Research Subjects: Biographies

Joachim Murat and the Kingdom of Naples:  1808 – 1815

By: Dale Pappas



The year is 1815 and Europe is once again in the midst of change.  Napoleon has returned from exile on Elba to begin one of history’s most renowned campaigns.  The winds of change have returned to the Kingdom of Naples, ruled by Marshal Joachim Murat.  In ten years the throne has passed from Bourbon control to a Bonaparte, and finally, to the son of an innkeeper.[1]  However, all is not well for Murat as the allied nations of Europe, headed by Austria and Great Britain have forced the Neapolitan King to take sides in the inevitable conflict against Napoleon.  Will he stand by his decision to declare war on France the previous year, or will the proud, bold Gascon make one final stand to save his kingdom?

Joachim Murat’s path to the throne of Naples was not unusual for the French Revolutionary era.  Born in 1767 and originally destined for the church, Murat ran off from his home near Cahors, Gascony to join the army at the age of twenty.[2]   In the years that followed, he served as one of Napoleon’s top officers, rising through the ranks just as fellow Marshals Masséna and Augereau. Murat, although considered a “poor head” by Napoleon continued to serve with distinction on the battlefields of Italy and Egypt.[3]  Soon Murat would be recognized as one of Europe’s finest cavalry officers.

He married Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s ambitious sister in 1802.  Two years later, Murat was among the eighteen men created Marshals of Napoleon’s Empire.  As the Empire expanded, members of the Bonaparte family received the thrones of the newly acquired territory.  Joseph, Napoleon’s elder brother was originally placed on the throne of Naples, one of France’s Italian possessions.  However, once Spain fell under French rule Joseph was transferred to the throne formerly occupied by Carlos IV.  Napoleon rewarded his brother-in-law Murat by giving him the Neapolitan throne.  Murat and Caroline were interested in the position after being overlooked for the throne of Westphalia.  Murat entered Naples as king on 6 September 1808, with Caroline arriving two weeks later.[4]

In his first six weeks on the throne, Murat had succeeded in both winning his subjects over and capturing the British controlled island of Capri.[5]  Although Murat was on good terms with his Neapolitans, he was not with France.  Joseph maintained a good relationship with Napoleon while in Naples because he presided over a Napoleonic satellite kingdom, which included French officials and regulations. This caused the relationship between Joseph and his subjects to be difficult at best.  Napoleon had hoped Murat would rule Naples in a similar fashion.  However, the new king and queen decided to rule a more independent kingdom. 

Although he gradually instituted Napoleon’s reforms, Murat attempted to limit the control French officials possessed in Naples.  He even went as far as demanding that the Frenchmen in his service take Neapolitan citizenship or face removal from office.[6]  Even though this action failed, Neapolitan officials became powerful under Murat after holding minor posts under Joseph.  The reforms that Murat had hoped to implement during his reign were truly revolutionary for southern Italy.  Arguably the most important reform was the abolition of feudalism.  The territory itself was restructured. The kingdom was divided into fourteen provinces which were in turn subdivided into districts.  The provinces were governed by provincial councils while district councils included members selected by the King.[7]  Unfortunately for Murat and Napoleonic France, the intellectual class of the region did not support these reforms as enthusiastically as they had in the northern Italy.  The lack of interest coupled with financial issues limited drastic reform in Naples.

By 1812, the once formidable Napoleonic Empire was crumbling.  The stalemate in the Peninsula against Britain coupled with a disastrous campaign in Russia turned Napoleon from the hunter to the hunted.  In October of 1813, an allied force defeated the French at Leipzig.  Although still serving Napoleon, Murat began to wonder if the end was near for Napoleonic France and consequently his Neapolitan Kingdom.  Murat and Caroline began to explore their options by opening talks with the Austrians and the British.  The Austrians also reached out to the Viceroy of Italy, Prince Eugène in hopes of having both French leaders of Italy turn against their emperor.  Despite being the son-in-law of the allied King of Bavaria, Eugène would not budge. 

