On Saturday, May 5, 1821, at 5.49 pm, night having begun to fall on a windswept South-Atlantic island of volcanic rock, 2,000 kms (1,200 miles) from Africa, the continent geographically nearest to it, one of the world’s greatest military strategists lost his final battle. Many a battle he had won. Others he […]



Napoleon's coffin in Les Invalides in Paris (copyright marilynztomlins)

Napoleon’s coffin in Les Invalides in Paris (copyright marilynztomlins)


On Saturday, May 5, 1821, at 5.49 pm, night having begun to fall on a windswept South-Atlantic island of volcanic rock, 2,000 kms (1,200 miles) from Africa, the continent geographically nearest to it, one of the world’s greatest military strategists lost his final battle.

Many a battle he had won. Others he had lost.

The battle he fought that Saturday was the battle to remain alive: this battle all living creatures, even the tiniest flea, have to fight one day.

The island was Saint-Helena.

The dying man was Napoléon Bonaparte.

On Monday, May 5, 2014, 193 years after that Saturday of May 5, 1821, there were those, like me, who remembered Napoléon Bonaparte.

And there were some, also like me, who asked: “Did he really die of stomach cancer? Did his English jailers not poison him? Is it really his body lying in Les Invalides in Paris? Or is he lying under a cement slab in Westminster Abbey, still captive of the English?

Those of you reading this who know me will know that I am a Napoléon enthusiast, as those who like Napoléon are called – or call themselves. Who will also know that I think that he is the greatest Frenchman of all time, and that I say this despite that he was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica and was therefore Corsican. However, Corsica was at the time of his birth – 1769 – under French rule and part of France, a region of France. It still is today. Therefore, when the people of mainland France vote for a president of their country, so do the people of Corsica, because the president of France is also theirs.)

Also, those of you reading this who know me will know that no matter what criticism of Napoléon they hurl at me, they will not change my mind: Napoléon Bonaparte was a great man, and today France can use more of his kind. Certainly, when Hitler’s forces occupied France in June 1940, France needed a Napoléon. In all honesty I must say that in 1940, in other words during the Second World War, France had a man who came close: General Charles de Gaulle.

But, let me now speak more of Napoléon.

If you visit Rambouillet Castle, 50 kms (31 miles from Paris) – I wrote about the chateau here – the guide will tell you that Napoléon never sat down to eat, but ate pacing the floor, and that he never spent more than 10 minutes on such a meal. No wonder then that he developed stomach cancer, but his cancer was probably hereditary as his father Carlo Bonaparte (1746-1785) also died of gastric problems which probably were cancer. Other male members of his family also had gastric problems, and so indeed did Charles Léon, his illegitimate son by his mistress, Eléonore Denuelle de la Plaigne.

Napoléon had been complaining of stomach pains, and of constipation alternated with bouts of nausea and diarrhea from 1807, when he was leading his Grande Armée against Russia. You may say ‘not surprising as the man must have been under enormous stress’, and yes indeed he was.

Then, once prisoner of the English on windswept, damp and windy Saint Helena, his health had begun to deteriorate, and on that fifth day of May 1821, after a severe gastric haemorrhage, he had died.

(If you are medically inclined you can read here about his illness.)

Soon, there had been rumours that his English jailers had poisoned him, and in the 1960s, the rumours persisting, a neutron analysis of a lock of his hair did indeed reveal traces of arsenic.

Therefore, had the English been poisoning him from the time in 1807 when his stomach problems had begun?

As other strands of Napoléon’s hair were available, some from his boyhood, those too were analysed and as those too revealed traces of arsenic, it was decided that no, his jailers had not poisoned him with arsenic.

Indeed, Napoléon had had contact with arsenic long before he had arrived on Saint Helena.

Arsenic was commonly used in the 19th century as an insecticide and a rodenticide, and Longwood House, Napoléon’s habitat of exile on Saint Helena, was infested with rodents, and poison had been put down to kill them. Furthermore, arsenic was used in hair powder, and Napoléon powdered his hair. And, one of the components of a yellow-green pigment developed in 1775 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and which was named Scheele’s Green, was arsenic, and the pigment was used in the dyeing of fabric and wallpaper and in the making of paint. Some of the walls of Longwood House had been wallpapered, and strips of the wallpaper had undergone the neutron analysis and had revealed the presence of arsenic.

