Etiquette in Napoleon’s Court

When Napoleon Bonaparte became the leader of France, he was an upstart general from Corsica. Unlike other European rulers of the time, he did not come from a royal or a noble background. He seized power through a coup d’état. How could Napoleon give his regime the appearance of legitimacy? By creating a court with rules of etiquette drawn from the monarchy that the French Revolution had done away with.

Napoleon Receiving the Delegation from the Roman Senate by Innocent-Louis Goubaud, 1809, shows an example of the etiquette of Napoleon’s court

Napoleon Receiving the Delegation from the Roman Senate by Innocent-Louis Goubaud, 1809

Giving government ancient character

Napoleon became the First Consul of France in the coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799). On February 19, 1800, he moved into the Tuileries Palace, the traditional Parisian residence of the Bourbon kings, which used to sit next to the Louvre. For his apartments, he chose rooms that had belonged to Louis XVI, the last monarch to occupy the Tuileries, before being guillotined during the French Revolution. The Second Consul, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, wrote that Napoleon was obsessed with “the idea of giving his government the ancient character which it lacked. He would have preferred to have drawn a veil over the authorities which had preceded him after 1792 and to have made the consular power the heir of the monarchy.” (1)

In a country in which considerable blood had been spilled to ensure that all citizens were equal, Napoleon re-introduced elements of hierarchy and ceremony. Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, a member of the Council of State, observed:

We held in those day so high a respect for the dignity of Civil Magistrates, and so deep a contempt for the servants of a Court, that the Councillors of State were scandalised to see a former Minister of the Interior, one of their own colleagues, with an usher’s rod in his hand acting as Master of the Ceremonies or Groom of the Chambers to the First Consul. … So far we had none of those titled domestics known as Chamberlains; their duties were performed by Bonaparte’s aides-de-camp, while his entourage on state occasions consisted of the Ministers and Councillors of State, but it soon made itself evident that a regular Court and a system of Court etiquette would soon be held as necessary for the Tuileries as a ritual and an officiating clergy for a church. … The new Court ceremonies formed a highly novel spectacle, both to the actors who took part in them and to lookers-on. (2)

Napoleon initiated a regular schedule of receptions for ambassadors, senators, generals and other dignitaries. Every two weeks a grand parade of troops took place. He became particular about his wife Josephine’s guests, restricting them to the wives of leading military and civilian officials. “Monsieur” and “Madame” replaced the Revolutionary “Citoyen” and “Citoyenne.”

In September 1801, Napoleon began to use the Château of Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, as his country residence. Sunday mass in the chapel at Saint-Cloud became a court event. Napoleon gave audiences immediately afterwards. By surrounding himself with formalities, he gradually made it more difficult for people to approach him.

On Easter in 1802, Napoleon’s household appeared in livery for the first time. Military uniforms were replaced by civil costumes. Court swords and silk stockings took the place of sabres and riding boots. Male visitors to court began to wear queues and powdered hair. Josephine, who disliked extreme etiquette, at least ensured that women did not return to hoops and panniers. In practice, court life was rather dull. People were not allowed to applaud or to boo at the court theatre. Yawns had to be stifled. Courtiers were expected to keep their eyes open, even if they fell asleep.

Consulting every old courtier

By the time Napoleon was proclaimed “First Consul for Life,” on August 2, 1802, his court resembled that of a sovereign. To determine its rules of operation, Napoleon deliberately looked at how things had been done under the French kings.

Every code of etiquette was ransacked, every old courtier or valet was consulted. How was this done? How was that managed? The orders of the day in the interior of the palace were to return to the usages and customs of the good old times. Those who longed for a return to monarchy, and those who were indifferent as to the form the government chose to assume, were filled with admiration, amounting with some to positive ecstasy. (3)

Many royalists who were intimately familiar with the old Bourbon court ridiculed Napoleon’s attempt to imitate its etiquette. And liberals who had fought to remove the constraints of monarchy regarded Napoleon’s court and its protocols with a mixture of scorn and horror.

