Empire of Liberty: Coronation

“His title reads ‘Napoleon, through the grace of God and the Constitution of the Republic, Emperor of the France’…but that doesn’t make any sense?

You do not have to make sense when you win every battle. France could proclaim him Sultan of the Moon and if we cannot defeat him, who are we to say that he is not?”

~ Conversation between MPs Henry Vaughn Brooke and John Foster (likely apocryphal)


Excerpt from Christopher Littleton’s “Bonaparte”, Random House Publishing, 2012.

George West famously stated that “schemes are like fruit in that they both require a certain ripening” [1]. Like most controversial figures in history, Napoleon found himself at the center or dozens of schemes throughout his life. Some he instigated personally while his person and very life were the focal point of others. Luckily for the soon-to-be emperor, those schemes that sought to harm him never seemed quite ripe. Until his death the only thing that came close to cutting his reign short was the sabre wound he obtained at Constantinople.

Yet it was not the only time Napoleon faced death. As a military commander he obviously faced the barrage of bullets, cannonballs, bayonets and diseases that plagued early 19th century battlefields. Bullets, however, were simple compared to the elaborate plots and traps that nagged his entire career. The first notable plot occurred on January 11, 1801 when several disgruntled Chouans attempted to shoot the Consul in a broad daylight ambush [2]. One assailant, Joseph Picot de Limoëlan, had his pistol jam before a grenadier knocked him out with the flat of his sabre. Another, Georges Cadoudal, managed to get off his shot but a misfire resulted in the loss of aide-de-camp Jean Rapp’s pinky finger. Fouché’s police arrested several other plotters over the next week while Napoleon received wild ovations from the audience that evening when he and Josephine entered their private box at the opera. That September, Fouché arrested another 17 men on charges of planning an assassination. The next month a conspiracy came to light to literally blow Napoleon up in his carriage with a gunpowder bomb as he and Josephine were to travel to the opera. Fouché discovered no fewer than a dozen plots against Napoleon from Brumaire through his first anniversary as Consul. Most could be traced back to royalists, though Napoleon routinely, and intentionally blamed Jacobins whom he believed posed a far greater political threat to the Consulate. Napoleon would say to Fouché, referencing the September Massacres of 1792:

“[The Jacobins] are men of September, wretched stained with blood, ever conspiring in solid phalanx against every successive government. We must find a means of prompt redress…France will be tranquil about the existence of its Government only when it’s freed from these scoundrels,”  

Napoleon seized the opportunity to purge the threat. In February 1801, 130 Jacobins were arrested and eventually deported to the Philippines (the new dumping ground for France’s political prisoners after the loss of the former French Guiana). There was no public outcry even though Napoleon utilized a sénatus-consulte to condemn the men without a trial and bypass the Legislative Body and Tribunate. Purportedly this was done in response to the ambush by Cadoudal and Limoëlan but there is no possible way these 130 were connected in any substantial plot with the Chouan assassins. Napoleon would later plainly tell Théophile Berlier that he was not deporting them for the ambush but “for their conduct during the Revolution.” Simultaneously about a dozen Chouans met the guillotine in early March 1801 demonstrating that Napoleon was at least an equal opportunity political purger. While these blatantly political purges cannot be excused they were far more restrained than the previous decade of revolutionary bloodletting and were largely complete by mid-1801. Notably the deportation included Jacques Detaille who would have a profound impact on the region’s history in the coming decades. The numerous plots and quick actions by Napoleon also allowed the Consul to push several draconian security measures through the Conseil d’Etat. His personal habits reformed too. Personal guards always flanked Napoleon and his daily agenda was watertight, sometimes even to those in his company.

