Napoleon at the Pyramids: Myth versus Fact

Before leading the French army to victory at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte rallied his troops by pointing to the distant pyramids and saying, “Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you.” (1) Napoleon’s encounter with the pyramids during his Egyptian campaign led to at least three myths about him.

Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, 1798-99. In reality, the battle took place so far from the pyramids that the latter were barely visible on the horizon. They were probably obscured by smoke once the fighting got underway.

The Battle of the Pyramids by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau, 1798-99. In reality, the battle took place so far from the pyramids that the latter were barely visible on the horizon. They were probably obscured by smoke once the fighting got underway.

Napoleon and the imams

The first myth is that Napoleon entered the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Cheops) and converted to Islam. This rumour actually originated with Napoleon or his staff, since it first appeared in the army’s Order of the Day for August 26, 1798. The order included the supposed transcript of a long “Conversation of Bonaparte in the Grand Pyramid with several imans and muftis,” including three named Soliman, Mohamed and Ibrahim. At one point Napoleon reportedly said:

Glory to Allah! There is no other God but God; Mohammed is His prophet, and I am one of his friends. …. The Koran delights my mind…. I love the prophet and intend to visit and honour his tomb in the sacred city. But my mission is first to exterminate the Mamelukes. (2)

This conversation was reprinted in a book called Life of Buonaparte, First Consul of France, from his birth to the Peace of Luneville, translated from the French in 1802. There it was embellished with a description of how Napoleon reached the room within the Great Pyramid where the meeting took place.

He…penetrated into the interior, where he found a passage a hundred feet long and three feet broad, which conducted him by a rapid descent towards the apartments that served as a tomb for Pharaoh, who erected this monument. A second passage, much injured, and leading towards the summit of the pyramid, carried him successively over two platforms and thence to a vaulted gallery, in one of the walls of which the place of a mummy was seen, which was believed to have been the spouse of one of the Pharaohs. (3)

The story was repeated in several early biographies of Napoleon, including those by Willem Lodewyk Van-Ess (1809), Sir Walter Scott (1827) and William Henry Ireland (1828).

Napoleon and the Red Man

The second myth has to do with a phantom called the Red Man.

The Red Man…appeared for the first time to General Buonaparte, then in Egypt, the evening before the battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon, attended by several officers, was riding past one of those monuments of antiquity, when a man wrapped in a red mantle came out of the pyramid, and motioned him to alight and follow him. Buonaparte complied, and they went together into the interior of the pyramid. After an hour had elapsed, the officers became uneasy at the long absence of their commander: they were just on the point of entering the monument in quest of him, when he came forth with a look of evident satisfaction. Before this interview with the Red Man, he had steadfastly refused to give battle: but now he issued orders to prepare immediately for attack, and the following day he gained the victory of the Pyramids. (4)

For more about the Red Man, see Was Napoleon superstitious?

Napoleon and the mystery

The third myth appears to be of more recent vintage. Napoleon is said to have spent some time alone in the Great Pyramid, from which he emerged visibly shaken by some experience that he refused to divulge to anyone else. (5)

Napoleon stayed outside

The problem with these legends is that no one who was with Napoleon in Egypt reports that he ever entered a pyramid. According to Napoleon’s private secretary, Bourrienne:

On the 14th of July Bonaparte left Cairo for the pyramids. He intended spending three or four days in examining the ruins of the ancient Necropolis of Memphis; but he was suddenly obliged to alter his plan. This journey to the pyramids, occasioned by the course of war, has given an opportunity for the invention of a little piece of romance. Some ingenious people have related that Bonaparte gave audiences to the mufti and ulemas, and that, on entering one of the great pyramids he cried out, ‘Glory to Allah! God only is God, and Mahomet is his prophet!’ Now, the fact is, that Bonaparte never even entered the great pyramid. He never had any thought of entering it. I certainly should have accompanied him had he done so, for I never quitted his side a single moment in the desert. He caused some persons to enter into one of the great pyramids while he remained outside, and received from them, on their return, an account of what they had seen. In other words, they informed him there was nothing to be seen! (6)

Instead, Napoleon amused himself by encouraging his companions to climb a pyramid under the hot Egyptian sun. “Who will get to the top first?” he asked. (7) The winner was the oldest of the contestants: 53-year-old mathematician Gaspard Monge. Monge had with him a gourd of brandy, from which he offered each of the others a generous sip as they reached the summit.

Napoleon’s chief of staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier also made the attempt. Halfway up, he pleaded exhaustion, asking, “Is it really necessary to go all the way to the bitter end?” He decided to abandon the attempt. “We will tell them in Paris that we have climbed to the peak of this great pyramid, and they will believe it.” However, as Berthier descended, Napoleon called to him, “Are you coming back to us already?” Napoleon then referred to Berthier’s Italian mistress, Countess Visconti, for whom the chief of staff was pining. “She is not at the summit of the pyramid, my poor Berthier, but she is not down here either.” Thus egged on, Berthier resumed the climb and made it all the way to the top, with the encouragement of Monge, who saved some brandy for him. (8)

After his men descended, Napoleon reportedly told them he had calculated that with the stones of the pyramids, one could build a wall 10 feet (3 metres) high around all of France. Monge later redid the calculation and found it was correct. (9)

Napoleon and the Sphinx

Bonaparte Before The Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-68

Bonaparte Before The Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867-68

Another myth says that Napoleon was responsible for the destruction of the Sphinx’s nose, having ordered his troops to use it for cannon target practice. In fact, the Sphinx’s nose was gone long before Napoleon and his troops arrived in Egypt. See “Did Napoleon’s troops shoot the nose off the Sphinx?” by Tom Holmberg on The Napoleon Series.

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10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

10 Things Napoleon Never Said

Was Napoleon superstitious?

Louis Étienne Saint-Denis: Napoleon’s French Mameluke

  1. Napoleon Bonaparte, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Vol. IV (Paris, 1860), p. 340.
  2. A. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Volume I (London, 1884), p. 222.
  3. As excerpted in The New England Quarterly Magazine, No. II (Boston, 1802), p. 139.
  4. The Atheneum; Or, Spirit of the English Magazines, Volume I (April to September 1817), pp. 731-732.
  5. See, for example, Allen Drury, Egypt: The Eternal Smile (New York, 1980), p. 254.
  6. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, During the Periods of the Directory, The Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1831), p. 208.
  7. Étienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, Lettres Écrites d’Égypte (Paris, 1901), p. 236.
  8. Ibid., pp. 236-237.
  9. Olympe Audouard, Les mystères de l’Égypte dévoilés (Paris, 1865), p. 335.

Napoleon and the Ice Machine on St. Helena

After Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was exiled to St. Helena, a remote British island in the South Atlantic. Napoleon had a number of admirers in Britain, including Lord and Lady Holland, who regularly sent books and other gifts to him. In the summer of 1816, they sent Napoleon an ice machine.

John Bull and his family at an ice café in Paris, 1815

John Bull and his family at an ice café in Paris, 1815

The ice machine was delivered to Napoleon’s residence of Longwood House on August 16, 1816. It was a pneumatic device, invented in 1810 by Scottish mathematician and physicist John Leslie. Leslie had observed that concentrated sulphuric acid, which absorbs water, could accelerate the evaporation of water in a container to such a degree as to freeze the remaining water. (1)

John Leslie’s apparatus for cooling and freezing. Napoleon’s ice machine was a version of this.

John Leslie’s apparatus for cooling and freezing. Napoleon’s ice machine was a version of this.

As soon as the ice machine was set up, Dr. Barry O’Meara went to inform Napoleon.

He asked several questions about the process, and it was evident that he was perfectly acquainted with the principles upon which air-pumps are formed. He expressed great admiration for the science of chemistry, spoke of the great improvements which had latterly been made in it, and observed that he had always promoted and encouraged it to the best of his power. (2)

Meanwhile, in the room containing the ice machine, British Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm found Napoleon’s companions looking at the contraption with great interest. Andrew Darling, a local upholsterer “who understood the process,” attempted to make ice. (3) O’Meara noted:

In a few minutes Napoleon, accompanied by Count Montholon, came in and accosted the admiral in a very pleasant manner, seemingly gratified to see him. A cup full of water was then frozen in his presence in about fifteen minutes, and he waited for upwards of half an hour to see if the same quantity of lemonade would freeze, which did not succeed. Milk was then tried but it would not answer. Napoleon took in his hand the piece of ice produced from the water, and observed to me what a gratification that would have been in Egypt. (4)

Napoleon was pleased with the results.

