Alternate History by Napoleon

Napoleon at the burning of Moscow in 1812. What if the fire hadn’t happened?

Napoleon at the burning of Moscow in 1812. What if the fire hadn’t happened?

In view of all the alternate history about Napoleon, of which Napoleon in America is an example, it is worth noting that a prolific speculator about Napoleonic “what-ifs” was Bonaparte himself. Napoleon often posited counterfactuals, particularly when he was in exile on St. Helena. Here are some of Napoleon’s alternate history scenarios.

If his father had not died young

Napoleon’s father, Carlo Maria Buonaparte (Charles Bonaparte), died of stomach cancer in February 1785, when Napoleon was 15 years old.

If my father, who died before he attained the age of forty, had survived some time longer, he would have been appointed deputy from the Corsican nobility to the Constituent Assembly. He was much attached to the nobility and the aristocracy; on the other hand, he was a warm partisan of generous and liberal ideas. He would, therefore, have been entirely on the right side, or at least in the minority of the nobility. At any rate, whatever might have been my own personal opinions, I should have followed my father’s footsteps, and thus my career would have been entirely deranged and lost. (1)

If his invasion force had reached England

Between 1803 and 1805 Napoleon gathered an army of 200,000 men on the north coast of France and built a flotilla of barges with the intention of invading England. He called the invasion off when his plan to gain temporary control of the English Channel failed.

Had I succeeded in effecting a landing, I have very little doubt that I should have accomplished my views. Three thousand boats, each to carry twenty men and one horse, with a proportion of artillery were ready. Your [the British] fleet having been decoyed away…would have left me master of the Channel…. Four days would have brought me to London. In a country like England, abounding in plains, defence is very difficult. I have no doubt that your troops would have done their duty, but one battle lost, the capital would have been in my power. You could not have collected a force sufficiently strong to beat me in a pitched battle. Your ideas of burning and destroying the towns, and the capital itself, are very plausible in argument, but impracticable in their accomplishment. You would have fought a battle and lost it. …

I would have offered you a constitution of your own choice, and have said ‘Assemble in London deputies from the people to fix upon a constitution.’ I would have called upon Burdett and other popular leaders to organize one according to the wishes of the people. I would have declared the [king] fallen from the [throne], abolished the nobility, proclaimed liberty, freedom, and equality.

Think you, that in order to keep the house of [Hanover] on the [throne] your rich citizens, merchants, and others of London, would have consented to sacrifice their riches, their houses, their families, and all their dearest interests, especially when I had made them comprehend that I only came to [send the king] away, and to give them liberty? No, it is contrary to history and to human nature…. Your principal people have too much to lose by resistance, and your canaille too much to gain by a change. If…they supposed that I wanted to render England a province of France, then indeed l’esprit national would do wonders. But I would have formed a republic according to your own wishes, required a moderate contribution, barely sufficient to have paid the troops, and perhaps not even that. Your canaille would have been for me knowing…that I am the man of the people, that I spring from the populace myself, and that whenever a man had merit or talent, I elevated him without asking how many degrees of nobility he had; knowing, that by joining me, they would be relieved from the yoke of the aristocracy under which they labour. (2)

If he had known warships could transport a lot of water

Napoleon also contemplated invading India.

[Admiral Plampin] says that a seventy-four gun ship will take about eighty tons more water by means of the tanks. Had I known this in 1806 or 1808, I would have sent an army of thirty-thousand men to invade India. I had made several calculations about the possibility of sending so large a body of men to India, but always found that they would have been short of water for a month. …

In Brest, I had at one time as many as fifty-six sail of the line, and often forty-six. In forty of these line-of-battle ships, I intended to have dispersed thirty thousand soldiers, eight hundred in each, and only four hundred sailors. There were to have been a proportionate number of frigates and other smaller vessels. Ten of the line-of-battle ships would have been old and of little value. They were also to take on board six or eight hundred dismounted cavalry, and a portion of artillery, with everything necessary for an army to take the field, and be provisioned for four months. They were to make the best of their way to the Isle of France, where they would have watered and provisioned afresh, landed their sick, and taken on board some other troops to replace them, with three thousand blacks to form colonial regiments. From thence they were to have proceeded to India, and to have disembarked in the nearest possible place, so as to have allowed the Mahrattas, with whom I had an understanding to join them. They were to form the cavalry of the army. A few of the French were also to be mounted, and all the horses they could procure purchased. After landing, they were to have burnt the ten old ships, and divided their crews amongst the rest, who would have been thus full manned. They would then proceed in different directions, and do you all possible mischief in your settlements. …

All this plan, however, was frustrated by the calculations I had made, which showed me that the ships must fall short of water by a month. Had I known of those tanks, I certainly would have made the attempt. (3)

If Moscow had not been burnt

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. He made it as far as Moscow, only to find that the Russians had evacuated the city. Fires set by Russian saboteurs then destroyed most of Moscow. Napoleon retreated without having attained a decisive victory. The failure of the Russian campaign is considered one of the reasons for Napoleon’s downfall.

[If Moscow had not been burnt] I should then have held up the singular spectacle of an army wintering in the midst of a hostile nation. … On the first appearance of fine weather, I should have marched against the enemy: I should have beaten them; I should have been master of their empire. [Russian Tsar] Alexander, be assured, would not have suffered me to proceed so far. He would have agreed to all the conditions which I might have dictated, and France would then have begun to enjoy all her advantages. And, truly, my success depended upon a mere trifle. For I had undertaken the expedition to fight against armed men, not against nature in the violence of her wrath….

Peace, concluded at Moscow, would have fulfilled and wound up my hostile expeditions. It would have been with respect to the grand cause, the term of casualties and the commencement of security. A new horizon, new undertakings, would have unfolded themselves, adapted, in every respect, to the well-being and prosperity of all. The foundation of the European system would have been laid, and my only remaining task would have been its organization.

Satisfied on these grand points, and everywhere at peace, I should have also had my Congress and my Holy Alliance. These are plans which were filched from me. In that assembly of all the sovereigns, we should have discussed our interest in a family way, and settled our accounts with the people, as a clerk does with his master. …

On my return to France…I would have proclaimed the immutability of boundaries; all future wars as purely defensive, all new aggrandizement as anti-national. I would have associated my son with me in the empire; my dictatorship would have terminated and his constitutional reign commenced.

Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of nations! … My leisure and my old age would have been devoted, in company with the Empress, and, during the royal apprenticeship of my son, to visiting slowly and with our own horses, like a plain country couple, every corner of the empire; to receiving complaints, redressing wrongs, founding monuments, and doing good everywhere and by every means! (4)

If things had gone differently at the Battle of Waterloo

On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by a coalition of British, German, Dutch-Belgian and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. I have already written about Napoleon’s general thoughts on the battle. Here are a few of his alternate history speculations.

If Marshal Blucher had not arrived at eight with his first and second corps, the [French] march on Brussels with two columns, during the battle of the 17th, would have been attended with several advantages. The left would have pressed upon and kept in check the Anglo-Dutch army; the right, under the command of Marshal Grouchy, would have pursued and restrained the operations of the Prusso-Saxon army; and in the evening the whole of the French army would have effected its junction on a line of less than five leagues from Mont Saint Jean to Wavres, with its advanced posts on the edge of the forest. …

The horse grenadiers and dragoons of the guard, under the command of General Guyot, engaged without orders. Thus at five in the afternoon, the army found itself without a reserve of cavalry. If, at half past eight, that reserve had existed, the storm which swept all before it on the field of battle would have been dispersed, the enemy’s charges of cavalry driven back, and the two armies would have slept on the field, notwithstanding the successive arrivals of General Bulow and Marshal Blucher: the advantage would also have been in favour of the French army, as Marshal Grouchy’s 34,000 men, with 108 pieces of cannon, were fresh troops and bivouacked on the field of battle. The enemy’s two armies would have placed themselves in the night under cover of the forest of Soignes. …

If Marshal Grouchy had encamped in front of Wavres in the night between the 17th and 18th, no detachment could have been sent by the Prussians to save the English army, which must have been completely beaten by the 69,000 French opposed to it. (5)

If he had made his brother governor of Corsica

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, his brother Joseph advised him to appoint their younger brother Lucien as governor of Corsica, which is where Napoleon and his family came from. Lucien would thus have been in that position when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

If Lucien had gone to Corsica, he would still have remained master of the Island, and what resources would it not have presented to our persecuted patriots? To how many unfortunate families would not Corsica have afforded an asylum? [Napoleon] repeated that he had perhaps committed a fault, at the time of his abdication, in not reserving to himself the sovereignty of Corsica, together with the possession of some millions of the civil list; and in not having conveyed all his valuables to Toulon, whence nothing could have impeded his passage. In Corsica, he would have found himself at home; the whole population would have been, as it were, his own family. He might have disposed of every arm and every heart. Thirty thousand or even 50,000 allied troops could not have subdued him. (6)

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Alternate History Books by Women

  1. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II (New York, 1855), p. 132.
  2. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 378-380. O’Meara notes, “Napoleon frequently used the word canaille, not in a degrading sense, but as the people, distinct from the nobles.”
  3. Ibid., pp. 197-198.
  4. Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. III (New York, 1855), pp. 164-166.
  5. Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II, pp. 186, 187, 192.
  6. Ibid., p. 215.

