On the morning of 21 March 1804, after a summary trial before a military commission, Louis-Antoine de Bourbon-Condé, Duke d’Enghien, was executed by firing squad in the moat of the Château de Vincennes. Six days earlier, he had been kidnapped by French soldiers in Baden, not far from the French border, under suspicion of having been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Napoleon. Whilst it is indisputable that, for years, he had been fighting against the Revolution, he was not guilty of this offence.
It has often been said that Napoleon regretted the Duke’s execution and that the accused man’s innocence had been hidden from him. During the interrogations, the Duke requested to meet Napoleon. It has also been suggested that during this meeting, Bonaparte could have done the gentlemanly thing and prevented the irreparable. But this would be to forget that, above and beyond the Duke’s fate, the whole issue of the proclamation of the Empire was being played out precisely at the same time. The Duke’s death was simultaneously a blow to the Royalist party and a powerful signal to the Revolutionary party. Bonaparte needed to be anointed with princely blood in order to become Napoleon. It is hard to imagine how this trial could have ended any other way than in the death penalty. A prince of royal lineage had been seized, violating international law… could Bonaparte step back from punishment? The Duke d’Enghien had to die.
Fifteen years later, when prisoner on St Helena, he told his entourage: “I gave the order”. He even added a codicil to his will in which he stated that in similar circumstances, he would “do the same thing again”.