Napoleon’s last days, March – May 1821, as seen through the eyes of the Grand Marshal Bertrand

Period : St Helena
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This timeline is based on the St Helena notebooks of General Henri Gatien Bertrand, the last 500 days of which are published by Perrin as Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène. Les 500 derniers jours (1820-1821) [The St Helena notebooks, the last 500 days (1820-1821)], by General Henri Gatien Bertrand, commentaries by François Houdecek.

This file is part of our Close-up on the death of Napoleon.

Napoleon’s last days, March – May 1821, as seen through the eyes of the Grand Marshal Bertrand

31 March

Doctor Archibald Arnott of the 20th Regiment agreed to provide medical attendance to Napoleon.

2 April

9 am, Dr Arnott made his second visit to the Emperor, with the Grand Marshal Bertrand acting as interpreter, though his English was far from flawless. Arnott advised Napoleon to take some pills, something which the Emperor refused to do.

3-5 April

The Emperor’s state alternated between better and worse. On 4 April, feverish, he accepted Arnott’s pills and some concoctions “of quinine so as to give strength to the stomach and limit the fever”. Another pill taken at 6am on 5 April.

6-7 April 

The repeated taking of pills and concoctions of quinine in no way reduced the Emperor’s fever.

9 April

Napoleon harshly upbraided Antommarchi for not being appropriately dedicated to his task, not being devoted enough, saying that he would bequeath him “a rope to hang himself with”. Napoleon then furiously attacked the countess Bertrand calling her a whore, claiming (falsely) that she was Antommarchi’s mistress, as she had been Gourgaud’s before! On Antommarchi’s departure, he also attacked the Grand Marshal. Antommarchi went straight to the governor to ask to be allowed to go back to Europe.

10 April

Arnott visited Napoleon several times. The Emperor ate a “Bavaroise” [a dessert containing gelatin and whipped cream], which he vomited several hours later.

11 April

In the morning, after Arnott’s visit, the Grand Marshal pleaded Antommarchi’s cause. Napoleon agreed to the Corsican’s visits. In the afternoon, the Emperor locked himself away with Montholon to dictate his will, a meeting from which Bertrand was excluded.

13 April

Napoleon continued dictating his will. The doctors – Antommarchi had resumed his service – found him weak, the insomnia, the enemas, and the pain having exhausted him.

As a result of a conversation with Arnott about the Duke of Marlborough, Napoleon gave a 3-volume set of Coxe’s Memoirs of John, Duke of Malborough (published in 1819) to the 20th regiment. The presence in one of the volumes of the fateful word “Empereur” (written in by Ali) led governor Lowe to have the volumes sent back and to remove the Ordnance Officer Engelbert Lutyens from Longwood for having received it.

14 April

Montholon fell ill and confessed he could no longer watch over Napoleon. The Emperor suggested the cleric Vignali as a replacement and once again refused the offer of Bertrand and his wife to watch over his bedside.

15 April Palm Sunday

Napoleon admitted Vignali to see him and was lucid about his forthcoming demise. Vignali convinced the Emperor to perform a Quarantine or religious observance of 40 hours.

16 April

Napoleon slightly better.

17 April

Napoleon continued to work on his will and the inventories connected with it, becoming weaker all the time. The Emperor asked Arnott for stronger remedies, to which the British doctor replied that he was too weak for strong remedies. Napoleon remarked: “I know that I do not have the symptoms which suggest death, but I am so weak that it’s not a cannonball that would be needed to kill me; just a single grain of sand would be enough.”

18 April

Napoleon completed his will.

19 April

Napoleon slightly better than the day before, eating a little and having a good night’s sleep. But on waking, his remarks were always about his death and orders related to it. He ordered that his notes on Rogniat should be given to Marbot, a man “who knows a great deal more about military matters than Rogniat”.

