Volume II - Chapiter 6
DECEMBER 2 1804
NAPOLEON CROWNED IN NOTRE-DAME
The Empire, as I saw it, was only the official establishment of the Republican doctrine; it consolidated the reforms and the work of the "Assemblée constituante"; it turned the old French monarchy into a young monarchy that was full of grandeur and which had a future.
(Napoleon to Montholon, at St-Helena)
The results speak for themselves: 3,572,329 votes "For" and 2,569 "Against."
There was no ambiguity in the response of the French people to the plebiscite on the question of hereditary succession for the Empire. The Senate accordingly enshrined the hereditary principle as a fundamental structure of the state.
The reaction of the Vendée region was perhaps most representative of the relief the country felt at the restoration of civil peace; previously Royalist in its sympathies, it was near unanimous in its support of the man who had brought an end to the fratricidal conflict.
The voters united to honour, not their political institutions, but the man who, in five years, had raised France from its moribund state and brought it unprecedented prestige.
The Empire was, in a sense, a homage paid to the Consulate.
The following day, May 19, Napoleon announced a number of appointments of dignitaries for the new regime: the former Second and Third Consuls, Cambacérès and Lebrun became, respectively, High Chancellor and Chief Treasurer; Joseph Bonaparte, Grand Elector; Louis Bonaparte, Constable; and, perhaps the most surprising, Murat the cavalryman became First Admiral! The title was fortunately purely honorific and inspired by the precedent of such a title in the Tsar’s army, whose actual duties remained obscure.
The Emperor also raised 14 generals to the rank of Imperial Marshal: Berthier, Lannes, Murat, Moncey, Jourdan, Masséna, Augereau, Bernadotte, Soult, Brune, Mortier, Ney, Davout, Bessières. The names of four Senators, who were generals having had chief command, were also added to this list: Kellermann, Lefebvre, Pérignon, and Sérurier, men whose relatively advanced age signified that their appointment was more in recognition of past services than in expectation of new efforts. Even so, the man nicknamed "Old Lefebvre," still sound of wind and limb, continued to win renown with his legendary brusqueness until 1814, including the Russian Campaign.
On April 23, during a private session of the Council of State, in addition to the issue of heredity, the question of the coronation of the head of the new dynasty had been raised, and by Bonaparte himself, for he was well aware of how much support for the throne the backing of a dominant religion could represent.
In the Assembly, still full of revolutionaries, there was extreme reluctance to accept the issue. A lively opposition arose.
As soon as he was appointed Emperor – "Emperor of the Republic" – Napoleon sought to have the Roman Catholic religion, restored by his efforts, give its sanction to the rights of the throne that the Nation had just conferred upon him. This involved being anointed by the hands of the Supreme Pontiff.
For some, this wish was a grave error, for it resuscitated the "always excessive pretensions of ministers of religion, when, on the contrary, France and its rulers should be emancipated from foreign dependence, the source of so many of Europe’s troubles and miseries in previous centuries." Speakers further supported their case by arguing, with some justification, that "the intervention of the Pontiff will add nothing to the rights of princes nor the duties of subjects."
With the realism of a head of state, Bonaparte had retorted: "Anything that makes the office of government more sacred is a great good" and he requested Pius VII to crown him in Paris.
The question of the coronation had political dimensions as well as religious. Talleyrand, Minister for External Affairs, spared no effort and sent dispatch after dispatch to the Vatican. In one missive, he described all that the new Emperor had done on behalf on the Church:
"His Majesty regrets to note that it is suggested that he has not already done all that he could for the Supreme Pontiff to respond to his invitation. He offers the Holy See and all of Europe to have his sacred titles recognized by the Church. Churches reopened, altars restored, observance renewed, the ministry organized, chapters endowed, seminaries founded, twenty million sacrificed [!] to pay for priests, the possessions of the Holy See guaranteed, Neapolitans evacuated from Rome, the Concordat drawn up and authorized, foreign missions reestablished, Eastern Catholics rescued from persecution and effectively protected from the Ottoman, such are the kindnesses of the Emperor to the Church of Rome. What other monarch could match such great and so many acts in the brief space of two or three years?"
Portrait of Pope Pius VII
by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) (RR)
After Waterloo, the Pope welcomed and protected all the members of the Bonaparte family who asked him for political asylum, and even after his downfall, he continued to regard Napoleon as the man who had restored
Roman catholic religion in France.
While the Pope was inclined to accept, among his entourage quite different sentiments prevailed. Open hostility was the trend, and the Curia only gave way on the express condition that the Pope be assured of additional gains – temporal, need it be said? – and concessions including, of course, the suppression of the act regarding divorce in the Civil Code.