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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  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.

The Bumpy Coronation of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of the French on December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. A victorious general who had become leader of France through a coup d’état, Napoleon wanted to establish the legitimacy of his regime. He also needed to show – in the wake of plots against his life – that even if he was killed, his dynasty would live on. Making his rule hereditary would reassure those who had acquired land and other benefits from the French Revolution that their gains were secure.

Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of Empress Josephine in Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, December 2, 1804, by Jacques-Louis David and Georges Rouget, 1805-1807

Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of Empress Josephine in Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, December 2, 1804, by Jacques-Louis David and Georges Rouget, 1805-1807

On May 18, 1804, Napoleon’s hand-picked Senate proclaimed him the hereditary “Emperor of the French.” A national plebiscite was held to confirm this change in status. The doctored results – announced on November 6 – showed 3.6 million people (99.93%) in favour and 2,569 against. Half of the potential voters abstained. By this time, preparations for a lavish coronation were well underway. Napoleon, however, ran into a few problems.

Reluctant Pope

French monarchs claimed to rule by divine right. The most important part of the traditional French coronation ceremony was the consecration (sacre), or anointing of the king with holy oil, performed by the archbishop of Reims in his cathedral. Aware of the symbolic value of associating his rule with divine providence, Napoleon invited the Pope to officiate at his coronation. Pius VII was wary of Napoleon and reluctant to go to France in the absence of some concessions for the Catholic church, which had been decimated during the French Revolution. Napoleon begged, threatened and bargained, using his uncle Cardinal Joseph Fesch as an intermediary. The Pope finally agreed.

Jealous sisters

The Bonaparte family disliked Napoleon’s wife Josephine and objected to her being crowned Empress. No French queen had been honoured with such a ceremony for centuries. When Napoleon told his sisters Elisa, Pauline and Caroline that he expected them to carry Josephine’s massive velvet train in the coronation ceremony, they made a scene and refused. Napoleon’s brother Joseph sided with his sisters and protested to Napoleon on their behalf. Napoleon was furious and threatened them all with loss of titles and wealth. The sisters fell into line. But they sulked during the ceremony and at one point may have pulled back on the train, preventing Josephine from moving forward (see below).

Absent mother

Detail of David's Coronation of Napoleon showing Madame Mère, who wasn't actually there

Detail of David’s Coronation of Napoleon showing Madame Mère, who wasn’t actually there

Instead of remaining in Paris for the coronation, Napoleon’s mother Letizia headed off to Rome to be with Napoleon’s brother Lucien, whom Napoleon had exiled for marrying against his wishes. In addition to pointedly supporting Lucien in that dispute, Letizia was also showing her dislike for the imperial title Napoleon had bestowed upon her (Madame Mère). Napoleon instructed Jacques-Louis David to put Letizia in his painting of the coronation anyhow.

Bad weather

Sunday, December 2, 1804, was a cold and wintry day. It snowed through the night and continued to snow until 8 a.m. Workers were quickly found to shovel the snow and lay sand along the procession route. The sun reportedly came out from behind the clouds just as Napoleon’s coach arrived at Notre Dame, which the Emperor took as a good omen.

Sleeping Masters of Ceremonies

Though detachments of six battalions of Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Guard took up their positions at the cathedral at 5:00 a.m., no one showed up to organize the large crowd that had formed.

Around Notre Dame and inside the church the confusion was terrible…. At six o’clock [a.m.] the doors were opened, and a large number of those invited, whose impatient curiosity had led them thither before daybreak, had managed to push in through the doorways on handing their tickets to the ninety-two ticket-collectors, who were each paid nine francs. As soon as they entered they walked about all over the stands and hindered the workpeople who were still busy; and for more than an hour and a half the greatest disorder reigned in the church. It was with the greatest difficulty that [the architect] Fontaine managed to induce the military authorities to take the place of the lie-abed Masters of the Ceremonies and to establish order at the entrance. (1)

A long wait

Before daybreak on the 2nd of December, all Paris was alive and in motion; indeed hundreds of persons had remained up the whole of the night. Many ladies had the courage to get their hair dressed at two o’clock in the morning, and then sat quietly in their chairs until the time arrived for arranging the other parts of their toilette. We were all very much hurried, for it was necessary to be at our posts before the procession moved from the Tuileries, for which nine o’clock was the appointed hour. … (2)

At 7:00 the senators set out for Notre Dame. At 8:00, members of the Legislative Body, the State Council, the Tribunate and Court of Appeals headed for the church. At 9:00, it was the turn of the diplomatic corps, which included James Monroe, but no representatives from Great Britain, Russia or Austria. Also at 9:00, the Pope began his ride to the church, escorted by four squadrons of dragoons and followed by six carriages full of cardinals and assorted clergy. Then came the secular carriages, led by Marshal Joachim Murat, military governor of Paris and husband of Napoleon’s sister Caroline.

At 10:00 Napoleon and Josephine left the Tuileries Palace, accompanied by artillery salvos. Security was tight, with troops three rows deep on either side of the street, amounting to some 80,000 men. There were several delays along the route, as they had not counted on “the confusion that would be caused by the immense size of the processions, shut in between hedges of foot-soldiers, delayed by the eagerness of the populace, and checked by certain petty accidents.” (3) It wasn’t until 11:45 that Napoleon was ready to enter the church.

The grand coronation procession of Napoleone the 1st, Emperor of France, from the Church of Notre-Dame, Decr. 2d. 1804. Caricature by James Gillray showing Napoleon’s coronation procession, starting with Louis Bonaparte and Pauline, Hortense (Josephine's daughter & wife of Louis) and Julie (Joseph’s wife), followed by Talleyrand and his wife, and a dejected Pope Pius VII. Napoleon and Josephine are in the centre. Napoleon's train is supported by Spain, Prussia and Holland.

The grand coronation procession of Napoleone the 1st, Emperor of France, from the Church of Notre-Dame, Decr. 2d. 1804. Caricature by James Gillray showing Napoleon’s coronation procession, starting with Louis Bonaparte and Pauline, Hortense (Josephine’s daughter & wife of Louis) and Julie (Joseph’s wife), followed by Talleyrand and his wife, and a dejected Pope Pius VII. Napoleon and Josephine are in the centre. Napoleon’s train is supported by Spain, Prussia and Holland.

The ceremony

The ceremony proceeded according to the etiquette which had been adopted after long discussion. The onlookers were cold and hungry, although some tradesmen had slipped into the church with rolls and sausages. No one saw anything of the ceremony which went on in the choir except those in the choir-stands, on the grand level, or the first tier. Luckily there was the music, the Mass and the Te Deum on a twofold arrangement composed expressly by Paësiello…. 17,738 pages of music had been [hand] copied and brought out for the different parts of the orchestra. (4)

Pius VII began the mass. He anointed Napoleon’s head, arms and hands in accordance with the ancient tradition. Napoleon then took the crown and put it on his own head. This was not spontaneous gesture, or a snub of the Pope. It had been planned and discussed with the pontiff at great length. Napoleon also crowned Josephine, who began to cry. They then proceeded up some steps to the throne.

A stumble

The Empress mounted the first five steps, and then the weight of her mantle, no longer upheld by the Princesses, who remained at the bottom of the steps, brought her up with a jerk, and almost made her fall backwards. She had to put forth all her strength to recover herself and continue the ascent. Had her train-bearers plotted this vengeance? It was believed so. But a proof of their innocence is the fact that the same thing happened to the Emperor. He staggered himself, was seen to make a slight movement backwards, recovered himself with an effort, and briskly mounted the steps. When, after the enthronement, the Pope kissed the Emperor on the cheek, and pronounced the Vivat Imperator in aeternum [May the Emperor live forever], few of the onlookers understood, and scarcely any one shouted. (5)


After the mass, the civilian authorities administered the imperial oath. Shortly before 3:00, the imperial party began the return to the Tuileries, arriving there after dark. Napoleon dined alone with Josephine.

He was delighted with his day, and complimented the ladies of the Court… He displayed no penetrating emotion, no awe at having evoked the mystery of kingship, no distrust with regard to the future, only a somewhat shallow satisfaction that the pomp should have been so magnificent, and that every one should have played his part so well. (6)

The police estimated that some 2 million people were present in Paris. Hundreds of church bells rang out, followed by illuminations, fireworks, formal balls and dancing in the streets. These and other festivities continued for the next two weeks. The cost of the whole affair was 8.5 million francs, paid for by crown and state treasuries.

Napoleon insisted on keeping his title of Emperor of the French even after his abdication and exile to St. Helena. He retains it in Napoleon in America.

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  1. Frédéric Masson, Napoleon and His Coronation, translated by Frederic Cobb (Philadelphia, 1911), pp. 219-220.
  2. Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of Napoleon, his Court and Family, Vol. II (London, 1836), p. 53.
  3. Napoleon and His Coronation, p. 227.
  4. Ibid., p. 234.
  5. Ibid., pp. 234-235.
  6. Ibid., p. 241.

