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Napoleon's Coronation as Emperor of the French



Napleon, Emperor of France, at his coronation by Ingres.

Napoleon I was crowned Emperor of the French on a cold December 2nd in 1804. Napoleon planed his coronation with as great a care as he did his wars. The task of organizing the coronation was given to L. Ph. de Ségur, the Grand master of Ceremonies, and A. L. de Rémusat, then First Chamberlain. The architects Percier and Fontaine took care of the temporary decorations and Jean Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855) designed the costumes.

It was in March of 1804 that the senate offered First Consul Bonaparte the title of emperor. The French Senate voted a law on May 18, 1804 whose first article reads: "The government of the Republic is vested in an Emperor, who takes the title of Emperor of the French."

Napoleon I emperor, in coronation robes. by François Gérard.

The pomp of the Coronation day began when a dozen processions of deputations from the cities of France, the Army and Navy, the legislative assemblies, the judiciary, the administrative corps, the Legion of Honor, the Institute, and chambers of commerce left different points to converge on Notre-Dame cathedral. Then at 9 a.m. the Papal procession set out from the Pavilion de Flore at Tuileries. Pope Pius VII, the cardinals, and grand officers of the Curia rode to the coronation in gaily decorated coaches pulled by horses of great beauty. The Papal procession was led by a bishop on a mule bearing aloft the Papal crucifix. Next the imperial cavalcade left Tuileries. Marshal Murat, the governor of Paris led the procession. Next came specially distinguished regiments of the Army. Followed by the leading officers of the government in carriages drawn by six horses. Then came a carriage for the Bonaparte brothers and sisters. Last of all was Napoleon's royal coach ornamented with gold and emblazoned with a capital N, drawn by eight horses, and bearing the Emperor dressed in purple velvet embroidered with gems and gold. With him was Josephine robed in silk and sparkling gems. "Her face so well made up that," though forty-one, "she looked like four-and-twenty." The procession passed papier-mâché eagles lining the Champs-Elysées. It took an hour for all the carriages to reach the cathedral.
As each group reached Notre-Dame cathedral, they took their places. The Pope and his retinue marched up the aisle in formal array and Pope Pius VII took his place on his throne at the left of the altar. After Napoleon and Josephine arrived at the cathedral, they changed into their red coronation robes. Napoleon took his place on a throne at the right of the altar with Josephine on a smaller throne five steps below.

Napoleon skillfully imposed on the Republicans his preference for the cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (their choice would much more likely have been the Champ-de-mars), simultaneously obtaining their agreement for the presence of the Pope. Damaged during the French Revolution, the gothic Notre-Dame cathedral was saved from demolition and redecorated for Napoleon's coronation (1804) and was subsequently fully restored (1845-64) by Viollet-le-Duc. The architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine carried out the decoration of the cathedral in the Empire style.

Although the anointment of the Emperor had originally been planned for the week before the coronation, delays and difficulties in getting the Pope to Paris made it necessary to combine the anointment and the coronation. The common, malicious story, (apparently started by the Duchess d'Abrantes in her Memoirs) that Napoleon grabbed the crown from the Pope and crowned himself does not agree with the careful plans for the ceremony. Napoleon planned all along to avoid accepting the Pope as his overlord. Pope Pius VII, a practical man, agreed to the order of ceremony negotiated by Cardinal Papal legate G.B. Caprara in exchange for regaining several papal territories and a chance to visit France with the hope of winning the French people back to the Catholic church.

According to the precis verbal of the master of ceremonies, Segur, the ceremony took place in accordance with the plans. After taking the crowns and other regalia from the altar and blessing them, the Pope returned them to the altar and then took his seat. Napoleon advanced and took a crown known as the Charlemagne crown, though the actual French Coronation crown known by that name had been destroyed during the French Revolution and this crown was a new crown made to look Medieval, from the altar and placed it on his own head. He then returned to the altar and replaced the so called Charlemagne crown with a laurel wreath made of gold of the type worn by Roman Emperors. Napoleon then once again took up the Charlemagne Crown and walk to the kneeling Josephine. As he held the crown up, Napoleon stated that he was crowning Josephine as his wife, not by her own right. This is the moment illustrated in David's famous painting of the coronation. Napoleon is wearing his personal golden laurel wreath crown and holding up the newly made Coronation or Charlemagne Crown. He then touched the coronation crown to Josephine's head.

 Napoleon's Coronation by Jacques-Louis David (Louvre, Paris)

The ceremony lasted for more than three hours ending by three o'clock. Ceremonies from previous Bourbon coronations were adapted to the occasion and mixed with those of Charlemagne's coronation. Napoleon adopted his own version of Charlemagne's bee as a symbol for his reign. In order to copy the ceremony of the coronation of Charlemagne, 12 virgin maids with candles were needed. And after 15 years of social revolution in France, well, it was hard finding any virgins in Paris. Napoleon made a joke about trying around St. Germain. The coronation ceremony centered around 'imperial' regalia such as those belonging to Charlemagne (restored or made for the occasion), Napoleonic regalia (the chain, the ring, the orb, the ermine collar) and the "ornaments" (the scepter, the sword, the crown, the hand of justice, and the robe). Martin Biennais, a talented jeweler maker, contributed to the creation of Napoleon's coronation regalia and crowns and designed several of his coronation swords. The newly made Coronation or Charlemagne Crown was designed to have the appearance of a Medieval crown and is set with dozens of antique Roman cameos. The magnificent Regent diamond was set into the handle of Napoleon's coronation sword. An acclaiming crowd waited in falling snow to see the end of the ceremony.