Nevertheless, Austria initialized a campaign to reclaim territory lost to France with the seizure of Illyria.  In Italy, the Austrian commander Hiller, and his replacement Bellegarde began to promote Italian nationalism in hopes of pressing the population into revolt against the French.[8] However, the Austrians did not achieve their goal, as they were defeated along the Mincio on 8 February 1814.  A month earlier, on 11 January Murat formally abandoned Napoleon by signing a treaty with Austria.  By agreeing to terms, Murat was guaranteed the Neapolitan throne, and pledged 30,000 troops to support the Austrian campaign in Italy.[9]

News of the treaty did not surprise Napoleon, but his anger was not directed at the King.  “His wife made him defect, Caroline, my sister, has betrayed me!”[10]  Once again, Napoleon refused to believe his great cavalry officer was capable of such a decision.   Murat entered Rome later that month with hopes of uniting Italy with himself as king.[11]  However, he was not well received by the populace.  Although his dream of a united Italy was temporarily defeated, Murat was prepared to defend his kingdom.  Murat’s Austro-Neapolitan force was not engaged in the defeat of Bellegarde on the Mincio.  The former subject of the French Emperor was hesitant to attack Eugène, especially after Napoleon’s victories in France.  Austrian commanders were furious with the King as he continued to delay an assault on his former ally.  The situation worsened when an Anglo-Sicilian force arrived at Livorno and ordered Murat to evacuate Tuscany.[12]  The embattled Neapolitan King finally attacked the French and their Italian allies at Piacenza on 14 April.   Two days later, Eugène and Bellegarde made peace at Schiarino-Rizzino.[13]  Despite being defeated on the battlefield, Eugène attempted to retain his position through elections.  Unfortunately for Eugène he was once again beaten and forced to leave Italy for Bavaria under the protection of the Austrians.  As for northern Italy, it was restored to its prewar boundaries through the Congress of Vienna.[14]

Murat had not abandoned the idea of a united Italy under his authority.  The relationship between Britain and Austria and indeed the other allies had degenerated, which led Murat to believe he could make the situation work to his advantage by gaining Austria’s full trust against the British. Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s foreign minister, feared a possible union between Napoleon and Murat due to the latter’s exile at nearby Elba.[15]  Acknowledging the fact that Britain would never recognize his throne, the King began to prepare for war.  Napoleon, in the midst of planning his own war, urged his former subject to approach the situation carefully.  The Neapolitan King once again cast his sights on expanding his kingdom into northern Italy.  He sent his former minister of police, Antonio Maghella to investigate the political climate of the northern Italy, which was deemed favorable for the Neapolitans.[16]

Unfortunately for the King, by early 1815 the allies in Vienna had set aside a majority of their differences and agreed to several changes in Europe.  Murat’s right to the throne was no longer secure. The King of Prussia and the Russian Tsar, who were originally content with Murat were now indifferent to his fate because of the death of the unpopular Bourbon Queen Maria Carolina.[17]  Even the Austrians abandoned Murat in order to reach agreements with France and Britain. 

The King of Naples was himself unaware of the change in attitude at Vienna.  He demanded that newly restored Bourbon King of France recognize his claim to the throne or face the consequence of a Neapolitan attack.  The Neapolitan representative in Vienna, the Duke di Campochiaro was shocked to find that the Austrian Chancellor Metternich took a harsh tone with Naples.  Metternich warned the destruction of Murat’s kingdom if he did anything to disturb the fragile peace.[18]  Caroline pleaded with her husband to preserve the peace for the moment, but the daring Gascon had made his decision for war.

News of Napoleon’s move from Elba reached Naples on 4 March, with Metternich’s threat arriving three days later.[19]  Murat was torn between the allies and Napoleon even though it was not a difficult choice for his wife. Caroline wished to support the allies against her brother because she felt that Napoleon would never forgive them for defecting. However, on 15 March, Murat threw down the gauntlet against Austria.  Shortly after Napoleon entered Paris in triumph and wrote to Murat assuring his support. The ranks of the Neapolitan army swelled from 70,000 in the summer of 1814 to 85,000 in the end of the year.[20]  Murat’s army had been massed along the Roman border from January, in anticipation of the coming war.[21]  The King did not wait for Napoleon, he quickly ordered his army across the frontier.   

The Austrian army in Italy numbered about 94,000 but it was widely distributed.  Murat hoped to expose the minor detachments of the enemy until he reached Milan.  Once in the northern Italian city, he hoped that the population would flock to the Neapolitan cause and defeat the Austrians along with possible French aid.[22]  Unfortunately for the King, his army was not as large as it was originally presumed.  The Neapolitans numbered only 46,829 infantry, 7,224 cavalry, and 78 pieces of artillery.[23]  The numbers were not Austria’s only advantage over Murat, as the Neapolitans were poorly trained and ill equipped.   Another problem for Murat was his generals, who were mostly incompetent.  The Neapolitan army was split into two columns, with the first under Ferdinando Pignatelli di Strongoli and General Livron advanced into the Papal territory with a 7,000-man force.  The column entered Rome and moved on Florence, arriving on 8 April.  This column, which included the elite Royal Guard encountered difficulty, as it was to arrive in Florence 5 days earlier.[24]  Meanwhile, Murat and his remaining troops marched north from Ancona. 