Napoleon’s Ghost

Napoleon’s ghost pops up from time to time

Napoleon’s ghost pops up from time to time

Given the huge influence that Napoleon Bonaparte had during his lifetime, it’s not surprising that his ghost has popped up from time to time since his death. The Museum of The Black Watch has transcribed a letter describing a British soldier’s encounter with Napoleon’s ghost during the removal of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to France in 1840. Albert Dieudonné, who played Napoleon in Abel Gance’s 1927 film of that name, talked about spooking a night watchman at the Château de Fontainebleau who claimed to be visited by Napoleon’s ghost. The following story about Napoleon’s ghost first appeared in British newspapers in January 1832.

The Ghost of Napoleon

At the Mansion House on Saturday, M. Pierre de Blois, a French gentleman who resides in chambers in Leadenhall Street, was summoned before the Lord Mayor for beating Rafael Spaglietti, an image seller, and breaking a very fine bust of Napoleon Buonaparte.

It appeared that the Italian went upstairs to the defendant’s room door, at the top of which there was a glass; he raised up the head of the image, which was made of pale clay, to the glass and said softly, ‘buy my ghost of Napoleon.’ M. de Blois, who had known the Emperor, thought he saw his ghost, and exclaiming ‘Oh, Christ, save us!’ fell on the floor in a fit. The Italian, seeing no chance of a sale that day, went away and returned the next. M. de Blois, in the meantime, had recovered from his fit, and hearing how his terror had been excited, felt so indignant that the moment he saw Spaglietti at his door the next day, he flew at him and tumbled him and the Emperor downstairs together.

It happened that a confectioner’s man was that moment coming upstairs with a giblet pie to a Mr. Wilson, who resided in the chambers, and the Emperor and the Italian, in their descent, alighted on his tray, which broke their fall and saved the Italian’s head, but could not save Napoleon’s, which was totally destroyed – the giblet pie also suffered so much from the collision that Mr. Wilson refused to have anything to do with it. After a good deal of explanation by the parties, and a good deal of laugher amongst the auditors, M. de Blois agreed to pay for the pie, and Mr. Wilson generously paid for the loss of the Emperor. (1)

Did Napoleon believe in ghosts?

For the answer, see my post about whether Napoleon was superstitious. Charlotte Brontë seemed to think so. She wrote a short story called “Napoleon and the Spectre” (published in The Green Dwarf, 1833), which you can read for free on Project Gutenberg.

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  1. Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), March 28, 1832. British papers carried a longer account.

When Napoleon met Goethe

When Napoleon met Goethe at Erfurt. Photogravure from a painting by Eugène Ernest Hillemacher

Napoleon’s meeting with Goethe at Erfurt. Photogravure from a painting by Eugène Ernest Hillemacher

In 1808, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest German literary figure of the modern era. Each man admired the other, although Napoleon’s motives were not solely to greet the author of one of his favourite books.

The Congress of Erfurt

Born in Frankfurt on August 28, 1749, Goethe was 20 years older than Napoleon. His fame as a writer was already well-established by the time Napoleon came to power in France. The young conqueror read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther multiple times, and carried it in his campaign library.

In 1806, Napoleon conquered Prussia. French troops occupied and sacked Weimar, where Goethe had lived since 1775. Although Goethe’s house was spared, many of his friends lost everything. Goethe reconciled himself to Napoleon’s empire, which he regarded as a legitimate successor to the Holy Roman Empire.

Two years later, Napoleon organized a grand congress at Erfurt, a short distance from Weimar. It was a summit meeting between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, intended to strengthen their alliance. The congress was also a theatrical display of French power. “I want to astound Germany with my magnificence,” said Napoleon. (1) The attendees paying court included most of the kings and princes of Germany, and notables from across Europe. Napoleon brought his favourite actor, François Joseph Talma, and the best actors and actresses of the Comédie-Française. They presented 16 French plays, chosen by Napoleon himself.

Napoleon wanted to co-opt the German cultural elite and enhance his reputation as a friend of the arts and literature. To this end, the great Goethe was invited to an interview.

Goethe’s account of the meeting

Napoleon met Goethe on October 2, 1808 in the Governor’s Palace at Erfurt.

I have been summoned to the Emperor for eleven o’clock in the morning. A fat chamberlain, Monsieur Pole, tells me to wait. The crowd disappears. I am introduced to Savary and Talleyrand. I am called into the Emperor’s study. At the same time, Daru has his presence announced. He is immediately brought in. This makes me hesitate. I am summoned a second time. I enter. The Emperor is seated at a large round table. He is eating breakfast. On his right, at some distance from the table, is Talleyrand; on his left, Daru, with whom he discusses taxes. The Emperor signals to me to approach. I remain standing in front of him at a suitable distance. After looking at me for a moment, he says to me: ‘You are a man.’ I bow my head. He says: ‘How old are you?’

‘Sixty years.’

‘You are well preserved. You have written some tragedies.’

I replied the bare essentials. Daru began to speak…. He added that I had translated some French works and, for example, Voltaire’s Mahomet. The Emperor said: ‘That is not a good work,’ and went on in detail about how it was indecorous for the conqueror of the world to paint such an unfavourable picture of himself. He then brought the conversation to Werther, which he must have studied in detail. After several perfectly appropriate observations, he mentioned a specific part and said to me: ‘Why did you do that? It is not natural.’ And he spoke at length on this and with perfect accuracy.

I listened with a calm face, and I replied, with a smile of satisfaction, that I didn’t know whether anyone had ever made the same criticism, but that I found it perfectly justified, and that I agreed that one could find fault with this passage’s lack of authenticity. ‘But,’ I added, ‘a poet can perhaps be excused for taking refuge in an artifice which is hard to spot, when he wants to produce certain effects that could not be created simply and naturally.’

The Emperor seemed to agree with me; he returned to drama and made some very sensible remarks, as a man who had observed the tragic stage with a great deal of attention, like a criminal judge, and who felt very deeply how far French theatre had strayed from nature and truth.

He went on to talk about fatalistic plays, of which he disapproved. They belonged to the dark ages. ‘Why, today, do they keep giving us destiny?’ he said. ‘Destiny is politics.’

He turned again to Daru and spoke to him about taxes…. Marshal Soult was announced….

The Emperor rose, came straight towards me and, by a sort of manoeuvre, separated me from the other people in the line in which I found myself. He turned his back to those people and spoke to me, lowering his voice. He asked me whether I was married, whether I had children, and other personal matters.

He also questioned me on my relations with the house of the princes, on the Duchess Amalia, on the prince, and on the princess. I replied in a natural manner. He seemed satisfied, and translated for himself these replies into his language, but in slightly more forceful terms than I had managed.

I must also note that, in the whole of our conversation, I had admired the variety of his affirmative replies and gestures, because he was rarely immobile when he listened. Sometimes he made a meditative gesture with his head and said: ‘Yes’ or ‘That’s right,’ or something similar; or, if he had stated some idea, he most often added: ‘And what would Monsieur Goethe say to that?’

I took the opportunity to make a sign to the chamberlain to see if I could retire, and, on his affirmative response, I immediately took my leave. (2)

Napoleon met Goethe again on October 6, this time at Weimar, in the company of fellow writer Christoph Martin Wieland. On October 14, Goethe and Wieland were each awarded the cross of the Legion of Honour. Goethe revealed no details about about his conversations with Napoleon until many years later.

In 1815, Napoleon was defeated and exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821. In 1828, Goethe told his friend Johann Peter Eckermann:

Napoleon was the man! Always enlightened, always clear and decided, and endowed with sufficient energy to carry into effect whatever he considered advantageous and necessary. His life was the stride of a demi-god, from battle to battle, and from victory to victory. It might well be said of him, that he was found in a state of continual enlightenment. On this account, his destiny was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him, or perhaps will ever see after him. (3)

Goethe died on March 22, 1832, at the age of 82.

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What were Napoleon’s last words?

Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon’s spy?

  1. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Mémoires du Prince de Talleyrand, Vol. I (Paris, 1891), p. 402.
  2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Oeuvres de Goethe, X: Mélanges, translated by Jacques Porchat (Paris, 1874), pp. 307-309.
  3. Johann Peter Eckermann and Frédéric Jacob Soret, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, translated by John Oxenford, Vol. II (London, 1850), p. 40.

Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena

Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequent imprisonment on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena (from which he escapes in Napoleon in America) provided opportunity for the last great blast of Napoleon caricatures. Most of them appeared in 1815, the year of Napoleon’s second and final abdication from the French throne. Relatively few appeared in the years up to his death in 1821. Further to my post about caricatures of Napoleon on Elba, here’s a look at some caricatures about Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena.

