Napoleon vs. Tsar Alexander: Friendship and Rivalry

From friendship to rivalry, here’s how Tsar Alexander I of Russia eventually took revenge for his humiliation at Austerlitz by masterminding Napoleon’s downfall.

Apr 6, 2024By Jimmy Chen, MPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and History

napoleon tsar alexander friends rivals


On a cold winter’s day in December 1805, Emperor Napoleon won his most famous victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, humbling the emperors of Austria and Russia. After another triumph over the Russians at Friedland in June 1807, Napoleon made peace with Tsar Alexander at Tilsit in July. Despite the cordial friendship that developed between the two emperors, the Franco-Russian alliance soon began to fracture. This led to Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812 and Alexander’s efforts to build a coalition that would occupy Paris and force Napoleon to abdicate.


The Meeting on the Raft

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Entrevue des deux empereurs by Louis Jean Allais after Jean-Baptiste Debret, between 1807 and 1818. Source: British Museum, London


On June 25, 1807, the French and Russian armies gathered on opposite banks of the River Neman at the east Prussian town of Tilsit (now Sovetsk, Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia). Less than two weeks earlier, on June 14, the French army under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had won a crushing victory over General Levin August Bennigsen’s Russians at Friedland. Although Tsar Alexander I of Russia was personally leading two fresh army corps towards the theater of war, Friedland prompted the Russian ruler to sue for peace.


The two emperors were to meet in a tent on a raft in the middle of the Neman. As the tsar stepped onto the raft to greet his French counterpart, he remarked, “Sire, I hate the British as much as you.” Upon hearing this, Napoleon replied, “In that case… peace is made.” (Asprey, 2001, p. 75)


The two men were immediately attracted to each other. Alexander aspired to military glory and admired Napoleon’s conquests, and the latter offered him a corps command in a future war. Napoleon was enchanted by the tsar’s youthful charms and would later write to his wife Josephine, “If Tsar Alexander were a woman, I would make him my mistress.” (Asprey, 2001, p. 128)

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It would take two weeks to hammer out the details of the Treaty of Tilsit, which was signed on July 7. While Russia was obliged to join the Continental System – the trade embargo Napoleon imposed on Britain in an effort to starve his foes into submission – Alexander avoided significant territorial concessions. The tsar’s ally, the Kingdom of Prussia, was not so fortunate, having its eastern (Polish) provinces carved out to form the Duchy of Warsaw, a French client state.


Napoleon Bonaparte

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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, 1807. Source: Louvre Museum, Paris


Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I’s backgrounds could not be more different. Bonaparte was born to a minor noble family in Corsica in 1769, a year after the island was sold to France by Genoa. After receiving his military education in France, Napoleon rapidly rose up the ranks following the Revolution of 1789, announcing himself on the international stage in 1796 by leading a brilliant campaign against the Austrians in northern Italy.


In 1798, Bonaparte was sent to Egypt in an attempt to disrupt Britain’s communications with India. Despite initial successes, Napoleon’s army was trapped in Egypt when the French fleet was destroyed by Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. After a failed attempt to fight his way through Syria and Palestine, General Bonaparte left Egypt and slipped past the Royal Navy to arrive in France in August 1799. In early November, he overthrew the French government in a coup and installed himself as First Consul of the French Republic.


First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte set about consolidating his power after the decade of political turmoil unleashed by the revolution. After reconquering Italy from the Austrians, he made peace with them in February 1801. Later that year, he reached a settlement with the Pope on the status of the Catholic Church in France. In early 1802, France and Britain also came to terms at the Treaty of Amiens. By the spring of 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, and he was crowned in a ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804.


