“I could not help being struck by the contrast…”

We have come, at long last, to the final letter Murat wrote to Napoleon before signing his treaty with Austria. In the final of days of 1813, General Adam Albert, the Count of Neipperg, arrived in Naples carrying an ultimatum from Metternich; either Murat was to finally commit himself, after months of vacillating, to the alliance with Austria, or the Austrians were to break off negotiations with the King of Naples. Queen Caroline, who was far more devoted to the prospective alliance than her husband, “toiled and plotted with redoubled vigour” upon Neipperg’s arrival, (in the words of historian Albert Espitalier). Caroline seems to have taken the reins quite eagerly at this point. Espitalier writes that “During the negotiations that took place between the 1st and the 8th January, Caroline’s attitude could not have been more characteristic. While she extended to Neipperg the most gracious of welcomes and did everything in her power to please him, she was present at all her husband’s ministerial councils.” French ambassador Durant would remark in a letter written on 9 January 1814 that “The Queen is even more decided in the matter of the Austrian alliance than the King himself. She looks on it as her own particular handiwork.” (Espitalier, Napoleon and King Murat, 1998 facsimile edition, pages 367-9)

The negotiations were not fully concluded when Murat wrote the following letter, but he all but announces the imminence of his defection. It is a particularly extraordinary letter even among the numerous extraordinary letters Murat wrote to his brother-in-law. Murat alternates between indulging in bitter lamentations of Napoleon’s past and ongoing treatment of him, remorse over what he makes clear he feels he is being compelled to do, reassurances of his love and eternal devotion, and yet more renewed pleas for Napoleon to make peace. Espitalier, whose book is extremely hostile to Murat, writes bizarrely that Murat was “trembling with delight” in the midst of these negotiations and as he prepared to write this letter, which he describes as “so much play-acting,” but provides no evidence to support these assertions and I personally don’t buy them, or Espitalier’s interpretation of Murat’s character. If anyone was “trembling with delight” at this stage, it seems to have been Caroline.

Napoleon, upon reading Murat’s letter from the 3rd, remarked to Caulaincourt that “It seems that the King of Naples has almost concluded his treaty. The Austrian General Neipperg has been the intermediary in the matter, and a British colonel with whom the King has negotiated though he had no powers and did not recognize him as a King. These gentlemen, observing the importance publicly attached to their presence in Naples, imposed very severe restrictions on the King, and he is apparently still struggling against them.” (Espitalier, 377-8) The Emperor, seeing the writing on the wall, began ordering the recall of all French troops in Naples, even before receiving Murat’s letter from 15 January formally announcing his treaty with Austria (which was signed on 8 January 1814).


Source: Souvenirs d’enfance d’une fille de Joachim Murat, by Louise Murat, pages 176-182.

To His Majesty the Emperor
Naples, 3 January 1814


Here I am at the most sorrowful day of my life. Here I am delivered to the most painful feelings that have ever stirred my soul. It comes down to choosing; and I see on one side the inevitable loss of my States, of my family, of my glory perhaps; on the other, commitments contrary to my eternal attachment for Your Majesty, to my unalterable devotion to France. For four days, an Austrian plenipotentiary, the Count of Neipperg, has been in Naples, to propose to me, in the name of his sovereign, a treaty of alliance. He has presented to me an infinitely obliging letter from the Emperor of Austria, the most advantageous offers for my kingdom; and this morning, while he was in conference with my minister of foreign affairs, an English frigate, under flag of truce, brought an officer carrying the authorization of Lord Bentinck to sign an armistice while awaiting the peace that the latter is authorized to conclude before the Count of Neipperg’s departure. These bold approaches, made in the midst of the general upheaval of Europe, by two great powers who triumph and who, in the most prosperous times of the old monarchy, demanded such deference from the Court of Naples, have intoxicated the inhabitants of my capital with a hope which is perhaps accompanied by a bit of pride. They see that I am the master of giving them peace, and from all sides they ask for it. The strength of opinion is so powerful on this point that it could not be braved without imprudence by a prince whose authority is wholly based on the opinion and love of his subjects. Yet, Sire, I have temporized… I temporize still. I wanted to await and am awaiting a response from Your Majesty to the propositions, to the entreaties that I made to him to obtain from him the means to serve him, to defend Italy, to defend my kingdom some hope of success. Deign to reread my letter from the 14th and 25th of December. I was speaking to you with all the loyalty that belongs to my character, with all the frankness that the circumstances commanded so imperiously, and what Your Majesty has written to me so far could only have the unfortunate result of increasing my uncertainties and my embarrassments. You told me to march my army to the Pô, and I had advanced it; but you didn’t give me any power in the countries that I had to traverse… that I had to cover, and where, necessarily, I had to have my depots, my supply stores… all my resources… so that everywhere I encountered difficulties, obstacles, oppositions… everywhere I have seen royal authority and service compromised. 