Even as the sheer volume of plots died down, the threat remained ever present. Royalists constantly harped against Napoleon and hoped to restore the Bourbons even as the Napoleonic Era began to outnumber the years of the Revolutionary Era. The self-styled Louis XVIII (Louis XVI’s younger brother) wrote Napoleon from Russia promising him any position in the kingdom if he would return the throne to the Bourbons to which Napoleon politely informed him he would “have to March over a hundred thousand corpses”. Indeed the War of the Fifth Coalition likely would not have occurred at all had it not been for the consequences of the infamous 1817 Officer’s Plot. The assassination of Paul I of Russia and the sudden Ottoman Civil War stood as foreign examples that the top of the pecking order was a dangerous place. When Napoleon returned to Paris with his facial scar the mechanisms of state began turning towards empire. It should also be noted that Napoleon always struggled in his diplomacy with the other European powers since he acted as a representative of the republic whereas his contemporaries were monarchs. And by the end of the War of the Third Coalition it was clear that France stood as a de facto empire with Napoleon at its nexus.

“Too many would destroy the revolution by attacking my person,” said Napoleon to the Conseil. “I will defend it for I am the revolution.” The Consul was not alone in his thinking. The Senate’s formal message of congratulations for the victory of the War of the Third Coalition suggested that “other institutions” might be needed to eliminate the threat his unexpected demise posed to France. “Finish your work,” the message concluded. “Make it as immortal as your own glory.” These words clearly indicate creating “institutions” that would ensure the stability of France if Napoleon fell to an enemy’s, or assassin’s, bullet. At a conseil meeting some days later he further hinted at monarchy, “The hereditary principle could alone prevent a counter-revolution.” It is no surprise that as soon as discussion began in the conseil that “petitions” began to arrive from the départments in favor of a coronation and that the newspapers began running pro-monarchy articles.

The propaganda contributed to a groundswell of support. It also helped that by 1805 the revolution had run out of steam. France was exhausted from 15 years of violence with only brief lulls in the revolutionary or wartime bloodletting. Hundreds of leading Jacobins met their end over the years just as hundreds of leading Bourbon royalists. Napoleon did have some difficulty with his more republican-leaning generals. True, Lazare Hoche and Jean-Baptise Kléber lay dead and buried in the Middle East, but Napoleon still had to contend with the passions of Jourdan, Moreau, and Brune [2]. Their concerns never materialized into true opposition against the would-be emperor.

Once the decision was final (and the conseil agreed upon the title “emperor”) the imperial mechanisms moved swiftly. The conseil began opening discussing the details of transitioning to an empire in late February of 1805. On April 23, 1805 Napoleon was officially proclaimed emperor during a brief ceremony at Saint-Cloud. The rest of the Bonaparte family quickly obtained imperial trappings as well, Joseph was appointed “Grand Elector” and Louis became “Constable of France.” The rest of his family would soon obtain numerous titles, honors and even their own thrones.

To solve the immediate situation of succession the conseil determined that Joseph would inherit the empire from Napoleon and Louis after him, followed by Jérôme [3]. Lucien, despite his key role in the 18 Brumaire Coup, never agreed with Napoleon’s imperialistic views. Shortly before the public coronation (when he learned his brother intended to marry him to a Bourbon princess in Italy) he absconded to the United States. Lucien went on to establish an estate in Québec and in 1809 became the founder, and first rector, of the Académie du Québec, the precursor to the modern University of Québec. Lucien’s grandson even went on to become governor of the state nearly a century later. Despite his frustrations and disapproval of Lucien’s decision, the two brothers maintained a sporadic (often-tense) trans-Atlantic correspondence for the rest of their lives. Napoleon’s sisters also received their own imperial trappings. Elisa received the Principality of Lucca and eventually became Grand Duchess of Tuscany while Caroline and Pauline (married to Joachim Murat and Charles Leclerc respectively) eventually became queens.

Napoleon treated his generals just a generously with honors and titles. On April 24, 1805 Napoleon created four honorary and 17 active “Marshals of the Empire”. There were:


François Christophe de Kellermann, Duke of Valmy (1737–1820), Marshal of the Empire in 1804 [4].