Caricatures of Napoleon’s departure for St. Helena

A rare acquisition to the royal menagerie: A present from Waterloo by Marshals Wellington & Blucher

A rare acquisition to the royal menagerie: A present from Waterloo by Marshalls Wellington & Blucher. Napoleon caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, July 28, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Napoleon, perched in a large birdcage (topped by a dead eagle), is surrounded by an angry mob. A newsboy says: “Just Caught a Ferocious Animal never Exhibited before in this Country commonly called the Corsican tyger or man destroyer to be seen for a short time for Two Pence a Piece.” Napoleon says: “Mort de ma vie. Dat be one Cossack in Petticoats she will soon skin and bone me.” A sailor says: “Once more my Dear Magg of Wapping We have got him under the Hatches and shiver my Timbers the only way to secure him is to send him to Dock Head.” Magg replies: “I’ll Dock Head and Dock Tail him. I’ll cut off his Ears I’ll cut off his ___. I’ll make a Singing Bird of him.” Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, July 28, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Boneys trial, sentence, and dying speech; or Europe’s injuries revenged

Boney's trial, sentence, and dying speech; or: Europe’s injuries revenged. Napoleon caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, July 28, 1815

Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher says: “You Nap Boneparte being found Guilty of all these Crimes it is fell to my lot to pronounce Sentence of Death on You—You are to be hung by the Neck for one hour till you are Dead, Dead, Dead, & your Body to be chained to a Mill Stone & sunk in the Sea at Torbay.” Napoleon replies: “Oh cruel Blucher, Oh! cruel Wellington it is you that have brought me to this End. Oh Magnanimous Emperors Kings & Princes intercede for me and spare my life; and give me time to atone for all my Sins. My Son Napoleon the Second will reward you for Mercy shewn me.” Napoleon’s offences are inscribed as follows: “NAPOLEAN BONAPARTE The first and last by the Wrath of Heaven Ex Emperor of the Jacobins & head Runner of Runaways, Stands indicted 1st for the Murder of Captain Wright in the Temple at Paris; 2d for the murder of the Duke Dangulem [d’Enghien] Pichegrew & Georges; 3 for the Murder of Palm Hoffer &c; & 4th for the murder of the 12 inhabitants of Moscow; 5th for innumerable Robberies committed on all Nations in Christendom & elsewhere; 6th for Bigamy; & lastly for returning from Transportation, and setting the World in an uproar.” Tsar Alexander of Russia is on the far left. Next to him is Britain’s Prince Regent. King Louis XVIII is on Blücher’s left. Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, July 28, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Le départ du petit caporal

Le départ du petit caporal, French caricature, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Archchancellor of the Empire Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès says: “Sire, I play the follies of Spain, accompanied by the Russian, followed by a German, and I end with the English.” Napoleon says: “My last folly causes me to beat a return to the Isles.” Napoleon’s half-Austrian son chimes in: “Papa, we forget the waltz.” French caricature, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Buonaparte on the 17th of June / Buonaparte on the 17th of July – 1815

Buonaparte on the 17th of June / Buonaparte on the 17th of July – 1815. Napoleon caricature by George Cruikshank, August 1815. . Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

In the first panel, Napoleon shouts defiantly at John Bull, sitting on the other side of the English Channel: “Ha! ha! You Bull beast you Blackguard Islander. You see I’m come back again & now you shall see what I will do with you, you wretch! You thought I was done over did you?! You thought I was going to stay at Elba? D—n all Elbas & Abdications: Englishmen & their Allies—I’ll play Hell with them all.” John Bull emits a puff of smoke inscribed: “You may be D—d I’ll make a Tobacco Stopper of you.”

In the second panel, Napoleon (in the Bellerophon – the Royal Navy ship that transported him from France to the British coast) kneels beside papers inscribed “Petition,” “Letters to the Prince Regent,” and says: “O! good Mr Bull I wish you to know, / (Although you are my greatest foe) / That my Career is at an end: / And I wish you now to stand my Friend / For tho at the Battle of Waterloo, / I was by you beat black & blue / Yet you see I wish to live with you / For I’m sure what is said of your goodness is true / And now if in England you’ll let me remain / I ne’er will be guilty of bad Tricks again.” John Bull responds: “Let me see, first of all you sprung from the Island of Corsica—and when you was kick’d out of France & went to the Island of Elba you made another Spring into France again—And now when you are kick’d out of France a second time you want to come & live on my Island, but it won’t do Master Boney— you’ll be making another Spring into France again I suppose. So I tell you what, I’ll send you to the Island of St Helena & we’ll see what sort of a Spring you’ll make then.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, August 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Boney’s threatened invasion brought to bear or: taking a view of the English coast from ye poop of the Bellerophon

Boney’s threatened invasion brought to bear or: taking a view of the English coast from ye poop of the Bellerophon. Napoleon caricature by George Cruikshank, September 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Looking at England from the Bellerophon, General Henri Bertrand points to the gallows and says: “By gar! mon Emperor, dey have erect von prospect for you.” Napoleon says: “Me no like de D—m prospect.” A British sailor gives his opinion: “I thinks as how, Master Boney, that instead of sending you to Hell bay [Elba], they should have sent you to Hell at once.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, September 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Boney crossing the line

Boney crossing the line. Napoleon caricature by John Lewis Marks, circa September 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

The title refers to a traditional shipboard ceremony for sailors who are crossing the equator for the first time. Napoleon “crossed the line” on September 23, 1815 as a prisoner on HMS Northumberland. As Napoleon (sitting blindfolded in a tub) is doused with soapy water, he says: “I no like de English Valet de Chambre, Have mercy.” Neptune (holding up a trident) says: “I command you’ll cleanse him from his Iniquity’s.” A black sailor (left) says: “Massa Boney no like to be got in a Line!!” Two French officers (right) say: “I wish de Dirty job was over!!” and “Be gar me no like de Shaving Shop!!!” A British sailor responds: “Have Patience Gentlemen and we’ll shave you directly and give you a good Lathering as Old Blucher did!!” Caricature by John Lewis Marks, circa September 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Napoleon’s trip from Elba to Paris, & from Paris to St. Helena

Napoleon's trip from Elba to Paris, & from Paris to St. Helena. Napoleon caricatures by George Cruikshank, September 1, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

In the first panel, Napoleon flees the battlefield of Waterloo. He says: “Sauve qui peut. The Devil take the hindmost. Run my boys, your Emperor leads the way. My dear Eagle only conduct me safe to Paris this time as you did from Moscow and Leipsig, and I’ll never trouble you again. Oh d—m that Wellington.” The eagle says: “My left wing has entirely disappeared.”

In the middle panel, Napoleon addresses John Bull from the Bellerophon: “My most powerful & most generous enemy, how do you do? I come like Themistocles to seat myself upon your hearth. I am very glad to see you.” (This is a reference to a letter Napoleon sent to Britain’s Prince Regent.) John Bull replies: “So am I glad to see you, Mr. Boney, but I’ll be d—d if you sit upon my hearth or any part of my house. It has cost me a pretty round sum to catch you, Mr. Themistocles, as you call yourself, but now I have got you I’ll take care of you.”

In the third panel, Napoleon is on St. Helena. One of his attendants (probably General Bertrand) sees a rat coming and says: “Ah! Mon dieu! Dere your Majesty, dere be de vilain rogues. Ah, Monsieur rat. Why you not pop your nose into de trap & let de august Emperor catch you?” A female attendant (probably Fanny Bertrand), with a slice of bacon, says: “Will your Majesty be please to try dis bit of bacon? Ah! De cunning rascal! Dere! Ma foi! He sniff at de bacon.” Napoleon says: “Alas! that I who caught Imperial flats, / Should now sit here to watch these scurvy rats. / I, who Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, took, / Am doom’d, with cheese, to bait a rusty hook! / Was it for this I tried to save my bacon, / To use it now for rats that won’t be taken? / Curse their wise souls! I had not half such trouble / Their European brethren to bubble. / When I, myself, was hail’d as Emperor Nap, / Emperors & Kings I had within my trap / And to this moment might have kept them there / Had I not gone to hunt the Russian bear.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, September 1, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena

Je Fume en Pleurant mes Péchés

Je Fume en Pleurant mes Péchés. Napoleon caricature by Louis, 1815

“I smoke and cry about my sins.” The word “fume” has a double meaning: Napoleon is smoking a pipe and fuming with anger. The paper in his hand says “Mes dernières Reflexions de 1815” (my last reflections of 1815). French caricature, September 16, 1815.

Boney’s meditations on the Island of St. Helena, or The Devil addressing the Sun

Boney’s meditations on the Island of St. Helena, or The Devil addressing the Sun. Napoleon Caricature by George Cruikshank, August 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Napoleon addresses Britain’s Prince Regent (the future King George IV): “To thee I call. But with no friendly voice, & add thy name, G—P—Rt! to tell thee how I hate thy beams, that bring to my remembrance from what state I fell &c.” The rays surrounding the Prince’s face are inscribed: “Alexander, Fredk William, Francis, William 1st of Orange, Wellington, Blucher, Hill, Beresford, Anglesea.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, August 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

The inhabitants of St. Helena alarmed at the appearance of their new Governor

The inhabitants of St. Helena alarmed at the appearance of their new Governor. Napoleon caricature. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

St. Helena was notoriously swarming with rats. Napoleon’s residence of Longwood House, where the opening scene of Napoleon in America takes place, was plagued with them. Napoleon says: “Inhabitants of St. Helena, let’s be friends. I declare you a free people. I give you as a pledge this faithful servant whom I have with me.” The cat says: “Now I shall be compensated.” The leader of the overgrown rats says: “Gentlemen, we have not a moment to lose; let our Council assemble immediately to consult how we shall be able to expel these formidable invaders.” Others cry: “To arms! To arms! Our mortal enemy approaches.” British caricature, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

The inhabitants of St. Helena addressing their new Governor

The inhabitants of St. Helena addressing their new Governor. Napoleon caricature Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

The rats say: “We the ancient Inhabitants of St. Helena beg leave to congratulate your Imperial Majesty on your safe arrival in this county, in order to take on yourself the Government thereof. We are unanimously of opinion that you are signally qualified to fulfil the mighty trust reposed in you, and therefore humbly crave your gracious acceptance thereof; on our part rest assured of our most zealous attachment & support.” Napoleon says: “Ancient Inhabitants of St. Helena, accept my acknowledgements for your loyal address and believe me nothing on my part shall be wanting to complete your happiness and independence. The first wishes of my heart were directed to your interest and the happiest hours of my existence were spent in anticipating your future greatness.” British caricature, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford,

Alte Liebe rostet nicht

Alte Liebe rostet nicht. German caricature by Johann Michael Voltz, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Rats were a popular theme: “Old habits die hard, or the great man’s pastimes on the small, rat-infested island of St. Helena.” German caricature by Johann Michael Voltz, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France,

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Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon scared children

The birth of Napoleon Bonaparte

The house in Ajaccio, Corsica in which Napoleon Bonaparte was born.

