The Transfer of Napoleon's Corpse

Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France (b.1769, d.1821)

It is the 5th of May 1821. On the small island of St. Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic, Napoleon I Bonaparte, former Emperor of France, has died. He had been exiled to the island by the Allies, after his defeat at Waterloo (1815). Officialy, he died of cancer of the stomach, but rumours of poisoning have always been persistent.

After Napoleon's defeat, the Bourbon monarchy had been restored in France. They had executed some of Napoleon's followers, most notably field-marshall Ney, and exiled others, so obviously they were not asking for the return of the emperor's corpse. And so, the Great Emperor came to rest in a simple grave on an island in the middle of nowhere. When he was in power, he had planned a burial in the cathedral of St. Denis, where the other French kings are buried, but now even his wish to be buried on the banks of the Seine was not granted.

In 1830 the Bourbon king Charles X was overtrown by the people. The duke of Orleans, Louis Philippe, was proclaimed King of the French. The Orleans family, a junior branch of the House of Bourbon, had no quarrel with Napoleon and indeed Louis Philippe's father, who called himself Philippe Egalité (Philip Equality), had voted for the execution of king Louis XVI during the French Revolution. After ruling for a few years, he started negotiations with Great-Britain about the return of Napoleon's body. It took seven years before they gave their consent and on 12 May 1840 the French passed a law enabling the return of the emperor.

A commission was formed, which would sail to St. Helena to exhume the body and bring it back to France. Leader of the expedition was Fran‡ois, prince of Joinville, a son of king Louis Philippe. His ship, the frigate La Belle-Poule, left France on 7 July 1840. Other people on board were: general Bertrand, who had followed Napoleon to St. Helena, Louis Marchand, who had been Napoleon's manservant, and general Gourgaud, who had saved the emperor's life during the battle of Brienne (1814) and shared his exile on St. Helena for a few years.

During their journey, the prince de Joinville turned 22 (14 August) and general Gourgaud celebrated his 57th birthday (14 september). Meanwhile, back in France, the Great Emperor's nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, landed near Boulogne on 4th August with the intent to overthrow the king. His men were defeated and he was captured two days later. In September he was given a life sentence, to be served in the fortress of Ham.

On 8 October 1840, La Belle-Poule arrived at St. Helena and one week later, on 15 October, the commission dug up the emperor's coffin. The prince opens it and discovers that the body has been perfectly preserved. Napoleon is wearing the uniform of the Chasseurs de la Garde.

La Belle-Poule docked at Le Havre in the beginning of December. The emperor's body was transported over the Seine to Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris. Here, the imperial corpse passed it's first night on the banks of the Seine. The funeral was held in Paris on 15 December, 1840. The coffin rested briefly under the Arc de Triomphe, which was built on the orders of Napoleon in 1806, but only completed in 1836, and was then taken over the Champs Elysees, across the Seine, to the Dome des Invalides. 36 sailors from La Belle-Poule carry the coffin through the park in front of the church, to the entrance. There they are met by king Louis Philippe, the Royal Family and old field-marshall Moncey, who was in charge of the Hotel des Invalides. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had been refused permission to attend his uncle's funeral.

It would take more than twenty years before Napoleon's tomb was finished (1861). By that time, king Louis Philippe had been deposed (1848). Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had been elected president in 1849. On 2 December 1851 he seized complete power and exactly one year later, he was proclaimed emperor as Napoleon III.

The famous architect Ludovico Visconti had designed a circular crypt, without a ceiling, so that it is possible to look in from ground-level. The emperor's porphyre sarcophagus stands in the middle, on a granite pedestal. Inside it are six more coffins of different kinds of wood and metal. On the side of the crypt opposite the entrance, there is a small chamber. It was created in 1969 to hold the remains of Napoleon's only legitimate child, Napoleon II, also known as the Duke of Reichstadt. His remains were brought to the Dome on 15 December 1940 by Adolf Hitler, who ruled both Paris and Vienna, where Reichstadt had been buried, at that time.

Guide Michelin, Paris et sa banlieue, Paris, 1976

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