1815: Joachim Murat, Napoleonic Marshal

5 comments October 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1815, French Marshal-cum-Neapolitan King Joachim Murat was shot in Pizzo, Italy, for a failed attempt to regain his throne.

The charismatic cavalryman cuts a snazzy figure in the Napoleonic era, from its very infancy: it was Murat who secured for the 26-year-old Bonaparte the cannon used to deliver the “whiff of grapeshot” whose odor set Napoleon on the path to becoming Emperor.

Murat knew a good thing when he had it, and thereafter zipped around with the peripatetic conqueror, finding time between dashing mounted charges to marry Napoleon’s sister Caroline.

Murat’s honors multiplied with his commander’s victories: “First Horseman of Europe” (whatever that means); Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves; at last, in 1808, he was appointed King of Naples and Sicily, beneficiary via Caroline of the Corsican’s policy of installing family members to helm his satellite kingdoms.

Still, that elevation didn’t mean Murat would just retire to his Mediterranean villa and his mistresses: he was on call when Bonaparte went to invade Russia.

Leo Tolstoy, undoubtedly a hostile witness in his epic War and Peace, renders Murat as something of an oblivious dunderhead:

Though it was quite incomprehensible why he should be King of Naples, he was called so, and was himself convinced that he was so, and therefore assumed a more solemn and important air than formerly. He was so sure that he really was the King of Naples that when, on the eve of his departure from that city, while walking through the streets with his wife, some Italians called out to him: “Viva il re!” he turned to his wife with a pensive smile and said: “Poor fellows, they don’t know that I am leaving them tomorrow!”

But though he firmly believed himself to be King of Naples and pitied the grief felt by the subjects he was abandoning, latterly, after he had been ordered to return to military service — and especially since his last interview with Napoleon in Danzig, when his august brother-in-law had told him: “I made you King that you should reign in my way, but not in yours!” — he had cheerfully taken up his familiar business, and — like a well-fed but not overfat horse that feels himself in harness and grows skittish between the shafts — he dressed up in clothes as variegated and expensive as possible, and gaily and contentedly galloped along the roads of Poland, without himself knowing why or whither.

Like his fellow-Marshal Michel Ney, Murat nevertheless had the realpolitik chops to get on after their thrust to Moscow had so calamitously reversed — in Murat’s case, by cutting a deal with the Austrian Empire to retain his kingship.

But also like Ney, he couldn’t resist joining Napoleon’s ill-fated 1815 reunion tour. Murat could have survived the consequent loss of his throne, but made a quixotic bid to invade with only a handful of men the former possession whose people he quite wrongly imagined would rally to his cause.

Not the realization of the day-dreams of the most dreaming youth, not the visible acting of the strangest visions which the dramatist and romance-writer have conceived, could strike us with more wonder than the simple narration of that which befel the son of the baker of Cahors in his passage from the ranks of the French army to the throne and sceptre of Naples; and, alas! one step farther, an unquiet and a mournful one, to that small court in the castle of Pizzo, where the hero of a hundred fights, — the Achilles of the chivalrous French, — gazed for a second, with uncovered eye and serene brow on the party drawn out to send the death-volley home to his heart.

Well, this depiction of Murat’s end is plainly of more sympathetic character than Tolstoy would have done.

… the disgraceful tribunal, after consultation, declared, “That Joachim Murat, having by the fate of arms returned to the private station whence he sprung, had rashly landed in the Neapolitan dominions with twenty-eight followers, no longer relying upon war, but upon tumults and rioting; that he had excited the people to rebellion; that he had offended the rightful King; that he had attempted to throw the kingdom of Naples and the whole of Italy into confusion; and that therefore, as a public enemy, he was condemned to die, by authority of the law of the Decennium, which was still in vigour.” This very law, by a strange caprice of fortune, was one which Joachim himself had passed seven years before. He had, however, humanely suspended its operations many times, at particular seasons of his rule; and yet this very law, so passed, and so suspended by him, was made the instrument of his death.