[I]t was at once astounding and pitiable to watch the importance now attached to the merest trivialities, the pains which people took to bind all the talent of the nation with links of slavery, and the impatient energy with which men hastened to replace on their necks the shameful yoke of superannuated forms, with even more speed than they had thrown them aside. When they compared the First Consul of 1804 with the First Consul of 1800, with the General of the Army of Italy who had founded so many Republics as our allies and auxiliaries, with the victor over Royalism at Toulon and in Paris…they could not refrain from such bitter reflections as these: ‘This, then, is the ultimate end and object of so many fine words, lofty thoughts, and glorious exploits. Was it only to return to our old paths that France launched herself so gloriously on her new career, and watered the road with the noblest and purest of her blood?’ (4)

Germaine de Staël wrote:

Would not one have thought that a nation, so prompt at laying hold of improprieties, would have delivered itself up to the inextinguishable laugh of the gods of Homer, at seeing all those republicans disguised as dukes, counts, and barons, and making their attempts in the study of the manners of great lords, like men repeating a part in a play. … [D]id the ribands and keys of a chamberlain, with all the other apparatus of courts, suit men who had stirred heaven and earth to abolish such vain pomp? …

[Napoleon] loved the flattery of the courtiers of the former reign because they were more skilful in that art than the new men, whatever might be the eagerness of the latter to distinguish themselves in the same career. As often as a gentleman of the old court called back to recollection the etiquette of the days that were gone, and proposed an additional bow, a certain mode of knocking at the door of an antechamber, a more ceremonious manner of presenting a despatch, of folding a letter, or concluding it with such or such a form, he was received as if he had made a contribution to the happiness of the human race. (5)

Etiquette under Emperor Napoleon

Napoleon became Emperor of the French on May 18, 1804. In March 1805, the first edition of Étiquette du Palais impérial was published by the imperial printer. Subsequent editions came out in 1806, 1808 and 1810.

This book of etiquette provided rules for the operation of Napoleon’s imperial court. It codified the practices Napoleon had already established, based on the French monarchical past. It listed all the officers of the crown (Grand Almoner, Grand Marshal of the Palace, Grand Chamberlain, etc.), set out their duties, specified who was allowed to enter which rooms in the palace and in what manner, and gave instructions for the smooth running of religious functions, meals, balls, concerts, parades, ceremonies, imperial travel, court mourning, and other things.

For example, when their Majesties dined in public (au grand couvert), the Grand Chamberlain held a finger-bowl for the Emperor to wash his hands in; the Grand Equerry offered him his armchair; the Grand Marshal of the Palace presented him with his napkin. The First Prefect, the First Equerry and the First Chamberlain performed the same functions for the Empress. The Grand Almoner went to the front of the table, blessed the meal, and then retired. During the meal, the Colonel-General in waiting stood behind the Emperor’s armchair; the Grand Chamberlain stood on the Colonel-General’s right; the Grand Equerry on his left. Carafes of water and wine were placed on a golden platter, the glass on another platter, to the right of the place setting. When the Emperor wanted to drink, the First Prefect poured out the wine and water and handed the glass to the Grand Marshal, who transmitted it to his Majesty. When the Empress desired a drink, the First Equerry mixed and the Second Prefect handed over the glass. And so on. (6)

In formalizing his court and its code of etiquette, Napoleon wanted to show he was of the same rank as the other crowned heads of Europe, who held their thrones by virtue of royal blood. But this was not his only goal.

His aim was not so much to surpass in splendour the kings who preceded him and the sovereigns who were his contemporaries; it was especially to restore to the embodiment of authority all the splendour with which it was surrounded before the Revolution; it was to attach to his new government a considerable number of ambitious men who, of their own accord, would come and occupy the positions he had designed for them, and who, to recover the titles which they had borne, or to receive similar titles, would abandon their ancient masters; it was to promote expenditure by the festivities which he would command, and thus foster national industries; it was to re-establish a centre from which should radiate an example of politeness, of manners, and of fashion; it was lastly, by the numerous barriers and the distance placed between the emperor and the people, to increase the veneration of the multitude. (7)

Napoleon did not adopt the entire etiquette package of the old court. His court performed fewer personal duties for the monarch. For example, Napoleon changed the nature of the grand lever, doing away with the rising and dressing part of the ceremony. In general, Napoleon retained a substantial private life, conducted in his interior apartments, in which etiquette played a minimal role. This allowed him to get things done.

