Bad manners and a game of thrones: inside the court of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte was a monarch obsessed with rank, splendour and his own dynasty – and, says Philip Mansel, one of the rudest monarchs in history. Writing for History Extra, Mansel explores life inside the court of Napoleon I…
The French Revolution appears to have been a search for liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality it had been an interlude caused by the failures of Louis XVI and his ministers, the outbreak of war, and the radicalism of the assemblies. Far from diminishing appetite for monarchy and court life, the revolution had increased it.
Bonaparte fulfilled the prophecy of the great counter-revolutionary writer Rivarol: “Either the king will have an army or the army will have a king.” Seven years after the fall of the French monarchy in 1792, following his coup d’etat of November 1799 [which overthrew the Directory – the government of France – replacing it with the French Consulate and bringing Napoleon to power as First Consul of France], Bonaparte relaunched monarchy in the heart of the French Republic.
His first step was the creation of a privileged guard, devoted to himself, in December 1799 – the nucleus of what would become the Imperial Guard. From the beginning it was an elitist unit with splendid uniforms and privileges of pay and rank over other forces. The First Consul of the French Republic, as Napoleon had become, held weekly, later monthly, reviews of his guard in the courtyard of the Tuileries palace (the former residence of Louis XIV and Louis XVI, which at that time stretched between the two wings of the Louvre, facing the Tuileries garden), riding a white horse that had once belonged to Louis XVI. According to one English visitor, the guards’ presence in Paris “alone maintains public tranquillity and causes a sensation”.
Napoleon moved in to the Tuileries palace in January 1800. Thereafter, at the same time as introducing a new constitution, with a Senate, Tribunate and Corps Legislatif (by a calculated sequence of ‘monarchising’ measures), he established a court system. After the creation of a guard, and installation in a royal palace, Bonaparte began to hold weekly receptions. People had to wear court dress with silk stockings and buckled shoes, or uniform. An English visitor wrote that “none of the levers of the European courts can vie in splendour with those of the chief Consul”.
In May 1804, Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor of the French as Napoleon I. He established households for himself and the members of his dynasty. On 2 December, in the presence of the pope, he crowned himself Emperor in Notre Dame.
Napoleon’s ‘game of thrones’
Thereafter, Napoleon played his own ‘game of thrones’ – he weakened himself and the French empire by putting his brothers and brothers-in-law on the thrones of Lucca (1805), Holland (1806), Naples (1806), Westphalia (1807), Berg (1807) and Spain (1808). While on their thrones, the Bonapartes were saving money in case they fell from power. His elder brother, Joseph Napoleon, king of Spain, for example, stole the Spanish crown jewels and much of the royal collection of pictures (which were later captured by Wellington and are now in his London residence, Apsley House). The large squares the Bonapartes cleared in front of their palaces – in Amsterdam, Naples and Madrid – were designed to make it easier to shoot hostile crowds.
Napoleon I played games with physical thrones also, forbidding his relations to sit on armchairs in his presence – making exceptions only for sisters or sisters-in-law if they were pregnant. Even his mother only had the right to use a chair without arms. In 1811, because his mother was refused an armchair, she did not attend the baptism of Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome.
Napoleon I not only appointed members of his dynasty monarchs outside France. He also abolished all remaining republics in Europe, old and new: Venice (1797), France (1804), Genoa (1805), Lucca (1805), Dubrovnik (1806), the Cisalpine (1805), Batavian (1806) and Septinsular (1807) republics. Royal palaces were installed in Amsterdam, Venice and Genoa. He made the city of Frankfurt into a Grand Duchy (the heir of which would have been his stepson, Eugene-Napoleon) and allotted all 52 former ‘free cities’ of the Holy Roman Empire to different German rulers, or himself. The rulers of Saxony, Bavaria and Wurttemberg were promoted from electors to kings by Napoleon. Thanks to him, the early 19th century was the most monarchical period in European history.
Napoleon was one of the rudest monarchs in history: he attacked in conversation as well as on the battlefield. He insulted foreign ambassadors, taunted Marshal Berthier, his grand huntsman, and General Caulaincourt, his grand equerry, with their wives’ alleged infidelities, and called Talleyrand, his grand chamberlain (who was also foreign minister), “a lump of shit in a silk stocking”. It was said that Napoleon had a “green laugh”.
