René Savary, the Duke of Rovigo: Napoleon’s Henchman

René Savary, Duke of Rovigo by Robert Lefèvre, 1814

René Savary, Duke of Rovigo by Robert Lefèvre, 1814

French soldier, diplomat and police minister René Savary, the Duke of Rovigo, has the reputation of being one of Napoleon’s most bloodthirsty aides. Though Napoleon could, and did, count on Savary to carry out any number of dark deeds, Savary was not by nature an evil person. He seems to have been motivated by a desire for wealth and by a genuine devotion to Napoleon. Savary’s involvement in the death of the Duke of Enghien meant that he was not trusted by the Bourbons after Napoleon’s defeat. He was later rehabilitated for a brutal stint as commander of the French forces in Algeria.

An object of preference

Anne Jean Marie René Savary was born on April 26, 1774 in Marcq, a village in the Ardennes department of northern France. He was the third son of cavalry officer Ponce Savary and his wife, Victoire Loth de Saussay. Savary’s mother died when he was seven, leaving the boys to grow up under their father’s rigorous discipline at the château de Sedan, a medieval fortified castle. Savary’s oldest brother was at the military school at Brienne at the same time as Napoleon. He also served with Napoleon as an artillerist in the regiment of La Fère.

René Savary was educated at the College of St. Louis in Metz. In 1790, at the age of 16, he joined the French cavalry regiment in which his father had served. He immediately saw action in the suppression of a mutiny at the garrison of Nancy.

Savary fought in several campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars.

Steeled against fatigue, abstemious by habit, having already made some display of temerity, and being gifted by nature with a good memory, I had become an object of preference to my chiefs, when there was some hazardous enterprise to execute. (1)

Savary became an aide-de-camp to General Louis Desaix. He accompanied Desaix on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Describing the charge of the mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids, Savary wrote:

Although the troops that were in Egypt had been long inured to danger…every one present at the battle of the Pyramids must acknowledge, if he be sincere, that the charge of those ten thousand mamelukes was most awful, and that there was reason, at one moment, to apprehend their breaking through our formidable square, rushing as they did upon them with a confidence which enforced a sullen silence in our ranks….

It seemed as if we must inevitably be trampled…under the feet of this cavalry of mamelukes, who were all mounted upon splendid chargers richly caparisoned with gold and silver trappings, covered with draperies of all colours, and waving scarfs, and who were bearing down upon us at full gallop, rending the air with their cries. (2)

General Desaix was killed at the Battle of Marengo in Italy in June 1800. Savary retrieved his body and broke the news to Napoleon.

I found the general stretched upon the ground completely stripped of his clothes, and surrounded by other naked bodies. I recognised him, notwithstanding the darkness, owing to the thickness of his hair, which still retained its tie.

I had been too long attached to his person to suffer his body to remain on this spot, where it would have been indiscriminately buried with the rest.

I removed a cloak from under the saddle of a horse lying dead at a short distance, and wrapped General Desaix’s body in it, with the assistance of an hussar, who had stayed on the field of battle, and joined me in the performance of this mournful duty. He consented to lay it across his horse, and to lead the animal by the bridle as far as Gorrofolo, whilst I should go to communicate the misfortune to the First Consul, who desired me to follow him to Gorrofolo, where I gave him an account of what had taken place. He approved what I had done, and ordered the body to be carried to Milan for the purpose of being embalmed. (3)

Napoleon’s aide

Impressed by Savary’s loyalty to his commanding officer, Napoleon made Savary his aide-de-camp. In 1801, René Savary was appointed commander of the elite gendarmes guarding the First Consul. He became a friend of Napoleon’s family. Savary was frequently invited to Josephine’s country estate of Malmaison, where he played in theatrical productions.

On February 27, 1802, Savary married Marie-Charlotte-Félicité de Faudoas-Barbazan de Segnanville, a 17-year-old classmate of Josephine’s daughter Hortense. Like Josephine, Félicité was a Creole, born in the French Caribbean. The couple went on to have seven children: Hortense Josephine (born in 1802), Léontine (1804), Louise (1807), Marie Charlotte (1811), Napoléon Marie René (1813), Anne Charlotte (1814), and Marie François Tristan (1816). Neither spouse was faithful. One of Savary’s mistresses was Madame du Cayla, later the mistress of Louis XVIII. Félicité also had a lover, Sébastiani, who is believed to have fathered her youngest son, the writer and adventurer Gustave Aimard.

