Honneur et Patrie
(Honor and Fatherland):
The Légion d'Honneur (founded 1802)
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 Premier Consul, Napoléon Bonaparte, was clearly in the ascendant. The stage was thus set for the next act of the gradually unfolding drama to be played out by this brilliant young Corsican general in the pages of French history.
The rise to supreme power of Napoléon 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.
The following words, drawn from the text of the Law of the 29th of Floreal (May 19), Year X (1802), announced the next stage in Bonaparte's carefully planned ascent to the Imperial throne:
In execution of Article 87 of the Constitution concerning military awards, and to reward also civil services and virtues, there will be formed a Legion of Honor.
This disarmingly direct and seemingly innocuous statement had already been the subject of much heated debate in the halls of the French government of the time. In the Conseil d'État, the Tribunat and eventually, in the Corps Législatif itself, the discussions had been pointed and sometimes genuinely stormy. Many of the old guard legislators of firmly republican principles had bitterly opposed this new measure, which they feared would usher in a return to the reign of chivalric and nobiliary privilege in a nation that had fought long and hard to throw off such crippling feudal appurtenances.
Bonaparte had made known his will, though, in the meetings of the various assemblies, stating forcefully that it was necessary to "create an order which will be the sign of virtue, of honor, of heroism, a distinction which serves to reward both military bravery and civil merit." Faced with those in the Conseil d'État who would limit membership in the new order to military personnel, he responded sharply, and with incontrovertible logic:
What constitutes the power of a general? His civil abilties: the sharpness of his eye, his power of calculation, his mind, his administrative knowledge and eloquence, not that of the jurist, but that which is fitting for the leadership of armies, and finally his knowledge of men: all this is civil.
When the measure made its way through the various channels of government and finally came to a vote in the Corps Législatif, it was adopted by a margin of 166 in favor to 110 against, out of a total of 276 voices.
The most novel element of the new order 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 Légion d'Honneur was nonetheless one of the pivotal moments in the history of the public institutions of France.
With the creation of the Légion d'Honneur, Bonaparte sought to form 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.
Ever mindful of the examples of Louis XIV and Louis XV before him, and of the great successes of the Ordre de Saint-Louis and the Institution du Mérite Militaire in cementing the loyalties of the officer corps, both French and foreign, Napoléon sought to guarantee the strength of his régime by creating a new order based on strong ties of personal loyalty, esprit du corps, civic devotion and honor. His deep knowledge of the inner workings of the French national character, as well as his keen powers of observation and synthesis in the realms of power politics, propaganda and statecraft, all helped steer his thoughts and energies toward the creation of this seminal institution, which would eventually serve as a model for all orders of merit throughout the modern world.
The theoretical breadth of its membership notwithstanding, in actual fact the vast majority of appointments to the Légion d'Honneur during the First Empire period were military, with less than five percent of the annual contingent comprised of civil appointees. This new order did, however, accord equal importance to services rendered by simple subalterns and those performed by the most exalted military leaders. Its official head was the Premier Consul, who was supported in its administration by a Grand Conseil, which included a Grand Chancelier and a Grand Trésorier. The very first Grand Chancelier was Bernard de la Ville, comte de Lacépède, a noted scientist and highly respected naturalist, who was appointed on August 3, 1803. The following oath was composed for administration to incoming members of the Légion d'Honneur during their admission ceremony:
I swear on my honor to devote myself to the service of the Empire, and to the conservation of its territory in its entirety, to the defense of the Emperor, of the laws of the Republic and the property that its has established, to combat by all means that justice, reason and the law authorizes, any enterprise that might tend to re-establish the feudal régime; finally, I swear to strive with all my power toward the maintenance of liberty and equality, fundamental supports of our institutions.
This oath was changed frequently over the course of the coming decades, mirroring the wide variety of political and social changes that took place in France during the early 19th century. It was eventually abolished during the early days of the Third Republic.
At the beginning of its history, the Légion d'Honneur was comprised of four ranks: Légionnaire, Officier, Commandant and Grand Officier. The names of these ranks were carefully chosen so as not to unduly raise the suspicions of those members of the government and public at large who were most watchful for any sign, terminological or otherwise, of a return to the universally detested nomenclature and practices of the old feudal régime. After the creation of the Imperial nobility by a decree of March 10, 1808, these philological considerations were largely swept aside, and all members of the Légion d'Honneur were accorded the nobiliary title of Chevalier, including those formerly known simply as Légionnaires.
