“He knew how to make thirty-six million French men obey him without any authority but his genius and because he surpassed all the conquerors that preceded him.”1 As first consul and emperor, Napoleon’s influence and power extended far beyond that of France, and he caused an unprecedented reaction among his contemporaries and historians alike. Studies of Bonaparte are continually appearing, from paintings, portraits and caricatures to poems and songs, diaries, journals and newspapers; he is forever present.
This is a comparative study of how the British and the French felt about the death of the Emperor. An individual’s reaction to his death and to the return of his mortal remains varied depending on whether they were a member of the popular classes, a close friend or politician, and whether they were French or British. Furthermore, the different representations of Napoleon are not only due to individuals’ various interpretations but also due to the complicated character of Bonaparte. Worse still, he is a multi-faceted figure – military hero, emperor of the people, and French citizen – meaning that it is often difficult to say when one aspect differs from another.
The Larousse Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXème siècle gives us some insight into the different French views of Napoleon. There are two contrasting entries for Bonaparte: the first one celebrates “Bonaparte, the greatest, most glorious, most radiant name in history”.2 The second one, on the other hand, is more of a condemnation: “Napoleon I, political and military dictator whose career as an imitator of Caesars was launched from [the Brumaire coup d’état]”.3 It is quite surprising that in an institution as renowned as the Dictionnaire Larousse, there are such varying definitions.4 These contradictory feelings are felt at every echelon of French and British society. As Thiers said, “for us French people, Napoleon has claims which we cannot forget, whatever our party, birth, conviction or interest.”5
He appealed to so many people across the world; “he has been called a father of modern democracy and of fascism: the very range of the different groups who claim him as their inspiration reflects the quality of the myth that has grown around his name.”6 However, a lot of the opinions and views on Napoleon are built around this legend and myth, which was in part constructed and deconstructed during his lifetime and exile on St Helena. Napoleon himself spent a lot of time during his exile rewriting his career. For him there was nothing more important than being remembered posthumously. “Napoleon himself said, ‘I live for posterity: death is nothing, but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day.'”7 R. S. Alexander notes that “Napoleon sought to immortalize himself through direction of how he was represented’;8 despite being unable to control everything that was said or written about him, Napoleon was very strong willed about the way he wanted to be seen, particularly in his own country. This explains to some extent why Napoleon tried to portray himself through the writings of Emmanuel Las Cases in the best light in order to prolong his legend after his death.
The case of Napoleon’s death is also extremely charged, politically speaking, firstly because Napoleon had his own political group and followers, and secondly because his death and the Retour des Cendres were used to various political ends. Napoleon was such an important political figure that his death would not just be the end of a human figure; it would be the end of a whole ideal, a regime, and a way of thinking. This explains to some extent why the Retour des Cendres was celebrated in such a spectacular way.
By using a variety of sources this study will present the different posthumous views of Napoleon, and will seek to understand why he continues to fascinate so many people. It will also investigate why “his career surpasses the normal bounds even of great men, and the explanation of his continuing attraction may lie in his capacity to speak directly to the elemental feelings of the human psyche.”9
Death of Napoleon
Impact in France
After the fateful battle of Waterloo, Napoleon asked the British government for political asylum; consequently exiled and imprisoned on the island of St Helena in 1815, he was to remain there until his death. His death was simple and undignified, unbefitting of such a political icon who may have once envisaged a more heroic death in battle or an honourable sacrifice in the name of democracy and the French nation. Nevertheless, his exile and ‘simple’ death did not affect the mystery and admiration that surrounded him.
One of the earliest accounts of his death comes from Mme Bertrand and her daughters, who looked after him during his exile. When Mme Bertrand rushed her daughter and sons to see Bonaparte before he died, she was “shocked and overpowered […] at his pale and disfigured face where they had been accustomed to see only an expression of grandeur and goodness”.10 Her reaction shows two things. Firstly, it is clear that throughout his life in exile until his last day, Napoleon dressed and presented himself as the grand Emperor he once was; on his death bed, however, he was reduced to a mere human. That said, not all accounts seem to agree with Mme Bertrand. A certain Dr Shoot noted that “In death the face was the most splendid I have ever beheld; it seemed moulded for conquest”, whilst Dr Henry – also in attendance – recorded “All admitted they have never seen a face more noble, classical, and peaceful”.11 One reader of The Irish Penny Journal wrote “The beauty of his delicate Italian features was of the highest kind; whilst the exquisite serenity of their expression was in the most striking contrast with the recollections of his great actions, impetuous character, and turbulent life”.12 Although these reports and comments appear contradictory, this is proof – to a certain extent – that people continued to idealise the emperor after his death and saw in him what they wanted to see.
Like those depicting him in life, the paintings of Napoleon on his death bed also interpreted his image in different ways. The painting by Horace Vernet, Napoleon on his death bed, shows the emperor with a wreath, similar to the one that Jesus Christ is depicted with on his execution.13 Bonaparte’s complexion however does not resemble one worthy of the Son of God: it is very pale, whilst his face appears a lot thinner than in any of his other paintings. Vernet represents the two contradictory perceptions of Bonaparte, one of the hero and saviour of France, and the other a fragile mortal at the time of his death. Although it seems obvious that individuals on their death bed appear pale, Napoleon was so admired and revered that many representations show him with a holy glow, as if even death cannot touch him. Like Vernet’s composition, Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse’s painting of Napoleon on his death bed is a regal depiction of Napoleon.14 He is dressed in his military uniform and although his face lacks detail, he still seems full of life. He even appears to have a slight smile etched across his face, in marked contrast to Vernet’s painting, in which he appears feeble. They both however represent him in his full glory, whether it is through comparison with Christ or depicting him in full military dress.