Even a strand of the hair of Pauline, Napoléon’s sister, under neutron analysis had revealed the presence of arsenic.

(Scheele’s Green, considered too toxic, is no longer added to paint and dyes. You can read about Scheele here

Les Invalides in Paris where Napoleon lies buried (copyright marilynztomlins)

Les Invalides in Paris where Napoleon lies buried (copyright marilynztomlins)

In reply to my second question – Is it Napoléon’s corpse lying in Les Invalides in Paris? – I will tell you in chronological order about what happened after he had exhaled his final breath.

Saturday, May 5, 1821 – 5.49 pm : Death.

Sunday, May 6, 1821- 2 pm : Autopsy commences.

The autopsy was carried out by Dr. François Carlo Antommarchi who was assisted by 7 English doctors, which included Dr Francis Burton of Britain’s 66th Regiment based at St Helena. Present too were several French and English witnesses. Napoléon’s heart and stomach were removed for the autopsy and afterwards put into 2 silver vases. The vase containing the heart was filled with alcohol for preservation.





At 4 pm – Body Dressed

Napoléon was dressed by his valets in the red uniform of a colonel of the Chasseurs de la Garde, a waistcoat underneath the uniform. They also put his feet in silk socks and riding boots with spurs. They pinned his Legion of Honour decoration on to the waistcoat as this was how he always wore it. They also pinned another three decorations to the tunic of his uniform.

His shoe size was the European size 37/38 – small for a man – the sole of the boot measuring 26 cm in length.

Monday, May 7, 1821 – Afternoon : Death Mask made

The making of Napoléon’s death mask was delayed because no gypsum could be found on the island and as it was known that gypsum deposits were on certain parts of the coast, boats had been sent out to bring some back. The delay had caused decomposition of the body to begin so that the body gave off an unpleasant odour, and the face had collapsed. The Drs Antommarchi and Burton therefore had to make the mask in three parts: the face, the top of the skull and the lower part of the skull. The three parts to be adjoined later.

Immediately afterwards : Body placed in three coffins

Napoléon’s body was first placed in a tin coffin which was lined with satin and equipped with a small mattress and pillow, also of satin. As the tin coffin measured just 29 cm across at the foot end, the two silver vases holding his heart and stomach were placed between his booted feet. The depth of the coffin was 30.5 cm.

The tin coffin was then soldered shut.

Next, the tin coffin was placed in a wooden coffin which was screwed shut.

Next, the two coffins (the tin one inside the wooden one) were placed in a lead coffin, which, like the tin coffin, was soldered shut.

Before the lead coffin was closed, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand of Napoléon’s ‘Grande Armée’, who had accompanied Napoléon to Saint Helena, kissed Napoléon’s left hand and placed it on Napoléon’s thigh.

Wednesday, May 9, 1821: Three coffins placed in mahogany coffin

On this day the three coffins were placed in a mahogany coffin made by the English upholsterer, Andrew Darling. The latter, working for a London upholsterer, had been sent to the island to furnish Longwood House, and being there on Napoléon’s death he had become the undertaker. He and his men had in fact already made the other three coffins, watchful to follow the instructions of what the three would have to look like. In writings Darling left, he noted the measurement of Napoléon’s body as: Length 5 ft 7; barely 18 inches across the shoulders, and scarcely 10 inches in depth.

Thursday, May 10, 1821 : Burial

From the morning of Monday, May 7 to the dawn of Wednesday, May 9, the tomb that would hold Napoléon’s coffin, or rather his coffins, was being prepared.

The tomb, in the island’s Geranium Valley, was 4m deep, 2 and a half m long, 1 and a half m wide and was entirely brick lined. The coffin would rest on stone slabs sealed with another giant stone slab, the slabs held in place with cement. Next, 8 stone pillars of 30cm in diameter were placed on the bottom, those to hold the coffin.

The coffin was driven to the gravesite on a carriage Napoléon had used on the island. The cabin had been removed to form a platform on which to rest the coffin. The platform was 198cm by 98cm.

The pallbearers who carried the coffin from the carriage to the grave were 8 English grenadiers.

