French Revolution,  Paris,  Podcast

PGB 9: Six Facts About Napoleon’s Tomb

Napoleon.  Love him or hate him, he is a monumental figure.  Buried in a huge tomb.  In a hole in the ground.  How did this happen?  Why is one of the most important historical figures of the modern era buried not among his peers at the Pantheon or even in his own magnificent monument? Instead, he is in a sunken chamber inside a building built by Louis XIV!  Find out the story of Napoleon’s journey to Les Invalides in this episode of the podcast: 

Napoleon Before The Tomb

To flesh out that whole “Napoleonic Wars” bit that I cheekily condensed for the episode, enjoy these videos by OverSimplified.  They provide a great overview of his life, his wars, and his downfall: 

It’s hard for me to fathom the insane amount of energy Napoleon must have had to achieve so much! He was rightfully proud of his achievements, but he let it turn into hubris. And hubris is always an Achilles heel.

What do you find to be the most interesting aspect of Napoleon’s journey from the island of Corsica to the island of Saint Helena? I ask because I can’t choose!

Six Facts About Napoleon’s Tomb

Napoleon’s cruise into exile and subsequent death was only the beginning. His journey to his final resting place would take another 40 years! To condense this, I’ve selected Six Facts about Napoleon’s Tomb that help us understand this unusually prolonged process.

In all his glory…

Fact 1: The Sarcophagus Has 6 Layers

Six layers, six facts. I do love symmetry. 😄 It took an unexpected amount of research to sort out exactly how many layers there are and what the layers are made from. The English language sources are all over the place. And I’m sorry to say that the other man, myth, legend Rick Steves, whom I absolutely adore, does have this listed incorrectly in some of his guidebooks. He states seven layers, but he (or more likely his researcher) seems to be counting the box Napoleon was shipped in, which did not accompany him into the tomb.

The Musée de la Armée has a video (here, in French) that does describe all the layers and the materials used. It took a little more sleuthing to get the history of them, but here is what I could ascertain:

  1. Finnish Red Quartzite. This is what we see of the gigantic tomb. This stone was selected for its similarity to the red porphyry stone used in Roman imperial burials. You can see the Roman influence all around the tomb in the ambulatory as well.
  2. Ebony. This layer was brought with the Prince of Joinville and crew when they went to fetch his remains in 1840.

The last four layers are from the original burial and were resealed after the quick examination following his exhumation:

  1. Lead Layer 1
  2. Lead Layer 2
  3. Mahogany
  4. Tin

Then we come to Napoleon, tucked in with some of his organs in silver vessels, dress in his favorite uniform of the mounted chasseurs of the Imperial Guard.

Imperial Mounted Chasseur in action!

Why So Many Layers?

I was unable to locate a definitive reason for the large number of layers. It was not due to his height, despite popular belief! Historians believe that he was actually about 5’6” or 5’7”, or average height for his time. But he surrounded himself with very tall Imperial guards, who did affectionately call him Le Petit Caporal or The Little Corporal.  And back in the UK, the British press, who had a patriotic duty to make fun of Napoleon and hurt his reputation, ran with the “little corporal” bit and now basically we only remember this one little thing about him.

British King George III and The Petit Corporal, 1803

I personally suspect the layers had a few functions. One was to show off the person’s wealth and power in an age when the working classes were buried in just a shroud or winding sheet or a very basic wooden coffin. And, second, perhaps it was in the hopes of retaining a whole physical body for the moment of the Second Coming, when the righteous would again inhabit their bodies and walk the earth.

Fact 2: It Took 19 Years To Return Him To France

After laying peacefully on Saint Helena for almost two decades, Bonaparte finally got his dying wish to be transported back to Paris. In May 1840, the then King Louis-Philippe declared his intention to have his son, the Prince de Joinville, to go the island and fetch him home for burial at Les Invalides. The British gave their consent to the plan, and the Prince and a cohort of dignitaries headed off to the South Atlantic.

