Meneval, Napoleon's closest collaborator for eleven years, was born in Paris, on 8 April 1778, at 19, rue des Marais Saint-Germain which became, in 1864, rue Visconti (6th arrondissement), near rue Bonaparte... and the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He was born into a middle-class family whose name was variously spelt Meneval, Menneval and even Mennevalle. The family was descended from a certain Varquain de Menneval who followed two trades in Paris and in the Ile-de-France, namely, he was wine and alcohol inspector and and he loaned wooden boards to travelling salesmen.
The young Claude was brought up by a British nanny and so spoke reasonable English. Indeed, as secretary to Joseph Bonaparte he was able to act as interpreter during the discussion at the Peace of Amiens, and later he was to translate into English the letters which Josephine sent to British botanists asking for rare species for her garden at Malmaison. He was a good pupil at the collège Mazarin, until the school was closed at the beginning of Revolution.
Meneval wrote novels and became acquainted with the popular author, Palissot de Montenoy (1730-1814. At the author's house he met the grammatician, François Domergue (1745-1810), and became friends with Roederer and Louis Bonaparte. Although of a weak disposition, Méneval was draughted in An VII, and he performed six months service under the orders of Louis Bonaparte, Colonel of the 5th Régiment de dragons, at Verneuil.
Returning to civilian life, Méneval was recommended by Palissot for a post in the Directory Library, the heir to the Tuileries library (30,000 volumes). He was at that time recruited by Roederer, then director of the Journal de Paris, as a journalist. Subsequently, Joseph Bonaparte, on his return from his ambassadorship in Rome, engaged him as secretary.
As Joseph Bonaparte's secretary, Méneval was present at the negotiations leading to the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine between France and the United States (3 October, 1800), the Treaty of Lunéville between France and Austria (3 February, 1801), the Concordat (15 July, 1801) and the Treaty of Amiens between France and Britain (27 March, 1802) (1).
Méneval wrote: "When I returned to Paris, I hoped to return to the delights of the grounds at the Château de Mortefontaine and to spend time in sweet reflection. The embassies to which I had been witness with Joseph Bonaparte were more than enough". He had no idea that the future held something very different in store for him!
When Napoleon wished to sack Bourrienne (for financial irregularities), Joseph suggested to Napoleon that he take Méneval as his private secretary, and he encouraged Méneval to accept. On 2 April, 1802, at 5pm, Méneval was politiely received by Josephine at the Tuileries; she asked the secretary to dinner. The First Consul interviewed him, brought him into his office and asked him to come back the following day at 7 am. Napoleon was waiting for Méneval at the time, ready to dictate a note for Gaudin, Finance Minister. The consul spoke so fast that Méneval found it hard to keep up. Napoleon was however satisfied. He called Duroc and asked him to find Méneval lodgings at the palace and to add his name to list of serving ADCs (J. Tulard and L. Garros, Itinéraire de Napoléon, p. 180). From then on, it was Méneval's job to see to the First Consul's and later Emperor's correspondence (1802-1813).
For the task, Méneval led a "monastic" life. He always had to be there, always on standby, day and night. Napoleon would often say to him in the evening: "Come back here tonight at one (or at four), and we will work".
Méneval was just 24. "He had a gentle air and modest habits, was very reserved and timid in appearance, and his poor constitution made him look even younger than he actually was" (Fain, Memoirs).
At the Tuileries, Méneval worked in Napoleon's "cabinet intérieur", a room which had once been the bedchamber of Marie-Thérèse, wife of Louis XIV. It was a poor room, poorly lit by a window which gave onto the garden (2). Facing the window stood two large bookcases loaded with history books and separated by a large clock (3). The emperor's desk was placed in front of the fireplace: the violin-shape of the desktop was made according to Napoleon's design, Napoleon sitting in one of the hollows. The secretary's small table and chair stood facing the window. When sitting, Bourrienne and Méneval had their backs to the emperor.
Once Napoleon had re-read and signed the letters dictated the day before, he would read the news from the four corners of the empire and then say "Write!" and he would begin to dictate his correspondence. According to Fain, "he performed this form of work with great skill". He would begin sitting down and calm. Then as he became more and more animated, he would get up and stride around. He dictated so quickly that the secretary's task was difficult; there were few who could keep up. And it was impossible to ask him to repeat anything. The secretary had to follow as best he could, leaving blank spaces to be filled in later in order to keep up with the sentences "which rushed on cascading one on top of the other".
