The Coronation of Napoleon:
2 December 1804

from Le Figaro, translated by Bill Peterson

Le Sacre de Napoléon, by David

The Night of 1-2 December, 1804

It is very cold in Paris. Yet, people are out and about. Houses are decorated, the streets have been swept. Hairdressers are at work by 2 AM, bustling around their clients: those privileged ladies who, a few hours hence, will be admitted within the precincts of Notre-Dame to witness the coronation by the Pope of the Emperor Napoleon, heretofore the First Consul of the French Republic. Their hair artistically arranged, these ladies, so as not to disturb their beautiful grooming, wait on chairs until it is time to go to the cathedral. The remainder of the night will seem long...

At the same time, the men, most of them products of the Revolution, whom Napoleon has made into the dignitaries of his realm, also prepare themselves. Their outfits, designed by the painters David and Isabey, make them appear, as André Castelot wrote in Napoléon, "like refugees from a ball of the Valois Court, or come from a costume party on the theme of the Very Rich Hours of the Duc de Berry."

6 AM

Disguised in neoclassical decor made of papier-mâché, covered with hangings and tapestries, Notre-Dame opens its doors to the guests. Cannon thunder. Crowds gather behind the triple rank of soldiers lining the route, along the rue Saint-Honoré, to be taken by the processions of the Pope and the Emperor.

8 AM

Auxonne-Théodore-Marie Thiard, Comte de Bissy, a member of the old nobility now serving as the Emperor's chamberlain, finds his Imperial Majesty clad in white satin breeches embroidered with clusters of gold, white silk stockings, and a ruff in the style of Henri IV, but wearing over these, as a dressing gown, his uniform tunic as a colonel of the Guard Chasseurs. Then Josephine appears, dressed in her Empress gown, covered with diamonds and emeralds. Napoleon swaps his green tunic for a suit of purple velvet and a small red cape decorated with golden laurel leaves and bees, dons a black felt hat crowned with white feathers, and girds on his sword, on the pommel of which sparkles the Régent, the finest diamond of the Crown. Abruptly, he gives an order to fetch Raguineau, Josephine's lawyer, who, under the Directory, had advised the shapely Créole not to marry a man "who has nothing but a cape and a sword." Raguineau, bewildered, appears. Napoleon quips: "Well now, Monsieur Raguineau, do I have nothing but a cape and a sword?"

8:30 AM

A psychodrama is played out in front of the Pavillon de Flore, where the Pope has been lodging since his arrival in Paris. As the pontifical procession is being arranged, the crozier-bearer, Monsignor Speroni, refuses to enter a carriage: protocol obliges him to ride a mule. The Imperial stables having no mules, a donkey is rented from a fruitier. The crozier-bearer accepts this, and the procession sets off. Wags remark: "Voici la mule du Pape, c'est elle qu'on baise!" [la mule du Pape means the Pope's slipper, which the faithful kiss in certain ceremonies.]

Then comes the Pope's carriage, covered in white velvet and surmounted by the pontifical tiara. The Parisians cease their laughter. Since his arrival in Paris, the Holy Father has gained the respect of a people still true to their ancient faith, in spite of the Revolution's efforts at dechristianization. To obtain the Pontiff's consent to come to the capital of France, to bless the coronation of a soldier of fortune who has raised himself to the throne formerly occupied by the descendants of Saint Louis, was not easy. Intense negotiations were required, featuring both threats and promises. Pius VII decided to make this voyage only because it was in the best interest of the Church.

Having left Rome in early November 1804, having once been robbed in the course of a journey that was too rapid to suit the Pope but too slow to please the Emperor, the two had met on 25 November in the Forest of Fontainebleau, by the Cross of Saint Hérem, a "chance" meeting arranged with scrupulous care by the sovereign. Napoleon had had the Pope join him in his carriage, slipping in by the right-hand door to be sure that he himself occupied the place of honor.

At Fontainebleau, the Pope had been greeted by Talleyrand, the former Bishop of Autun, who had long since renounced his ecclesiastic vows. He had then been asked to pay his compliments to Josephine, whereas it should have been the Empress' duty to call on the Pope. Brought to Paris on 28 November, he settled that evening at the Pavillon de Flore. The next morning, the Parisian crowd, gathered beneath his windows, had received its first Papal benediction, a ceremony to be repeated many times during his stay in the capital.

The Pope had almost left again, the very day before the coronation, upon learning from Josephine herself that she had never been married to Napoleon in a religious, but only in a civil ceremony. In the eyes of the Church, she was thus only the Emperor's concubine. With his back to the wall, Napoleon agreed to "marry his wife" that same day. The priest chosen to bless their union was none other than Cardinal Fesch, the half-brother of Madame Mère, become Primate of the Gauls and Grand Almoner thanks to his nephew. Even then a Papal dispensation was needed, as Napoleon had wanted no witnesses.

11 AM

The Pope, after having stopped at the Archbishop's palace to don his cloak of cloth-of-gold, has taken his place on his throne in the choir of the cathedral. The guests and delegations have ranged themselves on tiers in the nave, as well as in the wings and galleries. The seats of the Emperor, and, slightly lower, the Empress are atop a platform. The platform bears inscriptions in gold letters: Honor, Country -- Napoleon, Emperor of the French.

A military fanfare sounds, and the crowd outside the church roars: preceded by thousands of horsemen (Cuirassiers, Chasseurs à Cheval, Mamelukes), the Imperial procession approaches the cathedral. The carriage bearing the Emperor and Empress, together with the Emperor's brothers Joseph and Louis, is drawn by eight cream-colored horses each with a head-dress of white feathers. Pages dressed in green and gold are perched on the outside of the vehicle, itself resplendent with emblems and coats-of-arms.