With some ceremony, Napoleon was exhumed and examined. The examination was apparently very fast, perhaps only two minutes. But it was recorded that Bonaparte’s remains were in relatively great shape. He was then sealed back up in all his layers, put in an ebony coffin that had been brought for this purpose, and packed in a protective oak box. At last, he then took his final trip back to Paris.

Opening of Napoleon’s casket on Saint Helena. Here you can see the multiple layers and his Chasseurs uniform.

Troubles At Home

While the expedition team was away, there was, as usual, unrest. Napoleon’s nephew, the future Emperor Napoleon III, had attempted his second coup. So Napoleon’s triumphant return had to be downgraded a bit. And it was carefully stage-managed to prevent any pro-Bonaparte sentiment.

But they did pull off a nice procession that took Napoleon under his now finally finished Arc de Triomphe on his way to Les Invalides.

Victor Hugo wrote some poetic lines about the event, which took place on the bitterly cold 15th of December 1840. Translated into English (and losing the rhyme):

Freezing sky! Pure sunshine! Oh! Shine in history!
A funereal triumph, imperial torch!
May the people forever keep you in their memory,
Day beautiful as glory,
Cold as the tomb.

– Victor Hugo

Fact 3: Les Invalides Was Practical & Political

Why was the Invalides chosen and not the Pantheon or another location? The reason appears to be that King Louis-Philippe was following through with Napoleon’s plan to make the Chapel Dôme des Invalides the final resting place of important military leaders. Napoleon’s chosen first burial there was the reinternment of Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne. Turenne had been Marshal of France under Louis XIV and Napoleon considered him the greatest military leader in history.

Other Options

Interestingly, the Pantheon was, at this point in Louis-Philippe’s reign, again a mausoleum for important French dead by his decree. However, he did not add anyone to it and kept the crypt with the previous Revolution-era interments private. Louis-Philippe was in a weird position: king of a country with a bit of a history where kings were concerned. So he may have been trying to balance public support and respect for the French Revolution-era dead while trying to avoid the next generation revolutionaries from getting ideas in their heads.

Pantheon in a daguerreotype from two years after Napoleon’s return. It’s easy to forget the scale of Pantheon, isn’t it?!

Unfortunately for Louis-Philippe, it didn’t really matter. He was deposed in 1848 in the Third French Revolution. He had been installed after the Second Revolution. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi?

It seems the Cathedral of Saint Denis, traditional final resting place of the French kings, was also considered and rejected. This was probably due to its ties to the Ancien Regime. Notre Dame’s restoration had not begun when Louis-Philippe decreed the return of Napoleon. And there was reluctance to build a new structure that could become a focal point for Bonapartistes. So, inside Les Invalides it was!

Fact 4: Napoleon Was Exhumed By A Bourbon King and Buried By A Bonaparte Emperor

We already touched on the fact that King Louis-Philippe was the person who brought home Napoleon but who also had a delicate balance to strike to keep his crown. He had to keep his own Team Royalist happy, not incite Team Republic or more accurately Team Revolution to action, and smack down repeated attempts by Team Bonaparte to take back the crown.

Louis-Philippe d’Orléans

But who was King Louis-Philippe? Well, he was a Bourbon, but not of the Louis XVI line that had been ruling off and on since Napoleon was sent to Elba. Instead, he was a cousin from the cadet branch or junior line, who are called d’Orléans. This branch descended from Louis XIV’s brother Philippe. As the senior Orléans male, he was the Duc d’Orléans, the First Prince of the Blood, and in line for French throne.

The two previous Bourbon Kings had been brothers of Louis XVI. But in the Second French Revolution in 1830, Bourbon Charles X was removed. In his place, Charles’ cousin Louis-Philippe was installed with a much more progressive form of monarchy than his predecessors.

And yes, there was a revolution to install a different king. From the same family they had deposed in the first revolution. It’s best if you just roll with it!

We remember the 1830 Revolution with the famous Delacroix painting, “Liberty Leading the People”:

Louis-Philippe spent his reign trying and ultimately failing to balance all of the disparate political factions that were battling for supremacy in France at the time. One of his attempts at appeasement was to bring home Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s greatest military hero and (say it quietly) former emperor. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t stay in power long enough to see the plan all the way through.

