Napoleon I of France
and The
Legion of Honor

The Story of
French Imperial Knighthood

by Dr. Stewart Addington Saint-David, PhD, FINS
Foreign Expert, First Department of Foreign Languages
Xi'an Eurasia University
Sha'anxi Province
People's Republic of China


Dr. Stewart Addington Saint-David was born and raised in the United States, but has lived a considerable portion of his life abroad, most notably in France, Italy and the People's Republic of China. The first decade of his working life was spent as a professional musician, and he has long had an interest in the study and performance of Baroque harpsichord music, as well as in the fields of chivalry, heraldry and French and Chinese history.

Among the fruits of his career in the music industry are two albums of original solo piano pieces, as well as a collection of original songs in French. He is the author of a novel, The Citizen Director, partially inspired by the life and career of the 18th century French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, as well as of a series of books and articles on the modern orders of knighthood of France. The first book in this series, French Orders of Merit: Conferring Distinction in a Changing Society (1693-1963) has received wide acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and his academic study, A Noble Heritage: The Ordre National du Mérite and the French Honorific Tradition has recently been published by Editons Elgiad of Boston. Everything for the Empire: The Napoleonic Orders of Chivalry (1802-1815) is the third and final study in the series, and is being serialized on the website of the Mexico-France Napoleonic Institute (

Dr. Saint-David holds bachelor's degrees in English Language and Literature (USA) and in Arts and Letters (France), as well as a doctorate in Modern French Studies (France). In recognition of his academic work on French orders of knighthood and merit, he was named a Knight of the Order of Merit of France by President Jacques Chirac in 2003. In 2007, he was elected a Fellow of the International Napoleonic Society, an institution of research founded by scholar and philanthropist Dr. Ben Weider, and dedicated to the study of the French First Empire period.



Ben Weider wearing the Legion of Honor Medal

This honor was followed by his appointment in the same year as an Academician of the Mexico-France Napoleonic Institute, currently led by its President and Founder, the celebrated Mexican Napoleonic scholar Professor Eduardo Garzòn-Sobrado. As a further recognition of his contributions to the realm of historical research and scholarship, he was recently named a Knight of the Royal Order of Sulu and Sabah by His Majesty, Muhammad Fuad A. Kiram, 35th Hashemite Sultan of Sulu and Sabah.

Since 2006, Dr. Saint-David has attended Harvard University School of Divinity, where he is engaged in academic research on religion. On hiatus from Harvard until September of 2008, he currently resides in Sha'anxi Province, where he teaches courses in American Literature, Oral English and Film Appreciation at Xi'an Eurasia University.

While in Xi'an, he is also conducting research for a book about Emperor Tang Taizong (r. 626-649 CE) and his influence on the spread of foreign religions in 7th century China. Dr. Saint-David is delighted to once again be teaching at Eurasia University under the inspired direction of renowned Chinese scholars and academicians Professor YU Baozhu, Dean of the School of Foreign Languages, and Professor TAN Zhiming, Deputy Dean and Chair of the First Department of Foreign Languages.


The tale of the rise to power, imperial conquests and catastrophic fall of the Emperor Napoleon I is nothing if not spectacular. This son of the small island of Corsica, arguably the greatest military and political leader of all time, was born into an impoverished noble family of distant Tuscan origins on August 15, 1769. The very year before, the island had been ceded to France by the maritime Republic of Genoa, and with this annexation by another foreign power came yet another period of instability and uncertainty for its inhabitants, who spoke a rough local dialect of Italian that was a clear indication of their ferocious nature. Considered to be wild and passionate people, the Corsicans felt a strong attachment to Italy, but an equally strong and ultimately frustrated desire for independence. As a youth, Napoleon had himself initially resisted French culture, feeling that his true allegiance was to his Corsican homeland. Only when he had been educated and shaped by the world's most sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture, and had seen that culture erupt in an egalitarian tidal wave of revolution did he ally himself irrevocably with the fate of his adopted nation.

