Gustave Aimard, the Frenchman who wrote Westerns

Gustave Aimard

Gustave Aimard

In doing research for Napoleon in America, I read several novels set in Texas in the mid-19th century. One of the authors of such works was Gustave Aimard, a French adventurer who wrote over 70 popular novels about the New World. Aimard was the illegitimate son of the wife of René Savary, Napoleon’s police minister and one of the characters in Napoleon in America. Through his Corsican father, Aimard may have been distantly related to Napoleon himself.

Love child

Gustave Aimard was born Olivier Aimard in Paris on September 13, 1818. Aimard’s mother, Marie-Charlotte-Félicité de Faudoas-Barbazan de Segnanville, a member of the old French aristocracy, was married to Savary, the Duke of Rovigo, who had once been Napoleon’s Minister of Police. Savary had been living in exile from France since Napoleon’s 1815 defeat. Neither spouse was faithful. Félicité’s lover was Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de la Porta, a Corsican-born Napoleonic general and diplomat who was probably a distant relative of the Bonapartes. Sébastiani became a politician during the Bourbon Restoration and later served as French Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was most likely Gustave Aimard’s father.

When Aimard was born, Félicité already had seven children, ranging in age from two to 16. She gave the baby to a family by the name of Gloux, and paid them to raise him. By the time he was 12, Aimard had fled to sea as a cabin boy aboard a merchant vessel. In 1835, at 17, he joined the French Navy. A few years later, he deserted during a stopover in South America (either in Mexico or Chile – sources differ).


Gustave Aimard spent approximately a decade in the Americas. He visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico. He hunted unsuccessfully for gold in California. He spent time as a trapper in New Mexico and Texas. He later claimed to have been adopted into a Comanche tribe. He also claimed to have visited Spain, Turkey and the Caucasus.

By 1847, Aimard was back in France. That year his half-sister Fanny (Françoise, the Duchess of Choiseul-Praslin, Sébastiani’s daughter with his first wife) was brutally murdered by – it is thought – her husband, who committed suicide a week later. These events contributed to the start of the French Revolution of 1848, in which Aimard served with the garde mobile, a force of young working-class men who remained loyal to the Second Republic during the uprising in Paris in June.

In the early 1850s, Aimard returned to North America as part of a mercenary expedition under Count Raousset-Boulbon. The force tried to secure the independence of Sonora from Mexico. After the expedition was defeated, Aimard went back to France.

Prolific writer

In August 1854, Gustave Aimard married Adèle Lucie Damoreau, a “lyrical artist.” They had at least one child, a daughter. Aimard started writing adventure stories based on his experiences. He produced novels at an impressive pace. He wrote at least 78 of them, many of which first appeared as newspaper serials. His books – early versions of the “Western” genre – were translated into English and other languages and became extremely popular. European readers had an appetite for tales about the New World.

He knew of Indian life and Indian customs first-hand; and his comments upon America, though not profound, evidently met with the approval of the many Frenchmen who read his stories. … [S]ome of the heroes of Aimard are actual persons, and his scenes are drawn from his own experiences on prairie and desert. … Under the name of Valentine Guillois, the author himself appears in many of his romances; and a number of other characters were probably drawn from direct personal observation. With some startling exceptions, the author is substantially true to the geography, the flora, and the fauna of the countries he uses as backgrounds. He takes endless pains to explain all the old customs, rites, and ceremonies introduced, and asserts in footnotes that he had witnessed certain horrible scenes he uses, such as one man’s cutting out the tongue of another. …

If the reader wants Indian fights, he can find them in every novel. If he is interested in highwaymen, pirates, spies, he will find an abundance of them. Wars of the whites are there. So are duels with knives, single combats with revolvers or with rifles; combats against apparently insuperable odds; sleeping draughts, abductions, scores of them; white women in the power of Indians; fathers banishing their sons; lynch law; a mother trying to sell her daughter, whom she does not recognize, into prostitution; an insulted father throwing a young man’s present to his daughter, consisting of $150,000 in gold, to the beggars outside his window; the ‘wake’ of a four-year-old child put on a chair in his best clothes with a crown of flowers on his head, and surrounded by drunken men and women; horrific secret societies, such as the revolutionary Dark Hearts of Chile, with passwords, solemn meetings, and oaths resembling those of the Ku Klux or a college fraternity; a maiden buried alive in the lowest vault of a convent in Mexico; a man buried up to his armpits…and left to starve on the desert; terrible avalanches that block the way of travelers over the Andes and leave them suspended over gorges of unknown depth; mountain storms in the Rockies that convert the country into a raging sea; prairie fires; battles with cougars by day and night – these are only samples of the thrills provided by Aimard. (1)

The books were criticized for their repetitiveness, as well as for a lack of realistic characters.

His novels presented a curious and, when his mind was fresh, a picturesque mixture of the styles of Eugène Sue and Fenimore Cooper. But as he wrote too fast to observe carefully the world in which we live, and to reflect upon it; he entirely depended upon mere impressions and his imagination. Novel after novel was turned off in rapid succession. There was never any time for the mind to lie fallow. Those qualities with which he was liberally gifted became impoverished. The intellect ran in unchanging channels, and there was a terrible sameness in about fifty of the…works of fiction that he wrote. (2)

Among Aimard’s most popular books were The Trappers of Arkansas (1858) and The Gypsies of the Sea (1865). His series about the Texas war of independence consisted of The Border Rifles (1861), The Freebooters (1861) and The White Scalper (1861). Gustave Aimard opened The Border Rifles with a lament on the plight of Native Americans.

The immense virgin forests which once covered the soil of North America are more and more disappearing before the busy axes of the squatters and pioneers, whose insatiable activity removes the desert frontier further and further to the west….

Is this constant disafforesting and clearing of the American continent a misfortune? Certainly not: on the contrary, the progress which marches with a giant’s step, and tends, before a century, to transform the soil of the New World, possesses all our sympathy; still we cannot refrain from a feeling of pained commiseration for that unfortunate race which is brutally placed beyond the pale of the law, and pitilessly tracked in all directions; which is daily diminishing, and is fatally condemned soon to disappear from the earth whose immense territory it covered less than four centuries ago with innumerable tribes.

Perhaps if the people chosen by God to effect the changes to which we allude had understood their mission, they might have converted a work of blood and carnage into one of peace and paternity, and arming themselves with the divine precepts of the Gospel, instead of seizing rifles, torches, and scalping-knives, they might, in a given time, have produced a fusion of the white and red races, and have attained a result more profitable to progress, civilization, and before all, to that great fraternity of nations which no one is permitted to despise, and for which those who forget its divine and sacred precepts will have a terrible account some day to render. (3)


During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Gustave Aimard fought in the Battle of Le Bourget, in which the French first retook, and then lost, a town just outside of Paris.

He had a deal of Corsican energy, which, unfortunately for him, was associated with a thin skin and aristocratic nerves. In the siege he organised a corps of journalistic francs-tireurs. They had no experience of firearms beyond what they had acquired in salles d’armes and duels. Aimard led this band of riflemen to Le Bourget, which village they received credit for taking. It was one of the episodes of the siege which was the most glorified, et pour cause. Captain Pen and Captain Sword were rolled into one, and the former puffed the latter in the newspapers. Aimard was courageous and manly. If his corps had been worthy of its captain, it would have performed feats of collective valour and acted up to the reputation which it gave itself. The Le Bourget triumph was quickly followed by a sharp reverse, and the free-shooters of the Press were obliged to retire hastily from the village from which they claimed they had helped to drive out the Prussians, to the more congenial Boulevards. Aimard, who had been all his life dreaming of military adventures, and creating heroes after his own image, was quite worthy in the sortie that he made of the children of his brain. But he was disgusted at the Falstaffian boastfulness, and care for a whole skin of some renowned men of his band. (4)

Aimard wrote about the lost war, but his readership was not interested in something so close to home. Moreover, naturalism in literature was beginning to come into fashion.

Zola’s human piggeries, and Guy de Maupassant’s Holywell-streetisms left no place for Aimard in the book-market. (5)

Sick man

In 1879, Gustave Aimard made a voyage to Brazil, where the literary community of Rio de Janeiro greeted him as a hero. After returning to France, Aimard became afflicted with both physical and mental illness. The latter was characterized as “folie des grandeurs.”

The breakdown in his health was shown in erysipelas. As the skin healed, the brain became disordered. He raved about his high ancestry, and the injustice of the law, wrote letters to his ‘cousin’ (the Emperor Napoleon) and his nephews, the De Choiseul family, and prepared a brief for a lawyer who was to establish a claim to the sovereignty of the island of Corsica and to the Byzantine Empire. This Empire he claimed through the Sebastianis and Commenas, from whom Madame Junot was also descended. Aimard had heard, when he was a boy, that Sebastiani, when he went as Ambassador to Constantinople, was instructed to find out whether it would be possible, with the help of Russia, or against her, if necessary, to set up again the Lower Empire. If it could be restored, he was to have been the Emperor. (6)

The fact Aimard had never been acknowledged by his biological family did not deter him from holding these pretensions.

Gustave Aimard died on June 20, 1883, at Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital in Paris at the age of 64. Despite his literary success, he was not a rich man, having assigned the copyrights of all his books to his publisher for a modest life pension of £140 a year, the equivalent of roughly £16,000 today. (7)

You can read many of Gustave Aimard’s books for free on the Internet Archive.

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  1. Virgil L. Jones, “Gustave Aimard,” Southwest Review, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Summer, 1930), pp. 452-455.
  2. Truth, Vol. 13, No. 339 (London, June 28, 1883), p. 907.
  3. Gustave Aimard, The Border Rifles: A Tale of the Texan War, translated by Frederic Lascelles Wraxall (London, 1861), pp. 1-2.
  4. Truth, Vol. 13, No. 339 (London, June 28, 1883), p. 907.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Daily News (London), June 27, 1883.

What did the Duke of Wellington think of Louis XVIII?

Louis XVIII climbing the mât de cocagne by George Cruikshank, 1815. “The Mât de Cocagne is a long pole, well soaped, on the top of which are hung upon Publick occasions various prizes which he who climbs to the top gets.” Louis XVIII is propped up by the Duke of Wellington and his sword.

Louis XVIII climbing the mât de cocagne by George Cruikshank, 1815. “The Mât de Cocagne is a long pole, well soaped, on the top of which are hung upon Publick occasions various prizes which he who climbs to the top gets.” Louis XVIII is propped up by the Duke of Wellington and his sword.

Though Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, is usually associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, he had an equally large impact on Napoleon’s successor, King Louis XVIII. It was thanks to Wellington’s and Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that Louis XVIII, a member of the House of Bourbon, regained the throne of France. While Louis had a pronounced fondness for the British field marshal, Wellington thought rather less of the French king.

Wellington and the First Restoration

The Duke of Wellington played a role in Louis XVIII’s fate even before the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke’s victory in the Peninsular War contributed to Napoleon’s first abdication of the French throne in April 1814. As a result, Louis XVIII became king of France.

