Talking Point with Peter Hicks: Not returned to sender! An unknown, almost-delivered Napoleon letter from St Helena

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Talking Point with Peter Hicks: Not returned to sender! An unknown, almost-delivered Napoleon letter from St Helena
Peter Hicks ©Fondation Napoléon / Rebecca Young

At 4pm on 25 July 1818, when the soldiers came to prise Barry O’Meara out of Longwood House on St Helena, Napoleon’s Irish doctor excused himself saying he had to go to his room to collect his papers. Four hours later, he emerged and was escorted manu militari from the island. In those four hours (much bemoaned by the governor Hudson Lowe), O’Meara received from Napoleon inter alia a letter for Marie-Louise. How do we know this?

Barry wrote a letter to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, in Point Breeze (US) in February 1820 (the minute of this is held in the Wellcome Institute in London), informing the ex-king of Spain that he had performed several missions on imperial business across the European continent in late 1819/early 1820. His first port of call? Frankfurt and Eugène de Beauharnais for financial reasons – Eugène processed many of Napoleon’s European expenses during the captivity on St Helena. The Emperor had given Barry a note for Eugène in which he begged his “family and friends to believe all that the Doctor O’Meara will say regarding my situation”. Naturally, Barry was (partially) to quote this affidavit in the front matter of his 1822 book, Napoleon in Exile as a sign of his own credibility. On the same page in Napoleon in Exile, above this note, he added a facsimile of Napoleon’s own handwriting reading: “s’il voit ma bonne Louise je la prie de permettre qu’il lui baise la main. Napole.’ [if he sees my dear Louise I beg her to allow him to kiss her hand. Napole.]

After the visit to Eugène, Barry was to see the imperial family in Rome (notably Madame Mère, Cardinal Fesch, Pauline and Lucien), and then go back to Florence.  This third, much more mysterious (and dangerous), part of the mission is cryptically described in the letter to Joseph as follows:

“J’avais une dépêche qui venait de loin pour une personne que V.[ôtre] A.[ltesse] puisse facilement deviner. Quoique les détails que j’avais entendu dire surtout ceux du Prince E.[ugène] m’avai[en]t donné très peu d’espoir de ce côté-là cependant je me suis déterminé de risquer tout pour le service de l’Emp.[ereur] Arrivé à Florence la digne personne que V.A. connaît m’a confirmé tout et m’a donné des conseils qui m’ont sauvé peut-être la vie. Les preuves sont positives, on a foulé aux pieds les liens les plus sacrés, sur le lieu même je l’ai vérifié, et j’ai vu clairement que aller plus loin serait me compromettre inutilement et confier un segret [sic] dans les mains d’une ennemie mortelle.” [letter originally in French by O’Meara “I had a dispatch that came from far away for a person of whom V.A. [Your Highness] could easily guess the identity. Although the details that I had heard, especially those of Prince E.[ugène], had given me very little hope on that matter, nevertheless I determined to risk everything for the service of the Emperor. Upon arriving in Florence, the worthy person whom V.A. [Your Highness] knows confirmed everything to me and gave me advice which perhaps saved my life. The proof is positive, the most sacred bonds have been trampled on, at the place itself I verified it, and I saw clearly that to go any further would be to compromise myself uselessly and to entrust a secret into the hands of a mortal enemy.]

And at the end of this letter to Joseph, crucially for this story, stands a reference to a key but little-known figure, the Italian politician, Tito Manzi:

“M. Manzi était bien malade, il n’est pas bien dans ses affaires à peine a-t-il de quoi vivre avec décence, ce que je crois l’a empêché d’aller voir V. A., chose qu’il désire beaucoup. C’est un homme inestimable.” [“Mr. Manzi was very ill, his business is not going well, he barely has enough to live on with decency, which I believe has prevented him from going to see V. A., something he very much wants. He is an inestimable man.”]

Who was this man? Tito Manzi had studied with Joseph in Pisa a lifetime earlier and had been one of Joseph’s trusted colleagues in the kingdom of Naples before becoming Interior Minister (and chief of Police) under Murat. In 1815, after the fall of Murat, Tito Manzi ingratiated himself with certain Austrian politicians and was allowed to return to Tuscany, where he became the focal point of liberal (and Napoleonic) sympathies. He also, post-1817, went onto the Austrian payroll.

Which brings us to Tuscany in January 1820, with Barry O’Meara, Tito Manzi and Marie-Louise in neighbouring Parma. By cross-referencing Barry’s letter to Joseph and documents concerning Tito Manzi (held in the Bubna archive in Vienna and published for the first time by Pietro Pedretti in 1931), it is possible to recreate the obscure events of January 1820 and to see that the facsimile note so proudly published by Barry in 1822 was in fact supposed to accompany a letter (the “dépêche” referred to by Barry in his letter to Joseph) from Napoleon to Maire-Louise. According to the Viennese documents published by Pietro Pedretti, Tito Manzi received this letter from his ‘friend’ (i.e., Barry) and was urged (not just by Barry but also by the imperial family) to deliver it to Marie-Louise. Tito was reticent because he knew that Marie-Louise had refused to receive such communications. In the end, after much hesitation, Tito had Napoleon’s letter sent to Count Neipperg, Marie-Louise’s future second husband. He however apparently did not communicate it to her but had it sent to Vienna. Finally, in a letter dated 1 August 1820, Metternich reported that the Austrian emperor had read Napoleon’s letter to Marie-Louise. Most unfortunately, however, it had been opened rather clumsily, and any attempt to hide the opening of the letter would have been embarrassingly obvious…

To conclude, then. Napoleon wrote a letter to Marie-Louise, presumably dated 25 July 1818. He gave it to Barry O’Meara who carried it religiously (and secretly) from Jamestown to London, then to Frankfurt, to Rome and then to Florence, where he gave it to Joseph Bonaparte’s trusted friend, Tito Manzi, who gave it to Neipperg, who sent it to Vienna, whence it was never to reappear. To quote  our Correspondance Générale of Napoleon I, yet another “lettre sans texte” this one letter [definitely] without text.

Peter Hicks August 2022.


Wellcome Institute, London, Ms. 67125

Pietro Pedretti, “Le vicende di una lettera di Napoleone”, in Risorgimento Italiano, 1931, pp. 637-674.

Peter Hicks, Post-Waterloo: Napoleon’s clandestine messages, dans Napoleonica. La Revue 2020/2 (N° 37), pp. 25-46, especially pp. 35-37.



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