Royalists Insult the Pope
The Pope departed from
The meeting occurred on Sunday, November
On November 29, Pius VII arrived in
His arrival unleashed the wrath of the royalists, already furious at the failure of their attempts to have Bonaparte assassinated. One of them, Count Joseph de Maistre, future author of the work "On the Pope," pronounced anathema upon this "unworthy pontiff" who, according to the Countess of Albany, had "sold out his dignity."
The hard-line republicans were outraged that Napoleon, this "Son of the Revolution" – a label that unfortunately always stuck to him – was "prostituting" it at the feet of a priest. The efforts of the "priest" deserve consideration, however, for, at 62 years – quite an advanced age at the time – in the middle of winter, he had completed a journey of some two thousand, two hundred kilometers!
In short, just when Napoleon wished to see the French of all tendencies united with him in the ceremony of the coronation, which he viewed as the consecration of his work of reconciliation, as usual, they tore each other apart all the more.
As for the Bonaparte family, they detested Josephine and fumed at the fact that the woman, whom Joseph called "the Emperor’s present companion" and whom Napoleon’s mother referred to simply as "Madame de Beauharnois," was going to be crowned.
Over the preceding weeks, she had calculated how fragile her union was, being all the more precarious in the absence of any religious sanction. Therefore, as soon as the Holy Father arrived at the Tuileries – where Napoleon had designated the Pavilion of Flora for his use – and had recovered from his exhausting journey, Josephine requested an audience on December 1. She revealed to the Pope a situation of which he was quite unaware and which astounded him – that he was to crown as Empress a spouse who had never received the blessing of the Church!
Pius VII informed the Emperor that it would consequently be impossible to preside over the coronation of an empress who in the eyes of the Church was merely a "concubine." Napoleon was forced to yield, and that same evening, in the presence of two aides de camp serving as witnesses, Cardinal Fesch, the uncle of the bridegroom, blessed this extraordinary marriage in the chapel of the Tuileries.
The Emperor "Visibly Moved"
Contemporary reports state that the snow that had fallen all night long
without interruption gave way to a gloriously sunny day. It was not then known
that, one year later to the day, they would see snow, far from
There is no need to go into all the details of a story that is already well known, but, as the ceremony has been the subject of much ironical comment, let us clarify a few specifics.
A witness relates:
"At ten o’clock in the morning, the Emperor left the Tuileries to go to Notre-Dame. His cortege was large and magnificent: five carriages escorted his own, which was a gilded coach with seven windows."
"There were 50,000 men under arms and 500,000 onlookers at windows or in the streets. The church was everywhere draped with crimson silk hangings decorated with fringes, braids and armorial bearings embroidered in gold. The nave, choir and sanctuary were laid with Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets. Galleries of seats were crammed with spectators, the ladies brilliant in their finery and jewels, the men splendidly costumed, places assigned to all the great dignitaries of the state, the throne of the Emperor raised in the centre of the nave, that of the Pope in the sanctuary. It was all beautiful, magnificent and well ordered. This blending of the ceremonial pomp of the Church of Rome with the splendour of the Court of the Tuileries afforded a brilliant spectacle for the eyes that no one can deny."
When the cortege arrived at Notre-Dame, the Emperor cast off his clothes of French style – red velvet embroidered in gold, white scarf, short coat decorated with imperial bees, hat crowned with white plumes, the collar of the Legion of Honour encrusted with diamonds – "All that finery suited him very well," commented the wife of Rémusat the First Chamberlain – and put on his coronation vestments. The Empress did likewise.
The same witness remarks that the heavy coat of purple velvet lined with ermine seemed to crush Napoleon, and that with his "simple laurel crown, he looked like an antique medal. He was extremely pale and visibly moved."
We shall return later to the ceremony itself, but we must pause a moment for the scene that is about to unfold.
The Pope is at the altar, the Emperor advances, kneels and receives the triple unction. Then…
A History of Disinformation
We must stop awhile at this precise point in the ceremony since history texts and historians always claim in various ways that Napoleon abruptly seized the crown intended for him from the hands of the astonished and unfortunate Pope, and just as brusquely placed it on his own head.
Official documents prove that this event never took place. Invented by French historian Adolphe Thiers in the middle of the 19th century, this version of the "Sacre" is one of the most revolting and most pernicious of all the lies that have been made up and are still told about Napoleon.
What a godsend for all those who have always insulted the memory of Napoleon, from the fall of the Empire to the present day!
Just what is the story?
We owe the truth to a man who is unquestionably the greatest Napoleonic historian, who is both brilliant (to read him is to be convinced) and possessed of sincere Napoleonic convictions – qualities that mark him as a type long extinct.
Many readers will already have guessed this great name in Napoleonic studies – Mr. Frédéric Masson.