Méneval worked out an excellent strategy for taking dictation from Napoleon. He developed a personal form of shorthand and then wrote the text up afterwards. He explained: "... I wasn't able to write down word for word what the emperor said, but I simply jotted down the principal points (which I then used as reference points) and the typical Napoleonic expressions. I would recreate the letter more or less as it was dictated, and when he re-read it before signing – something which only happened when the subject matter was tricky or on his mind-, he recognised his own style". After two hours of dictation, the secretary had enough work for the rest of the day (4). Méneval kept a daily register which has not yet been published (cf. Napoléon au jour le jour, Tallandier, 2002, preface by Prof Jean Tulard).
Méneval followed Napoleon on his journeys and campaigns. This is not a banal detail, because in 10 years (1804-1814), Napoleon only spent 900 days in Paris, in other words, only one day in four (cf. Napoléon, Editions Rencontre, 1969, tome 3, p. 61). So Méneval was at Saint- Cloud, Pont-de-Briques and Fontainebleau. He was also in Notre-Dame de Paris for the consacration and coronation of Napoléon and Josephine (2 December, 1804), at the cathedral in Milan, for the coronation of Napoléon as king of Italy (26 May, 1805). On the battlefield the secretary slept on cushions in the Emperor's tent, ready at any hour of the day or night (5).
In this way, Méneval accompanied the Emperor on the 1805 campaign (leaving Paris on 24 September, 1805, and returning on 26 January 1806, in other words an absence of four months). On 2 December, 1805, after the victory, Méneval took down the famous proclamation ("Soldier, I am pleased with you... ") – there was the rough copy taken down at the Poscritz posthouse, and then the following day, 3 December, at the Château d'Austerlitz (see the manuscript text in E. Ledru, Napoléon le conquérant prophétique, Molière, Paris, 1995, pp. 116-117; also Editions Trésor du Patrimoine).
Shortly afterwards, Méneval fell ill and as regards dictation was replaced by Deschamps, Secrétaire des commandements to the Emperor, Maret or Duroc. But he was not happy with any of them. "I cannot repeat myself; you're making me lose my train of thought. Where is Méneval? With Méneval, I would have got rid of all that" he would say, indicating an ever-growing pile correspondence.
On his return to Paris, Napoleon reorganised his private office. By a decree dated 3 February, 1806 (see Correspondance de Napoléon. Six cents lettres de travail présentées par Maximilien Vox, Gallimard, 1943, p. 112), the emperor was to have a secretary of the portfolio: Méneval (stipend 24,000 francs per year), a "rapporteur des pétitions": Deschamps (stipend 12,000 francs per year) and an archivist: Fain (stipend 18,000 francs per year). In fact, Méneval was first secretary: he alone presented letters and reports to the Emperor, he sent all the correspondence, he alon entered the Emperor's office, and he alone had the keys to the secret drawers and the emperor's portfolios. In later years, tThe office was to be staffed in much greater numbers, and Méneval had under him many vice-secretaries, archivists, cartographers and guardians of the portfolio.
In 1806-1807, Méneval followed Napoleon on the Prussian and Polish campaigns (leaving Saint-Cloud on 25 September, 1806, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, and returning to Saint-Cloud on 27 July, 1807, i.e., an absence of 10 months).
After the battles, Méneval was present not only at the meeting on the raft in the middle of the Niemen, 25 June, 1807, between Napoleon and the Czar Alexander I, but also at the later imperial summit at Tilsit (26 June-9 July, 1807).
Four months earlier, at Finkenstein, Napoleon had advised Méneval to marry.
And so, on returning to Paris, Méneval did as he was told. In October 1807, he married a girl of sixteen, Aimée Virginie Joséphine Comte de Montvernot (6 September, 1792-2 March, 1871), cousin of the philosopher, Auguste Comte. Napoleon and Josephine witnessed the ceremony. The marriage took place in the Salon d'honneur at the Tuileries. Napoleon made the couple a gift of 100,000 gold francs and Monsieur Mathieu de Mauvières, Paris notary, father-in-law of the bride gave the same. A four-room apartment was then set aside for them at the Tuileries.
In 1808, Méneval was present at the famous meeting in Erfurt (27 September-14 October, 1808) between Napoléon, the Czar Alexander I and the sovereigns in Germany. Napoleon awarded Goethe and Wieland Légions d'honneur and the Czar gave Méneval a diamond encrusted snuffbox (6).
