With matters in this state Napoleon played straight into the hands of his opponents. The coronation ceremony held in Paris on 2 December 1804 greatly reinforced the fears that his assumption of the imperial title had already summoned up. The crown was a laurel wreath in the style of those associated with the caesars, and the robe was not only the purple of imperial Rome but also emblazoned with the bee, a creature that had a thousand years before been the badge of Charlemagne. Presiding over the ceremony was Pope Pius VII, whose presence Napoleon at one and the same time required as a means of legitimizing his rule, expressing the supremacy of the temporal power and reinforcing his claim to the mantle of Charlemagne, who had himself been crowned by Pope Leo III over a millennium before. If Pius was treated with scant courtesy by Napoleon, this generated little concern: Pius had been elected at a conclave held in Venice in the very midst of the allied victories of 1799 and had spent the first few months of his papacy as a de facto prisoner of the Austrians, who coveted large parts of his domains and were no friends of ultramontanism. But few could miss the significance of the new emperor’s actions, while still more grim was the symbolism of the new regimental standards awarded to the French army in a dramatic parade on the Champ de Mars: in place of a spearhead, the pole was now topped by a bronze eagle on the lines of that carried by the Roman legions. And all the time international law continued to be trampled upon: on 25 October the British minister in Hamburg, Sir George Rumbold, was arrested as a spy by a detachment of French troops, subjected to considerable ill treatment, transported to Paris and imprisoned in the Temple prison, where, as he later told the Earl of Malmesbury, his ‘first idea . . . was that he was to perish by secret means, and that, in order to attribute to him suicide, they would forge papers … to demonstrate the state of despondency he was under’.
‘This fresh violation of the rights of nations,’ wrote Fouché, ‘roused the whole of Europe.’ Yet, despite all this, as 1805 dawned a new coalition was still far away. On 11 April Britain and Russia admittedly succeeded in concluding a treaty of alliance that committed Russia to war unless Napoleon agreed to conform to Amiens and Lunéville, and laid down the aim of excluding the French from Holland, Switzerland and northern Italy. This was the work of Novosiltsev, but when the terms reached St Petersburg there was great dissatisfaction. Hampered by contradictory instructions, the Russian envoy had been completely outmanoeuvred. The issue of Malta remained unresolved; the proposed subsidy-£1.25 million per annum for every 100,000 men deployed by the Russians – was nowhere near what Alexander expected; there was no mention of the freedom of the seas; and it was intimated that both Austria and Prussia would receive extensive territorial gains as part of the eventual European peace settlement. In consequence, the treaty for some time remained unratified. But Alexander’s displeasure was not the only problem. The alliance, it was agreed, would only come into force in the event of Austria going to war; more than that, Russia would not have to take up arms until Vienna had been at war for at least four months. But this meant that the whole negotiation was null and void, for Austria had no intention of taking part in an offensive war, and still less so one in which she would clearly be expected to do the bulk of the fighting. For the time being, then, there was neither a treaty, nor an alliance nor even friendship: at few moments in the Napoleonic Wars, indeed, were Anglo-Russian relations to hit such a low point. And – not that it mattered very much without Russian involvement – Gustav IV’s eagerness for a crusade against France had been greatly dissipated by fears for Swedish Pomerania, the last remnant of the once great Swedish empire on the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic. Thus Sweden would participate in a war, certainly, but she would neither act without Russia nor move her army beyond the Pomeranian frontier.
It is difficult to see where the Third Coalition would have been without Napoleon. At the start of the year there had been some sign that the French ruler was still at least prepared to pay lip-service to moderation. Rumbold was released within a matter of days thanks to the intercession of Frederick William III, and on January the new emperor had sent a further letter to George III lamenting France’s continued war with Britain and inviting him to make peace. Much in the style of the similar communication of December 1799, this missive – which offered nothing in the way of concessions – was primarily designed to embarrass Pitt, but the mere fact that it was written suggests some recognition of the need to play the peacemaker. Within a matter of months, however, the gauntlet was flung down once again. In May 1805 Napoleon descended on Milan and crowned himself King of Italy amidst yet more pomp and ceremony. As yet the only territories affected were those of the erstwhile Italian Republic, which now became the Kingdom of Italy, and Napoleon did not take up the reins of government in person, but instead installed his stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, as viceroy. This was meagre reassurance, however, for the French ruler’s new title clearly implied a claim to the whole of the Italian peninsula. And, if this was not enough, in early June Napoleon suddenly announced the annexation of Genoa – the Ligurian Republic – Parma and Piacenza, and appropriated Lucca as a principality for his younger sister, Elise. This was just too much. In response, Britain and Russia resolved their differences and ratified the treaty of 11 April. This, of course, left Austria, but she was not far behind and was now prepared to take the offensive. Even Francis II and the Archduke Charles could not tolerate French control of the whole of Italy, and the belief was growing in Vienna that Napoleon was contemplating a direct attack on the Habsburgs. At the same time, for once real support was on offer in the form of a one-off bonus of a further £1,666,000, an annual subsidy of £4 million and a Russian expeditionary force of 75,000 men (support, incidentally, that was not likely to be on offer indefinitely: the Russians, in particular, made it very clear that, unless the army they had massed on the frontiers of Galicia was set in motion very soon, it would have to be withdrawn). The choice was either to join a grand alliance now or fight alone later. Nor was Austria the only new recruit. Having blown hot and cold on the issue of war for the previous year, Gustav IV of Sweden now agreed to put 12,000 troops into the field in exchange for the enormous subsidy of £150,000 per year, plus further one-off payments amounting to £112,500.
