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The Execution of the Duc d’Enghein

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By 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte had become Consul for Life in France, and was well on the way to becoming emperor. But the bourbons, the family of the last French king – Louis XVI – still had supporters in France who wished them back on the throne. Some of these supporters tried to assassinate Napoleon and engaged in plots against him. Paranoia and skulduggery merged. In 1803 rebels were arrested, and interrogation bought out details of an alleged plot: the famous republican General Moreau was alleged to be aiming to depose Napoleon and install a Bourbon prince, the Duc d’Enghein, who was waiting on the borders of France to move in.

The Duc was the first cousin to Louis, and seemed more vibrant and able than the other relations. Moreau was a hard man to remove – he was loved by the army – so Napoleon, advised by Talleyrand, decide to arrest the Duc, even though he was living in the independent state of Baden. Talleyrand issued a note to Baden’s ambassador asking for the Duc’s arrest, then a second note informing him French troops were doing the arrest themselves. On March 14th 1804 the Duc was arrested, taken to France, passed before a military tribunal, and shot, all in one night. The Conde line of aristocracy was extinct.

International opinion was outraged, and swiftly turned against France and Napoleon. While the great conqueror’s reputation had plenty else to assail it over the next decade, Talleyrand’s was always stained by what had happened. Napoleon showed a weakness when it came to closer betrayers, but the Duc was sufficiently distant to allow a moment of calculation. Napoleon also managed to leverage the threat – real or imagined – into being emperor. But Russia had also begun to turn against him. More war would follow.

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