Murat’s relationship with Napoleon was tempestuous, and at some point in the near future I’m planning to attempt a thorough, multi-part write-up on it. I’ve covered a lot of the events/correspondence between them in 1813 leading up to Murat’s defection, but it should be understood that their relationship had been in a fairly steady decline for years by the time Murat finally abandoned Napoleon at the beginning of 1814. Even during happier years, their dynamic was often rife with tension for various reasons, which is probably not surprising considering that they were both hot-tempered men, that Napoleon insisted on dominating everyone and everything under him, and that Murat chafed at not being his own master–even more so after he had a crown on his head.
Napoleon began finding fault with Murat’s reign in Naples almost from the very start. When Murat captured the island of Capri from Sir Hudson Lowe (future governor of Saint Helena and nemesis of Napoleon), instead of the praise he was expecting, Napoleon castigated Murat for not having notified him of it through the proper channels. He criticized nearly all of Murat’s early administrative acts.
“I have seen decrees of yours which have no sense,” Napoleon wrote to Murat. “You are drifting into reaction. Why recall the exiles and restore property to men who have arms in their hands and are conspiring against me? I declare to you that you must take steps to cancel this decree, for I cannot endure that those who are contriving plots against my troops should be received and protected in your States. The decree as to the fisheries is not more prudent. It will be the means for the English to find out all the sooner what is going on. You are making sacrifices to a false popularity. It is ridiculous to cancel the sequestration of this property and so provide support for those who are in Sicily. You really must have lost your head!” (Quoted from Joachim Murat: Marshal of France and King of Naples, by A. Hilliard Atteridge, 1911, page 204)
This deluge of what Murat considered unjust criticism provoked the following response from him on 25 November 1808.
(Source: Lettres et documents pour servir l’histoire de Joachim Murat, Vol 6.)
Murat to Napoleon
Portici, 25 November 1808
The letters from Your Majesty have long ago ceased to be for me the letters of a benefactor, those of a remarkable monarch who knew how to raise me above myself and make my soul all afire to serve him; an enemy genius has replaced the beneficent genius; I am for you now only the man who is tolerated with difficulty and who has managed to be rendered suspect; this position has become insupportable, I cannot reign successfully, with the feelings that have succeeded in inspiring you against the man who is most devoted to you. Your Majesty accuses me of profligacy and advises thrift, I have become settled and thrifty, this conduct has reconciled the esteem and love of the Neapolitans to me and soon Your Majesty will write to me that I should imitate the profligacies of my predecessor. The circumstances had forced King Joseph to adopt measures of severity, the taking of Capri, the friendly feelings of your Neapolitan peoples, and still more the desire of no longer seeing two parties, had urged me to recall from exile only suspect people and to open the crowded prisons where groaned in the most disgusting misery an infinity of unfortunates who were never judged; to raise the sequesters on the property of attached families whose sons unfortunately remained in the service of Ferdinand. Should it have been necessary to see these grieving families die of hunger, who had done no harm in the crime of their children remaining faithful to their sovereign? Was it politic to imitate the severity of the court of Palermo towards the Sicilians, when I would like to conquer Sicily? Should it have been necessary to let die of hunger the families of those sailors who came from the expedition of Capri, by preventing them from going at any time to fish for their subsistence in the Gulf of Naples? King Joseph’s measure of rigor was just before the taking of Capri, that which I have taken has become so after it; and today as these acts of generosity are sanctioned by general opinion and have made Your Majesty as many friends as are counted as subjects, you accuse me of reacting and of seeking to popularize myself. Certainly, Sire, I was far from expecting, after so much effort and care to restore public opinion and to support you, to hear myself blamed so unjustly. First of all, the decree on the exiles is illusory and should not have caused alarm, since, to return, it is necessary to obtain passports from the police, and certainly they are only given to safe persons, yet it is designated to you that the returnees are dangerous! What is positive, is that this measure has produced the happiest effect, because it contrasts with that of the court of Palermo… The deplorable state of finances has forced me to take sides with the State’s creditors, public opinion has just sanctioned this determination, but because some letters from people registered in the General Ledger for gifts received from the King will reach him with complains about the reduction they have just experienced, Your Majesty is going to write to me that everyone blames this measure, and although it is likely to make me less popular and contrary to the acts for which you reproach me for trying to popularize myself, I will be accused of reaction, care will be taken not to say that everyone cried out against badly distributed gifts, and that it is approved that those who had received favors were assimilated to the legitimate creditors of the State, because of the 14 million registered, there were more than a third of this number; I defy one letter to be shown from persons who had not yet been liquidated. Sire, I have seen the abuses, I have destroyed them and I did not react, I ameliorated, and I would indeed have reacted, if I had been cowardly enough to imitate the conduct of Your Majesty’s commissioner in Dusseldorf who was to make a public inquiry of my administration, and who had tried everything to portray me to Europe as a dilapidator, whereas here I have hidden everything or attributed everything to circumstances… The national guard was badly organized; in accordance with your orders from Erfurt, I have admitted only proprietors, and the King will not fail to accuse me of reaction; he will do the same with all the reforms and ameliorations I am forced to make. I will only ever be guided by the desire to serve you, I will never have an ulterior political motive, I desire that everyone have the same sentiments; I have often requested orders from Your Majesty and Your Majesty does not respond to me, or if he does respond, it is to tell me to do what I would like. I recently asked for your will on the modifications to the Code Napoleon that must be in force on 1 January, and Your Majesty does not respond. King Joseph, on the eve of his departure, fatigued from the debates of the Council of State on the criminal Code, signed it because he wanted to have it all done, ah well! this Code excites general discontent… He decreed that criminal judgements would be without appeal and he did not create a jury; everyone asks for it, and because I will be forced to admit an appeal in criminal matters, because in this country a jury is impracticable, and perhaps even to adopt that of Your Majesty, the King will accuse me of reaction, finally, I will be portrayed as a perpetual reactionary, since in order to go on, I will be forced to change and ameliorate for a long time to come; here we have, Sire, the position in which your constant kindness has placed me: either to destroy evil, or to allow abuses to subsist; in the first case, I would be justly blamed, discontent will erupt from all sides, and I will lose the means of serving you; in the second, I will be accused of reaction; seeking to popularize myself, to make myself loved, will be presented as a crime. Sire, at this price, I would not be able to reign any longer, I prefer to preserve your friendship and your kindness by losing the crown, than seeking to preserve it and becoming a stranger to Your Majesty. Accustomed to your kindness, I would rather renounce life than see myself deprived of it. The sacrifice would be too great at this price.
Though he had been writing to Murat at least a couple times a month on average up to this point, a significant gap appears in Napoleon’s correspondence to Murat shortly after this letter is sent. Napoleon will write to Murat again on 15 December 1808–by which point he may or may not have received this letter–and then there is not another letter to Murat from Napoleon’s Correspondance Générale until 8 March 1809. It’s worth pointing out that in January of 1809, Napoleon received intelligence of a plot between Fouché and Talleyrand, in which Murat had been discussed as the best candidate for succeeding Napoleon in the event that the Emperor died without a direct heir. Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosbourg, Murat’s childhood friend and finance minister in both the Grand Duchy of Berg and Naples, recounts that “From that time Napoleon’s distrust of Murat continually increased, often showing itself in outbursts that were very offensive to the King of Naples. The latter, whose pride was easily touched and who did not know the real cause of the criticisms that the emperor seemed to delight in showering on him, supposed that this was part of a set plan against him, and that the emperor was only looking for a pretext to take away his crown.” (Murat: Lieutenant de l’Empereur en Espagne, 1808, page 8)