20 April Good Friday

Napoleon ate a little and spent a better night, but his lower stomach was painful. The improvement led him to ask to be read to. Marchand read to him from Victoire et Conquêtes. The Grand Marshal read to him Polybius’ account of the Battle of Cannae: “Polybius talks to much. Apparently he never made it higher than Lieutenant Colonel. And you could hardly say that much of his writing deserved even that rank!”

21 April Holy Saturday

Napoleon slept badly and made use of the time to dictate some more of his will remarking that he “would soon be in the company of the greats “… “People will not say that doctors cured me. Rather they delayed my arrival.”

22 April, Easter Day

The Emperor spent two hours closed up with Bertrand, explaining to him point by point his will. He instructed Bertrand (and only him) where he was to be buried: “he desire[d] to be buried not at Plantation House but near the spring which provided him with water during his stay here”. He organised his funeral saying: “I have made my confession, and I wish to pay all my debts, all those of my childhood”. He hesitated and then decided to make a bequest to Wellington’s assassin Cantillon, Sous-Officier in the Imperial Guard, acquitted (absence of proof) after the pseudo assassination attempt on Wellington in Paris on 11 February 1817.

23 April

Napoleon continued the writing of his will. Arnott asked if he had dictated it . He replied: “No, it’s entirely in my hand. I write very badly and very quickly and no one can read my writing. You, the English, you write better than we do. I scorned handwriting in my youth; I have repented of my ways since. For the rest, my head was so engaged, my pen couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. In my best days, I could dictate to four secretaries and give them a great deal of work. I’m a carthorse when it comes to work. You have killed me… their assassin has killed me…”

24 April

After a calm night and a long conversation with Doctor Arnott, Napoleon had a second conversation with Bertrand regarding the will in both political and familial respects. “The Emperor repeated that his correspondence with the sovereigns of Europe should be published, it was a monument for history; that if Joseph had it, it should be published in America, and if it was in the French Archives, one should try to get a hold of it.”

25 April

Napoleon asked the Grand Marshal to put his seal on the codicils of the will. Bertrand, Vignali, Montholon and Marchand all put their seals on and signed the six packets of papers, making in total nine packets of papers. With Montholon, a few hours earlier, Napoleon had signed the two letters attached to his will, namely, that to Labouillerie (CG 15 – 40106) and that to Lafitte (CG 15 – 40107). Above all, the Emperor dictated the letter announcing his own death to Hudson Lowe.

26 April

Towards 7pm, Napoleon and Bertrand discussed the future for Bertrand. Bertrand asked :”What line of conduct should your friends adopt? What principles should guide them, what should be their goal?” Napoleon replied: “Whatever is in France’s interest and to the glory of La Patrie; I see no others.”

Napoleon could no longer hold any food down. He was very weak and was losing his memory.

28 April

Napoleon was no longer himself, was becoming anaemic because of internal bleeding, was becoming less and less lucid, indeed occasionally delirious. During the night he said that he had seen Josephine and spoken to her, he thought he had been walking in the garden at Longwood, he kept requesting oranges. The doctors began to fear the worst. The Grand Marshal Bertrand exclaimed: “I kept thinking about how great the change was! Tears kept coming to my eyes as I looked at that man, so awe-inspiring, who had commanded so proudly, so absolutely, beg for a coffee spoon, asking permission, obedient like a child… “Voilà le grand Napoléon”: to be pitied, brought low!”

29 April

Napoleon continued to be delirious, dictating to Montholon in the dark between 1 and 3 in the morning, making absurd suggestions about altering his will. He slept from 3 to 4am, 4 to 7am singultus with vomiting, 8am enema and then managed to swallow a few spoons of soup. Between 6 and 8am he complained twenty times of the cold and demanded a fire. From 8 to 10.45am he slept. At 11am Arnott entered with the Grand Marshal Bertrand. Napoleon, lucid and awake, asked after the Comtesse. Arnott pressed him to eat – he consumed a few spoons of soup, a biscuit, a glass of wine, and an egg, saying, three or four times, “drink, drink, drink” in English! His mind then wandered again…

30 April

He vomited at 2.30am. Slept from 3 to 6am. Vomiting and singultus from 6 to 8am then sleep. At 11am Arnott found his pulse strong regular and good. At midday, there a mass was held for the Emperor, with the countess Bertrand and her children present. The countess stayed by his bedside until 7pm.