The first signs that Bonaparte’s death would prove a significant moment in history – one which would fascinate people across the world – came immediately after his post-mortem. The linen that was on the bed during the examination, “though stained with blood”,15 was torn into pieces and given to those in attendance. This is the first example of people collecting Napoleon memorabilia in an almost fanatical fashion, and although it seems like a strange element to collect, it was the first opportunity people had to have something that had belonged to the once mighty emperor. In similar circumstances, a rowdy and uncontrollable crowd besieging Bonaparte’s room might perhaps have been expected. However, the crowd stood “inanimate […] without disorder and in respectful silence”,16 perhaps proof of the awe in which Napoleon was held on the island.
This can also be seen in the way his funeral was conducted at Longwood. Everyone gathered and “never a spectacle so sad and solemn had been witnessed in these remote regions”.17 He was laid to rest in a tomb under a willow tree with nothing but a plain gravestone to mark the spot. This was a very bare and simple resting area, far removed from the extravagant funeral the French public would have expected for their hero.
The islanders’ reaction to Napoleon’s death was an emotionally charged one, due in no small part to their proximity – both geographically and emotionally – to the late Emperor. The reaction to his death in mainland France was no less impassioned.
The amount of publications, articles, and essays published in the month after his death was astronomical. Although the news did not come as a great shock, many French felt a deep personal lost. The number of histories of his life that were published is astonishing; the extensive collection available on Gallica,18 offering merely a selection, gives an idea of numbers. Although some – including many royalists who were less than distraught to learn of the former emperor’s death – chose not to declare their love for Napoleon, many used his death as an opportunity to defend him and glorify his achievements. One very good example of this is a publication entitled Pensée d’un patriote sur Napoléon Bonaparte, the goal of which was to prove how much Napoleon meant to France.19 For the publication’s author, it was a civic duty to tell the truth about the famous prisoner of St Helena.20 Summing up very adequately in what high esteem the French still held Bonaparte who « même vaincu a Waterloo se présente à nous avec un appareil de gloire »,21 his essay is a passionate one on the military glory of the emperor. What he lacks in facts and accuracy he makes up for in passion for his idol.
Although many people continued to hold Napoleon in high esteem, there were equally those nevertheless aware that he had his flaws. In Vers et romance sur la mort de Napoleon Bonaparte,22 Alexandre Barginet writes « Il est tombé, ce géant redoutable, dont le nom seul rappelle les grandeurs ; il fut par fois et Superbe et Coupable, mais ses revers égalent ses erreurs. »23 Although he celebrates Napoleon’s victories, he also points out that he did make mistakes during his reign. However, Barginet still ends his piece on a passionate note, asserting that his achievements nevertheless outweigh his flaws. The sadness felt at France’s loss is emphasised in the repeated use of « il n’est plus là ! »24 Although Barginet’s piece stands out from the others because he does accept Bonaparte’s faults, the author nevertheless remains a typical admirer of the emperor in that he cannot help but think highly of him and feel great sadness at his loss.
Not only did Napoleon’s death provoke sadness, but it also prompted a sense of pride of being French, along with feelings of bitterness about his death and burial on St Helena. In his essay Souvenir et regret d’un soldat, à Napoleon Bonaparte,25 Dublar expresses his discontent at the Emperor dying on St Helena, isolated and away from his beloved country – « Il n’a vu à sa dernière heure, que le sourire féroce de ses ennemis, il en eut pitié en fermant la paupière »26 – a fairly typical French interpretation Britain’s feelings towards Napoleon.
Filled with regret at not seeing his emperor die, the author blames the higher ranks for his exile. This was a sentiment felt by many other French people, who believed that Napoleon should have died in France.27 However, there was also a large part of the population that felt that Napoleon dying away from the revolutionary masses was essential in order to avoid any revolutionary agitation or violent demonstrations.28 For many, the death of Bonaparte was simply a distant event, details of which were announced in newspapers.
Nevertheless, at any and every possible occasion, anniversaries of Napoleon’s greatest achievements were celebrated. His victories in battle were observed by his war veterans, and his birth and death dates were celebrated and remembered by his most fervent admirers. The Saint Napoleon however remained a resolutely French tradition. Although created at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, observance of this tradition intensified after the death of the emperor and his mortal remains’ subsequent (though not immediate) return to France. Celebrated by various groups of Bonaparte sympathisers, it was a day in the year for the emperor’s admirers to come together and honour his life and death.29
Similarly, the amount of Napoleonic memorabilia also increased dramatically after the emperor’s death. Just as on St Helena, Napoleon’s admirers were eager to collect anything that could be associated with him. Nor was it just his officers, family, and friends who collected these mementos but members of the general public as well. The population realised that the death of the Emperor was a momentous event in time. One prisoner even made “a straw tobacco bow bearing the effigy of the Emperor” to mark the death of Bonaparte.30
Unsurprisingly, the death of Napoleon had a great impact on the French, both on the island of St Helena and on mainland France. Yet their sentiments were not universally the same. There was certainly an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness, but not all the French population praised him after his death. Despite this, many still felt great pride in being French and expressed their feelings through articles, journals and paintings, as well as more generally through the collection of memorabilia and the celebration of his legend over the course of the year.
Wider impact: Reaction in England
Napoleon was a political figure whose influence spread beyond France, throughout Europe, and across the world. Historically, the English had for a long time been France’s arch-enemy, especially during the Napoleonic wars. However, the reaction to his death in England could in many ways be described as unexpected. In newspapers and journals, writers paid their respects to a man whose political views they may have disagreed with, but for whom they felt great admiration. Napoleon’s exile on St Helena very much contributed to this way of thinking. Dying alone in exile transformed Napoleon from a political tyrant into a mere human. His death did not eliminate any of the political questions the British still had regarding the emperor, but it result in much soul-searching regarding the morality of his exile.
