On This Day in Napoleonic History – 21 January 1793

Louis XVI is executed by guillotine at the Place de la Révolution in Paris

The king’s execution marked the turning point of the French Revolution. On hearing about Louis’s death, Napoleon said, ‘Oh, the wretches. The poor wretches. They will go through anarchy.’

Napoleon saw the king’s execution, followed in October by Marie-Antoinette’s, as a tactical error. ‘Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death,’ he later said, ‘all Europe would have been revolutionised.’ As it was, the king’s death would propel all major European powers to start arming against France.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 January 1801

Armistice of Treviso

General Guillaume Brune took it upon himself to conclude the armistice at Treviso between French and Austrian armies that forced Emperor Francis to give up Peschiera, Verona, Legnago, Ancona and Ferrara. He retained Mantua, however, and that was one fortress the First Consul really wanted.

Napoleon, who was furious with Brune, declared that he would immediately resume hostilities unless Mantua was given up. ‘I ordered Brune to immediately break this armistice and push forward, at least till he obtained the cessation of Mantua,’ remembered Napoleon.

The Austrians had no choice but to agree and a few days later Treaty of Lunéville was signed, putting an end to the Wars of the Second Coalition.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 January 1806

Marriage of Eugène de Beauharnais and Princess Augusta of Bavaria

It was another example of a marriage arranged by Napoleon, despite the fact that Princess Augusta was engaged to the Grand Duke of Baden at the time, and Eugène was in love with someone else. To convince his step-son to marry the Bavarian princess, Napoleon sent him a cup with her picture on it, assuring him that she was much better looking in real life.

When the Princess became pregnant, Napoleon half-joked, ‘Make sure you don’t give us a girl,’ suggesting she drank a little bit of undiluted wine every day as a way to avoid such an unfortunate circumstance. When in March 1807 she gave birth to a daughter, Napoleon ordered to call the child Josephine. In his congratulatory letter to Eugène, he said, ‘All that now remains for you to do is to make sure that next year you have a boy.’ They would have another girl.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 11 January 1814

The treachery of Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat, whom Napoleon had placed on the throne of Naples in 1808, promised in a treaty with Austria to lead 30,000 men against Eugène de Beauharnais in order to drive French out of Italy. In return for his betrayal of Napoleon, Austria guaranteed the security of Murat’s throne of Naples for himself and his heirs.

Although Murat’s actions didn’t come as a surprise to Napoleon, the betrayal hurt, not least because Murat was married to Napoleon’s sister Caroline, who encouraged his treaty with Austria. Napoleon called the conduct of his sister and her husband ‘an insult and fearful ingratitude’, adding, ‘he’s very intelligent but he’d have to be blind to imagine that he can stay there whilst I’m gone or when I’ve triumphed over all this.’

And yet, Napoleon didn’t lose hope that Murat would come to his senses. During the 1814 campaign, Napoleon wrote to Eugene: ‘Should Fortune continue to favour us, we might be able to preserve Italy. The King of Naples might change sides again.’ Napoleon was right on both accounts – during the Hundred Days in 1815 Murat would try, unsuccessfully, to join Napoleon’s side. Nor did he keep his throne for long – within two years he would be executed by the Neapolitan firing squad.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 8 January 1802

Napoleon and Josephine depart for Lyon

In Lyon the First Consul would be offered presidency of the new Italian Republic, made up of Cisalpine Republic and the provinces of Italy taken from Austria by the Treaty of Lunéville.

Napoleon’s two-week stay at Lyon was marked by parties, parades and receptions. On January 25 he was elected Chief Magistrate of the Italian Republic. Although the Italian nationalists were humbled by the fact that the new Republic had to be founded in France where Talleyrand could keep an eye on the proceedings, it was the first time that the word Italy had appeared in the political lexicon of Europe since the collapse of Rome in the 5th century AD.

Napoleon wrote a constitution for the new Republic with elective power resting in the hands of clergy, merchants, academics and land owners.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 January 1813

Sweden declares war against France during the War of the Sixth Coalition

Sweden was ruled by Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of France appointed by Napoleon, who was married to Napoleon’s first love, Désirée Clary. Bernadotte, whom Byron called ‘that rebellious bastard of Scandinavian adoption’ and who from the very start had a turbulent relationship with Napoleon, was elected to the throne of Sweden in 1810.