At 1.30pm he vomited, then for the next three hours remained with his eyes closed, occasionally opening them to glance at those around him. Arnott and Antommarchi returned at 5.30pm, only seeing Napoleon briefly to bandage his suppurating arm. Another enema. At 6.45pm Arnott returned to Deadwood Camp and Antommarchi went off to dinner.

From 7 to 9pm Napoleon was calm, singultus from 9 to 10pm and difficult breathing. At 11pm the Grand Marshal sent for Arnott. Antommarchi thought that Napoleon was going to die between 10 and 11pm. At 11.30pm, the Emperor vomited a great deal of mucus and was much relieved. Arnott arrived at 11.45pm, but left at midnight finding Napoleon much improved and out of immediate danger.

1 May

At 2am, the Grand Marshal at Napoleon’s bedside thought he perceived that the Emperor was barely breathing and called Antommarchi. Pulse acceptable and breathing relatively easy. Asking to pass water at 2.30am, he then slept calmly for an hour. A bowel movement at 4.30am, with singultus and difficult breathing, then at 5am calm. At 5.30am he vomited, then was calmer until 7am when he vomited and had singultus. At the Grand Marshal’s arrival at 9am he was relatively much better. Antommarchi arrived at 10am and the Countess Bertrand at 10.15am. Napoleon dismissed her at 11.15am. The doctors arrived at 11.45am and agreed that Napoleon was in danger. While Bertrand was out, between 1.30 and 2.30pm, Vignali set up his altar and spent a few moments alone with Napoleon, giving him extreme unction. Napoleon refused all food and his conversation became confused all afternoon and early evening with frequently repeated questions regarding the doctors and commissioners on the island. After a delirious moment over dinner, Napoleon began again to have singultus and to breathe with difficulty. At midnight the assembled company (Arnott, Marchand, the Count and Countess Bertrand, Vignali and Ali) retired.

2 May

Mixed sleep and agitation until 2.30am, when Napoleon began to suffer from singultus. A quarter of an hour later he demanded to go walking. Vignali and Montholon attempted to help him, but as Vignali dropped to his knees in prayer, Napoleon fell, Ali came running, the Emperor had a stomach convulsion, and all thought that he would die. He remained agitated until 4am, when he cried out “My God! My God! My God!”. Arnott was called for at 5am, and he arrived at 6am. The Emperor was barely breathing.

A brief delirious conversation, then periods of calm followed by deep singultus coming from the lower abdomen, bringing great pain.

At 3pm, Napoleon spoke to Bertrand and then dismissed him.

At 4 or 5pm the doctors encouraged Napoleon to have an enema. No reply.

From 6 to 10pm tranquil but with pulse gradually increasing. Arnott saw this as a sign of incipient death.

3 May

Marchand watched by his bedside until 3am. Arnott slept in Crokat’s small room. Antommarchi slept in the library, Montholon, Marchand, Ali, Vignali and the Grand Marshal all in the Emperor’s bed chamber. Napoleon slept and was breathing calmly. At 3am, Montholon took over from Marchand. At 6.30am, Napoleon took some wine mixed with sugar. After each sip he repeated: “Good, bon, very well” [sic]. He repeated “good, bon” [sic] three times in a row almost all day long. Before 10am he took some biscuit with wine. From midday to 1.30pm, periods of calm followed by singultus. Arnott thought him weaker than the day before. At 7.30pm, Arnott insisted on medicine and an enema. Antommarchi said that they should not do it as Napoleon was too weak and laid the responsibility for it on Arnott.  After much discussion, the enema was abandoned.

