Napoleon’s return from the Isle of Elba by Ambroise-Louis Garneray. Napoleon’s ship Inconstant, on the right, crosses the path of the French ship Zéphir.
On 17 March a council of war held at Wellington’s lodgings turned into a contest between Austria and Prussia as each vied to take command of the contingents furnished by the smaller German states, in a repeat of their political scramble for Germany. Austria snatched Hesse-Darmstadt’s 8,000 men from under Prussia’s nose, and Prussia responded by demanding to command the contingents of all the north German states, bar Hanover. Wellington refused. Hardenberg tried to bribe him with a contingent of Prussian troops if he would let Blücher command all the others. General Knesebeck insisted that only if they were placed under Prussian command would the smaller contingents feel they were fighting for Germany. But at a meeting of the Five on 1 April Prussia was forced to relinquish command of the contingents of Brunswick, Oldenburg, Nassau and the Hanseatic cities, leaving it only with that of Hesse-Cassel and half that of Saxony.
In a great show of patriotism, Bavaria and Württemberg offered twice the number of troops required from them, but Metternich was not fooled, realising that they were hoping to guarantee themselves a greater say in the peace settlement at the end of the campaign. When Bavaria was invited to accede, along with all the lesser states, to the renewed alliance between the four original allies, Wrede demurred, insisting that she would only sign her own alliances with the allies, as a principal, not as one of the acceding minor powers. After much wrangling, all the Kings were allowed to sign full separate treaties. There was also the question of money.
While he bragged to Talleyrand that he would himself face Napoleon in battle, Alexander also flatly announced to Wellington that he could not make a move until British cash began to flow, and the plenipotentiaries of all the other powers which had volunteered troops took the same line. Wellington assured them that money would be found, and set about haggling with his government in London, which finally agreed to pay up to £5 million and another £2 million in lieu of its share of 150,000 extra men.
At this stage the allies still assumed that Louis XVIII would manage to contain the problem on his own. It seemed inconceivable that a man with barely a thousand soldiers could take over a kingdom with an army of 150,000 men at its disposal. But the man was Napoleon, and every one of the people sitting around the tables in Vienna, with the exception of Wellington and those of the British delegation who had not spent any time on the Continent in his heyday, had at one time or another known what it was to be gripped by the terror of his approach.
They had ample opportunity to pray to the Almighty to be delivered of the evil, as Easter was upon them. On 23 March, Maundy Thursday, the entire court assembled in the great hall in which balls were normally held, for the traditional ritual enacting Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet. Two long tables set with twelve places each, at which twelve Viennese paupers of each sex were seated, had been set up on two raised platforms. The Emperor and Empress made their entrance, attended by the archdukes and archduchesses and followed by a detachment of the Hungarian noble guard. They then proceeded to serve the paupers a three-course dinner, waiting on them like servants. ‘The tables were then removed, and the Empress and her daughters the Archduchesses, dressed in black, with pages bearing their trains, approached,’ records an English traveller. ‘Silver bowls were placed beneath the feet of the aged women. The Grand Chamberlain, in a humble posture, poured water upon the feet of each in succession, from a golden urn, and the Empress wiped them with a fine napkin she held in her hand. The Emperor performed the same ceremony on the feet of the men, and the rite concluded amidst the sounds of sacred music.’ The rites of Easter continued the next day with the Stations of the Cross, and came to a climax on Easter Sunday with a solemn Mass attended by all the sovereigns and ministers as well as the court. The ministers had briefly returned to practical matters on Holy Saturday to sign a treaty similar to that of Chaumont, but including France and the second-rank powers as well. It was a timely move.
On Tuesday, 28 March, news reached Vienna that Napoleon was in Paris. That meant that they were, in some respects, back where they had been in 1813. Among the first reactions of some of the statesmen was the fear that all they had worked for for so long and achieved at the cost of so many hours of discussion and argument might be lost. From London, Castlereagh wrote to Wellington suggesting that they sign a treaty as soon as possible enshrining at least that which had been agreed so far, so as to place it ‘out of the reach of doubt’.
His letter crossed one from Wellington which assured him that the prevailing feeling in Vienna was ‘a determination to unite their efforts to support the system established by the peace of Paris’ and that all were conscious of the importance of the situation. ‘All are desirous of bringing to an early conclusion the business of the congress, in order that the whole and undivided attention and exertion of all may be directed against the common enemy […] Upon the whole, I assure your Lordship that I am perfectly satisfied with the spirit which prevails here upon this occasion,’ he concluded.
