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  • Writer's picturePaul Weston


Updated: Feb 18

Murat King of Naples by Francis Gerand

The French Revolution, as do all revolutions, gave opportunities to able men and women, Napoleon above all.  My fictional characters, Captain Morlaix and his wife Odile, commoners, have risen far above anything they could have expected under the Ancien Régime, but their adventurous lives are as nothing compared with the historical figure of Joachim Murat. 


Murat appears in my novel, Not by Sea, and I have just finished reading a biography of him:  Joachim Murat – Marshal of France and King of Naples by Andrew Hilliard Atteridge.


Murat’s life is almost beyond the imagination of a novelist. The son of a prosperous innkeeper from La Bastide in Gascony, he eschewed the life of a trainee priest, and in 1787 left the seminary at Toulouse, and marched out of the city in the service of King Louis XVI, as Private Murat of the Chasseurs à Cheval de Champagne, exchanging his soutane for a green uniform with white facings.  Uniforms were important to Murat, and as his career progressed, they became astonishingly splendid and ostentatious.


In 1787 it would have been almost impossible for a commoner to progress very far in the French Army, but, as Atteridge writes “It was only two years to wait until 1789 would make all things possible, even for a private of Chasseurs in a provincial garrison”.


Murat’s rise was rapid.  He came to Napoleon’s notice when he captured the forty guns which Napoleon deployed to deliver his famous “whiff of grapeshot” which suppressed the Royalist uprising of 13 Vendémiaire.  Italy, Egypt, Germany and Poland witnessed ever larger calvary charges personally led by Murat, and promotion followed promotion.  He married Caroline Bonaparte, carried Josephine’s crown at the coronation, and became an Imperial Prince and his wife the owner of the Elysée palace.  After the Emperor’s successes at Ulm and Austerlitz, Murat was made Grand Duke of Berg, a part of Germany with Dusseldorf as its capital.  He considered this to be scant reward, and was disappointed when he was denied the crown of Poland.


Murat on Horseback by Jean-Gilles Berizzi

After suppressing popular uprisings in Spain, and his disappointment at Napoleon giving the Spanish crown to Joseph Bonaparte, Murat was given the choice of the thrones of Portugal or Naples.  He chose Naples, just vacated by Joseph, and was King of Naples between 1808 and 1812, often frustrated by his lack of independence from France.  He commanded the cavalry in the invasion of Russia, accompanied by a vast and splendid baggage train, but deserted the army during its retreat and returned to Naples.


He equivocated as to which side he should join following Napoleon’s return from Elba, but after Waterloo he had little bargaining power, and became a fugitive, eventually coming to a sordid end before a firing squad after trying to return to Naples with a handful of Corsicans.


Can we draw conclusions from this story?  I think perhaps we could say firstly that the potential of nations or organisations is greatly reduced if advancement is only open to those of a particular class or orthodoxy of view, but that when these previously suppressed able and energetic men advance rapidly, they become more effective oppressors than the those they replace.  Secondly, the outcome of a revolution, like a war, is impossible to predict, and they both should be avoided at almost any cost.


It is surprising that Napoleon’s ambition, though vast, seems so old fashioned.  Revolution had brought him to power, but he dreamed of creating a traditional dynasty, and imposing its rule on Europe.  It is possible to argue that, in retrospect, Trafalgar marked the beginning of the end for the Empire.  Europe’s overseas trade was likely to remain substantially diminished, and there was very little prospect of invading and defeating England, with her burgeoning industrial strength and economic power. 


Napoleon made a serious error by invading Portugal, and then occupying Spain.  He seemed to have little idea that imposing French rule, though nominally inspired by Enlightenment values, would be unpopular, and that irregular forces could sap the strength of regular armies.  He repeated the mistake in Russia, apparently assuming that the capture of Moscow would lead to the Russians coming to terms with him, though, as a reader of Tolstoy would know, the Russians did not consider themselves defeated, and had no intention of negotiating.


I do not know how Murat felt, when as King of Naples in 1810, he watched as HMS Spartiate, 74, captured from the French at the Nile, and which had played a glorious part at Trafalgar, sailed insolently into the Bay, defeated the Kingdom’s puny naval forces, and then proceeded to make a leisurely survey of the harbour’s defences.  Did he feel only indignation, or perhaps icy fingers of doubt about the ultimate success of the Empire?


An anecdote, what Atteridge calls a “Gascon trick”, is worth noting.  In Vienna, Murat and fellow general Lannes walked slowly across the bridge in Vienna with their hands behind their backs, although the bridge was mined and had an Austrian artillery battery at its end, the guns loaded and gunners standing by with smoking matches.  He engaged the Austrians in conversation, persuaded them that a peace treaty was imminent, and that a battalion of French grenadiers had no intention of attacking the bridge, but was merely marking time to keep warm.  When it was obvious that the French were in fact attacking the bridge, the battery commander’s shout of “Fire!” was hardly audible, as Murat had caught him by the throat, and his fellow general knocked the matches out of the gunners’ hands.

Napoleon and Murat by Edouard Detaille


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