The Duke of Enghien

His murder was one of the greatest crimes ever committed. However, the courage he showed in the face of death and his serenity in the face of misfortune made of it a brilliant page in history.

The sun was casting its last rays over the Black Forest. Only the topmost branches of its lush trees were catching a remnant of rosy light when, in the twilight, it was possible to make out the figure of a man walking towards the town of Ettenheim, four leagues from the Rhine. As he approached the light coming from the houses, his appearance could be distinguished: he was a man of about thirty, of middle height, with brown hair, a long oval and symmetrical face, grey-brown eyes, a medium-sized mouth, an aquiline nose and slightly jutting chin; robust, agile and full of grace.1 He was armed, as he was returning from a hunting trip. Everyone called him “Monsieur le Duke d’Enghien”, and his name was Louis Antoine Henri de Bourbon. The son of the Dukes of Bourbon, he was born at the chateaux of Chantilly on August 2, 1772, his paternal grandfather being the Prince of Condé, and his maternal grandfather, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans.

Arriving home – a sort of small two-storey Gothic castle – on that fateful March 14, 1804, he was greeted cheerfully by Mohiloff, his pet dog, but sombrely by Féron, his valet. The latter warned him that two strange men had been scouting the house during the day. Féron had followed their movements through the shutter, and had sent another of the prince’s servants called Canone, after them. Canone was certain that he recognized the face of one of them; he thought it was a disguised gendarme whom he had often seen in Strasbourg, where he regularly went to buy provisions.

The Duke did not think much of it, but to reassure his wife, Princess Charlotte, he decided to spend a few days away from Ettenheim. He booked his departure for two days later.


Four days earlier, Réal, the State Counsellor and Director of the French Police, had entered the First Consul’s office and found a little man leaning over several maps, studying the Rhine from Fribourg to Bade, measuring the distances and calculating the travelling time. It was Napoleon Bonaparte. When Réal’s entry was announced, he put aside his geographical measurements and exclaimed:

“So, Monsieur Réal, did you not tell me that the Duke d’Enghien is four leagues from my borders, organizing military plots?”

In fact, for some months now, several warnings had reached Bonaparte claiming that a conspiracy was afoot to carry out a coup d’état and remove him from power, restoring the Bourbons to the throne. He had learned that Georges Cadoudal – one of the greatest leaders of the royalist counter-revolutionaries of the Chouannerie in western France and who had twice tried to take his life – was in Paris with a group of armed men, supported by Generals Moreau and Pichegru. They were waiting for a Prince of Bourbon to enter France so that they could seize power.

Napoleon Bonaparte, by Jacques-Louis David – Fogg Museum, Harvard University (Massachusetts)

This news terrified Napoleon. He feared that they would do to him what he himself had done five years earlier, when he had overthrown Barras, the leader of the Directory, and established the Consulate, becoming First Consul; he feared, above all, because only a few months remained before the imperial crown would rest on his head. It was therefore of the utmost importance that any questioning of his authority be inexorably repressed. Above all, he needed to prevent any Bourbons from entering France, which would greatly strengthen the legitimists.

It was then that news reached him that a supposed royalist leader was circulating in Paris, probably a Bourbon prince. Who could it be? The Count of Artois and the Duke of Berry were in London, the Duke of Angoulême in Courlande; there was no way it could be any of them. The closest was the Duke of Enghien, just forty leagues from Paris, in the town of Ettenheim, where he had lived since 1793 with the Bishop of Rohan, whose niece, Charlotte de Rohan-Rochefort, he had married. He had taken part in the counter-revolutionary campaigns of 1793 and 1795, under the orders of his grandfather, the Prince of Condé. He was indeed a very dangerous figure.

