The Duke of Enghien

by Thomas Stiegler

“This was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” Napoleon and the murder of Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien.

He was referring to an outrage to which Napoleon tried to drape the mantle of righteousness and which, despite all attempts at justification, was nothing less than a planned murder. We are talking, of course, about the execution of the Duke of Enghien, a relative of the overthrown King Louis XVI, who was unlawfully deported to France and sentenced to death in a mock trial.

The trigger for this was an uncovered plot to overthrow not only the Republic but, had it succeeded, would have cost the life of the first consul. To this end, a group of Bourbon spies traveled to Paris as early as the summer of 1803 to scout out the situation. Provided with generous funds from England (whose ministers were already far more realistic about the future than their counterparts on the Continent), they built up a widespread network of conspirators, including such well-known names as the former revolutionary generals Georges Cadoudal, Jean-Charles Pichegru and Jean-Victor Moreau.

When they were tried after the plot was discovered, some provocateurs took advantage of the public stage to express their bitterness against Bonaparte’s increasingly autocratic actions – an opinion with which they were not alone (judging by the reaction of the public). Napoleon was therefore looking for a way to turn the popular mood back in his favor and once again present himself as the preserver of the Revolution and protector against the return of the Bourbons.

That’s when the statement of a prisoner made people sit up and take notice: Word was making the rounds among the conspirators that a prince from the House of Bourbon would place himself at the head of an army and thus reclaim the throne for the rightful ruler.

Nogent-le-Rotrou, Château Saint Jean; CC3.0; Author: Caroline Ernesty; Link: zur Lizenz

Napoleon, like all upstarts fundamentally suspicious, immediately pounced on this statement, for here was a unique opportunity for him to send a signal that would be visible from afar. For if he were to prevent the Bourbons from reaching for power again, this would not only be proof of his ability to act, but would also send a clear signal in the direction of the increasingly agitated supporters of the overthrown royal house.

So they searched feverishly for this mysterious figure and after they could not get hold of him, they finally fell for the idea of capturing Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon, the very Duke of Enghien. Although no connection to a conspiracy could be proven, as a direct descendant of “Le Grand Condé” and thus scion of a young collateral line of the Bourbons, he was the only member of the former ruling house who could be caught.

This Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon was a charming figure. He was born in Chantilly on August 2, 1772, enjoyed an excellent education and was able to enjoy the respect and love of his fellow men at a young age. Thus his rise to the highest ranks of the old monarchy seemed preordained.

But all plans for his future were shattered when the fires of revolution swept across the battered country and he was forced to leave France. He was to travel aimlessly through Europe for several years before joining the Emigrant Army Corps in 1792, where he commanded the vanguard from 1796 to 1799. When the émigré corps was finally disbanded at the Peace of Lunéville, he withdrew and lived a quiet life near Ettenheim in the Grand Duchy of Baden with his secretly wedded Princess Charlotte de Rohan (to whom, according to eyewitness accounts, he was devoted in sincere love). Only occasionally did he still sneak across the border to Strasbourg to keep in touch with his former comrades and probably also to exchange information with agents of the Bourbons.

Bonaparte assigned Brigadier General Michel Ordener (who stressed throughout his life that he had had no part in the Duke’s conviction or execution) the task of arresting the young Duke and bringing him across the border. Thus, on the night of March 14-15, 1803, a group of the gendarmerie, accompanied by three hundred dragoons, sneaked into neighboring Baden to kidnap the duke and take him via Strasbourg to Vincennes to be tried for high treason.

You can read more about this in my book “Cultural Histories of Europe.

Stories about the bird trader, the harmonious coarse blacksmith or the devil’s trill sonata.

And many more: “The Walk to Canossa”, “The Merry Drunkard”, “The Lord of the Flies” etc.

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The surprised Louis Antoine allowed himself to be arrested without resistance. He also did not deny that he had sworn eternal hatred for Napoleon and would use every opportunity to meet him on the battlefield. However, he firmly denied involvement in any conspiracy. Even the papers found on him only showed that the Bourbons were recruiting conspirators against Napoleon and that the Duke was drawing money from England (something quite normal for exiled nobles at that time and often the only way to eke out a living), but they did not incriminate the Duke in any way and would not have sufficed for an official indictment.

Bonaparte, however, did not want a public trial at all. Rather, he put a military commission in charge of the matter, and it dug up an old revolutionary law, not yet repealed, that provided for the death penalty for emigrants paid from abroad who were in France as identifiable enemies of the Revolution. The duke denied all accusations until the end and even went so far as to demand an interview with the first consul to convince him personally of his innocence. This was denied him, however, because Napoleon was away and also demanded that the decision of the military commission be carried out “within 24 hours” [2]. Thus, on March 21, 1804, the duke was executed outside the walls of Vincennes Castle by a firing squad of the “Gendarmerie d’élite de la Garde impériale”. “Aim carefully” [2], are said to have been his last words.

In foreign policy terms, this act was a serious mistake, because the European states saw it as an attack on their state sovereignty. Domestically, however, Napoleon knew he had the support of broad sections of the population who were still loyal to the young republic and were afraid of both the chaos of a revolution and the restoration of the Bourbons.

Francois Seraphin Delpech (Lithograf), Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse (Künstler), “Lis. Ane. Hi. DUC D´ ENGHIEN”, 1823, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. W 1617, CC0 (

The duke, so cruelly torn from life, was later to receive justice: Louis XVIII had his body exhumed and a monument erected to him in the chapel of Vincennes Castle.

Napoleon himself is said to have commented on the matter once again. During his escape from Russia, he declared to his grand equerry Armand de Caulaincourt, who was with him in the sleigh, “I would do so again in the same circumstances.” [2] To then add, however, “It would have been quite possible for me to pardon him.” [2]

Perhaps a belated realization of the wrongfulness of his actions? Unfortunately, we will never know.


1 … Wikipedia, Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon-Condé, Duc d’Enghien

2 … online Quelle:, Warum Napoleon einen Herzog entführen und erschießen ließ, Berthold Seewald

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