In late 1803 Savary helped uncover the plot by Georges Cadoudal and Jean-Charles Pichegru to assassinate Napoleon. Like Pierre-François Réal, Savary’s reputation was tarnished by the subsequent arrest and execution, on March 21, 1804, of a Bourbon prince, the Duke of Enghien, on trumped-up charges. Savary was present at Enghien’s court-martial, but did not participate in it. The unanimous verdict was death. The presiding general said afterwards that he had tried to write to Napoleon with an appeal for mercy, but someone (understood to be Savary) had intervened to prevent the dispatch, an accusation Savary denied. Savary’s biographer, Thierry Lentz, says that no one could have saved Enghien; Napoleon wanted him dead. (4) Savary commanded the firing squad. General Henri Betrand’s wife Fanny later told Neil Campbell, the British commissioner who accompanied Napoleon to Elba, that

Savary ordered a lantern to be tied to the Duke d’Enghien’s breast, in consequence of his requesting that the soldiers would not fail in their shots. (5)

In 1805, René Savary, now a general, returned to the battlefield as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. He undertook special diplomatic missions for Napoleon and organized a ring of spies for him. Savary was at the Battles of Austerlitz and Friedland. He assured the security of Warsaw, was named governor of Konigsburg, and in 1807 became an envoy extraordinaire to St. Petersburg. Upon returning to Paris, he returned to the elite gendarmerie. Savary accumulated a fortune as Napoleon rewarded him handsomely for his services. “He is a man,” said Napoleon, “that one must continually corrupt.” (6) At the same time, Napoleon knew that Savary would refuse him nothing.

If I ordered Savary to part with his wife and his children, I’m sure he would not hesitate. (7)

In 1808, Savary was named Duke of Rovigo. That same year Savary was sent to Spain, where he helped Napoleon remove the Spanish Bourbons from the throne.

In 1810, Napoleon appointed Savary Minister of Police, replacing Joseph Fouché. As such, Savary gained a reputation for censorship, cynicism and brutality. Savary stuck with Napoleon right up until the latter’s exile to Elba in April 1814. He was among the first to welcome Napoleon back when he returned to France in 1815. During the Hundred Days, Savary was appointed inspector-general of the gendarmerie. He remained with Napoleon after the defeat at Waterloo, and was among those pressing Napoleon to give himself up to England, rather than try to escape to the United States. Savary sailed to Plymouth with Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon. During this voyage he was described as “a very fine looking man, about 50, with a countenance expressive of superior talents.” (8)

Though he wanted to, Savary was not allowed to accompany Napoleon to St. Helena. Like Charles and Henri Lallemand and Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Savary was among those proscribed by the French ordinance of July 24, 1815. This meant he was wanted for arrest and trial (under pain of death) for his actions during the Hundred Days. Recounting Savary’s despair at being separated from Napoleon, Charles de Montholon wrote:

He loved the Emperor with all his heart, and with such affection, that I can compare it to nothing else than that of a dog for his master. (9)

Napoleon later said on St. Helena:

Savary is a man of good heart, and a brave soldier. … He loves me with the affection of a son. (10)

Seeking rehabilitation

René Savary, with Charles Lallemand, was interned for several months at Malta. He escaped in April 1816, apparently with the English government’s agreement, and went to Turkey. On December 24, 1816, he was condemned to death in absentia by a French court. Savary wrote to Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich asking for asylum. He reminded Metternich that he had been of assistance to Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise, who was the daughter of Austrian Emperor Francis I. Savary was granted permission to live at Gratz in Stiria, where his wife visited him. French authorities became alarmed, however, when they heard rumours that Savary might be plotting to try to place Napoleon’s and Marie Louise’s son, the King of Rome, on the French throne. Austria acceded to French demands to expel Savary. In June 1819 he moved to London.

Meanwhile Savary’s wife had been trying to obtain a reversal of her husband’s sentence. In late 1819 Savary returned to France and surrendered. He was tried in a court-martial on December 27, 1819, and was found not guilty. There were probably negotiations between him and the French government to allow his acquittal in exchange for an agreement not to publish his memoirs. In light of Savary’s relationship with Madame du Cayla, these could have compromised King Louis XVIII as well as others.

Savary settled with his family on his estate at Nainville, outside of Paris. Not content with saving his neck, Savary thought he should be able to reclaim his previous privileges as a French officer. Instead he was put on half pay and transferred to reserve duty. Concerned about his diminished fortune, Savary pestered members of the royal administration who had served with him during the Consulate and Empire. He wanted full reintegration into the army and a dignified command. Madame du Cayla intervened on his behalf. Savary was granted several audiences with Louis XVIII, who was interested in finding out whether Savary could tell him anything about liberal or Bonapartist plots against his rule. As you will see in Napoleon in America, Savary may have been playing both sides.

Savary thought his turn had come when France was getting ready to intervene in Spain in 1823. He imagined that the French army had need of his knowledge of the country. He wrote to the Minister of War seeking a commission. The response was a polite refusal that invoked both the memory of the Duke of Enghien and Savary’s role during the Hundred Days. Savary persisted, pressing Prime Minister Villèle, to no avail. Though friends advised him not to, in the fall of 1823 he published his account of the Enghien affair. This excused both himself and Napoleon. He blamed Talleyrand for the Duke’s death. Talleyrand rallied Louis XVIII to his side, and the king forbade Savary from entering the Tuileries Palace. In December 1823 Savary was permanently retired from the army.

