History Files


Napoleonic Europe

Napoleon's Last Resting Place

by Peter Kessler, 4 October 2009

The Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died on the island of Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on 5 May 1821.

At the time he was vilified by the restored Bourbon establishment back in France, and his burial on the island was a simple affair. The British governor and Napoleon's gaoler, Hudson Lowe, refused permission for the fulfilment of his last wish to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but it is doubtful the ruling elite in France would have allowed it anyway.

Change came to France with the July Revolution of 1830, which brought Louis-Philippe to the throne and delivered a more liberalised rule. By 1840, the shine had worn off that rule and, beset by problems at home and abroad, the government decided the time was right for bringing the body of the former emperor of France back home to restore some of France's fading glory.

Napoleon's image in France had been rehabilitated somewhat since the days of the restored Bourbon kings, Louis XVIII and Charles X. Their successor, King Louis-Philippe (1830-1848), obtained permission from Britain to repatriate Napoleon's remains, and on 10 June 1840 a law was passed which ordered the construction of a tomb befitting the emperor.

Hôtel des Invalides

The architect Louis Tullius Joachim Visconti (1791-1853) was chosen to create the tomb. A location was selected within the Hôtel des Invalides, which had been commissioned by Louis XIV in 1670 to provide accommodation and hospital care for wounded soldiers. By the end of 1815, after the end of the Hundred Days, over 5,000 survivors from Napoleon's Great Army were listed there.

The Eglise du Dôme

The Eglise du Dôme stands at the front of the Hôtel des Invalides

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At the very front of the Hôtel, the Eglise du Dôme (Dome Church) had been constructed by Louis XIV's architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, between 1677-1706, and had originally been known as the Royal Chapel. During the Revolution it was renamed the Temple of Mars, but it became a pantheon under Bonaparte. The golden dome is topped by a lantern measuring 101 metres in height, and when it was re-gilded in 1989, twelve kilograms of gold was used.

The monument was completed in 1861 and Napoleon's body was interred there in the same year, on 15 December. An American newspaperman for The Pennsylvania Reporter was present at the royal ceremony, and he observed the decoration for the occasion:

In Depth

"From the door of the entrance up to the rails of the choir, were placed at short distances, enormous candelabras, twelve or fourteen feet high, from which issued brilliant coloured flames. The choir and dome... were hung with purple cloth from the ground to the summit, and brilliantly lighted by hundreds of lustres. In the centre of the choir, in front of the altar, was erected the splendid catafalque, a representation in gilded wood of the tomb that is to be erected in marble, supported by four pillars and surmounted by a golden eagle with out-spread wings..."

Guns sounded at one o'clock to announce the king's departure from the Tuileries, as he headed to the ceremony. A little over an hour later, Napoleon's coffin arrived, borne by the marines of the Belle Poule and some of the old Invalides, plus old friends Betrand and Marchand at two of the corners. The Pennsylvania Reporter continued:

"The coffin was covered with purple velvet and a large white cross, and the imperial crown was laid on it, covered with black crape. The moment the coffin passed, there was a strong demonstration of enthusiasm and acute feeling; every one rose up and bent forward, but not a word was uttered; a religious silence prevailed."

Final resting place

Following the ceremony, the body was rested in five successive coffins which were made of tin, mahogany, lead, lead again, and ebony in sequence starting from the innermost coffin. All of these were encased inside a monumental sarcophagus which was made of red quartzite and which was rested on top of a green granite base.

Napoleon's military campaigns were displayed in a circular design on the floor which surrounded the coffin. Sculpted by James (Jean-Jacques) Pradier (1790-1852), eight of his most famous or glorious victories were inscribed on the polychrome marble floor, including Wagram, Moscow, Rivoli, and the Pyramids.

Napoleon was not only famous for his military victories, however. His civil achievements were also represented on ten raised designs which were sculpted onto the walls of the crypt which was designed by Pierre Charles Simart (1806-1857). The list reads: Pacification of the Nation, administrative centralisation, Council of State, Civil Code, Concordat, Imperial University, the Revenue Court, commercial law, major projects, and the Legion of Honour.

The lowered circular area which ran around the base of the tomb led off on one side to the 'cella'. There, beneath a statue of Napoleon in his coronation robes, his son, Napoleon II, king of Rome (1811-1832) was laid. Nicknamed 'the Eaglet', he died in captivity in Habsburg Vienna at the age of twenty-one.

Napoleon's brothers, Joseph and Jérôme were also buried inside the Eglise du Dôme, along with the faithful Generals Duroc and Bertrand, the latter of whom twice followed Napoleon into exile.

Napoleon's last resting place
Napoleon's red quartzite monumental sarcophagus on a green granite base, encircled by some of his military campaigns

The altar inside the Eglise du Dôme

The alter in the church rises spectacularly over the entrance to the tomb

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Main Sources

Musée de L'Armée, Hôtel national des Invalides, 129 rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris

The Pennsylvania Reporter - Report reproduced on the Napoleon Internet Guide web site

Napoleon.org web site



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.