He remarked it appeared so simple he was surprised it had not been invented sooner. He said he had encouraged the study of chemistry in France; that the English had some clever men in that science, but it was not so general a study. The Admiral mentioned Sir Humphry Davy, and Bonaparte observed he had seen him at Paris. From his questions Bonaparte did not appear to be himself a chemist, nor did he understand it. General [Gaspard] Gourgaud seemed to be best informed on these subjects. A small thermometer was put into one of the freezing-cups, to show the changes of the temperature of the water, and became frozen; Bonaparte, endeavouring to put it out by force, broke it, and seeing his awkwardness, he exclaimed, laughing, ‘That is worthy of me.’ (5)

Napoleon put Gourgaud in charge of the ice machine, which was duly installed in the general’s quarters so he could conduct further experiments. Unfortunately, the only liquid the machine was able to freeze was water. On March 4, 1817, Gourgaud wrote, “I try my hand again at ice-cream making,” but there is no record of any success. (6)

For the residents of St. Helena, the miracle of ice was enough. O’Meara tells us:

The first ice ever seen in St. Helena was made by this machine, and was viewed with no small degree of surprise by the yam stocks [the natives of the island]; some of whom could with difficulty be persuaded that the solid lump in their hands was really composed of water, and were not fully convinced until they had witnessed its liquefaction. (7)

Though Napoleon did not have any ice cream on St. Helena, he does get to enjoy some in Napoleon in America.

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What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

What did Napoleon like to read?

Napoleon and Longwood House

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

Drinking cold water & other 19th century causes of death

  1. “The most elegant and instructive mode of effecting artificial congelation is to perform the process under the transferrer of an air-pump. A thick but clear glass cup being selected, of about two or three inches in diameter, has its lips ground flat, and covered occasionally, though not absolutely shut, with a broad circular lid of plate glass, which is suspended horizontally from a rod passing through a collar of leather. This cup is nearly filled with fresh distilled water, and supported by a slender metallic ring, with glass feet, about an inch above the surface of a body of sulphuric acid, perhaps three quarters of an inch in thickness and occupying the bottom of a deep glass basin that has a diameter of nearly seven inches. In this state the receiver being adapted, and the lid pressed down to cover the mouth of the cup, the transferrer is screwed to the air-pump, and the rarefaction, under those circumstances, pushed so far as to leave only about the hundred and fiftieth part of a residuum; and the cock being turned to secure that exhaustion, the compound apparatus is then detached from the pump and removed to some convenient apartment. As long as the cup is covered, the water will remain quite unaltered; but on drawing up the rod half an inch or more, to admit the play of a rare medium, a bundle of specular ice will, after the lapse of perhaps five minutes, dart suddenly through the whole of the liquid mass; and the consolidation will afterwards descend regularly, thickening the horizontal stratum by insensible gradations, and forming in its progress a beautiful transparent cake.” John Leslie, Treatises on Various Subjects of Natural and Chemical Philosophy (Edinburgh, 1838), pp. 368-369.
  2. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 58.
  3. Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm, edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), p. 50.
  4. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. I, pp. 58-59.
  5. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena, p. 50.
  6. Gaspard Gourgaud, The St. Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud, 1815-1818, translated by Sydney Gillard (London,1932), p. 145. Napoleon’s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, corroborates the lack of success with lemonade and milk. See Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 428-429.
  7. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. I, p. 59.

Fake News about Napoleon Bonaparte

Lest you think fake news is a recent problem, here are a few samples from the Napoleonic era.

King of Rome not Napoleon’s son

Substituted at birth? Napoleon I, Marie Louise and the King of Rome by Alexandre Menjaud, 1812

Substituted at birth? Napoleon I, Marie Louise and the King of Rome by Alexandre Menjaud, 1812

Napoleon’s only legitimate child, the King of Rome, was born on March 20, 1811 in a particularly perilous delivery. This led to reports that he was not Napoleon’s son.

The Times Newspaper, June 13, 1815, has taken an extract from a French work of notoriety…entitled ‘Notes to M. Lafont D’Aussonne’s Poeties Fugitives,’ wherein he endeavors to prove that the son of Napoleon is only an imposture and not from the body of Maria Louisa; stating that Buonaparte, suspecting his wife would not produce him an heir to his throne, therefore, previous to her delivery, had provided a male child ready in an adjoining apartment, should she fail as he suspected.

As the author states, ‘the delivery of the Empress was extremely difficult, although the greatest precautions were taken; and there was a moment when she was supposed to be lost.’ With the permission of her ‘august spouse,’ they made use of instruments, and this skilful operation effected the delivery. The mother was saved, but the little girl which she brought into the world was dead before its birth; its body was entirely mutilated, &c. &c. (1)

Napoleon killed by Cossacks

On February 21, 1814, with the armies of the Sixth Coalition pushing into France, news arrived in Dover that France had been defeated, Napoleon had been killed by a party of Cossacks, the Allies were in Paris, and the Napoleonic Wars were over.

A most criminal imposition was practiced upon the public, evidently with a view to enhance the prices of the funds, and particularly of Omnium [a government bond]. About 11 o’clock, an express arrived from Dover communicating information that an officer, apparently of the French staff, had landed early in the morning at that part from France, who announced, in the most positive terms, the death of Buonaparte, that the Allied Armies were in Paris, &c.; but they stated that the French officer, after communicating the substance of his dispatches to Port Admiral Foley, in order to be communicated by telegraph to the Admiralty, as soon as it was daylight had proceeded on his way to London with dispatches for Government on the subject.

The Stock Exchange was instantly in a bustle. Omnium, which opened at 27½, rapidly rose to 33. Vast sums were sold in the course of the day. One broker disposed of the enormous sum of 650,000£ for his employers, which transaction, it is estimated, on a moderate calculation, produced a net profit of 16,000£. The whole account of the transfers exceeded a million and a half. At length, after some hours had elapsed, the non-arrival of the pretended French officer began to throw discredit on the tale. Omnium gradually declined, and finally closed at 28½. (2)

The next day Omnium fell back to 26½, leaving many investors with losses. The hoax became known as the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814. Lord Thomas Cochrane, a member of Parliament and naval hero, was arrested, tried and imprisoned, along with his uncle and his financial adviser. Cochrane always maintained his innocence and was eventually pardoned.

Napoleon escaped from St. Helena

Napoleon on St. Helena by François-Joseph Sandmann. There were many fake news stories about Napoleon's escape.

Did he get away? Napoleon on St. Helena by François-Joseph Sandmann

Throughout Napoleon’s captivity on St. Helena, there were periodically reports that he had escaped. Here’s one from 1820, which – even as it printed it – the London Morning Post recognized as fake news.

We copy the following ridiculous article from a New York Paper, and believe we may venture to pronounce the silly story as not having the slightest foundation in fact.

Extract of a letter from St. Thomas’s, Sept. 18: I hasten to communicate to you that information has just reached us that the crew of the French frigate Junon, when off the Island of Ascension, headed by several of the officers, rose upon the captain and confined him below. They immediately proceeded to St. Helena, and arrived when the 74, with the sloop of war and guard ship, were cruising at some distance from the island. The Junon having the British colours flying, was mistaken for an English frigate, and permitted to anchor on the left of the water batteries. Having chosen an excellent position for raking the two lower batteries, she commenced an enfilading fire, which being as sudden as unexpected, did immense execution, and threw the garrison into confusion. Before troops were stationed and order restored, it was visible form the frigate that several officers of the garrison were killed or wounded, all which increased the confusion arising from the sudden attack.