The house in Ajaccio, Corsica in which Napoleon Bonaparte was born.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Tuesday, August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica. France had acquired Corsica from the Italian city-state of Genoa the year before. Napoleon’s parents were Carlo and Letizia (Ramolino) Buonaparte. Their first surviving child, Giuseppe (Joseph), was 19 months old when Napoleon was born. Two older children, born in 1765 and 1767, had died in infancy.

August 15 marks the celebration of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady the Virgin Mary. Letizia was at mass in the Ajaccio cathedral when she felt severe labour pains. She left the service and walked the short distance to her house (Casa Buonaparte, now a museum), aided by Carlo’s sister Gertrude Paravicini.

Here, on a couch in the salon – for there was no time to reach her bedroom – with the assistance of Gertrude and a maid-servant, Mammucia Caterina, she was delivered of her fourth child – a boy, with a big head and a very intelligent face, who screamed loudly, and soon began sucking his thumb, which was considered a good augury among the peasants of Corsica. (1)

Nine days later, Letizia turned 19 years old.

Myths about Napoleon’s birth

“Birth of Bonoparte.” Caricature of Napoleon’s birth, published October 20, 1813 in London by R. Ackermann. “The Devil having hatched for a considerable time, some foul eggs, to bring forth a Destructor of the finest Kingdom in Europe produced at last some Jacobins. ‘Pshaw’ says her Infernal Majesty, ‘You Bungler. Look here, I have hatched a Corsican.’ At this sight, the Devil was thunderstruck and remained silent. He: My children destroy Altars and Thrones. She: Mine does more, he destroys whole Nations.” Source:èque nationale de France

“Birth of Bonoparte,” caricature of Napoleon’s birth, published October 20, 1813 in London. “The Devil having hatched for a considerable time, some foul eggs, to bring forth a Destructor of the finest Kingdom in Europe produced at last some Jacobins. Source:èque nationale de France

Nobody recorded anything about Napoleon’s birth at the time, and Letizia did not leave detailed memoirs. It wasn’t until Napoleon became a famous general that people became interested in his origins. Many myths sprang up surrounding his birth. The account above is generally the received one, originally printed in a 19th century biography of Letizia by Félix Hippolyte Larrey (son of Napoleonic military surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey). However even this can be disputed. Napoleon’s brother Joseph told Charles Ingersoll, one of his friends in the United States, that Napoleon was not born in the salon.

It has been published that Napoleon’s mother, taken with the pains of child-birth in church, brought him forth in her parlor, before she could reach her chamber. That story Joseph denied to me. (2)

Another myth claims that Napoleon was born or laid on a carpet or tapestry on which were woven scenes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, or – in another version – the conquests of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Napoleon himself repeated the story of being born on a carpet when he was in exile on St. Helena.

[My mother] hastily turned back [from the church], got as far as her drawing-room, where she deposited me on an old carpet. (3)

When Letizia was asked about this in later life, however, she said:

It’s a fable, making [Napoleon] born on the head of Caesar! Did he need that? … Moreover, we didn’t have carpets in our houses in Corsica, even less in full summer than in winter. (4)

Even Napoleon’s birth date was contested. Some people argued that Napoleon had been born in 1768, and that Joseph was the younger of the two. The record of Napoleon’s baptism on July 21, 1771, confirms his August 15, 1769 birth.

Napoleon’s comet

The Great Comet of 1769, which marked Napoleon's birth, as it appeared over Amsterdam.

The Great Comet of 1769 over Amsterdam.

The one element of Napoleon’s birth that might appear to be mythical but actually is not is the appearance of a comet in the sky over Europe. This was comet C/1769 P1, first observed by astronomer Charles Messier at the Naval Observatory in Paris on the evening of August 8, 1769. According to observers, the comet became brighter through the month of August, with a lengthening tail. It made its closest approach to earth on September 10. Messier himself later sought to associate his comet with Napoleon’s birth, hoping to receive the Emperor’s attention and monetary support. This was, perhaps, Napoleon’s original “lucky star,” for which he searches the sky in Napoleon in America. As the comet has an estimated orbital period of around 2090 years, it has not been seen since 1769.

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  1. H. Noel Williams, The Women Bonapartes, Vol. 1 (New York, 1909), 24.
  2. Charles J. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), pp. 169-170.
  3. Francesco Antommarchi, The Last Days of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. I (London, 1825), p. 257. Other St. Helena memoirs have Napoleon saying a version of this, e.g.: “On August 15, 1769, [my mother] was on her way home from church, when she felt the pains of labor, and had only time to get into the house, when I was born, not a bed, but on a heap of tapestry.” Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, translated by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1904), p. 37.
  4. Félix Hippolyte Larrey, Madame mère (Napoleonis mater): essai historique, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1892), p. 54.

Napoleon’s castrato: Girolamo Crescentini

Girolamo Crescentini

Girolamo Crescentini

In Napoleon in America, Joseph Bonaparte laments the lack of fine arts in the United States. “There are plays in the cities,” he tells Napoleon, “but not one Italian singer.” Joseph knew that his brother was particularly fond of Italian musicians. Napoleon’s favourite composer was Giovanni Paisiello. His favourite singers were the Italian opera virtuosos Girolamo Crescentini and Giuseppina Grassini. (1) In future, I’ll write about Madame Grassini, who became the lover of both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. This week, I take a look at her teacher, the castrato Girolamo Crescentini.

Rise to fame

Girolamo Crescentini was born on February 2, 1766 in Urbania, part of the Papal States. He was a castrato, thus throughout his life he had the voice of a male soprano. When Crescentini was 12 years old, his father sent him to Bologna to study music and singing with the singer and composer Lorenzo Gibelli. Crescentini made his debut five years later, in 1783. He played female characters in serious – as opposed to comic – operas at the theatre in Rome (women were not allowed to appear on the Roman stage). This was followed by engagements in Leghorn, Padua, Venice and Turin.

In 1785, Girolamo Crescentini appeared on stage in London.

Crescentini was thought so moderate a performer, and so little liked, that before the season was half over, he was superseded by Tenducci…an old man, who had never been very capital, and could now have scarcely any voice left…. It is but justice to Crescentini to add that when he was here he was very young, and had not attained that excellence which has since gained him the reputation of a first-rate singer. He never returned to this country. (2)

Poor reviews in England did not diminish Crescentini’s appeal to his countrymen. By 1796, when General Napoleon Bonaparte was leading the French army across northern Italy, Girolamo Crescentini was famous. Two operas were written with roles expressly for him: Gli Orazi e i Curiazi by Domenico Cimarosa, and Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Zingarelli.  Crescentini himself composed an aria for the latter, “Ombra adorata aspetta,” which became known as Romeo’s prayer.

It is claimed that immediately before the start of a performance of Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, Crescentini (Curiazio) observed that the costume of Orazio was more magnificent than his own. Enraged, he sent for the stage manager and insisted that the costume be given to him.

An exchange was therefore made, in spite of the remonstrances of the manager; and throughout the evening a Curiatius, six feet high, was seen wearing a little Roman costume, which looked as if it would burst at any moment, while a diminutive Horatius was attired in a long Alban tunic, with its skirt trailing on the ground. (3)

Crescentini spent four years in Lisbon, returning to Italy in 1803. He then went to Vienna, where he was a great favourite of Maria Theresa of Naples (wife of Francis I of Austria and mother of Napoleon’s future wife, Marie Louise). He became a regular participant in concerts at the Viennese court.

