Louise - Queen of Prussia - George Upton

Louise and Napoleon

An armistice with Russia was concluded by Napoleon June 21, and on the twenty-fifth of June one was arranged with Prussia also, at Tilsit. The next day an interview took place between the Czar and Napoleon, at which the King of Prussia was present. Napoleon's egotism and haughtiness clashed continually with Frederick William's directness and honesty. The King met the insolent victor with a noble pride and bore his misfortunes with a dignity which seemed to increase the enmity of the French Emperor.

Upon this occasion Alexander conceived the unfortunate idea that the presence of the Queen might facilitate the deliberations and that her graciousness and the nobility of her character would soften the stern purpose of the conqueror. Alexander urged the King to summon his wife to Piktupponen, a village east of Tilsit, where he returned each evening from the conferences. The King was finally persuaded, and wrote to his wife of the mission proposed for her. He withheld his own judgment and wishes, however, and allowed her to decide the matter entirely for herself. The Queen received the letter while sitting with a circle of intimate women friends, glanced at it hastily, and silently left the room. An hour later she reappeared with a tear-stained face and told the company the contents of the letter. Some of those present advised against the action as undignified and useless. But she explained: If there is any one who believes that I can save even one village more to the fatherland by this step, I am in duty bound to test that belief. If I must take this painful step, however, I do not wish to do it unprepared; I must know just what to say and what to demand."

Hufeland tells us that the Queen was beside herself at the thought of meeting the slanderer and defamer, and said: "This is the most cruel sacrifice that I have yet made for my people, and only the hope of being useful to them makes it possible for me." She wrote in her journal in regard to it: "God knows what a struggle it costs me! For though I do not hate the man, I regard him as the author of the misfortunes of the King and our country. I admire his talents, but I cannot admire his character, which is evidently false and deceitful. It will be very difficult for me to be polite and agreeable to him. But this hard task is demanded of me, and I am already used to sacrifice."

She left Memel and arrived on the evening of July 4 at Piktupponen. Here she received her instructions from Minister Hardenberg as to what she was principally to dwell upon in the interview. On July 5 she received a visit from the Czar, and on the sixth Napoleon sent her greeting through General Caulaincourt, and an invitation to dinner. With a French guard of honor she drove in a state carriage with eight horses to Tilsit, — and stopped at the house where her husband lodged. An hour after her arrival Napoleon, mounted on a white Arabian horse and accompanied by a large escort, rode to her door. The King and the princes received him at the staircase. Napoleon, holding his riding-whip in his hand, took off his hat, bowed quickly right and left, and ascended the steps to the Queen's room, into which the King led him and then left him alone with her. After the first painful moments, the Queen expressed her concern that he had been obliged to climb such a wretched stairway to visit her. Napoleon answered gallantly:

"On the road to such a goal, one should fear no obstacles." She inquired how the northern climate agreed with him. And then she turned the conversation to the negotiations and told him that she had come to try to persuade him to make reasonable terms of peace. And when he loftily inquired: "But how could you go to war with me?" she answered, "Sire, if we deceived ourselves, it was but a natural consequence of the fame of the great Frederick." This reply was overheard by the celebrated Talleyrand, Napoleon's clever minister. He is said to have warned Napoleon of the impression the Queen might make upon him, in these words: "Sire! shall posterity be able to say that a beautiful queen has caused you to forego the full results of your greatest victory?" But Napoleon scarcely needed any such warning from Satan, he was Satanic enough himself. After the Queen's remark he led the conversation to indifferent subjects, asked about the material of her dress, etc. But Louise would not be turned from her purpose. With warmth and even with tears in her eyes she pleaded with him not to impose upon the country this unreasonable burden of a half billion francs for war indemnity and the numerous garrisons, and especially to promise her that Danzig and Magdeburg should remain Prussian. "I will think it over," he answered, holding out a prospect of an acceptable peace. The conversation lasted a quarter of an hour.

At noon the King and Queen dined with the Emperor of the French; she at his right next to the Czar and the King at his left. Napoleon was very amiable. He was good-humored and talkative, and joked about the danger she had run the previous autumn, when at the King's headquarters, of being taken prisoner by his hussars. The conversation turned on the cession of the provinces, which Napoleon thought the King ought not to take so much to heart. The King replied: "You do not know how painful it is to lose inherited lands in which the dearest memories of childhood are rooted, and which one can as little forget, as he can his cradle."

"His cradle," sneered Napoleon, "when the child has become a man he no longer has time to think of his cradle."

"Oh! yes," answered the King, "one can no more forget his youth than he can deny it, and a man of sentiment will always think with gratitude of the cradle where he lay as a child."

Napoleon Bonaparte.


The Queen sought to give the conversation another direction by saying: "The mother's heart is the only cradle which one never forgets." She had in mind the respect which Napoleon felt for his own mother, and pointedly inquired about the health of "Madame Bonaparte."

In the evening the Queen drove back to the village. On July 7 she again received an invitation to dine with Napoleon, but before leaving for Tilsit, she received a letter from the King with the news that the conditions of peace were merciless. Therefore all hopes of the Queen's success vanished, and this second journey to Tilsit was an almost intolerable martyrdom. Exciting discussions took place, and neither the King nor the Queen concealed their feelings and opinions. As she took her leave Napoleon picked a magnificent rose from the vine at the window and offered it to her. Louise was about to refuse it, but quickly recovering herself, she took it with the words: "At least with Magdeburg?"

To which Napoleon answered dryly: "Your Majesty will kindly remember that it is I who offer, and you who accept."

As she threw herself weeping bitterly against the cushions of her carriage, she sighed and, pointing to the house, exclaimed: "In that place I have been horribly circumvented."