The British understood as well as the French the poetry of Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena. Haydon’s famous painting of Napoleon looking out from his island of exile inspired William Wordsworth to write a poem describing the landscape of St Helena.31 The island, in Semmel’s words, is “defined by absence”32 and Wordsworth remains elusive, conserving the mystery that surrounded Napoleon. For Wordsworth, Haydon’s painting was “sublimely empty”,33 leaving the reader with the impression that Napoleon was contemplating his own life and achievements, an “historical figure [who] considered himself as historical”.34 In stark contrast to Haydon’s paintings, Marryat’s sketch – drawn, allegedly, fourteen hours after his death – is possibly one of the simplest produced of the emperor.35 Representing Napoleon lying on his bed, his body is covered in a sheet, just his visible, with a cross placed on his chest. He is not wearing his traditional hat and his face is drawn and lifeless. This is a very simple representation of Bonaparte, much unlike many depictions produced of him. The fact that this drawing was done so quickly after his death (if the dating is to be believed) shows just how much Napoleon still fascinated the British public. Like Wordsworth’s poem and Haydon’s painting, it shows to what extent the emperor’s exile on St Helena contributed to the forging of Napoleon’s posthumous reputation in Britain. Without his period in exile, it would be fair to say that he would not have been remembered in the same way, more likely remaining a political figure, devoid of humanity.
Napoleon was not however always represented in the romantic manner favoured by Wordsworth and Haydon. In an anonymous poem, Bonaparte is characterised in a much more aggressive manner, with descriptions of him as “The Beast” and the emperor “who every king on earth doth fear”.36 The poem focuses on the career of Napoleon taken from a military angle, portraying him as a tyrant and an aggressive character. This and Wordsworth’s poem may be very different but they represent the inherent complexity of the emperor’s character. He encompassed so many roles within his lifetime – emperor, war hero, tyrant, and exiled prisoner – that different individuals could draw on disparate aspects of his life. It is therefore no surprise that a man with such an eventful life would have so many different representations after his death. These complex, seemingly contradictory reactions were even shared by Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor on St Helena, who wrote “He has been England’s greatest enemy, and mine also, but I forgive him for everything. At the death of a great man like him, we should feel only deep concern and regret”.37 There was a great sense of admiration for Napoleon which was in part fuelled by his exile. Robert Postans, who attended the funeral on St Helena, remarked on the great irony of his funeral: “The coffin was borne upon the shoulders of English grenadiers, and followed by the soldiers who had contributed more towards his downfall than those of any nation.”38 But at the time of his death, there seemed to be reconciliation between the two countries. There was no longer any reason for Britain and France to fight and they both joined in remembering and respecting a man of great influence in both countries. There is no doubt therefore that exile contributed to Bonaparte’s posthumous image. And whilst reaction to his death on the island appears intense, reaction on the mainland proved to be just as strong.
One of the most striking acts of tribute to Napoleon was the efforts gone to by John Sainsbury.39 He was an admirer and avid collector of all things Napoleonic and in the 1820s opened an exhibition presenting his collection of Napoleon memorabilia. The reaction to this was certainly quite mixed. Some visitors proved resistant and were unconvinced by Sainsbury’s attempts to demonstrate Napoleon’s wonderful character and uncommon genius. Others relished the exhibition and the relics of lost battles and causes which reminded them of the glory of a victorious Britain which had defeated France. The fact that Sainsbury nevertheless managed for many years to make a living out of his exhibition (through the charging of an entry fee) indicates what a phenomenal success it was. There was clearly a market for such fascination, something that Sainsbury’s collection of curios did little to dampen.
This interest in Napoleon was not however the isolated endeavours of a fanatical obsessive. Hundreds of songs and plays were written, and although their publication dates were often later, during the 1850s and 1860s, many of them originated beforehand.40 Surprisingly, a great deal of these demonstrate how positive a role Bonaparte played in British popular imagination in the decades following his death. Many of the plays sought to convey Napoleon’s charisma and praised his abilities, without of course ever portraying the British or Wellington in a bad light. Indeed, in some cases, it seems clear that Bonaparte was being used primarily to promote the greatness of Britain and its armies. However, many were genuinely respectful of the late emperor: in one burletta, Napoleon’s ghost, upon seeing the French ships arrive in St Helena to bear his remains back to Paris, observes approvingly that “The French nation, England and the world appear resolved to do my memory justice”.41 In George Dibdin Pitt’s play, Napoleon the Star of France – which features a scene in which the French emperor forgives a man who steals his watch – the author portrays Napoleon as merciful and noble.42 Many of these plays sought not to accurately retell episodes from Napoleon’s life but rather were intended to represent his best qualities and characteristics through stories that echoed his career. The British also paid their respects – in a manner of speaking – through equestrian re-enactments of the Battle of Waterloo and the Invasion of Russia.43
Many British songs did however treat “the event respectfully even movingly.”44 Although few songs have survived in written form, one that is still well-known today is “Boney was a warrior”. Originally a sea shanty (which accounts for the repetitions), it became popular in Britain at the time of the Retour des Cendres, and was a simple way to reflect on and remember the eventful life of Bonaparte.45 Another song that treated Napoleon in a respectful manner was “Deeds of Napoleon”, which details the desire of the French to bring his remains back (“Oh! Bring him back again ‘twill ease the Frenchman’s pain”), and their hopes of doing justice to his memory (“we will decorate his tomb, with the glories he has won/and in letters of bright gold inscribe Napoleon”).46
The plays and poems are just one aspect of how the British viewed Napoleon. The numerous newspaper articles offer further insight into how people saw Napoleon at the time of his death. Many of these are very lengthy and give detailed descriptions of Napoleon’s life, his funeral and the cause of death. An article in The Liverpool Mercury displays mixed emotions towards Napoleon.47 Starting off with “Napoleon Bonaparte has at length paid the debt of nature”, the article’s first sentence appears to take a strong stance on Napoleon’s death. Although not a particularly favourable start to the article, it goes on to explain that everyone is fascinated by the posthumous image of Napoleon, assuring its readers that “every public journalist, whatever his political creed may be, will pen his epitaph”. The author’s reference to “political creed” suggests that he believes public opinion on Napoleon will be influenced less by nationality than by political ideology. The article finishes by stating that “Napoleon has not lived nor died in vain – his career has read hereditary despots a lesson, from […] which they might profit”. Although the journalist appears glad that Napoleon is gone, he still feels that his life – although not an exemplary one – should be used as an example of what not to do. Although not celebrating Napoleon’s death, the journalist is nevertheless aware of the enormity of the moment.
