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How Did Napoleon Die?
Napoleon died in exile on May 5th, 1821, on the island of Sainte-Hélène (Saint Helena) which is a British island in the middle of freaking nowhere in the south Atlantic ocean. 2000 miles east of Rio de Janeiro and 1200 miles west of the coast of Africa. The British exiled him there starting in October 1815 and that’s where he died, at age 51, which was young, even at that time.
How Napoleon ended up at Saint Helena is a long story, but one thing is for sure, whereas he had escaped from exile in the island of Elba near Tuscany, escaping from Saint Helena was going to be another matter. And he never managed, he spent almost 6 years at Saint Helena and died there.
The Fall of Napoleon
I am so over-simplifying this, but I hope it will help all of us get the gist of history:
Here’s the bottom line: Military defeats are what ended Napoleon’s rule. There was the terrible loss in Russia, the retreat, the terrible human loss, and an emperor that was broke. Napoleon was in a terribly weak spot and political shenanigans flourished. Napoleon tried to commit suicide with a pill, but that it didn’t work. Then he tried to abdicate power in favor of his son, and the powers that be–European rulers Napoleon had been pushing around for 20 years who finally saw an end to the dangerous strong man—would have none of it.
In the treaty of Fontainebleau, the victors banish Napoleon to Elba, a small island 10 miles away from Tuscany. He went, not willingly, but he went. Conditions were plush at Elba, he was given a 2 million francs a year allowance, got a 21 gun salute when he arrived, and he immediately started plotting his comeback. Not even one year into his banishment in Elba, he comes back to Paris with the aid of his former troops, and Louis XVIII flees the throne in fear for his life.
For 100 days in 1815, Napoleon rules France again. He takes the opportunity to go fight the British at Waterloo because that’s what Napoleon did, always on the offence, a fighter who wouldn’t quit. And this time he loses big, second major defeat after the Russian campaign. That’s when the British sent him off to the island of Saint Helena, in the middle of nowhere, where presumably it would be a lot harder to escape. That worked, he never escaped. And the conditions were nowhere near as plush at Saint Helena.
Here is one account of Napoleon’s surroundings on Saint Helena by Comte de la who admittedly was an admirer of Napoleon (he was his friend and confident), but Las Cases spoke good English and was at Saint Helena with Napoleon, so this is a first-hand account:
The Emperor Napoleon, who lately possessed such boundless power and disposed of so many crowns, now occupies a wretched hovel, a few feet square, which is perched upon a rock, unprovided with furniture, and without either shutters or curtains to the windows. This place must serve him for bedchamber, dressing room, dining room, study, and sitting room; and he is obliged to go out when it is necessary to have this one apartment cleaned. His meals, consisting of a few wretched dishes, are brought to him from a distance, as though he were a criminal in a dungeon. He is absolutely in want of the necessaries of life: the bread and wine are not only not such as he has been accustomed to, but are so bad that we loathe to touch them; water, coffee, butter, oil, and other articles are either not to be procured or are scarcely fit for use…
Why Is Napoleon Buried at Les Invalides?
We were all assembled around the emperor, and he was recapitulating these facts with warmth: ‘For what infamous treatment are we reserved!’ he exclaimed. This is the anguish of death. To injustice and violence they now add insult and protracted torment. If I were so hateful to them, why did they not get rid of me? A few musket balls in my heart or my head would have done the business, and there would at least have been some energy in the crime. Were it not for you, and above all for your wives, I would receive nothing from them but the pay of a private soldier. How can the monarchs of Europe permit the sacred character of sovereignty to be violated in my person? Do they not see that they are, with their own hands, working their own destruction at St. Helena?’
‘I entered their capitals victorious and, had I cherished such sentiments, what would have become of them? They styled me their brother, and I had become so by the choice of the people, the sanction of victory, the character of religion, and the alliances of their policy and their blood. Do they imagine that the good sense of nations is blind to their conduct? And what do they expect from it? At all events, make your complaints, gentlemen; let indignant Europe hear them. Complaints from me would be beneath my dignity and character; I must either command or be silent.'”
The account of the Comte de Las Cases appears in Robinson, James Harvey, Readings in European History (1906); Hamilton-Williams, David, The Fall of Napoleon: the Final Betrayal (1994).
What killed Napoleon?
So, clearly, conditions were less than rosy for Napoleon at Saint Helena, but what killed him?
That’s a hard question to answer definitively. Even Napoleon’s British physician on Saint Helena complained that he was being treated too harshly and that the climate didn’t suit him, but there was no sign of beatings or anything overt like that. On the other hand, his early demise wouldn’t have bothered the British too much, it was convenient to say the least, so they were highly motivated not to give him plush surroundings.
There are always conspiracy theories, and Napoleon’s death is no exception. People have said he must have been poisoned, and indeed, there was a lot of arsenic in his hair samples, but he was most likely exposed to too much arsenic as a child (they had hair samples throughout his life and his abnormal arsenic levels started early, another mystery that I won’t try to solve here!), but whatever the case may have been, arsenic is not the likely cause of Napoleon’s death. But there are a lot of other poisons, as you know, so, the poison conspiracies will never go quiet.
There was an autopsy done on Napoleon’s body, and that pointed out stomach cancer and a nasty stomach ulcer, but the physician who did the autopsy didn’t sign his report. Was that forgetfulness or a sign that he was pressured into saying Napoleon died of cancer? We will never know. Stomach cancer was a convenient explanation indeed, especially for his British jailers, but it turned out that Napoleon’s father also died of stomach cancer, a fact that was not known at the time, so it lends credibility to the story. I’m going to go with cancer, but I don’t know for sure.