The Bonapartes Are Back

In 1848, eight years after bringing home Napoleon, Louis-Philippe was deposed in the Third French Revolution. This one ended up briefly with a republic under the Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew. This is the same Bonaparte that had been trying all along to get on the throne. Predictably, a few short years later, Louis-Napoleon opted for a coup d’état and became the Emperor Napoleon III in 1852.

Finally, in 1861, Napoleon I was laid to rest in his final spot by his nephew, the new Emperor. Intriguingly, it was not a huge state affair, but was quietly attended only by the imperial family and some government officials. This was possibly partially due to a funding issue, as the current emperor was busy spending a lot of money on revamping Paris, boosting the French economy and culture, and doing as Emperors do. He was also often negatively publicly compared with his famous uncle so he may have been trying to avoid any more negative press.

Napoleon’s funeral at Les Invalides. A pretty somber and small affair.
Note the Imperial family on the balcony (through the arch).

Fact 5: The Tomb Took 20 Years To Build

Laying Napoleon to rest involved two major projects: the Dôme des Invalides chapel crypt and tomb had to be prepared for its most important resident and the sarcophagus had to be designed and constructed. These ended up taking two decades!

For the chapel, they had to create a suitable crypt. It was to be monumental but also fit within the confines of the chapel. So the floor had to go, they installed a new staircase for public access, and they had to decorate the gorgeous ambulatory space where the gigantic sarcophagus would go. It allows us to both gaze upon Napoleon in reflection from above and with awe from below, while safely keeping him contained. There is definitely a theme of “Contain the Little Corporal” throughout his burials.

Not Phallic Enough?

One interesting point I came across in my research was an analysis by author Michael Paul Driskel on the design of the monument. Unlike many monuments to great men that are overtly masculine and frequently phallic, like the Washington Monument in D.C., Napoleon’s monument is the opposite. It could be “construed as a sign of castration or absence of the fabled phallic signifier.”

There is a marked difference…

I personally agree it is not an overtly phallic monument and has an almost womblike vibe, if we stick with a gendered description of the space. It is generally understood that part of the objective of putting the monument at Les Invalides was to honor Napoleon without promoting Napoleon’s imperial intentions. So was this monumental emasculation a deliberate or subconscious decision by the design team? Or was the intent to convey Napoleon as the source for Modern Europe, as both Father and Mother? Or were they just trying to fit an important monument into a confined space?

The planned décor changed a number of times throughout the different regimes. What we see now was one emperor paying homage to another. But that emperor also did not change tack and move the monument. He kept it suitably tucked away.

What do you think? Do you find Napoleon’s crypt and tomb to be gendered? Or just a suitably Imperial? And were you surprised when you first learned he was underground?

Fact 6: Napoleon Is In His Tomb

Now we have Napoleon safely nestled in his tomb, resting at last. Or do we? There is a conspiracy theory that Napoleon is not actually in his tomb!

There are two branches of the theory. Both claim that the British stole his body and laid it to rest in Westminster Abbey in an unmarked grave. Then the theories split: one is that Napoleon’s tomb is actually empty and one is that the British replaced his body with his valet or butler, who had predeceased him by 3 years.

Fake News

As with all conspiracy theories of this nature, they both rely on a combination of inconsistent source information (very common before the ability to document every second of our lives) and some pretty creative twisting of the facts. But some version of this rumor has been around since the 19th century, so it has some staying power!

The British deny it, the French government denies it, and common sense denies it. Here is a thorough debunking from Fondation Napoleon. But, alas, I don’t think it will be going away soon.

There is one possible way to put an end to the conspiracies. If they opened the tomb and were able to:

  1. See that there is a body there (this could also be done possible with other technology though I think the lead coffins would make it difficult)
  2. If there are enough suitable remains to perform a DNA test against the surviving members of the Bonaparte family.

But so far both the government and the family have declined. The stakes are quite high, so I doubt this will be scientifically disproven in our lifetime. And the conspiracy theorists will just come up with a new theory anyway! 🤦🏻‍♀️

Learning More About Napoleon

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases of items marked “affiliate link”.