Similar words can be found in The Morning Chronicle.48 Once again, the journalist is aware that Napoleon produced “everywhere a strong sensation”. However, in contrast with The Liverpool Mercury, he is keen to leave Napoleon’s mistakes in the past, declaring “He now belongs to history”. This does not however mean that he glosses over Napoleon’s mistakes, remarking in particular that “his selfishness proved the cause of his downfall.” These two articles ably demonstrate Bonaparte’s contradictory nature and give us an insight into the different points of view people held of him. Whilst these articles show us the reaction people had in mainland Britain, a letter from an officer to his mother that was published in The Mirror gives us an insight into what a British person based on St Helena thought of Napoleon’s death.49 In his letter, the officer displays more respect for the late emperor than is perhaps evident in the newspaper articles already mentioned, capturing the deep sense of loss that was felt by many on the island. By attending the funeral, the officer understood the feelings of the French and what an important figure he was to France. Sympathetic to “poor Napoleon” who was exiled far away from the country which loved and continues to love him, he describes in detail the funeral held at Longwood, and is very surprised by its simplicity, remarking frequently on the “plainness” of the ceremony and event.
All these sources tell us many things about the British reaction to the death of Napoleon. That his exile on St Helena contributed in a positive way to his posthumous reputation in England seems clear. Views shifted; the political tyrant had returned to the mortal plain. However, Napoleon’s complex character ensured that the way in which he was remembered varied according to what people wanted to remember him for. Whether it was Emperor of the French, the icon of wars across Europe, or the prisoner in exile, every aspect of Napoleon’s life was remembered after his death. Although the British sources appear more distant when compared to the French reaction, the same themes and issues recur, and the division of popular opinion is just as great. Nevertheless, the death of Napoleon was to have more of an impact on Britain than a later event would: the return of his mortal remains to France.
Le Retour des Cendres
A twenty-year wait
Napoleon’s death could be described as an anti-climax when compared to his glorious life. However, his ‘greatness’ would be celebrated in full with the triumphant return of his mortal remains. The procession and parade organised by the authorities presented a level of splendour never before seen. However, the return of Napoleon was not a simple matter of patriotism. The political intent is one that has to be examined closely in order to understand how the French population celebrated their emperor’s return.
Louis Philippe, the Orléans king, was in power at the time of the Retour des Cendres. This was not the first time attempts had been made to return his mortal remains to France. When Napoleon died, an appeal was immediately made for the return of his body. Contrary to popular belief at the time, it was not the English who were preventing the return of his remains. Indeed the English government had made it clear to their French equivalents that « le gouvernement anglais ne se regardait que comme le dépositaire des cendres de l’Empereur et qu’il le rendrait à la France dès que le gouvernement français lui en témoignerait le désir ». But in 1821, the government of Louis XVIII was little disposed to bringing the Emperor’s mortal remains back. Louis did not want Bonapartist sentiments to return to the surface, especially with the royalists in power and the potential for a coup d’état. When Louis-Philippe ascended to the throne a petition was presented to the Chambre des députés in an appeal for the return of Napoleon. Although Heulard de Montigny50 “considered the reign of Napoleon to be the most brilliant time for France”,51 he failed to convince any of his colleagues. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s other attempts failed. So why did Napoleon make it back after twenty years?
The reasoning behind Louis Philippe’s decision to bring Napoleon’s body back to France, instead of leaving it in poetic isolation on St Helena, is complex. The king was heavily influenced in his decision by his prime minister at the time: Adolphe Thiers. Thiers, along with Guizot, used the return of Napoleon’s remains as part of a deliberate political design, a decidedly risky strategy to take. Certainly many French people felt very passionate about Napoleon and wanted his return, but there were also many who were politically and ideologically opposed to the emperor. However, the government felt that the July monarchy was strong enough to recognise the glories of its ideological adversaries and to place them in their ‘juste milieu’, in doing so synthesising all aspects of the past and the social divisions it had witnessed. Unity could be achieved by remembering rather than forgetting the past, and Napoleon was a major part of France’s heritage.52
Publicly there was a lot of support for the return. Victor Hugo summed up the public opinion in his work Ode à la Colonne.53 His, and the French public’s anger, towards the députés who did not vote for the return of the mortal remains and who were thus regarded as cowards, was summed up in the lengthy poem: « Vous avez peur d’une ombre et peur d’un peu de cendre. Oh ! Vous êtes petits ! »54 To some extent, Hugo was right. The government feared that by bringing back Napoleon’s mortal remains, its position would be weakened. Although this seems like an overreaction on the part of the government of the time, it shows just how much of an impact Napoleon had had on the French population, even after his death. The French public was forced to wait until Thiers became Président du Conseil before their beloved Emperor could return to France.
