In 1815, William Warden, a naval surgeon, was appointed to the Northumberland and ordered to take Napoleon, now a prisoner, to St. Helena. During the voyage, and in the few months he spent on the island, Warden spent a lot of time with the ex-emperor of the French and talked freely with him about many subjects. Here’s what Napoleon told him about the deaths of Captain John Wesley Wright and the Duke of Enghien:
He asked me, to my great surprise, if I remembered the history of Captain Wright. I answered, “Perfectly well; and it is a prevailing opinion in England, that you ordered him to be murdered in the Temple.” With the utmost rapidity of speech, he replied, “For what object? Of all men he was the person whom I should have most desired to live. Whence could I have procured so valuable an evidence as he would have proved on the trial of the conspirators in and about Paris. The Heads of it he himself had landed on the French coast.” My curiosity was at this moment such as to be betrayed in my looks.
“Listen,” continued Napoleon, “and you shall hear. ‘The English brig of war, commanded by Captain Wright, was employed by your government in landing traitors and spies on the West coast of France. Seventy of the number had actually reached Paris; and, so mysterious were their proceedings, so veiled in impenetrable concealment, that although General Ryal, of the Police, gave me this information, the name or place of their resort could not be discovered. I received daily assurances that my life would be attempted, and though I did not give entire credit to them, I took every precaution for my preservation. The Brig was afterwards taken near L’Orient, with Captain Wright, its commander, who was carried before the Prefect of the Department of Morbeau, at Vannes: General Julian, then Prefect, had accompanied me in the expedition to Egypt, and recognised Captain Wright on the first view of him.
Intelligence of this circumstance was instantly transmitted to Paris; and instructions were expeditiously returned to interrogate the crew, separately, and transfer their testimonies to the Minister of Police. The purport of their examination was at first very unsatisfactory; but, at length, on the examination of one of the crew, some light was thrown on the subject. He stated that the Brig had landed several Frenchmen, and among them he particularly remembered one, a very merry fellow, who was called Pichegru. Thus a clue was found that led to the discovery of a plot, which, had it succeeded, would have thrown the French nation, a second time, into a state of revolution.
Captain Wright was accordingly conveyed to Paris, and confined in the Temple; there to remain till it was found convenient to bring the formidable accessaries of this treasonable design to trial. The law of France would have subjected Wright to the punishment of death: but he was of minor consideration. My grand object was to secure the principals, and I considered the English Captain’s evidence of the utmost consequence towards completing my object.” He again and again, most solemnly asserted, that Captain Wright died in the Temple, by his own hand, as described in the Moniteur, and at a much earlier period than has been generally believed. […]
Napoleon then read some passages from a publication of Mr. Goldsmith’s, which reported extracts from the Moniteur, about the time Captain Wright spent in the Temple. He then acknowledged that many of the reports in this publication were genuine, but also that there were a lot of errors in it.
But he did not stop here; and continually desired to know whether I perfectly comprehended his meaning, as that was his most earnest wish. And now, to my utter astonishment, he entered upon the event of the Duke D’Enghiens death. This was a topic that could not be expected; and particularly by me, as there appeared even among his followers, who were always on tip-toe to be his apologists, an evasive silence or contradictory statements, whenever this afflicting event became the subject of enquiry, which had occasionally happened, during the course of our voyage. Here Napoleon became very animated, and often raised himself on the sofa where he had hitherto remained in a reclining posture. The interest attached to the subject, and the energy of his delivery, combined to impress the tenor of his narrative so strongly on my mind, that you need not doubt the accuracy of this repetition of it. He began as follows:
“At this eventful period of my life, I had succeeded in restoring order and tranquillity to a kingdom torn asunder by faction, and deluged in blood. That nation had placed me at their head. I came not as your Cromwell did, or your Third Richard. No such thing. I found a crown in the kennel; I cleansed it from its filth, and placed it on my head. My safety now became necessary, to preserve that tranquillity so recently restored; and, hitherto, so satisfactorily preserved, as the leading characters of the nation well know. At the same time, reports were every night brought me (I think, he said, by General Ryal,) that conspiracies were in agitation; that meetings were held in particular houses in Paris, and names even were mentioned; at the same time, no satisfactory proofs could be obtained, and the utmost vigilance and ceaseless pursuit of the Police was evaded.
General Moreau, indeed, became suspected, and I was seriously importuned to issue an order for his arrest; but his character was such, his name stood so high, and the estimation of him so great in the public mind, that, as it appeared to me, he had nothing to gain, and every thing to lose, by becoming a conspirator against me: I, therefore, could not but exonerate him from such a suspicion. I accordingly refused an order for the proposed arrest, by the following intimation to the Minister of Police. ‘You have named Pichegru, Georges, and Moreau: convince me that the former is in Paris, and I will immediately cause the latter to be arrested.’ Another and a very singular circumstance led to the developement of the plot. One night, as I lay agitated and wakeful, I rose from my bed, and examined the list of suspected traitors; and Chance, which rules the world, occasioned my stumbling, as it were, on the name of a surgeon, who had lately returned from an English prison.