Napoleon not having been deceived as to the character of the frigate, when at a considerable distance (it being the same in which he returned from Egypt) and confirmed in the opinion by the Commander, made the best use of his time. He induced one of the guards to accompany him. In a soldier’s uniform he passed the guard-house, reached the shore, and in the confusion seized a boat which was chained to the rock, and put off for the Junon; as soon as the boat was perceived by the frigate, she cut her cable, made directly for and took in Napoleon, two attendants and the soldier, and put to sea. This occurred upon the third or fourth day after the brig Archer left St. Helena. The guard ship, a 74 and sloop chased at a great distance til dark; the Junon threw out false lights, and changing her course, escaped, and arrived here early this morning. There is the greatest bustle here, all anxious to see Napoleon, though few, I think will be gratified. He remains on board; his drafts on Rothschild are offered in payment for supplies. It is understood she will sail in a day or two for the United States. There is some doubt on the subject of his reception there. (3)

If you’re curious about what might have happened if Napoleon had actually arrived in the United States, read Napoleon in America.

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Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

  1. Annual Gleanings of Wit and Humour in Prose & Verse: Consisting of a Selection of Anecdotes, Bon Mots, Epigrams, Enigmas, & Epitaphs, Vol I – Part I (London, 1816), pp. 156-157.
  2. Sylvanus Urban, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Vol. 84 (London, March 1814), p. 295.
  3. “Reported Escape of Bonaparte,” The Morning Post (London), November 2, 1820.

What happened to Napoleon’s body?

Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51 on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. His tomb is in the Dôme des Invalides, but that is not where Napoleon was first laid to rest. How did his remains end up in Paris? And why are there reports of Napoleon’s penis being in the United States? Here’s what happened to Napoleon’s body after he died.

The opening of Napoleon’s casket on St. Helena in October 1840, by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin. Napoleon's body was perfectly preserved.

The opening of Napoleon’s casket on St. Helena in October 1840, by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin

The autopsy

Napoleon died at 5:49 p.m. on May 5. At midnight, his servants removed him from the bed on which he had died, washed his body using cologne mixed with water, shaved him, and then returned him to the freshly made up bed. On the afternoon of May 6, an autopsy was conducted by Napoleon’s physician Dr. François Antommarchi, assisted by seven British doctors, including army surgeon Dr. Archibald Arnott. Nine other witnesses were present – six Frenchmen from Napoleon’s suite, and three British officers. The doctors concluded that Napoleon died from a cancerous growth in his stomach.

In addition to the stomach, Antommarchi removed Napoleon’s heart, intending to comply with Napoleon’s wish that it be sent to his wife Marie Louise. The stomach and the heart were placed in separate silver vessels filled with wine. One of the witnesses, Napoleon’s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, wrote:

The inside of the body was wiped and washed with an aromatic fluid. As Sir Hudson Lowe had declared his government opposed to any kind of embalming, needle stitching by Dr. Antommarchi restored everything to its original state. (1)

Napoleon’s second valet, Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis, who was also present, observed:

Before sewing up the body, Antommarchi, taking advantage of a moment when the eyes of the English were not fixed on the body, had taken two little pieces from a rib which he had given to M. Vignaly [Napoleon’s priest] and Coursot [Napoleon’s butler]. (2)

Marchand and Saint-Denis dressed Napoleon’s body in his uniform of the mounted chasseurs of the imperial guard. The body was then returned to the bed for mourners to come and pay their last respects. Dr. Arnott was assigned to keep watch over Napoleon’s body and to guard the vessels containing his heart and stomach. British governor Hudson Lowe insisted that these be buried with Napoleon.

These two silver vases filled with wine spirits were hermetically closed and soldered by a British plumber, and entrusted to Dr. Arnott’s keeping. He felt he had fulfilled his assignment only when they were put in the casket. (3)

On May 7, Napoleon’s hair was shaved off and entrusted to Marchand, to be given to Napoleon’s family. A plaster cast of Napoleon’s head was taken by English surgeon Dr. Francis Burton, aided by Antommarchi (see the controversy over Napoleon’s death masks). Then Napoleon’s body and the vases containing his heart and stomach were placed in a tin casket lined with white quilted satin. This was soldered shot. The tin casket was placed inside a mahogany casket, which was screwed shut. This in turn was set inside a lead casket, which was soldered shut. At dawn on May 9, the whole works were put into a fourth casket, made of mahogany and sealed with silver-headed iron screws.

Burial on St. Helena

In a codicil to his will dated April 16, 1821, Napoleon requested that his body be buried “on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people whom I loved so well.” (4) One of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, General Henri Bertrand, expanded on this.

By the banks of the Seine, he meant, of course, somewhere in France.

He thought that the Bourbons would raise no objection to this. He would prefer above all to be buried in the Cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, where his body could be placed between the graves of Masséna and General Lefebvre, and in the center of their small memorial, a column might be put up to him. He would much prefer that to being buried at St. Denis among all the Bourbon kings. … Or else, let his body be buried on an island formed by the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers near Lyons. Or lastly, let them bury him at Ajaccio in Corsica, which was still a part of France. In that case, let him be buried in the Cathedral of Ajaccio, by the side of his ancestors, where he had had his uncle Lucien interred.

The Emperor did not think that his body would be left at St. Helena. He thought that provision had been made for such an eventuality. But should it happen, he preferred to be buried, not at Plantation House [the governor’s residence], but near the fountain which had provided him with water throughout his sojourn. (5)

On May 9, following a mass and a service for the dead, Napoleon was buried in the requested spot – Geranium Valley – at the foot of some willows, near a spring of cool water. The grave, approximately 10 feet deep, was lined with brick. Inside was a tomb made of slabs of stone. After Napoleon’s casket was lowered by means of pulleys, the tomb was sealed with another enormous stone. This was topped with bricks, cement, clay and more stones. There Napoleon’s body remained for 19 years.

Return of the ashes (retour des cendres)

Although Britain regarded its custody of Napoleon’s body as temporary, French King Louis XVIII and his successor, Charles X, had no desire to revive Bonapartist sentiments by bringing the Emperor’s remains to France. Even after 1830, when Charles X was overthrown and Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, became King of the French, there was little official appetite for Napoleon’s return. It took the pressure of historian Adolphe Thiers, who in 1840 was serving as French prime minister and foreign minister, to convince a reluctant Louis Philippe to support the repatriation of Napoleon’s remains. Thiers was writing a 20-volume history of the Consulate and Empire. He regarded the “retour des cendres” as an opportunity to rehabilitate the period’s reputation, unite the French people, and increase the government’s popularity. (See “The Death of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Retour des Cendres: French and British Perspectives” by Fiona Parr on for the political considerations involved in the return of Napoleon’s remains.)

On October 8, 1840, the frigate La Belle Poule, painted black and escorted by the corvette Favorite, arrived at St. Helena. The expedition was led by King Louis Philippe’s son, the Prince of Joinville. It included a number of people who had been with Napoleon on St. Helena: Marchand, Saint-Denis, Bertrand and his son Arthur, General Gourgaud, the young Emmanuel de Las Cases, and the servants Pierron, Noverraz, Coursot and Achille Archambault.

On October 15, Napoleon’s grave was opened in the presence of witnesses who had been present at the original burial. Excavators worked through the night to break through the layers of stone, cement and brick. On October 16, the coffin was lifted out. Each of the four caskets was opened. The official report noted:

The cover of the third coffin having been removed, a tin ornament, slightly rusted, was seen, which was removed, and a white satin sheet was perceived, which was detached with the greatest precaution by the doctor, and Napoleon’s body was exposed to view. His features were so little changed that his face was recognized by those who had known him when alive. The different articles which had been deposited in the coffin were found exactly as they had been placed. The hands were singularly well preserved. The uniform, the orders, the hat, were very little changed. His entire person presented the appearance of one lately preserved. The body was not exposed to the external air longer than two minutes at most, which were necessary for the surgeon to take measures to prevent any alteration. (6)

Dr. Remi Julien Guillard, surgeon of La Belle Poule, provided the following account of the state of Napoleon’s body.