Just as political motivations lay behind previous governments’ reluctance to bring Napoleon back, so it was for Thiers’ decision. The move to return Napoleon’s mortal remains to France can be interpreted as an “attempt to increase the patriotic reputation of the regime”.55 For Thiers, increasing the regime’s patriotic reputation was also a way to make “the government popular.”56 Although Thiers “was himself one of the propagators of the Napoleon cult”,57 he was also realistic and knew that the return of Napoleon was a momentous event for the French population. Every precaution therefore had to be taken in order to prevent a mass uprising that could overthrow his government. To some extent, the political motives behind the Retour des Cendres were just as important, if not more so, than “the sentimental memories from the Napoleonic period”.58
Disagreement regarding the decision to bring back the remains of Napoleon remained within the government; French popular opinion was to prove similarly divided.
An abundance of newsprints, lithographs, paintings, and songs exist to offer us a unique insight into how people viewed the Retour des Cendres. Of these, a few themes common to all the media mentioned above stand out. In particular, his portrayal as a prince or the Christ is a recurrent theme, and the same representative symbols appear throughout.
Gustave Tassaert’s painting, France and the Prince de Joinville at the Tomb of Saint Helena, which recreates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is one of the many representations of Napoleon that plays with Christ symbolism.59 Napoleon is depicted, complete with shining halo and white cloth draped over him, emerging from a tomb. On his right is a figure very similar to the Madeleine, adorned with the royal coat, who is probably his wife. To his left, there is an open door which is similar to the stone rolled away from Christ’s tomb. This image is a very clear echo of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and gives the reader the idea the Napoleon is not only the Emperor of the French but also saviour of the nation.
This saviour of the nation idea is also found in a lithograph by an anonymous artist, entitled Tremble All! Kings in League with One Another! Because of his Open Tomb….60 This lithograph has a distinct military connotation which can be attributed to the wars occurring at the time in the Middle East between Turkey and Egypt, and the problems resulting from alliances and treaties agreed after the Treaty of Paris in 1815. In the lithograph, Napoleon is depicted brandishing a sword into a shining light and handing it to a statue that – like Marianne during the French Revolution – personifies France. Napoleon has come out of his tomb (which is at the bottom of the picture) and is ascending to Les Invalides, which is visible through the shining light at the top, thus recreating Christ’s ascension into heaven. It seems that the artist of the lithograph wants to portray the idea that Napoleon, although passed away, is still the one to protect France. Once again, his comparison with Jesus Christ demonstrates the high esteem the French people had for the emperor. It was not however simply in paintings that Napoleon was compared to the son of God. In a popular song of the period, the comparison is explicit: “Jesus, by his strength/Saved the pagan, lost in sin,/Napoleon saved France;/Like Jesus he was sold/After odious sufferings,/Jesus died on the cross:/Napoleon at Saint Helena,/Has suffered like Jesus.”61
The image that combines the different aspects of Napoleon’s life and all that he had achieved for France is Adolphe Lafosse’s lithograph.62 In it are present his famous battles, the Code Napoléon, symbols of his victories abroad (such as the Egyptian pyramids), crowns strewn about the floor, reminders of his various roles in French government (First Consul and emperor) and, in the background, crowds of adoring subjects.
All of these images represent Napoleon as a triumphant hero, and his return can be compared to the return of the prodigal son. Although there may have been some political discord when it came to the Retour des Cendres, it is clear that from the point of view of the French public, his return was the welcoming home of a long-lost son. But as the French public rejoiced at the arrival of their emperor, reaction on the other side of the Channel was decidedly different.
Reaction to Napoleon’s death was perhaps as considerable in England as it was in France. Napoleon was after all a figure of European and international importance. The return of his mortal remains however provoked little reaction in the British Isles. It was of course reported in the newspapers, but it was not the sensational news that it appears to have been in France. Although the British observed the death of Bonaparte, the procession received limited coverage. This lack of enthusiasm shows us not that the British did not care about Napoleon, but rather that the Retour des Cendres was an event of fundamental importance to the French, one that mattered deeply to them.
The return of Napoleon’s mortal remains was an elaborate affair. It was not simply a question of bringing the coffin back and laying it to rest; it was to be a long procession all the way from Le Havre to the centre of Paris. It would be an opportunity for people who were not living in Paris to pay tribute to their idol. The coffin was exhibited for six days on La Belle Poule in Normandy, where it was reported that 60,000 people came to pay their respect to the late emperor.63 The coffin was then transported down the Seine to the centre of Paris. Accounts tell of every bridge over the Seine lined with people, waiting to get a glimpse of the elaborate coffin.64 Many were overjoyed, whilst others were disappointed that the boat did not stop longer at the bridges. The Morning Chronicle how, at a bridge in Le Pecq, “a band of two-hundred performed solemn symphonies as the steamer came up the river”. It finally anchored in Neuilly on 14th December where it immediately became a place of pilgrimage for the people of Paris.
The celebrations in Paris were by far the most elaborate. The lithograph of 1840 by Napoleon Thomas depicts in great detail the sumptuous procession in Paris.65 The cortege was so heavy it had to be drawn by sixteen black horses under the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysées, and across the Seine to the church in Les Invalides. The cortege was covered in allegorical figures and symbols of Napoleon and his greatness. From the crowned ‘N’ to the eagles and military decoration, the cortege was a celebration of his reign and of the “good old days”. Thomas’ lithograph ably expresses how the cortege was the centre of an extravagant performance, with armies marching alongside the remains of the emperor. Furthermore, the beautifully decorated seating arrangements at the side of the Champs Elysées and at the Place des Invalides “enhanced the theatrical aspect of the ceremony”.66 At the end of the procession, the casket that had been transported in the mobile, sculptured tomb was placed on display for millions of visitors to admire it.
