Napoleon’s Consecration and Coronation

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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The return of religion

On 18 May, 1804, after much political horse trading, the French Senate proclaimed Bonaparte Emperor Napoleon I. They then sent a group of senators from central Paris to the consul's palace in the nearby countryside, Saint Cloud, to present the First Consul with the news of his elevation. Not content with this secular appointment, Napoleon was also to feel the need for divine approbation via a religious consecration, seven months later.

What could possibly have driven the Republican consul to such a dramatic step, so redolent of the ancien régime? How had France changed in the previous ten years from Terreur to Empire by the grace of God (and the constitution…)? To begin to understand the gesture we have to look in detail at the way Napoleon refashioned France during the Consulate and then to the character of Napoleon himself and his view of the history of the world.
Arguably the most important act of the very early Consulate (in other words that which had the most impact on all French peoples' lives) was the return of state religion to France. The Revolution had first tried to organise the church in France; it subsequently changed its collective mind and banished it. After the death of Robespierre, the fall of Committee of Public Safety, and the arrival of the more stable government of the Directory, a new Revolutionary religion was proposed, Theophilanthropism. Napoleon on his accession to power as First Consul, after the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire, made the restoration in France of the religion of pre-Revolutionary days a priority. The reasons for this are complex and superimposed. Firstly, Napoleon saw religion as a force for social order. Rousseau (one of Napoleon's political first-loves) in his work On the Social Contract and also in Emile had defined priests as a sort of celestial force for order (a key word in Napoleon's Consular manifesto). He also had a strongly utilitarian vision of religion. To the political commentator Pierre-Louis Roederer in the early Consulate he noted: “There is nothing to fear from the clergy… Voltaire was only vehemently against religion because it resisted change, holding onto abuses of power. I'm a philosopher. I would have done in Egypt, for the Muslim religion, what I have just done in France for the Catholic religion [sic]. It's not that I am indifferent to all religion, it is just that I respect the will of the people and their consciences.” (1) In other words, religion was not as bad as Voltaire had painted it. Religion corresponded to his idea of giving the people what he perceived they desired. But the concordat, signed with the Pope in July 1801 (a mere year and a half into the Consulate), was not merely a feel-good victory. It was also a Realpolitical victory, since, as Napoleon the emperor was later to note (1806): “Catholic priests are a great help; they were the reason why conscription this year worked much better than in previous years… No other state body speaks as well as they do regarding the government.” (2)

Man of peace, man of providence

However, Napoleon's empire was not just about religion. Peace at home was equally important, and religious re-establishment was only half the battle. As First Consul, Napoleon inherited a France not only engaged in a civil war in the west (Brittany and the Vendée) but subjected to rampant unrest and insurgence in the south and south west (Provence, Pays de l'Aude, etc). The firm imposition of law and order via flying columns and summary justice in the south brought with it political rewards and internal stability as prefects oversaw the imposition of civil society in the wild outlands of France. And the pacification of the Vendée, whose fanatically religious insurgents were to a certain extent wrongfooted by the Concordat, brought Napoleon popularity both in the provinces and in Paris. The First Consul portrayed himself, and was accepted by the middle classes, as the man of providence. Add to this military and police success the creation of a single central bank and, along with that, financial stability and organisation of a general peace in 1802 when Britain finally accepted that a pause in the fighting would be good for the world. The cherry on the cake was the overhaul of civilian legislation and the promulgation of the civil code of laws bringing the same law for all across France and casting in stone the concept of private property and doing away with feudal injustices, amongst many other modernisations. Even as early as 1802 when the bodies of government were considering whether to grant Napoleon a ten-year consulship, and then later a life consulship, the question at the back of everyone's minds was: “what would we do if the ‘man of providence' dies?” And this was to be coupled with Napoleon's own supreme self confidence and opinion that he was the only man who could keep France on the right track and most importantly of all, prevent a return to the bad old days of factional politics during the Revolution and worse still, the non-liberty of the ancien régime.

