Between 1805 and 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte kept at bay the European armies seeking to undo the modern ideas and changes that France had implemented and exported during and after the French Revolution. The seemingly invincible Grande Armée had defeated all those who had opposed France and Napoleon. But despite this military superiority, clouds of storm rolled over the First French Empire. The character of a single man, Napoleon, shaped his age and delivered a mortal blow to the feudalism of the Ancien Régime. Read below.

Read about Napoleon’s climb to power here.

1# After Austerlitz

The defeat of the Austrian and Russian alliance in the battle of Austerlitz (modern day Czech Republic) had proved that Napoleon had engineered a superior army to any of his contemporaries. With a system of individual corps that allowed them to march separately (thus improving speed and resupply), excellent training and drilling, and a vertical but flexible leadership, the Grande Armée can be considered the father of the modern army. And one payed by Austria after the latter’s defeat, as accorded by the peace terms imposed by Napoleon. With military expenditure on the rise on account of constant warfare, Napoleon opted henceforth to force his defeated opponents to pay and feed his armies. The army was and remained fiercely devoted to Napoleon, and saw in his Spartan habits and candidness to the ranks, one of their own.

The pro-french German states such as Bavaria, saw their territories increased at the expense of Austria and later Prussia, and were amalgamated in the Confederation of the Rhine, a French protectorate as opposed to the dying Holy Roman Empire under Francis II, also the Austrian Emperor. In the south, new countries emerged as old dynasties faded, with Joseph Bonaparte being installed as King of Naples, and its former Bourbon masters fleeing to Sicily.

Joseph attempted to implement French policies such as the abolition of feudalism, confiscation of clerical properties (often to the point of bayonet) and amalgamation like his younger brother had done in France with royalists, revolutionaries, and Jacobines. All seemed well in the mighty French Empire, where the sun of Austerlitz shone bright and heralded a prosperous, future. But was it?

Europe, 1806
Europe 1806. The Holy Roman Empire that had existed since the 9th century collapsed to the power of Napoleon. On its place he installed a confederation of small and friendly German states known as the Confederation of the Rhine. Source

2# War of the Fourth Coalition

Fearful of Napoleon’s further predations on the northern german states to enlarge his Confederation of the Rhine, Prussia allied with Russia and mobilised against France. This happened in October 1806, with Russian armies already on the way to help Frederick William III, King of Prussia. But like the Austrians had done in the Ulm campaign previous to Austerlitz, the Prussians didn’t wait for the distant Russian army under Alexander I to make their way from the distant border before declaring war. Napoleon showed them their error by routing the enemy rearguard in Jena, while Davout, Napoleon’s finest corps’ commander, brilliantly defeated a bigger Prussian force in Auerstedt, on October 14th.

Murat, Napoleon’s cavalry commander (and brother-in-law after marrying Caroline Bonaparte), begun a ruthless pursuit of the retreating Prussians that now fled to Konigsberg, Eastern Prussia, where they rendezvoused with the Russians. Davout was accorded the honour of leading the triumph parade that entered Berlin October 26th, while Napoleon chose instead to travel to Postdam to visit the tomb of one of his idols, Frederick the Great.

In the Prussian annexed territories of the defunct Poland, Napoleon was received as a hero, as he chased the Russian army. However, his lines of supply were overstretched and winter was unfolding, difficulties compounded by the ever crippling corruption of the army’s providers, a foe that harmed Napoleon’s meticulous planning over and over again. Moreover, the modern Russian army, created by Peter the Great and hardened under Catherine the Great, was more of a match for the Grande Armée that Austrians and Prussians had been. The Russians were accustomed to winter campaigns, and masterly used their orderly retreat into a weapon by drawing their foe further away, thus critically overstretching their communication and supply lines. Commanded by the capable Benningsen, the Russians clashed against the French in the inconclusive battle of Eylau, February 1807, and only an epic calavalry charge by Murat saved the day for the French.

In summer Napoleon conclusively defeated Bennigsen in the battle of Friedland, 14th June 1807.  On July 7th of July, in Tilsit, Napoleon and Alexander met and arranged peace, by securing Russia’s neutrality and their commitment to keep a continental blockade to keep British trade out from all European harbours. Prussia was made to pay for the war, loosing half of their territory, from which was carved the Duchy of Warsaw, one of Napoleon’s most loyal and committed satellite states.