During the First Restoration, Wellington served as Britain’s ambassador in Paris. For the embassy, he purchased the Hôtel de Charost from Napoleon’s sister Pauline. Before he was called away to be the British representative at the Congress of Vienna, Wellington had many encounters with the royal family. He hunted with them, and attended dinners, concerts, plays and other gatherings frequented by Louis and his court.

Louis XVIII was favourably impressed with Wellington. When the latter left for Vienna in January 1815, the King wrote to Foreign Minister Talleyrand: “I could not have been better pleased with [the Duke of Wellington] and I think he has gone away not ill satisfied with me. The Duke also has a character to sustain, that, not of a king-maker, but of a king-restorer, which is better.” (1) In later letters, he described Wellington as “an honorable man…whose zeal in my service I cannot possibly overpraise.” (2)

Wellington and the Second Restoration

After Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in March 1815, Wellington hurried to Belgium to play his famous role in the Emperor’s final defeat. Emerging victorious at Waterloo, Wellington urged Louis XVIII to return quickly to Paris. The King’s restoration to the throne was by no means guaranteed, and Wellington considered it essential for France’s stability. At his headquarters in Neuilly, Wellington conducted negotiations for the King’s return and the formation of a new government before the other allied leaders could arrive.

I knew, on my arrival in Paris, that the Allies were by no means unanimous in the king’s favour; that they did not particularly desire the restoration; that the army and the Chambers were opposed to it; that there were four provinces in a state of rebellion; and that the rest, including Paris, were perfectly indifferent. It was very evident to me that, unless I gained over Fouché to the cause of the restoration, his Majesty would be obliged to remain at St. Denis, at all events till the sovereigns should arrive, which must have been, in any case, hurtful to his authority and his dignity. I recommended his Majesty to take Fouché into his service; and I am perfectly certain that to this advice his Majesty is indebted for his quiet restoration. (3)

Louis XVIII entered Paris on July 8, 1815. That night, British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh wrote:

The King sent for the Duke and me, this evening, to the Tuileries…. We found him in a state of great emotion and exultation at the reception he had met with from his subjects…. Indeed, during the long audience to which we were admitted, it was almost impossible to converse, so loud were the shouts of the people in the Tuileries gardens, which were full of people, though it was then dark.

Previous to the King’s dismissing us, he carried the Duke and me to the open window. Candles were then brought, which enabled the people to see the king, with the Duke by his side. They ran from all parts of the garden, and formed a solid mass, of an immense extent, rending the air with acclamations. (4)

During the Second Restoration, the Duke of Wellington served as commander-in-chief of the allied occupation army, which remained in France until 1818. He deepened his acquaintance with royal family during this period, and helped Louis solidify his reign. The King expressed his gratitude by presenting Wellington with a 102-piece dinner service of Sèvres porcelain, and the comment: “Do little gifts – keep friendship alive.” (5) The china, originally commissioned for Napoleon’s wife Josephine and decorated with images of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, can be seen at the Duke’s residence of Apsley House in London.

Louis also made Wellington a Knight of the Order of St. Esprit. Wellington wears the badge in Napoleon in America.

Wellington’s opinion of Louis XVIII

Though he considered King Louis the best available option for France at the time, Wellington later admitted that he had “a very bad opinion of Louis XVIII.” (6) He described the King as “a perfect walking sore – not a part of his body was sound – even his head let out a sort of humour.” (7) He also called him “selfish and false in the highest degree.” (8)

Wellington actually had a higher opinion of Louis XVIII’s brother and successor, Charles X (previously the Count of Artois). He described him as “a man of great strength and activity,” and “a cleverer man, as far as knowledge of the world went, though Louis XVIII was much better informed.” (9)

 I was surprised…about Charles the Tenth. I knew indeed that Louis was the man of most education and information – the best bookman; but I always thought that as a man of the world – for action – Charles the Tenth was his superior. (10)

Among other things, Wellington admired Charles’ stamina and skill at hunting.

In 1825, the last time I was Paris, I went out shooting with Charles X in the forest of St. Germains. I had shot with him before at Versailles and the other royal domains. He was then a very old man, yet he walked from half-past nine till half-past three – a measured distance of 15 or 16 miles. He is a very good shot; in the first 160 times that he fired, I saw that he did not miss once. (11)

Perhaps there was something about the splendour of the French court that attracted Wellington. At dinner at Apsley House in 1840, Wellington’s eyes fixed on a pair of full-length portraits of Louis XVIII and Charles X in their royal robes. “How much better after all,” he said, laughing, “these two look with their fleurs-de-lis and Saint-Esprits, than the two corporals behind, or the fancy dress between!” The “corporals” were portraits of Tsar Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia, and the “fancy dress” was a painting of King George IV of Britain in a Highland kilt and bonnet. (12)

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  1. G. Pallain, ed., The Correspondence of Prince Talleyrand and King Louis XVIII During the Congress of Vienna (New York, 1881), p. 154.
  2. Ibid., pp. 181, 234.
  3. Alexis Henri Brialmont, History of the Life of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, translated and edited by G.R. Glieg, Vol. II (London, 1858), p. 509.
  4. Robert Stewart Castlereagh, Correspondence, Despatches, and Other Papers of Viscount Castlereagh, edited by Charles William Vane, Vol. II (London, 1853), p. 420.
  5. Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, Vol. 12 (London, 1865), p. 430.
  6. Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851 (London, 1889), p. 36.
  7. Ibid., p. 32.
  8. Ibid., p. 36.
  9. Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 94; and Charles C. F. Greville, The Greville Memoirs: A Journal of the Reigns of King George IV and King William IV, edited by Henry Reeve, Vol. II, (London, 1874), p. 305.
  10. Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 32.
  11. Ibid., p. 36.
  12. Ibid., p. 218.

Watching French Kings Rise: The Grand Lever

Have you ever wanted to watch a king get up and get dressed? If so, you would have enjoyed the grand lever, the traditional rising ceremony of French monarchs. It was a moment when people could speak to the king without having to request a formal audience. The grand lever may have started with Charlemagne, who invited friends into his bedchamber when he was dressing. If a dispute was brought to his attention, he adjudicated the matter. Seven centuries later, Henri II entertained a range of courtiers at his grand lever. They stood in a circle around the royal bed while the highest-ranking prince handed Henri his shirt and the king got dressed. Henri talked with each person in turn, “which pleased them greatly.” (1) He then knelt before an altar and said his prayers, after which everyone left.

The grand & petit levers of Louis XIV

In the bedchamber of Louis XIV by Paul Philippoteaux. This is where he performed the grand lever, as well as the coucher (the evening ceremony in which he took off his clothes and went to bed).

In the bedchamber of Louis XIV by Paul Philippoteaux

Louis XIV divided the lever into two parts and turned each into an elaborate ceremony, governed by rules of etiquette. The petit lever happened in the king’s chamber, where a small group of favoured courtiers watched the king get out of bed and get dressed. “Every other day we saw him shave himself; and he had a little short wig in which he always appeared, even in bed and on medicine days. He often spoke of the chase and sometimes said a word to somebody.” (2) This was followed by the grand lever, which was attended by nobles, cardinals, archbishops, ambassadors, dukes, peers, governors of provinces, marshals of France, etc. Admission to the grand lever was considered a great favour. During this ceremony, Louis XIV finished putting on his clothes, ate a light breakfast, and said his prayers. Even if the king had gotten up early to do some hunting, he would return to bed for the start of the lever.

Napoleon’s lever

Napoleon adopted the tradition of the lever, but did away with people watching him get up and get dressed. Instead, he simply received people in his salon at nine a.m. First came the high officials of his household and the crown. Then it was the turn of princes and princesses, cardinals, great officers of the Empire, presidents of the bodies of State, and the chief authorities of Paris. Napoleon used the lever as an occasion to give orders.

No little stories are told, no good things repeated, no familiarity slips in, no kind expressions find a place. They are in attendance to receive orders and to hand in their reports…. The lever does not last long, as might be supposed, for there is no idle talk; and if the Emperor has a wish to get to the bottom of a question, or if some great functionary has doubtful points to submit to him, it will be at a private audience. (3)

The grand lever of Louis XVIII

Louis XVIII in the Tuileries Palace, by Michel Marigny after François Gérard, circa 1820

Louis XVIII in the Tuileries Palace, by Michel Marigny after François Gérard, circa 1820

Napoleon’s successor, Louis XVIII, revived the grand lever in its traditional form. Here is a description of how the ceremony was conducted.

The king lay, not in his great bed, but in a smaller and very low one which was prepared for him and removed every morning. The king fixed every night the hour of his rising, and orders were given to the valet-de-chambre on duty to awake his majesty in case he should be asleep at the time appointed. But the first valet-de-chambre on duty had previously gone into the king’s room with the footmen to extinguish the light called mortier, to kindle a fire if it was winter-time, and take in the night collation, consisting of a jug of wine, another of pure water, bread, a fowl, some fruit, a goblet of silver gilt, and several napkins.

The king being awake, the grand chamberlain and the first gentleman of the bed-chamber were informed that they might enter, whilst a valet went to direct the officers of the kitchen and buttery to prepare his majesty’s breakfast. At the same time an usher took possession of the door of the chamber, that only such persons as had a right to come and pay their respects to him might be suffered to pass. His majesty chose this time to tell the first valet to admit the grande entrée.

The grande entrée consists of the great officers of the household and the crown, persons of quality, certain marshals of France, and some privileged ladies, who share this favour with the cravatier, the tailor, the slipper-bearer, the barber in ordinary, the two barber-assistants, the clock-maker, and the apothecaries.

While all these persons are making their way into the chamber, the first valet pours upon his majesty’s hands a bottle of spirit of wine into a silver-gilt bowl; the napkin is presented by the grand chamberlain or the first gentleman, or the grand-master of the wardrobe, or even by the premier. The vessel of holy water is then presented, and the king, having made the sign of the cross, repeats or is supposed to repeat some prayer before he rises from bed. Louis XVIII put on his slippers himself; it was a service which his courtiers would not have disdained; but the king made them amends by granting them the honour of holding his morning-gown while he put it on. This done, he went to the arm-chair in which he was to dress himself.

The king then asked for his chamber, that is, those who were not yet there. The usher on duty took hold of the door, and his colleagues went and whispered in the ear of the first gentleman the names of the princes, ambassadors, cardinals, bishops, dukes and peers, marshals of France, lieutenant-generals, first presidents, attorney-generals, peers and deputies, who might be present; and the first gentleman repeated their names to the king.

The officers of the household passed unquestioned: but the moment an unknown face presented itself among the others, the owner was stopped by the usher, who asked his name, and decided in his wisdom whether he could permit him to enter without referring to the first gentleman. All who came thither were obliged to conform without a murmur to these customs; it was likewise requisite for them to know that they were to scratch and not to knock; and lastly that a closed door was to be opened only by the usher or by the officer on duty at it.

