Joachim Murat: The Flamboyant “Dandy King”

Joachim Murat was a handsome successful man who became King of Naples despite beginning his life in a humble way. He was born in Guyenne, France, on 25 March 1767 and was the eleventh child of Pierre Murat-Jordy (an affluent innkeeper and postmaster) and Jeanne Loubières. His parents wanted him to serve in a church calling and so he was taught by the parish priest. Initially it seemed as if his parents would get their wish of him holding a church calling because when he was ten years old, he won a place at the College of Saint-Michel at Cahors and entered the seminary of the Lazarists at Toulouse but it ended when a cavalry regiment passed through Toulouse in 1787.

Joachim Murat

Joachim Murat. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Any dreams his parents had of him pursuing a religious life where dashed. He was enamored by what he saw, ran away from the seminary, and enlisted on 23 February 1787 in the Chasseurs des Ardennes (known the following year as Chasseurs de Champagne or the 12th Chasseurs). Unfortunately, in 1789, he was forced him to resign because of an affair and returned to his family where he began working as a clerk for a haberdasher at Saint-Ceré. Still Joachim Murat continued to dream of a military career.

By 1790, he had therefore joined the National Guard. He was then sent as the Canton of Montaucon’s representative to the first Fête de la Federation organized for 14 July 1790 and was also soon reinstated into his old regiment. Part of the 12th Chasseurs had also been sent to Montmédy to protect the royal family on its flight to Varennes, which would later mean the regiment had to defend itself against accusations that they supported the monarchy. It was at that time that Joachim Murat showed his true colors by declaring himself an ardent Republican. In fact, he proclaimed that he would sooner die than cease to be a Republican patriot.

By 1792 he had joined the Constitutional Guard, but his time with the Guard did not last long because he once again resigned. He claimed he did so to avoid being punished for being absent without leave, but others maintain his departure was due to his constant quarreling and dueling with others. After his departure, he notified the Committee of Surveillance that the Guard was guilty of treason and that his Lieutenant Colonel, a man named Descours, had encouraged him to serve in the émigré army of Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé. With this revelation, he reaffirmed his support for the republican cause and was able to rejoin his former regiment where he was promoted to corporal in April, sergeant in May, and then in mid-November received a promotion to sous-lieutenant.

In the meantime, King Louis XVI had been deposed in September, guillotined in January of 1793, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, executed in October the same year. By the autumn of 1795 counter-revolutionaries had organized an armed uprising and so to protect the National Convention, General Napoleon Bonaparte was named commander of its forces. Joachim Murat was then tasked with gathering artillery from a suburb outside Paris, which Murat succeeded in doing by acquiring cannons from Camp des Sablons. The artillery was transported to Paris and it was because of the cannons that Napoleon succeeded in saving the National Convention in what Thomas Carlyle characterized as a “whiff of grapeshot.” For his role in Napoleon’s success, Murat was then made chef de brigade (colonel).

Napoleon Bonaparte. Author’s collection.

Forces supporting the monarchy continued to cause problems for the National Convention. Napoleon then lobbied to join the armies attempting to stop them and Murat went with him to northern Italy, initially as his aide-de-camp but later was named commander of the cavalry. Under Napoleon, Murat conducted daring cavalry charges where he was always at the forefront. These charges earned him the rank of general and of him it was stated: “Murat! he was the bravest of the brave, … the best cavalry general in Europe.”[1]

Murat’s skills also helped Napoleon establish his legendary reputation for using speed to maneuver, fend off, and defeat opposing armies when they attempted to close in on his French forces. Moreover, on the battlefield there was reputedly no braver solider than Joachim Murat. Of him it was stated:

“His fine and well-proportioned form, his great physical strength, and somewhat refined elegance of manner, the fire of his eye, and his fierce courage in battle, gave to Murat rather the character of one of those preux chevaliers … He was affable, polished, gallant; and in the field of battle, twenty men, headed by Murat, were worth a whole regiment.”[2]

Joachim Murat in his French uniform.

Joachim Murat in his French uniform. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joachim Murat was not just known for his exceptional bravery and daring charges. He was also often cited as being dressed in ostentatious uniforms and later called a “Dandy King” because of his flamboyant appearance. In fact, “his taste for elaborate and exalted uniforms, … led to Napoleon comparing him with Signor Franconi, the famous circus rider.”[3] Many people also considered Murat to be a very large handsome man, although Laure Junot, Duchess of Abrantès (a French writer and spouse of the French general Jean-Andoche Junot) did not think him so handsome. In fact, she described him thusly:

“With respect to Murat’s beauty and the nobleness of his figure … I do not admit that a man is handsome because he is large, and always dressed for a Carnival. Murat’s features were not good, and I may even add, that, considering him as detached from his curled hair, his plumes, and his embroidery, he was plain. There was something of the negro in his countenance, though his nose, was not flat; but very thick lips, and a nose, which though aquiline, had nothing of nobleness in its form, gave to his physiognomy, and expression, mongrel at least.”[4]

In 1798, during the French Egyptian expedition, Joachim Murat commanded the cavalry and the following year returned with Napoleon to France. Soon thereafter the handsome Murat played a pivotal role, as did Napoleon’s brother Lucien, in helping Napoleon gain power with the coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799). This bloodless coup d’état overthrew the directory and made Napoleon the French Consul.

Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the meantime, Joachim Murat and Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, had fallen in love. When the two met, Caroline, unlike the Duchess of Abrantès, found Murat to be exceedingly handsome. She was immediately intrigued by the tall and dashing Murat who sported an aquiline nose, black curly hair, and dark-blue eyes. Furthermore, having met him in his resplendent uniform Caroline could not resist him. Knowing about the affection the pair held for one another it was supposedly Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, who first proposed the idea of marriage between the two love birds:

“Murat hesitated, and [then] went to consult M. Collet, who was a good adviser in all things, and whose intimacy with Bonaparte had initiated him into all the secrets of the family. M. Collet advised Murat to lose no time, but go to the first consul, and formally demand the hand of his sister. Murat followed his advice.”[5]  

Reports are that Napoleon did not initially want to allow the marriage because supposedly there was an incident where Murat displayed impudent conduct, but Josephine convinced her husband otherwise. Thus, Murat and Caroline’s civil ceremony happened on 2 January 1800 at Mortefontaine. Their marriage was then religiously confirmed on 4 January 1802 in Paris.

Caroline Bonaparte. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One interesting tale regarding Murat and Caroline’s marriage is that Napoleon gifted his sister “thirty thousand francs” because she had little money. In addition, he felt that he should give her more but not having enough money to buy her a diamond necklace he took one that belonged to his wife and gave it to his sister. According to biographer Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne:

“Josephine was by no means satisfied with this subtraction, and set her wits to work to find the means of replacing her necklace. She knew the jeweller Foucier possessed a magnificent collection of fine pearls, which, it was said, had belonged to the unfortunate Marie Antoinette. Josephine caused them to be brought to her, and judged there was sufficient to make a very fine necklace. But to purchase them required two hundred and fifty thousand francs, and how was the money to be raised? Madame Bonaparte had recourse to Berthier, at that time minister of war. Berthier, after biting his nails as usual, set about liquidating certain demands against the hospital service of Italy; and as the contracts in those days took care to be grateful to their patrons, the pearls passed from the strong chest of M. Foucier to the jewel-case of Madame Bonaparte.”[6]

About four years after Murat’s marriage to Caroline, Napoleon made him Marshal of France on 18 May 1804 and he was granted the title of “First Horseman of Europe” because of his skills on horseback. In addition, by now Murat’s name was also legendary throughout Europe, everyone knew of him and his extraordinary bravery. A year later he was appointed Grand Duke of Berg and in August of 1808, he was appointed King of Naples. However, although he was ultra-brave on the battlefield, Napoleon thought him practically worthless otherwise and once stated:

“Order Murat to attack and destroy four or five thousand men in such a direction, it was done in a moment; but leave him to himself, he was an imbecille, without judgment. I cannot conceive how so brave a man could be so lache. He was no where brave, unless before the enemy. There he was probably the bravest man in the world. His boiling, courage carried him into the midst of the enemy, couvert de pennes jusqu’au clocher, and glittering with gold. How he escaped is a miracle, being as he always was a distinguished mark, and fired at by every body. Even the Cossacks admired him on account of his extraordinary bravery. Every day Murat was engaged in single combat with some of them, and never returned without his sabre dropping with the blood of those he had slain. He was a paladin, in fact a Don Quixote in the field; but take him into the cabinet, he was a poltroon, without judgement or decision.”[7]

Despite his failings, Joachim Murat assisted Napoleon during the Peninsular War and was also with him during his failed Russian Campaign of 1812 and at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. However, after France suffered a defeat at Leipzig, fearful of losing his throne, Murat reached an agreement with the Austrian Empire that would allow him to remain King of Naples. Napoleon had been wary of Murat months earlier and warned him:

“I AM not going to tell you how displeased I am with your conduct, which has been diametrically opposed to your duties. It is due to your weak character, as usual. You are a good soldier on the battlefield, but off it you have no energy, and no character. Take warning by an act of treachery, which I attribute to fear, and give your best wits to my service. I am counting upon you — upon your remorse and your promises of amendment. If it were not so, you would be sorry for it. I don’t imagine you are one of those who thinks the lion is dead. If you did, you would be badly out in your reckoning. … The title of King has turned your head: if you want to keep it, behave yourself, and be careful what you say.”[8]  

Soon after Murat’s desertion on 11 January from Napoleon the famous French socialite Madame Récamier stopped by to visit. On the same day that the treaty with the Austrian Empire was to become publicly known, Murat approached her in hopes of getting her approval for his actions. She responded by telling him he owed his allegiance to France. He threw up his hands, claimed he was a traitor and pointed to the English ships sitting in the harbor.

