Almost 200 years ago, on 26th February 1815, Napoleon and his supporters left Elba, bound for France, where he was to regain the throne without a shot being fired. The breaking of the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau by the great powers was in his eyes justification enough for his return.
The departure was witnessed by an English visitor, Henry Grattan, the son of a prominent Irish politician, who had been told by a servant that Napoleon and his troops were about to leave for Italy. **
At 7 p.m. the troops marched out of the fortifications without music or noise, and embarked at the health-office in feluccas and boats which were alongside, a part of them being transported to the brig which lay in the harbour.
At 9 p.m. Napoleon with General Bertrand passed out in the Princess Pauline's small carriage drawn by four horses, embarked at the health-office in a boat, and went on board the brig 'L'Inconstant.' Immediately afterwards the whole flotilla got under weigh with sweeps and boats, the soldiers crying out 'Vive l'Empereur!'(1)
Somewhat surprised at being a witness to this celebrated moment of history, Grattan hired a boat to go out to 'L'Inconstant' where Napoleon was pacing the quarter-deck in his greatcoat. Questioned by one of the officers on board, after being told that he was English, Grattan said he had come merely to see the Emperor; upon which he was ordered to go away. This he immediately complied with, for he expected every moment to be fired or seized (2).
In Florence, about 10 days before Napoleon's departure, Sir Neil Campbell, the British Commissioner on Elba, raised his fears that Napoleon might leave with Edward Cooke, the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. He told him of the concerns that were unsettling Napoleon, his family and his closest companions: the money that had been promised and never paid, rumours about the actions of the Congress of Vienna and concerns about the intentions of the Empress Marie Louise.
Cooke's sarcastic reply alleviated Cambell's concerns or so he claimed:
You may tell him that everything is amicably settled at Vienna; that he has no chance; that the Sovereigns wil not quarrel. Nobody thinks of him at all. He is quite forgotten -- as much as if he never existed! (3)
We do not know when Napoleon decided to leave Elba or whether he would ever have been reconciled to staying there. It is clear though that, aside from the situation in France where the Bourbons, propped up by the British Government with the hated and nearly assassinated Duke of Wellington as Ambassador, had made as much of a mess of things as Napoleon had anticipated, there were three major factors which contributed to his decision or at least made it easier.
Firstly was the failure of Marie Louise and his son to join him on Elba. The last letter he received from her was dated August 10th, and said that although she had promised to join him her father had insisted that she returned to Vienna. He wrote a last letter to her on August 28th, I long to see you and also my son and ended Adieu ma bonne Louise. Tout à toit. Ton Nap.(4) Soon thereafter she began a relationship with Count von Neipperg, with whom she was to bear three children.
In December Napoleon discussed with Campbell the rumour that the Austrians were seeking to annul his marriage to Marie Louise and aired his sense of injustice over the behaviour of his father in law:
"She had promised to write to him every day upon her return from Switzerland to Vienna, but he had never since received one letter from her. His child was taken from him like the children taken by conquerors in ancient times to grace their triumphs. The Emperor ought to recollect how differently he had acted towards him when he was entirely at his mercy .. He had twice entered Vienna as a conqueror, but never exercised towards the Emperor such ungenerous conduct." (5)
The second issue was that of funds. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau it was agreed that Napoleon should receive 2.5 million francs per annum from the French Government. Not a penny was ever paid, and Napoleon was too proud to ask for it. Campbell raised this a number of times:
If pecuniary difficulties press upon him much longer, so as to prevent his vanity from being satisfied by the ridiculous establishment of a court which he has hitherto supported in Elba, and if his doubts are not removed, I think he is capable of crossing over to Piombino with his troops, or of any other eccentricity. But if his residence in Elba and his income are secured to him, I think he will pass the rest of his life there in tranquility. (6)
The third and perhaps most important issue concerned the rumour that he was going to be moved to St. Helena or St. Lucia. As early as July 1814 the Morning Post carried a report that Napoleon had been seized on Elba and transported to Malta or St. Helena, and this false story was repeated in a number of British provincial papers. More significant though, on October 19th the Courier, mouthpiece of the Tory Administration, had run a story that Napoleon was to be sent to St Helena. This rumour apparently spread across Italy and and had reached Elba at least by early November.(7) Madame Bertrand raised it with an English visitor in January, and Napoleon also discussed it with Campbell at around the same time. Campbell tried to reassure him, and said that he at least did not believe it.(8) In fact one of the first questions discussed at the Congress of Vienna in September was precisely this, all the powers were concerned that the presence of Napoleon so close to the continent exacerbated problems in France and Italy.(9) The King of France was apparently ready to pay Napoleon the sum owed, and more, if he went to the Azores!