An Englishman who heard Crescentini perform in Vienna in October 1805 wrote:

Crescentini has a remarkable fine clear voice, of vast compass and great power; he manages it with great taste. There was something very disgusting and unpleasant on his first coming on the stage; my feelings were shocked by hearing such a high shrill voice come from such a large stout tall man; the recollection, too, of what he is, added to the disturbed association. It was some time before I could get over a sort of repulsive dislike to the man, but by shutting my eyes and listening to the exquisite tones he uttered, I was highly gratified. He is certainly the finest he-singer I ever heard; a woman, or a boy, or a man with a feigned voice, would answer the purpose just as well. And I am told it is not the fashion now, even in Italy, to resort to this brutal and inhuman practice for the sake of pleasing the ears of a refined audience. (4)

At the court of Napoleon

In November 1805, Napoleon occupied Vienna. He heard Girolamo Crescentini sing and decided that he wanted the castrato for his own court. In the words of Madame de Rémusat, whose husband proposed the arrangement to Crescentini on the French Emperor’s behalf:

By engaging Marchesi, Catalani, Crescentini, etc., Paris would soon possess the finest possible school of music. There is a very good company in Vienna just now, who may perhaps come to us as trophies of our conquest. I wish it may be so, for Italian music is all the fashion, and it would be a good opportunity for calling it French music. (5)

Crescentini moved to Paris in 1806. Napoleon’s valet Constant writes:

I saw Crescentini make his début in Paris as Romeo in Roméo et Juliette. He came preceded by an immense reputation as the first singer of Italy. This fame he completely justified, in spite of all the obstacles he had to overcome, for I can well recollect the many hard things that were said of him before he appeared. According to certain wiseacres he was a bellower, devoid of taste or refinement, having no method, an executants of silly roulades, a cold, unintelligent actor, &c. When going upon the stage he was aware how ill-inclined were his judges to show him any signs of favour. Yet he was not in the least embarrassed, but his majestic bearing came as an agreeable surprise to those who expected to see an ungainly boor. A murmur of approval greeted him, with such electrical effect upon himself that in the very first act the whole house was with him. Gestures full of grace and dignity, absolute mastery of the art of acting, a mobile face, expressing with amazing truth all the varying shades of passion and despair – all these rare and precious equipments did but deepen the magic of this great artist’s entrancing voice, the charm of which was inconceivable, at any rate for such as had never yet heard him. With each exciting scene the audience grew more and more enthusiastic. In the third act, however, the delight of the audience became positively frantic. It was in this act, played almost entirely by Crescentini, that this admirable singer touched the souls of his hearers by his movingly pathetic presentment of love and despair, as expressed in delicious melody. The Emperor was charmed, and caused a handsome fee to be paid to Crescentini, while expressing in most flattering terms the great pleasure it had been to hear him. (6)

Napoleon, who was said to be moved to tears by Crescentini’s performance of Romeo’s prayer, conferred upon the singer the Order of the Iron Crown.  This did not go down well with Parisians. Napoleon commented on the episode when he was in exile on St. Helena.

‘In conformity with my system of amalgamating all kinds of merit, and of rendering one and the same reward universal, I had an idea of presenting the cross of the legion of honour to Talma; but I refrained from doing this, in consideration of our capricious manners and absurd prejudices. I wished to make a first experiment in an affair that was out of date and unimportant, and I accordingly gave the iron crown to Crescentini. The decoration was foreign, and so was the individual on whom it was conferred. This circumstance was less likely to attract public notice or to render my conduct the subject of discussion; at worst, it could only give rise to a few malicious jokes…. I believe my experiment with regard to Crescentini proved unsuccessful.’

‘It did, Sire,’ observed some one present. ‘The circumstance occasioned a great outcry in Paris; it drew forth a general anathema in all the drawing-rooms of the metropolis, and afforded ample scope for the expression of malignant feeling. However, at one of the evening parties of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, a bon-mot had the effect of completely stemming the torrent of indignation. A pompous orator was holding forth, in an eloquent strain, on the subject of the honour that had been conferred on Crescentini. He declared it to be a disgrace, a horror, a perfect profanation, and inquired what right Crescentini could have to such a distinction? On hearing this, the beautiful Madame [Grassini] who was present, rose majestically from her chair, and with a truly theatrical tone and gesture, exclaimed, ‘Et sa blessure, Monsieur! [And his wound!] Do you make no allowance for that?’ This produced a general burst of laughter and poor Madame Grassini was very much embarrassed by her success.’ (7)


Girolamo Crescentini served as a performer and teacher at the French Imperial court for six years. He was paid a large salary. In 1812, his voice suffering from the climate, he with difficulty obtained permission to retire. Crescentini devoted himself to teaching singing at Bologna’s Liceo Musicale. He had a country house about two miles from Bologna, to which he made improvements costing over 100,000 francs. In the winter, he occupied apartments at the Palazzo Legnani. An Englishman who met him in Bologna in 1819 wrote:

His manners were highly pleasing, affable, and polite – those of a man accustomed to the best society. At this time, he had long retired from public performance. He was a man about five feet ten inches in height, somewhat corpulent – of very plain, or rather coarse features; and had lost many of his teeth. His voice, in speaking, was high-pitched and shrill….

[At the Liceo] the care and patient attention which he bestowed on the singers were admirable. He seemed all ears and eyes; now turning to one and now to another. Whenever he perceived the slightest inaccuracy in intonation – or change of the text by an improper appoggiatura, or otherwise – or any false expression – he stopped the whole, and made all begin again until he was satisfied. His unerring ear detected, instantly, in any single voice among all those voices, the slightest deviation from the correct reading and rendering of the music. He pointed to the delinquent, and called out, ‘Come sta!’ – ‘as it is written!’ – and, at last, all went as he desired. I never witnessed the training of a numerous body of singers so patiently and perfectly conducted. (8)

In 1825, Girolamo Crescentini moved to a teaching position in Naples. He died there on April 24, 1846, at the age of 80. By then castrati were out of fashion.

The young Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini, a sane, red-blooded genius, could find no place in his operas for sexless heroes. To him the virile personality and art of Manuel Garcia were worth a thousand male sopranos. It was Rossini’s scorn of the whole tribe that drove the castrato from the operatic stage. Henceforth the tenor was the King of Singers. (9)

A contemporary biographer wrote:

Crescentini is the last great singer that Italy produced…. Nothing could exceed the suavity of his tones, the force of his expression, the perfect taste of his ornaments, or the large style of his phrasing. (10)

Girolamo Crescentini wrote several ariettas for a soprano voice, as well as a number of chamber cantatas, airs with full orchestral accompaniments, and numerous solfeggi. You can download some of his scores from the Petrucci Music LibraryClick here to listen to mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato perform Crescentini’s ariettas.

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  1. “The Emperor’s favourite singers were Crescentini and Madame Grassini.” Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), p. 96.
  2. Richard Edgcumbe, Musical Reminiscences, Containing an Account of the Italian Opera in England, From 1773 Continued to the Present Time, Fourth Edition (London, 1834), pp. 45-46.
  3. George Grove, ed., A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1880), Vol. 1 (London, 1879), p. 416.
  4. Henry Reeve, Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin in the Eventful Winter 1805-6 (London, 1877), pp. 16-17.
  5. Claire Élisabeth de Vergennes, A Selection from the Letters of Madame de Rémusat to Her Husband and Son, From 1804 to 1813, edited by Frances Cashel Hoey and John Lillie (London, 1881), p. 196.
  6. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), pp. 96-97.
  7. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, Part 5 (London, 1823), pp. 276-278.
  8. F. Graham, “The Singer Crescentini,” The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts for the Year 1846, No. 979 (London, August 1, 1846), pp. 795-796.
  9. Francis Rogers, “The Male Soprano,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (July 1919), p. 422.
  10. J. Fétis, Biographie Universelle des Musiciens et Bibliographie Générale de la Musique, Vol. 3 (Brussels, 1836), p. 216.

How was Napoleon’s death reported?

Napoleon Bonaparte died at 5:49 p.m. on May 5, 1821 as a prisoner on St. Helena, an isolated British island in the South Atlantic. On May 7, St. Helena’s governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, sent news of Napoleon’s death to London on the Royal Navy sloop Heron. On July 4, Captain William Crokat (who had replaced poor Engelbert Lutyens as orderly officer at Napoleon’s residence of Longwood) delivered Lowe’s message to Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Here’s what the newspapers had to say about Napoleon’s death – or, rather, about his life.

Death of Napoleon the Great, French engraving from 1828. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Death of Napoleon the Great, French engraving from 1828. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France


On July 5, 1821, The Times reported:

Thus terminates in exile and in prison the most extraordinary life yet known to political history.… Buonaparte came into active life with as much (but we have no reason to think a larger share of) lax morality and pure selfishness as others of his age and calling. The public crisis into which he was thrown gave to profound selfishness the form of insatiable ambition. With talents and enterprise beyond all comparison greater than any against which he had to contend, he overthrew whatever opposed his progress…. How, then, was this pupil of a military school prepared to exercise the functions of sovereignty? An officer, as such, has no idea of divided power. His patriotism is simply love of his troops and his profession. He will obey commands – he will issue them – but in both cases those commands are absolute. Talk to him of deliberation, of debate, of freedom of action, of speech, nay of opinion, his feeling is that the body to which any of these privileges shall be accessible, must fall into confusion and be speedily destroyed. Whatever pretexts may have been resorted to by Buonaparte – whatever Jacobin yells he may have joined in to assist his own advance towards power – every subsequent act of his life assures us that the military prepossessions in which he was educated became those by which he was influenced as a statesman: and we are well persuaded of his conviction, that it was impossible for any country, above all for France, to be governed otherwise than by one sole authority – undivided and unlimited.