The body of the Emperor had an easy position, the same as when he was placed in the coffin; the superior members were stretched out, the lower part of the arm and the left hand resting on the corresponding thigh; the inferior members somewhat depressed. The head, a little raised, rested on a cushion; his skull, of ample volume, and his high and broad forehead, were covered with yellowish teguments, hard and very adherent. The orbs of the eyes offered the same appearance, and the upper part was lined with eyelids; the balls of the eyes were entire, but had lost some of their volume and shape. The eyelids, completely closed, adhered to the under parts, and were hard; the bones of the nose, and the teguments which covered them, were well preserved; the tube and the sides alone had suffered. The cheeks were full. The teguments of that portion of the face were remarkable for their soft supple feel and their whitish colour; those of the chin were slightly bluish, and derived that colour from the beard, which appeared to have grown after death. The chin itself was not in the least altered, and still preserved the character peculiar to Napoleon’s countenance. The lips were thinned and asunder, and three of the front teeth, extremely white, were seen under the upper lip, which was slightly raised to the left. The hands were perfect, and did not exhibit any sort of alteration; if the articulations had lost their motion, the skin appeared to have preserved the colour of life; and the fingers bore long, adherent, and very white nails; the legs were enclosed in boots, but in consequence of the threads of the latter being worn, the four last toes were visible on both sides. The skin of those toes was of a dull white, and the nails were still adherent. The front region of the thorax was strongly depressed in the middle; the coats of the abdomen hard, and fallen in; the members appeared to have preserved their shape under the clothes which covered them. I pressed the left arm, it was hard, and had lost somewhat of its volume. (7)

After this confirmation that Napoleon’s body was still there, the tin and wood caskets were closed, the lead casket was closed and resoldered, and all were placed in a new lead casket, sent from Paris, which was also soldered shut. These were all placed inside a new ebony casket, which was locked and put in an oak case, to protect the ebony. The whole thing weighed 1,200 kilograms.

On October 18, La Belle Poule left St. Helena with Napoleon’s body. On November 30, the ship reached Cherbourg in France, where the casket was transferred to La Normandie, which took it to Val-de-la-Haye, near Rouen. Here the casket was transferred to the steamer La Dorade, to be carried up the Seine. On December 14, La Dorade moored at Courbevoie, a village just northwest of Paris. On December 15, 1840, Napoleon’s body was transferred to an enormous funeral carriage drawn by 16 black horses. It proceeded in a funeral procession across the Neuilly bridge to the Arc de Triomphe, and from there along the Champs-Élysées and across the Pont de la Concorde to a funeral service at the Invalides.

Napoleon’s body remained in the Chapel of Saint-Jérôme at the Invalides for over 20 years. The well-known tomb beneath the dome of the Invalides – a sarcophagus of red quartzite, designed by Louis Visconti – was not completed until 1861. On April 2 of that year, Napoleon’s body (still in all the caskets) was transferred to the new tomb in a private ceremony attended by Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon’s nephew), his immediate family, government ministers and senior officials.

Napoleon’s intestine?

In 1841, the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London acquired two pieces of what was alleged to be Napoleon’s intestine. They came from surgeon Dr. Astley Cooper, who had acquired them from Dr. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon’s physician on St. Helena from 1815 to 1818.

They are two small pieces of the human bowel suspended in sealed bottles filled with alcohol. A superficial observer might easily believe that he is looking at two small oblong tags of dusky skin, each with a curious wart-like raised patch in its centre. (8)

The authenticity of these relics was called into question by pathologist Dr. James Paget in 1883. He noted the differences in appearance between the specimens and the description of the corresponding body part in Antommarchi’s report on Napoleon’s autopsy. He observed that O’Meara had left St. Helena nearly three years before Napoleon’s death. He also said “the steps taken by Napoleon’s personal attendants to prevent the abstraction of the heart and stomach also show the improbability of these specimens having had the source ascribed to them.” (9) However, others continued to argue in favour of the specimens’ authenticity, even after they were destroyed in an air raid during World War II.

Napoleon’s penis?

In 1927, an object described as a “mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the post-mortem” was displayed at the Museum of French Art in New York.

Maudlin sentimentalizers sniffled; shallow women giggled and pointed. In a glass case they saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shriveled eel. (10)

The “tendon,” purported to be Napoleon’s penis, was allegedly cut off by Antommarchi during Napolon’s autopsy and given to the priest, Ange-Paul Vignali. Vignali brought it back to Corsica along with other effects from St. Helena. After Vignali’s death, it was passed down through his family until sold, as part of a Napoleonic collection, to the British rare books firm Maggs Bros. in 1916. In 1924, the collection was acquired by Dr. Abraham S.W. Rosenbach and kept in Philadelphia. After passing through a few more owners, the tendon was sold in 1977 for $3,000 to American urologist Dr. John K. Lattimer. Upon Lattimer’s death, his son inherited the object.

A catalogue put out by the Rosenbach Company in 1924 claimed:

The authenticity of this remarkable relic has lately been confirmed by the publication in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a posthumous memoir by St. Denis, in which he expressly states that he and Vignali took away small pieces of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy. (11)

As noted above, the English translation (1922) of Saint-Denis’s memoir claims that Vignali was given a little piece from a rib. The French version of that passage in the Revue des Deux Mondes (1921) says Antommarchi “avait extrait d’une côte deux petits morceaux,” which he gave to Vignali and Coursot. (12) “Une côte” is a rib. Nowhere in the memoir does Saint-Denis say that Napoleon’s penis was removed. It is hard to believe that such a significant part of Napoleon’s anatomy could have been cut off without any of the other people present at the autopsy noticing and eventually remarking on it.

If you would like to try imagining that some part of Napoleon wound up in the United States, read Napoleon in America, which is clearly fiction.

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How was Napoleon’s death reported in the newspapers?

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

  1. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 692.
  2. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 280.
  3. Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 697.
  4. Charles de La Bédoyère, Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (London, 1827), p. 1034.
  5. Henri Bertrand, Napoleon at St. Helena: The Journals of General Bertrand, January-May 1821, deciphered and annotated by Paul Fleuriot de Langle, translated by Francis Hume (Garden City, 1952), p. 164.
  6. Laurent de l’Ardeche, History of Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1841), Appendix, p. 18.
  7. Ibid., Appendix, pp. 19-20.
  8. Arthur Keith and S.G. Shattock, “An Address on the History and Nature of Certain Specimens Alleged to have been Obtained at the Post-Mortem Examination of Napoleon the Great,” The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2715 (January 11, 1913), p. 53.
  9. Ibid., p. 53.
  10. “Napoleon’s Things,” Time, February 14, 1927, p. 18.
  11. Description of the Vignali Collection of Relics of Napoleon (Philadelphia and New York, 1924), p. 5.
  12. “Souvenirs de Saint-Denis dit ali Second Mameluck de l’Empereur; V – La Mort et les Funérailles de l’Empereur,” Revue Des Deux Mondes, Vol. 65, No. 5 (September-October 1921), p. 40.

Was Napoleon good at billiards?

Napoleon was not known for his sportsmanship (see my post on interesting Napoleon facts). Billiards was one of the most popular games in late 18th-early 19th century France. How was Napoleon at billiards?

Game of Billiards by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1807. One can guess why Captain Coignet tried to see what he could whenever Marie Louise stretched herself across the billiard table.

Game of Billiards by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1807. One can guess why Captain Coignet tried to see what he could whenever Marie Louise stretched herself across the billiard table.

Billiards in France

The first recorded reference to a billiard table is found in a late 15th century inventory of the possessions of King Louis XI of France. By the Napoleonic era, billiards was popular among all classes of people in France.

“Billiards are played at almost every house in every street,” an anonymous visitor to Paris observed in 1816. (1) Another visitor commented:

[N]o book ever degrades the silken luxury of a French salon; very rarely is a room set apart for such guests in the metropolis; and in the country, a billiard table is the usual occupant of the apartment which, in England, is reserved for the library. We know a village situated just 12½ miles from Paris, containing six families whose yearly income would average about 2500£, equivalent to 4000£ in England; and of 850 meaner inhabitants. In all the wealthy houses taken together, two thousand volumes could not be mustered: but, in each of them is a billiard table: and there are moreover five public billiard tables in the village, for the amusement of the 850 poorer inhabitants. In a radius of three miles are six or eight more villages; and, in nearly all these, the ratio of books and billiard tables is nearly the same. As we recede from Paris, the ratio of books diminishes, in a much more rapid progression, than that of billiard tables. But, in the village alluded to, there is one billiard table to about 182 volumes. We are afraid to aver that the average of entire France would be one billiard table to one hundred volumes. (2)

In Napoleon in America, Frenchmen are playing billiards even as one of the characters is about to be executed.