Napoleon embraced the French Revolution and its ideals, and rose to become the young shining star of its military establishment by the age of thirty. A brilliant social strategist and politician as well, he parlayed his military successes into a position of political dominance, eventually rising to supreme power as First Consul of the young Republic, which he ruled capably and forcefully in that capacity from 1799 to 1804. The year 1802 saw the creation of the very first of the Napoleonic orders of knighthood, the Legion of Honor. The Legion was a halting first step in the eventual march back to monarchy, but at the time of its foundation it was presented in a very Republican light, so as not to arouse the suspicions of a public that deeply resisted any notion or institution that was even vaguely reminiscent of the widely-disparaged feudal and monarchical society that had been abolished by the leveling scythe of the Revolution.

First distribution of the Legion of Honor by the
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, on the 14th of July 1804.

Painting by Jean Baptiste Debret.

The most novel element of this new order of knighthood was unquestionably its broadly egalitarian aspect. From the most humble soldier of the line to the most celebrated general, from the wealthiest landowner to the poorest of farmers, all Frenchmen, military personalities and civilians alike, were fully eligible to receive this decoration, based solely on the level and nature of their contributions to the public good. Although the services and contributions of women remained yet to be recognized in this fashion, the creation of the Legion of Honor was nonetheless one of the pivotal moments in the history of the public institutions of France.
With the creation of this new form of knighthood, Bonaparte sought to create around himself an élite that would serve as a buffer between his eventual throne and the fractious politicians and officials of the time. This élite would be personally bound to him by ties of the greatest loyalty and gratitude, since it was he who had raised them up to share in the exalted company of this great new order. In this way, he hoped to create a living cadre of individuals devoted to his throne, and to spread abroad his fame, prestige and personal glory.

In addition to establishing this important new decoration, Napoleon also created a related institution that exists to this day, and which has played an important rôle in the history of the education of women in France. In the wake of his epic triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, an imperial decree of December 15, promulgated at Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna, created the Houses of Education for daughters of members of the Legion of Honor. Although only those of Saint-Denis and Saint-Germain-en-Laye have survived into the 21st century, a number of other sites have over the last two centuries seen the establishment of institutions of female education under the aegis of the Legion of Honor. The discipline imposed was severe, and in the early years of the Houses of Education, the emphasis was most decidedly on manual labor and the inculcation of strong religious principles in the hearts and minds of the schools' young pupils.

The young ladies were required to attend Mass every day, and wore simple dark uniforms indicating the academic class to which they belonged. Napoleon himself stated pointedly that he hoped that this new institution would produce "not agreeable women, but virtuous women, so that their personal qualities should be those of manners and the heart." This institution, which is under the direct supervision of the Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honor, has over the course of the succeeding years been considerably reformed, but it retains its exclusive and authoritarian structures, despite considerable modernization. Today it remains one of the most prestigious institutions of the French state, and its combination of insightful and innovative tuition with strong moral discipline has created for the Houses of Education a sterling international reputation for academic excellence and civic responsibility.

The foundation of the Legion of Honor by Napoleon in 1802 was a moment of epochal importance in the progressive historical democratization of French orders of merit, and was to lead very directly to the well-balanced and vibrant system of state honors that prevails in France today. After centuries of restrictive, prejudicial and often arcane prerequisites for admission to orders of chivalry and merit, the creation of this great institution, the very first of its kind in the modern world, stirred the hearts of millions of French citizens, military and civilian alike, to great acts of courage and devotion, both in war and in peacetime. The enduring nature of this highly prized distinction has been amply demonstrated over the course of the last two centuries, and it has long since taken its rightful place as one of the very greatest of modern state institutions.

Distribution of the Legion of Honor at the Boulogne Camp,
on the 16th of August 1804, Charles Etienne Pierre Motte (1785-1836).
Painting by Victor Jean Adam.

Political and social conditions in France during the opening years of the 19th century, while not ideal, were nonetheless far better than those that had prevailed in the country over the course of the preceding decade. A measure of stability had been restored to the institutions of the state after years of internecine revolutionary strife, and thanks to a string of important victories against the monarchist coalition in Europe, the star of the young First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, was clearly in the ascendant. The stage was thus set for the next act of the gradually unfolding drama to be played out in the pages of French history by this brilliant young Corsican general.