You ordered me to go to the Piave, although I had declared to Your Majesty, and which he perfectly well knew, that I could not cross the Pô without exposing my family and my States to the most imminent dangers, since they were threatened by several naval expeditions. But by manifesting this intention, you did not determine who would be in command when my army was united with that of the Viceroy. Such a silence obviously renders inexecutable missions in which success, if it were possible, would have to be linked to the most perfect assembly, to the most perfect combination of movements. You had informed me, upon my repeated requests, that you would have accepted the preliminaries of peace, and that a Congress was to convene, but you did not deign to tell me on what bases they it was going to treat… You did not even speak to me of the guarantee of my States… You never responded to the entreaties I made, and that I had made by my ministers, to participate in the negotiations by sending a Neapolitan plenipotentiary to the Congress. I am forced to add that I was assured that Your Majesty had proposed some stipulations contrary to the interests of the King of Naples, but I would’ve believed myself very guilty if, for a single instant, I had been able to believe it. I could not help being struck by the contrast presented between these relations with me from the Sovereign to whom I have devoted my entire life, and from those princes whom I have never ceased to combat. The first shows me a distrust which twenty years of services and attachments should have removed forever; the others lavish on me, with the least equivocal testimonies of consideration, esteem, and benevolence, the most flattering offers. Nevertheless, I would not sway, if Your Majesty had given me, if he could still me the means to be useful to him and to be useful to this France, my first homeland, whose glory and prosperity will be so dear to me for as long as I breathe!

Yes, Sire, if Your Majesty had put at my disposition the resources that I could find in southern Italy, I would have fifty thousand men ready to fight for him, and I believe that such an army would leave no doubt in the chances of the war in Italy, or rather I believe it would have ended for France the disasters of war, by determining her enemies to an honorable peace for all the powers… Again today, I declare it, if I believed, by the sacrifice of my interests, if I believed, by losing myself personally, it would save France from the misfortunes that threaten it, I would consent to every loss. But should I likewise sacrifice every object and every hope, the interests of the people that Providence has entrusted to me and who show me so much affection? Should I lose the inheritance of my children? Should I lose without return so many men who are dedicated to me with such noble and total devotion? Events are pressing and becoming more threatening every moment… Certainly I know how to brave the dangers!… but it is in the duties of a king to know how to calculate his forces. I have the certitude that Austria is sending large numbers of troops into Italy. All the letters which come to me from France inform me that the allies, after having crossed Switzerland, inundated the French provinces, and are going towards Savoy.

What can I do, thus threatened from all parts and unable to count on any support? If I commanded a French army, I would hazard everything… I would fight everywhere I found the enemy and, in every event, I would seek to open for myself a retreat, which would however be very difficult, by the Seine river… But, Sire, do you think that I could act thus with Neapolitan troops? Do you believe that I should flatter myself to lead them beyond the Alps? Do you believe that, whatever their attachment for me, they would not abandon a sovereign who, himself, would abandon their country? 

Such circumstances may make it a duty for me to embrace a part contrary to the dearest, to the most constant affections of my heart. If so, may Your Majesty pity me. I will have made for my subjects, for my children, for my crown, the most painful sacrifice that could ever be torn from me!… But perhaps there is still time…

Ah! if there is time, prevent the effects of these cruel circumstances! I beg you anew, in the name of what you hold most dear… in the name of France… in the name of all of Europe… and by all the sorrows that torment me at this terrible moment, make peace!

Deign to recall that I made you this prayer before the battle of Dresden, that I made it to you after the battle, that I made it to you before separating myself from Your Majesty in Germany, and that have not ceased to address it to you since your return to Paris. I renew it to you today with entreaties all the stronger as I see myself on the eve of finding myself without communication with Your Majesty and in the impossibility of fighting for him again… Whatever determination fate imposes on me, believe, Sire, that my heart will always be French, everywhere I will be, every Frenchman will find in me an affectionate protector, and myself, I will find my sole consolation in the services that I will be able to render them. Sire, believe also that your pupil, your brother-in-law, your most devoted friend will always show himself worthy of you; believe that the attachment that he holds for you is unalterable, and speaks to his heart with all the more force as he sees you struggling with the misfortune that your genius has mastered for so long. Do not deprive him of your friendship! You know what he has done for twenty years in order to conquer and preserve it… He will know, do not doubt it, how to find ways of making himself worthy of it still, as well as of the esteem of France.