The moment for the king to dress being arrived, two pages of the chamber stationed themselves so as to shift his majesty’s slippers when required. His shirt was brought covered with white taffeta: to present it to the king was an eminent distinction, coveted by the highest noblemen of the realm. The king put it on in the presence of the multitude, but, for decency’s sake, two valets-de-chambre held his morning gown extended before him. This done, and the small-clothes as well as the waistcoat being placed by the master of the wardrobe, the sword, bleu riband, and cross of St. Louis were brought, and afterwards the coat. It was the rule that the king should empty with his own hands the pockets of the clothes which he wore the preceding day, and that he should tie his cravat himself; three pocket handkerchiefs were handed to him in a dish of silver gilt; etiquette permitted him to take one, two, or even all three.

A valet held a mirror before the king during the whole time of dressing, and two others lighted him with flambeaux, or were supposed to do so. The various orders being given for the day, the king frequently granted audience to the nuncio or to the ambassadors. (4)

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  1. Noel Williams, Henri II: His Court and Times (New York, 1910), p. 302.
  2. Louis de Rouvroy, The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon on the Reign of Louis XIV and the Regency, Vol. III, translated by Bayle St. John (London, 1891), p. 21.
  3. Masson, Frédéric, Napoleon at Home: The Daily Life of the Emperor at the Tuileries, translated by James E. Matthew (London, 1894), pp. 136, 142.
  4. Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, Private Memoirs of the Court of Louis XVIII, Volume I (London, 1830), pp. 345-348.

Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon’s spy?

Madame de Genlis by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1790

Madame de Genlis by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1790

Madame de Genlis was a popular and prolific writer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her works were widely read throughout Europe, as well as in her native France. As governor to the children of the Orléans branch of the royal family – a rare position for a woman – Madame de Genlis became known for her innovative approach to education. After losing her husband and fortune in the French Revolution, Madame de Genlis turned to Napoleon Bonaparte for support. In return, Napoleon required her to write him regular letters. This led to suspicions that she was Napoleon’s spy.

Musical prodigy

Stéphanie Félicité du Crest was born into a family of minor nobility on January 25, 1746 at Champcéry near Autun in Burgundy. Félicité’s parents – constantly in debt – were not particularly attentive to her education. Her musical skill and taste for literature developed when she and her mother were compelled to stay with relatives in Paris while her father tried to make some money in Saint-Domingue. By the age of 15 she was considered a virtuoso on the harp.

When she was 17, Félicité married Charles-Alexis Brûlart, the Comte de Genlis (later the Marquis of Sillery). Genlis was an aristocratic colonel of grenadiers who had been imprisoned in England with Félicité’s father. The new Madame de Genlis made up for the gaps in her education by adopting a rigorous schedule of learning: she took up drawing and painting; she practiced music; she read avidly; and she began to write a diary. She also gave birth to two daughters, Caroline (b. 1765) and Pulchérie (b. 1767), and a son, Casimir (b. 1768), who died of measles at the age of five.

Educational innovator

In 1770, at the age of 24, Madame de Genlis became a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Chartres. The Duchess and her husband – the future Duke of Orléans, also known as Philippe-Egalité – were members of France’s ruling Bourbon dynasty. The Duke entered into a brief affair with Madame de Genlis, and contemporaries believed that the couple had an illegitimate daughter.

In 1777, the Duke and Duchess made Madame de Genlis governess of their newborn twin daughters. In 1782, the Duke extended her position to include governorship of the couple’s three sons. This caused a scandal. Women in France did not typically oversee the education of adolescent aristocratic boys, let alone princes. The eldest son later became the Duke of Orléans, who poses a threat to the ruling Bourbons in Napoleon in America. In 1830, he became King Louis Philippe of France.

At a time when French education consisted mainly of instruction in traditional disciplines like classics, history and mythology, Madame de Genlis taught her charges natural history, geography, physics, anatomy, modern languages (Italian, English and German instead of Latin and Greek), and manual trades. She took them on field trips. She instructed them in religion, music and theatre. She also wrote prodigiously. In 1779, she published Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes, a book of plays for children.

These dramas are mere treatises of morality put into action, and it is hoped the Young may find them not devoid of interesting and persuasive lessons: besides, from learning by heart, and representing these Plays, many advantages will result; excellent principles will be graven on the minds of the Performers, their memory will be exercised, their pronunciation formed, and they will acquire grace and a pleasing deportment. (1)

This was followed by more volumes of plays, along with numerous pedagogical tracts, pamphlets and articles. In 1782, Madame de Genlis published a long epistolary novel, Adèle et Théodore ou Lettres sur l’éducation, which became popular across Europe.

The French Revolution parted Madame de Genlis from her pupils, and took the life of both her husband and her employer. She went into exile, first in England, then in Switzerland and Germany. Madame de Genlis supported herself by writing and painting. Among other things, she published a bilingual guidebook (in French and in German – later expanded to include English, Italian, Spanish and Russian) that provided phrases helpful for travel at the time. For example, here is some suggested dialogue in the event of “a warrior in an enemy’s country and asking victuals in a private house.”

[The warrior:] My friends, don’t be afraid, we will do you no harm. We want victuals without any delay. Give us bread, wine, brandy, beer and potatoes. Make haste. We must have them and don’t force us to search your house violently….

[The resident of the house:] Brave warrior, may you be blessed by God as you are blessed by your enemy! (2)

Madame de Genlis returned to France in 1800. As her husband’s assets had been dispersed, she continued to live by her pen, writing on education, morals and religion. Though she remained a supporter of monarchy, she did not write about politics, and (unlike her counterpart Madame de Staël) she did not criticize Napoleon Bonaparte. Instead, Madame de Genlis sought Napoleon’s favour.

Napoleon’s spy?

In 1802, Napoleon provided Madame de Genlis with an apartment in the Arsenal Library. After becoming Emperor in 1804, he granted her a pension of 6,000 francs a year. In return, Napoleon required that Madame de Genlis write him regular letters. Some thought this was a pretext for her to act as Napoleon’s spy among partisans of the ancien régime. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand (not always a reliable source) recounted how, on the evening of the Battle of Austerlitz, he read to Napoleon the “report” of Madame de Genlis.

It was long, and written entirely in her own hand. She spoke of the spirit of Paris, and quoted a few offensive conversations held, she said, in those houses which were then called Faubourg Saint-Germain; she named five or six families, which, never, she added, would rally to the government of the emperor. Some rather biting expressions which Mme. de Genlis reported set Napoleon in an inconceivable state of fury; he swore and stormed against the Faubourg Saint-Germain. (3)

However, according to Napoleon’s private secretary Baron Méneval, the letters were simply intended to make Madame de Genlis feel that she was not living on imperial charity.

Madame de Genlis…on her return from exile, had found herself like many other honourable exiles, in a state of destitution. The Minister of the Interior, M. Chaptal, gave her an apartment in the buildings of the Arsenal library. Madame de Genlis lived there on the income produced by her numerous books, and some assistance which she received from the funds reserved for literary people. When Napoleon became Emperor he ordered Lavalette to pay her five hundred francs a month, and, in order to spare her feelings, had told her that he wished her to write to him every fortnight on matters of literature and morality. The help which Madame de Genlis received from Napoleon’s generosity, the help which was afterwards extended to her by Queen Julia of Naples, and the resources procured from the sale of her works, did not prevent her from being invariably in embarrassed circumstances. She used to apply to me when she wanted some advance on the income allowed her by the Emperor…. (4)

Napoleon never met with Madame de Genlis. Their relations were confined to letter writing. While the letters do not appear to have survived, Madame de Genlis jotted down some of the “Subjects of Notes for the Emperor.” These included:

On injustice in general. The thing it is most difficult to endure.
On Magnetism.
On the sorceresses of Paris – Mlle. Normand.
On dreams, etc.
On the house of M. de Choiseul.
On the newspapers. (Keep this clear of politics.)
On the inns of Spain
On the occult sciences. (5)

She also described her relations with the Orléans family, related accounts of Court in the pre-revolutionary days, and provided Napoleon with advice on the primary education of girls. In 1812, Napoleon appointed Madame de Genlis inspectress of the schools in her district of Paris. He did not, however, sufficiently trust her to educate his nieces, Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte.

M. Sabatier…had introduced Madame de Genlis to the virtuous Julie Bonaparte [wife of Napoleon’s brother Joseph], at that time Queen of Naples, and had advised his friend at the same time to ask to be allowed to take charge of the education of the Queen’s daughters. Madame de Genlis, who thought herself born with the vocation for teaching and guiding her neighbour by inculcating her opinions and principles, had jumped at this idea. She wrote in consequence to the Emperor to obtain his consent in the matter. This application was contained in her fortnightly paper, and was accompanied by protestations of gratitude and the expression of her wish to show her gratitude for the kindness of the august head of the family, by assiduous attention in carrying out the duties which such a post would impose. But this letter was not answered, and Napoleon, on the contrary, told his sister-in-law that such a choice would displease him. The Queen on her side had far too much tact to wish to put her neck in such a yoke. She also knew that King Joseph would be very reluctant to give his consent. This consideration would have sufficed to hold the Queen back, even if she could have made up her mind to entrust the education of her daughters to a woman of admitted talents, no doubt, but who was totally unfitted for such a post by associations and prejudices which were incompatible with the new imperial government. To console Madame de Genlis for the Emperor’s refusal, Queen Julia, with that feeling of goodness and generosity which characterized her, accorded her a pension of three thousand francs from her private purse. No allusion, as far as I know, to this act of kindness, is contained in the memoirs of the woman who benefited by it. (6)

When Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome, was born, Madame de Genlis composed a song for the baby.

The notes of this lullaby were represented by little roses, which had been delicately drawn and illuminated by her hand. This little composition altogether was carried out with the neatness and elegance which Madame de Genlis displayed in her manual work. (7)

Madame de Genlis also established a correspondence with Napoleon’s sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Among other things, Elisa consulted Madame de Genlis on the choice of a governess for her daughter Napoléone. Madame de Genlis recommended her niece, Henriette de Sercey, Baroness de Finguerlin, who took up the post in early 1812 and held it until Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814. Meanwhile, Madame de Genlis and Elisa kept up a regular correspondence. Madame de Genlis wrote and illustrated at least two instructive notebooks for young Napoléone. She also wrote a book for Elisa on court etiquette during the ancien régime, which Elisa used as a guide in administering her own court.

When the Bourbons returned to power in 1814, Madame de Genlis offered her services to King Louis XVIII. In 1816, the Irish novelist Lady Morgan visited her and asked about the Napoleon letters.