However, the neo-classical decorations, despite the grandeur, were all ephemeral. The street decorations and adornments on the coffin were all made out of wood, canvas, and plaster. This was a sign that although the celebration was to be remembered for decades to come, the government had no intention of leaving permanent traces of the ceremony, a clear indication of the threat (perceived or otherwise) posed by Napoleon – even twenty-years gone – to the government. From the celebrations and ceremony emerged two key themes: “civic virtue and military glory”.67 These two principles were exploited because they did not provide a threat to the July Monarchy; quite the opposite in fact. Civic virtue and military glory were two of the most highly regarded qualities in French society.
Appearances, like the canvas and plaster decorations that adorned the event, can be deceiving, and the procession was not a simple, uneventful commemoration of the emperor. The government was very aware that bringing back the mortal remains of Napoleon and celebrating the event would be controversial, and they were particularly worried about the procession, namely, who would attend it and who might possibly cause disruption on the day. To ensure that events unfolded peacefully, soldiers were positioned at various points across Paris in order to prevent any rioting. There were no serious disruptions on the day: a small group of students sang the Marseillaise on the bridge at Neuilly, and a few cries of « A bas Guizot » and « A bas les Anglais » were heard, but nothing to unsettle the government.68 As Guizot said in his letter to Baron Mournier, “Napoleon and a million Frenchmen came into contact under light of a conspiring press and there was no spark.”69
The procession was attended by many French people – all those who could flock to Paris – and onlookers of all social classes mingled together. However, from the evidence it appears that it was the lower classes that made up the bulk of the public in attendance, most of whom lined the streets overnight and into the day itself, during “the coldest winter days most could remember”.70 Numbers vary but Avmer claims that the crowd was 750,000 strong. Despite these figures, it was not a noisy procession, with only a few lonely cries of “long live the emperor”. There was a great sense of occasion; Napoleon’s veterans dressed in their uniforms, the older generation reminisced about the old days, and the younger generation remained fascinated by the mystical figure of the emperor.71
Although the day no doubt left a mark on the collective memory, there was a split in opinion from those who attended the celebrations. The Comtesse de Mollien wrote “As much as this festival was popular in the streets of Paris so it was unpopular where I was; for many reasons we were glad yesterday was over”.72 Many of the upper classes felt that the procession was more of a carnival than a commemoration, although equally there were many who felt “deeply moved” by the event.73 The sentiment that the procession more closely resembled a carnival was one also felt by the French poet Victor Hugo. Hugo had become a fervent Bonapartist in the 1830s, and was never afraid of printing his thoughts. He was upset that the government had hidden the real coffin. “The government seemed to be afraid of the phantom that it had evoked”.74 The government had put on an elaborate show to commemorate the late emperor, yet the coffin remained hidden from view. Furthermore, following the procession, the government left the coffin in the Chapelle Saint Jérôme for only twenty-four hours. Despite allowing the emperor to be remembered, mourned, and celebrated, the government was intent on ensuring that any commemoration remained momentary. The procession could be described as more of a celebration of Napoleon’s life than as a mourning of his death. As Robert Postants recounts in “Two funerals of Napoleon”, “For a burial, the second ceremony was far too removed from death: people, if they had forgotten, had ceased to lament for him.”75
The procession in honour of Napoleon would have been talked about and remembered for many years after. However, it was also a day that left the government and the upper classes – who recognised that Napoleon was a character capable of stirring great and conflicting emotions – uneasy. Nor was it without its own hidden agendas, with Thiers’ government profiting from the event to bask in its reflected light. And the procession was only the beginning of the extravagant celebrations planned for Napoleon. His tomb was to be the ultimate tribute to his multiple qualities and enduring appeal; however, this too was to prove a contentious issue.
The beginning of a tomb
Although bringing back Napoleon’s mortal remains took twenty years – an eternity to some – the conception and building of the tomb was to prove another long chapter in Napoleon’s eventful posthumous existence. The first issue that faced the government was the location of his resting place. In his will Napoleon had stated, « Je désire que mes cendres reposent sur les bords de la Seine, au milieu de ce peuple français que j’ai tant aimé. »76 However, just as with the procession, the government was very aware that they had to decide on just how conspicuous a part of Paris’ urban fabric they wanted to make his tomb. Finding the resting place for Napoleon was not just a logistical problem, but a deeply political issue as well.
In his address to the Chambre des députés, Lamartine analysed the proposed locations. He dismissed the Colonne Vendôme and the Eglise de la Madeleine because their central positions in Paris meant they would likely have become the focal point for disorderly Bonapartist gatherings, whilst the Basilique de Saint-Denis was deemed unsuitable because it highlighted the links with France’s royal past. The Arc de Triomphe was inappropriate for both logistical and ideological reasons: if Napoleon’s tomb rested there, there could be no triumphant military displays in the future, and the monument was also considered too pagan in design. Finally, the Colonne de Juillet could not have been a fitting place of rest since there were no strong ties between Napoleon and the July Revolution. Lamartine also stressed in his address that the location of Napoleon’s resting place had to be isolated because “he was singular and deserved a single monument”.77 Whether it was his political status that called for isolation, that he should be removed from daily life in order to avoid transforming the site into a place of riots and disruption, or simply because Napoleon deserved a monument to himself, Lamartine was very clear that the former French emperor’s final resting place should be considered very carefully.