The very first Légionnaires named to the new order were those members of the armed forces who had previously received so-called "arms of honor" inscribed with the circumstances of their outstanding service in the forces of the Revolutionary government during the course of France's seemingly unceasing struggle against the allied European monarchs. On September 24, 1803, these soldiers and sailors were officially appointed to the Légion d'Honneur in recognition of their exemplary service in the years that preceded the creation of the order by Bonaparte. In keeping with the Roman inspiration of its original governing legislation, the Légion in its first few years was organized into a number of cohorts, each having a certain geographical jurisdiction, as well as independent financial resources and an internal administrative structure. This scheme was short-lived, however, and in 1809, these cohorts were dissolved, and their financial holdings and real estate were liquidated, eventually finding their way into the increasingly needy coffers of the state, which at the time was engaged in armed struggle throughout the length and breadth of Europe.
Finally, in 1804, two years after its official foundation by Bonaparte, the new institution witnessed the adoption of its insignia, a five-branched white enamel star, whose design is said to have been entrusted to Jacques Louis-David, formerly a rabid revolutionary, and one of the favorite artists of the recently created Emperor. In structure and aspect, it was highly reminiscent of the insignia of the Ordre de Saint-Louis, bearing on its obverse a laureled portrait of Napoléon, and on the reverse the Imperial eagle and the motto HONNEUR ET PATRIE. It took for the color of its ribbon the very same fiery red hue that had been used for that of the insignia of the great merit order of Louis XIV.
The first ceremony of admission into the order took place on July 15, 1804, beneath the majestic dome of the Church of Saint-Louis des Invalides, the military hospital and retirement institution established by Louis XIV in 1670 for the care of veterans wounded in his many foreign wars. The second ceremony took place on August 16 of the same year, in the camp of Boulogne-sur-Mer, from whence Napoléon was planning to invade England in the coming year. This ambitious plan never came to fruition, but the ceremony of Boulogne has gone down in the annals of history as a truly splendid and noteworthy event. Over eighteen hundred officers and enlisted men of both the army and navy were decorated with the striking new insignia, and Bonaparte himself presented to the new Légionnaires the enameled white stars of the order, which were drawn one by one from receptacles fashioned from pieces of armor said to have belonged to the great French knights Bertrand du Guesclin and Pierre Terrail, called the "Chevalier de Bayard."
In addition to establishing this important new decoration, Napoléon 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 Maisons d'Éducation for daughters of members of the Légion d'Honneur. 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 Légion d'Honneur. The discipline imposed was severe, and in the early years of the Maisons d'Éducation, 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. Napoléon 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 Chancelier of the Légion d'Honneur, 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 Maisons d'Éducation a sterling international reputation for academic excellence and civic responsibility.
Despite its obvious associations with the Imperial régime, the Légion d'Honneur was retained by Louis XVIII after the Restoration, but the profile of the Emperor was removed from its insignia in favor of that of Henri IV, the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty. Fearful of alienating literally thousands of military personnel and civil servants who had been decorated by Napoléon I, and mindful of the enormous prestige of the institution itself, the returning Bourbon monarch wisely opted to retain the order, and to put it to his own uses. Although he pursued a stated policy of advancing the French royal orders to the detriment of the Légion d'Honneur, appointments nevertheless continued to be made regularly. Louis-Philippe, bound by the strictures of the newly reformed Charte Constitutionnelle of 1830, abolished all of the royal orders and decorations, retaining only the Légion d'Honneur, which became ex facto the highest distinction of the French state, civil or military.
Under Napoléon III, the importance of the order was again bolstered by a Bonaparte connection, and the profile of Napoléon I reappeared on its insignia for a brief span. It was during this reign that women were finally admitted to the order in recognition of services rendered, eventually creating a situation of total parity in the realm of eligibility, at least in theory.
During the Fifth Republic, Président de Gaulle instituted the new Code of the Légion d'Honneur and the Médaille Militaire, which established a policy of retrenchment in the number of appointments to the order, whose ranks had swelled to a level of roughly 330,000 by 1962. The reorganization of these institutions also presupposed the creation of a new order of merit, less exclusive than that of the ruban rouge, which would absorb the numbers of worthy candidates who could no longer hope to receive an appointment to the older order, but whose level of service to the nation clearly called for some sort of official recognition.