In 1809, at Essling, Méneval was present, with the Emperor, at the death of Marshal Lannes, Duc de Montebello (22 May) and at the victory at Wagram (6 July).
Méneval was, out of modesty, initially to refuse, but upon Napoleon's insistance he finally accepted the title Baron de l'Empire, awarded by letters patent on 26 April, 1810 (the spelling of his name was rectified following the spelling rectifications made by Domergue: Méneval instead of Menneval, with new letters patent issued on 13 August, 1810). He had received the Croix de la Légion d'honneur on 25 April, 1806 (he was promoted to officer in 1819).
In 1812, he followed the Emperor on the Russian Campaign (leaving Saint-Cloud on 9 May, 1812 and returning to Paris on 18 December, 1812, i.e., a total absence of 7 months).
Méneval suffered badly from the retreat, being repatriated in a sled with serious cold burns. His life was in the balance for two months on his return to Paris. And afterwards, because of exhaustion, he was unable to take up his duties as first secretary and, in Napoleon's words, was "mis en convalescence", with the post of Secrétaire des commandements for the Empress Marie-Louise, being replaced at first secretary by Fain (decree of 9 February, 1813). In the same year, Méneval was appointed Maître des requêtes at the Conseil d'État.
On 29 March, 1814, he accompanied the Empress and the King of Rome as they left the Tuileries for Rambouillet, then Blois... Fearing pillage by Cossacks, Méneval whose job it had been since 1812 to look after Napoleon's sword, on the pommel of which was mounted the famous Regent diamond (7), broke the blade and hid the handle in the pocket of his greatcoat (9 April, 1814). He was soon to reach Vienna with Marie-Louise and the King of Rome.
Whilst he was in the Austrian capital, Méneval provided Napoleon on Elba with details regarding the Vienna Congress via the Italian merchants, the Carabelli brothers.
After the return from Elba, Méneval asked for a passport for France. On 7 May, 1815, he took his leave of Marie-Louise and the King of Rome, saying: "I am going to see your father. Do you have anything to say to him?". The young prince sadly replied: "Monsieur Méva, please tell him that I still love him a lot". On his arrival in Paris, he was received by Napoleon and he carefully described Marie-Louise's position (8).
Waterloo put an end to Méneval's second career (the title of Duke and positions as Conseiller d'État and Minister for the Post).
It is thought that Méneval wanted to follow Napoleon into exile, but he was unable to reach Malmaison before Napoleon left for Rochefort.
On 18 July, 1815, Méneval was at Lavalette's house when the latter was arrested. Méneval refused to collaborate with the Restauration, saying: "I cannot, after having served so great a man". In 1816, during the White Terror, he was held under house arrest in his château in Vaucresson (near Paris in the Hauts-de-Seine); he was to sell the house for 200,000 gold francs on 6 January, 1825.
After looking after his father-in-law, Monsieur de Mauvières, Méneval then looked after the Comte Léonand also Madame de Lavalette on the death of her husband.
On St Helena, Napoleon said of Méneval: "He was gentle, reserved, zealous, very private, able to work at any time whatsoever. He never gave me anything less than satisfaction and pleasantness, and I loved him dearly". In 1821, Napoleon bequeathed him 100,000 francs.
Méneval published his memoirs (1st edition in 1827, 2nd in 1835, 3rd in 1843; see J. Tulard, Biblio critique, p. 115, n° 525). He corresponded with Thiers and Abel Hugo and gave his appreciation of Bourienne's memoirs. He met regularly with certain of the imperial nobility: Lavalette, Gourgaud, Marbot and Bertrand (9). In Paris, on 15 December, 1840, he was one of those who attended the Retour des Cendres at the Eglise des Invalides. In 1827, Méneval bought a huge estate at Gif. He demolished the old building and built what he called the Château de l'Ermitage, today the townhall in Gif-sur-Yvette (Essonnes). It was here that he received the Prince Louis Napoléon Bonaparte and the Princesse Mathilde. He was furthermore town councillor for Gif, from 1831 to 1848.
Méneval died in Paris, 26, rue Blanche (building now demolished), on 18 June, 1850, aged 72. He was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre (19e division, Chapelle avenue Berlioz, opposite the 2e division: see Répertoire mondial des souvenirs napoléoniens, p. 288). The eulogy was given by Général Pelet-Clozeau; (for the text, see Christian Audebaud, Le général baron Pelet-Clozeau, éditions SPM, 1998, p. 172).
Meneval and his wife, Aimée Virginie Joséphine Comte de Montvernot, were to have six children, three girls and three boys.
