Happy Birthday Napoleon!

Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748 - 1825 ), The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812,by Jacques-Louis David, image from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Happy Birthday Napoleon!  

Napoleon Bonaparte was born 246 years ago today.

Three years ago I wished Napoleon a Happy Birthday and began a series of posts about  Napoleon the soldier and politician, Napoleon the lover, and  Napoleon the estate planner.  I needed a break from the Napoleon saga but I couldn’t stay away from the man for long.  This post is about the return of Napoleon’s remains to France and how the French people have honored him with one of the grandest resting places on earth.

In his will, Napoleon asked that his remains be returned to France, so he could be buried on the banks of the Seine “in the midst of the French people whom I loved so much”.


“I Wish That my Ashes Lie on the Banks of the Seine” by Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet (1840) my photograph at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Instead, his British captors buried him under some willow trees in the “Geranium Valley” on St Helena, the island he despised.

Soon after his death, on his birthday, Napoleon’s mother wrote an impassioned letter to the British government stating “The mother of the Emperor Napoleon demands from his enemies the remains of her son….” She ended her letter with this wonderful lineI gave Napoleon to France and to the world; in the name of God, in the name of all mothers, I beg you, my Lord, not to refuse me the body of my son“.

naps mom

Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte, click for source.

In addition, Napoleons’ executors sent a formal request for the release of the body. The British were like, sure, you can have him, but the French government has got to ask us, not just his family or friends.

For the next nineteen years, Napoleon’s body stayed on St. Helena because the French government under King Louis XVIII didn’t want Napoleon back – the king was afraid his return would encourage more revolution. Once Napoleon’s only legitimate son died in 1840, the king felt safer and finally asked for the return, suggesting it would encourage friendship between France and England.


King Louis XVIII, image from Wikipedia, click for source

The British agreed that the French could come fetch Napoleon’s remains, but there was no friendship created.  In fact, on the return voyage, the Frenchmen threw most of their furniture overboard so they could set up cannons in case the British attacked them at sea!

The return of Napoleon’s remains to France was a huge deal for much of the population, who called his return the “retour des cendres (the return of ashes) even though Napoleon had not been cremated. The French government agreed to spend a bundle on the return and they sent three ships and some important people to fetch Napoleon’s remains.

The expedition was headed by the king’s son, the Prince of Joinville,  who commanded the main ship, the frigate Belle Poule. He didn’t want to go because he felt that fetching the body was a chore for an undertaker, but he made the trip fun by stopping off and partying all along the way.

Prince Joinville took along several people who’d gone into exile with Napoleon on St. Helena.  They included Napoleon’s executors Bertrand (and Bertrand’s son who had been born on the island) and Marchand. The third executor, Montholon, couldn’t go because he was in jail for trying to overthrow the government in aid of Napoleon’s nephew,”Napoleon III”.


Model of the Belle Poule, cllick for source

When the ships finally got to St. Helena, there was a ceremonial exhumation that began at midnight in the rain. Every second of the ceremony has been described in excruciating detail by several of those present. Napoleon had been buried in a series of coffins made of tin, lead, and mahogany and the delegation brought several more coffins to hold the original ones.

Once they dug up and opened the coffins, a doctor described Napoleon’s remains. His written description of the condition of Napoleon’s body continues for several pages. Here is a sample ” The chin itself had suffered no change, and still preserved the type peculiar to the face of Napoleon. The lips, which had become thinner, were parted; three incisor teeth of extreme whiteness appeared under the upper lip which was a little raised at the left side. The hands left nothing to desire, there were not altered in the slightest degree; although the muscles had lost their power of motion, the skin seemed to have preserved that peculiar colour which belongs only to life; the nails were long, adherent and very white”.

The doctor wanted to inspect the containers that held Napoleon’s stomach and intestines, but by then most of the French contingent were crying and they wouldn’t let him continue.
The Belle Poule and two other ships sailed for France in October, 1840. It took them more than a month to reach the French city of Cherbourg where they put Napoleon’s six coffins on a decorated steamship, the Normandie, and brought him to the harbor city of Havre.  There, they loaded him onto another ship, the Dorade that brought him up the Seine to Paris to be placed on a funeral barge.

The planners in Paris weren’t ready for Napoleon, and according to some, the final preparations were rather slap-dash.  When the barge arrived in Paris, Napoleon’s coffins were placed on an amazing funeral carriage. This carriage was 88 feet high, 88 feet long and 90 feet wide. It had so much stuff on it that it took 16 horses to pull it.


My photograph of the funeral carriage from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

They pulled Napoleon into Paris on a really cold day. People lined the route – fans had camped out the night before for good spots (some even froze to death). They brought Napoleon to his final resting place of Les Invalides (a military hospital) where the royalty and politicians were waiting. There was a funeral mass with a choir of hundreds of singers from the French opera.   According to some accounts, the royalty in attendance on the day of Napoleon’s return acted badly, with disrespect for the Emperor – they were rightly worried about the return inciting new coup attempts.

Les Invalides was orginally built to house sick and old veterans. King Louis XIV later added a grand royal domed chapel where they put Napoleon’s remarkable sarcophagus.


Dome des Invalides. Image from Wikipedia.

Napoleon’s tomb is breathtaking. There are beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the dome.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Napoleon’s gigantic brownish-red stone sarcophagus is mounted on a huge green stone pedestal in the middle of  a circular mosaic floor, surrounded by statues.  It is majestic.

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Napoleon is not the only one entombed in the church.  Two of his brothers, (parts of) his son, and many generals and French war heros are there as well.


My photograph of another tomb at Les Invalides.


My photograph of another tomb at Les Invalides.

You can take a virtual tour of Napoleon’s final resting place at the Les Invalides website. The tomb is a massive tourist draw, despite the rather steep entrance fee.

In New York City, you can get a sense of Napoleon’s tomb by visiting Grant’s Tomb in which was modeled after Napoleon’s, but is not nearly as grand.


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