Napoleon and billiards

Napoleon’s private secretary Baron de Méneval tells us about a game of billiards Napoleon played with General Lannes when Napoleon was First Consul of France.

One day the First Consul had ordered some Arab horses, which had been given to him, to be brought into the courtyard of the castle at La Malmaison. Lannes proposed to the First Consul to play him a match at billiards for one of the horses. Napoleon consented. He wanted to lose, and had to lose, and his adversary won the match with great ease. ‘I have beaten thee,’ he said to the First Consul whom he was in the habit of addressing in the second person singular, ‘and so I have the right to choose.’ And without waiting for the permission, which he did not ask, he runs up and examines the horses one after the other, and choosing the handsomest, has it saddled, and jumping into the saddle says: ‘Good-bye, Bonaparte. I sha’n’t dine here. I’m off, because if I stayed thou wouldst be capable of taking thy horse back again. (3)

Though Méneval implies that Napoleon lost on purpose, it is not clear he could have won even if he tried. According to Sophie Durand, lady-in-waiting to Napoleon’s second wife Marie Louise:

Napoleon played billiards very badly, without any attention, and ran about the whole time: he chose that time to give vent to his anger, or to scold, if he had anything to complain of. (4)

Napoleon probably didn’t fare well in his matches against Marie Louise, unless she let him win. Captain Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier of Napoleon’s guard, writes:

Marie Louise was a first-rate billiard-player. She beat all the men; but she was not afraid to stretch herself out across the billiard-table, as the men did, when she wanted to make a stroke, with me always on the watch to see what I could. She was frequently applauded. (5)

Napoleon’s first wife Josephine also enjoyed a game of billiards, according to Napoleon’s valet Constant.

She loved to sit up late, and when almost everybody else had retired, to play a game of billiards, or more often of backgammon. It happened on one occasion that, having dismissed every one else, and not yet being sleepy, she asked if I knew how to play billiards, and upon my replying in the affirmative, requested me with charming grace to play with her; and I had often afterwards the honor of doing so. Although I had some skill, I always managed to let her beat me, which pleased her exceedingly. (6)

Billiards in exile

When he was in exile on Elba in 1814-15, Napoleon occasionally played billiards at his mother’s house. During Napoleon’s final exile on St. Helena, the British sent a large mahogany billiard table from London for his use. It was installed at Napoleon’s residence of Longwood House in July 1816. Napoleon tried it for the first time on July 24. He apparently did not use it very often. One of his companions, Count de Las Cases, wrote on September 3, 1816:

[T]he Emperor took a turn on the lawn…but, finding the wind very violent, he soon returned to the house and played at billiards, a thing which he very seldom thought of doing. (7)

In February 1817, Napoleon taught Betsy Balcombe, the teenage daughter of an East India Company superintendent on St. Helena, how to play the game.

Billiards was a game much played by Napoleon and his suite. I had the honour of being instructed in its mysteries by him; but when tired of my lesson, my amusement consisted in aiming the balls at his fingers, and I was never more pleased than when I succeeded in making him cry out. One day our pass from Sir Hudson Lowe only specified a visit to General Bertrand, but my anxiety to see Napoleon caused me to break through the rule laid down, and the consequences of my imprudence were nearly proving very serious, as my father all but lost the appointment he then held under government. I had caught sight of the emperor in his favourite billiard-room, and not being able to resist having a game with him, I listened to no remonstrance, but bounded off, leaving my father in dismay at the consequences likely to ensure. I was requested to read a book by Dr. Warden, the surgeon of the Northumberland, that had just come out. It was in English, and I had the task of wading through several chapters, and making it as intelligible as my ungrammatical French permitted. Napoleon was much pleased with Dr. Warden’s book, and said ‘his work was a very true one.’ I finished reading it to him whilst we remained with Madame Bertrand. (8)

After that, Napoleon apparently lost interest in the game. His valet on St. Helena, Louis-Joseph Marchand, tells us:

The Emperor did not play billiards, but when walking by he would amuse himself by rolling the balls around. (9)

Napoleon used one of the rosewood billiard cues when superintending work in his garden, as both “a stick and a measure.” (10) When dictating his memoirs, he would spread out maps on the billiard table. Napoleon eventually made a gift of the billiard table to his servants, having noticed that they liked to play the game when he was outside.

Visiting St. Helena in 1908, Lord Curzon found the table in an unused room at the back of Plantation House, the governor’s residence. It had been employed by one governor as a carpenter’s bench and by another as a screen across a door leading into the back yard. (11) You can see a photo of the table in the billiard room at Longwood House on my friend Margaret Rodenberg’s Finding Napoleon site.

Napoleon’s billiard legacy

Though Napoleon didn’t care much for billiards, he may deserve some credit for the game’s continued popularity in France. Some 30 years after Napoleon’s death, British writer Angus Reach wrote:

In this [French] village…dreary as it was, I found a café and a billiard-table. Where, indeed, in France will you not? Except in the merest jumble of hovels, you can hardly traverse a hamlet without seeing the crossed cues and balls figuring on a gaily painted house. You may not be able to purchase the most ordinary articles a traveller requires, but you can always have a game at pool. I have frequently found billiard-rooms in filthy little hamlets, inhabited entirely by persons of the rank of English agricultural labourers. At home, we associate the game with great towns, and, perhaps, with the more dissipated portion of the life of great towns. Here, even with the thoroughly rustic portion of the population, the game seems a necessity of life. And there are, too – contrary to what might have been expected – few or no make-shift-looking, trumpery tables.

The cafés in the Palais Royal, or in the fashionable boulevards, contain no pieces of furniture of this description more massive or more elaborately carved and adorned than many I have met with in places hardly aspiring to the rank of villages. It has often struck me that the billiard-table must have cost at least as much as the house in which it was erected; but the thing seemed indispensable, and there it was in busy use all day long. A correct return of the number of billiard-tables in France would give some very significant statistics relative to the social customs and lives of our merry neighbours. It would be an odd indication of the habits of the people, should there be found to be five times as many billiard-tables in France as there are mangles; and I for one firmly believe that such would be the result of an impartial perquisition. …

I like – no man likes better – to see the toilers of the world released from their labours, and enjoying themselves; but after all there is something, to English ways of thinking, desperately idle in the scene of a couple of big, burly working men, sitting in the glare of the sun-light the best part of the day, wrangling over a greasy pack of cards, or rattling dominoes upon the little marble tables. I once remarked this to an old French gentleman.

‘True – too true,’ he replied; ‘it was Bonaparte did the mischief. He made – you know how great a proportion of the country youth of France – soldiers. When they returned – those who did return – they had garrison tastes and barrack habits; and those tastes and habits it was which have brought matters to the pass, that you can hardly travel a league, even in rural France, without hearing the click of the billiard balls.’ (12)

You might also enjoy:

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

Charades with the Duke of Wellington

How the 20 Questions game came to America

  1. Anonymous, A Picturesque Tour Through France, Switzerland on the Banks of the Rhine and through Part of the Netherlands in the year 1816 (London, 1817), p. 48.
  2. The Edinburgh Review, Vol. 34 (November 1820), p. 417.
  3. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. II (New York, 1894), p. 388.
  4. Sophie Cohondet Durand, Napoleon and Marie-Louise, 1810-1814: A Memoir (London, 1886), p. 221.
  5. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue, (New York, 1929), p. 197.
  6. Louis Constant Wairy, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon, translated by Walter Clark, Vol. I (New York, 1895), p. 73. Constant also noted that Josephine often played a game of billiards before breakfast (p. 331).
  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 (London, 1823), p. 71.
  8. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 158-159.
  9. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 413.
  10. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 174.
  11. George Nathaniel Curzon, Tales of Travel (London, 1923), p. 168.
  12. Angus B. Reach, Claret and Olives, from the Garonne to the Rhone (New York, 1853), pp. 176-177.

