On the 25th April 1814, Napoleon came very close to death – not on the battlefield, but at the hands of his own compatriots. Three weeks previously, after a desperate struggle against the Allied forces invading France, he had abdicated the throne at Fontainebleau, and been given in exchange the tiny Italian island of Elba. He had then taken the road south to his new domain. Refusing an escort of enemy troops, he was accompanied only by the members of his own household, and four commissioners representing Austria, Russia, Prussia and England. As he entered Provence, Napoleon's reception became alarmingly hostile. The region had a strong royalist and Catholic tradition, and had suffered from years of wartime conscription and high taxation. On the 25th April, popular anger reached its peak as Napoleon passed through the village of Orgon near Avignon. A large and menacing crowd hanged him in effigy, and pressed up against the windows of his carriage shouting abuse. Without the timely intervention of the Russian commissioner, Napoleon could easily have been lynched. As it was, he was terrified, and quickly donned the Austrian commissioner's shako and cloak to escape recognition. The scene, with Napoleon cowering in his carriage in his Austrian disguise, is depicted here in a contemporary German print. Quaintly, it has made no effort to show Orgon as a Provençal village, but has made it a German one instead, complete with onion-domed church. Apart from threatening Napoleon's life, the incident at Orgon played a major part in shaping the Hundred Days. When planning his return to France from Elba in the spring of 1815, Napoleon was determined to bypass Provence, where he had so narrowly escaped death, even though it provided the most direct route to Paris. Instead, he chose the remote, sparsely populated mountain path from the coast via Grenoble, which has gone down in history as the Route Napoléon.
To find out more about Napoleon in 1814, see Munro Price, Napoleon: The End of Glory (OUP, 2014) which tells the story of the dramatic two years that led to Napoleon's abdication in April 1814. Though crucial to European history, they remain strangely neglected, lying between the two much better-known landmarks of the retreat from Moscow and the battle of Waterloo. Yet this short period saw both Napoleon's loss of his European empire, and of his control over France itself. In 1813 the massive battle of Leipzig - the bloodiest in modern history before the first day of the Somme - forced his armies back to the Rhine. The next year, after a brilliant campaign against overwhelming odds, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and exiled to Elba. He regained his throne the following year, for just a hundred days, in a doomed adventure whose defeat at Waterloo was predictable.
The most fascinating - and least-known - aspect of these years is that at several key points Napoleon's enemies offered him peace terms that would have allowed him to keep his throne, if not his empire, a policy inspired by the brilliant and devious Austrian foreign minister Metternich. Napoleon: The End of Glory sheds fascinating new light on Napoleon, Metternich, and many other key figures and events in this dramatic period of European history, drawing on previously unused archives in France, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Through these it seeks to answer the most important question of all - why, instead of accepting a compromise, Napoleon chose to gamble on total victory at the risk of utter defeat?