The light that he casts upon this episode during the ceremony is, without doubt, more important than the account of the ceremony itself, because it clarifies – and denounces – one of these items of disinformation that the Emperor always was – and regrettably still is – victim to.
Let us hear his account.
Napoleon’s coronation, explains Mr. Masson, took place in front of some 25,000 spectators; it was published in programs of which several hundred thousand copies were distributed, and reprinted in all the newspapers of the day; it was recorded in official minutes in an infinite number of copies.
The event was clear beyond any possibility of ambiguity, and "for some fifty years, no one challenged the facts."
Suddenly, there appeared in the writings of a celebrated politician, former minister, and member of the Académie française, etc., Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), what would most charitably be described as a legend. This work, The History of the Consulate and the Empire, written between 1845 and 1862, was so successful and so in vogue that it eventually replaced facts that were unanimously agreed on, and to all appearances were universally well known.
Here is what Mr. Frédéric Masson wrote in 1907:
"We are dealing here with one of the strangest situations imaginable, that this distortion arose spontaneously half a century later, based on a single account unsupported by any evidence or attempted proof, and accepted since then for another quarter century by all those historians who have recounted the same episode, without a single one taking the trouble to go back to the original sources to check."
What do we read in the Roman rite? That it is the tradition of crowning that naturally gives meaning to the coronation:
"Receive," reads the ritual, "the crown of the kingdom which is placed upon your head by the hands, unworthy though they be, of the bishops, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
To accept that formulation, in Napoleon’s eyes, would be a public admission that he owed his imperial crown to the Pope and Catholic Church alone.
Given the circumstances in which he had acceded to the throne, Napoleon could not assent. Therefore, he let Pius VII know that he wished "to take the crown to avoid any discussion among the great dignitaries of the Empire, who claimed to be bestowing it upon him in the name of the people."
As indicated in sections XXX, XXXI and XXXII of the Excerpt from the Ceremonial Rite of the Coronation and Crowning printed by the Imperial Presses, the Emperor "tends the hand of Justice to the High Chancellor and the sceptre to the Chief Treasurer, rises to the altar, takes the crown and places it upon his head, takes into his hands the crown of the Empress, stands before her and crowns her. The Empress kneels and receives the crown."
It was perfectly clear. Everything that was to take place in the ceremony would have the express consent of the Pope – whose good will should be acknowledged.
Now, Thiers’s version, as reported by Mr. Frédéric Masson:
"The Pope anointed the Emperor’s forehead, his arms and his hands, and then blessed the sword that he buckled on him and the sceptre that he placed in his hand, and approached to take up the crown. Napoleon… seized the crown from the hands of the Pontiff, without any abruptness but decisively, and placed it himself upon his head. This action, which all those present well understood, produced an inexpressible effect." (This passage was underlined by Mr. Frédéric Masson).
The story thus was born, and this version, undeniably widespread, became accepted as a "classic" and was further embroidered.
Let us quote some examples. In A General History from the Fourth Century to Present Times, published by Lavisse and Rambaud, one of the authors, Chénon, writes:
"The Pope pronounced the coronation on him and the Empress, but, when he went to place the crown upon his head, Napoleon seized it abruptly and crowned himself with his own hands. Pius VII protested, and obtained an assurance that the incident would not be reported in the Moniteur."
We note that the addition of "abruptly" raises the stakes further.
Another historian named Élie, actually
Antonin Debidour, Dean of the Faculty of Letters at
"But at the end, when the moment came for the Pope to take the crown and place it on the head of the Emperor, as had been agreed [!], all of a sudden Napoleon was seen to seize the crown nimbly [!!] like a conjurer [sic] and place it himself upon his head, after which he also crowned the Empress kneeling before him… The unfortunate Pius VII was dumbfounded at the effrontery of this failure to keep to an agreement. It would have been futile to protest in the church itself. Napoleon would have had his voice drowned out by the acclamations of the crowd…"
The Emperor could not have taken the crown from the hands of the Pope, abruptly or any other way, when it was all the time on the altar, and Pius VII was neither "disconcerted" nor "dumbfounded," since he recited the prayers and then repeated them while Napoleon crowned Josephine. If further proof were needed, Mr. Frédéric Masson supplies it by emphasizing two points: the prayers that the Pope intoned while the Emperor took the crown are to be found in the Order according to which prayers will be sung and recited during the Coronation ceremony of their Imperial Majesties, also printed by the Imperial presses, and by the fact that the minutes, drawn up by the Grand Master of Ceremonies, attest that these prayers were properly recited.