It may, we confess, be no satisfaction to the French, nor any great consolation to the rest of Europe, to know through what means it was, or by what vicious training, that Buonaparte was fitted, nay, predestined almost, to be a scourge and destroyer of the rights of nations, instead of employing a power…for the promotion of knowledge, peace and liberty throughout the world…. The factions which he was compelled to crush, and whose overthrow obtained for him the gratitude of his country, still threatened a resurrection…. Hence were pretexts furnished on behalf of despotism of which men more enlightened and better constituted than Buonaparte might not soon have discovered the fallacy. Raised to empire at home, his ambition sought for itself fresh aliment; and foreign conquest was at once tempting and easy…. [W]hat might not this extraordinary being have effected for the happiness of mankind and for his own everlasting fame and grandeur, had he used but a moiety of the force or perseverance in generous efforts to relieve the oppressed, which he wasted in rendering himself the monopolist and patron of oppression. But he had left himself no resource. He had extinguished liberty in France and had no hold upon his subjects but their love of military glory. Conquest therefore succeed to conquest, until nothing capable of subjugation was left to be subdued….

The sensation produced by the death of Buonoparte will be a good deal confined in this country to its effect as a partial relief to our finances, the expense of his custody at St. Helena being little short of 400,000£ per annum. In France the sentiment will be more deep and complex, and perhaps not altogether easy to define…. A pretext for suspicion and severity in the administration of affairs may be taken away by a Pretender’s death; but then a motive to moderation…is at the same time removed from the minds of reigning Princes. Buonaparte’s son still lives, it is true, but how far he may ever become an object of interest with any great party of the French nation, is a point on which we will not speculate.


News of Napoleon’s death reached Paris on July 6. Le Constitutionnel, a liberal paper, noted on July 11:

Few conquerors have had a fame so extended as Napoleon Bonaparte. The noise of his name filled all Europe; it was heard to the extremities of Asia. Placed by the force of events at the head of a great nation, wearied by a long anarchy, the heir of a revolution that exalted every good and evil passion, he was elevated as much by the energy of his own will, as by the feebleness of parties, to the supreme power, placed France in a state of permanent war, substituted the illusion of glory for the real benefits of liberty and, identifying himself with national independence, drew from the fear of a foreign yoke the principal instrument of a boundless authority.

Napoleon had an entire faith in fortune. He believed that an insurmountable fatality governed his destiny. This error has been common to several eminent persons, and almost all those who have entertained it have experienced, after the most signal success, the greatest reverse. They left insufficient scope to the counsels of wisdom; the fruit of fifty victories could be destroyed in one unfortunate day; of this, Poltava and Waterloo are memorable instances….

Napoleon necessarily made a strong impression on the minds and imagination of mankind. A soldier who, by the force of genius alone, raises himself above his contemporaries; who gives tranquillity to a disturbed society, and dictates his laws to sovereigns, appears in the world as a wonderful person, and the earth is silent before him.

History, an impartial judge, will confess that Napoleon has rendered eminent services to the social order. The promulgation of the Codes by which we are today governed, notwithstanding the many imperfections of the penal code, is a benefit that will not be lost for generations to come…. We will not speak of that astonishing military glory which is admitted without dispute: the improvements in internal administration, the public works and the settlement of finances present more durable titles to admiration…. The truth must sit upon his tomb; and let us not be diffident in saying that the prisoner of St. Helena will be counted among the great men.


Americans learned of Napoleon’s death on August 6 from a passenger arriving in Boston on a ship from Cape Verde. He had heard of it from the former governor of the Isle of Bourbon, who had learned of Napoleon’s death when stopping at Ascension Island on May 20 on his way to Cape Verde. This news was confirmed a couple of weeks later by the arrival of papers from London. On August 24, the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington) reported:

The death of Napoleon Bonaparte, late Emperor of the French, is now ascertained beyond doubt….

No man ever lived whose personal agency had so immediate and so vast an influence on the concerns of the world. In the language of Phillips…‘crowns were his playthings, thrones his foot-stools.’ Such was the boldness of his ambition, the magnitude of his designs, and the splendor of his successes, that he seemed almost to have been endowed with the attribute of omnipotence, and made superior to the vicissitudes of morality. All Europe trembled at his nod; but all Europe would not have satiated his ambition. He was born to illustrate the uncertainty of human fortunes, and seems to have been permitted to reach the highest point of human grandeur, that his fall might be so signal as to send, through all time to come, a warning example to overreaching ambition. The institutions of Napoleon, and the benefits of the legislation of his reign, will descend to posterity in connection with his memory. But it is chiefly for his military deeds that his fame will be inscribed in living letters in the annals of the world. Durable as his fame will also be the condemnation which impartial history will pass upon the harsh decree which sentenced this illustrious captive to an almost literally Promethean fate.

New Orleans

Plaster cast of Napoleon’s death mask from the original owned by François Carlo Antommarchi

Plaster cast of Napoleon’s death mask from the original owned by François Carlo Antommarchi

In New Orleans, where Napoleon lands in Napoleon in America, Napoleon was favourably regarded. On October 19, the Louisiana Courier announced Napoleon’s death by reprinting a July 8th article from the London Examiner.

The age has lost its greatest name – Napoleon Bonaparte…. The animal who encumbers his once magnificent throne, and all the vampires of legitimacy, will doubtless chuckle over the melancholy end of the man whose genius abashed them, even when in his remote prison; but there are hearts on which the news of his death strikes like a heavy blow. He was far away from our eyes and our thoughts, but we felt a pervading consciousness that he lived, and something like a feeling that he might again appear among us, as a soldier still unequalled, as a man taught wisdom by experience…. He rose amidst the storms of the revolution; he was, as he himself felt and said, the ‘sword arm of the republic,’ with which it chastised and humbled to the dust the accursed confederacy of despots, who had endeavored to rivet an old, worn-out, oppressive and rejected dynasty on 30 millions of Frenchmen…. By what right did the British government constitute herself a tribunal to judge and punish in the last resort delinquent European monarchs? Could it by any reasoning have made out a claim to that office, was it just or decent to make a victim of one, a man of unquestionable talent and greatness of soul, and at the same moment to compliment and make alliances with all the worse tyrants, the maudlin hypocrites, and the base violators of their word? Or did these moral Quixotes and immaculate judges only protest to do ‘justice’ upon one sinner ‘against the spirit of the age,’ and that one a fallen enemy?

Was Napoleon poisoned?

The autopsy findings on St. Helena indicated that Napoleon died from stomach cancer. As discussed in my article about Charles de Montholon, some people believe that Napoleon’s death was due to arsenic poisoning. While this theory has been convincingly refuted, it is interesting to note that rumours about Napoleon being poisoned surfaced shortly after his death. On July 17, 1821, The Times reported from Paris:

The Buonapartists here have put into circulation a report that Napoleon has been poisoned by a diamond pounded by an Italian priest. His death, it is said, had been resolved upon at the Congress of Laibach, by the Allied Sovereigns, frightened at the revolutions breaking out on all sides, and at the danger still threatening them, that on the least rupture between them, England would set him loose upon Europe. The English cabinet, it is added, consented to the proposal out of fear at the progress of the Radicals, and from a desire of saving the immense expenses incurred by supporting their illustrious prisoner. As a consistent sequel to this story, it is added that the son of Buonaparte is now unwell, and that his death must soon follow – a circumstance that should not excite the astonishment of men who understand political affairs.

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The Palace of the King of Rome

Imagine in Paris, across the river from the Eiffel Tower, a palace as magnificent as the one at Versailles, with a park covering about half of the present 16th arrondissement. This was Napoleon’s vision. In 1811, work began on a great imperial dwelling on the hill that is today known as the Trocadéro, where the Palais de Chaillot (built in 1937) now stands. Intended as a residence for Napoleon’s infant son, the planned complex was known as the palace of the King of Rome.

The Palace of the King of Rome by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine

The Palace of the King of Rome by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine

Napoleon’s grand monument

In addition to bridges and other practical improvements to Paris’s infrastructure, Napoleon Bonaparte built a number of monuments intended to be a lasting testament to the glory of the imperial regime. The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was finished in 1808; the Vendôme column was completed in 1810; the foundations of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile were started in 1806. When Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena, he said:

It was the constant subject of my thoughts to render Paris the real capital of Europe. I sometimes wished it, for instance, to become a city with a population of two, three, or four millions, in short, something fabulous, colossal, unexampled until our days, and with public establishments suitable to its population…. Had Heaven but granted me twenty years, and a little more leisure, ancient Paris would have been sought for in vain; not a trace of it would have been left and I should have changed the face of France. (1)

Napoleon’s marriage in 1810 to Marie Louise, a Habsburg princess, strengthened his desire to rival the grandeur of other European courts. When Marie Louise became pregnant, Napoleon commissioned the architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine to design a palace for his unborn child. Percier and Fontaine had worked on Malmaison, the Louvre, the Tuileries Palace, Fontainebleau, the Château de Saint-Cloud, and many other projects for Napoleon. According to Percier and Fontaine:

Napoleon examined, in the presence of several great figures of his court, our plans relative to the new palace. Each one gave his advice and all, except Marshal Duroc, had repeated in almost the same terms what the master had said. ‘And you, Madame,’ said the Emperor, turning towards Empress Marie Louise, his new wife, ‘what do you think?’ ‘I do not know anything,’ the Empress responded modestly, excusing herself. ‘Do not be afraid,’ replied the Emperor. ‘Speak, they know even less than you and I have not committed to do or to believe anything they say. Your opinion is necessary to me; it concerns the palace where our son will live.’ The Empress examined the plans and made some judicious observations, which everyone hastened to applaud. The Empress was pregnant, and four months later she gave birth to the King of Rome. (2)

In January 1811, 20 million francs were allocated for the palace’s construction. When Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, Napoleon II or the Duke of Reichstadt, was born on March 20, 1811, work had already begun.