After much debate between ministers, the site of Les Invalides was chosen for Napoleon’s resting place. Although not a unanimous decision, Les Invalides corresponded to many of the criteria outlined for such a politically challenging leader. Firstly, it was on the banks of the river Seine and therefore respected Napoleon’s wishes. Les Invalides had always been a place connected with the Emperor because of the distinct military connotations, whilst just as importantly – in the eyes of Louis Philippe – it was also an appropriate place of rest because it did not validate the dynastic claims or aspirations of Napoleon’s heirs and relatives. This was important to a king who still harboured concerns about the legitimacy of his own regime.78 Importantly, it was a secure place for the tomb in terms of both architecture and location. The building itself was not accessible when the doors were closed, and the surrounding grounds also had a gate. Furthermore, Les Invalides was removed from the centre of Paris and sparsely populated; attempts by large crowds to congregate would therefore be limited. Finally, the Mansard Dome at Les Invalides was “one of the most conspicuous and prestigious monuments” in Paris, so the government could not therefore be accused of doing the memory of the late emperor an injustice.79
As soon as the location was decided, Remusat, who did not necessarily agree with the location, immediately set about appointing an architect. Felix Duban was chosen, whilst – in a surprising move – Marochetti, an Italian architect, was also appointed by the government as Duban’s collaborator, in particular for the site’s statues. Marochetti had been to the Ecole des Beaux Arts but was not very popular as he had only won one honourable mention when at the prestigious art school.80 The collaboration between Marochetti and Duban was never a harmonious one and although the exact date is unclear, Duban eventually walked away from the project: Marochetti, it would seem, was too domineering, and their visions could not be combined. Marochetti subsequently took over the project himself; this, however, was not to last long either. Marochetti’s second proposal was not met with a warm reception.81 The four immense allegorical figures would prove not only difficult to sculpt, but also to harmonize with the dome of Les Invalides. Although the allegorical designs were very similar to Aldolphe Lafosse’s lithograph, it was simply unimaginable that they could find a place under the dome.82 Furthermore, many of the French artists were deeply unsettled that it was a foreigner who was being given the privileged of designing the tomb for one of France’s most iconic leaders. In view of his unpopularity and his unconvincing plan, Marochetti was dismissed by the Chambre des députés, and it was subsequently announced on 13th April 1840 that there was to be a contest to design the tomb of Napoleon, with the government declaring, “we will make an appeal to all artists whose proven talents offered to the Administration guarantees of good execution”.83
The idea to have a competition was one that was not popular with everyone, particularly Thiers, but with his influence weakened (largely to do with his foreign policy), it was seen by the government as the best solution for such an important monument. However, the competition was poorly publicised, and it was unclear what the rules were and who was allowed to enter. Although it was designed for only artists to compete, the government made no real attempts to stop anyone else submitting their designs. Since the competition seemed to be open to everyone and because the government had pushed back the entry date twice, some artists were reluctant to participate. Prominent and well-known artists, such as Charles-Joseph Toussaint and Antoine Allier, refused to enter or simply withdrew their ideas. Clement Pruche’s caricature of the contest sums up neatly how various people felt about the competition: there were many well-designed projects but choosing one out of them would prove a very difficult task.84 Furthermore, as the outlandish designs in the cartoon demonstrate, many of the projects were extremely, indeed overly, ambitious. Although many of the project designs have now been lost, the limited selection that remains shows just how different and complex some of the plans were.
The designs of Antoine Etex are particularly interesting. The first one he created was before the location of the tomb had been decided; this he submitted to Louis Philippe directly, who turned him away, believing that the French were not ready for such a monument.85 As soon as the news reached him that a contest was open to design the tomb, Etex converted his idea so that it would fit under the dome.86 Although the idea remained the same, there was one subtle change that evokes the broader problem in representing Napoleon. In his first design, Napoleon was dressed in his military attire, whilst in his reworked second version, the emperor is clothed in his imperial dress. How was Napoleon to be remembered: as the military hero or the imperial, essentially civic, leader? Taking into account the chosen site of Les Invalides, and by studying some of the designs for his tomb, it is clear that many wished to remember the military hero. Napoleon’s iconic character and diverse roles during the regime were just some of the problems that gave the architects and artists much food for thought.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the designs of tombs varied so much. Many of them, such as Antoine Rivoulon’s project, were large in scale and very elaborate.87 With nearly twenty allegorical figures representing everything from war to glory to religion, his design was a celebration of Napoleon’s accomplishments as emperor, and an international icon (with the presence of a globe), whilst still conserving the traditional Napoleonic symbols such as the imperial eagle and “N” emblems. In comparison, Henri Labrouste’s project was a simple and modern take on funerary edifices, with a bronze shield designed to cover the tomb which would lie in a crypt below.88 The shield was to be supported by an eagle at each side, which meant that it would not be totally closed. It still kept the traditional “N” and eagle, yet compared to many of the other designs, it was very understated. Labrouste’s representation sought more to commemorate and protect the tomb than to glorify his life.
The choosing of the location of the tomb and the competition for the construction of it were of such great importance to the French nation that any decision was not taken lightly by the government. Feelings towards Napoleon were so strong – both positive and negative – that every step of the way during the construction of his tomb there were debates and arguments. Even in death, Napoleon continued to enflame passions. Napoleon will always be remembered in different ways; however, judging by the construction of his tomb and the events that surrounded the project, it is fairly safe to say that his military exploits were to great importance to the French public (even if he was ultimately defeated at Waterloo). Eventually, Visconti was chosen to design the tomb; it was finally finished in 1860, and offered a balance of military hero, civic leader, and imperial ruler.
