THE EMPIRE DEMANDS AN HEIR
Josephine had all along been aware of Napoléon’s plans to divorce her. He needed an heir, an heir that carried his own blood.
“With all hope of an heir from the empress gone, I have no choice but to divorce her,” declared Napoléon.
After scenes of swooning by Josephine that were all feigned, Napoléon, although emotional, was undeterred to break the news to her himself; this was shortly after his return from Austria. During a private family meeting precisely for this purpose, the divorce memorandum was signed with Napoléon’s full name, followed by his initial, N, then Josephine and Madame Mere.
Then Napoléon makes a statement: “I have decided that she shall preserve the rank of empress and remain my life-long friend.” Then he decrees, “Malmaison, that she so much loved, is hers with three million Francs per annum.” Thus a chapter in Napoléon’s life is closed and the search for his future bride begins.
The first consideration was for Tzar Alexander’s sister, but this venture proved fruitless. Although during his sojourn in Erfur, the Tzar had raised no objection to the proposal, it was however passed on to his mother the Tzarina, who abhorred Napoléon; besides, the young princess was only 15 years of age and was not mature enough for marriage. So that prospect was written off for now.
In his memoirs, Metternich writes, “The Emperor Franz Joseph was disgusted that he had been dragged into war by Nationalists and empty promises from England and Prussia while Russia remained an on-looker. The purpose of the ‘Peace Treaty’ of Schonbrunn was not only to eradicate the disastrous results of Wagram, but to replace Russia as Napoléon’s ally.”
A Senatus Consultum of December 16 announces the official divorce as well as the annulment of the marriage of 1804 by the Archbishop of Paris. In a privy council, Napoléon deliberates with his intimate entourage; Cambacérès, Murat, Eugene and Caulincourt; they all are for an Austrian marriage. And when he learns that the Austrian Empress, the mother of his bride to be, had given birth to thirteen children, that another ancestress had seventeen and yet another one twenty-six, the emperor exclaims: “That’s what I need!” He is confident about the Hapsburg’s reply to his proposal. The emperor Franz Joseph would approve it, and the eighteen-year-old princess would consent. He dictates to his secretary Meneval an adulatory letter to Emperor Franz Joseph, asking for his daughter’s hand, and ends it “May we look forward to the happiness of winning your wholehearted blessings.”
Is this Napoléon that we know? He now forty years old, yet he writes a puerile letter out of context with his character. But Napoléon needs an heir. He already has two illegitimate sons by Duchess Walewska and Eleonore Danuelle, a lady-in-waiting to Caroline Murat. But above all he decides that his marriage must consolidate his regime and rise to the standard of the oldest European Royalty. He is not only the emperor of the French; like Charlemagne, he is the Emperor of Western Europe, and who better than the Hapsburgs, whose dynasty has ruled an empire for over eight hundred years, to provide him with both an heir of a Royal blood and a Royal noble lineage. Yes, he loves Walewska and she whole heartedly requites his love, but his marriage goes beyond personal feelings. “It is affair of state, and for France I must sacrifice my personal feelings.”
Marshal Berthier, his chief of staff and trusted friend, is dispatched to Vienna to finalise the wedding by proxy. With him he carries a miniature of Napoléon, set in diamonds, and jewellery worth millions as a token of affection for his bride to be. Napoléon had already learned from Countess Metternich, during a masked ball given by the Arch-Chancellor, that although she did not know whether the Archduchess would accept the offer, it would be Prince Schwarzenberg, the new Austrian Envoy to Paris, who could communicate the Emperor’s wishes.
In February 1810, having given up hope for a marriage with the Tzar’s 15-year-old sister Anna, he turns to the Austrians and formally ask their Ambassador Schwarzenberg to convey the Emperor’s wishes for an offer of marriage with the eighteen-year-old Archduchess Marie-Louise. The Austrians promptly accepted the offer and preparations were made to finalise the formalities.
At the proxy weeding in Vienna at the Hofburg, the Emperor was represented by Marshal Berthier, and the bride’s uncle Archduke Karl, who had defeated Napoléon at Aspern-Essling and was himself defeated later at Wagram by Napoléon.