Thus was born the Ordre National du Mérite in 1963, an order designed to recognize the distinguished merit of those who contributed to the ongoing development of French society, but who had not yet demonstrated the eminent merit required of those who would be candidates for membership of the Légion d'Honneur.
Although requirements for admission to the Légion d'Honneur have changed throughout the two centuries of its existence, the modern order recognizes a twenty year service minimum, either civil or military, in either the public or the private sector, for consideration of a potential candidate. The service requirement for admission to the Ordre National du Mérite, which was establsihed at the time of its creation in 1963 at fifteen years, has since been reduced to ten years, and has hence served to create an order of a slightly younger and more heterogeneous character than that of the Légion d'Honneur. Foreign nationals, both those resident in France and those living abroad, may be appointed to both the Légion d'Honneur and the Ordre National du Mérite by special decree of the Président of the French Republic, and this includes the usual appointments made in a diplomatic connection, or for reasons of state.
Among the most prestigious orders of merit of the modern world, the Légion d'Honneur is officially headed by the Président of the French Republic, who is its Grand Maître. Its administration and organization are overseen and directed by the Grand Chancelier, who is traditionally chosen from the the highest ranks of the French armed services, and who is aided in his task by the Secrétaire Général of the Grand Chancellerie of the Légion d'Honneur, who is usually culled from the world of the French magistrature.
Its headquarters, which it shares with the Chancellerie of the Ordre National du Mérite and the administration of the Médaille Militaire, is the Hôtel de Salm, directly adjacent to the Musée d'Orsay along the Left Bank of the Seine. It was originally constructed between 1782
and 1787 for the Prince of Salm-Kyrbourg, and was acquired by the French government in 1804, to serve as the headquarters of the new order. It is also the official residence of the Grand Chancelier, and shares its site with the Musée National de la Légion d'Honneur et des Ordres de Chevalerie, one of the few museums in the world dedicated exclusively to the study and preservation of documents, art and artifacts related to orders of chivalry and merit. This complex is also known throughout the world as the Palace of the Légion d'Honneur.
The foundation of the Légion d'Honneur by Napoléon 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.
Dio Me La Diede. Guai A Chi La Tocca
The Ordre de la Couronne de Fer (1805-1814)
Having consolidated his power within the confines of the French fatherland through his coronation as Emperor in December of 1804, and mindful of the necessity to further secure the territories and principalities that he had conquered or annexed over the course of the preceding years, Napoléon now moved swiftly to fully extend his monarchical purview to the areas that comprised the various Italian states of the time. Less than four months after his imperial coronation, Napoléon was proclaimed Re d'Italia (King of Italy), thereby adding an Italian royal dignity to his French imperial one, and in the process asserting 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, Napoléon 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 by Charles V, and was a powerful symbol of the transfer of authority to the person of Napoléon. 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!
In his rôle as King of Italy, Napoléon undertook the foundation of a new order of chivalry to commemorate this event, and to properly reward those who had aided in the creation of his new Italian kingdom. Less than two weeks after his coronation in Milan, the Emperor had laid the groundwork for this new order, issuing a decree that created the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer (Order of the Iron Crown), a move which he hoped would further galvanize the loyalties of those to whom he had entrusted the maintenance of his Italian royal state. The new Re d'Italia was proclaimed the Grand Master of the Order, which was to be composed of 500 Chevaliers, 100 Commandeurs and 20 Grand-Croix, and appointed his Italian foreign minister Marescalchi as its chancelier.
Furthermore, and in order to publicly recognize the contributions made by certain of his non-Italian followers (particularly those of the military establishment) to the foundation of the new state, Napoléon created a special provision that allowed for the decoration of 200 Chevaliers, 50 Commandeurs and 5 Grand-Croix of French nationality, in addition to the limits that had been established for the order as a whole.
The very first installation of new members of the order took place in the metropolitan Church of Saint Ambrosius on May 15, 1806, and was presided over by the adopted son of the Emperor, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, in his capacity as Viceroy of Italy. The members of this important new order swore, among other things, to devote themselves to the
defense of the King, of the Crown and to the integrity of the Kingdom of Italy, and to the glory of its Founder.
Eighteen months later, on December 19, 1807, a new decree further augmented the number of members of the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer by adding 300 Chevaliers, 50 Commandeurs and 5 Grand-Croix. Its insignia was comprised of a Napoléonic imperial eagle rising from the center of a depiction of the Iron Crown of Lombardy. Its ribbon was yellow with green borders on either side, and among those who were proud to display the insignia of the prestigious new royal order were several Napoléonic marshals, namely Augereau, Bernadotte, Berthier and Massena, as well as a number of Italian subjects of His Majesty, such as Prima, minister of finance of the kingdom, Général Pino, minister of war, and Paradisi, Président of the Senate.