Among those who knew him well, Napoleon inspired little personal loyalty: almost all his courtiers turned against him after his defeats in 1814 and 1815, and in both years they forced him to abdicate. Almost all those who followed him to Saint Helena were trying to obtain financial rewards, or material for a book of memoirs, rather than acting out of loyalty. Napoleon maintained court etiquette on the island, keeping courtiers standing in his presence and insisting on being treated as an emperor.
Napoleon’s court also shows him to have been more obsessed with status than other monarchs of the day. He wanted more palaces and more formal etiquette, and was more autocratic than the Bourbons. He had more than 100 chamberlains, and a total of around 3,000 men in his household, whereas Louis XVI had had only four first gentlemen of the chamber, and around 2,000 in his household. In January 1814, when speakers in the chamber of representatives demanded peace, he was infuriated. At a reception in the Tuileries palace, he declared: “Everything resides in the throne. I alone represent the people”. He believed that France needed him more than he needed France.
In June 1815, Napoleon alienated opinion by preferring to wear the elaborate embroidered ‘Petit Costume de l’Empereur’ rather than the uniform of the Paris National Guard. He insisted on sending messages to the chamber of representatives through his chamberlains rather than through a responsible minister. After Waterloo, it voted his deposition.
Napoleon I owned more than 60 palaces, more than Louis XIV. His private life and apartments were kept separate from the public state apartments. Rank was shown by which room courtiers were allowed to enter in the state apartments, rather than, as at Versailles, what time they were allowed into the king’s bedroom. Napoleon’s court would be more famous if the main palaces he used – the Tuileries in Paris and Saint-Cloud to the west – had not been burned down in 1870–71, by the revolutionary Paris Commune in the first case, and during fighting in the Franco-Prussian War in the second.
However, luxurious Napoleonic apartments with their original furniture and decoration survive in two other palaces outside Paris: Fontainebleau and Compiegne. At times Napoleon thought of moving into Versailles and living there, “as did Louis XVI”. He ordered two restoration projects, in 1806–07 and 1810–12. A throne room would have replaced the bedroom of Louis XIV. The emperor frequently inspected the restoration work, directed by his premier architect Pierre Fontaine.
Eager to please the silk industry of Lyon, for which he opened special government credits, Napoleon instituted lavish costumes for himself and his court, adding sashes, cloaks and feathered hats to the costume worn by courtiers at Versailles (George IV would later base English civil uniforms, which were worn by senior officials until 1939, on those of Napoleon’s court). He wore more ostrich plumes in his hat than Marie Antoinette. If the revolution had been a war between silk and cloth, silk had won.
Like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), Napoleon’s courtiers, most of whom had been revolutionaries who had sworn hatred of monarchy and devotion to the Republic, ended by wearing the same clothes as, and looking indistinguishable from, their former masters”. So much silk was ordered from the looms of Lyon to decorate his palaces – 87 kilometres – that it was still being used for government chairs 100 years later.
In 1808, Napoleon founded his own nobility. Members would include not only successful officers and former nobles, but regicides such as Sieyes, author of the revolutionary pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? of 1789; and Carnot, ‘organiser of victory’ during the reign of terror. Both became counts.
The proportion of offices at Napoleon’s court held by nobles rose from 65 per cent in 1804 to 82 per cent in 1814. Throughout the 19th century, the noblesse d’Empire – men such as the Duc de Dalmatie, the Prince de Wagram and the Prince d’Essling – would reinforce and repopularise aristocracy in France. The 19th century would be a golden age for the French nobility: more chateaux were built than in the 18th century. Napoleon’s most intimate confidant, Duroc Duc de Frioul, was a noble. As Grand Marechal du Palais, he ran the court. He died shortly after a battle in 1813.
Some courtiers, however, were non-noble. The novelist Stendhal (whose real name was Henri Beyle) was an ultra-loyal Bonapartist, who admired both the emperor and his family. As an inspector of crown furniture in 1810–14, he was an official of the imperial household, attended the court and planned to refurnish the emperor’s Italian palaces with empire furniture from France. He wrote that the emperor’s vanity had reached “the level of a disease”.
Nevertheless, after the return of the Bourbons in 1814 he refused to enter the Tuileries palace. His career shows the power of dynastic loyalty and the court system in the 19th century. His 1839 masterpiece, La Chartreuse de Parme, is a novel about court life, set in a small Italian court.