Napoleon and Alexander meet to sign the peace
Napoleon and Alexander met on a pavillion built on a raft on the River Neman. Painting by Adolphe Roehn, 1807. Source

3# The values of the French Revolution

Napoleon could focus on the management of the war because he knew the domestic management was in the capable hands of Cambacérès, his former co-consul. Some of his projects, fully approved by Napoleon, are amongst the most relevant in modern politics. His was the responsibility to implement the Napoleonic Code, which saw breakthroughs like public trial or juries, to the bafflement of the local nobility, who were accustomed in dealing their own partial justice and in submitting to none but themselves.

Napoleon with his iconic hat and posture
Napoleon in 1806. Painting by Édouard Detaille. Source

A new generation of civil servants, judges, gendarmes, officials, and army officers were being groomed to one day, lead the country through merit alone. The days of birth privileges like those the nobility had enjoyed for hundreds of years, were over. But true to his policy of ralliement and amalgament, Napoleon also sought the support of the conservative sectors by creating a new, imperial nobility. Conversely, he kept Fouché, his chief of Police at hand, to unleash against counter-revolutionary factions, specially on the departments of the rural west, which resented army conscriptions and the loss of predominance of their beloved Church.  

For all criticisms of Napoleon being authoritarian and arbitrary, he always wagered for teamwork and merit in order to create a just, equal, and modern society, if void of political independence. It’s also worth of mention, that none of the opponents who fought him led an exemplary democracy themselves. 

4# Family and Continental Blockade

With Prussia and Austria licking their wounds, and Russia safely tucked under the continental blockade, Napoleon could focus now in preventing British goods from ever reaching Europe. The Berlin Decrees sought to close the ports of northern Europe to British trade, depleting their main source of income and forcing their men into the growing Napoleonic machine of war. The repercussions were particularly bad for the once prosperous Netherlands, whose former ties with Britain (the house of Orange had ruled both once at one point), made it a duplicitous and potentially dangerous shortcut to Paris.

Louis Bonaparte was made king of the Netherlands in 1806, but fell out of his older brother’s favour in 1810 after constantly failing to provide troops and ships for the war effort. Moreover, Louis, who was married to Hortenese (daughter of Josephine de Beauharnais, and thus step-daughter of Napoleon) was at odds with her. Hortense was Napoleon’s favourite, he even loved her far more than his own siblings, and her three sons and Louis’, were Napoleon’s choice for his heirs, before he sired his own son in 1811.

Louis with military uniform
Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland. His mistreatment of his wife Hortense and his failure in carrying Napoleon’s instructions verbatim led to his kingdom being annexed by France in 1810. Painting by Charles Howard Hodges, 1809. Source

In Napoleon’s eyes all his brothers and his sisters (except Pauline) failed to put France’s interests before those of the kingdoms he had given them. He only saw how they squirmed out of the conscription quotas he gave them, and failed to enforce the blockade, which anyways foundered due to smuggling and the circumventing of the French laws by providers, and the existence of a black market for British produce. Napoleon’s siblings, specially Joseph and Louis, were constantly under pressure, in countries where they were despised as foreign puppets of the French, and whose genuine sympathy for the plight of their new subjects led them to clash with their increasingly demanding brother.

5# The Spanish problem

Napoleon’s need to shut tight all the European ports led him to set his eyes on the Spanish Bourbons, whom he despised as much as he did their Neapolitan cousins. Such animosity initially didn’t prevent him from dealing with Carlos IV of Spain, with whom he accorded the division of neutral Portugal, rightly suspecting the country of allowing British squadrons to ressuply there. Carlos IV agreed for French soldiers under Murat to pass through his kingdom on their way to Portugal, but their presence upset the Spaniards, who despised Carlos and wished for his son, the future Ferdinand VII, to take over his father. Manuel Godoy, the king’s chief minister and the main architect behind the dealings with the French, was even more hated.

On March 18th 1808 this resulted in a popular assault to his palace and that of the king in Aranjuez. Murat proposed that Napoleon mediate between father and son, and both readily agreed to meet the emperor in Bayonne. But Napoleon decided instead to remove both, giving the crown to his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, whil Murat and his wife, Caroline, Napoleon’s sister, were given the crown of Naples.

Already fed up with a virtual French occupation of their country, and seething with indignation at the removal of Ferdinand at Bayonne, on May 2nd 1808, a massive revolt broke out in Madrid. The Dos de Mayo Uprising was violently put down by the French, and precluded any future acceptance of Joseph Bonaparte as king by the Spaniards.

French soldiers execute civilians
El Tres de Mayo, painting by Goya, 1814. It depicts the French repression to the rising. Source

It was only the beginning of major troubles for Napoleon. The countryside rose in arms, forcing Joseph and the French to retreat north to regroup, to Burgos first, and then Catalonia, to dig in on the River Ebro. In Portugal things didn’t go any better for the French, when British regulars led by Arthur Wellesley (Future Duke of Wellington) landed a corps to support Portugal, and the Junta Central which had taken leadership of Spanish resistance.