Savary turned to writing his memoirs, which he published in multiple volumes in 1828-1829. They are distinctly Bonapartist. Of Napoleon, he wrote:

No man ever did so much good, or met with so much ingratitude. Great stress will be laid upon the sacrifices which humanity had to endure and the wars which it was not in his power to avert, but no notice will be taken of the service which he exclusively conferred…. [H]is brilliant career remains to defend him; it is exclusively the offspring of his genius and his immortal works will long remain as objects of comparison difficult of attainment for those who shall attempt to imitate him; whilst Frenchmen will consider them as the proudest records in their history. They will also serve as an answer to all those attacks which a spirit of revenge never ceases to direct against them, and when time, which analyzes everything, shall have disarmed resentment, Napoleon will be held up to the veneration of history as the man of the people, as the hero of liberal institutions. (11)

René Savary after the 1830 Revolution

After a year in Italy, Savary and his wife returned to Paris after the July 1830 Revolution. Charles X had abdicated, and the new king, Louis-Philippe, did not hold the senior Bourbons’ grudge. Savary again asked to be reintegrated into the army. In December 1831 Savary was named governor of the French possessions in Africa and commander of the occupying army in Algeria. He quarrelled with his subordinates and ruled as a despot. In 1833, Savary, a heavy smoker, developed a sore throat that turned out to be cancer of the larynx. He lost his voice and returned to France, where he died on June 2, 1833. René Savary is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Madame de Rémusat summed him up as follows:

Savary, the object of general terror, despite his conduct…was not fundamentally a bad man. His dominant passion was a taste for money. Without any military talent…he had to dream of making his fortune by means other than those employed by his companions in arms. He saw a way forward in following the system of cunning and denunciations that Bonaparte favoured, and having once been introduced to it, it was not possible for him to think of retiring. He was better than his reputation…. He had reasons to know Bonaparte and tremble before him. When he was minister, he dared allow himself some shadow of resistance, and thus showed himself accessible to a certain desire to recommend himself to public opinion…. The emperor carefully cultivated among men all shameful passions; under his reign, they were particularly productive. (11)

There is no biography in English of René Savary. Thierry Lentz has written a fine one in French: Savary: le séide de Napoléon (Fayard, 2001).  You can read extracts of Savary’s memoirs (in English) on the War Times Journal website. His full memoirs are available for free on the Internet Archive.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Policeman, Pierre-François Réal

General Charles Lallemand: Invader of Texas

Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

Assassination Attempts on Napoleon Bonaparte

Gustave Aimard, the Frenchman Who Wrote Westerns

  1. Anne Jean Marie René Savary, Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo Illustrative of the History of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. I (London, 1828), p. 6.
  2. Ibid., p. 157.
  3. Ibid., pp. 181-182.
  4. Thierry Lentz, Savary: le séide de Napoléon (Paris, 2001), pp. 120-121.
  5. Neil Campbell, Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (London, 1869), p. 295.
  6. Paul de Rémusat, ed., Mémoires de Madame de Rémusat, Vol. II (Paris, 1880), p. 245.
  7. Ibid., p. 245.
  8. “Buonapartiana,” The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. 85 (London, December 1815), p. 517.
  9. Charles Tristan Montholon, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1846), p. 113.
  10. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. I (New York, 1853), p. 163.
  11. Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo, Vol. IV, pp. 185-186.
  12. Mémoires de Madame de Rémusat, Vol. II, pp 245-247.

14 commments on “René Savary, the Duke of Rovigo: Napoleon’s Henchman”

  • Margaret Chrisawn says:

    I am not sure why you wrote that “In 1808, Savary was named Duke of Rovigo. The only other person Napoleon ever honoured with a dukedom was Caulaincourt, who became Duke of Vicenza.” By the middle of the summer of 1808 almost all the marshals and a few superlative administrators had been awarded ducal titles: Massena/Rivoli, Ney/Elchingen, Lannes/Montebello, and the list goes on and on. Savary and Caulaincourt, both of whom were Imperial DCs and generals at the time, received ducal titles attached to provinces, rather than as battlefield commemorations, but that was also true for Oudinot and Marmont, for example.

    Of course, I also agree that no one could have saved Enghien and, from a purely subjective historical POV, I’ve never shed a tear over him.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks very much for the correction, Margaret. I’ve updated the post.