Napoleon revived the court’s autumn hunting trips to Fontainebleau, which Louis XVI had stopped in 1786. Napoleon went hunting there for a total of about 50 days in the autumns of 1807, 1809 and 1810. Around 10,000 people were lodged in the palace and the town. As they had under Louis XVI, theatre companies came from Paris to perform in the palace theatre in the evening. From Vienna the Prince de Ligne, who had followed the hunts of Louis XV and Louis XVI, commented: “Why does Napoleon act as the king of France, being the king of the world? When you hunt kings, you should not hunt deer.”
Napoleon’s love life
Napoleon’s first marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais (who he wed in 1796) was childless. They divorced in 1810. His second marriage, to a niece of Marie Antoinette, the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, in 1810, was an apogee of court life in France. They processed from the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace through his equivalent of the La Galerie des Glaces of Versailles [the Hall of Mirrors]; the Grand Galerie of the Louvre, lined with pictures taken in front of the palaces and churches of Europe, past 4,000 cheering Parisians in court dress.
In time, the imperial household became an alternative government under the Ministre Secretaire d’Etat Maret Duc de Bassano; the imperial guard a separate army under four Colonel-Generals; and the Domaine Extraordinaire, the Emperor’s private fund, swollen by the property he acquired from his conquests in Europe, a separate treasury. A son and heir, called the King of Rome, was born in 1811.
Napoleon was more insecure than his victories and his court made him appear. There were always Frenchmen planning his downfall. By 1814, thanks to war, conscription and a deteriorating economy, he was extremely unpopular in much of France. He had become a tyrant who told courtiers whom they should marry and to which schools they should send their children. He censored any references to kings in plays.
On 12 March the port of Bordeaux opened its gates to a Bourbon prince, the Duc d’Angouleme, and British troops. On 31 March, after Paris surrendered, Parisians cheered the victorious allied army as it entered their city under Tsar Alexander I and King Frederick William III of Prussia. The disgraced Grand Chamberlain Talleyrand organised the deposition of Napoleon by the Senate and the proclamation of the brother of Louis XVI, as King Lous XVIII. There were also popular risings against Napoleon in Marseille and Milan. The claims of the King of Rome were forgotten.
Napoleon left France smaller and weaker – by the loss of a million men – than he found it. Not one Napoleonic monarchy, constitution or frontier survived his downfall. Even his army was dissolved after Waterloo, and a new one – the basis of the French army of the 19th century – formed by Louis XVIII. The Napoleonic legend was exactly that – legend, not reality.
Napoleon did, however, leave a dynasty, with a sense of rank and entitlement. In exile after 1815 they continued to behave as if they were still on the throne. Henry Fox wrote of Princess Pauline in Pisa in 1823: “Her manner and her reception could not have been more royal if Napoleon was still on the throne he had once made illustrious by possessing.”
In 1828 Fox found that Jerome-Napoleon, former king of Westphalia, kept “certainly the best mounted and most princely looking establishment” in Rome, and “will not go out where he is not received as a king”. As they had at the Tuileries, in Rome the Bonapartes quarrelled over who had the right to sit in an armchair at ‘family dinners’; in the end Madame Mère stopped giving them.
Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon became president of the French republic in 1848 and emperor in 1852. He too presided over a lavish court and remonarchised Paris with the construction of new palaces, boulevards and the opera house. However, his regime, like his uncle’s, ended in disaster. In 1870 France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon III was deposed, the Third Republic proclaimed; France had to acknowledge – although it never accepted – the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.
Since 1958, however, in a new form, monarchy in France is back: the Fifth Republic is frequently called a ‘monarchical republic’ or ‘republican monarchy’. De Gaulle ensured that the president would have more power than in previous republics. He also revived the Napoleonic instrument of the plebiscite, as the president’s mode of election. Charles De Gaulle told Alain Peyrefitte [a French scholar and politician]: “Yes, we are a monarchy but it is an elective monarchy… It has instituted a new legitimacy interrupted by the revolution, but this legitimacy depends on the people.”
The long war between the executive and the legislature, which destroyed the Bourbon monarchy, weakened the First and Second Empires, and paralysed the Third and Fourth Republics, is over. The executive has won.
Dr Philip Mansel is author of Louis XVIII (1981); Prince of Europe: The Life of Charles-Joseph de Ligne 1735–1814 (2003), and Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution 1814–1852 (2001). He is also the author of The Eagle in Splendour: Inside the Court of Napoleon (IB Tauris, 2015), the first book in English on Napoleon’s court.
To find out more, visit www.philipmansel.com