Napoleon and Arthur Bertrand
In the opening chapter of Napoleon in America, Napoleon gives a gift to Arthur Bertrand. Arthur was the son of General Henri-Gatien Bertrand (1) and his wife Fanny. Arthur became a favourite of Napoleon during the latter’s exile on St. Helena.
General Henri Bertrand
General Bertrand (1773-1844), a skilled engineer, joined the French army before Napoleon became ruler of France. Bertrand’s courage during the Egyptian expedition attracted Napoleon’s attention, and thereafter Bertrand accompanied Napoleon on most of his campaigns.
After the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), Napoleon made Bertrand his aide-de-camp. In 1808 he gave him the title of Count and in 1813 named him Grand Marshal of the Palace. Bertrand went with Napoleon into exile on Elba in 1814, returned with him to France in 1815, held a command at the Battle of Waterloo, and then agreed to accompany Napoleon to St. Helena.
Lady Malcolm, wife of Admiral Pulteney Malcolm, who was Commander-in-Chief of the St. Helena station in 1816-17, described Bertrand as “a kind husband and father” who “does not give the idea of a man of talents.”(2) Fanny Bertrand said of her husband:
There is not another Bertrand in the world. I think the mould for making such men is broken. He is perfect in every respect. Do you want a distinguished officer and the personification of fidelity to his master – see Bertrand: do you want a model for a good son and relative, a tender husband and father, a sincere friend and charming man in society – you will find all this united in him! (3)
Napoleon likened the steadfast, stoical Bertrand to Virgil’s “fidus Achates” – Aeneas’s faithful companion in the Aeneid. (4)
An “elegant, pleasing woman,” (5) Fanny (1785-1836) was the daughter of General Arthur Dillon, an Irish officer who served in the French army during the ancien régime and the French Revolutionary wars. He was guillotined in 1794. Fanny’s mother was Laure de Girardin de Montgérald, a wealthy Creole from Martinique who was a distant cousin of Napoleon’s first wife Josephine and the mistress of Josephine’s first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais. Fanny solicited Josephine’s help in finding a husband, and Napoleon presented her with Bertrand. They were married September 16, 1808 at the home of Josephine’s daughter Hortense.
At the time of Napoleon’s 1815 abdication, Bertrand and Fanny had three children: Napoleon (b. June 13, 1809), Hortense (b. Nov. 18, 1810) and Henri (b. Oct. 5, 1811). The Bertrands agreed to share Napoleon’s exile before they knew his final destination. They hoped, like Napoleon, that it would be England. When Fanny learned, off the coast of England, that the British were planning to send Napoleon to Saint Helena, she became hysterical. Fearing her children would die on the island, she pleaded with Napoleon not to accept Bertrand as one of the few allowed to accompany him, and even attempted to jump overboard.
Fanny reconciled herself to her family’s fate, but still hoped their stay on the island would be short. In June 1816, she spoke to Lady Malcolm of:
the disagreeableness of their situation, the inconvenience of St. Helena, without roads to make intercourse possible, even if they could have society. She said that hers had been the gayest house in Paris – ‘What a contrast to this frightful solitude’; and added, she hoped they would go to England in October; the months she had passed at St. Helena were like years. (6)
On January 17, 1817, Fanny gave birth to a fourth child, Arthur. She introduced the baby to Napoleon as the first Frenchman to enter Longwood without the governor’s permission. Napoleon laughed and replied, “And a fine and healthy one at that.” (7)
Arthur Bertrand, Napoleon’s favourite
As Thomas Vance details on the Napoleon Series website, Napoleon was fond of all the children in the Longwood entourage. Arthur became his favourite. Glimpses of the two of them in the various St. Helena memoirs provide an amusing contrast to the often formidable portrait of Napoleon as Emperor.
One day, the Emperor wanted to have the noisy company of Countess Bertrand’s children at lunch. Saint-Denis told me the luncheon had gone very well, but that towards the end they started throwing bread balls at each other. The Emperor had taken the youngest on his knees, and was kissing and teasing him as he was pulling at his ears. (8)
When Napoleon insisted that Hortense Bertrand have her ears pierced in an outdoor operation, Arthur was greatly alarmed.
He clinched [sic] his fists, and stamped with indignation, declaring that he would not allow his sister to be hurt. ‘You little rogue,’ said Napoleon, ‘if you are not quiet, I will have your ears bored also. Come, be obedient.’ (9)
In January 1821 Napoleon had a seesaw installed in the Longwood billiard room. Bertrand thought it was some kind of war machine and asked whether it could be used to scale a rampart. Napoleon at first claimed it was a swing to amuse the children, then admitted it was for his own use, to get more exercise. Bertrand recounts:
Arthur Bertrand went to see the Emperor, who showed him the seesaw and told him that it was a gun. Afterwards he and the Grand Maréchal got up on it to amuse the child. Napoleon had been on it for a quarter of an hour in the morning and didn’t feel any the better for it. (10)
In the best-known vignette, Napoleon gives Arthur a pony, recounted in detail by Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand.