10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

Dashing on the battlefield, less so on the dance floor. Napoleon Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcola, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796. (Among many interesting Napoleon facts, he was a bad dancer.)

Dashing on the battlefield, less so on the dance floor. Napoleon Bonaparte on the bridge at Arcola, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796

Further to “10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte,” here are 10 more fun Napoleon facts you may not have come across.

1. Napoleon was a bad dancer.

Though Napoleon took dancing lessons in his youth, he did not shine as a dancer. When he danced at the balls his wife Josephine gave at her country home of Malmaison, “he confused the figures, and always called for La Monaco, as the easiest and the air to which he danced least badly.” (1)

2. Napoleon didn’t like women to wear black.

According to Pons de l’Hérault, who managed the iron mines on Elba, where Napoleon spent his first exile, Napoleon had a “profound antipathy” to black garments. When Pons’s wife presented herself in mourning clothes at dinner, Napoleon “became sombre and did not cheer up for a moment while he remained at the table. … General Drouot assured me that the Emperor had to make a great effort to remain for one hour beside a woman in black.” (2)

Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne also observed that Napoleon “detested coloured dresses, and especially dark ones.” (3)

3. Napoleon was hard to shave.

Napoleon’s valet Constant tells us that while Napoleon was being shaved,

he frequently talked, read the papers, moved round on his chair, turned suddenly, and I was obliged to use the greatest precaution to avoid wounding him. … When by chance he did not talk, he remained immovable and stiff as a statue, and one could not make him lower, raise, or bend his head, as would have been necessary in order to accomplish the task more easily. He had also one singular mania, which was to have only one side of his face lathered and shaved at a time. He would never let me pass to the other side until the first was finished. (4)

Bourrienne, who read newspaper articles to Napoleon during this ritual, notes:

I was often surprised that his valet did not cut him while I was reading; for whenever he heard anything interesting, he turned quickly round towards me. (5)

4. Napoleon liked to eat with his fingers.

It’s no exaggeration when Napoleon dips his fingers into the sugar bowl in Napoleon in America. According to Constant:

The Emperor by no means ate in a cleanly manner. He preferred to use his fingers instead of a fork, or even a spoon; we were careful to put the dish he liked best within his reach. He drew it to him…dipping his bread in the sauce and the gravy, which did not prevent the dish from circulating…. (6)

For more about Napoleon’s dining habits, see “What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?

5. Napoleon spoke French with a Corsican accent.

Napoleon was born in Corsica, where people spoke an Italian dialect closely related to Tuscan. He was teased about his accent when he was at military school in France. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who served as interior minister under Napoleon, writes:

His native language was Corsican, which is an Italian dialect, and when he spoke French, one could easily see he was a foreigner. (7)

Though the accent stayed with him all his life, Napoleon regarded French as his first language. When he was in exile on St. Helena, he told Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara:

It has been said…that I understand Italian better than French, which is not true. Though I speak the Italian very fluently, it is not pure. Non parlo Toscana [I do not speak Tuscan], nor am I capable of writing a book in Italian, nor do I ever speak it in preference to the French. (8)

6. Napoleon had terrible handwriting.

Count de Las Cases, one of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, reports:

The Emperor left a great deal for the copyists to do; he was their torment: his handwriting actually formed hieroglyphics; he often could not decipher it himself. My son was one day reading to him a chapter of the Campaign of Italy: on a sudden he stopped short, unable to make out the writing. … The Emperor took the manuscript, tried a long while to read it, and at last threw it down, saying, ‘He is right: I cannot tell myself what is written.’ (9)

Napoleon told Dr. O’Meara that his handwriting actually improved on St. Helena.

He observed that formerly he was frequently in the habit of writing only half or three quarters of each word, and running them into each other, which was not attended with much inconvenience, as the secretaries had become so well accustomed to it that they could read it with nearly as much facility as if it were written plainly; that, however, no person, except one accustomed to his manner of writing, could read it. Latterly, he said, he had begun to write a little more legibly, in consequence of not being so much hurried as on former occasions. (10)

7. Napoleon liked to give people nicknames.

Las Cases also observes:

In his common intercourse of life, and his familiar conversation, the Emperor mutilated the names most familiar to him, even ours; yet I do not think that this would have happened to him on a public occasion. … He would frequently create names of persons according to his fancy; and, when he had once adopted them, they remained fixed in his mind, although we pronounced them as they should be, a hundred times in the day, within his hearing; but he would have been struck if we had used them as he had altered them. (11)

8. Napoleon arranged his head like a tidy closet.

Here’s another gem from Las Cases:

The Emperor accounted for the clearness of his ideas, and the faculty of extremely protracted application which he possessed, by saying that the different affairs were arranged in his head as in a closet. ‘When I wish to turn from any business,’ said he, ‘I close the drawer which contains it, and I open that which contains another. They do not mix together, and do not fatigue me or inconvenience me.’ He had never been kept awake, he said, by an involuntary pre-occupation of mind. ‘If I wish to sleep, I shut up all the drawers, and I am soon asleep.’ (12)

9. Napoleon didn’t sleep much.

Louis-Joseph Marchand, Napoleon’s valet after Constant, tells us:

The Emperor slept little…. He rose several times during the night. He was so well organized he could sleep when he wanted. Six hours’ sleep was enough, taken all together or in several naps. (13)

Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, notes that on St. Helena:

When the Emperor went to bed late the valet on duty was almost sure to pass a good night, but if he went to bed early one might expect him to ring toward one or two o’clock, ask for a light, and begin to work. Sometimes at that hour he would order a bath, which he would take or not, or might not take till daybreak. When he wanted to go to bed again after working he was often obliging enough to put out the light himself in order not to disturb the valet de chambre. (14)

10. Napoleon liked his rooms hot.

Constant writes:

It was necessary to have fire in all his apartments nearly all the year; he was habitually very sensitive to cold. (15)

On St. Helena, Napoleon complained that the British didn’t allow him enough fuel. Governor Hudson Lowe reported:

The number of fires at Plantation House [the governor’s residence] daily in winter are from nine to eleven; at Longwood [Napoleon’s residence], when the calculation was made, in May, fourteen. They must burn a fire in every room to make up the rest, whilst the English, living in the same house, and the offices with their families at the camp, use no fires at all. (16)

For more Napoleon facts, see 10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte.

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  1. Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, Mémoires sur le Consulat, 1799 à 1804 (Paris, 1827), p. 18.
  2. André Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe (Paris, 1897), pp. 260-261.
  3. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I (London, 1836), p. 284.
  4. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin (New York, 1907), Vol. I, p. 153.
  5. Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I, p. 279.
  6. Constant, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, pp. 320-321.
  7. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Mes souvenirs sur Napoléon (Paris, 1893), pp. 351-352.
  8. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 10-11.
  9. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III (New York, 1855), pp. 343-344.
  10. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II, pp. 15-16.
  11. Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, p. 345.
  12. Ibid., p. 346.
  13. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 88.
  14. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 181.
  15. Constant, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, p. 333.
  16. William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena from the Letters and Journals of the Late Lieut-Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe, Vol. II (London, 1853), p. 207.

Assassination Attempts Against Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte feared assassination and reportedly took precautions against it. His friend Betsy Balcombe asked him about this when he was in exile on St. Helena.

I told him I had heard that he wore armour under his dress, to render him invulnerable, as he was continually in dread of assassination, and that he never slept two nights together in the same bedroom. He told us all these things were fabrications; but he adopted one rule – never to make public his intention whither he meant to go, five minutes before he actually took his departure, and he doubted not many conspirators were thus foiled, as they were ignorant where he was at any time to be found. (1)

The explosion of the infernal machine, an assassination attempt against Napoleon Bonaparte on Christmas Eve 1800. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

The explosion of the infernal machine, an assassination attempt against Napoleon Bonaparte on Christmas Eve 1800. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

According to historian Philip Dwyer, Napoleon faced between 20 and 30 assassination plots during his reign over France. (2) Here’s a look at some of them. But first, an assassination attempt that wasn’t.

