A perfect reflection of the time in which he lived, Napoleon was “obsessed with history”(1). He would draw references, symbols and examples from it to justify his position and his politics and thus give his reign its place in the history of France, the Gauls right up to his immediate predecessors, including the Bourbons. Of all the references wielded by the French Emperor, Charlemagne is, if not one of the most important, then at least one of the most consistent (2).
In so doing, he resumed the ancient tradition – merely sidelined by the Revolution – of invoking Charlemagne (the son of Pepin the Short and Bertha of the Big Foot), a figure who, as Albert Sorel put it at the beginning of the last century, “hovers over the history of France from the time of Philippe-Auguste to Napoleon” (3). But unlike the Capetians, the first of the Bonapartes had little claim to such “ancestry”. However, using a legend built up over centuries but based on limited historical facts, Napoleon managed nevertheless to create, almost according to his own design, a sort of kinship between the French Empire and that of the Franks, founded on similarities and coincidences. “The Carolingian construct was useful,” says Jean Tulard, “the distance in time and the obscurity which surrounded it made it safe” (4). Napoleon “drew deeply” (5) on the legacy of a Charlemagne finally “erected as a figure of the Nation, as a metaphor for national identity” (6).
Charlemagne at the end of the 18th century – the man and the legend
Charlemagne had always been an important “enjeu or political football” in the history (7) of France and Europe, ever since his death in Aix-la-Chapelle on the 28th of January, 814. His memory, enhanced by legend, was invoked as much by the “Franks” from the Rhine to the Pyrenees as by the eastern States of his Empire. The latter later became “Germanic” after the accession of Otto the Great, crowned and anointed by John XII in 962, just as Charlemagne had been, in 800, by Leo III(8). Charlemagne is still today the archetypal historic European who could be claimed for one reason or another by most of the territories once under his dominion. Even the place of his birth, on one 2nd April probably in 742, has been the subject of fierce debate, and although impossible to resolve – through lack of evidence – for a long time the aim was to decide – even though the result was only interesting for touristic reasons – whether he was “French” or “German” (9).
All this notwithstanding, the person of Charlemagne was to remain one of the important reference points for French monarchy, especially after Louis VII began “rehabilitating” his memory. “The more or less legendary thread of Carolingian origins would be greatly developed at the end [of the 12th century] and eclipse the short-lived acclamation of the true ancestors of the dynasty”, notes François Menant (10). Even though the Capetians had come to power by keeping out the last Carolingian (11), they now placed themselves under the patronage of the competitor's linage in order to legitimate their power and show their Germanic rivals that they were just as imperial. Saint Charlemagne's Day (12) was celebrated and Charlemagne was re baptised “Emperor and King of France”, as in La recherche des droits du Roy (In search of the King rights) by Jacques de Cassan (1632), which was daring to say the least. We will see how Napoleon pursued similar objectives with similar methods, seven centuries later.
The French monarchy, whilst still revering Saint Louis, Philippe Auguste and Clovis (13), would never again forget its Carolingian references, symbolised by a coronation and anointment ceremony during which were shown regalia comprising a crown and sword said to have belonged to Charlemagne, and a statuette of the Emperor of the West mounted on the end of a royal sceptre dating from the reign of Charles V (14). For centuries the figure of Charlemagne was to remain very popular. Louis XIV, though preferring Philippe-Auguste, had Charlemagne painted next to Saint Louis on the ceiling of the chapel of the Chateau of Versailles, and Bossuet saw the Sun King as a “second Charlemagne” (15), indeed the king would invoke the emperor when justifying his firm attitude towards the Holy See or when he was candidate for the Holy Roman Empire.
However, as the figure and true personality of the Emperor of the West remained obscure, Charlemagne was also used by those who contested royal absolutism. From the beginning of the 18th century, Henri de Boulainvilliers claimed in his Histoire de l'ancien gouvernement de la France (1727) that Charlemagne had introduced power-sharing amongst the “Frank assemblies”. It is hardly surprising then that when the Parlements wanted to call into question the prerogatives of Louis XV, they based themselves on the Lettres historiques sur les fonctions essentielles du parlement, etc., by the lawyer, Le Paige, published between 1753 and 1754, in which he refers both to the Frankish origins of the French monarchy and to Charlemagne in order to reinforce the influence of the courts (16). During the same period, Mably, in his Observations sur l'histoire de France (1765), saw in Charlemagne a sort of champion of French reconstruction based on a “return” to democracy. Dare we say, they made “whatever hat they pleased” fit the emperor: he was simultaneously a warrior, the founder of the monarchy, a wise and even “bourgeois” king, and what is more a defender of the rights of “peers” and of the people (17).