The prisoner listened to his sentence with coolness and contempt. He was then led into a little court of the castle, where he found a party of soldiers drawn up in two files. Upon these preparations he looked calmly, and refused to permit his eyes to be covered. Then advancing in front of the party, and, placing himself in an attitude to meet the bullets, he called out to the soldiers, “Spare my face — aim at the heart.” No sooner had he uttered these words than the party fired, and he, who had been so lately King of the Two Sicilies, fell dead, holding fast with his hands the portraits of his family …

* More evidence that blood is thicker than water, since Napoleon and Murat were not chummy. According to Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, by the wife of another Napoleonic general,

The Emperor did not cherish for Murat the sincere friendship which he entertained for the other officers of the army of Italy. He used frequently to make him the subject of derision; and many of us have heard him laugh at the King of Naples, whom he used to call a Franconi King.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Heads of State,History,Italy,Naples,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Shot,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1804: Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duc d’Enghien

3 comments March 21st, 2009 Headsman

It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder on this date in 1804.

Napoleon shocked, just shocked, his admirers and more especially his foes by having a royal relative ventilated at Vincennes for the trifling offense of plotting against his life.

The particular allegations against him may have been formulated with greater haste than precision, but the duc d’Enghien actually had been taking English coin to overthrow Republican France for the past decade, and nonchalantly avowed as much at his drumhead tribunal.


The Duke awaiting execution in the predawn gloom in the moat of the Chateau de Vincennes. The pathos of the accompanying dog is mandatory for this scene, as in this Harold Piffard illustration. This spot is now marked with a monument.

After surviving one too many assassination attempts, Napoleon was in the market for someone to make an example of, and the Bourbon scion, hanging about the French frontiers conniving with the English, certainly qualified.

The dispatch of his military commission, which rammed through a conviction the night of the 20th and arranged the fusillade immediately thereafter, raised self-righteous hackles among rival monarchs who had little enough compunction of their own about politically expeditious regicide.

Conventional disdain for the shooting (as with this (pdf) from the Fourth Estate), reached far and wide, and appears in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a subject for (spurious) gossip in the Russian salons.

The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Bonaparte’s hatred of him.

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s spirit-questing Russian noble then in the thrall of the Little Corporal, has the rashness to defend d’Enghien’s execution.

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Monsieur Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

Though that defense went over like a lead balloon with the partygoers (and with Tolstoy), others have ventured to stand in the breach for the Corsican, who assuredly attracts far more opprobrium as a commoner shooting a royal traitor than he would have had their bloodlines been reversed. Bonaparte enthusiasts, like those of the Napoleon podcast, are particularly susceptible to such impolitic sentiment.

[audio:http://napoleon.thepodcastnetwork.com/audio/tpn_napoleon_20060920_011.mp3]

But Louis-Antoine-Henri normally gets better sympathy than that, as he did with the like of Chateaubriand, who resigned his Napoleonic commission in outrage.

And his death — far more notable than anything he did in life — is supposed to have occasioned the quip, “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”: “it is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.” (Or, “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”) Often attributed to Talleyrand, it was more likely uttered by his machiavellian mirror image, Joseph Fouche.

(See here for more on the phrase’s lineage. Talleyrand was so strongly in support of d’Enghien’s death that he is sometimes accused of steamrolling Napoleon on the subject. The wily minister destroyed some evidence and effected a timely volte-face when Bonaparte fell.)

The First Consul — he would crown himself Emperor later in 1804 — never had use for any such soft-pedaling, and unapologetically avowed the Duke’s execution literally to the end of his life.

Dying in exile on St. Helena years later, it is said, Napoleon read a calumny upon the d’Enghien shooting in the English press and promptly hauled out his already-completed will to insert in his own hand his lasting justification for the affair.

I caused the Duc d’Enghien to be arrested and tried, because that step was essential to the safety, interest, and honour of the French people, when the Count d’Artois* was maintaining, by his own confession, sixty assassins at Paris. Under similar circumstances, I should act in the same way.

* The Comte d’Artois was, at the time of Napoleon’s writing, the heir presumptive to the restored Bourbon monarchy — and he did indeed succeed in 1824 as Charles X. In 1804, the future king was in exile in Britain funding hits on Bonaparte and kindred counterrevolutionary stuff. For adherents of the much-disputed theory that Napoleon was poisoned in his island captivity, d’Artois figures as a possible instigator of the murder.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,History,Innocent Bystanders,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Notably Survived By,Power,Royalty,Shot,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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