Coup of 18th-19th Brumaire, 1799

Napoleon began his rule over France by complaining of an assassination attempt that probably didn’t happen. On November 10, 1799, during the coup d’état that brought him to power, Napoleon illegally barged into the Council of Five Hundred (the lower house of the French legislature), interrupting the debate. The legislators yelled at and man-handled the intruder until he was rescued by his soldiers. Napoleon claimed that his life had been at stake.

I offered myself to the Chamber of Five Hundred, alone, unarmed, my head uncovered…. Instantly the daggers which menaced the deputies were raised against their defender. Twenty assassins rushed upon me, aiming at my breast. The grenadiers of the Legislative Body, whom I had left at the door of the chamber, hastily interposed between the assassins and myself. One of these brave grenadiers…received a thrust from a dagger, which pierced his clothes. They carried me off. (3)

Though it is highly unlikely a dagger was raised against Napoleon or anyone else, the supposed assassination attempt became a justification for the coup. (4)

Poisoning & other plots at Malmaison, 1800

After Napoleon became First Consul, Malmaison – an estate west of Paris, owned by Napoleon’s wife Josephine – became the site of several alleged assassination plots. According to Napoleon’s valet Constant, this included a poisoning attempt.

Sundry alterations and repairs had to be made in the chimney-piece of the First Consul’s apartments at La Malmaison. The person superintending this work sent certain stone-cutters, some of whom were in league with the conspirators. … [J]ust as the First Consul was about to take up his residence in the newly-prepared apartments, upon a desk at which he sat a snuff-box was found, precisely similar to one which he was in the habit of using. At first they supposed that it actually belonged to him, and that it had been left there by his valet-de-chambre. But the suspicions aroused by the strange appearance of some of the workmen took deeper root. The snuff was taken out and analysed. It was poisoned.

Constant – not the most reliable memoirist – goes on to claim:

The perpetrators of this dastardly outrage were at that time in league…with other conspirators, who intended to resort to other means in order to get rid of the First Consul. They thought of attacking the Malmaison guards, and of forcibly abducting the head of the Government. For this purpose they had uniforms made exactly like those of the Guides Consulaires, who, night and day, were in attendance on the First Consul. In this disguise, and with the help of their confederates, the sham stone-cutters, they might easily have mixed with the guards who were lodged and boarded at the castle. They could even have got at the First Consul and carried him off. This first scheme, however, was abandoned as too risky, and the conspirators flattered themselves that they would gain their ends in a surer, less perilous way, viz., by taking advantage of the General’s frequent journeys to Paris. In such disguise they could join the escort, unnoticed, and murder him on the highway. Their meeting-place was to be the Nanterre quarries. But their plot was again discovered, and, as in the Malmaison park there was a rather deep quarry, it was feared that they might hide here and do the General some injury when he walked out by himself. So the entrance to this place was closed with an iron gate. (5)

Constant may have been referring to an alleged plot by a man named Juvenot, a former aide-de-camp to the executed Jacobin leader François Hanriot. According to Napoleon’s Minister of Police Joseph Fouché, Juvenot was conspiring in mid-1800 with “some twenty zealots” to attack and murder Napoleon near Malmaison. (6) The plan was to block the road to Malmaison with carts and bundles of firewood; when Napoleon’s carriage was forced to stop, the conspirators would shoot him. They also thought of setting fire to cottages near Malmaison, expecting that Napoleon’s staff would run to put out the flames, leaving the First Consul unguarded. Fouché had Juvenot and his accomplices arrested, but was unable to extract a confession. (7)

Daggers conspiracy (Conspiration des poignards), 1800

In September 1800, Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne was contacted by an out-of-work soldier named Harrel, who said he had been approached to take part in a plot against Napoleon’s life. Bourrienne took the matter to Napoleon, who directed the police to supply Harrel with money so the guilty parties could carry on and be caught in the act. The conspirators planned to approach Napoleon at the opera in Paris and stab him to death. The date fixed for the assassination was October 10, 1800, at the premiere of Les Horaces (music by Bernardo Porta, text by Nicolas-François Guillard). According to Bourrienne:

On the evening of the 10th of October, the consuls…assembled in the cabinet of their colleague. Bonaparte asked them, in my presence, whether they thought he ought to go to the opera? They observed that as every precaution was taken, no danger could be apprehended; and that it was desirable to show the futility of attempts against the First Consul’s life. After dinner Bonaparte put on a great coat over his green uniform, and got into his carriage, accompanied by me and Duroc. He seated himself in front of his box, which at that time was on the left of the theatre, between the two columns which separated the front and side boxes. When we had been in the theatre about half an hour, the First Consul directed me to go and see what was doing in the lobby. Scarcely had I left the box than I heard a great uproar, and soon discovered that a number of persons, whose names I could not learn, had been arrested. I informed the First Consul of what I had heard, and we immediately returned to the Tuileries. (8)

According to Fouché, the would-be assassins were Jacobin extremists. The accused, however, blamed Harrel and other agents provocateurs.

The conspirators wished, without the least doubt, the death of the First Consul, but they were incapable of striking him with their own hands…. None of them had had the courage, nor perhaps even any decided intention, to assist in the execution of the plot. The police agents, sent in as spies amongst them, and to whom they gave daggers, urged them on to a degree of guilt, which before, perhaps, they had not contemplated…. [T]hey did not make their appearance at the place fixed for the execution of the plot; and Ceracchi, the only one apprehended in the Opera-house, was not even armed with one of the daggers which had been distributed among them. (9)

Four of the men arrested –painter François Topio-Lebrun, sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi, adjutant Joseph Antoine Aréna and Dominique Demerville, a former clerk to the committee of public safety – were executed on January 30, 1801.

Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise (Infernal machine), 1800

The best-known assassination attempt against Napoleon occurred in Paris on the evening of December 24, 1800. Napoleon was heading to the opera to see Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation when a cart exploded in the street shortly after his carriage had passed.

Map of central Paris showing the route of Napoleon's carriage and the location of the infernal machine explosion in rue Saint-Nicaise

Map of central Paris showing the route of Napoleon’s carriage and the location of the infernal machine explosion in rue Saint-Nicaise

The attack was carried out by royalists linked to the Chouan leader Georges Cadoudal, who was in the pay of the British government. The conspirators bought a horse and cart from a Parisian grain dealer, attached a large wine cask to the cart, and loaded the cask with shrapnel and gunpowder. They drove this “infernal machine” to Rue Saint-Nicaise (which no longer exists), near the intersection with Rue Saint-Honoré, on Napoleon’s route to the opera. One of the plotters paid 14-year-old Marianne Peusol, whose mother sold buns nearby, twelve sous to hold the horse and guard the cart while the would-be assassin stood at some distance with the fuse.

The conspirators expected Napoleon’s carriage to be preceded by a cavalry escort. The escort’s appearance would be the signal to light the powder. However, Napoleon’s coachman was driving very fast (some accounts say he was drunk), and the carriage appeared without warning. As noted in evidence at the subsequent trial:

The person who was to have executed the plan, not being properly instructed, was not aware of the arrival of the carriage of the First Consul until he saw it. It was not, as he had been told, preceded by an advanced guard; however he prepared to execute his plan. At that moment the horse of a grenadier drove him against the wall and deranged him. He returned, and set fire to the machine; but the powder not being good, its effect was two or three seconds too late, otherwise the First Consult must inevitably have perished. (10)

The explosion killed the horse, young Marianne, and as many as a dozen bystanders. Some 40 others were wounded, and several buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Napoleon’s wife Josephine, her daughter Hortense de Beauharnais, and Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat (pregnant with Achille) were travelling in a carriage behind Napoleon’s. They might have been killed had they not been delayed by fiddling with Josephine’s shawl, as described by General Jean Rapp, who accompanied the ladies.

The police had intimated to Napoleon that an attempt would be made against his life, and cautioned him not to go out. Madame Bonaparte, Mademoiselle Beauharnais, Madame Murat, Lannes, Bessières, the aide-de-camp on duty, and lieutenant Lebrun, now duke of Placenza, were all assembled in the saloon, while the First consul was writing in his closet. Haydn’s Oratorio was to be performed that evening: the ladies were anxious to hear the music, and we also expressed a wish to that effect. The Escort piquet was ordered out; and Lannes requested that Napoleon would join the party. He consented; his carriage was ready, and he took along with him Bessières and the aide-de-camp on duty. I was directed to attend the ladies.