I had been told in Paris that Madame de Genlis had carried on a secret correspondence with the late emperor, which is another term for the higher walks of espionage. I ventured one day to talk to her on the subject; and she entered on it with great promptitude and frankness. ‘Buonaparte,’ she said, ‘was extremely liberal to literary people – a pension of four thousand francs, per annum, was assigned to all authors and gens-de-lettres, whose circumstances admitted of their acceptance of such a gratuity. He gave me, however, six thousand, and a suite of apartments at the Arsenal. As I had never spoken to him, never had any intercourse with him whatever, I was struck with this liberality, and asked him what he expected I should do to merit it? When the question was put to Napoleon, he replied carelessly, ‘Let Madame de Genlis write me a letter once a month.’ As no subject was dictated, I chose literature, but I always abstained from politics. Madame de Genlis added that though she never had any interview with him, yet on her recommendation he had pensioned five indigent persons of literary talent. (8)

Final years

Madame de Genlis continued to write right up until her death. In 1825, she published her memoirs. Dorothea Lieven expressed her opinion of them to Clemens von Metternich:

Madame de Genlis’s fourth volume is detestable. Her style is watery and feeble. It hasn’t an idea in it; in short, she bores me. The first two volumes interested me in spite of their puerility, or possibly because of it; for they give one an idea of the careless happiness the French enjoyed before, and almost up to the very moment of their bloody revolution. (9)

After living long enough to see her former pupil, the Duke of Orléans, become King Louis Philippe, Madame de Genlis died in her sleep on December 31, 1830 at the age of 84. Her remains were transferred to Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1839.

Madame de Genlis authored over 100 books, many of which are available for free on the Internet Archive. For more about Madame de Genlis as an educator, see “Madame de Genlis’s Ideas of an 18th Century Education” by Geri Walton. Geri has also written an excellent article about Madame de Genlis’s influence on Jane Austen.

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When Napoleon met Goethe

What did Napoleon like to read?

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts

  1. Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, The Theatre of Education, a New Translation from the French, Vol. I, (London, 1807), p. viii.
  2. Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis, The Traveller’s Companion for Conversation, being a Collection of Such Expressions as Occur Most Frequently in Travelling and in the Different Situations of Life, Fifth Edition (Florence, 1821), pp. 440-442.
  3. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand, Vol. 1, edited by Albert de Broglie, translated by Raphaël Ledos de Beaufort (London, 1891), p. 226.
  4. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. II, edited by Napoleon Joseph de Méneval (New York, 1894), pp. 436-437.
  5. Jean Harmond, A Keeper of Royal Secrets: Being the Private and Political Life of Madame de Genlis (London, 1913), pp. 324-325.
  6. Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. II, pp. 437-438.
  7. Ibid., p. 393.
  8. Sydney, Lady Morgan, France (Philadelphia, 1817), p. 360.
  9. Peter Quennell, ed. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, 1820-1826 (New York, 1938), pp. 351-352.

Watching French Royals Eat: The Grand Couvert

The desire to peek into royal lives goes back a long way. In France, people could indulge their curiosity at the “grand couvert,” a ritual in which the king and queen ate their dinner in front of members of the public. The tradition is usually associated with Louis XIV, who dined au grand couvert at Versailles almost every evening, surrounded by his family and a crowd of courtiers. Louis XV disliked the ceremony, which was governed by elaborate rules of etiquette. He took more of his meals in private. By the end of their reign, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette dined au grand couvert only on Sundays.

Le ci-devant grand couvert de Gargantua modern en famille (How the modern Gargantua and his family once dined), 1791, French satirical print showing Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, the future Louis XVIII and Charles X, and other members of the Bourbon family au grand couvert. Source: French Revolution Digital Archive, Stanford University Libraries & the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Le ci-devant grand couvert de Gargantua modern en famille (How the modern Gargantua and his family once dined), French satirical print from 1791 showing Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, the future Louis XVIII and Charles X, and other members of the Bourbon family au grand couvert. Source: French Revolution Digital Archive, Stanford University Libraries & the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Napoleon and the grand couvert

When Napoleon became Emperor of the French, he re-introduced the grand couvert.

When their majesties dined en grand couvert, their table was placed under a canopy on a platform elevated one step, and with two armchairs, one on the right for the emperor, the other on the left for Josephine, the former wearing a hat with plumes, and his consort a diadem. Their majesties were informed by the grand marshal when the preparations were completed, and entered the room in the following order: Pages, assistant master of the ceremonies, prefects of the palace, first prefect and a master of the ceremonies, the grand marshal and grand master of the ceremonies; the empress, attended by her first equerry and first chamberlain; the emperor, colonel-general of the guard, grand chamberlain, and grand equerry; the grand almoner, who blessed the meat, and retired, leaving their majesties to a solitary board, unless when guests of kingly rank were present, or humbler ones sat down there by invitation. (1)

Speaking when he was in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon expressed reservations about the ritual.

The Emperor had hesitated for some time, he said, about re-establishing the grand couvert of the kings of France, that is, the dining in public, every Sunday, of the whole Imperial family. He asked our opinion of it. We differed. Some approved of it, represented this family spectacle as beneficial to public morals, and fitted to produce the best effects on public spirit; besides, they said, it afforded means for every individual to see his Sovereign. Others opposed it, objecting that this ceremony involved something of divine right and feudality, of ignorance and servility, which had no place in our habits or the modern dignity of them. They might go to see the Sovereign at the church or the theatre: there they joined at least in the performance of his religious duties, or took part in his pleasures; but to go to see him eat was only to bring ridicule on both parties. The sovereignty having now become, as the Emperor had so well said, a magistracy, should only be seen in full activity; conferring favours, redressing injuries, transacting business, reviewing armies, and above all, divested of the infirmities and the wants of human nature, &c….

‘Well,’ said the Emperor, ‘it may be true that the circumstances of the time should have limited this ceremony to the Imperial heir, and only during his youth; for he was the child of the whole nation; he ought to become thenceforth the object of the sentiments and the sight of all.’ (2)

Louis XVIII and the grand couvert

Louis XVIII ate au grand couvert about every three weeks, a ceremony his court maintained even when he was in exile in England. Here is a description of “the first dinner in the Tuileries at which the public was admitted to admire royalty at table – a sight dear to the Parisians,” after Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814.

The table was arranged in the form of a horse-shoe; it was splendidly garnished with the king’s plate; and the celebrated nef was not forgotten. The nef is a piece of plate, of silver gilt, representing in shape the hull of a ship without masts and rigging.… In this vessel, beneath cushions wetted with perfumed water, are kept the napkins for the king’s use…. [T]he usher of the hall, having received orders from the grand-master of the household, went to the door of the hall of the gardes-du-corps, and struck it with a cane, saying at the same time: ‘Gentlemen, to lay the king’s table!’ A guard followed him; they went together to the buttery, where each officer of the place took a piece of plate, and headed by the nef, all proceeded towards the gallery of Diana, where the table was set out, the gardes-du-corps marching beside the nef, and the usher pompously carrying two table-cloths.

The bread, the wine, water, and toothpicks destined for the king’s use were tried: the napkin was laid half hanging down, upon it was placed the plate, and the salver, on which were bread, spoon, knife and fork. The same was done for every thing that the royal family was to use; and the usher, returning to the hall of the guards, again struck the door with his cane, saying: ‘Gentlemen, to the king’s dinner.’ Three guards and a brigadier with shouldered carbines, immediately repaired to the kitchen to escort the king’s dinner; it was brought with not less pomp….

[T]he dishes arrived and were tasted, and the first maître d’hôtel, and the wine-taster…preceded by the usher of the hall, went to apprize the king that dinner was on the table. His majesty, accompanied by his family, walked to the gallery of Diana, to the sound of music performed by the band of the chapel and of the opera….

I fell to studying the figure made by the duchesses who were present, seated on their blessed stools. The old and the new regime were there confronted and reciprocally examining one another…. I had then leisure to enjoy the magnificence of the sight, the splendour of the illumination, and the stupefied look of the good citizens of Paris, put in possession again, after the lapse of so many years, of the right of being present at the king’s dinner. (3)

Charles X and the grand couvert

Louis XVIII’s brother and successor, Charles X (the Count of Artois in Napoleon in America), also kept up the practice of the grand couvert. An American, Nathaniel Carter, witnessed the ceremony on January 1, 1827.

A report had gone forth that whosoever would put on small-clothes, with the usual accompaniments of a full dress, might be admitted into the presence of majesty, and attend the regal banquet. … [A]t 5 o’clock we set out for the Tuileries…. None but the carriages of the nobility were permitted to drive into the court, and the whole plebeian multitude of both sexes were compelled to dash through mud and water, in the same shoes which were destined to trample on royal carpets. On arriving at the door, we found the arcades thronged with ladies and gentlemen from all nations, and jabbering in all languages…. The gates on either side were closed, and there was neither ingress nor egress; otherwise a hasty retreat would have been effected.

In this condition the crowd remained for an hour or more, when the doors were thrown open, and the long processions marched up the grand stair-case, guarded by a line of soldiers, into the chambers of the Tuileries. At the portal, an officer sung out, ‘a bas chapeau!’ – off hats! The ladies were dismantled of their shawls, and directed to drop the arms of their companions, to walk single-file into the presence of his majesty….

The slowness of our march toward head-quarters afforded us a favourable opportunity for examining the king’s apartments at the Tuileries, which were brilliantly illuminated by a full blaze of chandeliers, exhibiting the lofty fresco ceilings, spacious saloons, Gobelin tapestry, Savonniere carpets, silken couches and other splendid furniture up to the throne itself, to the best possible advantage….

We at length reached the dining-room, which is spacious, but was filled to overflowing, even to the windows, with ladies and gentlemen who had been presented at court, and were therefore privileged to remain during the whole banquet – a prerogative which I felt little anxiety to enjoy. Temporary boxes had been erected round the hall, overlooking the table. These were filled with ladies in full dresses, who sat the whole evening, patiently watching all the important movements at the festive board….

The table was in a semi-circular form, on the outer side of which, near the centre, the King was seated, with the Duke d’Angoulême on his right, the Duchess d’Angoulême on his left, and the Duchess de Berry on the extreme right. They all sat at respectable distances, looking cold and unsocial enough, staring at the crowd, and the crowd staring at them. His majesty is a genteel man in his appearance with rather a thin face, and a gray head, with no marks of decrepitude, though now at the age of sixty-nine. There was nothing peculiar in his dress. He seemed less embarrassed by his awkward situation than the rest of the royal group, who sat like statues over their plates, while he handled his knife and fork with a good deal of ease and dexterity….

Our observations were limited in time to a few minutes, occupied in passing through the room, close by the table…. On the whole this was the greatest farce I ever attended. It is converting the palace into a menagerie, and the royal family into so many lions, for the amusement of the multitude. Intelligent Frenchmen consider the show, which recurs annually, in the same light I have done. It is a relic of royalty, at least two centuries behind the age, which the mere progress of reason has rendered ridiculous. (4)

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The Count of Artois: Charles X of France

Who was the man in the Duke and Duchess of Angoulême?

  1. John S. Memes, Memoirs of the Empress Josephine (New York, 1832), p. 316.
  2. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. I (New York, 1855), pp. 385-386.
  3. Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, Private Memoirs of the Court of Louis XVIII, Volume I (London, 1830), pp. 363-368.
  4. Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter, Letters from Europe, Comprising the Journal of a Tour through Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Italy and Switzerland, in the Years 1825, ’26 and ’27, Vol. I (New York, 1827), pp. 458-461.