This man’s age, education, and experience in life, induced me to believe, that his conduct must be attributed to any other motive than that of youthful fanaticism in favour of a Bourbon: as far as circumstances qualified me to judge, money appeared to be his object. I accordingly gave orders for this man to be arrested; when a summary mock trial was instituted, by which he was found guilty, sentenced to die, and informed he had but six hours to live. This stratagem had the desired effect: he was terrified into confession. It was now known that Pichegru had a brother, a monastic Priest, then residing in Paris. I ordered a party of Gens d’Armes to visit this man, and if he had quitted his house, I conceived there would be good ground for suspicion. The old Monk was secured, and, in the act of his arrest, his fears betrayed what I most wanted to know. ‘Is it,’ he exclaimed, ‘because I afforded shelter to a brother that I am thus treated’.
The object of the plot was to destroy me; and the success of it would, of course, have been my destruction. It emanated from the capital of your country, with the Count d’Artois at the head of it. To the West he sent the Duke de Berri, and to the East the Duke D’Enghein. To France your vessels conveyed underlings of the plot, and Moreau became a convert to the cause. The moment was big with evil: I felt myself on a tottering eminence, and, I resolved to hurl the thunder back upon the Bourbons even in the metropolis of the British empire. My Minister vehemently urged the seizure of the Duke though in a neutral territory. But I still hesitated, and Prince Benevento brought the order twice, and urged the measure with all his powers of persuasion: It was not, however, till I was fully convinced of its necessity, that I sanctioned it by my signature.
The matter could be easily arranged between me and the Duke of Baden. Why, indeed, should I suffer a man residing on the very confines of my kingdom, to commit a crime which, within the distance of a mile, by the ordinary course of law, Justice herself would condemn to the scaffold. And now answer me;—Did I do more than adopt the principle of your government, when it ordered the capture of the Danish fleet, which was thought to threaten mischief to your country? It had been urged to me again and again, as a sound political opinion, that the new dynasty could not be secure, while the Bourbons remained. Talleyrand never deviated from this principle: it was a fixed, unchangeable article in his political creed.
But I did not become a ready or a willing convert. I examined the opinion with care and with caution: and the result was a perfect conviction of its necessity. The Duke D’Enghein was accessary to the Confederacy; and although the resident of a neutral territory, the urgency of the case, in which my safety and the public tranquillity, to use no stronger expression, were involved, justified the proceeding. I accordingly ordered him to be seized and tried: He was found guilty, and sentenced to be shot. The sentence was immediately executed; and the same fate would have followed had it been Louis the Eighteenth. For I again declare that I found it necessary to roll the thunder back on the metropolis of England, as from thence, with the Count d’Artois at their head, did the assasins assail me. […]
I replied. “There may, perhaps, be persons in England, who are disposed to acknowledge the necessity of rigorous measures at this important period of your history; but none, I believe, are to be found who would attempt to justify the precipitate manner in which the young Prince was seized, tried, sentenced, and shot.” He instantly answered, “I was justified in my own mind; and I repeat the declaration which I have already made, that I would have ordered the execution of Louis the Eighteenth. At the same time, I solemnly affirm, that no message or letter from the Duke reached me after sentence of death had been passed upon him*.” […]
Napoleon continued to speak of the Bourbon Family—”Had I,” he said, “been anxious to get any, or all the Bourbons into my possession, I could have accomplished the object. Your Smugglers offered me a Bourbon for a stated sum (I think he named 40,000 francs) but, on coming to a more precise explanation, they entertained a doubt of fulfilling the engagement as it was originally proposed. They would not undertake to possess themselves of any of the Bourbon family absolutely alive: though, with the alternative, alive or dead, they had no doubt of completing it. But it was not my wish merely to deprive them of life. Besides, circumstances had taken a turn which then fixed me without fear of change or chance on the throne I possessed. I felt my security, and left the Bourbons undisturbed. Wanton, useless murder, whatever has been said and thought of me in England, has never been my practice: to what end or purpose could I have indulged the horrible propensity.—When Sir George Rumbold and Mr. Drake, who had been carrying on a correspondence with conspirators in Paris, were seized, they were not murdered.”
* The Duke Of Enghien wrote Napoleon a letter in which he, recognizing the Bourbon cause was completely lost, offered him his services. Talleyrand, however, didn’t show the letter to Napoleon until after the Duke’s death.
Letters written on board His Majesty’s ship the Northumberland, and at St. Helena by William Warden