A city resident had come to Longwood riding a small pony, and Arthur…asked the Emperor to buy it for him. As he spoke only English, the Emperor told him in that tongue: ‘Come at noon.’ But as was his habit, he went back inside, leaving the children to continue their games, got undressed and soon fell asleep. I was leaving the Emperor’s bedroom quietly when the fort cannon announced the hour of noon, and in the bathroom I found young Arthur fighting with Noverraz to enter the Emperor’s bedroom. I feared my refusal would make him cry and awaken His Majesty: I therefore made him understand that the Emperor was sleeping, and if he agreed to be good, I would let him enter and wait for His Majesty to awaken. ‘Yes,’ he answered; I took him by the hand, he went near the bed where the Emperor was resting, saw he was sleeping, then sat on the rug and stayed with me almost an hour, playing alone and noiselessly. When the Emperor awoke, he was quite surprised to find him there: ‘There you are, Arthur, what do you want, my boy?’
‘You tell me gun fire.’ I was not aware of the promise made to him.
‘What does he say?’ the Emperor asked.
‘He is telling Your Majesty that he told him to come back when the gun went off.’
‘Take him to Montholon, to find out what he wants.’ At that very moment, Count de Montholon was announced at the Emperor’s bedroom; he learned that during lunch he had told the child to come at noon, and he would buy him the little pony. ‘Gun fire’ was the cannon announcing that hour, and he came to claim the promise made to him. ‘Indeed! What a memory,’ said the Emperor, ‘is the horse still there?’ Count de Montholon, who had discussed the price with the owner, assured him it was. ‘But,’ said the Emperor, caressing the child and embracing him, ‘do you have any money?’
‘Yes, I have two dollars.’
‘That is not enough.’
‘Papa give everything!’
‘But Papa Bertrand has no money.’
‘I have plenty gold.’
‘Will you be good?’
“How much does he want for this horse?’ the Emperor asked General Montholon.
‘Fifty louis [1000 francs], Sire.’
‘Give this boy 1,200 francs,’ the Emperor said to me. I went upstairs to get the money that was locked up in a bag. The child was four years old, and on seeing me arrive, he held out his pinafore to catch the money. ‘You won’t be able to carry it.’
‘Yes, yes.’ I put the money gently in his pinafore to test his strength. He turned rapidly and, accompanied by Count de Montholon, he went to purchase the horse he wished to buy. Riding his horse, and held up by Count de Montholon, he came back almost immediately to the Emperor’s door, to thank His Majesty. Later on, having fallen from the horse, he no longer wanted it and switched back to his burro, a much quieter mount and more responsive to his wishes. The horse was given to Napoleon Bertrand, the eldest of the children, who sometimes accompanied the Emperor when his mother rode in the carriage with him. (11)
Life after Napoleon
After Napoleon’s death in May 1821, the Bertrands left St. Helena, stayed for a time in London, and then returned to France. In 1840, Arthur, with his father, was part of the expedition to St. Helena to return Napoleon’s remains to Paris. He wrote a book about the experience. In it, he admitted he had only a very vague memory of his early years on the island, though he did recollect his childhood astonishment at seeing Napoleon shoot a large East India Company cow that had strayed into Napoleon’s garden. (12)
In later life, Arthur Bertrand is best known for his affair with the French actress Elisabeth Rachel Félix, otherwise known as Mademoiselle Rachel. She was also the mistress of Napoleon’s illegitimate son Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, as well as two of Napoleon’s nephews, one of whom later became Napoleon III. John Tyrrell details the relationship on his Reflections on a Journey to St. Helena blog. In 1848, Rachel and Arthur had a son, Gabriel-Victor Félix, whom Arthur never acknowledged. Arthur Bertrand died in 1871 at the age of fifty-four.
You might also enjoy:
- If you search the internet you will find confusion over Bertrand’s middle name – Gatien or Gratien? – which extends even to his published journals. In Napoleon at St. Helena: The Journals of General Bertrand from January to May of 1821, deciphered and annotated by Paul Fleuriot de Langle, translated by Frances Hume (Garden City: Doubleday, 1952), the title page credits Bertrand as Henri-Gratien whereas the inner flaps of the (original) dust jacket call him Henri-Gatien. A proofreading error run amok? Lally Brown, who lived in the Bertrands’ cottage on St. Helena and has written the wonderful The Countess, Napoleon and St. Helena: In Exile with the Emperor 1815 to 1821, advises that the Bertrand Museum at Châteauroux refers to him as Henri-Gatien, as does the St. Helena church register in which Arthur’s birth is recorded.
- Arthur Wilson, ed. A Diary of St. Helena: The Journal of Lady Malcolm (1816, 1817) (London, 1929), p. 22.
- George Leo de St. M. Watson, A Polish Exile with Napoleon (London, 1912), p. 234
- Napoleon Bonaparte, Recueil de Pièces Authentiques sur le Captif de Sainte-Hélène (Paris, 1822), Vol. 4, p. 355.
- Wilson, A Diary of St. Helena: The Journal of Lady Malcolm (1816, 1817), p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow: Being the First English Language Edition of the Complete Memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, Valet and Friend of the Emperor, 1811-1821 (San Francisco, 1998), p. 485.
- Ibid., p. 608.
- John Stevens Cabot Abbott, The History of Napoleon Bonaparte (New York, 1883), Vol. 2, p. 627.
- Bertrand, Napoleon at St. Helena, p. 47.
- Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, pp. 617-618.
- Arthur Bertrand, L’Expédition de Sainte-Hélène en 1840 (Paris, 1841), pp. 93, 102-103. He also recounts the tales of the horse (p. 104), the ear piercing (p. 112) and the seesaw (p. 115).
The Emperor had taken the youngest on his knees, and was kissing and teasing him as he was pulling at his ears.