A guillotine execution in Napoleonic times

The guillotine scene in Napoleon in America required me to do some research on beheading in early 19th century France. Best known for its use during the French Revolution, the guillotine continued to be the primary method of judicial execution during Napoleon’s reign and during the Bourbon Restoration. In fact, the guillotine remained France’s standard means of carrying out the death penalty until capital punishment was abolished in 1981. The last guillotine execution in France took place at Marseilles on September 10, 1977.

The guillotine execution of King Louis XVI, 1793. German copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking

The execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI, 1793. German copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking

Guillotine not invented by Guillotin

Although named after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), the guillotine was not invented by him. Other decapitation devices – the Diele in medieval Germany, the mannaia in 16th C Italy, the “Maiden” in Scotland, the Halifax gibbet in England – had existed for centuries.

Dr. Guillotin actually opposed capital punishment and wanted to make executions more humane. In 1789, as a deputy to France’s National Assembly, Guillotin argued that all capital criminals should be killed in the same fashion, and as swiftly and painlessly as possible. At the time, commoners were hanged, burned at the stake, or broken on the wheel, while nobles had the luxury of having their head chopped off by a sword. Guillotin proposed that where the death penalty was imposed, the punishment should be decapitation by means of “a simple mechanism.” In 1791, the National Assembly adopted a change to the penal code in which every person condemned to death was to have their head cut off.

It was left to Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the Royal Academy of Surgeons, to design a machine that would make beheadings fast and simple. The first model of what was initially nicknamed the “petit louison” or “louisette” was built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt. He tested it out on sheep, calves and corpses. The first guillotine execution – of highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier –  took place on April 25, 1792 at the Place de Grève in Paris.

The official executioner, Charles-Louis Sanson, said:

Today the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man’s hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life. (1)

Both Dr. Louis (who died later that year) and Dr. Guillotin greatly regretted that their names were attached to the device.

In 1795, after the death of over 16,000 people during the Reign of Terror, the National Convention passed an act that promised abolition of the death penalty when “general peace” arrived in France. But peace didn’t come. The French Revolutionary Wars turned into the Napoleonic Wars. In 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte issued a new criminal code that eradicated the eventual abolition of the death penalty. The new code affirmed that anyone condemned to death should be decapitated.

Napoleon’s successors, the Bourbon Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, also retained the guillotine, even though it had taken the lives of their brother King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.

Description of a guillotine execution

What follows is a vivid description of a guillotine execution in Rome in 1813. At the time, the Papal States were annexed to France and Pope Pius VII was Napoleon’s prisoner. The account was written by Colonel Francis Maceroni, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat. The condemned man was a Roman merchant named Venturi, who was found guilty of murdering a friend’s servant.

The instrument of judicial execution of the sentence of death, is in France the guillotine. This machine was substituted for the gallows, in every country occupied by the French. I think, from the personal sensations I have experienced on such occasions, that the effect of an execution, on the spectators, is much stronger in the case of beheading than in hanging. However, I am an enemy to the punishment of death altogether, and cannot conceive how civilized beings can take such an atrocious pleasure in witnessing the dying agonies of their fellow creatures!

Notwithstanding my usual repugnance to such spectacles, which I never had intentionally attended, I felt a curiosity to see the death of this wretched criminal, so I applied to the commander of the gendarmes, who gave me a place close to the scaffold. For the information of those who have never seen a guillotine, or the use of one, I will just describe the instrument and the process in as few words as possible:

The base of the guillotine is a hollow cube of boards, about twelve feet square, supported on wheels, which are concealed by the planking, the top forming the floor of the scaffold, which is attained by steps and bannisters from the ground. On the edge of this platform, arise two vertical parallel spars of wood exactly similar to a pile-driving machine, and in grooves along the two inner surface of the spars runs the knife, as the driving weight does in the pile driver. The knife does not present its edge horizontally but diagonally, at an angle of forty-five degrees, from side to side; it is about a foot square, and the upper side or back is loaded with some twenty pounds of metal. On a level with the floor of the scaffold, is a solid block, which receives the knife, but the patient’s head is not placed upon that block, but fixed just above it, between two pieces of wood, which embrace the neck, exactly as the two parts of the common village ‘stocks’ confine the feet of the petty delinquent. The knife is drawn up to the top of the shafts by a rope, where it is retained by a kind of latch staple and a spring. Another cord on the other side, being pulled by the executioner, sets free the knife, which, passing with its diagonal edge, close to the surface of the stocks, that embrace the neck of the culprit, shaves off the head, and would do so without the slightest check, were half a dozen human necks placed one over the other. There are two ways of placing the culprit under the knife; one is to strap him to a board, which, pivoting on its centre, is brought to the perpendicular for that operation, and then turned with the man upon it, horizontally, so as to bring his neck into the lower half-hole of the stocks, the other half of which being instantly pushed down, confines the head as above stated. At Rome, this pivoting plank was not used, but the culprit being made to kneel on a step below the stocks, the neck was there secured. And this is a briefer method than the strapping to the plank.

A dark dismal cloudy day in January, 1813, was appointed for the execution of Venturi, – and at the same time was also executed a Roman gendarme, who, in a fit of jealousy, had killed with his sabre a beautiful girl, who served as a model to students in painting and sculpture. The fatal instrument was erected in the midst of a square, of which I forget the name, and hung round with black. Two decent coffins provided by the relatives of the sufferers were ready to receive them. Instead of the vast crowds, which in England are usually seen to attend such spectacles, there certainly were not a hundred persons present besides the guards and priests attendant on the ceremony, and the greater portion of those lookers-on were foreigners.

The deep solemn chanting of the Miserere was now heard, as from a distance the procession approached the silent square. Not a word was uttered, save a low murmuring sound when the two sufferers were seen advancing, each supported by a priest on either side, who recited prayers that were repeated by the dying man. The gendarme walked with a firm and quiet air, but Venturi was with difficulty supported by those who were endeavouring to console him. The former was executed first, and uttered not a word or gave the least sign of fear or agitation. Venturi kept screaming out ‘Gesu! Gesu! Gesu!’ until the falling knife cut short his last pious ejaculations. The head remains in a kind of wire receptacle, on a level with the neck hole in the ‘stocks.’ The executioner immediately seized it by the hair, and placing it on a wooden platter, containing saw dust and a large sponge, held it up in exhibition all round the scaffold. I distinctly saw the eyes make two violent rolling movements, – then fix for ever. The bodies, upon being deprived of the heads, made only one considerable motion, which was – from a kneeling bent down position, the legs and thighs stretch out behind, so as to place them in a straight line on their faces. The coffins being placed underneath the scaffold, the bodies were let down into them through a trap-door. The jet of blood was prevented from flying over the pavement by being caught in a receptacle, which conducted it into a vessel out of view. Thus ended the affair of Venturi…..

Not more than three or four other executions occurred at Rome, during the whole period of the French dominion. (2)

You might also be interested in:

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10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

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Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death

  1. Daniel Arasse, The Guillotine and the Terror (London, 1989), p. 26.
  2. Francis Maceroni, Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of Colonel Maceroni, Vol. II (London, 1838), pp. 25-27.

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

Somewhere in the range of 3.5 million to 6 million people died as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted from 1803 to 1815. This includes both military and civilian casualties, and encompasses death from war-related diseases and other causes. Estimates of the number of soldiers killed in battle range from 500,000 to almost 2 million. What happened to all of those bodies? What did Napoleonic battlefield cleanup entail?

The Battle of Borodino, September 7, 1812, by Albrecht Adam

The Battle of Borodino, September 7, 1812, by Albrecht Adam


The depiction of post-battle scavenging in Napoleon in America is based on fact. Soldiers were typically the first to pick through the dead and wounded, taking weapons, clothing and valuables. There was little sentimentality involved. The victors looted from the fallen of both sides. It was a matter of survival, or profit. Camp followers – civilians and women who accompanied the men on campaign – also stole and salvaged from the battlefield. So did the local inhabitants, who had to deal with the mess the armies left behind. British General Robert Wilson described the scene after the Battle of Heilsberg (1807):

The ground between the wood and the Russian batteries, about a quarter of a mile, was a sheet of naked human bodies, which friends and foes had during the night mutually stripped, although numbers of these bodies still retained consciousness of their situation. It was a sight that the eye loathed, but from which it could not remove. (1)

French soldier Jean Baptiste de Marbot, wounded in the Battle of Eylau (1807), gives a sense of what it was like to be one of the bodies:

Stretched on the snow among the piles of dead and dying, unable to move in any way, I gradually and without pain lost consciousness…. I judge that my swoon lasted four hours, and when I came to my sense I found myself in this horrible position. I was completely naked, having nothing on but my hat and my right boot. A man of the transport corps, thinking me dead, had stripped me in the usual fashion, and wishing to pull off the only boot that remained, was dragging me by one leg with his foot against my body. The jerk which the man gave me no doubt had restored me to my senses. I succeeded in sitting up and spitting out the clots of blood from my throat. The shock caused by the wind of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that my face, shoulders, and chest were black, while the rest of my body was stained red by the blood from my wound. My hat and my hair were full of bloodstained snow, and as I rolled my haggard eyes I must have been horrible to see. Anyhow, the transport man looked the other way, and went off with my property without my being able to say a single word to him, so utterly prostrate was I. (2)

One of the unusual things about the remains of a soldier unearthed in 2012 at the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) is that the man does not appear to have been robbed.

Tooth hunting

Dentures with Waterloo Teeth - Military Museum, Dresden, Germany

Dentures with Waterloo Teeth – Military Museum, Dresden, Germany

Some scavengers came with pliers. Teeth from dead soldiers were in great demand for the making of dentures. In Spain in 1814, the nephew of English surgeon Astley Cooper received a visit from a tooth hunter sent by his uncle.

Upon asking this Butler, who appeared to be in a state of great destitution, what might be his object, he said it was to get teeth…but when I came to question him upon the means by which he was to obtain these teeth, he said, ‘Oh Sir, only let there be a battle, and there’ll be no want of teeth. I’ll draw them as fast as the men are knocked down.’ …

Butler was not the first…to make the Peninsula the scene, or the Duke’s achievements the means, of such lucre; for Crouch and Harnett, two well-known Resurrectionists, had some time prior to his visit, supplied the wealthier classes of London with teeth from similar sources. (3)

The flood of teeth onto the market after the Battle of Waterloo was so large that dentures made from them were known as “Waterloo teeth.” They were proudly advertised as such, since it meant the teeth came from relatively healthy young men.