Josephine had received a magnificent shawl from Constantinople, and she that evening wore it for the first time. ‘Allow me to observe, Madame,’ said I, ‘that your shawl is not thrown on with your usual elegance.’ She good humouredly begged that I would fold it after the fashion of the Egyptian ladies. While I was engaged in this operation, we heard Napoleon depart. ‘Come, sister,’ said Madame Murat, who was impatient to get to the theatre; ‘Bonaparte is going.’

We stepped into the carriage: the First Consul’s equipage had already reached the middle of the Place Carrousel. We drove after it; but we had scarcely entered the Place when the machine exploded. Napoleon escaped by a singular chance. Saint-Regent [one of the conspirators], or his French servant, had stationed himself in the middle of the Rue Nicaise. A grenadier of the escort, supposing he was really what he appeared to be, a water-carrier, gave him a few blows with the flat of his sabre, and drove him off. The cart was turned round, and the machine exploded between the carriages of Napoleon and Josephine.

The ladies shrieked on hearing the report; the carriage windows were broken, and Mademoiselle Beauharnais received a slight hurt on her hand. I alighted and crossed the Rue Nicaise, which was strewed with the bodies of those who had been thrown down, and the fragments of the walls that had been shattered by the explosion. Neither the Consul nor any individual of his suite sustained any serious injury. When I entered the theatre Napoleon was seated in his box, calm and composed, and looking at the audience through his opera-glass. Fouché was beside him. ‘Josephine,’ said he, as soon as he observed me. She entered at that moment, and he did not finish his question. ‘The rascals,’ said he, very coolly, ‘wanted to blow me up. Bring me a book of the Oratorio.’ (11)

Though Police Minister Fouché believed that royalists were behind the attack, Napoleon was initially convinced that his Jacobin enemies were responsible. He used the explosion as an excuse to exile 130 Jacobins from France. Meanwhile, police assembled the remains of the cart and horse and tried to find the owner. This led them to François Carbon, the man who made the bomb. Carbon confessed the names of fellow conspirators Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régent and Joseph de Limoëlan, as well as others. Carbon and Saint-Régent were executed on April 20, 1801. Limoëlan fled to the United States where he became a priest and died in Charleston in 1826.

Cadoudal affair (Pichegru conspiracy), 1804

Georges Cadoudal, the Breton Chouan leader who was financed by the British government, wanted to overthrow Napoleon and put the Bourbon heir Louis XVIII on the French throne. He was supported by Jean Pichegru, a general of the Revolutionary Wars who had been exiled from France. The Count of Artois (Louis XVIII’s brother and the future Charles X of France) also gave his blessing to the plan. In August of 1803, Cadoudal and other conspirators left London, landed near Dieppe and travelled to Paris. Their aim was to assassinate Napoleon and pave the way for a Bourbon restoration. Though Pichegru claimed he had the full support of General Jean Moreau (a military rival of Napoleon), when the two met secretly in January of 1804, it became clear that Moreau, a republican, would not support the Bourbons on the throne.

Around the same time that this was putting a dent in Cadoudal’s plan, the French arrested a British secret agent who had participated in Cadoudal’s landing. He revealed some details of the plot, including the involvement of Cadoudal and the two generals. Napoleon ordered their arrest. Moreau was picked up on February 15, Pichegru on February 26, and Cadoudal on March 9. Napoleon thought a minor Bourbon prince, the Duke of Enghien was in league with the conspirators. He had him arrested on March 20 and executed early the next morning. On April 5, Pichegru was found strangled by his own tie in his prison cell. According to the police, it was a case of suicide.

Cadoudal, Moreau and the other conspirators were brought to trial at the end of May. Cadoudal and 11 accomplices were executed on June 25, 1804. Moreau – for whom there was great popular sympathy – was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Napoleon changed the sentence to exile in the United States. Moreau later returned to Europe to join the forces allied against Napoleon. He was fatally wounded in the Battle of Dresden in 1813.

“Madman” Staps, 1809

In 1809, Napoleon and his troops occupied Vienna. On October 12 of that year, a German university student named Friedrich Staps attempted to assassinate Napoleon during a military parade at Schönbrunn Palace. Staps approached Napoleon on the pretense of presenting him with a petition. General Rapp became suspicious of the young man, whose right hand was thrust into a pocket under his coat. Staps was arrested and found to be carrying a large carving knife. When Rapp asked whether he had planned to assassinate Napoleon, Staps answered in the affirmative.

Napoleon wanted to speak to Staps directly, so the prisoner was brought to the Emperor’s office with his hands tied behind his back. Using Rapp as an interpreter, Napoleon asked Staps a series of questions.

‘Where were you born?’ – ‘In Naumburgh.’

‘What is your father?’ – ‘A Protestant minister.’

‘How old are you?’ – ‘I am eighteen years of age.’

‘What did you intend to do with the knife?’ – ‘To kill you.’

‘You are mad, young man; you are an illuminato.’ – ‘I am not mad; and I know not what is meant by an illuminato.’

‘You are sick, then.’ – ‘I am not sick; on the contrary, I am in good health.’

‘Why did you wish to assassinate me?’ – ‘Because you have caused the misfortunes of my country.’

‘Have I done you any harm?’ – ‘You have done harm to me as well as to all Germans.’

‘By whom were you sent? Who instigated you to this crime?’ – ‘Nobody. I determined to take your life from the conviction that I should thereby render the highest service to my country and to Europe.’ …

‘I tell you, you are either mad or sick.’ – ‘Neither the one nor the other.’ (12)

After a doctor examined Staps and pronounced him in good health, Napoleon offered the young man a chance for clemency.

‘You are a wild enthusiast,’ said he; ‘you will ruin your family. I am willing to grant your life, if you ask pardon for the crime which you intended to commit, and for which you ought to be sorry.’ – ‘I want no pardon,’ replied Staps, ‘I feel the deepest regret for not having executed my design.’ ‘You seem to think very lightly of the commission of a crime!’ – ‘To kill you would not have been a crime but a duty.’ … ‘Would you not be grateful were I to pardon you?’ – ‘I would notwithstanding seize the first opportunity of taking your life.’ (13)

Staps was executed by a firing squad on October 17, 1809. His last words were: “Liberty forever! Germany forever! Death to the tyrant!” (14) Napoleon refers to this assassination attempt when he visits his former police chief Pierre-François Réal in Napoleon in America.

Thanks to Randy Ford for suggesting this topic.

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  1. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 224-225.
  2. Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (New Haven & London, 2013), p. 54. In comparison, Dwyer notes that about 50 assassination plots were uncovered against French kings between 1680 and 1750 (p. 56).
  3. Gaspard Gourgaud, Memoirs of the History of France During the Reign of Napoleon, Dictated by the Emperor at St. Helena, Vol. I (London, 1823), pp. 103-104.
  4. “Was a dagger ever actually pulled on Napoleon in the Orangery, as the supporters of the coup alleged? In the large number of conflicting and highly politically motivated accounts of what happened, it is impossible to say for certain, but it is extremely unlikely, partly because no blood – Napoleon’s or anyone else’s – was shed that day.” Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York, 2014), p. 225.
  5. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of the Private Life of Napoleon, His Family and His Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. I (London, 1896) pp. 36-38.
  6. Joseph Fouché, Memoirs of Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto, Vol. I (London, 1825), p. 168.
  7. Gaffarel, “L’opposition républicaine sous le Consulat,” La Révolution française revue historique, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 14, 1887), p. 549.
  8. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by R.W. Phipps, Vol. II, (New York, 1890), p. 42.
  9. Adolphe Thiers, History of the Consulate and the Empire of France Under Napoleon, translated by D. Forbes Campbell, Vol. I (London, 1845), pp. 113, 184-185.
  10. “Criminal Tribunal, Paris,” The Morning Post and Gazetteer (London, UK), April 13, 1801.
  11. Jean Rapp, Memoirs of General Count Rapp (London, 1823), pp. 19-21.
  12. Ibid., pp. 143-144.
  13. Ibid., p. 145.
  14. Ibid., p. 147.

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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  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.