The legend, woven and ceaselessly reworked over the centuries, thus made the Emperor of the West into one of the most important historical characters of the Ancien Régime. Nor was the image of Charlemagne shelved after 1789. At the Etats Généraux, he was evoked yet again to justify the establishment of counterweight political powers, just as Barnace, at the Assembly of Vizille, evoked “the primitive constitution which had bloomed under Charles the Great (Charlemagne)”. Were not the grand, solemn ceremonies of the Revolution, held on the Champ de Mars, simply a modern version of what were known as the “Champ de Mai” assemblies, used by the emperor to reaffirm his legitimacy and to renew his vow of unity with his peers and his people? Did not the Deputy Villette, during the Fête de la Fédération, suggest that Louis XVI be proclaimed Emperor of the French by the nation, just as Charlemagne had been – so he claimed – a thousand years earlier (18)?
Anything was possible with a personality such as Charlemagne because, basically, only very little was known about him at the time. The main sources of information had of course been identified (19) but neither critical study nor archaeology had changed the way in which they were used. Carolingian studies had been corrupted by literary works which had grafted varied and ever-changing legends onto the historical documents.
Of course the First Republic relegated the character of Charlemagne to the sidelines – but it did not forget him completely. He still symbolised the “wise sovereign”, surrounding himself with councils, but the fact of his being related to the Capetians condemned him, if not to total oblivion, at least to new twists of historical truth. Rather than returning to the 9th century, preference was given to the figure of Roland, a fiery character who fought “for the patrie”. Hence after composing the Marseillaise, Rouget de Lisle wrote a Roland à Roncevaux – which did not meet with the same success. From then on, the Emperor of the West was confined to rare appearances on the stage of theatre and opera. The Terreur tried, without success, bury him once and for all. On coming to power, Saint-Just republished his Organt, written in 1789, in which Charlemagne was presented as a decadent emperor having lost his “old prudence” and become “brutal and mad” (20). A sign of this volte-face was the way in which the sarcophagus, reliquaries and various other objects confiscated from Aix-la-Chapelle by General Jourdan's troops in 1794 were sent to Paris not as pieces of historical evidence but as works of art. One of these works, the statue of Charlemagne, was then offered to the Convention and exhibited in the courtyard of the Tuileries for a few weeks before being relegated to the cellars of the Bibliothèque Nationale. There it remained, forgotten, for about ten years (21).
The return of Charlemagne
During the Directory, the collective memory of Charlemagne was refreshed when Madam de Genlis published the three volumes of her “historical and moral tale”, the Chevaliers du Cygne ou la cour de Charlemagne, in which she called for a “new Charlemagne” to put an end to the Revolution. It was therefore logical that the old emperor should be enlisted in the service of propaganda for the new regime and its leader. In fact, this was so much the case that he became “an omnipresent reference in his [Napoleon's] discourse” (22).
It was David who blazed the trail, with the Consul's agreement, in his painting, Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand-Saint-Bernard (The First Consul crossing the Alps at the Great Saint Bernard Pass), of 1801. Here, mounted on a proud, rearing steed, Napoleon points at the Alpine pass to which he is heading, and etched in stone below the horse's feet stand the names of Bonaparte, Hannibal and Charlemagne (Karolus Magnus) (23). The painting made such an impression that it later served the eloquent speaker, Siméon, in his speech in favour of proclaiming the Empire: “We proclaim the warrior who triumphed over the inaccessible Alps, as Hannibal and Charlemagne did.” (24).
Two years later, and again for political reasons, the subject of Charlemagne was raised once more, this time in government, when Bonaparte ordered that the statue stored at the Bibliothèque Nationale be placed at the summit of a “Trajan-like” column in the centre of Place Vendôme. Such a long time was spent on the design of this work – which was also supposed to represent the 108 departments of France – that after the proclamation of Empire, the Institut National suggested replacing Charlemagne with Napoleon himself. Napoleon allowed himself to be persuaded (25). In 1810, a statue of the Emperor of the French in ancient-style dress was placed at the top of the column. Robert Morissey has remarked that, “The fact that this statue turned into that of Napoleon only serves to confirm the idea that Bonaparte had of himself in relation to this ‘grandfather' with whom he identified.” (26) We will come back to this.
For before Napoleon could emerge from behind Charlemagne, further propaganda efforts were required. One painting and one statue are not sufficient to influence public opinion, even though that opinion might have accepted the comparison. Firstly, Charlemagne started to be honoured again in public education where legend had it that he was a sort of inventor. On 27th September, 1803, a Parisian high school, situated in the old Jesuit school in the Rue Saint-Antoine, was founded and named after him (27). As to the history to be taught in the new schools (paradoxically, Napoleon did not desire such teaching to be developed), it would soon stop, in accordance with the school books, in 1804, the year in which the Napoleonic Empire was founded and the “fourth dynasty” began (28).
