Death and the Emperor

David G. Chandler


Dr David G. Chandler, FINS

one of the greatest English Napoleonic historians


This article was first published in the autumn 2002 edition of Folio, the magazine of The Folio Society, a publisher of fine books. It is a substantially revised and shortened version of an article which first appeared in Napoleonic Scholarship in 1997, and was printed to coincide with The Folio Society’s publication of a new edition of David G. Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon. For details of becoming a member of The Folio Society go to

Napoleon's death at St Helena


‘Death is nothing,’ wrote Napoleon in 1804, ‘but to live defeated is to die every day.’ Like many men – especially active soldiers – the Emperor was aware of the possibility of violent death. Many soldiers are killed in the hot, desperate confusion of fighting. Relatively few die from coldly planned murder – but such was the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte in May 1821 after six years’ exile on St Helena, that barren rock in the midst of the distant southern Atlantic.


            It was never my ambition to attempt to prove that Napoleon was murdered. That was left to Dr Ben Weider, whose compulsive interest in Napoleon’s fate has yielded dramatic results over the last twenty-five years. Along with the Swedish researcher and writer, the late Dr Sten Forshufvud, Dr Weider has triumphantly challenged and defeated many doubters, including important French, American and English Napoleonic authorities.


            There is no question that the Emperor had his fair share of near brushes with the ‘grim reaper’. Indeed, his great military career might well have been stifled at a very early stage: at the siege of Toulon in late 1793 his forehead was gashed by a bayonet, his chest slightly injured a month later when his horse was killed under him (over the following twenty-two years he had a further eighteen horses killed beneath him), and he received quite a serious injury to his left inner thigh, again from a British bayonet.


            Napoleon also survived several assassination attempts. At the coup d’état of Brumaire in November 1799, an infuriated member of the Conseil des Cinq-Cents drew a dagger upon him, but was restrained by a grenadier of Napoleon’s escort before he could strike. In September 1800, an attempt on Napoleon’s life was narrowly foiled on the steps of the Opéra in Paris; and Christmas Eve the same year saw the vast explosion by an ‘infernal machine’ on his and Josephine’s journey to the Opéra. Many later attempts were orchestrated by the Comte d’Artois (the younger brother of Louis XVIII), who, while stationed in England, specialised in trying to murder Napoleon. Clearly, Napoleon had bitter and highly dangerous enemies, especially amongst the exiled House of Bourbon.


            Usually, Napoleon’s health was sturdy and sound, his energy both immense and sustained. We know from the recollections of his closest associates that he was very moderate in his eating and drinking habits. And yet, at a number of very critical moments during his military career, he was abruptly afflicted by incapacitating transitory illnesses. It would be a bold man who asserted that any one of these highly inconvenient lapses was due to anything other than natural causes. The strains of high command in war are immense, and many a general has succumbed to one form of trouble or another on the eve of, during, or immediately after a major engagement. It is simply that Napoleon seems to have had rather more than his fair share of such misfortunes.


            The circumstances of Napoleon’s demise have been shrouded by doubt and surmise ever since the fateful day, 5 May 1821. Until now, the most generally held belief was that he fell victim to carcinoma of the stomach – the supposed cause of his father’s death in 1785. But the evidence of the post-mortem reports – there were three independent accounts of the autopsy findings – is in some ways conflicting and not all medical authorities are in agreement with the results. It is hard for the layman to judge the medical evidence, and the temptation to accept the most generally held view is strong in the absence of positive and carefully tested proof to the contrary. But this evidence has now been provided.


            Dr Weider’s first breakthrough was on 28 August 1995, when the US Department of Justice at Washington DC agreed concerning the analysis of two of Napoleon’s hairs that ‘The amount of arsenic present in the submitted . . . is consistent with arsenic poisoning’. A separate letter from New Scotland Yard, London, dated 4 November 1997, stated ‘the answer must be “yes”, with a view to presenting a formal case [of arsenic poisoning] to the Crown Prosecution Service’. Then, on 1 June 2001, Dr Weider revealed to a large meeting in Paris that he had received from Dr Pascal Kintz of the Toxicology Department at the University of Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, an analysis of five samples of Napoleon’s hair taken soon after his death. According to Dr Kintz, these ‘showed there was major exposure, and I stress major, to arsenic’. Some French experts are still cautious over the results, but many more now have an open mind. Since June 2001 the Weider case has been very much stronger.


            It is almost certain, therefore, that Napoleon did not die a natural death. But what is still not clear is who was (or were) the murderer (or murderers).


            Napoleon declared in his will that ‘I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassin’. There were rumours to this effect soon after his death – particularly among Bonapartist circles. Some accused Major-General Sir Hudson Lowe, the unpleasant Governor of St Helena. This is unlikely: the British Government, far from trying to cause or hasten Napoleon’s demise, took positive steps to guard against any such occurrence. The posting of sentries around Longwood, which Napoleon so bitterly hated, and the insistence that he should be accompanied by a British officer whenever he went riding, were in fact measures dictated as much by a genuine concern for the safety of Napoleon’s person as by a wish to ensure that he did not escape from the island.


            However, how could they hope to guard Napoleon from an enemy hidden within his entourage? Forshufvud’s thesis is that Napoleon was administered arsenic, in calculated doses in his wine, over a number of years, and finally succumbed to poisoning by one of his closest associates, Charles-Tristan, Comte de Montholon.


            Montholon had the opportunity to administer poison on numerous occasions. He was no doubt fully aware that he was a major beneficiary of Napoleon’s will, having been present at the drafting and signing of the last will and eight codicils written between 15 and 25 April 1821. Montholon is mentioned at least fifteen times, over half of them to his potential financial advantage. The sudden death of Napoleon’s major-domo, Franceschi Cipriani, on 26 February 1818, followed by those of a woman and child (both members of Montholon’s household), also merit close examination as several authorities have acknowledged that these deaths must have been caused by acute arsenical poisoning.


            Many historians have accepted at face value the bland autobiographical sketch that Montholon gave in the introduction to his Récits de la captivité de Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène. According to this, he received five wounds during the Austrian Campaign of 1809 – but it is rather strange to find no mention of these on Martinien’s celebrated Tableaux . . . des officiers tués et blessés pendant les guerres de l’Empire, 1805–1815. He also alleges to have been promoted to général-de-brigade in 1811, and to général-de-division on 15 June 1815. Few of these claims are supported by the records. It appears that Montholon never advanced beyond the rank of full colonel during the Napoleonic Wars. However, he was promoted to maréchal-de-camp (equivalent to a junior general) on 23 August 1814 by Louis XVIII, having joined the Bourbons. By any standards Montholon appears a scheming and unscrupulous man.


            There was a great fuss for several years before the Emperor’s death, as the Observer reported in June 1816:


It is truly ridiculous to read the contradictory accounts with which the newspapers are crammed respecting Napoleon, many of which contain gross falsehoods . . . Such are the stories of his recounting to two young ladies the history of his campaigns, with all the loquacious vanity of a schoolboy describing the hair-breadth escapes he had encountered on his first fox chase . . . It is a piece with the Munchausen accounts of his breakfast, which modestly state that he drinks a pot of porter and two bottles of claret at that meal, when the fact is that there are very few men more temperate than he in the use of wine.


            Although Napoleon only drank white Chambertin, the journalist prophetically mentioned both the instrument of Napoleon’s poisoning and the means of its discovery. Little did the writer, so many years ago, guess that Napoleon’s fate might be linked with a ‘hair-breadth’ and ‘wine’. But then, of course, it is almost certain that Montholon was already devastatingly at work.



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