Tsar Alexander I

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Alexander I, Emperor of Russia by George Dawe, 1818-25. Source: Royal Collection Trust, London


Born into the House of Romanov in 1777, Tsar Alexander I was the grandson of Empress Catherine the Great (1762-96) and the son of Tsar Paul I (1796-1801). While Catherine and Paul hated each other, Alexander inherited his grandmother’s liberal views and his father’s fondness for military parade. After his accession to the throne in 1796, Paul reversed many of his mother’s policies. He admired the stern order of the Prussian army and attempted to introduce Prussian uniforms and discipline to his army, alienating many officers in the process. In March 1801, disgruntled Russian officers overthrew and murdered Paul in a coup.


Although he supported the coup, Alexander did not expect his father to be killed in the process and briefly considered renouncing the throne. Having received an education inspired by the Enlightenment, Alexander and a group of his young friends attempted to introduce liberal reforms but struggled to make progress in the face of opposition from conservative aristocrats.


The Sun of Austerlitz

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The Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard, 1810. Source: Palace of Versailles


Although both Napoleon and Alexander preferred to focus on domestic reforms, by 1805, France and Russia were at war. The Peace of Amiens proved short-lived, and hostilities between Britain and France resumed in May 1803. In January 1804, Napoleon uncovered a plot by royalists to overthrow him. He believed the plotters hoped to install the Duc d’Enghien, a young French aristocrat, as the new king. Napoleon sent troops over the border to abduct the duke and take him to France, where he was executed on March 21, 1804.


D’Enghien had been taking refuge in the Grand Duchy of Baden, ruled by Alexander’s father-in-law, and his kidnapping and murder prompted a diplomatic protest from the tsar. The following year, Russia joined Austria and Britain in the Third Coalition against France. The Austrians planned to invade France through Bavaria with two Russian armies in support. In August, after French admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve failed to break through to the English Channel to support an invasion of Britain, Napoleon turned his army eastwards to confront the Austrians.


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Portrait of Mikhail Kutuzov by George Dawe, 1829. Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


In a lightning campaign, Napoleon surprised Austrian General Karl Mack at Ulm in Bavaria and forced over 40,000 Austrians to surrender on October 19. Upon learning of Mack’s defeat, Russian commander Mikhail Kutuzov hurried back along the Danube valley and successfully joined up with the second Russian column to restore allied numerical superiority. Although Kutuzov was reluctant to assume the offensive, the tsar and his entourage of ambitious young officers saw an opportunity to humble the Corsican upstart.


The Battle of Austerlitz was fought on December 2, 1805, the anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation. On the eve of the battle, Napoleon withdrew Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult’s IV Corps from the Pratzen Heights and left his right flank weak to encourage the allies to attack. On Napoleon’s right, Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout’s III Corps arrived during the night and used the terrain to their advantage to blunt the momentum of the allied attack. Once the allied center was sufficiently weakened, Napoleon ordered the IV Corps to seize the Pratzen Heights. The “Sun of Austerlitz” burned away the morning mist, revealing Soult’s men marching up the heights and throwing the coalition army into confusion. After overcoming a fierce counterattack from the Russian Guards, Napoleon sealed his most famous victory, while Alexander was seen weeping after the battle.


An Uneasy Alliance

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The Imperial Embrace on the Raft by Charles Williams, 1807. Source: British Museum, London


While the Austrians sued for peace after Austerlitz, Alexander continued the fight and joined the Prussians in the War of the Fourth Coalition in 1806. The main Prussian field armies were annihilated by Napoleon and his marshals at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt on October 14, 1806, and the remnants retreated eastwards to join up with the Russians. During the winter of 1806-07, General Bennigsen maneuvered skillfully to keep Napoleon at bay, but on June 14, 1807, his luck ran out when his army was trapped in front of the Alle River at Friedland.


Despite the personal chemistry between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit, the Franco-Russian alliance that emerged proved an uneasy one. In 1808-09, Russia went to war against Sweden, bringing Sweden into the Continental System and annexing Finland to Russia in the process. When the Austrians declared war on France in early 1809, Alexander delayed sending Napoleon reinforcements, ensuring that the Russians avoided most of the fighting by the time Napoleon won his decisive victory at Wagram in July.