Political literature took up the Carolingian theme, not on Bonaparte's orders but because Madame de Genlis's idea had caught on: the era was searching for a “new Charlemagne”. The First Consul might not have liked the Parallèle entre César, Cromwell, Monck et Bonaparte, (Parallel between Caesar, Cromwell, Monck and Bonaparte) published under the aegis of his brother Lucien, but he did not react negatively to later publications: three years later, the Parallèle de Bonaparte avec Charlemagne was published by Jean Chas – for Chas, Napoleon, with his gift for civil matters and reformation, was Charlemagne (29); the study Le pouvoir législatif sous Charlemagne (Legislative power under Charlemagne), by Bonnaire de Pronville, was also greeted with favour (30). Bonaparte began to be considered as an acceptable “new Charlemagne”.
People spoke of nothing else in the salon of Elisa Bacciochi, née Bonaparte, particularly Fontanes who, for a long time, had considered himself leader of all those who wished to resuscitate Carolingian heritage. Already, in 1797, when writing to Napoleon, he had compared him to Charlemagne, congratulating him on his work in favour of the arts. Bonaparte “loved the arts”, he wrote, just like the Emperor of the West (31). During the Consulate, having read Lucien Bonaparte's Parallèle, Fontanes supported the argument, even revealing himself quite fully in the months preceding the proclamation of the Empire. Hence, on 10th January, 1804, when talking about the Civil Code, he declared to the Legislative Body, “[Charlemagne], just like he who governs us, wrote in the tumult of military camp the laws which were to keep families in peace, and he meditated on new victories when opening the peaceful assemblies of the Champ de Mars.”. He concluded by congratulating the Head of State on his success with a piece of legislation “conceived in vain by Charlemagne” (32).
And so the Carolingian idea grew, and not only in the arts, in books and in salon conversation. Bourrienne tells us in his Mémoires that it was at the beginning of 1802 that Charlemagne was finally chosen as patron, when the First Consul was elected president of the Republic of Italy, “He saw in [this] title an important step towards the Lombard realm, as similarly, a little later, he saw in his life-Consulship a decisive step towards the Frankish crown” (33). During the same period, the Russian Ambassador, Markov, wrote to his government saying that in his opinion Bonaparte would soon take the title of “Emperor of the Gauls” (34), whilst the Prussian, Lucchesini, sent word to Berlin that the Consul wanted to “be a second Charlemagne” but “enlightened by the geniuses of our century”, adding, “No-one doubt he has a plan, it is just the timing that has yet to be decided.” (35).
The Carolingian reference would come into its own during the debates held around the proclamation of the Empire.
Historical Carolingian routes for the Napoleonic Empire
Napoleon always took care to base his legitimacy on accepted principles or at least acceptable to the prevailing opinion. He used a great number of these principles, but combining them without really bringing them together: material legitimacy (he was the best person to govern France), legal legitimacy (he was in power in accordance with the constitution), Republican and Revolutionary legitimacy (he remained the Head of State of a republic), popular and representative legitimacy (as it were, “the people's elect” via the plebiscite, of which he was the sole representative), monarchical legitimacy (his crowning and anointing ceremony meant he could enjoy the same respect as the ancient monarchs) (36). In the same vein, in a society where history was the foundation of all thought and even action, the Empire could not be devoid of historical roots. These roots were then created, most notably making use of Charlemagne.
Naturally, when one thinks of Napoleon's historical references, the first that comes to mind is Rome. It is true that the Emperor of the French relied a great deal on the prevailing Roman fashion. “[He] would not have been a man of his time had he not shared that time's curiosity regarding Ancient Rome.”, as Roger Dufraisse has rightly pointed out (37). Prefects, cohorts, consuls, codes, official neo-classicism, etc. all bear witness to this appeal to Roman antiquity (38). In a conversation in circa 1810, Napoleon himself declared, “I am a Roman Emperor. I come from the best line of Caesars, the Caesars who build. You who know history so well, are you not struck by the likenesses of my government to that of Diocletian, by this close-knit network that I have spread so far, by these Emperor's eyes which can see everywhere, and by this civil authority which I have known how to maintain in an Empire of war.”(39)
However, to Napoleon's mind and that of his entourage, it was not contradictory to make use of Charlemagne in a society dominated by a fashion for Roman antiquity. In fact, Pepin's son was considered – and he had always considered himself – a Roman emperor, restoring the Empire through his conquests and his government. Is it not true that Charlemagne's seal bore on its reverse side the gates of Rome with the inscription Renovatio Romani Imperii (40)? “The two men who made the greatest mark on the political history of the Middle Ages, Clovis at the end of the 5th century and Charlemagne at the end of the 8th, presented themselves as inheritors of Roman civilisation”, wrote Claude Gauvard. “Both take the name “auguste” in their titles […]. Their government is based on the Roman tradition.” (41). One could argue that just as Rome was only one aspect in the Carolingian model, the Carolingian reference was just one aspect of the historical inheritance claimed by Napoleon.