As he waits the arrival of his bride, Napoléon is occupied not by the affairs of State, but meticulous preparations of furniture, wardrobes and Marie-Louise’s boudoir. He is in an ecstatic mood, and his eagerness to consummate the marriage reaches its crescendo. Arrangements have been made to greet his bride with flowers on every stop on her way to Compeign.
On a spring day of March 1810, ignoring the heavy downpour, Napoléon steps into his coach, accompanied by his sister Caroline and her husband Marshal Murat, bedecked in his flamboyant uniform, and orders the coachman to whip the horses and speed to Campiegne. He wanted to take his bride by surprise, so instead of the decorated armorial bearings, he laid aside his heavily embroidered coat and donned his old uniform. Elaborate preparation had been made for this milestone event, but on reaching Soissons, where the two parties were to meet, the over-eager Napoléon ordered the coachman to stop, and then he and Murat alighted at the doorway of the medieval church to take shelter from the rain. While the horses of the bridal procession were being changed in a downpour, the emperor approaches, hoping to take Marie-Louise by surprise, but her master-of-the-horse, recognising him, exclaims “His Majesty the Emperor!”. Drenched with rain, he flung the carriage door open and threw his arms around the bewildered young Archduchess, showering her with kisses. One can imagine the embarrassed young princess, although at a loss for words, still manages to utter a few compliments to the emperor; smiling, he ordered the coachman to proceed to Compiegne.
At Compiegne, dignitaries drenched with rain await the emperor and his bride, amongst them members of the imperial family. At one in the morning, after dinner, Napoléon hastily bade his courtiers and family members goodnight, and whisked the empress to his chamber, breaching all forms of etiquette and the weeks of elaborate preparations that were made for this occasion. Protesting this abrupt move, Marie-Louise told Napoléon that the marriage could only be consummated by the blessing of the church.
“And so it will be,” said Napoléon. At hand amongst the dignitaries was Cardinal-Uncle Fesch, who was promptly summoned. As clerical authority he assured the young empress that the proxy marriage in Vienna was valid and that she is already the emperor’s wife. Assuaged with these words, the couple retired to their chamber.
Next morning, an ecstatic Napoléon orders breakfast to be brought to the empress’ bedside. Compiegne’s inhabitants are buzzing with last night events and all eager to take a glimpse at the newly wed imperial couple.
Meneval, Napoléon’s secretary, after having seen the empress for the first time, wrote in his memoirs: “She is in the flower of youth; her figure is angular and graceful. Her rosey complexions intensified by the course of the journey and her dignified shyness. Her dress, longer that that worn in Paris, contrasting subtly with the disgraceful revealing one worn by French ladies; her fine light chestnut-colored hair adorned her lovely invigorated young face. Her moist blue eyes radiate sweetness and give a charming expression; her lips full and her chin slightly jutted a distinguished mark among the Hapsburg imperial family.”
Napoléon’s uxorious feeling for his wife Marie-Louise is unreservedly expressed; “she is charming and warm hearted,” he tells Meneval, who in this period becomes practically inseparable from the emperor. By contrast to Josephine, the emperor’s family get on very well with the empress, and this delights him. Napoléon displays affectionate feelings towards his young wife; he gently caresses her and call her “Petit bonne animale”; she requites his feelings, and although shy and embarrassed by his appearance during her intimate moments in her boudoir, she affectionately receives him.
After his victory at Wagram, Napoléon ordered Massena at the head of three French corps d’arme to land in Spain and deal with the British menace once and for all. His objective was to recapture Portugal, while Marshal Soult’s army of the south embarked on the re-conquest of Andalusia. As Soult advanced towards Badajoz, the Junta, unable to oppose him in open battle, fled with the city’s garrison and joined their brethren at Cadiz, where they put themselves under the command of the Regency on behalf of the infant Ferdinand. When Marshal Victor arrived on February 5th, 1810 it was too late; for by then General Albuquerque had been able to enter Cadiz with his 10,000 men, arriving from Merida just in time (3 February) to re-enforce the 2400 men garrison and an additional 3000 volunteers arriving by sea. The siege of the great naval port became hopeless when Wellington arrived by sea with 5 battalions, two of them Portuguese. Despite several attempts by the French to storm the port, their efforts were futile, and the city proved impregnable. 60,000 French troops were tied down, but Marshal Soult would not lift the siege, which lasted till 1812.
