Louis XVIII and Napoléon: the King and the Emperor
In 1800 Louis XVIII was 45. He had been friendly to reform in the beginnings of the French Revolution. But as it took a more radical turn, he had fled at the same time as the royal couple. Only he had succeeded in reaching Brussels when Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were arrested near the border.
Since then, Louis XVIII had lived the unhappy life of an exile, at the mercy of the varying generosity of foreign sovereigns and the vagaries of international politics. In 1800 he was living under the protection of the Tsar of Russia.
Louis XVIII was by all accounts, like his elder brother, a man of superior intelligence, but he was a far more astute politician than Louis XVI. He was patient, ambitious, cunning, and determined to step some day unto the throne of his ancestors.
This is what he wrote Napoléon in September of 1800:
You must have long known that you have earned my esteem. If you ever doubted that I was able of gratitude, chose your own place, decide the fate of your friends. As for my principles, I am a Frenchman: merciful by nature, I shall be all the more so by reason.
No, the victor of Lodi, Castiglione, Arcole, le conqueror of Italy and Egypt cannot prefer a vain fame to glory. However you are wasting precious time; we can ensure the peace of France. I say “we” because I need Bonaparte for that, and that he cannot do it without me.
General, Europe is watching you, glory awaits you, and I am impatient to restore peace to my people.
Keep in mind that Bonaparte had not yet given any indications that he planned to restore monarchy for his own benefit. He would only crown himself Emperor four years later. But he obviously thought the time had come to dash royalist illusions. Here is his response to Louis XVIII:
I received your letter. I thank you for the kind things you write about me. You must not wish for your return to France. You would have to step upon 500,000 corpses.
Sacrifice your interest to the peace and happiness of France; history will remember it to your credit.
I am not indifferent to your family’s misfortunes. I will be happy to contribute to the comfort and tranquility of your retreat.
Bonaparte had dropped the mask! These letters, by the way, provide useful glimpses into the minds of the two men. Note how Louis XVIII flatters Bonaparte, and emphasizes cooperation, and how all but one of Bonaparte’s sentences begin with “I”.
A few months later, royalists will detonate a bomb along the path of Bonaparte’s carriage, in the assassination attempt I describe in FOR THE KING.
As to Louis XVIII, he had to bide his time. But eventually, he was restored to the throne, while Napoléon died in exile on the forlorn island of St. Helena. Twists and turns of history…
Initially published as a guest post at Historically Obsessed.