On Christmas Eve 1814 Napoleon was visited by the future Prime Minister Lord John Russell, one of a number of Whigs who found their way to Elba. Russell reported that Napoleon seemed very agitated.(10) At the end of December though Campbell thought he detected a change in Napoleon's mood:
Napoleon's spirits seem of late rather to rise than to yield in the smallest degree to the pressure of pecuniary difficulties; although his mother, and some of the principal persons who have followed his fortune, are constantly absorbed in grief and effusions of discontent. They place their last hope for amelioration in the Congress, the members of which, they expect, will fix the regular payment of Napoleon's annuity, according to treaty. They appear also to entertain sanguine hopes that Mary-Louise will reside at Parma as sovereign, and even that she will come to Elba after the Congress is dissolved. (11)
Clearly there is much that we don't know about Napoleon's decision to gamble everything on a return to France. Few expected that he would be able to ascend the throne of France so easily. His own expectations are unknown, he appears to have confided in nobody. What does seem clear though is that from his point of view it was a gamble worth taking: his future as Emperor of the Lilliputian Kingdom of Elba was uncertain, to say the least. Norman Mackenzie neatly summarised his position:
If he stayed on Elba, even for a few more months, he was finished. At best he might be offered a bribe to take himself off to some final place of exile, and at worst he might be transported, imprisoned in a fortress, or killed defending himself.(12)
Quite simply he had nothing to lose. He was in a trap.
His attempt to break out caused an explosion of rumour on the continent. Britain's allies were inclined to pin the blame on Perfidious Albion, whose motives were variously seen as allowing him to escape with a view to having an excuse to treat him more severely, or in ruling circles in France as a manoeuvre designed to cause civil war and therefore to weaken the country further. (13) This latter interpretation was shared by the radical William Cobbett in his 1830 History of the Regency and Reign of King George the Fourth. There is I think no evidence to support this conspiracy theory, although the weakening of France was the result and indeed the intent of British policy over twenty years of war: never again was France to be in a position to exert hegemony on the continent of Europe and for the time at least, Britain reigned supreme.
** See comments below. The Mr Grattan who witnessed Napoleon's departure may have been Henry's brother James.
1. Major-General Sir Neil Campbell Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba Being A Journal of Occurrences in 1814-1815 (London 1869) pp 372-3.
3. Campbell pp 362-3
4. Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London 2014) p. 724.
5. Campbell op. cit. p. 327.
6. Despatch No 34 to Castlereagh, Campbell op. cit. p. 319
7. Campbell op. cit. p. 349. In the same interview Napoleon expressed his concern that the Bourbons were planning to assassinate him.
8. Campbell p. 318-9.
9. Sir Charles Webster, The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815 (first published by the Foreign Office 1819, 1950 edition) p. 136
10. Katherine MacDonagh,"A Sympathetic Ear: Napoleon, Elba and the British", History Today, (1994), VOL. 44
11. Campbell p. 349.
12. Norman Mackenzie, The Escape from Elba, The Fall and Flight of Napoleon 1814-1815 (Pen and Sword edition, 2007) p. 188
13. Katherine MacDonagh "A Sympathethetic Ear .."