The failure of the Junta Central to establish a proper chain of command, and the poor quality of Spanish regiments was a factor that ironically played to their advantage, for the French were repeatetdly denied a decisive battle to force the Spaniards to negotiate, like Austerlitz and Friedland had done with Austria and Russia. Vast distances, lack of maps and absence of proper roads (even for the standards of that time) played against the French regulars, who despite counting on better discipline and skills than the Spanish regulars, failed to counter their guerrilla tactics.

6# The Peninsular War

These major setbacks in Spain and Portugal’s, were the first sign that taking possession of Spain had been a grave mistake. Like Naples, but on a bigger scale, the strongly Catholic and rural population resented the French presence and rejected their reforms, such as the abolishment of feudalism and the attempts to modernise the country in the line of the other French annexed territories.

Coming from meeting Alexander I of Russia in Erfurt to discuss a contingency plan against Austria’s potential resuming of hostilities, Napoleon arrived in Spain at the head of 100.000 troops and entered Madrid by December 1808, with the Junta Central falling back to Seville. Napoleon took his displeasure and ire upon the clergy and churches, abolishing the first and despoiling the second.

With the French well-entrenched in the centre of Spain and around Catalonia, John Moore, having taken command of Wellington’s 45.000 British regulars opted to draw the French north into Galicia and away from the Junta Central Junta down in Seville. Moore perished in combat, but his sacrifice bought precious time for the Spanish allies, an action for which Napoleon himself expressed his admiration.

Joseph Bonaparte with his royal robes
Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and former King of Naples. François Gérard, 1808. Source

Napoleon returned to Paris on January 23rd 1809, where news of a conspiracy reached his ears. The plot had been on its embryonic stages and no concerted action had been even planned. The ringleaders were Fouché, Napoleon’s chief of Police, and Talleyrand, his former minister of foreign affairs. Both had come to mistrust Napoleon’s recent decisions, such as the Peninsular War, and feared they would partake of their master’s eventual downfall. Despite this, Napoleon didn’t imprison or execute them, for the vendetta that characterised many of his fellow Corsicans wasn’t part of his ethos.

Perhaps it should have been, for unbeknownst to him Talleyrand had constantly relayed information to Alexander of Russia and to the Austrian ambassador in France, Klemens von Metternich. In Austria, resentment over the multiple defeats in Napoleon’s hands still stung, and the recent French defeat in Bailén encouraged them to declare war. On February 8th 1809, the Austrian army moved with hostile intentions, this time drilled with the Napoleonic tactics, such as column and mass fire, and under the leadership of the Archduke Charles.

7# The War of the Fifth Coalition

The War of the Fifth Coalition, once more subsidised with British capital, saw one of the largest concentration of forces of the day, with well over 200.000 men on each side. Convinced that Napoleon couldn’t possibly field a large army with most of their effectives engaged in Spain, Austria faced Napoleon alone, and despite beating him off in the Battle of Aspern-Essling, the subsequent carnage in Wargram convinced Francis I of Austria and Archduke Charles to sue for peace, one which Napoleon was only too glad to accept. Around 33.000 Frenchmen and allies were killed or wounded, including a disproportionate amount of officers and generals. Unlike the nobles commanding other armies in Europe, the officers of the Grande Armée led from the front, and often paid with their lives, like Napoleon’s close friend and marshal of the Empire, Jean Lannes.

Napoleon surveys the field from his horse
Napoleon surveys the field during the Battle of Wargram, July 1806. Painting by Horace Vernet, 1836. Source

That same summer Napoleon proceeded with the annexation of the Papal States, which anyways had been already occupied by French troops since 1808. Pope Pius VII retaliated by excommunicating Napoleon and his soldiers with the following words: “… all those responsible for attacks committed on Rome and in the States of the Church”. Napoleon went one step too far when he ordered the arrest of the Pope and his exile to Savona.

The episode did nothing to arrest Roman resistance, which proceeded in a very peaceful but effective way. Passive methods instructed by Pius himself, together with the boycott of French celebrations like St Napoleon’s day on August 15th, were simple methods that made the Holy See appear as an innocent victim of French arbitrariness.   