The legitimacy and continuation of the regime

At the beginning of the Consulate, the First Consul's life seemed forever under threat. In the first year alone, there were two conspiracies against him, and when he went to war as commander in chief of the army, Napoleon also raised the stakes for France. The Battle of Marengo in the summer of 1800, though seen as a spectacular victory, had been a time of great uncertainty in Paris. How could the Consular regime continue without Napoleon? The first solution was to extend the Napoleon's Consulship for ten years (from 1802) and then to render it lifelong. But even this was not seen as secure enough, either by Napoleon himself or by the adulating country. Furthermore, Napoleon was very conscious of the fragility of his ‘legitimacy' as ruler, surrounded as he was by his colleagues of not so long ago. He is said to have commented on this as follows: “I had emerged from the crowd. I needed, as a necessity, to create myself an exterior, to give myself a certain gravitas, succinctly put, a certain etiquette. Otherwise people would always have been slapping me on the back.” (3) And the Austrian diplomat and later chancellor, Metternich reported how the emperor regretted not being able to claim the ‘legitimacy' of the ancien régime. (4)

The new Charlemagne and the new French empire

This problem, alongside Napoleon's own Corsican clan sense, brought the idea of heredity to the fore, as a solution to the potential disappearance of Napoleon. Though some in the Consul's entourage (notably Josephine and Roederer, but also Second Consul, Cambaceres) talked of kingship, Napoleon is said to have been obsessed the idea that he would be the “new Charlemagne”, presiding over greater, imperial France as his mediaeval predecessor had done. Cambaceres reports how the Consul was devoted to “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 post 1792 and to have made the consular power the heir of the monarchy. For this reason, much later on, he tried to place no intermediary between Charlemagne and the proclamation of Empire.” (5) And Metternich reported how “[Napoleon's] heroes were Alexander, Caesar and above all Charlemagne. He was strangely obsessed with the pretension that he was de facto and de jure the latter's successor.” (6)

Ancien Régime borrowings for a more-than-royal ceremony

So Napoleon would set himself alongside the royalty of Europe and go one better by becoming an emperor, whose descendants would rule France, just as he had. And in establishing this empire, he took on all the panoply of the ancien régime. Right from the start of the Consulate Napoleon re-established and “riffed on” the symbols and structures of monarchical France. The Conseil d'état (Council of State), one of the first consular creations, was the re-incarnation of the Conseil du Roi (King's Council – a body which could advise but not decide). The court was re-introduced soon afterwards, along with the establishment of the military honour system (the marshals (an eminently royal and mediaeval title) and the Légion d'honneur, thereby stealthily reintroducing ideas of social order which had been the bane of the Revolution. When it finally came down to the imperial title, though Napoleon was nominated by the Senate, it was the royal/imperial ceremony of the coronation which was to cap this festival of royalty. First the Pope was to come and consecrate Napoleon (just like the Pope had done for Charlemagne but with the improvement that the Pope would leave the Vatican and come to France to perform the ceremony – better than the Capetians and their merely national ceremony at Rheims). As for the kings of old, a sumptuous Livre du sacre would be produced by the greatest artists of the period, and as for the ceremony itself, the old coronation ceremonies (the papal one for crowning emperors and the royal one from Rheims) were to be fused along with modern adaptations, creating a liturgy quite unlike any other before. The etiquette for the new imperial Court was to be produced in the same way, using the old royal etiquette books and adapting them. Some of the mediaeval gestures were to be preserved, such as the receiving of the blessed unction. I have elsewhere argued that even the touching of the scrofulous, a traditional ceremony for French kings in Rheims, was to take place (though only virtually). Shortly before the coronation, Josephine was to commission the Baron Gros to paint the extraordinary evocation of Napoleon touching the plague victims in Jaffa. Ostensibly this painting (showing the young general touching (and curing?) an infected solder) was to counter British-fostered rumours that Napoleon had ordered euthanasia (a lethal overdose of morphine) for French soldiers infected with the plague during the Egyptian campaign. But the juxtaposition with the coronation and the exhibition of a painting at the Salon which opened on 18 September, 1804, apparently showing Napoleon performing miracles (consonant with the idea of miracle working king) must surely have led contemporary viewers to link the two ideas.

