Napoleon had requested in his will that his remains should be laid to rest “by the banks of the Seine, surrounded by the French people, whom I love so dearly”. But at that time, there was little chance that either the restored Bourbon monarchy or the British authorities would allow the creation of what might well become a shrine to their old enemy in Paris. Napoleon would be buried on St Helena.
The whole population turned out to watch as 12 British grenadiers carried Napoleon’s velvet-covered coffin for burial in the tranquil Geranium Valley. There, dressed in his favourite uniform of a colonel of the Chasseurs à Cheval, Napoleon’s body was laid to rest. Even then there was one last battle to be fought. And it was all over a surname.
The French wanted simply to inscribe ‘Napoleon’, his name as emperor, on the tomb. But the British, who were reluctant to give his empire any sense of legitimacy, insisted on his full name – Napoleon Bonaparte. Neither side would give ground and in the end the remains of the most famous man in Europe would spend nearly 20 years in an unmarked grave.
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Return to France: Napoleon’s final resting place
When Napoleon died in 1821, his request to be buried in Paris was rejected. Nineteen years later things had changed. King Louis-Philippe wanted to boost his popularity by associating himself with Napoleon’s memory, while the British wanted to make a gesture to gain French support over a crisis in the Middle East.
The French duly asked for the return of Napoleon’s remains and the British agreed. In October 1840, a French expedition led by Louis-Philippe’s own son sailed to St Helena and the caskets containing Napoleon’s body were opened. After confirming its identity, they transferred Napoleon’s remains into six new caskets and sailed them back to France and up the river Seine, ready for burial in the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, a traditional resting place of France’s military heroes.
On 15 December, one million French people ignored freezing temperatures to line the streets of Paris, as the huge carriage carrying Napoleon’s coffin trundled past the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées and finally crossed the Seine to Les Invalides.
Julian Humphrys is a historian and battlefields expert