We know, however, that Napoleon, alias "ogre," "usurper," "Corsican
upstart," always must be the boor. What does it matter, therefore, that the
Mr. Frédéric Masson reaches this (rather too pessimistic) conclusion:
"Thus, the legend grows and snowballs… It would be appropriate, not perhaps to put an end to it – those are grand schemes that one flatters oneself with when young, but experience shows us their futility – but at least to challenge the prescription."
This comment, almost a century later, has not dated in the slightest.
Pounced upon with a perverse relish that is evident in countless works, both French and foreign, including a British encyclopedia, Odham’s Young People’s Encyclopaedia (Odham’s Press Limited, Long Acre, London, 1958), this false image that Thiers gave to the Coronation Ceremony and, of course, to its hero, succeeded in indoctrinating entire generations of English schoolboys and schoolgirls, who are already saturated with appalling bigotry.
One question, however, remains unanswered: Why did Thiers, "so called, it was said, because he doesn’t even add up to half a real man," [making a pun on his name, which when pronounced sounds like "tiers – one-third" – Translator] invent this vicious fabrication that establishes him as a forerunner of certain Napoleonic historians (!) and other mercenary pamphlet writers today?
The Coronation became the showpiece,
today we would say the most "media-saturated" event, of the Napoleonic era and
the nineteenth century. It was an official political event that had been
preceded by long and delicate negotiations with the
Then, along comes Mr. Thiers, and in a few, apparently trivial, harmless, "factual" sentences, he gives birth to one of the most shameless and pernicious lies in Napoleonic history, a lie dignified with the name of "historical truth" because uttered by a French Academician – which, in France validates everything and anything, including staining the memory of the greatest man in the history of that nation.
This doctoring of the truth is regrettably but one of the frequent defamations that infect the entire history of Napoleon and the First Empire, so well is it supplied with this type of mischief.
It may also be said that when one encounters such palpable disinformation for an event as public as the Coronation of the Emperor, it is not hard to imagine what was invented – and still is today – about events that were not subjected to the same scrutiny.
The moral, if one ventures to draw it, is that some baseless lies are easily believed, but some truths, based on actual proof, never come out.
"A Beautiful, Imposing Ceremony"
"With his simple crown of laurel leaves, he looked like an antique medal.
But he was extremely pale and deeply moved",
noted one eye-witness, Madame de Rémusat.
Let us return to the ceremony as it really took place.
The Emperor, after being anointed, placed upon his head the crown that rested on the altar and not between the hands of the Pope.
Having been anointed by the Pope and crowned by his own hands, Napoleon mounted the steps of the altar and took the crown intended for the Empress, who was kneeling in wait at the foot of the steps.
This is the action that the painter David immortalizes in his famous canvas The Coronation, which depicts – in reality, and more beautifully – the Crowning of the Empress.
Those closest to Josephine at that moment saw tears coursing over her clasped hands "that she raised more towards him [Napoleon] than towards God", according to the account of the celebrated writer of memoirs, Laure d’Abrantès, and all were struck by the unfeigned tenderness and affection with which the Emperor laid the crown upon the head of Josephine.
Here is a picture of the Empress, in the words of Madame de Rémusat:
Joséphine crowned Empress by Napoleon.
Close-up of the monumental (621 x 979 cm) painting : Sacre of the Emperor Napoleon I and the crowning of the Empress Joséphine in the cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris,
2nd December, 1804"
by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) (RR)
"The whole ceremony was very imposing and beautiful. The moment when the Empress was crowned aroused general admiration, not so much for the act itself, but she possessed such grace and walked so well towards the altar, she knelt so elegantly and at the same time so unaffectedly, that she pleased all who looked on."
The Holy Father then led the accolades for the Emperor, and turning to the crowd, he cried:
"Vivat Imperator in æternum! "
The audience responded with repeated ovations of "Long Live the Emperor! Long live the Empress!" that filled the vault.
When the religious service was over, the cortege, lit by thousands of torches, left Notre-Dame towards three o’clock in the afternoon, but because of the Emperor’s desire to pay his respects to Parisians on this memorable day, the whole procession made a detour through Rue St-Martin and the boulevards and only reached the Tuileries at nightfall.
Anointed and crowned, the Emperor could now turn his attentions toward
Official portrait of Napoleon in his coronation costume,
holding the sceptre in his left hand
by Girodet De Roussey-Trioson (1767-1824) (RR)
"When I placed the crown on my head in 1804, ninety-six per cent
of the French people were unable to read and all they knew of liberty
was the madness of 1793." (Year of Terror during the French Revolution).
(Napoleon to Las Cases at St-Helena)
In the next chapter, we find him again at "Boulogne Camp," among his soldiers impatient to test themselves against this hereditary enemy who, since the breaking of the Peace of Amiens, had offered repeated provocations.