    • Irene Hartlmayr says:

      I agree! There have been worse things done on earth,and I never understand why so much fuss is made over Enghien’s execution. Except,of course,that it must be bad because done by Napoleon. When the Russians murdered Tsar Paul I nobody in Europe made a fuss about that. That was done by
      “legitimate” people, therefore it was all right. Prejudice is forever present when confronting Napoleon.

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Hello Shannon,
    If you describe Savary as being ” one of Napoleons most bloodthirsty aides” and write of ” dark deeds”,I wonder what exactly you mean by that,as you do not elaborate. Savary was less delicate than Fouche in carrying out orders or indications but what exactly do you mean by “bloodthirsty”? The execution of the Duc D’ Enghien has been commented on copiously by all kinds of Historians, mainly by Napoleon-haters, of course, so that is nothing new. As concerns Mme de Remusat, that spiteful lady did not leave behind any positive remarks about Napoleon, or his reputation, for posterity-for whatever reason. Her testimony must be considered with scepticism and doubt. I wonder how much of her memoirs are to be considered authentic or true. They are usually quoted mainly by Napoleon-haters, who revel in the negative character portrait that she draws of Napoleon.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for your comments, Irene. Although I refer to Savary as having “the reputation of being one of Napoleon’s most bloodthirsty aides,” I try to indicate in the post that he was not as bad as some of his contemporaries made him out to be. As you note, his reputation was greatly affected by the Enghien affair.

      • Irene Hartlmayr says:

        Yes, I’m sorry, I missed that nuance. (I’m pretty tired, it’s late here). However, I still wonder what is meant by “bloodthirsty”? It is generally acknowledged that he was less subtle than Fouche, and very much addicted to Napoleon, but the police (altogether) under Napoleon was nowhere near the methods used in the 20th century in other dictatorships, who were really criminal and “bloodthirsty.”

        • Shannon Selin says:

          I think the blood attached to Savary’s reputation was largely that of the Duke of Enghien, coupled with the knowledge he would do whatever Napoleon asked of him. As the public was not generally aware what this was, people probably imagined the deeds were darker than they were. Savary was known for his role in diplomatic intrigue (e.g. removing the Spanish royals), spying, censorship, interrogation, imprisonment and exile (e.g. Madame de Staël). There is no doubt that he had a fearsome reputation. Savary writes in his own memoirs (Vol. II, Part 2, p. 214) regarding the public reaction to his appointment as Minister of Police: “I was a cause of terror to all; every one was making preparations for leaving Paris; nothing was spoken of but exiles, imprisonments, and measures of still greater severity; and I verily believe that the report of a plague on some point of the coast could not have occasioned a greater dread than my nomination to this department.”

  • chasethebear says:

    It would have been better to give Enghien a fair and public trial. I don’t know if there was much evidence he was NOT guilty. I have never shed a tear for him; I think of all the awful things that happened to men, women, and children during the 1789-1815 era, before it, and since. Napoleon found himself in a nest of vipers, in comparison with whom was a noble man. By the way, I wonder if anyone knows whether Napoleon actually said, “Men must be very bad if they are as bad as I think they are”? I seem to remember reading this somewhat but I can’t locate where, so am not sure if I really did read it. Thanks for the article, Shannon.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      You’re most welcome. Thanks for your comments. I haven’t come across that particular quote, but Napoleon may well have said it.

      • Irene Hartlmayr says:

        The said quote by Napoleon is usually ascribed to the St.Helena period.I would have to look it up and go hunting for the quote. The fact that it is ascribed to him does,of course,not prove that he actually said it. So many quotes in History are attributed to people who never said any such thing, and these quotes are then used by Historians according to their bias. And there is another problem: Historians tend to forget that historical personalities are human beings who have their good and bad moods just like everybody else – what they say is then given more weight than the quote deserves because they are prominent.There is a wealth of other sayings by Napoleon, quoted in the reliable eyewitness literature, that show a lot more differentiated appreciation of human nature.

        Anyway, thanks to all of you for your opinions.

    • Irene Hartlmayr says:

      I agree with the statement that Napoleon found himself in a nest of vipers,in comparison with whom he (I presume that is meant) was a noble man. Talleyrand was one of the vipers, that is for sure. Napoleon himself was not a bad-intentioned man, in my opinion. Basically. The d’Enghien case has been put forth in many variations, so the argument will presumably go on. At least Napoleon did not shove the responsibility on to others: in a supplement to his testament, a short time before his death, he stated precisely that he thought that d’Enghien’s execution was for the good of France at that point and that, under similar circumstances, he would do the same again.

  • Fatimah Siddiqui says:

    Hello Shannon, A great many French writers suggest that it may have been Talleyrand or Fouché who intercepted any communications from Enghien to Napoléon. I’d bet on Talley. Certainly it was not Savary. Cheers.

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He loved the Emperor with all his heart, and with such affection, that I can compare it to nothing else than that of a dog for his master.

Charles de Montholon