Why had Napoleon acted as he did at this crucial moment? Setting aside his own explanation that as emperor he could hardly be president of a republic, one argument is that he always wanted to turn east, and was therefore eager to create a pretext for such a move by forcing the eastern powers into the open. A war in central Europe was certainly a possibility in Napoleon’s mind as early as the summer of 1804, while it later suited him to claim that Austria was always the real target of his war effort. As Metternich wrote:
In one of my longer conversations with Napoleon in the journey to Cambrai, whither I accompanied the emperor in 1810, the conversation turned upon the great military preparations he had made in the years 1803-1805 at Boulogne. I frankly confessed to him that even at that time I could not regard these offensive measures as directed against England. ‘You were very right,’ replied the emperor, smiling. ‘Never would I have been such a fool as to make a descent upon England, unless indeed a revolution had taken place within that country. The army assembled at Boulogne was always an army against Austria. I could not place it anywhere else without giving offence, and, being obliged to form it somewhere, I did so at Boulogne, where I could while collecting it also disquiet England. The very day of an insurrection in England, I should have sent over a detachment of my army to support the insurrection, [but] I should not the less have fallen on you.’
But this is less than convincing: aside from anything else, the argument is simply too convenient for the emperor. Nor is it helpful to explain the imposition of French rule in the Italian Republic in rational terms relating to reform or political control: so slavish was the devotion of Melzi and his fellows to France that the emperor’s assumption of the throne made little difference. Once again, then, one is reduced to the personal dimension: Napoleon wanted simply to augment his own glory and, in particular, reinforce his links with Charlemagne, who had himself worn the iron crown that was placed on Napoleon’s head in Milan.
None of this means, however, that Napoleon was overly concerned at the prospect of war with Austria and Russia. Thus, by the summer of 1805, all was not well with the ‘Army of England’. Getting across the Channel had always presented problems, and on 20 July 1804 a sudden squall that sprang up in the midst of a grand review of its barges, sloops and pontoons not only left 2,000 men dead, but convinced many observers that success was out of the question. But not Napoleon: he spent most of the year that followed devising ways and means of concentrating a vast naval force that could descend on the Channel and clear the way for invasion. At first these schemes all came to grief, but in March 1805 the Toulon fleet of Admiral Pierre Villeneuve managed to slip out of port and, after a long voyage, reach the West Indies. However, a rendezvous with a small squadron that had escaped from Rochefort went wrong, while the Brest fleet of Admiral Honoré Ganteaume failed to break out at all. At the point that Napoleon made his great démarche in Italy, Villeneuve was still at large, and there was some faint hope that he might link up with the Spanish squadron in El Ferrol and raise the blockade of Brest. However, whether even the emperor believed such a scenario to be possible must be open to doubt: one of the reasons why Ganteaume never escaped from Brest was that he had received orders from Napoleon that he should on no account attempt directly to confront the British ships on patrol outside. And at the same time one can sense compulsion pure and simple: faced by the growing evidence that Napoleon intended to transform the Italian Republic into a monarchy, Austria had responded by indicating that she had no objections to such a course provided that France’s Milanese satellite remained independent. But accepting such a limitation would have implied that other powers had a say in what Napoleon could and could not do. And to this there was but one answer: the Italian Republic would not just become a kingdom, but also a kingdom ruled by the emperor and all but surrounded by French territory.
