Letter from Napoleon to Murat, dated 23 March 1808, with commentary
NAPOLEON I , MADEC Gabriel
Full text of letter n° 17,462, Napoleon to Murat, dated 23 March 1808, published in volume 8 of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte, published by the Fondation Napoléon and Fayard, with commentary by Gabriel Madec.
My brother, I imagine that you have arrived today or will arrive tomorrow in Madrid.1 You will ensure that good discipline is maintained there. If the court is in Aranjuez, then you should leave it as it is and express sentiments of friendship; if it has retired to Sevilla, then equally you should leave it as it is. Send aides-de-camp to the Príncipe de la Paz2 and inform him that he was wrong to avoid my French troops, that he should make no hostile movements, and that the King of Spain3 has nothing to fear from our troops. I do not suppose that news of what happened in Madrid on the seventeenth and eighteenth will tarry in reaching me.
Maréchal Bessières should arrive in Burgos on the 26 [of this month] to take command of the two divisions des Pyrénées Occidentales and my guard.4
I suppose that you are restocking on biscuit in Madrid, so that you always have enough for fifteen or twenty days ahead of you. You should ensure that the magazines in Aranda and Buitrago are completely provisioned, and that at each of these points there are 200,000 biscuit or flour rations, along with three ovens for bread making.
Circumstances have forced me to delay my departure. Russia has declared war on Sweden. Russian troops are in Finland and my army, commanded by the Prince de Pontecorvo, is in Copenhagen and will join the Russian army before the walls of Stockholm.5 6
In the first annex in this new volume of Napoleon's correspondence, Thierry Lentz fascinatingly shows how the fallen emperor on St Helena was sensitive enough about the Spanish campaign to countenance forging correspondence showing him to have urged caution upon Murat in March 1808. The invented letter talks of imperial disapproval of Murat's entry into Madrid: "you should have kept the army ten leagues off," noted Napoleon to the dead Murat from the middle of the South Atlantic. And yet it had always been part of Napoleon's plans in 1808 for Murat to take the Spanish capital (the letter here below is but one example of the many others that exist).
The remarkable letter (n° 17,462), reproduced here and dated 23 March 1808 (but which arrived on 30 March), shows Napoleon keeping his cards very close to his chest. We know from historical hindsight that Napoleon's secret goal was the removal of the Bourbon family from the Spanish throne. This had however been placed on hold as the various solutions envisaged by the emperor were disrupted by the unforeseeable dynastic imbroglio that erupted at the Spanish court,7 the latest development of which was the Aranjuez riot in March. The matter was further complicated by Napoleon's efforts to place one of his three already crowned brothers8 on the throne of His Catholic Majesty. His project would finally be unveiled a few days later in his offer to Louis on 27 March (letter n° 17,510), which Louis would subsequently turn down.
My brother, I imagine that you have arrived today or will arrive tomorrow in Madrid. You will ensure that good discipline is maintained there. If the court is in Aranjuez, then you should leave it as it is and express sentiments of friendship; if it has retired to Sevilla,9 then equally you should leave it as it is. Send aides-de-camp to the Príncipe de la Paz and inform him that he was wrong to avoid my French troops, that he should make no hostile movements, and that the King of Spain has nothing to fear from our troops. I do not suppose that news of what happened in Madrid on the seventeenth and eighteenth will tarry in reaching me. [...]
On 23 March, Napoleon's military goal had been achieved with Murat's entrance into Madrid on the appointed day. However, the Grand Duke was still uninformed as to the Emperor's final objective, as he complained to the emperor on a number of occasions. On 19 March, whilst still en route to Madrid, he had made it clear to Napoleon that the situation could result in blood being spilt and that he suspected the [French] ambassador Beauharnais of complicity in the Aranjuez riot. Esménard, who knew a thing or two about conspiracies, made the same accusation in his introduction to Godoy's memoirs.
Curiously, not one letter from Napoleon to ambassador Beauharnais in Madrid has come down to us (if ever one was written). The latter was a known schemer, involved in everything, who surrounded himself with Ferdinand supporters and plotted against Godoy. Would he have been acting on his own initiative? It is legitimate to doubt this.
The letter finishes with a most extraordinary passage of (dis)information.
Circumstances have forced me to delay my departure. Russia has declared war on Sweden. Russian troops are in Finland and my army, commanded by the Prince de Pontecorvo, is in Copenhagen and will join the Russian army before the walls of Stockholm.
This was nothing more than a blatant lie, backed up by a motive which crumbles under scrutiny. Napoleon was in no rush whatsoever to offer Bernadotte's troops in Scania as support for his Russian ally, Alexander. On the contrary, this lack of movement was the source of great irritation for the tsar; furthermore the poor organisation and positioning of Bernadotte's forces allowed troops commanded by La Romana [a Spanish general reluctantly serving in the French army] to desert, return to Spain, and join the insurgency.
News of Napoleon's delay plunged Murat back into uncertainty. Two days later, on 25 March (letter n° 17,480), Bessières was to receive notice of the emperor's arrival! On the morning of 26 March (n° 17,486), the Duc d'Istrie was issued with detailed orders from Napoleon outlining preparations for his [Napoleon's] journey from Burgos to Madrid. And yet it seems clear that Napoleon had no intention of going to Burgos, much less Madrid,10 but was instead already set on taking the road to Bayonne.