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts. The award winning biography of the Emperor himself. Warning: it’s a beast, coming in at 976 pages! But Roberts helps you put Napoleon into historical perspective and understand his influence on our world today. Available in paperback and for Kindle [affiliate links].

As Befits a Legend: Building a Tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 by Michael Paul Driskel. If you want to take a deep dive into the construction of the tomb, this is the book for you! Available in hardback [affiliate link].

For seemingly endless amounts of information on Napoleon, the history website for Fondation Napoleon will keep you occupied for even longer than Bonaparte’s reign!

Seeing The Sites

Les Invalides: To see Napoleon’s tomb in person, as well as other notable French military leaders, and the amazing La Musée de l’Armée, head to Les Invalides. Give yourself plenty of time wander the complex. It is huge. Open everyday except major holidays. Advanced purchase required. No advanced reservation needed if using the Museum Pass (below).

Arc de Triomphe: To bask in the glory of Napoleon’s victories and see part of the route he took on his way to Les Invalides, visit the Arc de Triomphe. You can simply walk around the arc (use the underground tunnel to cross—do not attempt to cross the craziest traffic circle in France!) or you can pay to climb to the top. Note that only disabled and/or pregnant persons are allowed to use the elevator, so be ready for plenty of stairs.

Like Les Invalides, advanced purchase required. No advanced reservation needed if using the Museum Pass (below). As a very symbolic national monument and home of the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Arc is frequently closed or has limited access. Be sure to check the website before you go.

Museum Pass: If you plan to hit a lot of museums during your stay, grab a Museum Pass. Note that while you may get front-of-line priority in some spots, everyone is subject to security screenings. Plan accordingly.

Saint Helena: Feeling adventurous? Have miles to burn? Discovered a new obsession with Le Petit Caporal? Head on down to the island of Saint Helena! Their tourism website has plenty of information about Napoleon, his time there, and how to visit. Bon Voyage!

Nuit Blanche: The annual experience that is Nuit Blanche is not to be beat. It’s this weekend (October 1) and is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! Sortir A Paris has put together a lot of information on the event. Bonne Nuit Blanche!

On To New Expeditions

Now that we have Napoleon tucked away in his eternal slumber, which fact surprised you the most? For me, beyond the difficulty of the layers, I was completely unaware of the conspiracy theory. But it seems to be well-established in France. I feel like he’s most likely exactly where we think he is, enjoying the adoration of millions of visitors. Or at least most of him is anyway (click for an adults-only additional conspiracy theory).

Let me know if you make it to Nuit Blanche this year!

À bientôt!


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Image Credits

Napoleon’s Tomb (header image & in text): Tomb of Napoleon (NW View) by Wikimedia user Hellodavey1902, August 5, 2020. On Wikimedia Commons, the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Header Image is cropped.
Mounted Chasseur: Officier de chasseurs à cheval de la garde impériale chargeant by Théodore Géricault, 1812. Musée du Louvre, Paris. On Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by INeverCry. Public Domain.
King George III and Napoleon: Extract from The King of Brobdingnag, and Gulliver’ (Napoléon Bonaparte; King George III) by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Opening Napoleon’s Casket: Extract from “Ouverture de cercueil de Napoleon” by Nicolas Eustache Maurin (1840?). Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Shakko. Public Domain.
Pantheon Daguerreotype: “The Pantheon, Paris” 1842 by Alphonse-Louis Poitevin. In the Getty Museum Collection, TMS ID
62810, DOR ID 56300. Public Domain.
Liberty Leading The People: La Liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix. 1830. Musée du Louvre, Paris. On Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Trzęsacz. Public Domain.
Napoleon’s Funeral: From Le Monde Illustré, 13 April 1861 page 233. Taken from Original available on Gallica/Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Napoleon’s Tomb vs Washington Monument: Created in Canva, using: Napoleon’s Tomb “Tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte Dôme des Invalides Paris France 001″ 2006 by Wikimedia User MGA73bot2, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, and Washington Monument “Washington Monument 2022” by Wikimedia user Greyfiveys, Wikimedia Commons,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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