Burning, burial and decomposition

A pyre at Hougoumont after the Battle of Waterloo, by James Rouse, 1816, an example of Napoleonic battlefield cleanup

A pyre at Hougoumont after the Battle of Waterloo, by James Rouse, 1816

After they had been stripped, the bodies were either burned, buried, or left in the open to decompose, a process aided by vultures, wolves and other scavengers. Captain Jean-Roche Coignet wrote after the Battle of Marengo (1800):

We saw the battlefield covered with Austrian and French soldiers who were picking up the dead and placing them in piles and dragging them along with their musket straps. Men and horses were laid pell-mell in the same heap, and set on fire in order to preserve us from pestilence. The scattered bodies had a little earth thrown over them to cover them. (4)

Depending on the size of the losses, the weather, and the capacities of the army and the local population, battlefield cleanup could take some time. On March 2, 1807, three and a half weeks after the Battle of Eylau, the 64th Bulletin of Napoleon’s Grande Armée reported:

It required great labour to bury all the dead…. Let any one imagine to himself, upon the space of a square league, 9 or 10,000 dead bodies, 4 or 5,000 horses killed, whole lines of Russian knapsacks, broken pieces of muskets and sabres; the ground covered with cannon balls, howitzer shells, and ammunition; 24 pieces of cannon, near which were lying the bodies of their drivers, killed at the moment when they were striving to carry them off. All this was the more conspicuous upon a ground covered with snow. (5)

During Napoleon’s Russian campaign, remains lingered for months. French General Philippe de Ségur described the scene at Borodino (1812) during the retreat from Moscow, almost two months after the battle.

After passing the Kologa, we marched on, absorbed in thought, when some of us, raising our eyes, uttered a cry of horror. Each one instantly looked about him, and there lay stretched before us a plain trampled, bare, and devastated, all the trees cut down within a few feet from the surface, and farther off craggy hills, the highest of which appeared misshapen, and bore a striking resemblance to an extinguished volcano. The ground around us was everywhere covered with fragments of helmets and cuirasses, with broken drums, gun-stocks, tatters of uniforms, and standards dyed with blood.

On this desolate spot lay thirty thousand half-devoured corpses; while a pile of skeletons on the summit of one of the hills overlooked the whole. It seems as though death had here fixed his throne. (6)

Napoleon had ordered the Westphalian VIII Corps to stay and guard the battlefield, transport the wounded to hospitals, and bury the dead while the rest of the army continued on to Moscow. However, the corps could do little for the wounded, as the hospital system was rudimentary and no wagons or other means of transport could be found in the deserted villages.

The Westphalians remained on the battlefield surrounded by corpses and dying men, and they were forced to change position from time to time on account of the stench…. [S]oldiers, at the request of some of the wounded in extreme agony, shot them dead and turned the face away while shooting… When von Borcke was riding on horseback over the battle-field on the 5th day after the battle, he saw wounded soldiers lying alongside the cadaver of a horse, gnawing at its flesh. On September 12th the Westphalians moved to Moshaisk, which was deserted by all inhabitants, plundered and half in ashes…. Burnt bodies were lying in the ruins of the houses which had been burnt, the entrance of these places being almost blockaded by cadavers. The only church…contained several hundred wounded and as many corpses of men dead for a number of days…. Soldiers, Westphalians as well as Russian prisoners, were ordered to remove the corpses from the houses and the streets, and then a recleansing of the whole town was necessary before it could be occupied by the troops. (7)

Given these conditions, the Westphalians had managed only a rudimentary burial on the battlefield, as attested to by Sergeant Adrien Bourgogne, who came across the same sight as Ségur:

[A]fter passing over a little river, we arrived at the famous battlefield [Borodino], covered all over with the dead, and with debris of all kinds. Legs, arms, and heads lay on the ground. Most of the bodies were Russians, as ours had been buried, as far as possible; but, as everything had been very hastily done, the heavy rain had uncovered many of them. It was a sad spectacle, the dead bodies hardly retaining a human resemblance. The battle had been fought fifty-two days before. (8)

After the Battle of Waterloo, local peasants were hired to clean up the battlefield, supervised by medical staff. The allied dead were buried in pits. The French corpses were burned. Ten days after the battle, a visitor reported seeing the flames at Hougoumont.

The pyres had been burning for eight days and by then the fire was being fed solely by human fat. There were thighs, arms and legs piled up in a heap and some fifty workmen, with handkerchiefs over their noses, were raking the fire and the bones with long forks. (9)

Bones for fertilizer

Human remains could still be seen at Waterloo a year after the battle. A company was contracted to collect the visible bones and grind them up for fertilizer. Other Napoleonic battlefields were also reportedly scoured for this purpose. In November 1822 a British paper reported:

It is estimated that more than a million of bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, Waterloo, and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and of the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull, and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders, who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery, for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sent chiefly to Doncaster, one of the largest agricultural markets in that part of the country, and are there sold to the farmers to manure their lands. The oily substance, gradually evolving as the bone calcines, makes a more substantial manure than almost any other substance, particularly human bones. It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment upon an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for ought known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread. It is certainly a singular fact, that Great Britain should have sent out such multitudes of soldiers to fight the battles of this country upon the continent of Europe, and should then import their bones as an article of commerce to fatten her soil! (10)

Souvenir hunters

After Napoleon’s final defeat, Britons hurried across the Channel to visit Waterloo, Paris and other sites associated with the French Emperor. The sightseers played a role in battlefield cleanup through their enthusiastic quest for souvenirs. In 1816, satirical poet Eaton Stannard Barrett wrote:

Every one now returns from abroad, either Beparised or Bewaterlooed…. I know one honest gentleman, who has brought home a real Waterloo thumb, nail and all, which he preserves in a bottle of gin. (11)

Scottish journalist John Scott, who visited Waterloo on August 9, 1815, seven weeks after the battle, found a 12-pound British shot, which he planned to bring home “with the cuirass and other spoils of battle which I have secured.” (12) Scott wrote:

The extraordinary love of relics shewn by the English was a subject of no less satisfaction to the cottagers who dwelt near the field, than of ridicule to our military friends…. Our own party did not pass over the field without following the example of our countrymen; each of us, I believe, making his own little collection of curiosities. The ground was strewed so completely with shreds of cartridge paper, pieces of leather, and hats, letters, songs, memorandum books, &c., as to resemble, in a great measure, the place where some vast fair had been held, and where several parties of gypsies had lighted fires at intervals, to cook their victuals. Several of these we picked up as we walked along; and I still have in my repositories, a letter evidently drenched with rain, dated April 3rd., which, from the portion still legible, must have been sent from Yorkshire; and also a leaf of a jest book, entitled ‘The Care Killer.’

At Hougoumont I purchased a bullet of grape shot, with which the wood in front of it had been furiously assailed, as was evinced by the marks visible on every tree.

The time which had elapsed since the date of the action had taken from the scene that degree of horror which it had recently presented; but the vast number of little hillocks, which were scattered about in all directions, – in some places mounds of greater extent, especially near the chausée above La Haye Sainte, and above all the desolate appearance of Hougoumont, where too the smell of the charnel house tainted the air to a sickening degree, gave sufficient tokens of the fearful storm which had swept over this now tranquil rural district. (13)

The demand for Waterloo relics soon outstripped the supply, though the locals continued for decades to hawk souvenirs that were claimed to be genuine battlefield artefacts.

You might also enjoy:

What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

Napoleon’s Nemesis: the Duke of Wellington

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

A guillotine execution in Napoleonic times

Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death

  1. Robert Wilson, Brief Remarks on the Character and Composition of the Russian Army and a Sketch of the Campaigns in Poland in the Years 1806 and 1807 (London, 1810), p. 147.
  2. Jean-Baptiste de Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot, translated by Arthur John Butler, Vol. 1, (London, 1903), p. 216.
  3. Bransby Blake Cooper, The Life of Sir Astley Cooper, Vol. 1 (London, 1843), pp. 401-402.
  4. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), p. 81.
  5. Jacques Peuchet, Campaigns of the Armies of France, in Prussia, Saxony, and Poland, translated by Samuel MacKay, Vol. 4 (Boston, 1808), p. 201.
  6. Philippe de Ségur, History of the Expedition to Russia Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812, Vol. II (New York, 1872), p. 119.
  7. Achilles Rose, Napoleon’s Campaign in Russia Anno 1812: Medico –Historical (New York, 1913), pp. 32-34.
  8. Adrien Bourgogne, Memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne, 1812-1813, edited by Paul Cottin (New York, 1899), p. 60.
  9. Bernard Cornwell, Waterloo: The True Story of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles (New York, 2015), p. 325.
  10. The New Annual Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, Arts, Sciences and Literature for the Year 1822 (London, 1823), p. 132.
  11. Eaton Stannard Barrett, The Talents Run Mad; or, Eighteen Hundred and Sixteen: A Satirical Poem (London, 1816), pp. 18-19.
  12. Richard Henry Stoddard, ed., The Life, Letters and Table Talk of Benjamin Robert Haydon (New York, 1876), p. 152
  13. John Scott, Journal of a Tour to Waterloo and Paris, in company with Sir Walter Scott in 1815 (London, 1842), pp. 46-48.

Claude Victor Perrin, Duke of Belluno, Marshal of France

Claude Victor Perrin, Duke of Belluno, Marshal of France, in an 1812 portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros commissioned by Napoleon for the Tuileries Palace

Claude Victor Perrin, Duke of Belluno, Marshal of France, in an 1812 portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros commissioned by Napoleon for the Tuileries Palace

Claude Victor Perrin, the Duke of Belluno, makes a brief appearance in Napoleon in America as the man who delivers the welcome news to the Duke of Angoulême that French forces have resisted Colonel Charles Fabvier’s attempt to subvert them. Victor was Louis XVIII’s Minister of War. He had been one of Napoleon’s marshals, and was thus one of the few senior Napoleonic officers who continued to serve in a high position under the Bourbons.

Not specially dowered by fortune with talents for war, but possessed of a resolute character, a high sense of honour, great courage, and that intrepidity which Napoleon maintained was so absolutely essential for high command, the Duke of Belluno is a striking instance of how large a factor is character in the struggle of life which ends in the survival of the fittest. (1)

Napoleon’s beautiful moon

Claude Victor Perrin was born on December 7, 1764 at Lamarche, in the Vosges department of northeastern France. He was the son of a royal bailiff, Charles Perrin, and his wife Marie Anne Floriot. At the age of 17, Victor enlisted as a drummer in the artillery regiment of Grenoble. He gained the nickname “beau soleil” (beautiful sun) for his cheery disposition. (2)

In 1791, after 10 years of service, Victor applied for his discharge. In May of that year he married Jeanne Josephine Muguet. They went on to have four children: Victorine (born in 1792), Charles (1795), Napoléon Victor François (1796), and Napoléon Victor Eugène (1799). The newlyweds settled in Valence, where Victor became a grocer. Civilian life didn’t suit him. Seven months after leaving the army, Victor joined a battalion of volunteers. He soon became battalion chief.

In 1793, Victor took part in the siege of Toulon with Napoleon Bonaparte. For his bravery on that occasion, Victor was promoted to brigadier general. During the Italian campaign of 1796-97, he so distinguished himself that he became general of division. General Victor played an important role in Napoleon’s triumph at the Battle of Marengo in June 1800. However, since Victor had made no secret of his disapproval of Napoleon’s 1799 coup d’état, the First Consul decided it was best to keep the general busy outside of France.

