Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XVI- Chapter 5
The Duc de Rovigo



Chantilly, November 1837

Monsieur le Duc de Rovigo, striking his breast, takes his place in the procession which comes to confess before the grave. I had been in the confidence of the Minister of Police for some time; he was swayed by the influence he supposed me to have had in the return of the legitimacy: he communicated to me a part of his Mémoires. Men, in his position, speak of what they have done with marvellous candour; they have no suspicion of what they are saying against themselves: accusing themselves without being aware of it, they never suspect there might be another opinion to their own, either regarding the functions with which they were charged, or their mode of conduct. If they have been lacking in loyalty, they never consider they have violated their oath; if they have taken upon themselves roles repugnant to other characters than theirs, they believe they have rendered great service. Their naivety does not justify them, but it excuses them.

Monsieur le Duc de Rovigo consulted me about the chapters where he treats of the Duc d’Enghien’s death; he wished to know my thoughts, precisely because he knew what I had done; I was grateful for this mark of esteem, and repaying frankness with frankness, advised him not to publish. I said to him: ‘Let it all die; in France it doesn’t take long to forget. You imagine that you will absolve Napoleon of reproach and throw the blame on Monsieur de Talleyrand; well, you have not sufficiently justified the former, and not sufficiently condemned the latter. You are exposing your flank to your enemies; they will not lose the opportunity to reply. What need is there for you to remind the public that you commanded the elite gendarmerie at Vincennes? They are unaware of the direct involvement you had in that unhappy event and you will be revealing it to them. General, throw the manuscript in the fire: I am speaking in your own interest.’

Imbued with the governmental maxims of the Empire, the Duc de Rovigo thought those maxims equally suited to the legitimate monarchy; he had the conviction that his pamphlet would re-open the gates of the Tuileries to him.

It is partly in the light of his writings that posterity will see the ghosts of mourning silhouetted. I wished to hide the accused, he who had come seeking my help in the night; he would not accept the protection of my hearth.

Monsieur de Rovigo tells the story of the departure of Monsieur de Caulaincourt, whom he does not name; he speaks of the abduction from Ettenheim, the journey of the prisoner to Strasbourg, and his arrival at Vincennes. After an expedition to the Normandy coast, General Savary returned to Malmaison. He was summoned, at five in the evening on the 19th of March 1804, to the office of the First Consul, who gave him a sealed letter to take to General Murat, the Governor of Paris. He flew to the General’s residence, met the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and received the order to take the elite gendarmerie and go to Vincennes. He arrived there at eight in the evening and saw the members of the commission arriving. He later reached the room where the Prince was being tried, on the 20th, at one in the morning, and went to sit behind the President. He reports the Duc d’Enghien’s replies, more or less as they are reported in the proceedings of the solitary session. He told me that the Prince, after he had given his last response, quickly removed his cap, set it down on the table, and like a man resigning life, said to the President: ‘Sir, I have nothing more to say.’

Monsieur de Rovigo insists that the meeting was not at all mysterious: ‘The doors of the room,’ he affirms, ‘were open freely to anyone who might be present there at that hour.’ Monsieur Dupin has already noted this tortuous reasoning. Regarding that occasion, even Monsieur Achille Roche, who usually seems to write on behalf of Monsieur Talleyrand, exclaims: ‘The meeting was in no way mysterious! At midnight, it was held in the inhabited part of the castle; in the inhabited part of a prison! Who assisted at that meeting? Gaolers, soldiers, executioners.’

No one can give more precise details as to the time and place where the lightning stuck than Monsieur le Duc de Rovigo; let us hear him:

‘After the delivery of the verdict, I retired with the officers of my corps who, like me, had assisted in the discussion, and went to rejoin the troops on the esplanade of the Château. The officer, who commanded the infantry in my legion, came to tell me with deep emotion, that a picket had been demanded of him to execute the military commission’s sentence: –Supply them, I replied. – But, where shall I place them? – There, where you won’t wound anyone. For the inhabitants of the heavily populated areas of Paris were already afoot on their way to the various markets.

‘After taking a good look round, the officer chose the moat as being the best place to avoid wounding anyone. Monsieur le Duc d’Enghien was taken there by the stairs of the entrance tower on the Park side, and there heard the sentence, which was executed.’

Beneath this paragraph, one finds a note by the author of the memoir: ‘Between the sentence and the execution the grave was dug. That is why it has been said that the grave was dug before the verdict.’

Unfortunately, there is deplorable negligence here: ‘Monsieur de Rovigo claims,’ says Monsieur Achille Roche, apologist for Monsieur de Talleyrand, ‘that he was obeying orders! Who transmitted the order for the execution to him? It appears it was a Monsieur Delga, killed at Wagram. But whether it was Monsieur Delga, or not, if Monsieur Savary is in error in naming Monsieur Delga, doubtless no one today will claim the glory that he attributes to that officer. Monsieur de Rovigo is accused of having hastened the execution; he replies that it was not him: a man who has since died told him he had given the orders to hasten it.’