At the grave, the coffin was placed on two beams and when it had received the last benediction from the island’s Abbé Vignali, the coffin was lowered into the hole in the ground.

As General Bertrand would later write: “… the burial chamber was covered over with a large stone. The stone was bricked in and afterwards everything was covered with a layer of cement. The top opening, which was about seven by four feet, was closed off and protected with a wooden base over which we secured black drapery.”

A railing was erected around the gravesite.

Napoléon, by all appearances, was in peace, his battles behind him.

But not yet…

Thursday October 15, 1840 : Tomb opened in order to inspect the body before shipping it to Paris.

The opening of Napoléon’s Saint Helena tomb had begun in the first minutes of October 15, 1840, an icy wind blowing from the ocean. Present were those, English and French, General Bertrand with them, who had been present at the burial 19 years earlier. Present too was the Abbé Félix Coquereau, Almoner of the French Fleet, and sent to Saint Helena on the frigate, La Belle Poule, which was to take Napoléon’s body back to France.

It was not easy to break up the stone and cement protection above the coffin, but finally the outer mahogany coffin was out in the open. Two holes were drilled into this coffin in order for gasses, toxic and/or malodorous, to escape.

Next, 12 British soldiers lifted the coffin from the tomb and by the light of lamps, carried it on their shoulders to a tent. In order to reach the inside coffins, the mahogany coffin had to be smashed.

Next, one after the other of the inner coffins was opened.

As those present said, the body in the coffin was in an excellent state of conservation and easily recognisable as that of Napoléon Bonaparte. And, of course as death cannot age a deceased, Napoléon who had died at the age of 51 and 9 months, looked years younger than those present, like General Bertrand, then 67.

There were a few strands of hair on Napoléon’s head and he had a 5 o’clock shadow over his cheeks and chin which was explained by the theory that hair continues to grow after death and until the body’s cells have died too.

Napoléon’s lower lip had slipped down revealing 3 canine teeth.

His knees were slightly bent and his toes were exposed: mould had eaten away the toe end of his boots and of his socks.

His uniform was still red.

Next, the body, not having been out in the open for more than 3 minutes, was returned to the tin coffin and the coffin was soldered shut. Next, the tin coffin was placed in the wood coffin which was again nailed down. Then, the two coffins were placed in the lead coffin which was soldered shut. The three were then placed in another lead coffin which was also soldered shut.

The four coffins were then placed in an ebony sarcophagus with a complex closure system which included a lock and a key.

Each person present was then handed a piece of the wood of the outer mahogany coffin in remembrance of Napoléon.

The sarcophagus was then shipped to France on the La Bella Poule where it arrived on Tuesday, December 15, 1840. A state funeral was held.

For the next 20 years the ebony sarcophagus was on display in the Chapel Saint-Jérôme in Les Invalides while a tomb fitting for an Emperor was being constructed under the dome of Les Invalides’ Dome Church: it involved an immense excavation.

On Tuesday, April 2, 1861, the tomb, finally finished, Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, in the presence of only family members and those people who had been closest to him, was finally laid to rest: the Saint Helena ebony sarcophagus within a red porphyry sarcophagus.

However, is it really Napoléon Bonaparte there under the golden dome in Les Invalides?

There are many who say that the body inside that porphyry sarcophagus, it is not that of Napoléon.

It is, as the stories go, that of Jean-Baptiste Cipriani Franceschi, Napoléon’s major domo.

Who was Cipriani?

Little is known of this man who is today only ever called Cipriani. It is believed that he was born in 1773 on the island of Corsica and was brought up by the Bonaparte family. No photograph of him exists, but it was rumoured that he was the illegitimate son of either Napoléon’s mother or father: there was, as some historian say, a physical likeness between him and Napoléon – and the two men were close, Cipriani never far from Napoléon. There are no details of his youth, but later, married to a woman named Adélaide (her maiden name was Charmant and she had worked as a maid for Madame Mère, Napoléon’s mother) and the father of a son and a daughter, he was the owner of a small boat which sailed the Mediterranean coast doing trade. He abandoned wife, children and the boat to first follow Napoléon into exile on the island of Elba and then into exile on Saint Helena. He was not liked by the others around Napoléon as they suspected he was spying on them, indeed that his role beside Napoléon has always been that of spy.