The columns met little resistance from the Austrians, fighting a brief action at Cesena.  On 2 April, Murat entered Bologna, which had been abandoned by the Austrians.[25]  The Neapolitan King had anticipated the population to receive his force warmly, but the reaction was not what he had expected. On 4 April the Neapolitans met an Austrian force of 5,000 on the Panaro.  The Austrians under Field Marshal Vincenz Ferrerius Frederico Bianchi neglected the San Ambrogio Bridge, which was captured due to a heroic effort by General Carlo Filangieri.  The victory secured Modena for the Neapolitans.[26]

On 8 April, the King led an assault on Occhiobello, defended by 3,000 Austrians.  Murat failed to take the position and was forced to await the arrival of the remainder of his army.[27]  The following day, Bianchi began to move on Modena.  On 10 April, Bianchi drove a Neapolitan force from Carpi.  The next day, another Neapolitan attack failed on Occhiobello, with the Austrians in pursuit of the retreating column.  Murat withdrew to Bologna but was soon pushed back towards Ancona.  An Austrian division of 20,000 under Count Adam von Neipperg pursued Murat while Count Laval Nugent advanced towards Naples.  Another Austrian force of about 11,000 under Bianchi marched around the Neapolitan flank to pin them down.  Bianchi’s movement took thirteen days and the column reached Tolentino on 30 April.[28]

At this point, Murat attempted to make peace with the Austrians, which failed.  Fortunately for the King, he received reinforcements including the Royal Guard on 30 April while in Ancona.  Shortly afterward, the King was notified of Bianchi’s force and with the majority of his forces, advanced on Tolentino.  On 2 May the Neapolitans observed Bianchi occupying the highest ground near Tolentino. Leaving troops under a trusted officer to deal with Neipperg, Murat attacked with his 15,000 men and drove the Austrians from their position.  The following day, the Royal Guard began the attack before Murat’s order and thus began what was to be a disastrous day for the King of Naples.  An unorganized Murat ordered his infantry forward to support the guard.  Unfortunately for the King, most of his men were off in search of food instead of the enemy.[29] An angered and frustrated Murat led the men that were still willing to fight towards the Austrian line.  The infantry was quickly dispersed and if not for the artillery, the Neapolitans would have been forced from the field.  Murat attempted to reorganize but was warned that Nugent was marching on Naples.  The King had no choice but to order a retreat, which quickly became a rout.  Pursuing Austrians wreaked havoc on the terror-stricken Neapolitans.[30]  It was not long before the Neapolitan army was no more.

Murat and what remained of the Royal Guard, returned to Naples on 18 May.  Earlier that month, Queen Caroline surrendered to the British.  An agreement was reached, in which the Queen and her children would be escorted by the British Navy once the Austrians arrived to occupy Naples.[31]  After Tolentino, the King’s supporters deserted him and began to accept the return of the Bourbon King, Ferdinand IV.  Just hours after his return, Murat and his staff fled to France to offer their services to Napoleon.  Although Napoleon had accepted the return of many former officers who had deserted, he did not welcome his brother-in-law.  The decision would be unfortunate for Napoleon, as the dashing cavalryman would have proved useful in the upcoming campaign which would result in the final defeat at Waterloo.  Napoleon most likely rejected the offer of help from Murat because he had been a member of the family, unlike the others who had gone to the allies.[32]

After an uncomfortable stay in southern France, Murat managed to reach Corsica and the home of a trusted ally, General Franceschetti.  With Franceschetti’s support, Murat planned an expedition to reclaim his throne. It is impossible to justify Murat’s expedition, as he had only 300 men to conquer a kingdom.  Regardless of the circumstances, he was determined to recover his crown or perish in the effort.  He reasoned with Franceschetti, “At least I shall die a King.”[33]  Murat’s hastily constructed fleet met rough seas on its departure from Corsica.  The captain of the flagship requested a landing at Pizzo, to gather provisions.  Murat agreed and was prepared to make a triumphant entry into the Calabrian hamlet.  The Gascon arrived on the morning of 8 October and was disappointed at the attitudes of the civilians he encountered.  Most, including soldiers fled at the sight of their former monarch.[34]  However, soon a mob gathered and became hostile, forcing Murat to move north.  Unfortunately for the ex-King of Naples, a policeman named Trentacapilli, in the service of the Bourbon King was present and ordered the arrest of the party.  During this confrontation, the mob arrived and became increasingly unruly.  Murat used the mob as a chance to escape but was tracked down losing several men wounded, including Franceschetti.  Murat was then severely beaten by the mob and hauled off to prison at the Castello di Pizzo.  The commandant of the region, General Marchese Nunziante sent word to Naples of their new prisoners.[35]  On 13 October, a court martial was held trying Murat as a public enemy.  In the eyes of his captors, he was no longer the King, but simply the “French General.”[36]  Murat was found to have been involved in the execution of the Bourbon Duke de Enghien twelve years earlier, which was reason enough for Ferdinand IV to return the favor.[37] Despite his appeals to the Bourbon King, Murat was ordered to be shot.  At least he would die as he had wanted.

