In his last will and Testament, first dictated then written out in his own hand a few days before his death, Napoleon declared, “It is my wish that my ashes (The old term ‘ashes’ means mortal remains.) may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well.”
Despite the attempts of General Bertrand, after Napoleon’s death on 5 May 1821, petitioning both the British government and Louis XVIII of France, Napoleon’s body would remain buried in an unmarked grave on St Helena for another 20 years.
The idea of repatriating the body of the first Emperor of the French was rekindled with the accession to the French throne of Louis-Philippe, who wanted to distinguish himself from Louis XVIII and Charles X by hoping to reconcile Bonapartists and Orleanists. When Adolphe Thiers, author of the future Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire (1845-1862) [History of the Consulate and the Empire (1845-1862)], become President of the Council the idea finally became a reality.
Louis-Philippe’s own son, the Prince de Joinville, was sent to escort Napoleon’s remains back to Paris. Other former subjects of Napoleon would join the pilgrimage to the Emperor’s tomb. Napoleon’s coffin finally arrived at the Hôtel des Invalides on 15 December 1840, having travelled more than 7,200 km from the island of St Helena to the French capital.
- Narrative of proceedings connected with the exhumation and removal of the remains of the late Emperor Napoleon, by a resident, Saint Helena : printed for the proprietor by William Bateman, 1840, a contemporary and eye-witness account of the exhumation
- Tombeau de Napoléon 1er érigé dans le Dôme des Invalides [Napoleon’s tomb built in Les Invalides by Monsieur Visconti]/ This edition in French (1853) describes the journey from St Helena and, as well as all the designs by Visconti for the Napoleonic monuments at Les Invalides, includes drawings of dispositions for Napoleon’s coffin on board Belle Poule.
- A score for the Funeral March played by the St-Helena Local Militia band while the body of the Emperor was carried from the tomb to the town, October 1840.
- The following documents (held at the National Archives, London) relating to the “Retour des Cendres” and the subsequent sale of Longwood House and the Domain of the Tomb on St Helena are reproduced in this blog post:
- A letter to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, from Madame Mère [Napoleon’s mother], begging to be ‘allowed to water the tomb with her tears’.
- A Letter from Palmerston to Granville 9 May 1840, agreeing to allow Napoleon’s body to be returned to France.
- A Letter from Granville to Palmerston, (14 December 1840), announcing that “the Steam Vessel Dorado bearing the Remains of Napoleon and escorted by a Flotilla of nine other vessels under the command of the Prince de Joinville arrived at four o’clock this day opposite Courbevoie”.
- A page from St Helena Government Gazette announcing the sale of the Napoleon Vale estate, 19 September 1846
- The Ordinance of 18 March 1858, declaring that the properties on St Helena were ‘vested in His Majesty the now Emperor of the French [Napoleon III] and his heirs for ever, as absolute owners’
- The Death of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Retour des Cendres: French and British Perspectives, by Fiona Parr (2011). The second part of this article deals with the “Retour des Cendres” and choosing of the location of the tomb and the competition for its design.
- Narrative of proceedings connected with the exhumation and removal of the remains of the late Emperor Napoleon, by a resident, Saint Helena : printed for the proprietor by William Bateman, 1840
- Rediscovering the music that was played while Napoleon’s body was carried from the tomb to the town in October 1840, by Peter Hicks, (December 2021).
- Napoleon’s last will and testament, commented by Chantal Prevot (2021)
- The Russian contribution to the edification of the Napoleon tombstone in Paris by Jacques Touret; Andrey Bulakh (2016),(PDF)
- Final burial of the mortal remains of Emperor Napoleon I at the Eglise des Invalides, 2 April 1861 (translation of an article which appeared in Le Monde Illustré of 13 April 1861). After entering Les Invalides watched by the whole of Paris on 15 December 1840, Napoleon’s coffin lay in the Chapel of St Jérôme at Les Invalides for another 20 or so years until his monumental tomb, designed by Visconti, was finally terminated in the new crypt beneath the Dome. A simple ceremony, described in the following press article, took place on 2 April 1861 in the presence of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie:
The “Retour des Cendres”: Napoleon’s body is returned to Paris
“It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well.” This is the most quoted sentence from Napoleon’s last will and testament. (The old term ‘ashes’ means ‘mortal remains’).
However, this dying wish would not be granted for another nearly 20 years. Napoleon’s coffin finally arrived at the Hôtel des Invalides on 15 December 1840, having travelled more than 7,200 km from the island of St Helena to the French capital, in a symbolic and politically charged expedition ordered by King Louis-Philippe, which would become known as the “Retour des Cendres”.