Napoleon crowns himself

Not shown on David's famous painting of the coronation (in fact, it was painted out) but present on the Fondation Napoléon's large cartoon, Napoleon notoriously crowned himself. A myth was to grow up around this act, namely that it was an extraordinary gesture of hubris, before a shocked Pontiff. This shock and hubris are, however, all additions to the story. In fact, the complicated hybrid liturgy compiled for Napoleon's coronation on 2 December, 1804, was produced by a committee of French and papal negotiators. Each gesture and prayer had been debated and agreed upon beforehand, from the reduction of the number of unctions, the introduction of the honours of Charlemagne to the crowning moment and Napoleon's taking of communion. Nothing had been left to chance, not even the absence of the Pope at the end of the ceremony when Napoleon was to swear his imperial constitutional oath, that upheld several matters with which the Holy Father disagreed, namely the the sale of biens nationaux (i.e., church lands) and the honouring of the civil code (which permitted divorce, another thorn in the papal side). The constitutional oath ends with the remarkable words, “Napoleon emperor by the grace of God and the Constitution”.

A ceremony rubber-stamped by military victory

As perhaps implied by the Metternich's disparaging remarks above, Napoleon's obsession with the concept of Napoleon/Charlemagne was not shared by everyone. Many of the Emperor's erstwhile Revolutionary colleagues were shocked and dismayed by the ceremony at Notre Dame. Napoleon was not to make a great deal of political capital out of the ceremony itself, largely ignored, if not openly mocked, by press outside the Empire. Diplomatic presence at the ceremony was limited to French allies (Austria presented her excuses) and Napoleon himself in his speech to the Corps legislatif shortly afterwards made no reference to the ceremony. And Champagny in his ‘state of the nation' speech following that of Napoleon's emphasised that the sole legitimate moment in the coronation had been the constitutional oath. Divine approbation in the end counted for little. And the geopolitical crisis of the following year was to render any interest in the ceremonial academic. When Napoleon annexed of Genoa and crowned himself king of Italy, he alienated Russia and Austria in one go, driving them into the arms of British diplomats and creating malgré lui the Third Coalition. By September 1805, Austria had invaded southern Germany and Russia was manoeuvring to come to her assistance. Britain meanwhile was pursuing the French fleet in the Atlantic. To face up to the threat from the south, Napoleon abandoned his invasion plans for the British Isles and rushed his army to Bavaria and then on to Vienna and finally Austerlitz. This military consecration (which coincidentally occurred on the exactly the same day as the service in Notre Dame) was strongly to overshadow the coronation. From 1806 on, the 2 December was to be Austerlitz and Coronation commemoration day, with the emphasis on the former.

All that was to remain of the ceremony was David's spectacular painting and the mystical sense of majesty that was to hover over the imperial court right up to the end. As the fallen emperor himself was to note his memoirs: “the doctrine of the Christians […] was very favourable to the dynasties which built themselves upon the debris of the Roman Empire: it legitimated them. Clovis was only really king when he was consecrated so”. (7) Napoleon must have thought the same for himself.


1) Pierre-Louis Roederer, Oeuvres du comte P. L. Roederer publiées par son fils A. M. Roederer, Firmin Didot Frères: Paris, 1854, vol. 3, p. 342.
2) Quoted in Bernardine Melchior-Bonnet, Napoléon et le Pape, Paris: Amiot Dumont, 1958, p. 87.
3) Emmanuel de Las Cases, Le mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, Marcel Dunan (ed.), Flamarion Paris, 1951, vol. 1, p. 744 (17 June 1816).
4) C. Metternich, Mémoires: documents et écrits divers / laissés par le prince de Metternich,...; publiés par son fils, le prince Richard de Metternich; classés et réunis par M.A. de Klinkowstroem, Paris: E. Plon, 1881-1884, tome 1, p. 283.
5) Jean-Jacques de Cambaceres, Mémoires inédits: éclaircissements publiés par Cambaceres sur les principaux événements de sa vie politique / présentation et notes de Laurence Chatel de Brancion. Paris: Perrin, 1999, v. 1: « La Révolution, le Consulat », p. 489.
6) Metternich, Mémoires, ed. cit., pp. 282-283.
7) Napoleon Bonaparte, Mémoires de Napoléon, Thierry Lentz (ed./comm.), Tallandier: Paris, 2011, vol. 3, p. 159 (chapter 5, Affaires religieuses).
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