François Joseph Lefebvre, Duke of Pilsen (1755–1820), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Catherine-Dominique de Pérignon, Marquis of Grenade (1754–1818), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean-Mathieu-Philibert Sérurier, Count Sérurier (1742–1819), Marshal of the Empire in 1804



Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Prince of Neuchâtel and of Luckau, (1753–1818), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Bon-Adrien Jeannot de Moncey, Duke of Conégliano (1754–1842), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, Count Jourdan (1762–1825), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

André Masséna, Duke of Magenta, (1758–1813), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Pierre François Charles Augereau, Duke of Castiglione (1757–1822), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Joachim Murat, Prince d’Empire, Duke of Ansbach, King of Navarre under the name Joachim I, (1767-1839)  Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, Prince of Hildesheim, Duke of Vidin, (1818–1844), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Guillaume Marie Anne Brune, Count Brune (1763–1827), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean-de-Dieu Soult, Duke of Passau , Prince de la Porte d’Or (1769–1851), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean Lannes, Prince a la Philopation (1769–1845), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Michel Ney, Duke of Bernhausen, Prince a la Boug (1769–1829), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc, Prince d’Empire, Prince of Paderborn, King of Naples under the name Charles VIII (1772-1838), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Duke of Marburg (1768–1810), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jean Victor Marie Moreau, Count Moreau (1763-1851), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Louis Charles Antoine Desaix, Prince des Pyramides, Elector of Hanover (1768-1826), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Mathurin-Léonard Duphot, Prince of Pontecorvo, (1769-1835), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Algiers (1765-1817), Marshal of the Empire in 1804

Napoleon would go on to create an additional 16 marshals until his death. While often misconstrued as a military rank the marshalate is purely honorific to recognize what Napoleon referred to as “the sacred fire”. It is symbolized by its trademark silver and blue velvet baton topped with a golden elephant. The marshalate took into account battlefield acumen, personal politics, army distribution (it is unlikely Macdonald would have been an initial appointee if he wasn’t currently commanding the Armie d’Algerie) and even French politics. Jourdan, Moreau, Brune and Moncey were republican, Leclerc and Murat were Napoleon’s brothers-in-law, and many of these men were good personal friends of the emperor. Desaix and Lannes are often considered Napoleon’s two best friends so there was certainly a political, and personal, element to the marshalate. They also stood as reminders of the revolution’s triumphs as many rose from the common people. Duphot was the son of a stonemason, Ney the son of a cooper, and Moreau the son of a lawyer. Desaix, Macdonald and Berthier were from noble families. All would be bestowed titles by Napoleon as well as land (save for Brune, Jourdan and Moreau, the most republican of the marshals). The sheer number of francs that Napoleon showered on the marshals during his reign is staggering, especially when one considers inflation. Napoleon distributed nearly 18 million francs to the marshals; Berthier received almost two million francs alone followed by Desaix at 1.6 million, Masséna at 1.4 million, Leclerc at 1.3 million and Ney at an even one million francs. Desaix and Macdonald became immensely rich from their commands, and subsequent land transfers, in Egypt and Algeria alone.

Shortly after the Consular Guard (commanded by Louis-Nicolas Davout who would become a marshal himself during the War of the Fourth Coalition) transitioned into the Imperial Guard. Already elite, the Imperial Guard became famous for its morale, training, and battlefield prowess. Napoleon often held the guard in reserve until a key moment in the battle when he would throw tens of thousands of the best troops in the world into the fray and seize victory. Initially numbering only 12,000 in 1806 the Guard swelled to a staggering 130,000 men alone by 1824; easily the most elite army in the world during the War of the Last Coalition. After the public coronation, the army’s marshals (those available at least), colonels and other ranking officers made for the Champs de Mars to receive the trademark Napoleonic bull elephant. Mounted on a blue-oaken staff with regimental colors, the golden elephants became symbols of Napoleon’s armies and rallying points for his soldiers. In a bulletin from the War of the Fourth Coalition:

“The loss of a bull is an affront to regimental honour for which neither victory nor the glory acquired on a hundred battlefields can make amends.”

The coronation and the intersection of the interwar period between the third and fourth coalitionary wars allowed Napoleon the opportunity to reform the army into his famous corps system. An expanded version of the division system he utilized in Egypt, Italy, and the Balkans, the corps system divided the French army into units of 20-40,000 men whereby each corps could act as its own independent army (if the need arose). Each corps was outfitted with infantry, cavalry, artillery, staff, intelligence, engineers, medics, and administrative staff dedicated to everything from transport to commissary work. The independent-orientation of each corps allowed Napoleon the opportunity to swap entire units on a whim during marches and on the battlefield. The marshals often acted as corps commanders and were given great leeway. Often, Napoleon’s orders to a corps unit consisted of a timeline, a location, and a purpose with the particulars left to the marshals. The corps system was arguably the key to Napoleon’s success and there is a reason military officers study Napoleonic tactics and logistics to this day.