The rise to supreme power of Napoleon heralded the dawning of a new age in France, and the gradual return to a monarchical form of absolutism, after almost thirteen years of ongoing revolution. These years were characterized by mob rule, blood-stained party politics, wanton regicide and the utter destruction of the former social order. Bonaparte's firm hand offered an alternative to all of that, and although many die-hard sons of the Revolution opposed him, an even greater number feared and eventually followed him.

What Bonaparte came to realize, however, was that France, a nation which had since the Dark Ages been a monarchy in one form or another, still required a strong and autocratic hand to guide her onward to greater things. Accordingly, on May 18, 1804, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ascended to the throne of the French Empire and adopted the style and title of Napoleon, Emperor of the French, backed by a plebiscite sanctioning this extraordinary step. His coronation took place on December 2, 1804, and marked the beginning of a ten-year period in which France was transformed by the energy and vision of the young Emperor, who was just thirty-five years old at the time of his elevation.

What was to follow this epochal step was nothing short of extraordinary, particularly when considered in light of the fact that France was almost constantly at war with her European rivals throughout this period. The institutions of the nation were completely overhauled and revitalized, and at a distance of some two centuries, the powerful hand of the Emperor can still be seen in all of the greatest achievements of the reign. The governmental administration was reorganized, and the realm of French jurisprudence was completely reinvigorated by the creation of the Civil Code, later renamed the Code Napoleon in honor of the Emperor, who played a key rôle in its birth. The schools and universities were restructured and modernized, and the artistic and intellectual institutions of the state, such as the School of Fine Arts and the Institute of France were re-established and/or strengthened. Nor were the realms of science and spirituality neglected by Napoleon, who re-established the old Gregorian calendar and undertook to build bridges of friendship with the leaders of the various religious faiths of the Empire. A policy of opening up was pursued with regard to the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant congregations were allowed to worship freely and a Grand Sanhedrin of the Jewish leaders of the time was convened in Paris under the sponsorship of the Emperor, the very first since the age of antiquity.

Having consolidated his power within the confines of the French fatherland, and in the territories and principalities that he had conquered or annexed over the course of the preceding years, the Emperor now moved swiftly to extend his monarchical purview to the area comprising the various Italian states of the time. Less than four months after his coronation as Emperor of the French, Napoleon was proclaimed King of Italy, thereby adding an Italian royal dignity to his French imperial one, and in the process reaffirming his identification with the Carolingian tradition of a united European empire.

On May 23, 1805, before a large crowd gathered within the Cathedral of Milan, Napoleon placed on his own head the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which had been created in 591 AD using a nail from the True Cross. This crown, which represented a tangible link with the great heritage of the Holy Roman Empire, had been worn by a succession of great European emperors, including Charlemagne himself, as well as Charles V, and was a powerful symbol of the transfer of authority to the person of Napoleon. As he raised the crown to his own brow, the new King of Italy intoned the ancient formula of legitimate succession to the royal dignity: DIO ME LA DIEDE, GUAI A CHI LA TOCCA! [“GOD GAVE IT TO ME, WOE TO HIM WHO TOUCHES IT!”].In conjunction with this important event, he created another new order of knighthood, the Order of the Iron Crown, to be bestowed on those soldiers, administrators, judicial officials, artists and intellectuals who had aided in the subjugation and subsequent flowering of Italy under his rule.

This order was eventually to be followed by two more, the Imperial Order of the Three Golden Fleeces and the Imperial Order of the Reunion, both of which were designed to reward a wide range of services to the Empire by both French nationals and foreign subjects. Although these latter two chivalric institutions were rather short-lived creations, they have both lingered in the public imagination, and the Imperial Order of the Reunion was later to serve as one of the inspirations for the modern National Order of Merit of the Fifth Republic.