The creation of the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer, and the subsequent nominations to its ranks were important steps on a number of levels, both political and historical. Napoléon's plans to establish a pan-European hegemony have their first echoes in the foundation of this chivalric entity, and the symbolism of the Crown of Iron, as well as its direct ties to the Carolingian legacy of the Holy Roman Empire were to have important implications in the years to come.
In 1805, Napoléon's spectacular victories over the forces of the Austrian monarch Francis II at Ulm and Austerlitz had led to the Treaty of Pressburg of December 26, among the terms of which was contained a provision for the complete dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire which Francis had ruled since 1792. Into the vacuum created by this epochal event stepped the young Re d'Italia, who thus forcefully and unmistakably identified himself as the rightful inheritor of the imperial tradition and authority of the great Carolus Magnus, at the same time undertaking the forging of a glorious new empire out of the shattered remnants of the once-great thousand-year-old colossus. The foundation of the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer was thus a pivotal symbolic juncture in the steady and measured progression of the Napoléonic propaganda of conquest and consolidation, and it helped to firmly establish in the public mind throughout Europe the notion of the fundamental legitimacy of French Imperial succession to the dignity of pan-European sovereignty.
According to historian Frédéric Bluche, Napoléon had no desire to simply ascend the throne of the now-decrepit Holy Roman Empire. "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." The additional 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 fabric of domination, dependency and feudal obligation.
In 1813, and in the series of debacles that followed Napoléon's disastrous Russian Campaign, the French Empire lost the Kingdom of Italy, and Austria reclaimed its hegemony over Milan and the region of Lombardy. Unlike the Légion d'Honneur, its brother order of the Napoléonic Empire, the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer was not to find an independent existence within the French pantheon, but was instead taken up by the now-victorious Francis II, who in 1814 absorbed it into the wide range of Austrian Imperial Orders under his protection. It was reorganized and its French Imperial eagle was eventually replaced by the two-headed eagle of the Austrian Empire.
Nevertheless, after the Restoration of the Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII (r.1814/15-1824), to the throne of France, a royal ordinance regarding public display of the insignia of the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer was issued on July 19, 1814. "Those of Our subjects who have obtained the decoration of the Crown of Iron," declared the ordinance, "will continue to wear it, and will bear the responsibility of undertaking, with the new sovereign of the country to which the Order belongs, to obtain authorization for this." Ever conciliatory in pursuit of national unity following his accession to the throne, Louis XVIII was to adopt an extremely moderate policy with regard to several the orders created by his predecessor, who was considered by many of the ultra-Royalist camp to be an upstart and a usurper. Napoléon's Légion was transformed into a royal order, the wearing of the Couronne de Fer insignia was tolerated in Bourbon France, and holders of the defunct Ordre Impérial de la Réunion (see Chapter IV) were accorded places in the ranks of the newly-reorganized Ordre Royal de la Légion d'Honneur.
Thus ended the existence of the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer under the protection of the Napoléonic ingdom of Italy, and with its absorption by the Austrian Empire it ceased to be in any way connected with the imperial vision of its royal founder, himself descended from a proud Tuscan family of noble lineage. His visionary creation was later to serve, however, as an inspiration for the Ordine della Corona di Ferro, which was founded in 1868 by King Vittorio-Emanuele II of Savoy, who would eventually reign over a united Italy.
Pretium Laborum Non Vile
(A Noble Reward For Efforts):
The Ordre des Trois Toisons d'Or (1809-1813)
As the Imperial Eagle continued his astounding career across the skies of early 19th century Europe, the Napoléonic vision of a united and politically stable Continent under French rule moved ever closer to the realm of the realistically attainable. Ever a student of history, the Emperor frequently cast his gaze backward for inspiration, not to the doddering, inefficient and fundamentally inequitable structures of the ancien régime of the Bourbons, but to the magnificent spectacle of the Carolingian empire at its height.
During the 8th century of the Christian era, and under the farsighted and inspired leadership 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 undeniably brilliant leader, had been 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, remains one of the seminal events of modern European history, and was echoed powerfully over 1,000 years later by Napoléon'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.
