NORVINS, Jacques de

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Jacques de Norvins was born in Paris on 18 June, 1769 (the same year as the emperor, he used to say proudly). He was the son of a wealthy tax administrator (receveur général des finances). After studying law, he became a magistrate and councillor-auditeur at the Châtelet de Paris.

In 1792 he emigrated, serving in the German regiment of the Comte Erlch in Coblenz. He then retired to Switzerland for five years where he became friendly with Mme de Staël. He returned to France during the Directoire, only to be arrested after the coup d'état of 18 Fructidor, An V (4 September, 1797), and incarcerated in the La Force prison. He was to be released as a result of a request made by Mme de Staël to Napoleon Bonaparte after the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (1799). From then on, he was to profess complete devotion to Napoleon. During the Consulate, Frochot, Prefect of the Seine department, took him an as his private secretary.
He was subsequently taken on the expedition to Santo Domingo as general Leclerc's private secretary, Leclerc who was the First Consul's brother-in-law, general in chief of the expedition and «capitaine-général» (a sort of viceroy) of the colony. Later in his Mémorial (his published memoirs), Norvins was to give a terrifying report of the expedition and the military operations there.
In 1803, after having suffered three attacks of yellow fever, he returned to France sick and deeply depressed. Since no one offered him a post, he accepted (after a request made by Josephine) to take up the position of first lieutenant in the Corps des gendarmes d'ordonnance (2e compagnie), in Mainz. During the campaigns of 1806- 1807, he was to receive the Légion d'honneur as a result of his cavalry actions near Marienwerder in 1807.
He then entered the service of Jérôme as king of Westphalia where he founded the Moniteur westphalien newspaper, of which he was the editor in chief. At the same time he became secretary general of the Westphalian Conseil d'État, soon being promoted to War Minister for the kingdom. Finally Jérôme appointed him Chamberlain to Queen Catherine and Chargé d'affaires for the court in Baden.
By letters patent of 28 October, 1808, Jacques de Norvins (Marquet de Norvins), “secretary general for the Westphalian Conseil d'État”, was made Chevalier de l'Empire français (J. Tulard, Napoléon et la noblesse d'Empire, p. 333). Norvins returned to France in 1810, where Savary made him director general of police in the ex-Papal States, based in Rome. On 21 January, 1814, he resigned his post and left the eternal city.
During the First Restoration (April 1814), he wrote for the Nain Jaune journal and publicly approved of Napoleon's return from Elba, 2 March, 1815. During the Hundred Days, Napoleon appointed Norvins “intendant general for all the German lands to be reconquered”. Naturally, this post did not have a great future.
In July 1815, he was forced into exile in Strasburg. Returning to Paris, in 1816, he devoted himself to writing: he took part, with Arnault, Jay and Jouy, in the writing of a Biographie universelle des contemporains (1820-1825). He then wrote his Mémorial, published by Lanzac de Laborie (Plon, 1896-1897), and finally his Histoire de Napoléon (Paris, 1827), which was a huge success: 22 editions, the last in 1839. The work was illustrated by Raffet.
In his preface Norvins wrote as follows: “Napoleon has been the study of my life since 18 Brumaire. From that period I decided to write a faithful account of that man, unprecedented and unparalleled in history. During the Consulate and Empire, I set about collecting and putting in order a huge amount of material… The examination of the life of Napoleon, I said to myself, reveals three main traits: an excess of genius, an excess of luck and an excess of misfortune”.
The July Monarchy appointed Jacques de Norvins as prefect of the Dordogne (19 August – 2 September, 1830), and later prefect of the Loire (May 1831), after which he retired.
He died in Pau, 30 July 1854, aged 85.

On 11 December, 1823, Jacques de Norvins married Mélanie-Laure Thiébault, daughter of the General Baron of the Empire, and they had two children: a son, Ferdinand-Marie, captain of zouaves, who performed distinguished service in Africa at Zaatcha and Laghouet, and a daughter married to Monsieur. Gengoult, officer.
Jacques de Norvins' life of Napoleon contributed greatly to the golden legend of Napoleon and hence to the creation of the Second Empire.
Marc Allégret
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien n°458
Avril-mai-juin 2005
Pp. 67-68
Trans. P.H. September 2006

Sources: Michaud, Biographie universelle, tome 31, p. 61 ; Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 1254, notice Jean Tulard.

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