Whatever the reason for Napoleon’s actions, there is no doubt that by them he single-handedly created the Third Coalition. Yet, great though the sense of shock was, Europe was still not completely united against him. Opportunistic as ever, Prussia weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of empire and coalition, and in fact put out feelers to both camps. From Russia there came nothing more than the offer of a triple alliance with Austria and Russia that would guarantee Germany against any further French encroachment, whether political or military, but the French response was very different: to obtain a Prussian alliance, Napoleon was prepared not just to promise Frederick William that he would be given Hanover with the coming of peace, but also to hand that state over to Prussian occupation straight away, while at the same time guaranteeing the integrity of Germany and Switzerland. With Russia becoming ever more menacing – news arrived not only of Russian troops massing on the frontier, but also that a pro-Russian insurrection was being stirred up in Prussian Poland – Potsdam veered very much in the direction of Paris: if Napoleon engaged in any more serious acts of aggression in Germany or anywhere else, argued Frederick William’s new chief minister, Karl August von Hardenberg, then Prussia should probably join Britain and Russia, but, unless and until that proved the case, she should seek to retain the emperor’s friendship.
Another state playing a double game was Naples. At first sight this is somewhat surprising. Unlike Frederick William III, Ferdinand IV did not enjoy good relations with Napoleon. Setting aside the fact that he regarded him as an upstart and a ‘Jacobin’, he had recently been faced by a demand that the commander of the Neapolitan army, Roger de Damas, should immediately be dismissed as an enemy of France, or, in other words, an emigré. For good measure, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina were also accused of planning a new war. Now, as it happened, Damas was not an emigré – he had been in the service of first Russia and then Naples since 1786- and the queen attempted to keep the peace by writing a personal letter to Napoleon in which she sought to calm his fears. The sequel, however, was all too predictable:
The style of the queen’s letter was firm, dignified and friendly, and she had no doubt that, unless Bonaparte were seeking for a pretext to break the peace, he would adopt a more reasonable and cordial tone . . . But this hope was short-lived: Bonaparte’s answer . . . was full of rancour and arrogance. He laid all the troubles of the past at her door, and made her responsible for all that was yet to come, and he ended with . . . some impertinent fatherly advice to the effect that she would do well to be careful lest she should fall victim to her own actions and be reduced to begging for assistance at the courts of her kinsfolk . . . These were his final and least harsh expressions. The queen shed torrents of tears as she was reading this fatal letter, and, if it had the effect of increasing her bitterness and hatred towards this man, who could wonder?
To reinforce this message, Napoleon proceeded to rattle his sabre: in the midst of the carnival celebrations for 1805, an ultimatum was received from the commander of the French forces in Naples, Marshal Gouvion St Cyr, announcing that he would march on the capital unless both Damas and Elliot, the British ambassador, left the country within three days. In the end a compromise was negotiated – Elliot was allowed to stay and Damas was removed from command of the army and sent to Sicily – but it was clear that for Napoleon the affair constituted unfinished business: for example, a Neapolitan nobleman who attended the festivities surrounding the emperor’s coronation as King of Italy was treated to a violent tirade ‘that culminated in an unseemly and unbridled attack upon the queen’.
All this was very alarming, but the way forward was less than clear. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina feared and hated Napoleon and longed for his defeat, but with the country partially occupied by French troops they could at best play a double game. On the one hand Napoleon was offered the promise of neutrality if only he would respect Naples’s independence, while on the other secret approaches were made to Russia which on September produced what looked like an agreement to go to war. In exchange for the immediate dispatch of an Anglo-Russian expeditionary force, Naples would resist both any increase in the French forces stationed on her territory and any expansion of the zone in which they were deployed. Yet the dissimulation continued: above all, it was not made clear what ‘resistance’ actually meant. In the event, the answer proved to be ‘not very much’. Almost before the ink on the agreement with Russia had time to dry, Napoleon decided to reinforce St Cyr with an extra 6,000 troops; the Neapolitan response to this was not even to protest, let alone take up arms, but rather to sign a treaty of alliance with France that committed Naples to closing her ports to British ships and defending her territory against any foreign incursions.