Alexander and Francis conferred about the letters they had received from Napoleon and agreed not to reply to them. This was reassuring, as Russia and Austria were the two powers that might conceivably come to terms with a Napoleonic France. In another show of solidarity, the allies publicly brushed aside Napoleon’s declaration to the effect that nobody had the right to choose a ruler for France but the French people with a riposte that certain requirements of international law transcended a nation’s right to choose its ruler. It was the first time in international affairs that a group of states effectively arrogated the right to intervene in the internal affairs of another country in the name of the greater good of Europe.
When Butyagin reached Vienna and, on 8 April, handed Alexander the copy of the treaty of alliance against him that Caulaincourt had given him, the Tsar, who had suspected its existence for some time, took it calmly. He brandished it before Metternich in public, only to declare that he never wished to hear it referred to again. He cut short the King of Bavaria, who had come to proffer his excuses, saying that they must concentrate on defeating Napoleon. But both Nesselrode and Stein could see how angry he was.
Alexander not only reproved the British for letting Napoleon escape, he also attempted to shift blame onto Metternich and Talleyrand by accusing them of having drawn out the congress unnecessarily. On one occasion he even declared that it was God’s punishment for their having been quarrelling amongst themselves over trifles. The whole affair only served to confirm him in his conviction that he was a lone warrior for good surrounded by conniving moral pygmies.
When Metternich had come to him with the news of Napoleon’s escape, the two men found themselves alone together for the first time since their interview of 24 October 1814, and Alexander had taken the opportunity to declare that since they were both Christians they should forgive each other and embrace, which they did.
To Louis XVIII, Alexander wrote that ‘the first effect that this event has had on the sovereigns assembled at Vienna was to tighten the bonds to which Europe owes the peace and France the tranquillity which it was beginning to enjoy under its legitimate King’. He treated Talleyrand with greater cordiality than ever, and called to assure him that he had cast all their past disagreements out of his mind. ‘The incident of Buonaparte’s appearance in France, so disagreeable in other respects, will at least have that advantage that it will hasten the conclusion of affairs here,’ Talleyrand wrote to Louis XVIII on 12 March. ‘It has doubled the zeal and activity of everyone.’ A couple of weeks later he reported that the work of the congress would probably be finished by mid-April.
There were only three major questions remaining to be settled: the indemnities that would convince Bavaria to hand the Tyrol back to Austria, the German constitution and the question of what to do about Murat.
The last of these now proceeded to settle itself, as Napoleon’s escape from Elba had prompted Murat to act. His first move was to offer his services to the allies. The proposal was taken seriously, and Castlereagh, who had on 12 March written to Wellington suggesting they join with Austria in removing Murat from Naples, wrote less than two weeks later authorising him to sign an alliance with Murat if he thought the King of Naples was acting in good faith.
But long before Wellington received the second of these letters, Murat had changed his mind and marched out at the head of his army. From Rimini on 30 March he issued a proclamation to the people of Italy that was not so much a gesture of support for Napoleon as a declaration of war on Austria. ‘Providence, at last, calls you to freedom,’ it ran. ‘One cry can be heard from the Alps to the gorges of Scylla, and that cry is: the independence of Italy. Eighty thousand Neapolitans, led by their brave King, have left their home to liberate you …’
‘Murat must be destroyed early, or he will hang heavily upon us,’ an alarmed Wellington wrote on 8 May from Brussels, where he had made his headquarters. He need not have worried, as Castlereagh had, quite illegally, declared war on Murat, and Metternich had already sprung into action. Murat was declared an outlaw, like Napoleon, and the Austrian forces in Italy moved quickly. They defeated him without much trouble at Tolentino and his vaudeville army melted away. Murat himself took ship for France to offer his services to Napoleon, and Ferdinand IV returned from Sicily to resume his throne. The first thing he did was to sign, on 29 April, a convention with Austria pledging himself, in return for full military assistance, ‘to allow no change which could not be reconciled with the ancient monarchical institutions, or with the principles adopted by His Imperial Majesty [Francis] for the internal government of his Italian provinces’. Metternich had managed to ensure that, although a Bourbon had returned to the Italian mainland, he was to be entirely beholden to and controlled by Austria.
