This Week in History

A Dastardly Execution: March 21, 1804

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Napoleon Bonaparte, as First Consul of the Republic of France

Despite the Treaty of Amiens, France and Great Britain could not keep peace for long. In the several months following the signing of the treaty, Napoleon’s suspicions of England grew. Great Britain, he claimed, was not keeping to what she agreed to in the treaty. He complained that the government of King George III allowed the Bourbon princes to live in England and even supported them with money. He bristled at the ridicule English newspapers hurled at him—he, the First Consul of France and the champion of the Republic!

The English had their own grievances against France. The king’s government could not tolerate the power France had gained on the continent. Northern Italy and Switzerland had come under the republic’s “protection,” and so had the island of Elba (between Corsica and Italy) as well as the country of Holland. In granting “protection” to the Batavian Republic, as Holland was now called, France controlled the best coastline in northern Europe. And then there was the simple snobbery of the English upper class. For them, “Buonaparte” was nothing but an upstart—a lowborn Italian who by cunning had pushed his way into the society of his betters. Admiral Horatio Nelson spoke for many English aristocrats when he called Napoleon the “Corsican scoundrel.”

A cartoon depicting the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, prevailing in chess against the British

Thus, in the winter of 1803, Napoleon began laying plans for an invasion of England. His strategy was to gather troops and arms in camps on the northern coast of France and Belgium, from Antwerp to the mouth of the Seine River. He ordered the navy to build a flotilla of small boats that could ferry the French army across the English Channel to the southern coast of England. To keep the British fleet from hindering this invasion, Napoleon sent the French fleet to keep the British busy in the Mediterranean.

Carlos IV, king of Spain and Napoleon’s Bourbon ally

On March 11, 1803, Napoleon told the navy to prepare for an invasion of England. In May he sold the vast North American territory of Louisiana to the United States government because, he knew, he could not defend it from a British conquest—and he needed money for his war. Napoleon hoped, too, that by basically doubling the territory of the United States, he had “given England a maritime rival which, sooner or later, will humble her pride.”

Peace formally ended on May 16, 1803, when Great Britain declared war on France. Napoleon went into action. He sent an army into George III’s electorate of Hanover on June 1. A month later, the Hanoverian army surrendered. From June to late August, Napoleon established his military camps on the coasts of France and Belgium and prepared the flotilla of invasion. Then, on October 9, he signed an alliance with the Bourbon king of Spain, Carlos IV.

Duke de Enghien

Though the French people had longed for peace, they were growing more indignant against Great Britain. Their anger reached a fever pitch in February 1804, when Fouché’s secret police discovered a royalist plot to assassinate Napoleon. With the support of the British government, the French Bourbon princes had laid plans to have Napoleon shot in broad daylight on the streets of Paris. Such an underhanded, dastardly deed could not go unavenged! Those guilty would have to pay for their ugly conspiracy against the peace of France!

Not far on the other side of the Rhine from France, in the town of Ettenheim in the imperial German state of Baden, lived the exiled French duke of Enghien, Louis Antoine Henri Condé. Only 32 years old, the Duke of Enghien was a distant member of the royal Bourbon family. He had fought against the republic; but since Napoleon took power, the duke had engaged in no political conspiracies. Instead he lived peacefully on an estate near Ettenheim, having recently married the woman he loved.

Before dawn on the morning of March 15, 1804, three hundred French soldiers surprised Enghien and took him prisoner. Having heard false reports that Enghien had been involved in the conspiracy against him, Napoleon ordered the troops to violate Baden’s neutrality and kidnap the unfortunate duke. Having achieved their task, the soldiers whisked Enghien to Paris, where he arrived on March 20. There, a secret court-martial awaited him. He was tried and condemned to death. Napoleon would accept no other verdict.

The execution of the Duke of Enghien

In the early morning hours, Enghien was led before a firing squad. Bravely he stood before his executioners, asking only to see a priest before he died. He was refused. Then, cutting off a lock of his own hair, he wrapped it with a simple gold ring from his hand in a piece of paper, asking that both be given to his wife. Then, at a signal from the commander, the firing squad cut him down.

The death of the Duke of Enghien sent shock waves of horror throughout Europe. People everywhere condemned Napoleon as a monster. Even the French were disgusted by the execution, which reminded them of the worst days of the Reign of Terror. Napoleon would never live down this injustice; like the massacre at Jaffa, it would forever tarnish his reputation as a “defender of freedom and justice.”

 

A Contemplation on Another Passion

In 1803, Ludwig van Beethoven completed his Opus 85 cantata, Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) and revised it throughout 1804. A contemplation on Christ’s passion, it is perhaps an expression of Beethoven’s own suffering — his growing deafness.  

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