Napoleon and the Grand-Duchy of Berg

Old view of Königswinter
Old view of Königswinter

The Rhineland at the end of the 18th century. The French Revolution had shattered Europe’s monarchies. War broke out, Prussian and Austrian armies marched against France. The Jacobins got the upper hand and proclaimed the republic.

After their failed escape attempt, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, youngest daughter of Maria Theresia, were found guilty and executed in 1793.

The French troops stopped the first attack on Paris and stroke back. The Revolutionary Government introduced mass conscription, and the mercenary armies of Prussia and Austria had to fight against a people’s army of men who fought for their country and the ideas of the revolution. Their war song, the Marseillaise, became the national anthem of France.

The Rhine frontier

French troops occupied the left bank of the Rhine. Bonn fell on October 6, 1794. De facto, the Rhine was now the border between France and the Holy Roman Empire. Nonetheless, many people welcomed the French, because some achievements of the French Revolution now came to Germany, for instance liberation from serfdom, freedom of trade, abolition of the aristocracy’s privileges, and end of the manorial system.

In the meantime, Russia, Austria and Prussia had divided Poland among themselves for a second (1793) and third (1795) time. Prussia under King Frederick William II (1786-1797) had annexed large territories. To concentrate on his new territories in the East, the King negotiated peace with France. As soon as he had compensations for lost Prussian territories on the left bank of the Rhine (Cleves) guaranteed, Prussia quit the coalition against Revolutionary France for more than a decade. Already in the same year, French troops crossed the Rhine to fight against the imperial Austrian troops. Soldiers of both armies marched through our region, and the imperial troops needed quarters and food.

At the Rhine frontier
At the Rhine frontier

The End of the Old Empire

In France, Napoléon Bonaparte had seized power in his coup d’état of November 9, 1799. Five years later, in 1894, he crowned himself Emperor.

Napoleon’s victories

For years, Austria, Prussia and Russia were no match for him. Napoleon defeated the Austrians in Italy. In the Treaty of Campo Formio of October 17, 1797, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II (in German Franz II.) had to cede Habsburg territories to France. Moreover, he had to formally acknowledge the Rhine river as border between France and the Empire; the occupied left bank became French territory. Four years later, on February 8, 1801, the treaty of Lunéville confirmed the annexation of the left bank by France and obliged the Holy Roman Empire to compensate those princes who had lost territories there.


On February 23, 1803, the Reichstag (Imperial Diet) passed a resolution on how to settle these compensations, referred to as the “Reichsdeputationshauptschluss” (in English: Principal Conclusion of the Extraordinary Imperial Delegation). One would secularize the Ecclesiastical states and give their lands to other, usually neighboring secular principalities. In other words, one would dispossess most of the bishops and archbishops were dispossessed. Moreover, almost all small states lost their sovereignty and became part of other, bigger states (mediatization).

n the other hand, some princes gained more for compensation than they had lost. Among the winners were the rulers of Bavaria and Württemberg, they became kings.

Also the Archbishopric of Cologne, an ecclesiastical state, was secularized. Its territories in our region eventually fell to the Counts of Berg, who then ceded them to Napoleon in 1806. Heisterbach Abbey was dissolved and its demolition ordered. The last Archbishop Maximilian Franz of Habsburg, Maria Theresia’s youngest son, had to flee.

Trafalgar and Austerlitz

Austria, Sweden, Russia and England again joined forces against Napoleon. In the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, the French fleet suffered a devastating defeat by the British Royal Navy under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson. Two month later, in the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805 Napoleon, supported by troops from Bavaria and Württemberg, defeated the armies of the Russian Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Francis II.

Confederation of the Rhine

Napoleon’s armies now controlled much of the Holy Roman Empire. Most German states on the right bank grouped together into the “Confederation of the Rhine” (1806) under French protection. Later, almost all other states joined, except for Prussia, Austria, Danish Holstein and Swedish Pommerania. De facto, the Holy Roman Empire did not exist anymore. Pushed by Napoleon, Francis II abdicated and declared the abolition of Holy Roman Empire. From now on, he was “Emperor of Austria”.

The Grand Duchy of Berg as model state

In March 15, 1806, the Duke of Berg, in personal union King of Bavaria, ceded the duchy to Napoleon. By decree of March 26, 1806, Napoleon assigned it to his cavalry general and brother-in law, Joachim Murat. When Murat became King of Naples in 1808, Napoleon himself took over.

On February 12, 1808, serfdom was abolished in Berg. Two years later, on January 1, 1810, the French Franc was introduced. The same day, the Code Civil or Code Napoléon entered in force and assured equality of all citizens before the law. Administration and economy were reorganized along the lines of the French model, the manorial system was abolished, allowing freedom of trade. In 1812, a uniform jurisdiction followed. Many changes were changes for the better.

But Napoleon also forcibly enlisted soldiers from the Confederation of the Rhine to fight in his campaigns. Military service in the French army became mandatory, since 1806 the Grand Duchy of Berg had to recruit 5,000 men a year for Napoleon’s wars. Soldiers from Berg fought against Prussia and in Spain. In the later Napoleonic war, countless French and auxiliary soldiers would lose their lives.

Back then in the Siebengebirge

Napoleon enlarged the Duchy of Berg and elevated it to Grand Duchy. lso Königswinter now fell to the new Grand Duchy of Berg.Then also the town of Königswinter with the mountains Wolkenburg and Drachenfels became part of the new Grand Duchy of Berg. Napoleon organized the Grand Duchy of Berg according to the French model as a model state for the Rhine Confederation.

Prussian campaign

Finally, the Prussian King Frederick William III (in German Friedrich Wilhelm, 1797-1840) took up arms against Napoleon, but now he was on his own. In the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Prussia suffered a devastating defeat, the King and his family fled to Memel in Eastern Prussia, and Napoleon rode into Berlin at the top of his troops. Under the treaty of Tilsit in 1807, Prussia lost almost half of her territories, including all possessions west of the Elbe river. In vain Queen Louise asked for milder terms.

Napoleon established the Kingdom of Westphalia and gave it to his younger brother Jérome, to become a model state for the Confederation of the Rhine. Prussia was occupied by French troops, and forced into a military alliance with France. In these times of hardships, great men such as Stein and Hardenberg, set about reforming and modernizing the Prussian state, General Gneisenau reformed the Prussian army.

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