When Napoleon married Marie Louise, a member of the Austrian royal family, he picked members of the old aristocracy to serve as her attendants. Napoleon subjected Marie Louise to far more rigid etiquette than that he had imposed on Josephine. However, when Marie Louise’s life was in danger during the birth of their royal-blooded son, Napoleon II, “all the etiquette which had been studied and ordered was disregarded, and the child put on one side, on the floor, whilst everyone was occupied about the mother only.” (8)

Etiquette on St. Helena

The inhabitants of St. Helena addressing their new Governor. Napoleon caricature Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

The inhabitants of St. Helena addressing their new Governor. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/

When Napoleon was banished to the remote British island of St. Helena in 1815, he insisted on being addressed and treated as Emperor of the French, even though his British captors dignified him only as General Bonaparte. Napoleon’s Grand Marshal of the Palace, General Henri Bertrand, was one of the few courtiers who accompanied Napoleon into exile. He retained that title in Napoleon’s establishment on St. Helena. In practice, Napoleon’s small number of servants, confined quarters and limited budget at Longwood House made displays of courtly etiquette difficult. The rituals that were maintained were the result of force of habit of Napoleon’s French companions, and the respect they felt for him, rather than any etiquette manual. According to one member of Napoleon’s suite, Count de las Cases:

The Emperor behaved to us in the kindest manner, and with a paternal familiarity. We were, on our part, the most attentive and respectful of courtiers. We uniformly endeavoured to anticipate his wishes; we carefully watched all his wants, and he had scarcely time to make a sign with his hand before we were in motion.

None of us entered his apartment without being sent for, and if any thing of importance was to be communicated to him, he was previously made acquainted with it. If he walked separately with any of us, no other presumed to intrude. In the beginning, we constantly remained uncovered near his person, which appeared strange to the English, who had been ordered to put on their hats, after the first salute. This contrast appeared so ridiculous to the Emperor that he commanded us, once and for all, to behave like them. Nobody, except the two ladies, took a seat in his presence, unless desired to do so. He was never spoken to but at his own peculiar insistence, and when the conversation became general, which was always and in all cases, under his control and guidance. Such was the etiquette of Longwood, which entirely was, as it must be evident, that of our recollections and feelings. (9)

You might also enjoy:

Watching French Royals Eat: The Grand Couvert

Watching French Kings Rise: The Grand Lever

The Bumpy Coronation of Napoleon

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

The Perilous Birth of the King of Rome

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

  1. Peter Hicks, “Napoleon on Elba: An Exile of Consent,” in Philip Mansel and Torsten Riotte, eds., Monarchy and Exile: The Politics of Legitimacy from Marie de Médicis to Wilhelm II, (London, 2011), p. 222.
  2. Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, Bonaparte and the Consulate, translated and edited by G.K. Fortescue (London, 1908), pp. 3-4.
  3. Ibid., p. 6.
  4. Ibid., p. 7.
  5. Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, edited by the Duke de Broglie and the Baron de Staël, Volume II (New York, 1818) pp. 63-65.
  6. Étiquette du Palais impérial (Paris, 1806), pp. 110-111.
  7. Frédéric Masson, Napoleon at Home: The Daily Life of the Emperor at the Tuileries, translated by James E. Matthew, Vol. 1 (London, 1894), pp. 26-27.
  8. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. I, Part 2 (London, 1823), p. 332.
  9. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, Part 5 (London, 1823), pp. 30-31.

10 commments on “Etiquette in Napoleon’s Court”

  • Joseph Mendez says:

    This could be a book on Napoleon’s court and how they got their appointments…very informative.
    Good work.

  • Hiroshi says:

    What an interesting article! I never knew there was such etiquette in Napoleon’s court. Makes me wonder what it feels like to be living that time, serving the emperor in his court.

  • Addison Jump says:

    When one of his ministers referred to the medals N awarded, such as the Legion of Honor, as “baubles, N replied, “You are pleased to call them baubles. Very well, it is by such baubles that men are led.” I will always wonder whether N imposed etiquette, and indeed has himself crowned Emperor, because he thought only in this way could he lead a nation habituated in such nonsense for a thousand years. Or did he himself feel inferior to blue-bloods, since he spent his early in life as an inferior in their shadow? Even I would feel a little daunted if I were invited to have tea with Queen Elizabeth.

  • John F. MacMichael says:

    I had not known before that at one point Napoleon used the title of “First Consul for Life”. I wonder if that was the inspiration for the various African dictators who styled themselves “President for Life”? They used to be a dime a dozen but I don’t know if anyone is officially using that title at present.

  • Oscar says:

    I happen to be a relative of the Emperor. I read few books about Napoleon in high school, when I became more aware (and interested) in our shared blood, then I sort of forgot about him in the next few years-life happened. Recently, I rediscovered my interest in him and those times and this article is very informative. Thank you!

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It was at once astounding and pitiable to watch the importance now attached to the merest trivialities, the pains which people took to bind all the talent of the nation with links of slavery, and the impatient energy with which men hastened to replace on their necks the shameful yoke of superannuated forms, with even more speed than they had thrown them aside.

Antoine Claire Thibaudeau