Madame Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

His sorrow was obvious, but even if his decision went against his brother-in-law, his wife Caroline supported him. Murat’s subjects also supported his actions and thus, a couple of days later, he rode out of Naples with his troops to threaten Napoleon in northern Italy. Of course, when Napoleon heard Murat had defected, he could barely believe he would do such a thing and abandon him:

“‘No,’ he exclaimed to those about him, ‘it cannot be! Murat, to whom I have given my sister! Murat, to whom I have given a throne! Eugene must be misinformed. It is impossible that Murat has declared himself against me!”[9]

Yet, Murat had defected and the agreement he reached with his new allies did not last long because after Napoleon’s grab for power during the Hundred Days Murat learned that European powers at the Congress of Vienna intended to remove him and return the Kingdoms of Naples to their pre-Napoleonic rulers. He therefore deserted his new allies, issued a proclamation to the Italian patriots in Rimini, and moved north to fight against the Austrians in the Neapolitan War. Murat’s hope was to strengthen his rule in Naples by military means.

With all the vigor that Murat possessed he battled to keep his throne. Unfortunately, he would need more than bravery and was defeated by the Austrian general Frederick Bianchi at the Battle of Tolentino that began on 2 May 1815. In the end, Murat had to fall back to Naples where he found himself forced to flee to Corsica because the Austrians were approaching by land and the British by sea. He made good his escape disguised as a Danish sailor having cut his hair short and instead of his usual flamboyant dress, this time he wore a “plain grey suit.”

Murat was soon joined by a thousand followers who hoped that he would regain control of Naples by fomenting an insurrection in southern Italy in Calabria. After arriving at the port of Pizzo he attempted to do just that and tried to rally support for his cause, but instead of support he found a hostile crowd. People were mad at him because he had suppressed piracy and brigandage during his reign and in addition a mother blamed him for the death of her son. Thus, it did not take long for the forces of King Ferdinand IV of Naples to find him, capture him, and arrest him.

Joach Murat being arrested

Joachim Murat’s arrest. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Joachim Murat was imprisoned in the small Castello di Pizzo, tried for treason, and sentenced to death by firing squad. After hearing that he had been condemned, he took the news bravely, wrote an affectionate letter to his wife, cut off some locks of hair, and placed them in the envelope. He also made sure that another important thing would be in the envelope. It was the “seal of his watch, which would be found in his right hand after his death (it was a cornelian, representing the face of his wife). He then said to the recorder, ‘Do not wait any longer; I am prepared to die.’”[10]

When the fatal moment arrived, Joachim Murat rose and walked firmly to the spot. He was brave, unwavering, and stoic as he faced death. In fact, he adamantly refused a blindfold declaring, “I have braved death too often to fear it.”[11] Then without hesitation the 48-year-old faced his executioners and when everything was ready, he kissed the portrait of his wife and like the “Dandy King” he was he uttered:

“Soldiers, … do your duty, shoot but spare the face!*

Joachim Murat being executed

Joachim Murat’s execution. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

*“Soldats, … faites votre devoir, tirez mais épargnez le visage!”[12]


  • [1] W. Tait, Tait’s Edinburgh magazine (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1841), p. 790.
  • [2] L.A.F. de Bourrienne, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1832), p. 200.
  • [3] R. Horricks, Napoleon’s Elites (cloth) (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995), p. 100.
  • [4] L. J. Abrantès, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès: (Madame Junot) (London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831), p. 77–78.
  • [5] L.A.F. de Bourrienne. 1832, p. 201.
  • [6] L.A.F. de Bourrienne and J. S. Memes, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (London: Scott, Webster & Geary, 1839), p. 138.
  • [7] Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “Buonaparte,” July 17, 1822, p. 8.
  • [8] J. M. Thompson, ed., Letters of Napoleon (London: Read Books, Ltd., 2013), p. 628.
  • [9] L.A.F. de Bourrienne. 1832, p. 582.
  • [10] The Flowers of Anecdote, Wit, Humor, Gayety and Genius (Boston: Frederic S. Hill, 1831), p. 236.
  • [11] S. D. Whitehead, The Court and Camp of Buonaparte (London: John Murray, 1829), p. 282.
  • [12] Almanach du drapeau: Livret du patriote du marin et du soldat (Paris: Hachette et cie, 1907), p. 232.

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