Although clearly inspired by the epochal creation of the Holy Roman Empire by Charlemagne in 800 AD, according to historian Frédéric Bluche, Napoleon had no desire to simply ascend the throne of the now-decrepit colossus. "It would be out of the question for a parvenu soldier to solicit the crown of the Holy Roman Empire," writes Blucher. "He would create a new Western empire, one which would bring on the ruin of its predecessor and would replace it in the minds of observers of European equilibrium. Going ever further, he would restore the idea in its fullest form, tied to the geographical imperialism of the Universal Empire." Even the establishment of dependent kingdoms and principalities under the rule of his brothers and sisters was a modern manifestation of the Carolingian notion of the Emperor as the "sovereign of Europe," and hearkened back to the ancient system of the Dark Ages, with its carefully woven tissue of domination, dependency and feudal obligation.

As the Imperial Eagle continued its astounding career across the skies of early 19th century Europe, the Napoleonic vision of a united and politically stable Continent under French hegemony moved ever closer to the realm of the realistically attainable. The Emperor constantly cast his gaze backward for inspiration, not to the doddering, inefficient and fundamentally inequitable structures of the old regime of the Bourbons, but to the magnificent spectacle of the Carolingian empire at its height. Under the farsighted and almost prophetic tutelage of the great Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire had become a reality, and this mighty new assemblage of principalities and kingdoms, under the watchful eye of its illiterate but palpably brilliant leader, was recognized by no less a personage than Pope Leo III as the successor state to the great Roman Empire of late antiquity. The coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo, which took place in Rome on December 25, 800 AD, is one of the seminal events of modern European history, and was echoed powerfully over 1,000 years later by Napoleon's coronation in the Cathedral of Nôtre-Dame in Paris, with the blessing of Pope Pius VII, who had been expressly brought to France for that purpose.

By 1811, after a decade of tireless effort, Napoleon's Empire was at its height, comprising at its core France and the various states conquered during the Revolution, as well as the Confederation of the Rhine, the Swiss Confederation, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the Kingdom of Italy, the Low Countries and the Pontifical States. He had in 1810 contracted a dynastic marriage with the Austrian Arch-Duchess Marie-Louise, a move which he considered to mark his official entry into the exalted company of the hereditary sovereigns of Europe. In 1811, Marie-Louise had given birth to his son and heir, majestically titled the King of Rome. His thoughts had thus clearly turned to the consolidaton and preservation of his monarchical legacy, as well as to the forging of a new European empire based on the ancient Carolingian model. During this period, the Emperor was at his most visionary, carefully choosing this pivotal juncture at which to complete the administrative and inspirational foundations of what he hoped would be his own millennial creation.

In 1812, however, Napoleon's Grande Army swept precipitously into the Russian hinterland, but was soon to find itself trapped in an inhospitable foreign clime whose inhabitants would rather burn their cities and towns to the ground than submit to the forces of the Imperial conqueror. His troops absolutely decimated by a combination of relentless guerilla warfare and the unceasing and pitiless assault of the frigid Russian winter, the humbled Emperor was forced to order a retreat, eventually breaking away from his shattered army to hasten back to Paris through the snows.

By the spring of 1814, Napoleon had abdicated and been exiled to Elba, which for the next year would be his tiny island domain. Upon the return of Napoleon to power in 1815, and throughout the course of the Hundred Days of his final ascendancy, he fought a desperate battle to maintain his position on a continent that had most decidedly turned against him.

During the days of his second exile on the Island of Saint Helena, after his final and decisive defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 15, 1815, Napoleon began to craft was has become known as the Napoleonic legend. It was on Saint Helena, a windswept and isolated British possession which lies in the heart of the South Atlantic, thousands of miles away from his beloved France, that the Emperor began to unfold himself to the faithful attendants and compatriots who had been allowed to accompany him there. Most notable among these was Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, a member of the Napoleonic nobility who will forever be remembered as both biographer and amanuensis for his imperial master, and who was eventually to publish a book of Napoleon's reminiscences known as the Memorial of Saint Helena.