The site of Chaillot

Map showing the planned location of the Palace of the King of Rome at Chaillot, opposite the Champs de Mars

Map showing the planned location of the Palace of the King of Rome at Chaillot, opposite the Champs de Mars

In the early 1800s, the Trocadéro was the village of Chaillot, outside of Paris. The idea of situating the palace of the King of Rome there was apparently sparked by a remark by Fontaine.

It was mentioned the first time while discussing the palace of Lyons, which in order to present a handsome appearance M. Fontaine remarked should be situated on an elevation overlooking the city, as, for example, the heights of Chaillot overlooked Paris. The Emperor did not appear to notice M. Fontaine’s remark, and had two or three days previously given orders that the château of Meudon should be put in a condition to receive his son, when one morning he summoned the architect, and ordered him to present a plan for embellishing the Bois de Boulogne, by adding a country house on the summit of Chaillot. ‘What do you think of it?’ added he, smiling; ‘does the site appear well chosen?’ (3)

George Sand writes fondly of visiting her aunt and uncle at Chaillot in 1807, when she was a child.

[My uncle’s house] was then a real country house, Chaillot not having been built up as it is today. It was the most modest dwelling in the world… But at the age I was then, it was paradise. I could draw the plan of the building and the garden, they have remained so fresh in my mind. The garden was the foremost place of delight for me, because it was the only garden I knew…. There…I saw for the first time butterflies and big sunflowers, which appeared to me to be a hundred feet tall. (4)

George Sand’s uncle sold his small property to the French government, as it was on the site destined for the palace. Others had to sell as well. The hill had a convent on it, which was levelled to make way for the excavations.

Golden visions or bitter resentments seized on the inhabitants on and near Mount Chaillot as the preparations went forward, according as they did or did not desire a change of residence. One proprietor of a large house let in tenements, addressed, in more than one sense, a moving letter to M. le Comte Daru, the intendant of the Emperor’s household….: ‘I am proprietor of a vast house on the quay de Billy, No. 62; the commissioners of the palace for the King of Rome have pronounced its sentence, they have marked it with black chalk. The lodgers are aware of the fact, and are preparing to quit, as much through prudence as respect. The consequence is that if the emigration continues all the inhabitants left will be a few labourers and the swallows. You must be well aware, M. le Comte, that with such lodgers it will be difficult for a citizen to meet his demands…. My petition is therefore that the Emperor purchase my house, and recompense me like a just and liberal monarch, ordering payment to be made as promptly as possible, seeing that I am dogged by my creditors, and have engagements to fulfil.’ (5)

One enterprising resident held out a little too long.

The government…endeavoured to purchase all the houses situated upon the ground where [the palace of the King of Rome] was intended to be built. Upon the spot of ground, which, according to the plan that had been traced out, was to form the extreme right of the front of the palace, there was a small house belonging to a poor cooper named Bonvivant, which, including the ground upon which it stood was not, at the highest estimation, worth more than a thousand francs. The owner demanded ten thousand francs. It was referred to the emperor, who ordered that it should be purchased at that price. When the proper persons waited on the cooper to conclude the agreement, he said, that upon reflection, he should not sell it for less than thirty thousand francs. It was referred again to Napoleon, who directed that it should be given to him. When they came to conclude the business, the cooper increased his demand to forty thousand. The architect was greatly embarrassed, and did not know how to act, or in what manner he could again venture to annoy the emperor on the subject; at the same time he knew that it was impossible to conceal any thing from him. He therefore addressed him again on the subject. ‘Ce drôle là abuse,’ said he, ‘pourtant il n’y a pas d’autre moyen; allons il faut payer.’ [There is no other way; we will have to pay.] The architect returned to the cooper, who increased his price to fifty thousand francs. Napoleon indignant, when informed of it, said, ‘Cet homme là est un miserable, et bien je n’achèterai point la maison, et elle restera comme un monument de mon respect pour les loix.’ [I will not buy the house and it will remain as a monument to my respect for the laws.] (6)

Diminishing plans

The Palace of the King of Rome as it would have appeared from the Seine, by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine

The Palace of the King of Rome as it would have appeared from the Seine, by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine

Percier and Fontaine repeatedly had to amend their plans for the palace of the King of Rome. In its grandest incarnation, three levels of terraces were to rise up to the palace from the Pont d’Iéna, culminating in a vast courtyard and a 500-metre-long colonnade. The main body of the palace was in the shape of a large parallelogram, the centre of which would be occupied by an immense salon, suitable for hosting large fêtes. Two small courtyards, ornamented with fountains, one on each side of the grand salon, would have highlighted the large staircases, the chapel, the theatre and the galleries leading to the rest of the palace. On the north side, flowerbeds and gardens would have extended to the Bois de Boulogne. The Canal de l’Ourcq was to be diverted to bring in water. Grand boulevards would flank the palace and gardens. A pheasantry and a menagerie were part of the plans. Besides the imperial court and a large staff, the palace would have accommodated 400 horses and 80 carriages.

In March 1812, Napoleon added the idea of constructing a palace of the arts, an imperial university, state archives and barracks on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the palace of the King of Rome.

Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia put an end to these dreams. In light of the dwindling resources of the government, work on the palace at Chaillot slowed. A smaller palace being built at Rambouillet was given the title of “palace of the King of Rome.” After the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Percier and Fontaine were required to drastically cut back their plans.

Those who can imagine a palace as extensive as Versailles, occupying with its secondary buildings the slope and the summit of the mountain which dominates the most beautiful part of the capital, with the easiest means of access, will not hesitate to think that this edifice could have been the most vast and most extraordinary work of our century. They will excuse us for having been able to think, for several years, of the reality of such a beautiful dream, and as soon as they will have cast their eyes on our plans, and recognized the modifications to which, therefore, it was necessary to reduce them, they cannot help but complain we were condemned to change the nature of our work; they will see that were constrained to do a job that, in destroying our illusions, came just before the entire abandonment of the project that had so flattered us. (7)

Napoleon’s plans for Chaillot were reduced to one small square pavilion, “not a palace for the King of Rome, not a grand residence for a powerful sovereign, but a little Sans-Souci, a retreat for a convalescent.” (8)

By 1814, as the Allies approached Paris, only the foundations had been built. After his escape from Elba, Napoleon ordered Fontaine and Percier to resume work on the palace of the King of Rome. That ended after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

On St. Helena, Napoleon claimed he regretted the project.

[N]othing is so expensive or so truly useless as this multitude of palaces; and if, notwithstanding, I undertook that of the King of Rome, it was because I had views peculiar to myself; and besides, in reality, I never thought of doing more than preparing the ground. There I should have stopped. (9)

Napoleon’s successor, King Louis XVIII, had the foundations filled in and planted over, with walkways. An 1822 visitor’s guide to Paris noted:

Facing the Champ de Mars, the spot may be seen on which the foundations of the Palace of the child some time known by the name of King of Rome were laid in 1810. These foundations were on the spot formerly occupied by an alms house, belonging to Chaillot. A great deal of adjacent land was purchased to enlarge it. The gardens and grounds were intended to extend to, and join the Bois de Boulogne, which would have become an appendage to this palace. To accomplish this it was intended to remove the barrier of Passy, and the intermediate barriers between that and the barrier de Neuilly, and to place them nearer to the Champs-Elisées. The plan was stupendous and well combined – but sic transit Gloria mundi! (10)

In the sequel to Napoleon in America, Napoleon revives his plans for a palace for his son, this time on another continent.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

  1. Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. III (New York, 1855), p. 96.
  2. Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, “Napoléon Architecte,” Revue de Paris, Vol. 52, July 1833, pp. 39-40.
  3. Louis Constant Wairy, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon, translated by Walter Clark, Vol. III (New York and Boston, 1895), p. 154.
  4. George Sand, Story of My Life: The Autobiography of George Sand, edited by Thelma Jurgrau (Albany, NY, 1991), p. 428.
  5. “The Streets of Paris and Their Traditions,” Dublin University Magazine, A Literary and Political Journal, Vol. 67, No. 401, May 1866, p. 488.
  6. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1822), pp. 233-234.
  7. “Napoléon Architecte,” p. 36.
  8. Ibid., p. 36.
  9. Emmanuel de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 3, Part 5 (London, 1823), p. 157.
  10. A. & W. Galignani, Galignani’s Paris Guide, or Stranger’s Companion through the French Metropolis (Paris, 1822), pp. 202-203.