Sire, if hard necessity draws me along, as I have reason to fear it does, into relations contrary in appearance to your interests, but which will perhaps be useful to Your Majesty and to France by giving me some influence in the peace negotiations; I dare to hope that you will judge me with calm and with impartiality, with the reason of State, and in considering everything that I have done, everything that I have tried to do in order to prevent such a misfortune.

(Signed) Joachim NAPOLÉON


9 thoughts on ““I could not help being struck by the contrast…”

  1. Karen Ronan

    This letter is …. I don’t understand why he is writing this letter. Telling Napoleon that he’s conflicted isn’t going to have a good effect. Napoleon doesn’t take advice, doesn’t respond to direct requests and especially not to ultimatums. So the letter is completely futile and Murat has to know it.


    1. Murat’s thought process is… not always easy to unravel. Especially when he’s particularly worked up/anxious/stressed about something and he goes on at length for several pages and shifts from one topic to another with scarcely any rhyme or reason. And with this situation in particular, it’s still hard to fathom everything going on inside his head at this point. If he was as devious as Espitalier and others want to believe, why even write letters like this at all while these negotiations are going on? Why broadcast to Napoleon clear as day that his defection is likely? He certainly can’t be accused of hiding it, and this letter in particular really throws doubt over the accounts of some like Constant who describe Napoleon as reacting with shock and bewilderment when he finally learned of Murat’s defection in early February. Why would he have been surprised? He received this letter in mid January. It was laid out right there, clear as day. There’s no real ambiguity here. Napoleon’s remarks to Caulaincourt I quoted above show a complete lack of surprise. You can practically hear the dryness in his tone when he discusses Murat’s impending treaty.

      So, I really don’t know. I didn’t read the letter as an ultimatum. It’s very much just Murat in his usual highly-agitated state, venting and emoting, on the brink of one of the most cataclysmic decisions of his life, which he really doesn’t even want to have to make. In a way it kind of reminds me of one of his ultra-length letters to Napoleon during the Sicilian campaign in 1810, where his stress level was through the roof and he just rambles on chaotically.

      I know there’s no way to know for sure, but sometimes I legitimately wonder if Murat had some variation of ADHD. Just from studying him and his correspondence so closely for the past few years, he seems to fit so many of the characteristics, especially regarding hyperactivity, impulsiveness, mood swings, overemotional, disorganized thoughts etc. At any rate, the stream of consciousness exhibited in his long letters to Napoleon–and I don’t know if he dictated them to a secretary or wrote them himself–is fascinating to follow.


      1. Joanne Renaud

        I think you’re right on the money there. That is a very long, rambley, hyper-emotional letter. If someone sent me THAT letter, I’d think, “that person is gonna do something… INTERESTING…”


      2. Josefa vom Jaaga

        I do not think Napoleon was surprised by this letter at all. Murat’s probable conduct in the upcoming struggle had been discussed between Napoleon and Eugène since late November. When Eugène received his own offer to switch sides, through his Bavarian father-in-law, the agent pointedly dropped that the King of Naples was already negotiating with the Allies. Even if Napoleon did not want to believe that Murat would actually defect, he could hardly be shocked to see it happen. He also immediately took measures in order to counter it by writing another letter to Eugène on January 17, ordering him to take his troops to France “if the King of Naples is against us” (about which Eugène and Napoleon then will not quite agree ^_^).

        As for the letter, maybe Murat wrote it (or had it written) mostly for his own sake. His bad conscience and his scruples become very clear in it, he may simply have felt better for having opened up and explained his conduct to both himself and Napoleon. I always felt there was this need to be chivalrous about Murat.

        And why historians may have seen the letter as “devious”: I suppose it’s because they saw all of Murat’s letters at once and immediately connected this letter to the one he wrote to Eugène later, on January 21, ten days _after_ he had signed up on “Team Allied”. And which may really deserve to be called that. But lying to Eugène (whom he hated) and to Napoleon (whom he loved) in Murat´s eyes were probably two very different things.