Cipriani died at 4 pm on Thursday, February 26, 1818, after three days of violent stomach pains, chills and a high fever. The illness struck the healthy Cipriani suddenly while he was serving Napoleon his dinner – he rolled on the floor because of severe stomach spasms – and Napoléon’s doctors had no name to put to the illness. There was however an outbreak of gastroenteritis on the island and two more, one a small child, living in Longwood House or on the surrounding estate died within days of Cipriani: Napoléon was forbidden to go anywhere near the suffering man should his illness be contagious.
Cipriani, who had left more than 8,000 francs, a considerable amount of money at that time in a bank in Genoa, was buried in a small graveyard adjoining the island’s Protestant church – the Church of Saint Paul. Although Cipriani was a Roman Catholic, the Reverend Boys, a protestant pastor, who was present at the deathbed and had administered a Protestant version of the Last Rites to the dying man, presided over the funeral as there was no Catholic priest on the island. The church and its graveyard were close to Longwood House. Some 30 mourners attended the funeral, but Napoléon was not among them. Napolèon had been living the life of a recluse for the previous 22 months, not having stepped outside even once. In memoirs written by those who was with him on Saint Helena the reason for this seclusion was that he had become fragile because of the unhealthy conditions on the island, like the heat and the wind blowing all the time.

Today, there is no grave containing the remains of Cipriani to be found on Saint Helena: or in Paris or on the island of Corsica, or anywhere.

This adds to the rumours that the body in the porphyry sarcophagus in Les Invalides is not that of Napoléon but of Cipriani.

The story is that a couple of years after Napoléon’s death, the English had secretly removed Napolèon’s body and had replaced it with that of Cipriani, the man who looked so very like him. Napoléon’s body they had then shipped to England and in order to keep their deed secret they had buried the body in the floor of Westminster Abbey.

Why would the English have done this?

Two reasons are given.

One is that the English had indeed poisoned Napolèon with arsenic and they feared that should the body be brought to Paris and tests on it would be undertaken, the arsenic would be revealed and it would thus be confirmed that they had murdered him.

The other reason is that, the English just wanted to have the last laugh knowing that should the body be shipped to Paris where it would be laid to rest in a splendid tomb, the French visiting it in homage to their departed Emperor that they would in fact be paying homage to a lowly Corsican valet born on the wrong side of the blanket.

What happened so that Cipriani does not have a tomb is that in 1851, some 33 years after his burial – and 30 years after that of Napoléon – the Church of Saint Paul on the island of Saint Helena was demolished and another built on the same spot. However, more space was needed because the new church was going to be larger than the old one, and so part of the cemetery had to go. It appears that Cipriani’s tomb was in that part of the cemetery which had to make place for the new church. Today, the graveyard is overrun with shrubs and weeds and the few tombstones that remain are in a pitiful state of collapse.

The graveyard where Cipriani had been buried.

The graveyard where Cipriani had been buried.

However, no one can say for certain that the body in that porphyry sarcophagus is that of Napoléon, or that Napoléon had died of stomach cancer.

We will only know if a DNA test is carried out on the body.

In 2002 France’s ministry of defence announced that it would not allow a DNA testing to be done on the body. The French historian and biographer Bruno Roy-Henri had asked for such a test to be done.

In a special edition dated October 2009 of the royalist magazine Point de Vue, Charles Napoléon – Charles Marie Jérome Victor Napoléon, Prince Napoléon – head of the family said that he is not against an official investigation to establish an answer to the questions being asked about his great-great-grand-uncle’s death. He said that it is not necessary to exhume Napoléon’s body to carry out DNA testing.

Prince Charles Napoleon

Prince Charles Napoleon

He told the magazine: Napoléon belongs to history, he is part of the nation. I find the persistent fuss about his death shocking. Today we have the means to make progress towards finding replies to the questions being asked … I wish for the truth to be established and for people to stop nurturing doubt.

Sculpture of Napoleon in Paris's Louvre Museum (copyright marilynztomlins)

Sculpture of Napoleon in Paris’s Louvre Museum (copyright marilynztomlins)




Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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