Claude Victor Perrin became commander-in-chief of the Army of Holland. In 1802, he was briefly the governor of Louisiana, before Napoleon sold the territory to the United States. That year Victor divorced Jeanne. In June 1803 he married Julie Vosch van Avessat. They had one daughter, Stephanie-Josephine, born in 1805. Victor was then France’s ambassador to the Danish court.

General Victor returned to military duty in 1806, thanks to Marshal Lannes, who wanted him as chief of staff. Victor’s conduct at the Battles of Jena and Pultusk returned him to Napoleon’s favour. In command of the First Corps of the Grande Armée at the Battle of Friedland in 1807, Victor’s performance earned him a marshal’s baton and an appointment as the military governor of Berlin. In 1808, he was created Duke of Belluno. This was said to be Napoleon’s idea of a joke.

‘It will be pleasant,’ said the Emperor, for whom such jokes were not at all common, ‘to name Beau-Soleil Duke of Bellune [beautiful moon].’ (3)

From 1808 to 1811, Marshal Victor saw continuous service in the Peninsular War. In 1812, he commanded a corps in the invasion of Russia. He protected the retreating Grande Armée as it crossed the Berezina River. In 1813 he fought at Dresden and Leipzig. In 1814 he was entrusted with defence of the Vosges.

Disgrace at Montereau

In February 1814, Marshal Victor arrived at the Battle of Montereau later than Napoleon had ordered. The Emperor was furious. He deprived Victor of the command of his corps and told him to leave the army.

The Duke of Belluno, with deep mortification received the Emperor’s permission to quit the army. He repaired to Surville, and with powerful emotion appealed against this decision. Napoleon gave free vent to his indignation and overwhelmed the unfortunate Marshal with expressions of his displeasure. He reproached him for reluctance in the discharge of his duties, for withdrawing from the Imperial headquarters, and for even manifesting a certain degree of opposition, which was calculated to produce mischievous effects in a camp. The conduct of the Duchess of Belluno was also the subject of complaint: she was Lady of the Palace, and yet had withdrawn herself from the Empress, who indeed seemed to be quite forsaken by the new court.

The Duke in vain attempted to defend himself; Napoleon afforded him no opportunity of reply. At length, however, he gained a hearing. He made a protestation of his fidelity, and reminded Napoleon that he was one of his old comrades, and could not quit the army without dishonour. The recollections of Italy were not invoked in vain. The conversation took a milder turn. Napoleon now merely suggested to the Duke that he stood in need of a little respite from the exertions of a military life; that his ill health and numerous wounds now probably rendered him unable to encounter the fatigues of the advanced guard and the privations of the bivouac, and too frequently induced his quartering officers to halt wherever a bed could be procured.

But all Napoleon’s endeavours to prevail on the Marshal to retire were ineffectual. He insisted on remaining with the army, and he appeared to feel the Emperor’s reproaches, the more severely in proportion as they became more gentle. He attempted to justify his tardy advance on the preceding day; but tears interrupted his utterance: if he had committed a military fault, he had dearly paid for it by the fatal wound which his unfortunate son-in-law had received.

On hearing the name of General Chateau, Napoleon was deeply affected: he enquired whether there was any hope of saving his life, and sympathized sincerely in the grief of the Marshal. The Duke de Belluno resuming confidence, again protested that he would never quit the army. ‘I can shoulder a musket,’ said he; ‘I have not forgotten the business of a soldier. Victor will range himself in the ranks of the guard.’ These last words completely subdued Napoleon. ‘Well, Victor,’ said he, stretching forth his hand to him, ‘remain with me. I cannot restore to you the command of your corps, because I have appointed General Gerard to succeed you, but I give you the command of two divisions of the guard; and now let everything be forgotten between us. (4)

Marshal Victor didn’t have long to redeem himself. On March 7, 1814, he was severely wounded at the Battle of Craonne and forced to go home.

The Restoration

After Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814, Claude Victor Perrin swore allegiance to the Bourbons. He became commander of the Second Military Division at Mézières. When Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba, the Duke of Belluno did his utmost to prevent the defection of his troops to the Emperor. Failing at that, he retreated to Ghent with Louis XVIII.

During the Second Restoration, Claude Victor Perrin was created a peer of France and named one of four major-generals of the Royal Guard. He earned the hatred of many of his former comrades for the severity he displayed when he was part of the military commission “charged with examining the conduct of officers of all grades who served under the usurpation.” (5) The commission’s decisions resulted in the removal of most Napoleonic officers from active service (see my post about demi-soldes). In 1821, Prime Minister Joseph de Villèle invited Victor to join the cabinet as Minister of War.

On the eve of the 1823 French invasion of Spain, some baggage addressed to an aide-de-camp of General Guilleminot – who had military command of the Army of the Pyrenees, under the King’s nephew, the Duke of Angoulême – was seized by the police. It was found to be full of Bonapartist ensigns, buttons, tricolors, cockades and scarfs: all the paraphernalia of a military mutiny.

It struck a panic throughout the palace, and into the Cabinet. Victor himself, whose loyalty was not questioned, but whose sagacity and foresight were apparently at fault, was compelled to quit the War Office, and proceed in haste to Bayonne, to supersede General Guilleminot, inquire into his conduct, and undertake his duties of military minister to the Duc d’Angoulême. (6)

Victor arrived in Bayonne on March 20 with a royal decree that appointed him chief of staff of the Army of the Pyrenees. The Duke of Angoulême, however, had no desire to share the glory of his expedition with one of Napoleon’s marshals. He regarded the arrival of the war minister as a slur on his own competence. Expressing full confidence in Guilleminot, Angoulême reinstated the latter in his post, leaving Victor to return to Paris. This was not Angoulême’s only gripe with the Duke of Belluno.

When the Duke of Angoulême…arrived in Bayonne…, he was assailed by complaints and recriminations concerning the disorder and the inadequacy of the food supplies. And he was perhaps too ready to share the opinion that the whole responsibility rested directly on the shoulders of the war minister, the Marshal Duke of Bellune, in spite of the latter’s unimpeachable royalism. Bellune…apparently had not the administrative capacities required of a minister of war. (7)

To remedy the situation, Angoulême signed contracts with a charming war profiteer, Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard, who had conveniently appeared in Bayonne. The contracts gave Ouvrard a virtual monopoly on the army’s food supplies and their transport on exceedingly generous terms. When these terms became known in Paris, everyone could see there had been a huge waste of public funds. The Duke of Belluno was dismissed as war minister and given the post of ambassador to Vienna. Unfortunately, Austrian Emperor Francis I refused to recognize his title (Belluno was an Austrian possession). Victor went back to being a major-general of the royal guard.

When the July Revolution of 1830 overthrew the Bourbons, Victor retired to private life. In December 1831, he was rumoured to be involved in a plot to restore King Charles X to the throne.

Claude Victor Perrin, Duke of Belluno, died on March 1, 1841, at the age of 76. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe.

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Who was the man in the Duke and Duchess of Angoulême?

Charles Fabvier: Napoleonic soldier and Greek hero

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Joseph de Villèle, the least unreasonable ultra-royalist

The 1823 French invasion of Spain

Demi-soldes, the half-pay Napoleonic war veterans

  1. R. P. Dunn-Pattison, Napoleon’s Marshals (Boston, 1909), p. 296.
  2. Biographie des ministres Français: depuis juillet 1789 jusqu’à ce jour, (Brussels, 1826), p. 304.
  3. Charles de Lacretelle, Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire, Vol. III (Paris, 1846), p. 325.
  4. Agathon-Jean-François Fain, The Manuscript of 1814: A history of events which led to the abdication of Napoleon (London, 1823), pp. 116-119.
  5. Napoleon’s Marshals, p. 296.
  6. Eyre Evans Crowe, History of the Reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X, Vol. II (London, 1854), pp. 182-183.
  7. André Nicolle, “Ouvrard and the French Expedition in Spain in 1823,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (September 1945), p. 196.

When Princess Caroline met Empress Marie Louise

Princess Caroline of Brunswick by James Lonsdale, 1820

Princess Caroline of Brunswick by James Lonsdale, 1820

It’s like a set piece from a movie: the wives of two famous enemies meet, gossip about their estranged husbands, and have a lovely time together, ending in the singing of a Mozart duet. Such was the scene in the Swiss city of Bern on September 23, 1814, when Princess Caroline of England visited Empress Marie Louise of France.


Caroline was the lusty, eccentric 46-year-old wife of England’s Prince Regent, the future King George IV. George had reluctantly married Caroline – his German cousin – in 1795. He fathered a daughter (Charlotte) with Caroline. He then began living apart from her. For details of this unhappy union, see “The Strange Marriage of the Prince Regent and Princess Caroline of Brunswick” on Jane Austen’s World.

Marie Louise

Marie Louise was the 22-year-old second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time, Napoleon was in exile on Elba. Napoleon was hoping that Marie Louise and their three-year-old son, Napoleon II, would join him, but Marie Louise’s father, Emperor Francis I of Austria, would not allow it. Instead, Napoleon had just received a visit from his Polish mistress, Marie Walewska, and his illegitimate son Alexandre. Marie Louise didn’t know about the visit, but even if she had known, she may not have much cared. She was finishing up a holiday in the company of Count Adam Albert von Neipperg, her consort in Napoleon in America, who had just become her lover.

Marie Louise of Austria by François Gérard

Marie Louise of Austria by François Gérard

The meeting in Bern

Marie Louise arrived in Bern on September 20. Caroline, who was on her way to Rome, reached the city two days later. The two women had never met. Caroline sent her chamberlain, Lord Craven, to convey her respects to the dethroned French Empress. As England was one of the countries whose arms had ousted Napoleon, any recognition of the Regent’s wife by Marie Louise was unnecessary and not in the best of taste. Nonetheless, Marie Louise dispatched the Count de Bausset, former prefect of Napoleon’s palace, to invite Caroline for a visit. Bausset reports:

[Princess Caroline], so adventurous and so celebrated for [her] great vicissitudes…was of medium height, with regular and pronounced features, and a pleasant and expressive countenance. Her great spirit and character…didn’t fail to charm, although it was easy to see that she lacked the extreme fineness of form that is one of the most seductive attributes of a pretty figure. Her manners were easy, lively and natural, her regard penetrating and quick. She spoke French perfectly well, and without an accent. She wore a white muslin gown, and her head was enveloped in a large veil of the same fabric, which fell lightly over her shoulders and her bosom. A diadem of diamonds crowned this veil, and rendered her costume rather like those of the Greek priestesses who appeared in our operas. This ensemble…appeared to me extraordinary for a traveller who had only arrived a few hours earlier. (1)

When Caroline joined Marie Louise the next morning, she spoke “with biting directness” about the difficulties she had experienced in England.