Napoleon wrote on July eighth to his Consort Josephine: "The Queen of Prussia is really a charming woman; she is very amiable to me, but you need not be jealous. I am like an oil-cloth, over which such things slide without touching the inside. To play the gallant on such occasions does not cost much." While a prisoner at St. Helena he wrote: "She was perfectly unaffected in her conversation, and remained mistress of it in spite of all the dexterity which I employed and all the trouble which I took. She always returned to her subject, and always with so much tact and delicacy that it was impossible to take offence."

A year after this fruitless sacrifice Louise wrote to a friend:

"I suffer unutterably. Reproaches are heaped upon me over and over again. What can I answer? I sigh and swallow my tears. A year ago yesterday I had my last interview with Napoleon. Ah! what a recollection! How I suffered, suffered more for others than for myself! I wept and pleaded in the name of love and humanity, in the name of our misfortunes and the laws that govern the world. And I was only a woman — a weak creature, and yet superior to this adversary, so cold and heartless. The King is still greater than his enemy, even though his kingdom has been diminished one-half. He only treated with the wicked one under pressure of necessity and will not enter into an alliance with him. That this will sometime prove to be a blessing to Prussia is my firm belief."

With such lofty sentiments this deeply wounded woman was able benignly to forgive the man who was to her the incarnation of evil, the boundless suffering which he had caused to her, to her family, and to her people. She was too noble to share the petty hatred of Napoleon shown by weaker natures. In former days, when every one belonging to the court joined in scorning the "upstart," she kept silence. Shortly before her last illness, one day when her sorrowful glance fell upon the portrait of the Emperor, a titled lady in her company passionately denounced the oppressor. The Queen quickly turned and rebuked the outbreak with a gentle look and word: "If I have forgiven him the injuries he has done me, what reason have you not to forgive him?" And with a gesture of her hand, as though in blessing to her great enemy, she left the room.

The Tilsit peace, concluded on the night of July 9-10 was more detrimental to Prussia than the previous war had been. The fortresses of Stettin, Custrin, and Glogau remained in the hands of the conqueror as pledges for the war indemnity. This indemnity, which included the support of forty thousand French troops and all sorts of unreasonable extortions, amounting, at the end of the year 1808, to at least six hundred million francs, was ruthlessly exacted from a poor land already robbed of its richest territories. Agriculture and art life were crippled, commerce restricted, and the country impoverished.

Though the King and his people tried conscientiously to meet all these oppressive demands, Napoleon purposely delayed the evacuation of the country, paid no attention to representations made him, treated the Prussian ambassador like a servant, and kept faith with nobody. "Is it not enough to make one despair?" asked Louise in a letter. "Ah! my God, why hast Thou forsaken us?" Her last comforter on earth was Stein, who, with his "great heart and comprehensive mind," she hoped might still find a way out of this misery.

The Queen, supported by the King's brothers and the patriotic Princess Louise Radziwill, a sister of Prince Louis Ferdinand, undertook to persuade the King that Stein was the only saviour in this time of need; and begged him to recall to the head of the ministry the man who had once been dismissed in disfavor. The King agreed; and Stein, generously forgetting the injustice which had been done him, accepted. He arrived in Memel, September 30, 113o7, and was at once placed at the head of the government by the King. But he encountered a strong party bent upon deposing him and which put many obstacles in his way. Louise wrote to him at that time: "I entreat you to be patient during these first months, so that we shall have nothing to regret, and all shall not be lost. I implore you to consider this for the sake of the King, the country, my children, and myself. Patience!"

At length the commission appointed to fix the war indemnity finished its work. The poor, depleted country was really to pay "only "one hundred and fifty-four million francs, and until this was accomplished, it must maintain a French army and allow the taxes to be collected by the French in the provinces occupied by them! Even Stein, when he heard of these terrible demands, was turned to stone. This new and dreadful calamity was a crushing blow for a weak woman. It is no wonder that she wrote in October, 1807:

"Even I am losing my fortitude. It is terribly hard, especially as it is undeserved. My future is very sad. If we may only keep Berlin; but sometimes I have an awful presentiment that he will take it from us also and make it the capital of another kingdom. In that event I have only one wish—to emigrate to some distant land and to live a private life and forget — if possible. Alas! poor Prussia! Deserted through weakness, persecuted by insolence, depleted by misfortune, we must perish. Savary, the French ambassador, has assured us that Russia's intervention would not help us, and he has advised us to sell our jewels and valuables. Think of his daring to say this!"

The mockery of this advice wounded Louise, who was already accustomed to privations and self-denial. During her stay in Memel money was often lacking for daily expenses. At that time many citizens fared more sumptuously than the royal family. The King sent his golden dinner service to the mint to be turned into money to lighten the burden of his oppressed subjects. Only a single golden plate remained of all the inherited antique treasures. The princes and princesses also renounced a third of their yearly incomes. It was at that time that the hard-pressed King sent his eldest daughter, afterwards Empress of Russia, a five-thaler note for a new dress, adding that she must make that do, as it was all he could spare.

Napoleon had been unyielding. Even the mission of Prince William to Paris was in vain. They were obliged to resign themselves to the demands of the conqueror. Stein signed a treaty September 3, 1808, in Berlin, by which it was finally agreed that Prussia was to pay one hundred and forty million francs. The fortresses of Glogau, Stettin, and Custrin were to be held by the French until the debt was fully extinguished. Until the first hundred million francs were paid the taxes were to be collected by the French and the country was to be under their regime, and during ten years the Prussians were to keep only 42,000 men under arms. It was now necessary to raise great sums of money as quickly as possible. By alienation of royal domains and strictest economy in all branches of government, a large amount was at last collected, and by the payment of this and by giving mortgage deeds, at last, at the end of the year 1808, the French (who continually sought to put obstacles in their way) were induced to evacuate the country.