Emperor of the French
Born Napoleone di Buonaparte into a modest Corsican family descended from the untitled (minor) Italian nobility, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) actively supported the French Revolution, quickly gained military prominence, and became a national hero after defeating the Austrians in 1796. His vaunted expedition to Egypt launched his political ambitions, and in 1799, Napoleon became the First Consul of the French Republic. He achieved significant victories that led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the defeat of Prussia and Russia.
In 1804, he was proclaimed Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, and immediately set out to establish a monarchic culture both different from and similar to the kingdom he succeeded. He famously crowned himself and his wife, Empress Josephine, with a new neo-medieval crown he named the "Crown of Charlemagne" to connect himself with the legendary medieval emperor.
In addition to the new imperial regalia, Napoleon created a Nobility of Empire that coalesced the revolutionary middle class — soldiers, civil servants, and merchants — with some loyal nobles from the Ancien Régime into a new elite. Titles were bequeathed based on military rank and administrative service. The peculiar and highly hierarchical Napoleonic heraldic system featured additional marks in the shield and substituted torques for coronets to denote rank, although it did not survive the First French Empire. Napoleon also founded the Légion d'honneur, a knightly order that still exists.
Seeking to embargo Britain, Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula, but the ensuing Peninsular War resulted in Napoleon's defeat. In 1812, his ill-fated invasion of Russia ended in disaster. The Sixth Coalition formed against France in 1813, leading to Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. France was invaded, Paris was captured, and Napoleon abdicated in 1814.
He was then exiled to the island of Elba, located between Corsica and Italy, while the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France. However, Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and regained control of France without bloodshed. In response, the Allies formed a Seventh Coalition that ultimately defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. He was subsequently exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he passed away in 1821 at the age of 51.
Napoleon left an indelible mark on the modern world. His conquests expanded France and implemented liberal reforms. He introduced significant policies (including the influential Napoleonic Code), championed modern ideas, established efficient administration, promoted science and the arts, and abolished feudalism. His legacy extended legal, societal, and administrative changes across Europe.
Coat of Arms of the First French Empire under Napoleon I, Emperor of the French.
In 1808 Napoleon I installed his throne room at the Château de Fontainebleau, in what was formerly the bedroom of the French Kings. The throne, above, was situated in the location of the former kings' bed.
One of the two remaining gold laurel leaves that formed part of Napoleon’s Roman-style wreath crown sold at auction in France for €625,000 on 19 November 2017. Created for Napoleon's coronation by goldsmith Martin Guillaume Biennais, the original crown included 44 laurel leaves. More information here.
In addition to a gold laurel crown, which he wore at the beginning of his coronation ceremony, Napoleon had this neo-medieval coronation crown made. He named it Crown of Charlemagne and placed it on his head to mark his coronation. Image © David Liuzzo
Objects in our Collection
Passport issued "in the name of Napoleon, Emperor of the French" by the Police Générale de l'Empire for Mr. Henry Koenig. The passport is signed by Baron Jeanbon de St. André, as General Commissioner.
Affiche (broadside or poster) titled Imperial Decree relating to the search and punishment of Deserters containing instructions on how to deal with malcontents and deserters of the French Imperial army.
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