Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The First Empire

The Empire having been proclaimed at St. Cloud on the 18th of May, 1804, Bonaparte adopted the usual royal and imperial custom, signing henceforth only his first name, Napoleon. He also proceeded to rearrange things to suit his new dignity, but postponed his coronation until December, so that it might be celebrated with more pomp and grandeur than had ever yet been displayed.

As "hereditary emperor," Napoleon felt that his relatives—who were always greedy for money and honors—should share in his good fortune. His mother, Letitia Bonaparte, henceforth known as Madam Mother (Madame Mere), and his brothers and sisters—who could now revel in the titles of princes and princesses—all received large annual incomes, which the younger people spent lavishly, while the mother, mindful of times when money had been scarce, hoarded for a possible needy future. Of this stern old lady Napoleon once said, "It is to my mother and to her good example that I owe everything;" but she disapproved of this new grandeur, and once when her son playfully held out his hand to her for a court salute, she exclaimed indignantly: "Not so, my son! It is your duty to kiss the hand of her who gave you life!"

All Napoleon's family gave him a great deal of trouble, as you will see, but it was only his mother and Lucien—the brother who once threatened to kill him if he attacked the liberties of the Republic—who thoroughly disapproved of his new title and elevation. Besides, an estrangement occurred because Napoleon tried to interfere in Lucien's marriage affairs; and as the mother sided with Lucien in all their quarrels, she was not present at the coronation, although Napoleon had her portrait inserted in the picture by the great court artist, David.

The companions in arms of Napoleon, sixteen in number, received the title of "Marshals of the Empire," their energetic master telling them: Succeed! I judge men by success!" Talleyrand, Napoleon's former fellow-consuls, and other leading civilians were also made prominent members of the newly organized imperial court, which was regulated according to many of the old rules of etiquette, modified, of course, to suit more advanced times.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


While extensive preparations were being made for the grand coronation, Napoleon and Josephine set out on a journey, visiting the camp at Boulogne, where the new emperor was received by the mayor with the pompous speech, "God created Napoleon and then rested from his work!" Here, too, Napoleon reviewed "the Grand Army," sitting on Dagobert's throne and distributed Legion of Honor decorations, before proceeding to Cologne, inspecting improvements, forts, factories,—everything, in short,—on his way.

Anxious to imitate Charlemagne, his favorite hero, and to consecrate his elevation in the eyes of Catholic Europe, Napoleon induced the Pope to come to Paris for the coronation ceremony,—a favor granted solely because the restoration of Catholic religion in France was due mainly to him. Pope Pius VII., with his train of cardinals and priests, was welcomed at Fontainebleau by Napoleon in person, both host and guest little suspecting that they would a few years later assume the parts of jailer and prisoner in the selfsame palace.

On December 2, 1804, the court assembled in the Tuileries in gorgeous array, to await the appearance of Napoleon and Josephine. The emperor wore a long white satin robe embroidered with golden bees,—token of the old Frankish kings,—his royal-purple (red) velvet mantle, lined with ermine and weighing eighty pounds, being strewn with them also. His head was encircled by a wreath of golden laurel leaves like those worn by Roman emperors of old, and the new army standards were surmounted by golden eagles, which were to be the favorite emblem of the man so often compared to that soaring bird. Josephine, also in white satin, and with a royal mantle whose train was borne by her daughter and by Napoleon's sisters, was further adorned with an exquisite lace ruff, and with jewels of great price and magnificence.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


In the midst of all this splendor, Napoleon suddenly caught a glimpse of a lawyer who had once tried to dissuade Josephine from marrying an impecunious officer by saying, "Madam, he has nothing but a soldier's sword and cape!" Napoleon now reminded him of that remark by pointing significantly to his jeweled sword and royal robes and saying proudly, Sir, behold the soldier's cape and sword!"

In a dazzling chariot of gold and plate glass,—bearing the imperial monogram "N," and drawn by eight white horses,—escorted by court and army in festive array, Napoleon and Josephine drove in state to Notre Dame. There, after the Pope had duly anointed him and consecrated his crown, Napoleon—who refused to be  crowned by any one—placed the jeweled circle on his own head, and then crowned Josephine as she gracefully knelt before him.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Of course, all manner of festivities and rejoicings followed, but Napoleon and Josephine soon left Paris to hasten to Italy, where the Cisalpine Republic, having asked to become a kingdom, wished to bestow upon Napoleon the title of King of Italy. This second coronation took place in the beautiful cathedral of Milan, where Napoleon put on the old Lombard iron crown (a broad band of gold and jewels inclosing a narrow band of iron, said to be fashioned from one of the nails of the Crucifixion), repeating impressively the time-honored words, "God has given it to me; woe betide him; who touches it!"

Still, too many important matters were calling elsewhere for Napoleon to tarry long in Italy; so, after creating the Order of the Iron Crown, he gratified Josephine and pleased himself by naming his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy. Next, having annexed Genoa and part of the Ligurian Republic to France, the emperor divided other parts of Italy into duchies, which became dependencies of the new French Empire.