The Duc de Rovigo is not satisfactory on the subject of the execution, which he says took place in daylight; however that changes nothing, it would merely remove a torch from the tragedy.

‘At sunrise, in the open air, would it need a lantern,’ the General asks, ‘in order to see a man, at six paces! It was only the case that the sun,’ he adds, ‘was not clear and bright; since a fine rain had fallen all night, and a damp mist remained which delayed his appearance. The execution took place at six in the morning, the fact is attested to by indisputable documents.’

But the General neither supplies, nor indicates the whereabouts of, these documents. The progress of the trial demonstrates that the Duc d’Enghien was sentenced at two in the morning and was shot immediately. Those words, two in the morning, initially written down at the beginning of the trial, were afterwards erased from the minutes. The official report of the exhumation, on the deposition of three witnesses, Madame Bon, Monsieur Godard, and Monsieur Bounelet (the latter had helped dig the grave), proves that he was put to death at night. Monsieur Dupin the Elder recalls the circumstance that a taper had been pinned over the Duc d’Enghien’s heart, to serve as a focal point to aim at, or held by the Prince with a firm hand, with the same intention. They spoke of a large stone removed from the grave with which the subject’s head would have been crushed. Finally, the Duc de Rovigo is claimed to have taken possession of various remains of the victim: I myself believed these rumours; but the legal documents prove them to be unfounded.

In the official report, dated Tuesday the 20th March 1816, by the doctors and surgeons, regarding the exhumation of the body, it was acknowledged that the skull was fractured, that the upper jaw, entirely separated from the bones of the face, was furnished with twelve teeth; that the lower jaw, completely fractured, was split in two and revealed only three teeth. The body was face down, the head lower than the feet; the neck vertebrae were encircled by a gold chain.

The second official report of the exhumation (with the same date, 20th March 1816), the General Report, certifies that they found, along with the rest of the skeleton, a leather purse containing eleven gold pieces, seventy gold pieces in sealed rolls, some hair, the remains of his clothes, and fragments of his cap bearing the marks of the bullets that had passed through it.

So, Monsieur de Rovigo had removed no relics; the earth which held them has rendered them again, and testified to the General’s probity; no taper had been pinned over the Prince’s heart, the fragments of it would have been found, like those of the torn cap; no large stone had been removed from the grave; the pickets’ fire at six paces had sufficed to shatter the skull, and separate the upper jaw from the bones of the face, etc.

The only items this mockery of human vanities lacks are the similar immolation of Murat, the Governor of Paris, the death of the captive Bonaparte, and this inscription engraved on the Duc d’Enghien’s coffin: ‘Here is the body of the very noble and mighty Prince of the blood, Peer of France, died at Vincennes on the 21st of March 1804, aged 31 years 7 months and 19 days.’ The body was bare shattered bones; the noble and mighty Prince, the broken fragments of a soldier’s corpse: not a word to recall the catastrophe, not a word of blame or grief in this epitaph engraved by a family in tears; what a prodigious effort of respect the century shows to revolutionary works and sensitivities! They have hastened likewise to get rid of the Duc de Berry’s mortuary chapel.

What futility! Bourbons, returning uselessly to your palaces, you have to do only with exhumations and funerals; your time has passed. God willed it! France’s former glory died beneath the gaze of the Great Conde’s shade, in a moat at Vincennes: perhaps at the very place where Louis IX, whom one ever approached as if he were a saint, ‘sat beneath an oak, where any who had business with him came to speak with him, without hindrance by bailiffs or others; and when he heard whatever required amends, in the words of those who spoke for others, he amended it with his own lips, and all those who had business before him were around him’ (JOINVILLE).

The Duc d’Enghien asked to speak to Bonaparte: he had business before him; he was not heard! Who was there, on the edge of the outworks, contemplating, in the depths of the moat, those weapons, those soldiers hardly illuminated by a lantern in the mist and shadow, as if in eternal night? Where was the light placed? Did the Duc d’Enghien have his open grave at his feet? Was he required to stride across it to place himself at the distance of six paces mentioned by the Duc de Rovigo?

There is a letter extant from the nine-year old Duc d’Enghien to his father the Duc de Bourbon; he writes to him: ‘All the Enghiens are fortunate; he of the battle of Cerisoles, he who won the battle of Rocroi: I hope to be so too.’

Is it true that the victim was refused a priest? Is it true that he had difficulty in finding anyone whom he could charge with carrying to a woman a last token of his attachment? What did feelings of piety or tenderness matter to his executioners? He was there to die, the Duc d’Enghien, to die.

Through the ministrations of a priest, the Duc d’Enghien had married Princess Charlotte de Rohan secretly: in those times when the country was in turmoil, a man, by reason of his rank, could be subjected to a thousand political restrictions; in order to enjoy what society in general allows all of us, he was obliged to hide. This legitimate marriage, common knowledge today, heightened the splendour of his tragic end; for heavenly mercy he substituted heavenly glory: religion perpetuated the unfortunate man’s pomp when, following the completion of the catastrophe, a cross was raised over that deserted place.