Later that evening, a company of Neapolitan soldiers escorted their former sovereign to the courtyard of the Castello di Pizzo for his execution.  Joachim Murat, King of Naples and Marshal of France had failed in his attempt to regain his throne and would soon pay with his life.  The daring cavalry officer had his final command on this day, conducting his own firing squad.  At that moment, six of his own men fired the fatal shots that took the life of their former monarch, but not his dream of a reformed Italy.


Acton, Harold.  The Bourbons of Naples.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1956.

Connelly, Owen.  Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York:  Free Press, 1965.

Croce, Benedetto.  History of the Kingdom of Naples.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Grab, Alexander.  Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe.  New York:  Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Johnston, R.M.  The Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy, 2v.  New York:  MacMillan, 1904.

MacDonell, A.G.  Napoleon and His Marshals.  London: MacMillan and Co., 1950.

Pope, Stephen.  Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars.  New York:  Facts on File, 1999.

Riley, J.P.  Napoleon and the World War of 1813. Portland, Oregon: Cass, 2000.

Sutherland, Jonathan.  Napoleonic Battles.  London:  Airlife, 2003.

Zamoyski, Adam.  Rites of Peace.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2007.


[1] MacDonell, A.G. Napoleon and His Marshals.  London: MacMillan And Co., 1950. pg 12.

[2] Pope, Stephen. Dictionary of The Napoleonic Wars.  New York: Facts On File, 1999. pg 338.

[3] Connelly, Owen.  Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965.  pg 332.

[4] Johnston, R.M.  The Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy.2v.  New York: MacMillan, 1904. pg 197.

[5] Acton, Harold.  The Bourbons of Naples.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1956.  Pg 566.

[6] Grab, Alexander.  Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. pg 166.

[7] Croce, Benedetto.  History of the Kingdom of Naples. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. pg 212.

[8] Connelly, Owen.  Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965.  pg 305.

[9] Riley, J.P.  Napoleon and the World War of 1813. Portland, Oregon: Cass, 2000. pg 357.

[10] Connelly, Owen.  Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 305.

[11] Pope, Stephen. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars.  New York: Facts On File, 1999. pg 277.

[12] Acton, Harold.  Bourbons of Naples.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1956. Pg 623.

[13] Johnston, R.M.  Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy. 2v.  New York: MacMillan, 1904.  pg 319.

[14] Connelly, Owen.  Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 315.

[15] Zamoyski, Adam. Rites of Peace.  New York: Harper Collins, 2007. pgs 235-36.

[16] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965.  pg 316.

[17] Johnston, R.M.  Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy, 2v. New York: MacMillan, 1904. pg 333.

[18]Johnston, R.M. Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy, 2v.  New York: MacMillan, 1904. pgs 341-42.

[19] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965.  pg 319.

[20] Acton, Harold.  Bourbons of Naples. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1956. pg 634.

[21] Pope, Stephen. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars.  New York: Facts On File, 1999. pg 277.

[22] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965.  pg 317.

[23] Sutherland, Jonathan.  Napoleonic Battles.   London: Airlife, 2003. pg 104.

[24] Johnston, R.M.  Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy, 2v. New York: MacMillan, 1904. pg 359.

[25] Acton, Harold.  Bourbons of Naples.   New York: St Martin’s Press, 1956. pg 634.

[26] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 321.

[27]Johnston, R.M. Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy, 2v. New York: MacMillan, 1904. pg 359.

[28] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 323.

[29] Johnston, R.M. Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy. 2v.  New York: MacMillan, 1904. pg 369.

[30]Sutherland, Jonathan. Napoleonic Battles.  London: Airlife, 2003. pg 104.

[31] Acton, Harold. Bourbons of Naples.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1956. pg 635.

[32] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 328.

[33]Connelly, Owen.  Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 332.

[34] Johnston, R.M.  Napoleonic Empire in Southern Italy. 2v.  New York: MacMillan, 1904. pg 400.

[35] Acton, Harold. Bourbons of Naples.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1956. pg 646.

[36] Connelly, Owen. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms.  New York: Free Press, 1965. pg 331.

[37] MacDonell, A.G. Napoleon and His Marshals.  London: MacMillan and Co., 1950. pg 323.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2008

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