The veil however was lifted at the Tribunat at the vote on Curée's motion for the transformation of the consular republic into a hereditary empire. Curée himself cited Charlemagne during his explanatory speech, “Charlemagne governed France as a man superior to most others of his time: amidst universal ignorance, he showed a universal genius; he was a shrewd legislator, a great man of State and an untiring conqueror, all in equal measure. Shortly after this glorious period, one of the most powerful families of the feudal regime was called upon to reign [author's note: the Capetians]: this odious system brought with it abuses throughout the whole of France, banished all national freedom, and seemed to have destroyed for ever, almost uprooting, the liberal ideas that history still admires in the Charlemagne institutions.” (42) Thus, in Curée's opinion, all Napoleon was doing was giving the country back the “beneficial” regime of the old emperor of the West.
Curée's historical audacity had its effect – proof that people's minds had been well prepared. During the same debate, the tribune, Carrion-Nisas, even went so far as to place the new emperor above his predecessor, “He is compared to Charlemagne and I am amazed that people continue to tout this constantly used comparison. God forbid that I should disparage a great conqueror and a great legislator! But Charlemagne owed half his strength and grandeur to the sword of Charles Martel and those of the Pepins. [Bonaparte] owes it only to himself” (43). The tribune, Arnould, went a step further, “Charlemagne forgot to reinforce public authority by giving it a solid base. He should have established the order of succession to the throne through a basic law, making sovereign authority inviolable, and forbidding forever the splitting of the monarchy!” (44). Thanks to the new constitution, Napoleon could surpass his model. The tribune, Gillet, concluded, “If it is true that [Bonaparte], like Charlemagne, is the conqueror of the Germans, the protector of Italy, the legislator of France, the pride of warriors, the emulator of the wise men, the restorer of public authority […], he has done nothing but recreate, in himself, all the titles which the nation has sanctioned in the regenerators of its dynasties.” (45)
Once the Empire had been proclaimed, the Carolingian vogue was again to put to use, but this time as a repository for Napoleonic symbolism. Napoleon preferred the “Aigle éployée” (the spread eagle) to the “reposing lion” chosen by the Council of State. Of course, the noble bird of prey was first and foremost the emblem of Rome but the emperor of the West had used it, too, in his role as “reformer of the Roman empire”. The latter's arms bore a gold eagle on an azure background, and this symbol had been placed on the top of the Aix-le-Chapelle palace, facing Germania (46).
Napoleon visits Charlemagne
On becoming emperor on 18th May, 1804, Napoleon thought it time to visit his “predecessor”. This pilgrimage had become virtually a tradition with the kings of France, then the Germanic emperors. So he went to Aix-la-Chapelle to temper his historical legitimacy with the memory of Charlemagne – as Thiers put it, the old emperor had been “awakened by Napoleon with ill-disguised intent” (47). The town had received special treatment from the regime over a period of several years. First, it was elevated to the status of prefecture of the Rhineland department of the Roer. In April 1802, it was made into a cathedral town but without the Pope's consent – indeed it was three years before the pontiff would recognise the nomination of Bishop Berdolet (48). Jeanbon Saint-André, prefect of Mont-Tonnerre, Mainz, was given the job of building a road (quite naturally called the “route de Charlemagne” (Charlemagne Road)) along the left bank of the Rhine. The great relics, known as the relics of the Lord, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, confiscated by the Revolutionaries in 1794, had been returned to the people of Aix, and authorisation had been received to begin again the practice of exhibiting them every seven years (49). So Charlemagne was also being used to help integrate the Rhineland territories into the Empire.
The time came for the emperor's official tour to the Boulogne camp and the departments of the left bank of the Rhine. The tour began on 18th July and was supposed to end on 12th October (50). Twelve days were programmed for Aix-le-Chapelle. The Empress Josephine had gone directly there to take the waters and to await her husband's arrival (51). She was given a magnificent welcome, visited the Palatine palace and chapel, and presided over two great festivals, the first, on 12th August, in honour of Charlemagne, the second on 15th for her husband's thirty-fifth birthday. Berdolet presented her with a small Byzantine icon said to have been painted by Saint Luke, and which had been found in the emperor of the West's tomb when it was opened in 962. He also presented her with Charlemagne's talisman in which the hair from the Virgin Mary had been replaced with a fragment of the True Cross (52). However, she refused the gift of a splinter of bone from Charlemagne's right arm, sweetly informing the bishop that she already had “the support of an arm just as strong as Charlemagne's.” (53).
On 2nd October, 1804, Napoleon arrived in Aix-le-Chapelle. In addition to two reviews and the inevitable manufactory visits, he heard a Te Deum in the cathedral before spending some moments in silence, visibly moved, before Charlemagne's ancient tomb (which had been empty since 1165) and reliquaries containing some of his bones. He refused, though, to sit on his marble throne. “Of all the fetes and ceremonies held for the Emperor in Aix-la-Chapelle,” Miss D'Avrillion wrote, “there was one which was really exceptional for the grandeur of the memories it evoked. There was a superb procession in which were solemnly carried the insignia used at the crowning and anointing of Charlemagne and also […] relics such as his skull and the bone of one of his arms; we saw his crown, his sword, his sceptre, his hand of justice, his imperial globe and his gold spurs: all objects that were greatly venerated by the inhabitants of Aix-la-Chapelle and which had only been exhibited so as to celebrate of the presence of the Emperor. As for Napoleon, he took every care to express to the inhabitants how pleased he had been by their attentiveness (54).
