In May of 1812, prior to setting off on his cataclysmic invasion of Russia, Napoleon arranged for a conference in Dresden, to be attended by most of the crowned heads of Europe then under his dominion. His intention was to put on such a show of power that Tsar Alexander, to whom Napoleon had sent one of his generals carrying a final ultimatum, would be induced to bend to Napoleon’s will, thus averting war.
What followed, between the 16th and 29th of May, was a series of elaborate banquets, balls, military reviews, and a daily lever at which all the attending monarchs paid a “deference to Napoleon” which “went far beyond anything one could imagine,” as one of the Emperor’s aides put it. “Napoleon was indeed God at Dresden,” recounted another witness to the spectacle, “the king amongst kings: it was on him that all eyes were turned; it was to him and around him that all the august people brought together in the King of Saxony’s palace gathered.” (1)
Among the monarchs attending this pageant of servility were the emperor and empress of Austria, the king and crown prince of Prussia, the king and queen of Westphalia, the king of Württemburg, and the Grand Dukes of Würzburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Baden.
Conspicuous by his absence was Joachim Murat, the King of Naples.
It was just the sort of gathering he would have delighted in attending–an opportunity to mingle with this elite set into whose company he, the son of an innkeeper, had been elevated. It was also the sort of gathering from which his deliberate exclusion would be certain to wound his delicate pride. But his exclusion was indeed deliberate: Napoleon outright refused him permission to attend. The two men had been increasingly at odds for most of the last three years, but throughout the previous year especially, Napoleon had been enraged by Murat’s openly insubordinate conduct in his ruling of Naples, finally ceasing to respond to King Joachim’s correspondence altogether. He had finally consented to let a pleading Murat join the army for the coming war with Russia, but the errant King of Naples was to proceed straight to Danzig instead of joining his brother and sister monarchs in Dresden.
General Armand de Caulaincourt details Napoleon’s rocky relationship with Murat at this time:
The King of Naples, who had not received permission to repair to Dresden, ostensibly out of regard for the Emperor of Austria, was waiting there [ed. note: Danzig] for the Emperor Napoleon. On the score that his father-in-law always had Italy much at heart, the Emperor pretended that he did not wish to mar the Emperor Francis’s pleasure at seeing his daughter again by the sight of a sovereign who would only recall painful memories. The truth is that that was a very convenient pretext. The Emperor remarked, in confidence, that he did not want Murat to establish relations with the Austrians, with whom too many ties already existed between the Queen and Metternich. “Murat’s head will be turned if the Emperor of Austria treats him well, and he will be certain to talk all sorts of nonsense….”
That evening and the next morning the Emperor complained to me of the King of Naples, who, he said, was no longer a Frenchman and had forgotten what he owed to his country and his benefactor. On his side, the King complained to Berthier, Duroc and myself that the Emperor had made him merely a viceroy, an instrument for squeezing money out of his subjects, and so on.
The Emperor welcomed the King quite cordially in public; but taking him aside, undoubtedly to forestall his complaints, he began by scolding and being angry with him. He expostulated with him for his ingratitude, and, at the close of the conversation, he showed both vexation and sentiment–“both necessary in dealing with this Neapolitan Pantaloon,” he told me. “He has a good heart, and at bottom he likes me better than his lazarone. When he sees me he is mine; but away from me, he sides, like all spineless men, with anyone who flatters or makes up to him. If he had come to Dresden his vanity and self-interest would have led him into countless follies in trying to manage the Austrians. His wife is ambitious, and has stuffed his head with foolishness. He wants to have the whole of Italy; that is his dream, and that is what prevents him from wanting the crown of Poland.” (2)
(1) Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon: A Life, page 528.
(2) General Armand de Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia: The Memoirs of General de Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza, pages 39-40.