      3. I think you’re probably right about Murat writing the letter for himself more than anything. The repetitions, in letter after letter leading up to his defection, about how badly Napoleon has treated him, how he essentially has no choice to do this for the sake of his family and his subjects, and how this might *actually* put him in a position to help Napoleon in the long run, it really does look like he’s trying to convince (and comfort) himself more than anything. I think his conscience was eating him alive. Another aspect of this that I don’t think has ever received the appreciation it deserves from past historians or Murat’s biographers, is the fact that Murat had been a soldier fighting for France for his entire adult life, and now he’s facing the prospect of possibly having to take up arms against men he’s fought alongside for decades. Which makes his experience of this entire episode vastly different than it was for Caroline, who really doesn’t seem to have been even remotely rattled by the idea of switching sides.

        Do you have the full letter Murat wrote to Eugène on 21 January 1814? I’m not sure if I’ve seen it. I looked in “The Betrayers” to see if it was quoted and Cole only sums it up in a sentence, regarding Murat assuring Eugène that he wouldn’t attack him without warning.

        Regarding if Napoleon had brought up the idea of Murat possibly taking his army across the Alps, I haven’t found anything regarding it. Sometime soon I’ll try to find all of Napoleon’s letters to Murat from this timeframe and see if it had been mentioned previously. I wish Louise had included both sides of their correspondence from the run-up to her father’s defection.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Josefa vom Jaaga

        I´ve tried to copy Eugène´s letter over here from DuCasse but you know me and my French. So, apologies in advance, all typos belong to me, not to DuCasse. You can find the letter on Gallica: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k36795g/f58.item on page 54 ff

        I actually like this letter. It´s a shining little gem of a gasconade ^_^. Lots of beautiful words, never quite lying, and yet leaving out some tiny but interesting bits of information. Like the fact that Murat at this point had already signed the treaty with Austria. Murat writes this letter in reply to one Eugène had sent to him on the 14th and which can be summed up briefly as »Ey, Naples? Milan calling. Where the F are you, Murat, we´ve been waiting for three months now. So what´s up, you with us or against us?« (Of course in polite Beauharnais speech. This letter is at the same link, page 46 ff)

        Murat à Eugène, Naples, 21 janvier 1814

        Monsieur mon cher neveu, je reçois la lettre de Votre Altesse Impériale en date du 14 janvier, et je me hâte d´y répondre. Je suis vivement touché des sentiments que vous me témoignez; ils sont parfaitement en harmonie avec ceux que je vous porte, et que je ne cesserai de vous conserver, quelsque soient les événements que la politique et la guerre peuvent entraîner.

        Vous me dites «que depuis trois mois vous comptez sur mes secours, et que, si mes troupes s´étaient réunies á celles de l´Empéreur, _l´Italie tout entière_ n´aurait rien à craindre des ennemis du dehors».

        Ces expressions doivent me faire croire que Votre Altesse Impériale n´a pas été exactement informée des invitations que j´ai reçues de l´Empéreur et des déclarations que je lui ai faites. Elles pourraient aussi me porter à penser qu´en parlant de _l´Italie tout entière_ vous perdez de vue mon royaume.

        En effet, ce que l´Empéreur me demanda lorsque je me séparai de lui pour rentrer dans mes États, ce fut _de me porter sur le Pô_. Ce même désir fut celui qu´il m´exprima par ses lettres après son retour à Paris, et la réunion de mes troupes aux siennes fut si peu dans son intention, que jamais il n´en a même supposé la possibilité, puisque jamais il n´a déterminé à qui, en pareil cas, appartiendrait le commandement. Cependant Sa Majesté Impériale et Royale ayant manifesté, dans une de ses dépêches, l´idée que je pourrais marcher vers la Piave, je m´empressai de lui faire connaître et de lui démontrer qu´il m´était impossible de franchir le Pô sans compromettre évidemment la sûreté de mes États, menacés par les fermentations intérieures contre le système de la France, et par des expéditions que l´ennemi pourrait faire soit de la Sicile, soit des côtes d´Illyrie, soit de l´Albanie.

        Votre Altesse Impériale, en y réfléchissant, jugera elle-même que, si mes troupes au delà du Pô eussent pu devenir utiles au royaume d´Italie, elles n´auraient nullement garanti _l´Italie tout entière_; elle jugera que mon royaume aurait eu tout à craindre de l´instant où mon armée s´en serait assez éloignée pour n être plus à portée de le secourir en cas d´attaque; elle sentira qu´il était de mon devoir de ne pas exposer à de tels perils mes États, la reine et mes enfants.