More important than these symbols was the arrival of Cobenzl in Aix-la-Chapelle – where thirty-six German emperors had been crowned between 813 and 1531 – in order to inform Napoleon that Franz von Hapsburg, German emperor and king of the Romans, had recognised the French Empire. Indeed, the Austrian sensed that the Holy Roman Empire was slipping from his grasp, so he himself ordered that he be proclaimed emperor of Austria under the name of Francis II. Nor was the Habsburg emperor wrong to be worried: at the end of Napoleon's stay, a delegation of Rhine princes came to congratulate the emperor, describing him as “first of our Roman Caesars to have crossed the Rhine to drive out the barbarians.” (55)
The Carolingian references used at Napoleon’s coronation and consacration
The poetry competition organised for the occasion of the coronation attracted several pieces comparing Napoleon to Charlemagne, one of which stood out, Charlemagne montant sur le trône de France (56). As though acknowledging how right the poet was, the ceremony of 2nd December, 1804 was not short of Carolingian symbols, just like the coronations of previous kings of France. There were similarities but also great differences between the ceremonies of 800 and 1804.
First and foremost, even if a Pope was present at the crowning of both emperors, Pius VII did not play the same role as Leo III (57): it was Pius VII who had to travel from Rome to Paris whereas Charlemagne went to Rome. In the times before developments in transport helped them make far more frequent “pastoral” journeys, Popes hardly ever travelled, and they certainly did not go to crown sovereigns in other countries, not even those styled “Very Christian” like the kings of France. Until Napoleon, only Pépin le Bref (754) and Louis le Pieux (816) had been crowned by the Holy Father in their own kingdoms. It was Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's uncle and ambassador to the Holy See, who had negotiated this favour in exchange for which Pius VII hoped for a redraft of the Concordat. The Holy See's representative in Paris, Cardinal Caprara, also intervened to try to convince the Curia of the importance of making the journey. In an attempt to flatter Napoleon, he suggested that the ceremony could take place on 25th December, “the very day Charlemagne received the imperial crown, […] the day of the Nativity of Our Lord”, an idea to which Pius VII agreed (58). The French side preferred 18 brumaire (9th November), the fourth anniversary of the coup d'etat. However, whilst the papal cortege took its time on the journey it did not manage to get the solemnity at Notre-Dame postponed to later than Sunday, 2nd December. This date had no significance but circumstances would make it a “Napoleonic date” par excellence.
The second important difference was that Pius VII did not crown the emperor of the French. In Napoleon's opinion, the Senate's vote and the plebiscite's unction legitimated his accession far more than any pontifical, or even divine, intervention. Pius VII's role was therefore reduced to a secondary one: the emperor accepted the unction but put the crown on his head himself (59). Totally unlike the ceremony of 25th December, 800, when Charlemagne was crowned almost by surprise, and reluctantly, by a pope who mainly wanted the former's protection against the rebelling Roman aristocracy (60). In 1804, all possible discord was avoided by having a completely new ceremony. It had a little of the Rheims coronation in it, a little of the Roman pontifical ritual and some new features (61).
This “cocktail”, which resulted in a “unique coronation” (Hicks), only allowed the slightest glimpse of tradition and just a few Carolingian images. And so it was that the façade of Notre-Dame was endowed with a temporary portico by the architects Percier and Fontaine, itself decorated with the statues of Clovis and Charlemagne (62); the wall coverings in the cathedral bore the allegorical portraits of the two sovereigns. The Marshals could therefore be compared to the emperor of the West's peers: during the ceremony itself, there were twelve dignitaries, like the twelve apostles, and when leaving, they closely surrounded Napoleon like the supposed twelve peers of Charlemagne (63).
Charlemagne was furthermore present in his “honneurs”, namely, the crown, the hand of justice, the sceptre and the sword, said to have been Charlemagne's, all carried by the above-mentioned dignitaries. None of these objects were actually Carolingian: the crown and hand of justice were new, the sceptre – even though mounted with a statuette of Charlemagne – came from Charles V (14th century), and the sword from Philippe III le Hardi (13th century). The “honneurs of Charlemagne” were not used but were a sort of silent witness to the coronation. The objects that were actually used, the so called “honneurs of the French Empire”, had been especially created for the occasion by the best goldsmiths of the time.