When declaring war on Napoleon in 1813, Bernadotte told him that he was not acting against France but for Sweden and that Napoleon’s seizure of Swedish Pomerania was the cause of the rapture. He added that he would always hold for his old commander the sentiments of the former comrade in arms. It is doubtful that his words were genuine but it couldn’t have been an easy decision for Bernadotte to make. Apart from his natural repugnance as a Frenchman to shed French blood, Bernadotte knew that in doing so he would be giving up his hopes, implausible though they were, of one day finding himself on the throne of France.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 4 January 1802

Napoleon’s brother Louis is married to Josephine’s daughter Hortense

Just like many other marriages Napoleon had arranged, this one soon proved a disaster. Louis was in love with someone else at the time and couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Hortense. Nor did he try to conceal his animosity. The feeling was mutual – Hortense barely tolerated her husband and would have an illegitimate son by her lover, Colonel Charles Joseph, Comte de Flahaut in 1811.

Josephine is as much to blame for the match as Napoleon. She was eager to tie her family closer to that of her husband at any cost, even if it was the cost of her only daughter’s happiness. With heartbreaking sadness Hortense later described her school days as the happiest time of her life. The couple had three children. One of them, Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, was to become Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 January 1798

Napoleon is confronted by Madame de Staël

Soon after General Bonaparte’s return from Egypt, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand threw a reception in his honour. It was there that Napoleon had his famous exchange with Germaine de Staël.

Madame de Staël was the daughter of the stupendously rich banker and Louis XVI’s finance minister, Jacques Necker. She ran the leading and most celebrated Parisian salon. At the time of Talleyrand’s fête, she hero-worshipped General Bonaparte. Hortense de Beauharnais recalled in her memoirs that the celebrated intellectual followed Napoleon, boring him with incessant questions until he could no longer conceal his annoyance. Clearly expecting a compliment of some sort, she asked: ‘Whom do you consider the best kind of woman?’ To which Napoleon replied, ‘She who’s had the most children.’

For centuries historians criticised his comment as one that revealed much about his fundamental attitude to women. It was more than likely, however, that Napoleon’s words were nothing more than a throw-away remark designed to get rid of his annoying interrogator.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 January 1807

Napoleon meets Marie Walewska

The couple met in Blonie, in a posthouse where Napoleon was changing horses on his way to Warsaw.  Although their first meeting was brief, Napoleon, who was anything but faithful to Josephine following her own affair with Hyppolite Charles soon after their marriage, arranged to meet the beautiful blonde 20-year old at a ball.

Although Marie was married to an aristocratic landowner, 52 years older than her, she quickly became the mistress whom Napoleon loved the most. Her husband, just like the rest of her family, encouraged her relationship with the Emperor in the hope of gaining influence over him and advancing the cause of Polish independence.

Soon after making Marie’s acquaintance, Napoleon withdrew his invitation for Josephine to join him in Warsaw. ‘It’s too great a stretch of country to cover between Mainz and Warsaw,’ he wrote. ‘I’ve many things to settle here. I think you should return to Paris where you are needed.’ His letters to Marie were very different. ‘Come to me. All your desires will be fulfilled. Your homeland will be dear to me if you take pity on my poor heart.’ Although Marie was initially driven by motives of political nature rather than affection, they developed a true closeness. In 1810 she would give birth to Napoleon’s son. She stayed loyal to the Emperor throughout his life, even visiting him in exile on the island of Elba.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 December 1802

Napoleon loses faith in the Treaty of Amiens

The First Consul wrote to Talleyrand from St Cloud: ‘We do not seem to be at peace but only in a truce. The fault lies entirely with the British government.’

The Treaty of Amiens would break on 12 May the following year. There were many issues between France and Britain that threatened the peace, including the Sébastiani expedition, Cadoudal’s continued residency in London, the émigré press, the compensations for the King of Sardinia and Prince William V of Orange, Swiss independence, the non-evacuation of Holland, Alexandria, Pondicheri, Cape of Good Hope and Malta, and France’s tariff regimes. Even George III described the peace as experimental.

It was soon clear that the experiment had failed. Although Napoleon didn’t want war with Britain, he was not willing to weaken France’s position to prevent it. Britain would formally declare war on 18 May 1803.