        Cependant ma marche a servi puissament l´Empéreur, j´en atteste Votre Altesse et les ennemis qu´elle a devant elle; s´ils n´ont pas osé passer l´Adige, s´ils n´ont pas tenté envahir la haute Italie, c´est parce qu´il leur était impossible d´entreprendre de telles opérations en présence de mon armée, qui pouvait tomber sur eux, les couper dans leur marche ou leur fermer toute retraite.

        Il est vrai que je n´ai point agi contre le petit nombre de troupes autrichiennes qui se sont presentées sur la rive droite du Pô, et qu´il m´eût été si facile d´écraser. Mais c´est au moment où j´aurais pu les attaquer un négociateur autrichien était dans ma capitale pour me proposer de concourir de retablissement de la paix en Europe. J´ai dû écouter de telles propositions, faites au nom d´un grand souverain, parce qu´elles avaient un but, qui est le voeu de l´humanité, et parce qu´elles m´offraient pour mon royaume une garantie d´autant plus précieuse à mes yeux, que je ne recevais du coté de la France ni les informations ni les assurances que j´étais en droit de m´attendre.

        Toutefois il en est temps encore; si les espérances de paix dont Votre Altesse Impériale me fait part se réalisent, ainsi qu´elle paraît s´en flatter, cet événement, qui me comblerait de satisfaction, arrêterait tout l´effet des négociations dans lesquelles je suis entrées et dont j´ai prévenu l´Empéreur.

        Si, au contraire, les événements m´entrainaient á séparer ma cause de celle de l´empire, la France et la postérité me plaindraient de la violence que j´aurais dû faire aux sentiments les plus chers et les plus constants de mon coeur; elles jugeraient que je n´ai pu céder qu´à mes devoirs envers mes peuples et mes enfants, et je sens au fond de mon âme que mom attachement personnel à la France, à l´Empéreur, à sa famille, et à Votre Altesse en particulier, ne saurait jamais s´altérer.

        Vous m´avez rendu justice en croyant que dans aucun cas je ne pourrais agir contre Votre Altesse Impériale avant de l´avoir prévenue; je lui donne ici l´assurance que si je me trouvais forcé á prendre un parti décisif, _je ne ferais aucun mouvement qui puisse menacer l´armée qu´elle commande sans l´en avoir préalablement informée_.

        Je suis instruit que des mesures prises à Ancône après l´arrivée d´un de vos aides de camp ont excité beaucoup d´inquiétude, beaucoup de défiance, et des dispositions presque hostiles entre vos troupes et les miennes. Sie elles produisaient des effets fâcheux, j´en serais désespéré. Les ordres que j´ai donnés à mes généraux sont d´éviter autant que cela sera possible toute voie de fait, mais aussi de se mettre à l´abri de toute surprise. Je désire que des ordres analogues de la part de Votre Altesse Impériale préviennent des éclats que le ciel peut encore et voudra, je l´espère, nous épargner.


        I also love the part about Eugène´s sentiments being “in perfect harmony” with those of Murat ^_^. [Yeah, I can´t stand you either…]


      5. Thanks for taking the time to type that all up! I definitely haven’t seen this particular letter, at least not in its entirety. I really should go through Gallica thoroughly sometime in the near future.

        While Murat *had* signed his treaty by this point, apparently he learned some days after that the Austrians still didn’t consider the alliance set in stone, as the treaty had been sent back to Austria to be ratified by the Emperor. So that could be why Murat is taking a sort of tentative tone here with Eugène. Or maybe he is being deceitful, I can’t always tell. But he did write to Caroline at some point while awaiting the final ratification of the treaty, expressing the idea that it might still be possible to drive the Austrians out of Italy, so I think a part of him was still clinging to this rapidly disappearing hope that he still had a way out of all this.

        I feel like the line about their sentiments being “in perfect harmony” is something I’ve seen between them before, though I can’t remember the year. But I remember Murat writing to Eugène at one point that Eugène could be quite sure that Murat feels the same way for him as Eugène does for Murat. LOL. I’ll have to try to find it. The relationship between these two is ever-more fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Josefa vom Jaaga

        Oh, I forgot – there’s another interesting detail I noticed. Murat talks about taking his Neapolitans over the Alps to France. Had that ever been discussed before? Just asking because it is precisely what Napoleon had ordered Eugène to do in case the Austrian invasion could not be stopped. Napoleon and Eugène will have their little February fallout overv this question. It seems like a strange coincidence.


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