When Napoleon annexed Austria’s Polish territories to the Duchy of Warsaw, Alexander was increasingly alarmed that the French Emperor would support the full restoration of Polish nationhood. He regarded the Duchy of Warsaw as a dagger pointed at the heart of the Russian Empire. Meanwhile, the ban on British trade was hurting the Russian economy, and in 1810, Alexander resumed trade with the British. Both France and Russia began to prepare for the resumption of war.


The Campaign of 1812

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The Battle of the Moskova (Borodino) by Louis-François Lejeune, 1822. Source: Palace of Versailles


On June 24, 1812, Napoleon crossed the Neman at Kaunas in Lithuania at the head of an army of more than half a million men. Napoleon was determined to bring the Russian army to battle, secure a decisive victory before the end of summer, and make a favorable peace treaty with Alexander.


The tsar was equally determined to resist. In 1811, he informed the French ambassador Armand de Caulaincourt that even if defeated in battle, “I should retire to Kamchatka rather than cede provinces.” (Caulaincourt, 1935, p. 6). In a proclamation the day after Napoleon’s invasion, Alexander announced that he would not lay down his arms until the last enemy soldier was expelled from his realm.


Although Alexander was with the Russian army at headquarters at the beginning of the campaign, he was persuaded by his generals to leave the front to rally his subjects in Moscow. Alexander duly handed over command to General Mikhail Barclay de Tolly. Barclay had been Minister of War since 1810 and led reforms to improve the effectiveness of the Russian army. With fewer than 200,000 Russian troops on the western border, Barclay knew he had to preserve his manpower and avoid battle until numerical parity.


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Portrait of Mikhail Barclay de Tolly by George Dawe, 1829. Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


As the Russians retreated towards Moscow, Napoleon’s supply lines stretched longer and longer. However, Barclay’s decision to abandon large amounts of Russian territory with minimal resistance prompted Alexander to appoint General Kutuzov as supreme commander. On September 7, 1812, Kutuzov fought Napoleon to a standstill at the Battle of Borodino, but heavy Russian losses obliged him to abandon Moscow to the enemy.


Napoleon entered Moscow in triumph a week later, expecting the tsar to sue for peace. Instead, he encountered a largely empty city in flames. As the days passed, Napoleon’s men were running out of supplies, and the emperor sent Alexander two letters inviting him to peace talks. Alexander refused to reply. The tsar was planning an ambitious strategic maneuver with three armies converging on Belarus from north, south, and east to cut off Napoleon’s retreat.


After languishing in Moscow for over a month, Napoleon decided to leave the ancient Russian capital in mid-October. An attempt to break through to the south to resupply his army was foiled at the Battle of Maloyaroslavets on October 24, forcing Napoleon to retreat westwards along the road already devastated by war. The winter snows devastated both armies, but the French were worse-equipped to deal with the cold. In late November 1812, as Alexander had planned, three Russian armies under General Pyotr Wittgenstein, Admiral Pavel Chichagov, and Field Marshal Kutuzov were poised to surround Napoleon at the Berezina River. Napoleon managed to escape the trap with 30,000 men.


The Sixth Coalition

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At the Battlefield near Leipzig by Johann Peter Krafft, 1839. Source: German Historical Museum, Berlin


In January 1813, Alexander declared victory over Napoleon in “the Patriotic War of 1812.” However, although most of his generals wanted to return home, Alexander believed that Napoleon continued to pose a threat to Russia as long as he remained on his throne. He saw an opportunity to take advantage of Napoleon’s weakness and lead a coalition to overthrow Napoleon in order to achieve a lasting peace.


In February 1813, Russia and Prussia signed an alliance to form the Sixth Coalition with Britain, and the allied armies duly liberated northern Germany from Napoleonic rule in early spring. By May, Napoleon was back on the field with a new army of 200,000 men. Although he managed to defeat the allies at Lützen and Bautzen in Saxony, he lacked the cavalry force to effectively exploit these victories. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s resurgence sufficiently alarmed Alexander and prompted him to seek assistance from Crown Prince Karl Johan of Sweden, formerly Marshal Bernadotte of France.