Although the Neapolitan government had clearly not wanted to take this step – the king had to be bullied into signing the treaty by his ministers, and hastened to tell the Russian ambassador that he considered it null and void – there was a subtext. Ferdinand and Maria Carolina did not feel in danger just from France, but also from Britain. In the midst of the quarrels that beset Anglo-Russian relations in the easy summer of 1805, the Russian ambassador to Naples had informed the king that the British were planning to seize Sicily. Strictly speaking, this was true enough: in March 1805 Sir James Craig was given 8,000 men and directed to occupy Sicily should Naples join Napoleon or experience a complete French takeover. But this was only part of the story: Craig was informed that the very strong preference of the British government was that he should occupy Sicily with the permission of Ferdinand IV. And, beyond that, it was not ruled out that the British expeditionary force should engage in operations on the mainland in support of the Neapolitans in company with the Russian troops currently occupying the Ionian islands. But with plenty of observers in the Neapolitan court only too ready to believe the worst of Britain, the damage could not be undone. Setting aside the unfortunate impact which the affair had on Anglo-Russian cooperation in the Mediterranean, the Neapolitan government excluded Elliot from the negotiations that led to the September pact and ever afterwards adopted an air of suspicion and hostility. The tangled story of Anglo-Sicilian relations is something to which we will return, but for the time being let us simply cite the recollections of one of Craig’s staff officers, Sir Henry Bunbury. When the British eventually arrived at Messina, they were kept waiting in the harbour for four weeks before they were given permission to disembark, and the governor ‘allowed us just what he could not refuse to allies [and] threw everything in our way that he could without giving open offence’; as for the queen, further incensed by the eventual abandonment of the mainland without a fight, she is described as ‘boiling with rage against the . . . English, whom she seized every occasion of stigmatizing by the most insane abuse’.
Prussia and Naples aside, however, by the middle of August 1805 the Third Coalition was taking shape. Britain, Austria, Russia and Sweden all stood together, and also hoped to win the support of Naples and, just possibly, although it now seemed most unlikely, Prussia. As summer drifted into autumn, so Alexander also pursued the possibility of bringing in both Denmark and Turkey. What, though, did the new league stand for? British observers have generally tended to seize upon a famous memoir written by William Pitt for the Russian government in January 1804. Billed as a plan for the reconstruction of Europe, this specified that ideally the French should evacuate the Low Countries, Italy and Germany and accept frontiers based on those of 1792 (there was never any suggestion that the erstwhile papal enclaves of Avignon and Orange should be taken away). The United Provinces, Switzerland, Tuscany, Modena and Piedmont were all to be restored as independent states, while the United Provinces, Piedmont, Austria and Prussia were all to receive substantial new territories. The United Provinces would be given all of Belgium north of a line stretching from Antwerp to Maastricht; Piedmont given Genoa and western Lombardy; Austria the so-called ‘Legations’ (i.e. the district centred on Bologna and Ferrara that constituted the northernmost province of the Papal States) and what was left of Lombardy; and Prussia the southern part of the Austrian Netherlands, Luxembourg and the left bank of the Rhine. As for the resultant settlement, it would be guaranteed by Britain and Russia, bolstered by a new code of international law, and further stiffened by German and Italian defence unions of which the respective kingpins would be Prussia and Austria. Albeit at the cost of the frontiers of 1789- for many minor states would either be stripped of some of their land or erased altogether – France would be shut in by an expanded Piedmont backed up by Austria in the south and an expanded United Provinces backed up by Prussia in the north. Even better, meanwhile, Pitt’s plan did away with the need for total victory. With a proper cordon sanitaire in place along her frontiers, the Allies could rest easy as to what should be done with France herself: while Pitt considered the restoration of the Bourbons to be desirable and believed, indeed, that this object should be promoted, he did not see it as necessarily a fundamental principle of allied policy and, by extension, was prepared to allow Napoleon to remain on the throne.
This scheme, it can be argued, was in essence a conversion of the vague, misty and ill-thought-out views that Alexander I brought to the coalition into a practical design for the future well-being of Europe. As expressed by the instructions issued to his special emissary, Novosiltsev, in the autumn of 1804, the tsar’s plans were certainly open to question. While there was clearly much common ground – the restoration of the United Provinces, Piedmont and Switzerland, and the evacuation of Germany and Italy – Alexander wanted much else. Where Pitt envisaged the restoration of a modified form of the Holy Roman Empire, Alexander wanted the ‘third Germany’ to become a national federation; where Pitt had little interest in the details of the political settlement to pertain in each state, Alexander believed that it was essential to intervene in this respect; where Pitt looked on the whole to states that were historic units, Alexander harboured dreams of a Europe built on national units and natural frontiers; and, finally, while Pitt did not look beyond a treaty by which the new dispensation could be guaranteed, Alexander wanted a new system of collective security and a code of international law. Inherent to all this were certain ideas which the British were inclined to regard not just as harmlessly idealistic, but dangerous and even hostile. Thus in the new Europe it would not only be France that would be placed under constraint, but also Britain, for the tsar wanted her to agree to a general freedom of the seas and envisaged concessions on other fronts as well. Much of this Pitt dodged: his memorandum said nothing about maritime commerce, nothing about Britain’s colonial gains, nothing about Malta (whose surrender had not been mentioned by Novosiltsev, but certainly tied in with the spirit of the tsar’s ideas) and nothing about Alexander’s ‘brave new world’. With regard to the Low Countries, the British Prime Minister also failed to put forward the far more logical course of action represented by giving Prussia the United Provinces rather than the Austrian Netherlands, and making the latter a buffer state ruled, say, by the House of Orange: to have done so would have been to risk transforming Prussia into a dangerous naval rival. To cement the alliance, Pitt was therefore in the end forced to meet Alexander halfway: Britain would give up all her colonial conquests, open up the question of neutral rights to discussion after the war, and consider evacuating Malta in exchange for Menorca. But the Anglo-Russian treaty of 11 April 1805- the central pillar of the Third Coalition – contained none of this; all that Pitt agreed to was that the peoples of Switzerland and the United Provinces should be allowed to determine their own mode of government, that the King of Piedmont should be encouraged to grant his subjects a constitution, and that the powers of Europe should consider the possibility of establishing some form of ‘league of nations’ when peace was restored.