Napoleon spent much of 1806 reorganizing the empire before his actual public coronation, which took place on December 2, 1806 in the Notre-Dame. This reorganization touched everything from the military reorganizations mentioned above to symbolism. Napoleon ended up consenting to Jean Laumond’s suggestion that France adopt the elephant as the official heraldic insignia of the empire [5]. Laumond believed it to be a royal beast that could not bend the knee (this is of course incorrect); Napoleon liked the symbolism with Hannibal and believed it a nod to France’s growing African empire. To inspire the military (though it was also available to civilians) he created the Légion d’honneur. Obtaining the Légion became a coveted prize for Napoleon’s soldiers who obtained a title, the medal itself, and a corresponding pension. In total 57,000 people received the honor, 49,000 of whom were soldiers. The Legion was an instant success, though some of the more ardent republicans ridiculed the honor. For example, Jourdan created the Légion de la Chance, or “Legion of Luck”, for his soldiers during the War of the Fifth Coalition which awarded (according to Theophile Berlier) “the soldiers with each day’s most entertaining act of pure dumb luck.” Allegedly, Napoleon chaffed at the clear mockery of his Legion by Jourdan but appreciated the morale boost to the troops serving in his corps. When Berlier mocked the honor at a meeting of the conseil, Napoleon gave an insight to his thinking:

“You tell me that class distinctions are baubles used by monarchs, I defy you to show me a republic, ancient or modern, in which distinctions have no existed. You call these medals and ribbons baubles; well, it is with such baubles that men are led. I would not say this in public, but in an assembly of wise statesmen it should be said. I don’t think that the French love liberty and equality: the French are not changed by fifteen years of revolution: they are what the Gauls were, fierce and fickle. They have one feeling: honour. We must nourish that feeling. The people clamour for distinction. See how the crowd is awed by the medals and orders worn by foreign diplomats. We must recreate these distinctions. There has been too much tearing down; we must rebuild. A government exists, yes and power, but the nation itself – what is it? Scattered grains of sand…We must plant a few masses of granite as anchors in the soil of France.”

At that meeting the final vote to create the Legion came out 16 in favor and 8 against. Seven dissenters eventually obtained the honor themselves; including Berlier.

On November 2, 1806 the Pope left Rome for Paris. Napoleon met him at Fontainebleau on the 25th and they entered Paris together three days later. To shore up the loose ends, Napoleon remarried Josephine on December 1 to ensure a proper Catholic wedding was had rather than their 1796 state ceremony. The inevitable family squabbles began bubbling up in December as well. Napoleon’s sisters resisted carrying the soon-to-be empresses’ train, Lucien sent his brother a curt letter of congratulations on his wedding (but failed to mention his coronation) and remained in Québec, while Joseph questioned the line of succession including Napoleon’s stepchildren.

The coronation at the Notre-Dame was an event unlike any other in European history. A combination of the imperial and the republican, the religious and the secular, all centered upon the Pope and a self-made Corsican about to become Emperor of the French. Representatives from the legislature, courts, military, Légion d’honneur, départments, academia, and society all packed into the cathedral. The Diplomatic Corps entered at 9 a.m. including the well-dressed envoys from Britain, Russia, Greece, Serbia and Austria and the exotic robes of the Egyptian, Ottoman, Tripolitan and Algerian delegations.