So Réal sent the mayor of Strasbourg to investigate the suspect’s status. His report was terrifying: “The Duke has with him in Ettenheim General Dumouriez and a man called Smith, recently arrived from England. He maintains constant correspondence with numerous émigré officers gathered in Ofenburg and Fribourg; a revolution is due to break out shortly in France.”2

Terrified by the news of a supposed plot against his authority, Napoleon decided to prevent any Bourbon from entering France

Bonaparte was incensed. Dumouriez and Smith were extremely dangerous figures for his would-be empire. But what he did not know was how mistaken the report was! His informant, confused by the Alsatian accent, had understood “Dumouriez” for who was in fact the Marquis de Thumery; likewise, the dangerous “Smith” was nothing more than a simple lieutenant of Condé, Schmidt. However, Napoleon was deranged by self-love!

“So,” he said, “am I a dog to be shot in the street? And my assassins are sacred beings? If they attack me, I will return fire for fire. I know how to punish their plots… The culprit’s head shall render me justice.”

The “hunt”

At Ettenheim Castle, the duke was sleeping peacefully, waiting for the hunt that had been arranged with Colonel Grünstein for the following day. Due to the alarming news the day before, he had merely agreed that Grünstein and Lieutenant Schmidt would sleep in a room next to his, with their weapons loaded. He thought that the French troops would not violate the neutrality of Bade’s territory in order to kidnap him and, if they had the intention of doing so, they would not succeed, because the inhabitants of the town would defend him. Besides, the expedition would not have time to make preparations for that night.

A profound silence hovered over Ettenheim. At two o’clock in the morning Schmidt thought he heard the sound of trotting horses and woke up Baron Grünstein. They both opened a window to investigate. It was a dark night and they saw nothing. Canone also got up, but soon all three went back to sleep.

Suddenly, at five o’clock on the morning of March 15, they heard a shot. Féron, alarmed, ran out shouting:


At the same time, a voice was heard ordering the doors to be opened. The prince picked up his rifle.

However, Grünstein, seeing the number of cavalry guards and dragoons – there were more than two hundred of them – said that any resistance was useless and advised him to surrender. The duke put down his weapon and calmly awaited his arrest. The soldiers entered the room and arrested everyone.

At that moment, an uproar began in the city. With cries of “Fire!” and “Help the prince!” the inhabitants of Ettenheim begin to rush to the castle. But it was too late. They deceived the people by telling them that everything has been prearranged with the duke.

Enghien, Grünstein, the servants and Mohiloff – who would not leave his master – were taken to the Tuilerie mill. The prince thought he would enjoy a good hunt that day – never imagining that he himself would be hunted – so he was dressed in his Tyrolean hunter’s outfit, with deerskin knee-length breeches and a hat with golden trim.

They were put into a coach, escorted by two sets of dragoons, and taken to the citadel of Strasbourg.

At the Château de Vincennes, an iniquitous trial

The duke was already preparing for a long imprisonment when, in the early hours between 17 and 18 of March, he was awoken by four soldiers ordering him to get up quickly and follow them. He was put in a travelling carriage and set off for Paris.

There were no charges, no evidence, no witnesses, no defence counsel… The judges came to an agreement and sentenced the duke to death

When he arrived in the capital two days later, the coach stopped in front of the Château de Vincennes, then governed by one Harel, a typical chameleon opportunist, “a bit of a Jacobin in 1793, a conspirator at the time of the Directory and a spy under the Consulate.”3 He had been told that “a certain individual” was to be taken there, and that everything concerning him had to be kept in utmost secrecy. Enghien came out of the carriage exhausted and hungry; it had been a long journey and he had not eaten since that morning, so after his meal he retired to his cell and slept soundly.

View of the Château de Vincennes, Paris

At seven o’clock in the evening, General Murat had received Napoleon’s order to appoint the board in charge of the prisoner’s military trial. The consul himself had chosen General Hullin to chair it, and Savary would be the overseer.

“When all were gathered, Hullin announced to them what it was all about: they must, by express order of the First Consul, he said, pass judgement on a prisoner who is none other than the Duke of Enghien. In low tones, he continued: there were no charges, no evidence, no witnesses, no defence counsel…”4 And Bonaparte wanted a quick closure: everything was to be concluded that very night.