Was this scheme really the framework of a new order? Hardly. There were, of course, many superficial resemblances to the Vienna settlement of 1815, and all the more so as the treaty of 11 April backed away from some of the odder features of Pitt’s schemes (such as, for example, the idea that most of Belgium should be given to Prussia). But in practice Alexander’s vision of a new Europe went by the board. If the West was to be ruled by a new model of territorial arrangement in which military and strategic considerations were allowed to outweigh the demands of legitimism, in the East all was much as before. Thus, even if this was cloaked in some instances by the desire to restore a Polish state, powerful elements within the Russian government wanted fresh territory in Poland, and this meant that Austria and Prussia must be compensated in their turn. And, if special interests operated in the case of Russia, so they did in the case of Britain, except that here the goal was not territorial gain but security from invasion and the right to rule the sea. Nor was this an end to the differences that marked the two settlements. As Paul Schroeder has pointed out, in essence what we have here is an attempt by Britain and Russia, first, simply to impose their own agenda on the rest of Europe, and, second, to get more or less powerful auxiliaries – the Austrians, the Prussians, the Neapolitans, the Swedes and the Danes – to do the bulk of the fighting for them (of the 400,000 men who were originally to be committed to the alliance, only 115,000 were Russian and fewer than 20,000 British). Hence his belief that the treaty of 11 April 1805 was not progressive at all, but rather backward-looking and thoroughly eighteenth-century.
So how did war actually break out? On 8 August 1805 Austria finally acceded to the Third Coalition, and less than a month later sent a large army under General Mack across the frontier into Bavaria. The ‘War of the Third Coalition’ had begun. In just two years, Napoleon had converted an Anglo-French war into one involving the whole of Europe. In May 1803 Britain had not only stood alone, but had been regarded by the rest of Europe with hostility and suspicion. By 1805, of the great powers only Prussia remained outside her embrace. Far from buying foreign support with ‘Pitt’s gold’, Britain had had little to do with this result, the chief pressure for the formation of the Third Coalition having come from Russia. Just as the events of 1802-3 revealed to Britain that she had no option but to stand firm against Napoleon, so those of 1804-5 showed Alexander I that he too had to fight. And why was this the case? The answer was simply ‘Napoleon’. Warned by Fouché that his conduct could not but provoke a wider war, the emperor’s response was: ‘I must have battles and triumphs.’ The same observer recalled, ‘One day, upon my objecting to him that he could not make war against England and against all Europe, he replied, “I may fail by sea, but not by land; besides, I shall be able to strike the blow before the old coalition machines are ready. The people of the old school understand nothing about it, and . . . have neither activity nor decision . . . I do not fear old Europe.” ’ Beyond this there was yet another problem. To quote Claire de Rémusat, an observer who was very close to him at this period, ‘The greatest error of Bonaparte, an error that stemmed from his very character, was that he did not measure his conduct by anything other than success . . . His innate pride could not support the idea of a defeat of any sort.’ The emperor could not accept that there were limits, whether military, political, diplomatic or moral, to what he could do, and over and over again rammed home this same message. Madame de Rémusat, it will be objected, was a witness hostile to the emperor, and therefore hardly someone to be trusted. But precisely the same idea may be found in the words of men who remained loyal admirers of Napoleon to the death. Commenting on the campaigns of 1805-7, for example, Lavallette wrote, ‘It was not those two years of triumphant battles that suggested to the emperor the idea of conquering Europe in order to become its master . . . This idea arose naturally out of his own genius and character, for these terrible world-conquerors all belong to the same family: the first everywhere, or death.’