On 26th May, 1805, six months after his coronation in Notre Dame, Napoleon was crowned King of Italy, in Milan. The similarities between Charlemagne, king of the Lombards and emperor, were so obvious that the president of the electoral college of Tortona gave the following speech addressed to the imperial palace, itself scrupulously reproduced in the Moniteur: “You have regenerated the Empire of the Franks and this throne of Charlemagne's which has been buried under ten centuries of ruins.” (64). Napoleon had come to Milan to complete his Carolingian operation although, at first, he did not wish to become king of Italy, preferring to offer that throne to his brother, Joseph. However, since the oldest of the Bonapartes had blotted his copybook, the emperor took to the peninsular road himself (65). This time, the Holy Father– disappointed at his fruitless stay in Paris – was not present and it was Caprara who officiated. During the ceremony, the “honneurs” of Charlemagne and the French Empire brought from Paris were born into the cathedral with the emperor. “Honneurs of Italy” had also been made but it was the iron crown of the Lombard kings which was actually used. Here, again, it mattered little that the band made of gold plaques and held together by a ring of silver was not the one used by the old emperor (66). The symbol was enough (67): Napoleon re-established “French” domination over northern Italy which the Carolingians had lost in the 10th century. The coronation in Milan reaffirmed the rights of the western Franks against the “Germanisation” of the Holy Empire, as though Charlemagne himself was taking part in the contemporary Franco-Austrian rivalry (68). But this political message was only relayed symbolically: as in Notre Dame, the so-called “honneurs of Charlemagne” were not used and the iron crown was only delicately and furtively rested on the head of the “Emperor and King”.
Charlemagne, an accessory for propaganda and flattery
Once the coronation was over, the regime did not abandon the Carolingian references. It is true that with each Napoleonic success and the creation of a new “system”, the need for the old emperor grew less. Indeed, in its first years, the French Empire provided just as many similarities with that of Charlemagne, in terms of “extent, limits, border regions or marches, the disparate elements, the strange chaos of nations and tribes, the supreme suzerainty of its Emperor, and the distribution of territories amongst a hierarchy of vassals.” (69). Post 1810, after a vigorous re-establishment of his power, Napoleon (as we have seen) declared that he was descended from the race of Roman emperors, giving Diocletian as an example. However, as we know, in history, comparison is sometimes no more than a purely intellectual exercise. Charlemagne was a Napoleonic reference, not a model to be reproduced, word for word.
Charlemagne did, however, remain an important element of the courtier's repertoire (70), in official orders and even, sometimes, in administrative prose. He was wheeled out as used as a sort of obligatory, symbolic step marking the continuity in the history of France: the emperor Napoleon remained the legitimate “successor” to Clovis, Charlemagne and Saint Louis but his work no longer needed their patronage to be justified.
There is only space here to give a few examples of the wide range of creations featuring the son of Pepin but this brief list shows that, contrary to public opinion, the Carolingian vogue did not die out quickly after the coronation. All the art forms were well represented. To celebrate the victory at Austerlitz (1805), Dominique Vivant Denon thought that the only possible design for the commemorative medals was “Charlemagne's sceptre, with a thunderbolt”. He also produced an elegant coin combining the profiles of Napoleon and his “predecessor”, representing the continuity of the dynasties in the history of France whilst at the same time celebrating the creation of the Rhine Confederation. Following the same lines, Gros put Clovis, Charlemagne, Saint Louis and Napoleon side by side (71) in his project for the fresco decoration of the ceiling of the church of Sainte-Geneviève (which had been reconsecrated). As for paintings, the first large canvas with a Carolingian theme was the superb Napoléon sur le trône impérial, by Ingres who had been inspired by engravings of Charlemagne, and had applied his own special style to this model. The work received such criticism (the Journal de l'Empire said “the Emperor looks like an Italian Madonna”) that it was removed from the salon. In deep humiliation, the painter went to live in Rome for fifteen years (72). Amongst the large number of pictorial vocations commissioned, Roehn painted the Empereur Charlemagne environné de ses barons entrant dans la cathédrale de Worms (Emperor Charlemagne surrounded by his barons entering Worms cathedral) for the imperial palaces (1811), and Meynier painted a Dédicace de l'église Saint-Denis par Charlemagne (Consecration of the church of Saint Denis by Charlemagne) (1813) for the basilica which, in 1806, had become the imperial necropolis. Also in 1813, the grand maréchal of the Palace, Duroc, asked Denon to calculate the of the creation of two full-length marble statues, one of Charlemagne, the other of Napoleon. The director of Museums asked 30,000 Francs for the two sculptures destined for one of the imperial palaces.
Writing also continued to play its role, of course, but nowhere quite as systematically as in Les quatre fondateurs des dynasties françaises, by Louis Dubroca, who wrote, “If ever the history of this great monarch [Charlemagne] ought to be of keen interest to the French, it is now, when everything that Charlemagne gained in power and grandeur for France has been given back to her by a prince who rivals him in glory Never have such amazing similarities united two centuries and two sovereigns which are so far apart; never have two epochs resembled each other [as much] through such memorable events and in such glorious circumstances. The creation and then rebirth of the French Empire are two remarkable periods in history, before which the centuries which separate them kneel.” (73). The Bonapartes as a result followed perfectly in the succession of dynasties (74), and Napoleon's “resemblance” to Charlemagne made him Charlemagne's “legitimate” successor, a thousand years later. The young Empire rooted itself in history. It was, in fact, a renaissance of what Charlemagne had created.