The governor arrived at 2.30pm and informed Montholon that he was obliged to send the premier doctor on the island and also that of the Admiral (doctors Shortt and Mitchell), since he imagined that Napoleon was by now in immediate danger of death. Hudson Lowe also confessed that he had not believed that Napoleon was ill, hence had not sent either Shortt or Mitchell before that. He also informed Montholon of the latest European news.

Bertrand and Montholon agreed to call in Shortt and Mitchell.

Without being allowed to see Napoleon, Shortt proposed that Napoleon should be given 10 grains of calomel – to take the place of the enema and to evacuate the stomach. All the British doctors were in agreement. Antommarchi submitted to the majority decision.

At 5.30pm, Napoleon was given calomel, sabayon and some wine. The Grand Marshal’s children were brought in to see Napoleon at the foot of his bed. Hortense and Henry did not recognise him.

From 6 to 11pm, the Emperor was by turns tranquil then with singultus, unbearably deep sighs and dead looking eyes.

At 11pm, on seeing that the calomel had not had any effect, Arnott suggested giving another 10 grains at midnight. On Antommarchi’s disagreement, the two other doctors were recalled from Alarm House, arriving at midnight.

With Arnott and Antommarchi still in heated argument, at 11.30pm the Emperor passed a large black stool, one of the largest he had passed in a month, giving everyone hope. The Emperor seemed better and took a few spoonfuls of sabayon. At 1am he seemed no longer in danger. His voice was stronger. He asked his son’s name. He seemed to have regained his reason.

4 May

At 2am, another stool. From 3 to 5am singultus. Another stool at 6.30am. 8am, very weak, three fainting fits. At 10.45am, the words “Well then, Bertrand”. Midday, another stool. He revived a little. Took some jelly. At 2-30pm, the words “Madame Bertrand, oh!” At 2.45pm, two fainting fits five minutes apart. Another stool. At 3.15pm, cold broth and orange flower water every five to ten minutes. 15 minutes of sleep. At 4pm deep sigh, then singultus until 4.30pm and again until 5pm. At 5.30pm, Montholon and Bertrand received Shortt and Mitchell, who told them that the governor had demanded that they see the Emperor, perhaps when it was dark, so that they could take his pulse and feel his stomach. Between 6 and 8pm, sips of cold broth, and orange flower water, sleep and occasional agitation. At 8pm another stool, smaller and less noxious than those before. 9pm singultus. Half a cup of broth. Antommarchi thought that he would not make it through the night. The Emperor appeared to be in pain.

5 May

Midnight to 1am, singultus getting increasingly stronger. 1 to 3am he drank more often. 3am strong singultus and a groan that seemed to come from very far away. 3 to 4.30am, singultus, groans, yawns, apparently in great pain. Some words, notably “at the head of the army”. 4 to 5am great weakness and moans. He seemed already like a corpse. 5 to 6am easier breathing. At 6am, Arnott struck his finger against Napoleon’s stomach, which seemed inflated and which made a sound like a drum. Arnott announced that the last moment was approaching. The count and countess Bertrand were called in. From 6 to 6.15am, singultus and unbearable groans. 6.15 to 6.30am, great tranquillity and easy breathing. Eyes fixed staring open. Easy sleep, with some sighs, to 8am. Sound of air escaping from the mouth from deep in the stomach, more like an instrument than a sigh. Arnott was amazed that the Emperor was still alive.

Calm to 10.30/11am, gentle breathing, body completely still, occasional movement in the pupils, then eye three-quarter closed. As the half hours passed, certain sighs or sounds. Generally very calm and motionless.

Sixteen people were present, twelve of which French.

At 11.30, Arnott placed two poultices on Napoleon’s feet, and Antommarchi set two blisters, one on his chest and the other on his calf.

At 2.30pm, Arnott placed a hot water bottle on his stomach.

At 5.49pm, the Emperor gave up the ghost.

The governor gave Arnott charge over the corpse. At 10pm, Vignali offered some prayers. At 11.30pm, the Emperor was shaved. Six hours after his death, they cleaned him and changed the linen.

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