After his conquest of Madrid in 1808, and of Vienna in 1809, the Emperor of the French was for all intents and purposes the master of most of modern Europe. Although this mastery was to be of relatively short duration, Napoléon was never one to let slip a chance to ally himself with a noble and potentially useful tradition. Consequently, it was at the Palace of Schönbrunn, outside the Austrian capital of Vienna that on August 15, 1809, he signed letters patent creating the Ordre Impérial des Trois Toisons d'Or (Order of the Three Golden Fleeces). Modeled on the glorious and much-coveted Order of the Golden Fleece founded in 1430 by Philippe II, duc de Bourgogne, this Napoléonic order was to represent a fusion of the old and the new in a splendid and prestigious French Imperial creation, specifically designed in order to "give to Our Grande Armée a most signal proof of Our satisfaction." The original order, the name of which evoked the many labors and trials of Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology, eventually became an important order of knighthood of the reigning House of Habsburg of the Holy Roman Empire, and was later divided into two branches, one Spanish, the other Austrian, after the abdication of Emperor Charles V in 1556, and the subsequent European dynastic power shifts of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The new order was to be composed of a maximum of 1000 Chevaliers, 400 Commandeurs and 100 Grands-Chevaliers. The Emperor himself was to be its Grand Master, and its chancellerie was initially attached to that of the Légion d'Honneur, with the comte de Lacépède as its provisional Grand Chancelier. Later, on October 14, 1810, Général Andréossy was named as its first official Grand Chancelier, with the comte de Schimmelpenninck as its Grand Trésorier. The material and financial resources of the order, which were to be drawn from the revenues of certain domains within the Pontifical States, as well as from the mines of Idria, were to be sufficient to allow for its independent functioning, as well as pensions for its members.
Proposals for membership in the order would be derived from a number of sources, including from within the ranks of the different regiments of the Grande Armée. Secret propositions for nomination were to be sealed and addressed directly to the Emperor himself by the leaders of the various corps, and each would be considered as the expressed opinion of the corps itself. Other appointments were to follow a more traditional trajectory, with many high-ranking officials of the Empire, such as the Princes of the Blood, the Grands Dignitaries and the Président of the Senate receiving places within the upper echelons of the order as a matter of course.
The decoration of the Ordre des Trois Toisons d'Or never progressed beyond the design phase, and few examples of sketches or prototypes of this insignia are known to exist. One example executed by the jeweler Coudray, and subsequently approved by the order's Conseil d'Administration for presentation to the Emperor, depicts a crowned Imperial eagle clutching within its talons a small blue stone bearing the initial N. This is ornamented on either side by Roman-style thunderbolts, from which are hung the "three golden fleeces," one for Spain, one for Austria and one for France. The insignia's ribbon was sky blue, with yellow borders on either side. A slightly different version of this decoration was also sketched out, but it is unclear if this alternate version was also submitted to Napoléon for his consideration.
What the Emperor could not know at the time of the foundation of the Ordre des Trois Toisons d'Or was that his plan for a French Imperial version of this great ancient order of knighthood would never come to fruition. From almost the very moment of its creation, this new order came under heavy and relentless fire from members of his other orders, particularly those of the Légion d'Honneur, who feared a diminution of the prestige and power of that seminal Napoléonic institution. In addition, and as his empire grew ever wider, the monarch had other considerations to occupy his time, energy and attention. The complications inherent in his divorce from the Empress Josephine at the end of 1809, as well as as his search for a suitable (and fecund) replacement for his discredited former consort all weighed heavily on his mind, and these matters of more immediate importance pushed his scheme for the Trois Toisons d'Or into the background. After his marriage to the Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810, and the birth of his son and heir, the King of Rome in 1811, he fixed his thoughts on the initiation of yet another new order, that of the Réunion (see Chapter IV), which he founded with the specific intention of creating a pan-European recompense that could be bestowed on any subject of the Empire.
The disastrous effects of the Russian Campaign of 1812-1813, the ongoing and increasingly desperate struggle against the Allied powers and the deep and pervasive resistance of members of the other chivalric orders finally led Napoléon to abandon his ambitious plans for the Ordre Impérial des Trois Toisons d'Or. With no nominations having been made since its creation in 1809, on September 27, 1813, the Emperor declared the dissolution of this shadow order, as well as the transfer of all of its material and financial resources to the coffers of the Légion d'Honneur.