Many historical studies continued to be published: Les trois hommes illustres, ou dissertations sur les institutions politiques de César-Auguste, de Charlemagne et de Napoléon Bonaparte, (The three illustrious men, or dissertations on the political institutions of Caesar-Augustus, Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte), by Barret (1804); Politique d'Auguste et de Charlemagne, précédée du tableau des principes qui constituent le système nécessaire des grands rois, (The Policy of Augustus and Charlemagne, preceded by the table of principles which constituted the system required by the great kings), by Gallet (1810); Eloge de Charlemagne, empereur d'Occident, (Eulogy for Charlemagne, Emperor of the West), by Jumel (1810). Then there were the biographies of Charlemagne, like those of Hegewisch (translated from the German in 1805), Rougeron (1807), and Dippoldt (translated from the German in 1810). An opera about the Emperor of the West was staged in 1808, and another refused the following year, not because there was no interest but because it was too soon after the first one (75). As for theatre, its stages were often graced by Charlemagne in plays such as La cantate Thrasybule, a light comedy, staged at the Théâtre Olympique in the presence of the Emperor and Empress, on 31st December, 1804 (76). The poets were not to be outdone: Charles Victor Prévôt d'Arlincourt gave us, Une matinée de Charlemagne, fragments tirés d'un poème épique qui ne tardera pas à paraître, (A morning in the life of Charlemagne, fragments from an epic poem soon to be published), Chaigneau l'aîné, 1810 (77); Jean Baptiste Benoît Barjaud wrote, Odes nationales, suivies d'un fragment d'un poème de vingt chants intitulé : Charlemagne, (National odes followed by a poem of twenty cantos entitled, Charlemagne) Blanchard, 1811; and even Pierre Crouzet put into verse an Entretien de Charlemagne et du sénateur Tronchet dans l'Elysée, sur l'état actuel de la France et sur le rétablissement de l'Université (Conversation of Charlemagne and Senator Tronchet in Elyseum regarding the current state of France and the re-establishment of the University) (78); whilst a certain Widemann wrote of Charlemagne au palais des Tuileries dans la nuit du 20 mars 1811, (Charlemagne at the Tuileries Palace during the night of 20th March, 1811), leaning over the cradle of the King of Rome” (79).
The administration could not ignore such a general trend. Hence, the Council of State decorated many of their documents with reminiscences of the Emperor of the West, using them like stylistic accessories. Some examples are given here. When new boundaries had to be set for the Drôme and Ardèche departments, in February 1809, the rapporteur, Ségur, slipped a short sentence into his text, criticising “the dismembering of the French Empire (sic) which occurred under the weak successors of Charlemagne” (80). At another moment, the Counsellor Merlin rejoiced in the annexation of the Netherlands to the Grand Empire “of which it was a part under Charlemagne” (81). In Counsellor de Gérando's “observations regarding the modifications to be made to the metric system”, he thought it best to note that the ‘toise' (former French unit of measurement equal to 1.949m) had been set “at the highest human stature and may even have been established, as we are led to believe, by Charlemagne, using his own height which was very tall” (82). The same sort of thinking applied to other subjects, from the face value of coins relative to their weight in precious metal (83) to studies far removed from the subject of Charlemagne.
Charlemagne to the "Rescue" of imperial policy
It is surprising to note that Charlemagne was not confined to opportunist and courtier folklore. The example and history of the old emperor were still a strong argument in several domains of imperial policy. Unfortunately, only a few examples can be related here.
Let us start with a report written in April 1806 by the Archbishop of Ratisbonne, Dalberg, inviting Napoleon to repossess the Empire of the West, “May [Francis II of Austria] be Emperor of the East so as to stand up to the Russians and may the Empire of the West be reborn under the Emperor Napoleon and may it be in the form it held under Charlemagne, including Italy, France and Germany” (84). And in fact, after having created the Confederation of the Rhine and beaten Austria for a second time through the Wagram campaign, Napoleon did think about taking the title of Emperor of the West. The only thing that stopped him was that he did not want to relinquish the title of Emperor of the French – something that would have shocked public opinion (85). Later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Champagny, was to say to the Ambassador to the Tsar, after the annexation of Oldenburg, that Charlemagne's successor “now had the right to kingship over all the Germanic territories and to divide them up as he thought fit.” (86). Even the supporters of the war in Spain – which they saw as an opportunity of moving the Pyrenees frontier up to the River Ebro – hoped to “bring back the great age of Charlemagne who, having created one frontier kingdom stretching to the River Po and another up to the River Elbe, had also created a third up to the River Ebro (87). The creation of the Catalan departments, in 1812, could have been justified as a sort of inheritance from the “first” Emperor of the West.