For the ceremony, Napoleon created around himself what could only be described as a royal court - although two of his brothers, Lucien and Jérôme, were banned from the service. Joseph and Louis were named Grand Elector and Grand Constable, Cambacérès was given the title Arch-chancellor, Lebrun was made Arch-treasurer, Caulaincourt was named Master of the Horse, Duroc became Grand Marshal of the Palace, Berthier was elevated to Grand Master of the Hunt, and Talleyrand was given the title Grand Chamberlain. Madame Mère, contrary to the image left us by David, was not present at the ceremony of the sacre because of her dislike of Josephine. Napoleon had to threaten his sisters (Elisa, Pauline, Caroline) with exile to get them to be trainbearers for Josephine.

Coronation Book
Napoleon's Coronation Book

The entire ceremony was then duly announced and later described by the press and particularly by Le Moniteur. This newspaper was even to publish a book describing the ceremony, entitled Le Sacre de S.M. l'Empereur.

For the music, Napoleon commissioned Giovanni Païsiello (1741-1816), a composer he deeply admired and whom he had brought from Italy to Paris to direct the Consular Chapel. Païsiello wrote the Mass and Te Deum for two choirs and two orchestras. Le Sueur composed a march and some motets. The abbé Roze wrote the unforgettable Vivat!

The Coronation dress of Napoleon and Josephine was white silk extravagantly embroidered in gold. Napoleon's golden crown of laurel leaves cost 8,000 Francs. The robe Napoleon wore for his Coronation was velvet embroidered with a powdering of the Imperial bees in gold and the capital letter N surrounded by a wreath of interlaced branches of olive, laurel, and oak. The velvet and embroidery work cost 15,000 Francs. The robe was lined with 15,000 Francs worth of ermine. Josephine's crown, diadem, and girdle cost 15,000 Francs. The robe made for Josephine was lined with 10,300 Francs worth of ermine and cost 16,000 Francs for the velvet and embroidery in gold.

To record the event for posterity, Napoleon commissioned the artist Jacques-Louis David to produce a monumental painting (Now at the Louvre, Paris). When David was doing the official painting of the event Napoleon ordered him to paint his mother in even though she did not attend. This is a link to a list of the names of those in the David's painting of the Coronation. Exhibited to the public in the Salon Carré in the Louvre in 1808, the over 20 foot by nearly 32 foot painting was then hung in the Tuileries, in the Salle des Gardes.

An unmanned balloon, ablaze with 3,000 lights forming an Imperial crown was launched from the front of Notre Dame cathedral as part of the coronation celebrations. André-Jaçques Garnerin was paid the sum of 23,500 francs for the construction and launching of the large balloon. The balloon came to earth in Lake Bracciano near Rome 46 hours later. Napoleon considered this another omen of his destiny and suggested that the balloon be put on display in Rome with an account of the "extraordinary event".

Phillippe Lebon, the French chemist who received a patent for a gas-lamp in 1799 prepared the lighting for the Napoleon's coronation. Unfortunately, early in the morning on the day of the ceremony for Napoleon's coronation in 1804, Lebon was robbed and fatally stabbed.

The cloisters of the Carcanine nuns named after Giovanni Pietro Carcano, benefactor of the Ospdedale Maggiore in the 17th century, were transformed into a ballroom for Napoleon's coronation. The building, at the time no longer hosting a religious order, no longer exists but the City Museum of Natural History in Paris was later built on the site.

coronation medalcoronation medal

A medal was struck to commerate the coronation of Napoleon I. Napoleon was portrayed in a Caesar like profile on the heads of the medal.The reverse design, drawn by Chaudet, illustrates the ancient Frankish custom of acknowledging a new chief by raising him on a shield. It also symbolizes the support of Napoleon by the people represented by a Roman senator and the military.

The sarcastic comment of French General Antoine-Guillaume Maurilhac Delmas during Napoleon's imposing coronation ceremony recorded that the old Republican declared: "What a shame that the 300,000 Frenchmen who died to overthrow one throne are unable to enjoy the superb fruit of their sacrifice."

 

Learn more about the passionate romance between Napoleon and Josephine by reading The Letters of Napoleon to Josephine.
Read about Josephine's roller coaster life in The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon's Josephine
Claire Elisabeth Jeanne Gravier de Remusat, a lady-in-waiting to Josephine, relates the style of living in Napoleon's court in her Memoirs of Madame de Remusat 1802 to 1808
Visit the locations where Napoleon and Josephine acted out their lives with Walks Through Napoleon and Josephine's Paris

Buy Napoleon Videos: Region 1: Empires - Napoleon Napoleon (TV Miniseries)
Region 2: Napoleon






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