‘Your Majesty will find it hard to believe,’ she said to Marie Louise, ‘that I was not admitted to the Queen’s drawing room during the visit of the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia to England, because it suited my royal husband to not find himself with me, either privately or in public.… I complained to the queen, and even wrote to [my husband] a beautiful letter which I signed, the most faithful and submissive of wives’ (in saying these last words, the princess smiled maliciously); ‘he didn’t bother to respond. But not believing that duty condemned me to absolute retirement, I went to all the places where the public was admitted for a fee. Once, when the sovereigns and my royal husband were in a box in the dress-circle at the opera, I was discovered at the end of a box in the second row, where I had gone in disguise. The people showed their good will toward me by such loud applause that these august spectators, thinking it impossible that such homage could be addressed to anyone other than themselves, thought it incumbent upon them to rise and bow to the audience. I quickly seized on this chance to avenge myself. Pretending to consider their mistake as an act of politeness toward me, I gravely made them three sweeping curtsies, which excited loud and ironic applause.’ (2)

Marie Louise asked about Princess Charlotte.

‘My daughter is as charming and as clever as one can be; but, after myself,’ she added, smiling, ‘I don’t know a more quarrelsome person.’ (3)

Marie Louise, who had recently learned of the death of her grandmother, Queen Maria Carolina, was dressed in black. After offering condolences, Caroline expressed the fear that she would soon be obliged to wear mourning for her husband, whose infirmities grew every day. The two hit it off so well that Marie Louise returned the visit that afternoon. She invited Caroline to join her for dinner.

The duet

The evening was reportedly a jolly one. Caroline spoke with enthusiasm about the pleasure she hoped to experience on her trip to Italy. She mentioned that she might go and visit Napoleon on Elba. Marie Louise asked Caroline to sing some Italian arias. The latter consented, but only if Marie Louise would sing with her.

The Empress wanted to hide herself in her timidity, which made her incapable of uttering a note before listeners. The princess encouraged her, saying that for her part, she never had fear, except on account of her friends. (4)

They sang the duet “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Marie Louise took the part of Zerlina, and Caroline that of Don Giovanni. Count Neipperg accompanied them on the piano.

Baron Méneval, present for the occasion, said Caroline “sang effectively with a voice of which I will say nothing, only that it proved indeed the courage of this princess.” He added:

Despite her clothing and appearance, which one could frankly call bizarre, the Princess of Wales had the air of an excellent woman, simple, frank and putting everyone at ease. (5)

Bausset wrote:

I am not enough of a connoisseur to pronounce an opinion on the accuracy and flexibility of the voice of Caroline of England; what struck me the most was her range…. Marie Louise’s voice had the sweetest and most naïve inflections, like her character… Those of the Princess of Wales were masculine, sonorous and strong, like her nature. It was easy to judge, in listening to them, that if the Princess Caroline had found herself to be Napoleon’s wife, she would have presented large obstacles to the success of the coalition by the stiffness, the persistence and the calibre of her soul. (6)

Caroline and Marie Louise never met again. Caroline died on August 7, 1821, at the age of 53, three months after the death of Napoleon. Marie Louise married Neipperg. She died on December 17, 1847, at the age of 56.

You might also enjoy:

Adam Albert von Neipperg, lover of Napoleon’s wife

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

Napoleon and the Prince Regent

When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

When Louisa Adams met Joseph Bonaparte

  1. Louis François Joseph de Bausset, Mémoires anecdotiques sur l’intérieur du palais et sur quelques évenements de l’Empire, Vol. III (Paris, 1828), pp. 54-55.
  2. Ibid., pp. 55-56.
  3. Ibid., p. 56.
  4. Claude François Méneval, Napoleon et Marie-Louise, Vol. II (Paris, 1845), p. 294.
  5. Ibid., pp. 294, 295.
  6. Mémoires anecdotiques sur l’intérieur du palais et sur quelques évenements de l’Empire, Vol. III, p. 58.

General Louis Vallin, a man for all masters

Louis Vallin (portrait in the city hall of Châlons-en-Champagne)

Louis Vallin (portrait in the city hall of Châlons-en-Champagne)

Louis Vallin was a competent and long-serving French cavalry officer whose career spanned the French Revolution, Napoleon’s Empire, the Bourbon Restoration and the government of Louis-Philippe. Unlike many of his compatriots, he managed to distinguish himself under all of his various political masters. In 1823, Louis Vallin confronted Charles Fabvier’s band of insurrectionists at the Bidassoa River, both in real life and in Napoleon in America.

A postmaster’s son

Louis Vallin was born on August 16, 1770 in Dormans (Marne), France. He was the son of postmaster Joseph Edmond Vallin and his wife Marie Anne Labouret. Louis Vallin had just completed his law studies when he was conscripted into the French army thanks to the French Revolution. He started out with a National Guard regiment in Marne and was later attached to the staff of General Jean Hardy. In 1794, Vallin participated in the Battle of Fleurus and the siege of Maastricht. (1)

Colonel of hussars

In 1807, Vallin became the colonel of a regiment of hussars. Vallin fought at the Battle of Piave River in May 1809. Marshal Jacques Macdonald mentions Vallin in his recollections of the campaign.

While our troops were halting, Colonel Vallin, of the Hussars, came and begged me to give him something to do. I told him not to stir without orders, and added that I would soon find work for him…. I gave orders to General Grouchy, who was in command of the cavalry at this point, and while he was conveying them to his men, I turned back to regain the centre. I saw Colonel Vallin and his squadron charging. I foresaw what must inevitably, and did, happen. The enemy’s cavalry hurriedly withdrew, and allowed the squadron to advance, thus exposing them to the hot fire of the masked infantry, which I alone had perceived when I commanded the halt. My intention had been to outflank it on the right, and such were my orders to Grouchy. The enemy’s cavalry, seeing Vallin’s regiment hesitate, charged, and from where I was I could see that we were not getting the best of it in the mêlée that ensued. I spurred my horse and came up with the unlucky leader, who was wounded in the hand, and fiercely reproached him for having disobeyed my positive orders. He replied that he had acted upon instructions from the Viceroy [of Italy, Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais], who galloped up and said unreflectingly:

‘Now then, hussars! Let me see you charge those blackguards!’

Vallin had answered that he would have done so already, had I not forbidden him to stir.

‘Never mind,’ answered the Prince; ‘charge all the same!’

And he did so. (2)

A couple of months later, Vallin fought with distinction in the Battle of Wagram. He was subsequently named a baron of the Empire.

On July 12, 1810 in Paris, Vallin married Saubade Garat (1769-1821), the daughter of Baron Martin Garat, director general of the Bank of France. They had three children, Angélique (born in 1812), Léonie (1815) and Marie Louise (1819).

Vallin distinguished himself in the Russian campaign of 1812. He was promoted to general of brigade and placed in command of the vanguard of troops led by Eugène de Beauharnais. In 1813, Vallin was named second in command of a regiment of the Guards of Honour. (See my post about Louis Lauret for more about the Guards of Honour).

The Hundred Days

After Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, Vallin commanded a cavalry brigade in the army of King Louis XVIII. When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Vallin joined the Emperor’s Belgian campaign. He took over command of the 7th Cavalry Division when General Maurin was wounded at the Battle of Ligny. In this capacity, Vallin was with General Grouchy’s forces at the Battle of Wavre. Prior to the battle, Grouchy’s subordinate General Gérard suggested to Grouchy that they should instead march in the direction of the sound of distant cannon fire. Grouchy insisted on following the Prussian forces he was chasing.

As Grouchy was preparing to mount, Gérard risked a last attempt: ‘If you do not wish to advance towards the Forest of Soignes with all the troops, at least permit me to make this movement with my army corps and the cavalry of General Vallin. I am confident that I can reach the battlefield in time to be of assistance to the Emperor.’

‘No,’ replied Grouchy. ‘It would be committing an unpardonable military fault to divide my troops and cause them to operate upon both banks of the Dyle. I would expose both of these bodies, which would be unable to support each other, to the danger of being crushed by forces two or three times more numerous.’ (3)

The battle in which Vallin might have assisted was the Battle of Waterloo. After the French defeat, Vallin’s cavalry flanked the army in its retreat towards Paris, pursued by the Prussians. The French provisional government promoted Vallin to lieutenant general. On July 1, 1815, on the plain of Montrouge outside Paris, Vallin made one last attempt to defend the city.

The Bourbon Restoration

Louis Vallin initially resisted serving under the restored Bourbons, but he soon rallied to the new government. He was rewarded with the post of inspector general of cavalry and the title of viscount. In 1822-23, Vallin was one of the commanders of the army on France’s border with Spain. Initially an observation corps, this became the Army of the Pyrenees (see the 1823 French invasion of Spain). Vallin led the vanguard of the invading force. On April 6, 1823, at the Bidassoa River, he was confronted with a small band of insurgents led by Colonel Charles Fabvier. While Fabvier tried to convince the French soldiers to desert,

General Vallin galloped up to a piece of artillery in battery on the French abutment of the broken bridge, and, without parleying an instant with the refugees, ordered them to be immediately fired upon. A round shot was accordingly fired from across the river, but whether from accident or forbearance, it passed wide of the party. Fabvier and his men looking on the absence of a shower of grape shot as a signal of seditious complicity with them, waved their flag and cried ‘Vive l’Artillerie!’ But the only answer they got was a discharge of grape shot, by order of General Vallin, which brought down an officer and several of the refugees. The rest stood their ground, however, till a third discharge tore the tri-coloured flag, killed the bearer of it, and covered the Spanish bank of the river with killed and wounded. The fate of Spain, of France, and of Europe…depended on the resolution of the general, and the obedience of a few artillerymen. This first exchange of fire between the army of the King and the army of the revolution caused a long separation between the two causes. ‘General Vallin,’ said Louis XVIII, on seeing this brave soldier again after the campaign, ‘your cannon shot saved Europe!’ (4)

After entering Madrid, the Duke of Angoulême sent a detachment under Vallin in pursuit of the Spanish corps that had formed the garrison there. Vallin caught up with the Spanish corps outside Talavera and defeated them. The Spanish campaign resulted in Vallin becoming a grand officer of the Legion of Honour.

Louis Vallin continued to serve off and on as an inspector general of cavalry until 1828. After a period of inactivity, he served as an inspector general of gendarmerie in 1834-35. In 1839 he was placed on reserve. In 1848 he officially retired.

General Louis Vallin died on December 25, 1854 in Paris, at the age of 84. His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

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The 1823 French invasion of Spain

Charles Fabvier: Napoleonic soldier and Greek hero

Demi-soldes, the half-pay Napoleonic War veterans

  1. This and other biographical information about Louis Vallin comes from Louis-Gabriel Michaud, Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne, Nouvelle Édition, Vol. 42 (Paris, 1865), pp. 506-507.
  2. Camille Rousset, ed., Recollections of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum, translated by Stephen Louis Simeon (New York, 1893), pp. 144-145.
  3. Henry Houssaye, 1815 Waterloo, translated by S.R. Willis (Kansas City, Mo., 1905), pp. 156-157.
  4. Alphonse de Lamartine, The History of the Restoration of Monarchy in France, Vol. 4 (London: 1854), p. 132.