In dynastic matters, too, Charlemagne's name was always being invoked, and especially from 1809 onwards. Once Napoleon's divorce had been decided, the senatorial commission appointed to study the repudiation of Josephine pointed out (in favour of their argument) that four of “the most admired and cherished” French sovereigns had been divorced before Napoleon. Charlemagne was one of those sovereigns (88). Charlemagne was called upon again, in support of the fourth dynasty, when the regency was being established and the coronation of the King of Rome was being planned. This time, the Council of State was searching “the various periods in history” for useful comparisons and came up with the fact that Charlemagne had crowned his own sons, Louis and Pepin, in 781 even before becoming Emperor himself (89). A senatus-consultus was promptly voted on 5th February, 1813 (90) decreeing that Marie-Louise hold the regency in the name of her son and that the latter would be crowned. The ceremony was officially set for 7th March, 1813 then repeatedly postponed to 15th, then 20th and then 23rd, but fear that it could seem inappropriate in a time of economic crisis and war meant it never actually took place. The great assembly of the “Champ de Mai” finally took place during the Hundred Days, on 1st June, 1815, under the auspices of Charlemagne. From an ideological point of view, the Napoleonic Empire's references to Charlemagne finally came to an end in confusion, just like the Hundred Days. The “Champ de Mai” had been deemed by some to be “imperial charlatanism” or “ridiculous parody” (91), more a reminder of the “liberal” Charlemagne invented at the end of the Ancien Régime or during the Revolution. But by this time, Napoleon had given up on his European system and aspired to live as a simple king within the natural borders of France. He had given up on the idea of the Empire of the West.
One could object, quite reasonably, that Carolingian reference was an intellectual construct aimed at giving some coherence to foreign policy or at justifying it after the event. There was however one situation where Napoleon went a step further, namely: during his conflict with the Holy See. One thousand years later, Charlemagne was almost to become an actor in the crisis.
“Tell them that I have my eyes open; that I'm only as deceived as I want to be; that I am Charlemagne, the sword of the Church, their Emperor; and that I should be treated as such.”, wrote Napoleon to Cardinal Fesch in February 1806 (92), on the subject of the Curia. The Emperor of the French considered himself the suzerain of Rome who therefore had the right to have the papal fiefs at his disposal. He was soon to warn Pius VII, “Your Holiness is sovereign in Rome but I am its Emperor.” (93)
It was the history of the Early Middle Ages that Napoleon used when refusing the Pope any temporal power and also later when justifying the annexation of the Papal States. In simple terms (I am not going to make a detailed reconstruction of their history here), the origins of the Papal States date back to the 8th century when the largest contribution of land was made up of the donations from Pepin le Bref (754) and Charlemagne (774 and 781) (94). And it upon these obscure historical facts that Napoleon – acting as successor to the principal donor and evading discussion of any later developments (as though nothing had happened in the intervening thousand years) – always based his argument when attempting to put pressure on Pius VII and his cardinals. Before the final crisis occurred, and while the Holy See was almost openly threatening to excommunicate the Emperor, Champagny advised the Pope (in terms the Emperor himself had dictated) that if he decided to publish a bull against Napoleon, the latter would “annul the donation from Charlemagne and reunite the Papal States with the kingdom of Italy.” (95). There was no waiting for the bull before making a move: the French army occupied Rome, and Pius VII continued refusing to invest bishops who had been nominated by the Head of State. To try to make the Pope change his mind, Napoleon chose a more ‘hands on' approach. The account given of the motives for the decree of 17th May, 1809 which pronounced the annexation of the Roman States, explained that “the donation by Charlemagne, our illustrious predecessor, of the lands including the Pope's State was given for the profit of Christianity and not to the advantage of the enemies of our holy religion.” (96). The preamble to the decree was even more explicit, “Considering that when Charlemagne, Emperor of the French and our august predecessor, made the donation of several counties to the bishops of Rome, he intended them only as fiefs and for the good of his States, and that through this donation, Rome did not cease to be a part of his empire: that since that time, this mixture of spiritual power and temporal authority has been, and still is, a source of discussion which has too often led to pontiffs using the influence of one to support the claims of another, etc.” (97). It was with the aim, he was later to say, of not repeating Charlemagne's mistake of allowing the Pope to live too far away from him that Napoleon intended to move the Holy See to Paris (98). The project for this was well under way but was never realised.
Thus, the Carolingian reference accompanied Napoleon throughout the whole length of his imperial career, and not just during the period around his coronation. Napoleon's education and his love of history, and also the French millennial historical and symbolic tradition made it so. The quest for legitimacy at the time of the proclamation of the Empire justified it. Not the least surprising is that Charlemagne was invoked before 1804 and, above all, that he continued to be invoked. It is of course true that the Napoleonic Empire was not an attempt to “replay” the Empire of the West, and there was no desire for imitation on the part of the Emperor of the French, who considered himself just as much a founder as his “illustrious predecessor”. But the constant invocation of Charlemagne finally reached such an intensity in certain domains that it can be said to have played a fundamental role in formation of Napoleon's actions at home and in Europe.
Trans.: E. Da Prati