As for Marshal Massena, his campaign in Portugal started on May 28, 1810, when he took over the command at Salamanca. He next besieged and captured Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, securing the northern corridor linking Spain and Portugal. Intent on delivering a shattering blow to Wellington forces, he advanced over the river Côa, but his attempt to drive Wellington out of his fortifications proved in vain.
Napoléon, when receiving the news from the Iberian Peninsula as they unfolded, clung to the belief that his Marshals would still deliver the final blow to the British. So far, during the month of May and the ones that followed, things still looked promising; Cadiz was besieged and over 20,000 British, Spaniards and Portuguese were trapped, and Massena had successfully thrown Wellington back to the lines of Torres-Vedras. This is how the situation looked on October 11, 1810 in the Iberian Peninsula. But unknown to Napoléon, the French would soon encounter reverses. Wellington’s dogged refusal to be lured into open battle with Massena’s army, remaining in his dug in well-fortified positions behind the Torres-Vedras lines, had finally forced Massena to retreat on March 3rd, 1811 due to the lack of provisions; while the siege of Cadiz would continue in vain till August 1812, tying up some 60,000 badly needed French troops in other theatres of war.
As for Napoléon, the initial success of his generals in Spain in 1810 left him more focussed on his private life, with the newly expecting empress Marie-Louise. Soon, he is informed that Walewska has delivered a healthy boy, the fruit of their weeks together at Schonbrunn Palace. He sends for her and when she arrives, he lodges her in palatial accommodations and showers her with gifts. He dotes over the baby and caresses him. He makes him Count of the Empire and appoints the arch-chancellor Cambacérès his guardian. To add to his joy, he is informed that Eleanore Denuelle, a lady in waiting to his sister Caroline Murat, with whom he had an affair begets him a son, whom he makes Count de Léon. They both reach very prominent positions during the reign of his nephew Napoléon III’s second empire.
“Napoléon’s happiness with the news of the empress’ expectancy is beyond description,” writes Metternich to Vienna. The empress’ expectancy is solemnly announced to the Senate and the nation. People throng the streets and burst into acclamations, “Vive le Emperor!” Churches were crowded with people praying for the expected heir to the throne. When the empress is in labour all of Paris knows, and church bells announce the news all over France. People everywhere say their solemn prayers for the safety of mother and child. Throughout the night, Napoléon is inseparable from the empress’ bedside. When he had temporarily withdrawn to the adjacent salon, the Doctor brings him the unsettling news that the empress is experiencing delivery complications, and as a last resort a choice may have to be made between mother and child.
“The mother’s life comes first! Carry out your duty as you would to any ordinary citizen’s wife in labour.”
Two hours later, a healthy baby is born, and the mother is in good health. The emperor is beside himself with joy; when the gun salute counts 21, Paris responds rapturously with great ovation. It’s a baby boy. Meneval, the emperor’s secretary, notes: “There are tears in the emperor’s eyes as he roams in his own thoughts.”
SUCCESS AND FOREBODINGS
In 1810, Napoléon was at the pinnacle of his success; his long-awaited dream for a child of his own, a legitimate heir to the throne, has now been realized. At forty-three, he finds happiness, and despite the onerous responsibilities of state affairs, his new life as a father has brought him tranquillity and solace. Marie-Louise, young and easygoing, provides him with the unpretentious home atmosphere that he yearns for. She gets on very well with the other members of his immediate family. He dotes over his little son, plays with him and watches the infant crawling on the floor while he sits at breakfast, and affectionately caresses him.
This newfound happiness for a man of genius is the only solace that he finds when other ominous news is received. The seemingly endless Peninsular war in Spain and Portugal, where over 250,000 French men are tied down, brings him unsettling news of atrocities. Reports of captured French officers having their eyes gouged out, and spit upon. Captured French soldiers and female Spanish collaborators were tortured and disembowelled. Captain Charles Francois, an eyewitness, reported that Spanish collaborating women were disembowelled from the vagina to the navel and their breasts hacked off. Spaniards place live French officers between two boards and saw them in two; others had their fingers, hands, arms and legs chopped off, others were hung upside down over fires, their heads roasted over flames. The French responded by summary execution to the populaces of villages suspected of insurrection. The Spanish Painter Goya eternalized these atrocities in paintings that can still be found at the Del Prado Museum in Madrid.