Napoleon’s Original Resting Place
Napoleon was explicit about where he wanted to be buried. He wrote: «Je souhaite reposer au bord de la Seine au milieu de ce peuple français que j’ai tant aimé.» (I wish to be laid to rest by the river Seine, surrounded by the people of France that I loved so much) His English jailers denied him that wish and buried him in Saint Helena in an unmarked grave.
Now, at the risk of annoying British listeners, I have to say, that was neither classy nor necessary. I understand that he was the big bad wolf and they were glad to be done with him, but once dead, he wasn’t much of a threat any more, especially since he had no heir fit to claim his legacy. He had children, but let’s look at that situation for a second. He married Josephine, who had children from a previous marriage that Napoleon adopted, but then never had children together. Those children didn’t have a claim to anything. Napoleon had affairs and he fathered children outside of marriage, but as you know, those don’t count either. He divorced Josephine to marry a younger, royal woman from Austria, with the hope of producing an heir, and they did! They had one son, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles who everybody called Le Roi de Rome (the King of Rome) from birth. That was an old name German rulers inherited from the XIth century. But in spite of his grand lineage, this boy only ruled for 2 weeks and died at age 21 from tuberculosis. He was no threat.
So, the English over-reacted on this one, they might have ended up making a martyr out of Napoleon in the eyes of some people. I think history would have proceeded differently had they given the body back right away and told to French to deal with him, his image, his legacy, the whole thing. The British wanted to keep control of Napoleon’s remains and Louis XVIII in France knew his return, even in death, would cause a commotion. So, Napoleon’s ashes stayed at Saint Helena 18+ years, there were attempts to bring his body back, but they all failed until 1840.
On the 23 and 26 of May 1840, the Chambre des Députés, presided by Maréchal Clausel, came to an agreement on where the remains of Napoleon should reside in Paris.
Possible Resting Places for Napoleon
- Le Panthéon, where so many French greats are buried
- La Madeleine, where nobody famous was buried at the time and could have become Napoleon’s own resting place
- The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile which was built in honor of Napoleon’s Great Army, where all of Napoleon’s Generals are already named and where you can also read the list of all his victories
- La Colonne de la Place Vandôme, which Napoleon created 30 years earlier, where they melted enemy canons to build the bronze column, a fitting reminder of Napoleon’s military victories
- Saint-Denis Basilica where many French Kings are buried, a place for rulers
- Les Invalides, a solemn and grand place, full of historical significance
The choice was difficult because the Députés feared what public opinion might be on this question. But, in the end, the Députés chose to side with the Executive who favored Les Invalides. They liked the fact that this church allowed them to set the grave away from other graves and place Napoleon under the dome. Only a couple of other dignitaries were buried at Les Invalides, Vauban and Turenne, along with many lesser known generals and military men, but none under the dome, and none grand enough to cast a shadow on Napoleon.
Napoleon liked Les Invalides and added to it in significant ways:
- He asked for new generals who had served under Louis XIV to be brought in for their final resting place
- He commissioned the addition of the flags that represent 100 French military victories
- Les Invalides is the place where Napoleon bestowed the first Légion d’Honeur, an honor which he created and still beloved by most people today.
But the argument that won the day was that the Députés said it was fitting that Napoleon should be placed under the Invalides dome, with the assurance that no other would ever replace or join him in this grandiose spot.
Reasons for Rejecting other Burial Places for Napoleon
- Saint-Denis was rejected because they didn’t want Napoleon lumped in with one of the many French kings at Saint-Denis or with anyone else, not even someone yet to be born.
- Le Panthéon had too many other greats, Napoleon wouldn’t stand out enough.
- Place Vandôme was not grand enough visually or old enough to have significance.
- Napoleon would be with too many other great soldiers at the Arc de Triomphe, he needed to stand out!
There were opposing views too, some thought this would become Napoleon’s shrine where worshipers would come pay homage, making him into some sort of military deity. There were some who said he should be left at Saint-Hélène for at least a few decades longer in order to give voice to the glorification of freedom and the Republic rather than the glorification of military strength. Député Alphonse de Lamartine said Napoleon was no Washington when it comes to his contribution to the common good and did not deserve an imperial grave either by birth or by deeds (ouch!); that even Lafayette who was a champion for the common man rested in his family grave, why drag Napoleon out of his far away grave to put him on a pedestal now?
The law passed on May 26th, 1840 made provisions for 3 things:
- Fund (generously) for the move and burial of Napoleon’s grave at Les Invalides
- Provisions so no other would ever be buried at Les Invalides with Napoleon
- Provisions for a statue of Napoleon on horseback. This sort of statue is normally reserved to royalty, but the Députés wanted to break with tradition and grant this honor to Napoleon also. There are now such statues all over France
Napoleon’s body arrived in France by sea on November 30th, 1840, and the re-burial was planned for Dec 15th. The name for this event was called “Retour des cendres” (return of the ashes). The authorities feared rioting by the people, so they chose to transport the body via the Seine River rather than by road. The King wanted Napoleon’s body to be seen, but never directly.
Once in Paris, there was great pump and circumstance, people flocked to the event by the hundreds of thousands (if not millions). Singers from the Paris Opera performed the Requiem by Mozart, the Députés made speeches, Victor Hugo read poems (and actually chronicled the whole thing, political shenanigans and all in some of his books).
How French People Feel About Napoleon Today
What I learned in school about Napoleon is that he was a dictator and a vilain. My teachers (I attended French public school) made no effort to paint him in any sort of positive light. As an adult who reads history I realized that Napoleon contributed greatly to French culture and history, but I can’t say that the French educational system tried to ingrain much love for Napoleon in most children’s psyche, at least not when I was going to school in the 70s.