A cannonade sounded at 10 a.m. marking the departure of Napoleon and Josephine from the Tuileries towards the Notre-Dame. The parade was a grand mess. Murat, the Governor of Paris, led the procession along with his staff, several squadrons of carabiners, cuirassiers, chasseurs, an honor delegation of Greek infantry, and brightly colored Egyptian mamluks. 80,000 soldiers flanked the streets as the parade slowly meandered towards the cathedral, often bottlenecking in the tight streets of 1806 Paris. The Emperor’s carriage was driven by eight white horses with great white plumes. Napoleon wore a purple velvet tabard adorned with gold and precious stones. Josephine sported a flowing white robe embroidered with gold and silver. Her coronet, earrings, necklace and belt all gleamed with diamonds. If someone harbored lingering questions if the Imperial era would be similar to the relatively humility of the Consulate the spectacle surely erased them. Over time the “republican empire” quickly morphed into just an empire.

Arriving at the archbishop’s palace at 11 a.m., Napoleon changed into the ceremonial dress, an 80-pound gargantuan satin and gold gown that required Louis, Joseph, Jérôme and Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès to lift onto him. “If only babbu [papa] could see us now!” exclaimed Napoleon to his brothers in Italian.

At noon the ceremony began.

Jean-Pierre Rochambeau, the American envoy to France and member of the Diplomatic Corps in attendance that day remarked in a letter to Jefferson:

“The length of the ceremony seemed to weary him and I saw him several times check a yawn. Nevertheless he did everything he was required to do with propriety. When the pope anointed him with triple unction on his head and both hands, it seemed from the direction of his eyes that he was thinking of wiping off the oil rather than anything else.”

Napoleon wore two crowns during the ceremony. He entered the cathedral wearing a golden laurel-wreath intentionally designed to symbolize the Roman Empire. The second, was Charlemagne’s ancient crown on loan from Austria (and an early indicator of the budding anti-Russian friendship between Vienna and Paris) [6]. Contrary to popular legend, Napoleon did not take the crown from the pope in an unscripted manner to coronate himself but rather took it from the pope as rehearsed and held it as the laurel remained on his head throughout the ceremony. He did however crown Josephine when she, as rehearsed, knelt before him. The pope blessed the emperor and empress, embraced Napoleon and proclaimed “Vivat Imperator in aeternam”. Napoleon then took the coronation oath:

“I swear to maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic; to respect and to cause to be respected the laws of the Concordat and of freedom of worship, of political and civil liberty, of the irreversibility of the sale of the biens nationaux [nationalized ecclesiastical lands]; to raise no taxes except by virtue of the law; to maintain the institution of the Légion d’honneur; to govern only in the view of the interest, the wellbeing and the glory of the French people.”  

Rochambeau concluded his letter to Jefferson:

“His oath spoke highly of the republic and individual rights. However I suspect [the United States] is once again the lone democracy on the world stage.”

Of course Rochambeau was overlooking the smaller experiments occurring in South America and the Mediterranean world but in terms of great powers, his words were prophetic. The United States would not be joined by another great power republic for another twenty years.

—— Author’s Notes ——-

[1]: I’m not going to lie, this is a tweaked version of another quote from our timeline but I cannot find the original and it author to save my life. So credit to whomever this slightly altered quote is due. Apologies.

[2]: Differences in the timeline and the lack of a prolonged war between Britain and France mean there is no British-supported Cadoudal Conspiracy (in fact he lies dead as one of the assassins) and thus Moreau and Pichegru are not scheduled to stand trial which, in our timeline, lead to Pichegru’s death and Moreau’s exile to the U.S.

[3]: In our timeline Jerome served in the French navy, went on shore leave in late 1803 and married Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore giving Napoleon numerous headaches once the empire began. In this timeline, the French navy in late 1803 is obviously at war and Jerome wouldn’t be gallivanting around Baltimore, thus no marriage to Elizabeth.

[4]: A note for those wondering why an active cavalry officer who led the charge at Vidin is granted an honorary legion position? This Kellerman is the older military officer who played a critical role at the 1793 Battle of Valmy thus saving the French Revolution from an advancing Prussian-allied army. In this timeline, like our own, he retires from active duty service after Napoleon’s ascendance to power and becomes a politician. His son, François Étienne de Kellermann, is still in active duty as a cavalry officer like our timeline. The younger Kellermann is the officer who led the charge in the “Vidin” chapter.

[5]: In our timeline Napoleon chose the lion and quickly changed his mind to the eagle.

[6]: In our timeline Austria refused to lend the crown to Napoleon so he used a fake.

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