8# Napoleon and Wellington  

Meanwhile the Peninsular War intensified, and Napoleon was to blame for his rejecting to take the field himself again there. His caution and respect were duly given to the British regulars, while the militias and irregulars commanded by the Spanish Junta Central he regarded as undisciplined rabble. Unlike in previous campaigns, such disdain for the enemy translated into a lack of concern for the climate, communications, or a failing to account for the tenacity of Spaniards and Portuguese.

Soult and Victor’s two-pronged attack into Portugal was ultimately repelled and the initiative passed to Wellington and Cuesta (Commander-in-chief appointed by the Junta Central) who intended on destroying Victor’s army in Talavera de la Reina (southwest from Madrid), but their inability to work together forced them to a retreat towards Portugal to avoid being cut off by Soult’s corps that swept from the north towards their rear.  

Portrait of Wellington by Goya
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Painting by Francisco Goya between 1812 and 1814. Source

With Wellington and his men penned in Portugal, the road to Seville was open and in January 1810 three French corps attacked the Junta Central in Madrid, forcing them to retreat to Cadiz. In the north, progress was also made when the French recaptured Zaragoza and Girona after dogged resistance, and on February 1810, Catalonia was annexed to the French Empire all but in word, due to its strategic importance.   

9# Wives and son

It had been on his mind all those years, and on his return to Paris after the peace treaty with Austria on October 1809, Napoleon told Josephine of his intention to divorce her. The seeds of doubt had been planted some time ago, specially after several lovers bore him illegitimate sons. With Josephine they had failed to do so, and the need to sire an heir to secure his throne overrode his strong feelings for Josephine.

He had recently survived yet another assassination plot by Friedrich Staps, and his once iron health had begun to wear out with the burden of office. He was only forty years old but he didn’t trust any of his siblings to succeed him. Moreover, he knew that his apparent heirs, Hortense’s and Louis’ sons, Napoleon-Louis and Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the future Napoleon III), would be rejected by his siblings, who shared a strong distaste for Josephine’s family.

Josephine sitting on the throne
Empress Josephine in her coronation robes. Painting by Baron François Gérard 1807-8. Source

Although he intended to marry a Russian princess to secure his alliance with Tsar Alexander, Talleyrand’s ambiguous loyalties made sure his plan foundered, therefore forcing him to opt for another match, the daughter of Francis of Austria, the 18-year-old Marie-Louise. With this marriage Francis hoped Napoleon would cease to carve the remaining of Austria, which had by then lost all their remaining seacoast.

On April 1810 Napoleon and Marie-Louise were married both by civil and religious ceremonies, in which the hostility of Napoleon’s sisters to the bride didn’t fail to appear when they refused to carry Marie-Louise’s dress. Due to his recent clash with the Pope, many clergymen in France refused to acknowledge the union as legitimate. Nonetheless, a few months later, Marie-Louise became pregnant with the future Napoleon II.

Marie Louise with the throne behind
Empress Marie-Louise. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin. Source

10# Master of Europe

Napoleon always expressed sadness over his divorce with Josephine. Despite mutual infidelities and her usual coldness which sometimes bordered indifference, Napoleon had always wrote to her after every battle. She had become his confidant and even after the divorce he didn’t cease to write or treat her with respect and friendship. Perhaps he couldn’t be with her, but in his heart she remained the woman of his destiny, and divorcing her remained as one of the hardest decisions of his life.

His relationship with Marie-Louise was good in spite of, for it wasn’t in Napoleon’s nature to be resentful, except perhaps to his siblings. Unlike other royal families at the time, he even removed from their thrones like Louis in 1810, after which he annexed the Kingdom of Holland to France; or the constant humiliations to Joseph, allowing the generals to flout his authority.

Europe 1812
The Napoleonic Empire at its maximum extent, 1812. Author:  Alexander Altenhof. Source

Napoleon was often angry, perhaps with justification though, at what he perceived to be his sibling’s indifference to the sacrifice of French soldiers. The grognards, whose nickname meant grumpy, were the family with whom he felt at ease, and whose destiny was tied to that of their commander-in-chief, as well as, the fortunes of those who depended on Napoleon keeping his string of victories.

For all his military prowess he never felt entirely secure on the throne. His blockade repeatedly failed to keep British products from saturating the continent, the Church depicted him as the Anti-Christ, revolts on the French western departments, Italy, and Naples remained a thorn on his side, and the Peninsular War had become what he later called ‘the spanish ulcer’. His French empire rested entirely on the sword of his Grande Armée, but as it has been so rightly put by Paul Schroeder, his wars always came when he didn’t want them or plan them. The sun of Austerlitz had been long gone by 1810 but Napoleon was still the undisputed master of Europe, and the seeds of his fall were yet to grow.

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