During his lifetime, Napoleon Bonaparte was an enigmatic and complicated figure, and this was very much the case after his death. His posthumous depictions drew on his military career, his imperial reign, and – more simply – his legend.
The French and the British did not have overwhelming divergent opinions regarding the late emperor, although it is hardly surprising that sentiments were far stronger in France than in Britain. However, what is surprising is the amount of interest the British public took in Bonaparte. The example of Robert Postans, who attended both of Napoleon’s funerals and experienced first-hand the overwhelming emotion felt by the French, is perhaps the most striking.89 His account highlights the contrast between Napoleon’s two funerals: the simple and private ceremony in Longwood, and the extravagant and over-the-top procession in Paris. Both funerals were however extremely silent, which shows just how much respect people had for the emperor, whatever their nationality.
The large number and the variation of sources have shown us what impact Napoleon’s death and the Retour des Cendres had on Britain and France. However, it is clear that the return of Napoleon’s mortal remains had a far more profound effect on the French than on the British. His return was a momentous event for the French population and although not all agreed on every aspect of his return, it was an historic event which – on the whole –united the French people in recognition of their former emperor.
Whether it was through different articles, paintings, or the designs for his tomb, Napoleon was depicted in many forms after his death. This abundance of iconography and interpretations merely intensified the aura of mystery and fascination around him. Clearly the public’s appetite for all things Napoleon would prove difficult to sate.
It is certain that his death in exile and the wait of twenty years for him to return to his beloved country was one of the biggest contributing factors to the endurance of his posthumous image. His exile only added to the mystery that surrounded him, and contributed positively to his reputation in England. It was his deeds in life that ensured that he would never be forgotten, but the fact that it took twenty years for Napoleon’s body to return home made the restitution even more exceptional and gave the French public time to grow fonder of their late emperor and to come to terms with his impact on the nation. A complex individual who combined profound historical achievement with a rich romantic legend, Napoleon Bonaparte is like few other characters in the history of the modern world.
Websites and digital libraries
Period newspapers and journals
– “Death and Funeral of Bonaparte”, Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 7:202 (July 1: 1826), pp. 403-405
– “Le 15 août 1844”, Revue de l’Empire, vol. 2 (1844), pp. 307-310
– “Death of Napoleon”, The Liverpool Mercury, 13th July 1821
– “Death of Buonarparte”, Morning Chronicle, June 1821
– “Napoleon after death”, The Irish Penny Journal, vol 1, 19 (7th November 1840), p.152
– Robert Postans, “The Two Funerals of Napoleon”, Bentley’s Miscellany, 23 (January 1848)
– R.S. Alexander, Napoleon, London: Oxford University Press, 2001
– Ben-Amos Avmer, Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France, 1789-1996, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
– Arnold Chaplin, “Napoleon’s Funeral”, The British Medical Journal, Vol II, 2858 (9th October 1915), p.552
– Adrien Dansette, “Le retour des cendres”, Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, n° 258 (April 1971), pp. 31-36
– Barbara Ann Day-Hickman, Napoleonic Art: nationalism and the spirit of rebellion in France (1815-1848), London: Associated University Presses, c1999
– Alexandre Dumas, Napoléon, Paris: Delloye, 1840
– John Dunne, “Recent Napoleonic Historiography: ‘Poor Relation’ Makes Good?”, French History 18, 2004, pp.484-491
– Michael Paul Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861, Kent: Kent State University Press, c1993
– Philip G. Dwyer, “Napoleon Bonaparte as Hero and Saviour: Image, Rhetoric and Behaviour in the Construction of a Legend”, French History 18, 2004, pp.379-403
– G. Gengembre, Napoleon: history and myth, London: Hachette Illustrated, 2004
– Robert Gildea, The Past in French History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996
– Robert Gildea, Children of the Revolution: the French 1799-1914, London: Penguin, 2009
– S. Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon, London: Granta, 2004
– S. Hazareesingh, “Memory and Political Imagination: The Legend of Napoleon Revisited”, French History 18, 2004, pp. 463-483
– William Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Vol III, London: Gibbings and Compagny, 1894
– Jean-Marcel Humbert (ed.), Napoléon aux Invalides : 1840, Le Retour des Cendres, Paris: Editions de l’Albaron, 1990
– Ben R. Jones, Napoleon: Man and Myth, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977
– Jacques Jourquin (ed.), Mameluck Ali: Journal inédit du Retour des Cendres 1840, Paris: Tallandier, 2003
– Thierry Lentz, Idées reçues : Napoleon, Paris: Editions Le Cavalier Blue, 2001
– Jean Marie Lucas-Dubreton, Culte de Napoleon 1815-1848, Paris: A. Michel 1960
– Felix Maurice Hippisley Markham, Napoleon, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963
– M. Marrinan, Painting Politics for Louis-Philippe: Art and Ideology in Orleanist France 1830-1848, New Heaven: Yale University Press, c1988
– Gilbert Martineau, Le Retour des Cendres, Paris: Tallandier, 1990
– Bernard Menager, Les Napoléon du Peuple, Paris: Aubier, 1988
– N. Petiteau, Napoleon, de la mythologie à l’histoire, Paris: Seuil, 2004
– Georges Poisson, L’aventure du Retour des Cendres, Paris: Tallandier, 2004
– Alain Pougetoux, “Le Tombeau de Napoleon aux Invalides”, Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, n° 374 (December 1990), pp. 13-17
– Stuart Semmel, Napoleon and the British, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004
– Jean Tulard, Napoleon: the myth of the saviour, London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1984