Of his plans for a Grand Empire that was to stretch the length and breadth of Europe, Napoleon indicated that he wished to establish the same principles, the same system everywhere. "A European code," he declared,"a court of European appeal, with full powers to redress all wrong decisions, as one's redress at home those of our tribunals. Money of the same value but with different coins, the same weight, the same measures, the same laws, etc.

Europe would soon in that manner have really been but the same people, and every one who travelled would have everywhere found himself in one common country..."

Later, on the same day, the Emperor was moved to comment further on his plans for a United Empire of Europe:

One of my great plans was the rejoining, the concentration of those same geographical nations which have been disunited and parcelled out by revolution and policy. There are dispersed in Europe, upwards of thirty million of French, fifteen million of Spaniards, fifteen million of Italians, and thirty million of Germans; and it was my intention to incorporate these people each into one nation..."

Under his rule, Napoleon asserted, "The people were daily becoming more firmly established in the unity of principles and legislation; and also in the unity of thought and feeling, that certain and infallible cement of human concentration."

Finally, the Emperor made a prediction that may today seem all too prophetic, living as we do in the age of a united Europe with a strong and dynamic currency, a continent which has withstood two World Wars and inestimable suffering on its painful road to unification.

"At all events this concentration will be brought about, sooner or later by the force of events. The impulse is given; and I think that since my fall, and the destruction of my system, no grand equilibrium can possibly be established in Europe, except by the concentration and confederation of the principal nations."

It was to take roughly one hundred eighty years for Napoleon's dream of a united Europe to be realized, but the power and foresight of his vision are incontestable, and lend further weight to the legend of his mastery in the realms of organization, politics and statecraft.

The culture of honor, service and emulation that was fostered by Napoleonic Empire has never faded from the collective consciousness of the French nation, and over two hundred years after the creation of the Legion of Honor, thousands of French men and women are spurred on to ever greater efforts, both public and private, in pursuit of this highly-prized mark of distinction. The French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Era which followed it shattered forever a world in which noble birth, wealth, power and family connections had reigned as the sole considerations for entry into the élite company of the seats of power and influence within the state. In its place, and largely as a result of the formative and meritocratic influence of the great Napoleonic institutions, is a nation in which honorable service, self-sacrifice and consistent devotion to the public good are rewarded by the most noble forms of recognition that can be bestowed on an individual in the modern world.

Almost two centuries after his death, the sheer scope and magnitude of the military, social and political vision of Napoleon I continue to astound those of us who devote themselves to the study of his personal legacy as a ruler. His governmental structures, modeled on institutions founded during the most glorious epochs of French and European history, were at one and the same time the eminently distinctive creations of a brilliant leader and the natural modern successors of those very institutions themselves. It might reasonably be argued that these Napoleonic creations served both to redefine and to reinvigorate the very notion of service to the common good, and that each in its way represented an important, if sometimes halting step on the road to the eventual democratization of modern societies throughout Europe.

The flight of the Corsican eagle, son of a small but proud island race, was incredibly brilliant and tragically brief, but the memory of his greatest achievements, and their continued relevance in the modern world persist as the indisputable cornerstones upon which his glorious legend has been erected in the nearly two centuries since he occupied the throne of the French Empire. One of his greatest legacies to history is his resurrection and revivification of the tradition of knighthood and service to the public welfare that had flourished in France for over a millennium, and which has shaped both her destiny and her values since the Age of Charlemagne. Of the four Napoleonic orders of knighthood only one, the great Legion of Honor, continues to exist today, but the power and vision associated with their foundation have deeply inspired students of history, and bear perpetual witness to the ephemeral miracle that was the Grand Empire, precursor of the European Union of today. Had Napoleon succeeded in his quest for a united Europe on the Carolingian model, history as we know it now might well have been very different, and the intervening two centuries of bloodshed, destruction and untold suffering might never have darkened the pages of the human story.

Dr. Stewart Addington Saint-David, Ph.D., F.I.N.S.
Knight of the Order of Merit of France
Fellow of the International Napoleonic Society
Academician of the Mexico-France Napoleonic Institute