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Splitting the Distance

Randall Lesaffer

On 7 July 1807, the French Emperor Napoleon (1769–1821) and the Russian Tsar Alexander I (1777–1825) met on a purpose-built raft in the middle of the river Neman (Memel) at Tilsit, present-day Sjovetsk, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad close to the border of Lithuania. Both emperors were there to directly work out the conditions for the treaty of peace and alliance for which their representatives had laid the groundwork in the days after the belligerents had agreed on an armistice (Armistice of Tilsit, 21 June 1807, 59 CTS 201).

In 1805, Russia, fearful of the rapid growth of French power in Germany and Italy, had joined the Habsburg Monarchy and Britain in their war against Napoleon. The disastrous defeat at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805 had knocked Austria out of the war. In 1806 the British-Russian coalition had, belatedly, been joined by Prussia. Not awaiting the Russian army, the Prussians had been decisively beaten at Jena-Auerstedt on 14 October 1806 allowing the French to approach the Russian border. On 14 June 1807, the Russian army suffered a significant defeat at Friedland but was able to retreat with order over the Neman, still in East Prussia. The thalweg of the Neman was indicated in the armistice (Article 4) as part of the dividing line between the opposing armies. On 19 June, Alexander I sent one of his generals over the river to propose an armistice and to sound out whether Napoleon was willing to consider peace, without however making the proposal himself. Napoleon appeared not only to want peace, but also to draw Russia into an alliance against Britain.

The moment Alexander set foot on the raft on 7 July and embraced his opponent, he uttered that he loathed Britain as much as Napoleon did. This set the tone for a summit meeting whereby both men waged open discussions all over the board of European great power politics and ended carving up Europe into two spheres of influence. Although Russia had suffered defeat and lost its two major continental allies, Austria and Prussia, the resulting Treaty of Peace and Alliance of Tilsit, dated 7 July 1807 (59 CTS 231) was remarkably lenient on the court of Saint Petersburg. Apart from ceding the Ionian Islands to France, Russia lost none of its territories and was spared an indemnification. Although losing about half of its territory, the Prussian Kingdom was not wiped off the map. Alexander’s major concession was his promise to join the Continental Blockade and force Sweden to do so as well, and to declare war on Britain if it refused his mediation to broker peace with France. Moreover, he had to cede his conquests against the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and accept Napoleon’s mediation with the Porte. But he received a free hand against Sweden to take Finland.

As treaties between European sovereigns normally did, the wording of the treaty stressed the perfect equality of both princes and their states. But the concern for equality was also a dominant factor in the organization of the meeting. The decision to meet on a raft on the Neman was the expression of the perfect equality of both emperors. It was all the more striking that the two emperors decided to overstep these worries about precedence and that at the end of the second day the Russian Tsar crossed the river and joined Napoleon in Tilsit. By then, the message that both Emperors, the defeated scion of an old dynasty and the overpowering upstart, recognized each other as equals. But this they did not before they had cut the Prussian King Frederick William III (1770–1840) down to size. He was forced to wait on the bank until the second day before he was invited by his ally Alexander onto the raft to meet his bane.

Tilsit was a rare example from European diplomatic history of a treaty which was produced at a summit meeting. Until the end of the Middle Ages, such meetings had been common. By that time, meetings between rulers had already been well-staged occasions which were laden with symbolism. The place of meeting was of the utmost importance as it expressed either equality or hierarchy. The closer the meeting took place to the power centre of a given prince, the more it reflected his precedence or—in the hierarchical world of feudal Europe—his supremacy. Meeting in the borderlands between two realms was a sign of equality.

As the princes of the great realms of Europe by the Late Middle Ages came to vest more and more interest in the recognition of their sovereignty and of their equality—most significantly so with the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire—while at the same time conventions of ceremonial precedence persisted, any show of inferiority became a game-stopper and summit meetings became more difficult to organize. Moreover, as the representation of power through court ceremonies, art, and constant propaganda became a major feature of European dynastic policies in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, creating an occasion upon which a ruler had to leave precedence to a colleague became hard to stomach, or even to countenance. According to Abraham de Wicquefort (1606–1682), who wrote a manual on diplomatic practice, it was unacceptable for a ruling prince to enter the land of another.

This growing concern with the expression of sovereign power was one of the many reasons for the expanding use of envoys and the shift towards a more indirect method of treaty-making. Under this method, plenipotentiaries would negotiate and sign the treaty, which each of the signatory princes would then ratify back at his own residence. Whereas questions of equality and precedence also mattered a great deal with diplomats, much more leeway for concessions remained in the case of diplomats than in the case of their princes.

An almost similar concern with equality was sometimes shown in case of meetings between chief-ministers. The negotiation of the Peace of the Pyrenees of 7 November 1659 (5 CTS 403) offers a prime example thereof. After preliminary acts had been hammered out and signed at Paris on 7 May and 21 June 1659 (5 CTS 259 and 5 CTS 279), it was decided that the Spanish valido Don Luis de Haro (1598–1661) and the French chief minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602–1661) would meet near the Atlantic coast at the foot of the Pyrenees to negotiate the final peace treaty and the marriage agreement between the two dynasties. The meeting was preceded by much haggling over the place of meeting. Not only did it need to be in the borderlands but it also had to be equidistant from the residences of the two ministers, Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the case of Mazarin and Fontarabia in the case of Haro. In the end, the parties settled on the Island of the Pheasants in the middle of the river Bidasoa on the border. In 1615, the island had already witnessed the simultaneous crossing of the two Spanish and French princesses on their way to marry abroad. As with many river islands, it was not clear—nor did either monarch much care in reality—to which realm it belonged. To this day, the small island, which is accordingly now also known as ‘Island of the Conference’, is under a French-Spanish condominium and is alternatively administrated by the two powers. But in these days when heads of state and government text one another, smileys included, the island will probably not be called upon too often to repeat its historic role.


J.E.M. Benham, Peacemaking in the Middle Ages. Principles and Practice (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press 2011).

Dominic Lieven, Russia against Napoleon. The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Allen Lane 2009).

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon. A Life (New York: Viking 2014).

Daniel Seré, La paix des Pyrénées. Vingt-quatre ans de négociations entre la France et l’Espagne (1635-1659) (Paris: Honoré Champion 2007).

Abraham de Wicquefort, L’ambassadeur et ses fonctions (The Hague: Steucker 1680).