The eldest son, Napoléon Louis (1813-1899), was an artilleryman and became the Prince President's officier d'ordonnance (1849), taking part in the 2 December 1851 coup d'etat. He later became Préfet du Palais, colonel (1863) and 2nd Baron de Méneval. The second son, Eugène François (1814-1882), was plenipotentiary minister to the court of Bavaria, later becoming a bishop on the death of his wife. The third son, Tristan (1829), died young.
The eldest son's family was as follows: Napoléon Joseph Ernest (1849-1926), ambassadorial secretary and plenipotentiary minister, 3rd Baron de Méneval; his son, François Napoléon (1895-1973) became the 4th Baron de Méneval; and the latter's grandson, Claude Napoléon, is currently 5th Baron de Méneval, sometime president of the Souvenir Napoléonien.
As for the daughters: Marie Pauline de Méneval (1810-1889) married Pierre-Gaétan comte Murat, son of one of Murat's brothers in 1827; Sophie Marie de Méneval (1815-1856) married Baron Juan de Mouzinho de Silveira de Albuquerque, Portuguese diplomat in Paris in 1831; Virginie Caroline Louise de Méneval (1816-1856) married comte Ledochowski (1806-1877), financier, descendant of an important Polish family allied to that of Marie Walewska (10).
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien n°457
(1) See Michel Kerautret, Les grands traités du Consulat (1799-1804), Nouveau Monde Éditions/Fondation Napoléon, 2002, pp. 143, 163, 189 and 210; Marc Allégret, "Le traité d'Amiens", ACMN n° 42, p. 17.
(2) Napoleon's private office was on the first floor of the Tuileries palace, garden side, in the section between the Pavillon de Flore and the central pavillion, in other words, the part which burned down in 1871 and which was later demolished (see J.-P. Samoyault, "L'appartement de Bonaparte", Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, n° 449, p. 7).
(3) The clock appears in the background of the portrait of Napoleon in his office, by L. David (National Gallery, Washington).
(4) On Napoleon's correspondence, see A. Palluel (Dictionnaire de l'Empereur, Plon, 1969, Introduction); "Une journée de Napoléon aux Tuileries", by J. Tulard, Napoléon Ier n° 1, mars-avril 2000; "Napoléon, homme de lettres", by J.-O. Boudon, Napoléon Ier, n° 28, septembre-octobre 2004.
(5) See "Le quartier impérial au soir d'une bataille", by M. Doher, Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, n° 278, novembre 1974, pp. 2-3 : "Napoléon en campagne", by J. Tulard, Napoléon Ier, n° 2, mai-juin 2000; "L'État-major de Napoléon", by A. Pigeard, Tradition magazine hors série n° 30. See also the fine plates in Hourtoulle: La Maison de l'Empereur nos 39 and 40. Usually, three tents were pitched for the emperor, the officers of the guard and the Major-général (Berthier).
(6) Cf. Nicolas Gosse (1787-1878), Napoleon receiving the Austrian ambassador at Erfurt, 28 September, 1808, oil on canvas, 66 x 154 cm (1838), Musée national du château de Versailles; Méneval is shown behind Napoleon to the right; L'histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, Belfond, 1991, p. 201; Napoleon by his secretary and his valet, p. 261.
(7) The 1812 sword was made by François Regnaud Nitot (see Revue de gemmologie, décembre 1987, n° 93, p. 3).
(8) Cf. O. Aubry, «Napoléon pendant les Cent Jours», Historia n° 175, juin 1961, p. 801; O. Aubry, Vie privée de Napoléon, Tallandier, 1977, p. 467.
(9) Cf. Natalie Petiteau, Élites et mobilités: la noblesse d'Empire au XIXe siècle (1808-1914), La Boutique de l'Histoire éditions, 1997, p. 288.
(10) Other sources: Michaud, Biographie universelle, tome 27, p. 636; Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 1163 s.l. «Méneval» by J. Jourquin; Napoléon, Rencontre, 1969, tome 3; Alfred Fierro, Les Français vus par eux-mêmes, le Consulat et l'Empire, Laffont Bouquins, 1998, s.l. Méneval; Napoléon by his secretary and valet, by Proctor-Patterson Jones, Éditions Abbeville in Paris, 1993; Mairie de Gifsur-Yvette, brochure septembre 1998; La glorieuse épopée de Napoléon, Les hommes du pouvoir, éditions Atlas, septembre 2004, s.l. Méneval, p. 66.