The arrangement of the rest of Italy now fell into place. Parma was granted to Marie-Louise as stipulated in the Treaty of Fontainebleau, but only for her lifetime. Her son would receive an establishment in Austria. On her death, the three duchies would pass to Maria Luisa of Spain, erstwhile Queen of Etruria, and by descent to her children. In the interim, the Queen of Etruria would have the former republic of Lucca, which would, when she progressed to Parma, be added to Tuscany, which was awarded to Archduke Ferdinand. Modena went to Archduke Francis. The Pope was given back the Legations (although Austria retained the right to garrison Ravenna), the Marches, previously occupied by Murat, as well as the duchies of Pontecorvo and Benevento – for supposedly facilitating which Talleyrand would be richly rewarded.
At first, it looked as though the resolution of the German question would also be expedited as a consequence of Napoleon’s reappearance on the scene and the sense of renewed solidarity it engendered. But it was not to be, mainly on account of Bavaria, which was still locked in dispute with Austria over compensation. In fact, Bavaria sought to exploit the crisis, and Marshal Wrede began to make increased demands for the compensation she was to receive for retroceding Salzburg and the Tyrol. He demanded more of Hanau, Isenburg and Fulda; and territory from Württemberg, from Hesse-Darmstadt and from Baden. The Bavarians had adopted the technique previously used by the Prussians, of ‘discounting’ mediatised souls – that is to say not counting those inhabitants of a given area who were subjects of a local semi-autonomous lord, on the grounds that they did not represent the same taxable potential as the others. This meant that claims could be inflated beyond measure. They had, in Talleyrand’s words, earned themselves the title of ‘Prussians of the south’ by their greed and obstinacy.
Metternich was so desperate by this stage that although the negotiations were supposedly between Austria and Bavaria alone, he laid the whole matter before the meeting of the Five on 3 April. The first thing to be settled was that Mainz was to go to Hesse-Darmstadt, while the fortress was to be a federal stronghold, garrisoned by troops drawn from the two Hesses, Nassau and Prussia, under Prussian command. After a heated discussion Archduke Charles was placed in command of the combined garrison. Furious at having definitively lost Mainz, the Bavarians upped their demands to include Mannheim and Heidelberg, but after a forceful intervention by Alexander on 5 April it was agreed that Bavaria would obtain those areas on the death of their ruler, who was the last of his line.
If this resolved the fate of Mainz it did nothing to solve the underlying problem, and the conflicting claims of Bavaria, Baden and the two Hesses on the banks of the upper Rhine remained unresolved. Meanwhile Bavaria was still in occupation of Salzburg and the Tyrol, which should have reverted to Austria. Metternich’s options for finding land with which to indemnify Bavaria were shrinking fast. In January he had been persuaded by Castlereagh to give Prussia some territory to the south of the Moselle which he had earmarked for Bavaria. Ever more arcane combinations of swaps were required in order to induce minor rulers to give up the necessary territory. The Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg was heard to complain that he had been given ‘a district in China’ when he was awarded the faraway region of Meisenheim am Glan. And as the pool of available land shrank, all those who had been left out, and particularly those who had been promised something by Alexander, gathered round expectantly.
Alexander had given Prince Eugéne his word that he would find him a fief somewhere in Europe, and was determined to stand by his promise. He had tried to find him one in Italy, but Metternich’s prevarication and Talleyrand’s opposition had prevented that. He now sought to find him one in Germany. This outraged many. Humboldt declared that if Prince Eugéne were given a principality in Germany, he would leave the congress. But Alexander was adamant that he would not leave Vienna without awarding him something. Others whom he had promised to help were the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, his brother-in-law the Duke of Saxe-Weimar and his cousin the Duke of Oldenburg.
Alexander pressed Münster to cede some border areas of Hanover to Oldenburg, for which he promised to obtain from Prussia an equivalent that could be added to Hanover on the other side, for which Prussia in turn would be compensated with some strips of territory along the Rhine formerly belonging to Oldenburg. This initiated a new bout of haggling and soul-counting.
Having recovered from their shock at Napoleon’s escape, the various interested parties had shifted attention back to their former concerns and carried on much as before, with the difference that now they seemed to be positioning themselves for a fresh contest. Hardenberg had been drawing out the negotiations for some time now, employing a variety of tricks. Clancarty complained to Castlereagh that he was tardy in delivering documents, and showed maps of proposed border settlements to him late at night, when it was difficult to distinguish the colours on the shaded areas. The Prussians also kept trying to ‘crib’ slices of French territory along the border. Hardenberg also began to stall on the question of wrapping all the agreements reached into a single treaty and signing it as soon as possible.
All this terrified Talleyrand, who detected in it a desire to keep questions open in the hope that a new war would require a new peace. And a new peace would not be as favourable to France as the Treaty of Paris. It was clear to him that the knives were out for a fresh carve-up.