been dissolved, the factions are agitating, the time to make a decision has arrived. I want only the safety of the Republic and to support the decisions that you are going to take.’ When a member of the Ancients demanded that Napoleon swore allegiance to the Constitution of Year 3, Napoleon said: ‘The Constitution of the year 3 you have no more. You have violated it on the 18th Fructidor.’  He then proceeded to the Palace Orangery to address the Five Hundred. The deputies were furious at the sight of men in uniform in the democratic chamber and so Napoleon entered on his own to the contemptuous shouts of the assembly. ‘Down with the tyrant! Cromwell, tyrant! Down with the dictator. Outlaw him!’ they demanded. These were the cries that were last addressed to Robespierre.

Napoleon was uncharacteristically but understandably pale, emotional and hesitant. When his physical safety was threatened, he was forced to leave and sent an order for Lucien, who was the president of the Five Hundred, to join him. It was Lucien who saved the day in what was possibly the only time when any of Napoleon’s siblings would prove anything but a liability to him. Addressing the 400-strong legislative guard, Lucien drew his sword and held it to Napoleon’s breast, ‘I swear that I will stab my own brother to the heart if he ever attempts anything against the liberty of Frenchmen.’ He told them that the Five Hundred were threatened by royalists in the pay of English gold. ‘They are not the representatives of the nation anymore but some scoundrels who caused all these misfortunes,’ cried Napoleon, ordering them to disperse the assembly. The soldiers cleared out the orangery and some deputies were forced to jump out the windows. ‘The Directory is no more,’ decreed 50 or so deputies who were loyal to the coup.

Sieyès, Ducos and Napoleon were appointed as provisional consuls. An interim commission of 50 members, 25 from each chamber, would draw up a new constitution. Napoleon was able to seize power without shedding a drop of blood. Not a shot was fired by the population in the defense of the unpopular Directory. That night, Napoleon and Josephine did indeed sleep at the Luxembourg Palace.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 6 November 1812

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6Malet conspiracy

Napoleon was at Dorogobush when he received a letter from Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès regarding the attempted coup by General Claude François de Malet in Paris two weeks earlier. Malet attempted to establish a provisional government by forging documents stating Napoleon had died under the walls of Moscow.

With fewer than 20 co-conspirators, Malet was successful in taking control of the National Guard at Trianon on October 23. Savary was arrested and the governor of Paris was shot in the jaw, where the bullet remained, giving him a nickname of bullet eater.

Cambacérès doubled the guards around Marie Louise, released Savary, reinstated the prefect of police and ordered the arrest of Malet and his accomplices. ‘By 9 AM it was all over,’ recalled Comte de Lavalette.

Napoleon was concerned, and with good reason. No one other than Cambacérès considered a regency for his son in the event of his death. ‘Napoleon the Second, nobody thought about him,’ he cried. At his court-martial, Malet said, ‘Who are my accomplices? Had I been successful, all of you would have been my accomplices.’ Napoleon suspected Malet was right. The plot demonstrated just how fragile his new dynasty really was, prompting him to abandon his army and rush back to Paris.

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