The Ordre Impérial des Trois Toisons d'Or, while ultimately more of a vision than a reality, is a powerful example of Napoléon's deep appreciation for the great traditions of European civilization. Although he isoften represented as one who swept away all that had gone before him, an examination of the various acts of his reign shows him to have been more of a renovator than an innovator, more of an adapter than an inventor. The Emperor was a keen student of both history and politics, and his ability to successfully adopt, combine and transform seemingly disparate elements, symbols and notions from the ancient, medieval and modern traditions of European monarchism was undoubtedly among his greatest strengths as a ruler. Nevertheless, the premature dissolution of the Ordre des Trois Toisons d'Or also represents in many ways the opening stages of an ultimately fatal spiral, and its eventual and comprehensive failure stands as a powerful reminder of the fate of one who, like the mythological Icarus, was driven by boundless ambition to fly too close to the sun, and who was doomed to pay the full price of his own deadly miscalculation.
Tour Pour l'Empire
(Everything For the Empire):
The Ordre Imperial de la Réunion (1811-1815)
Napoléon's Légion d'Honneur was from the very moment of its inception a tremendously prestigious and sought-after decoration among civilians and military personnel alike. This, however, was eventually to cause considerable difficulty to the Emperor, who came to realize very quickly that the enormous esteem accorded to this relatively new institution, plus the added pressure of his many campaigns, would eventually cause its ranks to swell enormously over the course of the coming years. His 1805 establishment (as King of Italy) of the Ordre de la Couronne de Fer (Order of the Iron Crown), did little, however, to abate the alarming rate of growth of the Légion d'Honneur, as the former was effectively an order designed to reward those who had distinguished themselves in the subjugation and subsequent administration of the Italian peninsula. In addition, yet another chivalric project, aimed at a fusion of the venerable Spanish and Austrian branches of the Ordre de la Toison d'Or with a newly-created French Imperial branch, had been doomed from the start. As has already been recounted, from the early stages of its proposition by the Emperor, this scheme had encountered considerable resistance from a wide variety of quarters, not the least from those holders of the Légion d'Honneur who feared a diminution of its already fabled renown and precedence. This resistance was eventually to lead to its undoing.
In 1811, however, and in the wake of the conquest and absorption of many of the smaller countries of Western Europe into the French Empire, Napoléon felt compelled to act definitively to solve the two primary problems confronting his system of Imperial chivalric recompenses. The first, of course, was the dilemma of the runaway growth of the Légion d'Honneur. The second, an equally troublesome and potentially even more complicated situation, was the need to replace those orders of the various conquered and absorbed territories that had been abolished upon their having entered the French Empire. Arguably at the very apogee of his power, the monarch now felt that the moment was ripe to create what would effectively be a pan-European order modeled on the lines of his wildly popular Légion. This new order, he believed, would ultimately serve as a catalyst for the creation of a vast European empire under French hegemony, and would establish a solid foundation for the reward of services to the state by individuals from all walks of life throughout the entirety of his ever-expanding dominions.
At the summit of his might, Napoléon carefully weighed the question of how to proceed. On August 12, 1811, he wrote to Cambacérès, his Archi-Chancelier, regarding his thoughts on the recently-conceived order. "My Cousin," he wrote, "I return to you your project for the Order of the Union. I want the number of Commandeurs to be raised to 500, and that of the Chevaliers to 5,000. This will provide the means to relieve the Légion d'Honneur, which without this will grow to infinity." Soon thereafter, it was decided that the new order would definitively be called the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion, an echo of the earlier and short-lived Ordre Royal de l'Union founded by his brother, Louis, in 1807, while King of Holland (1806-1810). This rather ephemeral royal institution had as its aim the recognition by the newly-installed sovereign of services to his kingdom, also known as the Union des Provinces de Pays-Bas (Union of the Provinces of the Low Countries). In May, 1810, Louis abdicated under orders from his imperial brother, thus paving the way for a full Franco-Dutch fusion, this time with Holland as a French department.
Napoléon's Empire was therefore 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 Archduchess Marie-Louise, a move which he considered to mark his official entrée into the exalted company of the hereditary sovereigns of Europe. In 1811, Marie-Louise had given birth to his son and heir, the young Charles-François-Napoléon, majestically titled the Roi de Rome (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 unification of his Empire. Having previously established a common legal code, a common army and a common political system, he now proceeded to establish a common order of merit for the entirety of his realm, one that he intended would serve as a dignified and eminently practical complement to the great Légion d'Honneur.
