A Tomb for Napoleon’s Son in Canada
Did you know that a tomb originally intended for Napoleon’s son is sitting in a Canadian cemetery? Napoleon’s son, otherwise known as Napoleon II, the King of Rome or Duke of Reichstadt, died of tuberculosis in Vienna on July 22, 1832, at the age of 21 (see my article about his death). Since his mother, Marie Louise, was the Duchess of Parma, a burial monument for the young man was constructed in Italy. When the Duke of Reichstadt was interred in the Habsburg family crypt at the Capuchin Church in Vienna, the Italian monument was left unused.
Over 20 years later, William Venner, a prosperous merchant from the city of Quebec, came across the magnificently sculpted monument on a business trip to Europe. Venner had been born in Quebec on September 12, 1813. His father, also named William Venner (1785-1872), was a native of Devonshire who served on garrison duty in Lower Canada with Britain’s 10th Royal Veteran Battalion during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812, William Venner senior married Ursule Boutin, from Saint-Gervais, at the Anglican cathedral in Quebec City. After William junior, Ursule gave birth to seven more boys and then a girl. William senior converted to Catholicism in 1825. Ten years later, William Venner junior married Mary LeVallée, with whom he had 14 children. Venner became a Catholic in 1842. (1)
Venner thought the tomb for Napoleon’s son would make a lovely mausoleum for his family. He bought it for a sum approaching $50,000 and had it transported to Canada in pieces. It arrived in Quebec City in 1858.
The Italian monument, in white Carrara marble, consisted of a sarcophagus topped with a statue of a grieving Greek goddess and a draped urn. Venner hired local architect and engineer Charles Bailliargé to design and build an even grander monument, incorporating the Italian tomb. Venner wanted it installed at the recently-opened Catholic cemetery of Saint-Charles, which had also been laid out by Bailliargé.
Built with Montreal stone, the monument resembles a small Corinthian temple. It is composed of six columns covered by three stacked pedestals decorated with carved laurel crowns, surmounted by the Italian urn. The whole thing rests on a thick, high pedestal decorated with bas-relief motifs. Bailliargé engaged skilled craftsmen to carve wooden models to guide the stone cutters. The Italian statue was placed in the centre of the temple. A crypt was constructed underneath, large enough to hold 30 lead coffins. A stone and iron fence was erected around the perimeter, precisely matching the fence Baillairgé was putting in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Québec. (2) The iron gate is ornamented with spirals and circles.
The Venner mausoleum was inaugurated in 1861, the year of Ursule’s death. It was the most sumptuous cemetery monument in Quebec at the time. An 1875 guidebook noted:
St. Charles Cemetery, on the Lorette road, is beautifully situated on the banks of the river St. Charles, near Scott’s bridge…. The great pines which adorn it impart to that cemetery a gloomy appearance which becomes very well the place and its object…. There are some fine and costly monuments to be seen in this cemetery, and the visitor shall not fail to notice that erected for the family of W. Venner, esquire. The statue is a splendid piece of sculpture. (3)
Sadly, the Mediterranean goddess succumbed to the Quebec winters. In the early 20th century, the original marble statue was replaced by a bronze Sacred Heart of Mary statue, made in France.
In 1876, William Venner married his second wife, Philomène Langevin (b. 1843). Venner died on October 27, 1890, at the age of 77. He and many other members of his family are buried in the crypt. One of Venner’s sons, also named William (1836-1905), was suspected of being involved in the assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868, though he was never accused of the crime. (4) One of Venner’s granddaughters, Irma LeVasseur (1878-1864), was the first female French Canadian doctor. The tomb remains the property of Venner’s descendants. If you would like to see it, the old part of Saint-Charles cemetery is at 1120, Saint-Vallier Ouest in Quebec City. There are more photos of the Venner monument on the Culture et Communications Québec website.
As for Napoleon’s son, his remains were transferred to Paris in 1940, a gift to France from Adolf Hitler. They rested for a while beside those of Napoleon in Les Invalides, before being moved to the lower church. The Duke of Reichstadt’s heart and intestines remained in Vienna, where they reside respectively in urns at the Habsburg Heart Crypt (Hofburg Palace) and the Ducal Crypt (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).
You might also enjoy:
- Pierre Prévost, “Tombeau royal pour un fils de Saint-Gervais,” Au fil des ans: Bulletin de la Société historique de Bellechasse, Vol. 21, No. 4, Automne 2009, p. 20.
- Christina Cameron, Charles Baillairgé: Architect and Engineer (Montreal and Kingston, 1989), p. 109.
- Jean Langelier, The Quebec and Lower St. Lawrence Tourist’s Guide (Quebec, 1875), p. 130.
- Jean-Marie Lebel, “Dans un cimetière de Québec, le tombeau de l’Aiglon,” Cap-aux-Diamants: La revue d’histoire du Québec, No. 81, 2005, p. 43.
There are some fine and costly monuments to be seen in this cemetery, and the visitor shall not fail to notice that erected for the family of W. Venner, esquire. The statue is a splendid piece of sculpture.
The Quebec and Lower St. Lawrence Tourist’s Guide, 1875