In early June 1813, Napoleon accepted an armistice and Austrian mediation. When Napoleon rejected Austrian terms proposed by Count Metternich, Austria joined the Sixth Coalition in August. While the Austrian general Prince Karl Philipp von Schwarzenberg assumed supreme command, Alexander continued to serve as political leader of the coalition. An impressive victory by Napoleon over Schwarzenberg at Dresden in late August failed to compensate for defeats by French marshals on other fronts.


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Equestrian Portrait of Joachim Murat, King of Naples by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1808/1812. Source: Louvre Museum, Paris


On October 16, Napoleon faced Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Leipzig while two more allied armies under Bernadotte and Prussian general Gebhard von Blücher were approaching from the north. In order to stand any chance of survival, Napoleon had to defeat Schwarzenberg before the allied reinforcements arrived. Without waiting for orders, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and cavalry commander Marshal Joachim Murat led a formidable charge against the allied center with 5,000 heavy cavalrymen, targeting the hill on which the three allied monarchs were standing. A timely Russian hussar charge into Murat’s flank blunted his momentum, and the tsar personally ordered his Life-Guard Cossack Regiment to exploit the success, forcing Murat to retreat. The arrival of allied reinforcements over the following days forced Napoleon to withdraw from Leipzig on the 19th.


Napoleon Dethroned

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Napoleon’s abdication at Fontainebleau by François Bouchot, 1845. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


After his defeat at Leipzig, Napoleon abandoned his claims to Germany and sought to rebuild his army to defend France. Although the allied armies were exhausted, the tsar overcame Austrian reluctance as the allies invaded France in January 1814.


Napoleon had fewer than 50,000 men under his command against the coalition army bearing down on Paris. The allies divided their armies into two columns, one under the cautious Schwarzenberg and the other under the aggressive Blücher. Taking advantage of the agility of his smaller army, Napoleon held Schwarzenberg back while dealing Blücher four defeats in six days between February 10 and 15.


It seemed as though the emperor was once again the young General Napoleon Bonaparte of his First Italian Campaign, but the numerical odds were too long. In late March, Napoleon tried to entice Schwarzenberg into following him to prevent the allies from entering Paris. Alexander persuaded the Austrian general to send 150,000 men under Barclay de Tolly toward Paris while an allied cavalry detachment continued to harass Napoleon.


After a few days of resistance, Paris surrendered to the allies on March 31, and Tsar Alexander entered Paris in triumph at the head of the coalition army. On April 2, the French Senate declared Napoleon deposed. Napoleon briefly attempted to rally his men but was soon persuaded that his cause was lost. He abdicated unconditionally on April 6, and the terms were confirmed at the Treaty of Fontainebleau on April 11, 1814. A mere eighteen months earlier, he had been in the Kremlin in Moscow.




Asprey, R. (2001). The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Basic Books.


Caulaincourt, A. (1935). With Napoleon in Russia: The Memoirs of General Caulaincourt, Duke of Vicenza. William Morrow and Company.


Chandler, D. (1995). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. (Original work published 1966)


Lieven, D. (2010). Russia Against Napoleon. Penguin Books. (Original work published 2009)

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By Jimmy ChenMPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and HistoryJimmy is an independent historian and writer based in Swindon, England. He has an MPhil in Modern European History from the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on music and Russian patriotism in the Napoleonic Wars. He obtained a BSc in Government and History from the London School of Economics. Jimmy has written scripts for ‘The People Profiles’ YouTube channel and has appeared as a guest on The Napoleonic Wars Podcast and the Generals and Napoleon Podcast. Jimmy is a passionate about travel and has travelled extensively through Europe visiting historical sites.