The official establishment of the new order was timed to coincide with his visit, in the company of the young Empress Marie-Louise, to the new French department of Holland in October of 1811. It was therefore in the Palace of Amsterdam on the eighteenth of that month that he signed the decree instituting the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion, and with the selfsame decree he abolished the Ordre Royal de l'Union and accorded to each of its former members a place in his new pan-European order. In addition, Napoléon eliminated the various orders associated with other states directly annexed to the French Empire, including the Palatine Orders: the Order of the Lion and the Order of Saint-Hubert. Furthermore, the orders of the Pontifical States were also suppressed, including the Order of the Golden Spur, the Order of Christ and the Order of Saint-Jean Latran. The Piedmontese Order of the Annunciation and the Order of Saint-Maurice and Saint-Lazare shared this fate as well, along with the Tuscan Order of Saint-Etienne.
The fledgling institution was accorded 500,000 francs per annum in revenue (to be derived from the personal domains of the Emperor), and was, in theory, to be comprised of 10,000 Chevaliers, 1,000 Commandeurs and 200 Grand-Croix. Its financial resources would eventually be supplemented by a decree of March 15, 1812, which accorded it the goods and revenues of the defunct Ordre Royal de l'Union. It was designed to allow the Emperor to reward the services of those, particularly civilians, who found themselves for one reason or another somewhat neglected in the relatively narrow range of appointments made to the Légion d'Honneur since its foundation. Created as a prestigious second order of the French Empire, it would enable him to also recognize the efforts of the most outstanding citizens of the territories that he had over the years so painstakingly annexed to its Gallic nucleus.
Certain aspects of his brother Louis' institution were retained by Napoléon, including the deep blue ribbon of its decoration. This color, associated as well with the Institution du Mérite Militaire, Protestant companion of the Catholic Ordre de Saint-Louis, was seen by the Emperor as an important visual manifestation of continuity, one that would immediately demonstrate to the observer the distinguished place of the new foundation alongside the red-ribbonned Légion d'Honneur. The insignia was made of gold, and was comprised of a double-faced disc surrounded by twelve enameled white branches. Among the various symbols represented thereon were the Imperial throne, the arms of Piedmont, the lion of Florence, the Etrurian flower of Tuscany and the Dutch lion, as well as tridents symbolizing the cities of Hamburg and Genoa. At the foot of the Imperial throne, the Roman she-wolf was depicted, suckling Romulus and Remus.
The new insignia itself was also in a style similar to that of his brother's royal institution, but the motto of the Ordre Royal de la Réunion was changed to reflect the difference in status of its Imperial founder. In place of Louis' somewhat cavalier motto of FAIS CE QUE DOIS, ADVIENNE QUE POURRA (DO WHAT YOU MUST, COME WHAT MAY), Napoléon substituted more august indications: NAPOLÉON FECIT. A JAMAIS. TOUT POUR L'EMPIRE (CREATED BY NAPOLÉON. FOREVER. EVERYTHING FOR THE EMPIRE).
The official seat of the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion was established on the rue de Grenelle in Paris, within the gracious confines of the Hôtel du Chatelet. This grand structure was built by the architect Cherpitel in 1740 for the abbé de Pompadour, and had previously been the home of the École des Ponts et Chaussées (School of Bridges and Roads) between 1804 and 1811. The duc de Cadore, Nompère de Champagny, was named Grand Chancelier, with baron Van der Goes van Dirxland, former chancellor of the royal orders of King Louis of Holland, as Grand Trésorier.
Unlike the Légion d'Honneur, but in clear imitation of both the Ordre de Saint-Louis and the Institution du Mérite Militaire, the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion was comprised of only three ranks (Chevalier, Commandeur and Grand-Croix). However, like its renowned contemporary counterpart, the Réunion required that an oath of allegiance be solemnly administered to all its postulants prior to full admission. Although very similar to the oath sworn by members of the Légion, that which was demanded of members of the new order emphasized the importance of maintaining the integrality and union of the French Empire.
I swear to be faithful to the Emperor and to His dynasty; I promise on my honor to devote myself to the service of His Majesty, to the defense of His person and to the conservation of the territory of the Empire in its totality; not to attend any council or meeting contary to the tranquility of the State; to warn His Majesty of all that which is projected, to my knowledge, against His honor, His safety or of all that which might tend to disturb the union or the welfare of the Empire.