A lieutenant was assigned awaken the prince and take him to the trial… if such it can be called! He was accused of betraying the State, of pacting with England, of being in league with Dumouriez and Pichegru, and of trying to assassinate Bonaparte. He explained that had not betrayed France by opposing the Republic, but was defending it from illegitimacy; he denied taking part in any counter-revolutionary plot, he claimed not to know Dumouriez or Pichegru; he confessed to receiving a pension from England, but maintained that he has never been to that country.

Before signing the verbal process, he wrote: “I urgently ask to have a private audience with the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. My name, my position, my way of thinking and the horror of my situation make me hope that he will not refuse my request.”5

The accused withdrew and the deliberations began; he was denied an audience with Bonaparte, because they deemed it would displease the consul.

The rest of the session went quickly: “All the judges agreed, and the death sentence was pronounced unanimously: by application of article… of the law of… thus considered… (These omissions are from the original text!).”6

The inspector Savary immediately took the sentence and left – he knew exactly what Bonaparte wanted – in order to make preparations for its execution. He summoned sixteen soldiers and led them to the castle moat, where the life of the last Condé descendant was to end.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Enghien was in his cell, talking with the gendarmes who guarded him and caressing Mohiloff. Suddenly, Harel entered and asked him to accompany him. The duke asks:

“Where are you taking me? Do you want to bury me in an obscure cell? I would rather die.”

They told him that, unfortunately, it was not to a cell he was going. Harel added:

“Sir, please follow me and summon all your courage.”

Serenity and dignity at the hour of death

They led him to the Queen’s Pavilion, where the soldiers were lined up. They read out the death sentence in front of the accused, who showed no fear; he maintained complete composure in the face of this terrible surprise.

The execution of the Duke of Enghien – New York Public Library

The condemned man expressed his last wishes: he wanted a letter to be given to his wife, the Princess of Rohan-Rochefort, along with a lock of his hair and his wedding ring – which was not done – and he asked for a priest to be present for the last rites. To this request, someone retorted mockingly:

“He wants to die like a little saint!”

Despite holding power, Bonaparte lived insecure; Enghien, though exiled, imprisoned and condemned, had the peace of soul of a child of light

Scorning this comment, he knelt down for a few moments, entrusted his soul to God and, without the least sign of weakness, exclaimed:

“How terrible it is to die like this at the hands of Frenchmen!”

And the roar of gunfire took the hero’s soul. It was three o’clock in the morning on March 21, 1804.

Monument erected at the place of the duke’s execution

About this event, Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira says: “The Duke of Enghien’s serenity at this supreme moment, his dignity, his presence of mind […], all of this has the aroma of chivalry. It is beautiful to see the lights of chivalry shining at a miserable time when the world was defiled by the French Revolution.”7

If something is to be praised about the young prince, it is his courage, in stark contrast to Napoleon’s insecurity. Although he held all the power in his hands, Bonaparte had no calm, whereas Enghien, exiled, imprisoned and condemned, maintained that peace of soul that only the children of light possess.

There was something reckless about him, it is true, but even if his temerity led to his imprisonment and death, his dignified and serene courage made him immortal in the eyes of history. ◊



1 The historical details that appear in this article are taken from the works: BERTAUD, Jean-Paul. Bonaparte et le Duc d’Enghien. Le duel des deux France. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1972; LENOTRE, Georges. Drames d’Histoire. Paris: Flammarion, 1935; WEISS, Juan Bautista. Historia Universal. Barcelona: La Educación, 1932, v.XX.

2 HENRI-ROBERT. Os grandes processos da História. Rio de Janeiro: Globo, 1961, v.III, p.193.

3 LENOTRE, op. cit., p.32.

4 Idem, p.37.

5 BERTAUD, op. cit., p.16.

6 LENOTRE, op. cit., p.40.

7 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Ó Igreja Católica [O Catholic Church]! In: Dr. Plinio. Year XXI. N.239 (Feb., 2018); p.33.



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