Massena’s retreat from the Torres Vedras line, forced by famine and disease, infuriates the emperor. He is recalled and promptly replaced by Napoléon’s old comrade in arms, Marshal Marmount. But this change of command was no solace to the French troops and their officers; only the emperor, his personal presence on the battlefield could turn events around and bring the campaign to an end. Instead at 43, he is a happy father; he spends time with his little boy, takes him in his arms and sets him down on the floor amongst scattered toy soldiers and lets the two-year-old child play havoc with the soldiers. He tells Berthier “My son is strong and healthy. He is spirited and sensitive; he has my mouth and my eyes. He is everything I hoped for.”
In 1803, aged thirty-four, Napoléon became an Emperor; now at forty-three he has a two-year-old son, the heir to his empire. His main concern is the security and welfare of his child; he therefore decides that the Spanish affair must be resolved by his generals. He still has a standing army in Spain numbering a quarter million men, surely Wellington’s thirty thousand men will be annihilated. But Napoléon, the visionary, the military genius, had discounted the ardent spirit of the Spanish resistance fighters, often led by fanatically religious monks. This is not the kind of war that Napoléon’s marshals and generals are accustomed to; the incompetence of his brother, King Joseph, further compounds his problems. He therefore divides Spain into military districts, each administered by a general, and appoints Marshal Soult supreme commander. But even the renounced Soult, who in 1810 had captured Seville, Olivenca and Badajoz, early 1811, was unable to pacify the situation. So why did Napoléon persist in this futile campaign? It was his megalomaniacal dreams of world domination that surpassed even Charlemagne, and not wanting to be seen as having failed in Spain, while England and his enemies gloat over his failure. But there was still an even more poignant objective in his schemes: A United States of Europe under French Hegemony. In 1806, he established the federation of Rhine; now in 1810 practically the entire part of Western Europe is in the realm of the French Empire. In the Council of State, he declares, prophesising “All this will last as long as I do and no longer.” Prophetic words, yet despite this ominous situation of self destruction that he brings upon himself, Russia remains his second and most disastrous venture.
In the meantime, the ‘Continental System’ is taking it’s toll, a system which Napoléon envisaged would deprive England of her maritime commerce and therefore of her livelihood. True England was suffering, but so was France and Western Europe. English banks were hard hit and the English pound equalled seventeen Francs at the exchange rate; in Parliament, the opposition was against perpetuating the war, but the ruling majority, the war party, rebuffed the idea, encouraged by France’s reverses in Spain.
In July, August and October 1810, Napoléon signed four decrees cracking down on all commerce; “No ship from any European nation is permitted sail without an export-import license signed by French authorities.” All colonial produce was subject to heavy duties, including tobacco, tea, sugar, cocoa and coffee. Illicit colonial products found in any European country were to be destroyed forthwith; as a result, shiploads were confiscated and burnt in public. England, as a result of her refusal to peace advances, lost her European markets save for those countries that secretly or defiantly refused to comply with the ‘Continental System’. The Dutch, a nation of traditional traders and seamen, were amongst the worst affected by Napoléon’s system of embargo. Louis, Napoléon’s brother and King of Holland, had enough of his brother’s interference; he was angered by Napoléon’s annexation of Holland to France, but his protestations went on deaf ears. He abdicated in favour of his younger son and absconded to Austria on the pretext of illness. On finding out the whereabouts of his brother, Napoléon sent his own physician to care for him. This same brother, who accompanied Napoléon on his first campaign to Italy as an Aide-de-camp, trained as a gunner and saw action at Arcola and Rivoli and the siege of Mantua, was paternally cared for by Napoléon. He accompanied Napoléon to Egypt in 1798 and, after a short stay, was sent back to France after the capture of Alexandria with captured colors. In one sense, Napoléon had more hopes and compassion for his brother Louis than the rest of his kin. In June 1799, after his return from Egypt, he joined the Cavalry; four years later he was promoted general de brigade, and in March 1804 general de division. During the empire’. In 1805, he was given the command of the army of Holland with the title ‘Constable of the Empire’. A year later on 24 May 1806, he was crowned ‘King of Holland’; three years later, he commanded the Dutch Army against the failed English invasion at Walcheren. Unfortunately, in 1810, he fell out with Napoléon for disagreements over the implementation of the Continental System and abdicated in favour of his younger son.