Eventually, the members of the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion were accorded many of the same privileges as those of the Légion d'Honneur, including the right to have their daughters schooled in the Maisons d'Education originally established for the proper upbringing of daughters of Légion members. The Grand-Croix were also accorded the right of special entry to the Imperial palaces, an honor that further established a more equal footing between holders of the ruban rouge and the ruban bleu. Furthermore, a decree of March 12, 1813, accorded to all members of the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion the right to obtain via letters patent the title and arms of a Chevalier de l'Empire (Knight of the Empire), in the very same fashion as that extended to members of the Légion d'Honneur. Only 50 members of the Réunion, however, were to avail themselves of this opportunity before its demise.
This increasing level of chivalric parity was not entirely congenial to all, however, and was particularly objectionable to many members of the older order, especially those in the military. On February 27, 1812, the Grand Chancelier of the Légion d'Honneur, comte de Lacépède, wrote directly to the Emperor in this connection. He was deeply concerned that "the establishment of a new order not diminish the goodwill" with which the Emperor had "[t]heretofore deigned to honor His Légion d'Honneur."
The first appointments to the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion were been made on February 22, 1812, and two years later its numbers, while not nearly as large as those of its brother order, were quite substantial nonetheless. As of March 31, 1814, there was a total of 1, 622 members, 614 of whom were foreigners. The largest class by far was that of the Chevaliers, which numbered 1,364, followed by 127 Commandeurs and 131 Grand-Croix. One of the most important initial differences of the Réunion was its recognition of the military medical establishment, which had served so bravely and tirelessly over the course of the Emperor's many campaigns. These individuals stood side-by-side in the new order with such exalted figures as the young King of Rome, as well as the foreign brothers-in-law of the Emperor, Borghese and Bacciochi, and a number of great generals, such as Caulaincourt and Belliard.
Given time, this new order might well have had a chance to become a fully-fledged complement to the great ruban rouge, but alas, such was not to be the case. In 1812, the Grande Armée 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, Napoléon had abdicated and been exiled to Elba, which for the next year would be his tiny island domain. During the time of the First Restoration of Louis XVIII (r.1814/1815-1824), the Ordre Impérial de la Réunion was no longer awarded, but those who had been named members of the order previous to the downfall of the Emperor were still permitted to wear the insignia of their respective ranks. Upon the return of Napoléon to power in 1815, and throughout the course of the Hundred Days of his final ascendancy, he once again bestowed the order on a number of his faithful supporters. At the time of its ultimate dissolution during that fateful summer, this splendid but ultimately fleeting Imperial creation numbered some 1, 804 members: 135 Grand-Croix, 135 Commandeurs and 1,534 Chevaliers.
After the Emperor's defeat at Waterloo and the subsequent and definitive return of Louis XVIII, the order was abolished once and for all by a royal ordinance of July 28, 1815. Subsequently, Maréchal Mac Donald, the newly-appointed Grand Chancelier of the Légion d'Honneur, demanded on August 2, 1815 that all French members of the now-defunct order return their letters patent, diplomas and insignia. These last were handed over to the Royal Mint, and were later melted down and struck into gold coins earmarked for the coffers of the Légion d'Honneur. To avoid any sort of discontent on the part of the former members, they were generally accorded places in the latter institution.
The Napoléonic Legacy
Almost two centuries after his death, the sheer magnitude of the military, social and political vision of Napoléon I continues to astound those who devote themselves to the study of his personal legacy as a ruler. His orders of knighthood, modeled on chivalric 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 successors of those very chivalric institutions themselves. It might reasonably be argued that these Napoléonic orders served both to redefine and to reinvigorate the very notion of knightly service to the common good, and that each in its own way represented an important, if sometimes halting step on the road to the eventual democratization of the modern state orders throughout Europe.
The culture of honor, service and emulation that was fostered by the foundation of these great Imperial orders has never faded from the collective consciousness of the French nation, and over two hundred years after the creation of the Légion d'Honneur, thousands of French men and women are spurred on to ever greater efforts, both public and private, in pursuit of the highly-prized mark of distinction that is its insignia. The French Revolution, and the Napoléonic 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 great chivalric orders of the state. In its place, and largely as a result of the formative and meritocratic influence of the great Napoléonic orders of chivalry, is a nation in which honorable service, self-sacrifice and consistent devotion to the public good are rewarded by the most noble form of recognition that can be bestowed in the modern world.