11:45 AM

At the Archbishop's palace, the Emperor dons his great ceremonial costume. Every detail of the ceremony has been planned by the painter Isabey. At the Tuileries, the participants have been taught their roles by watching little wooden figurines of themselves being moved around a scaled drawing of the cathedral. Josephine puts on a diadem of amethysts, while around her shoulders is attached the Imperial mantle, thirty square meters of fabric. The procession goes to Notre-Dame on foot, through a wooden gallery hung with tapestries.

First comes the Empress and her train. Josephine's mantle is carried by her daughter Hortense, the future Queen of Holland; Prince Joseph's consort, née Julie Clary, the future Queen of Naples and Spain; and Napoleon's three sisters, Caroline, Elisa, and Pauline, who fulfill this task imposed upon them by their brother with evident ill-grace. Then comes the Emperor, whose mantle is supported by the two former Consuls, Camabacérès, now Archchancellor of the Empire, and Lebrun, now Archtreasurer, as well as by Joseph, future King of Naples and then of Spain, and Louis, future King of Holland. Napoleon wears a coronet of laurel leaves made of gold. Marshals carry the "honors" -- a vermilion sceptre and globe, and the hand of justice -- made by the jeweler Biennais. The "honors" of Charlemagne, previously featured in the coronations of French kings, are carried by Marshals Kellermann, Lefebvre, and Pérignon.


Coronation commemorative medal

Napoleon appears in the nave, acclaimed by the participants, who stand and shout "Vive l'Empereur!" A warlike march resounds, played by two orchestras. The Emperor's and Empress' prayer-stools have been placed in the choir. The former Jacobin general swears "before God and his angels to make and preserve law, justice, and the peace of the Church". Then comes the beginning of the coronation itself, the triple Papal unction with Holy Oil, on head and hands. The Holy Father invokes the Almighty: "Bestow by my hands the treasures of your grace and of your blessings upon your servant Napoleon, whom, in spite of our personal unworthiness, we consecrate, this day, Emperor in Your Name." The Pope blesses the Imperial ornaments, and, having consecrated the Emperor's ring, declares: "Receive this ring, which is the symbol of the Holy Faith, the guarantee of the power and solidity of your Empire, by which, thanks to its triumphant might, you will defeat your enemies, you will destroy heresies, you will keep your subjects united, and you will remain ever attached to the Catholic Faith." The sprightly Laure Junot, the future Duchess of Abrantès, noted that, during this quite lengthy ceremony, Napoleon had several times to stifle a yawn, and that after the unction by oil he seemed "more interested in wiping himself than in anything else."

Then comes the crucial moment for this unlikely destroyer of heresies. Napoleon seizes the golden crown, sparkling on its cushion of purple velvet -- that crown which, he will later say on Saint Helena, he had needed only to stoop to claim -- and, turning his back on the Pope, places it on his own head (the procedure, not in the least improvised, had been cleared in advance with the Papal delegation). He then crowns Josephine, who kneels before him. This is the moment immortalized by David, with some embellishments to please the Emperor. Thus, the Emperor's mother is shown in the tribune of honor, whereas "Mother Letizia", who was in Italy, and who never received any of the titles showered upon the rest of the family, did not really attend the coronation. As for the sly smile of Talleyrand, who is seen standing at the right of the painting, his back covered by a long red cape, it seems to say much about the profound scepticism of the future Prince of Benevento.

Still, all is not yet finished for the spectators of this performance, some of whom have been there for more than six hours. The Emperor and Empress go to their thrones, on the platform in the center of the nave. They are hailed with a "Vivat!" The Pope blesses them in the name of the "King of Kings, Lord of Lords", gives his accolade to the new sovereign, and intones: "Vivat Imperator in aeternum!" Having said Mass, the Holy Father retires before the civil ceremony, in which Napoleon notably swears to "maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic" and to respect the "irrevocability of the sales of national property" -- a clause very important to the old revolutionaries and newly rich inside Notre-Dame that day. Finally, the Herald of Arms proclaims: "The most glorious and most august Napoleon, Emperor of the French, is consecrated and enthroned!"

The Afternoon of 2 December 1804

One drollery -- the donkey serving as the steed of the Pope's crozier-bearer -- had amused Parisians that morning. Another gag raised storms of mirth after the ceremony. While one-hundred-and-one cannon-shots saluted Napoleon as he exited Notre-Dame, a military band struck up a popular tune, with lyrics well-known to all: Jamais je n't'ai vu comm'ça / Faire des bamboches / Jamais je n't'ai vu comm'ça / Fair' des bamboch' de ce goût-là... [Never have I seen you like this / On a spree / Never have I seen you like this / On a spree of this kind...].

The Emperor returns to the Tuileries, passing through the Place du Châtelet, the boulevards, and the Place de la Concorde, all brilliantly illuminated. That morning, on the path leading from the Archbishop's palace to Notre-Dame, he had whispered to his older brother: "Joseph, if only our father could see us now..." This evening, he compliments all the ladies, but dines in private tête-à-tête with Josephine, having asked her to continue wearing her Imperial crown. This moment of exceptional consideration for his wife is somewhat spoiled by Napoleon's remark, just before going to bed: "To whom will I leave all this?"

The coronation robes are carefully stored away. They will be brought out again during the Hundred Days. Napoleon's faithful followers, who had been galvanized by the sight of his grey overcoat and simple hat on his progression from Golfe-Juan to the Tuileries, are shocked and perturbed to see the Emperor caparisoned again in the velvet, gold, and feathers from the coronation at the rally called the "Champ de Mai". This is on the 1st of June, 1815, at the Champ-de-Mars, seventeen days before Waterloo.

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