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France: First Empire (May 1804-April 1814 & March-June 1815)

Premier Empire

Last modified: 2024-04-06 by ivan sache
Keywords: first empire (france) | premier empire | cent-jours | napoleon i | eagle (yellow) | thunderbolt (yellow) | bee | coffin |
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[French Flag]

Flag of the French Empire - Image by Željko Heimer, 22 September 2001

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National flag

On 2 December 1804, the First Consul (Premier Consul) Napoléon Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor of the French (Empereur des Français) as Napoléon I.
In 1814, France was invaded by a coalition led by Prussia and Napoléon I abdicated on 4-6 April. The dethroned Emperor was exiled on Elba Island (Italy).
In March 1815, Napoléon escaped from Elba and reestablished the Empire in France. The Empire lasted during the so-called period of Cent-Jours (Hundred-Days), which ended with the defeat of Waterloo (18 June). The Emperor abdicated for the second time on 22 June, and was exiled to St. Helena island, where he died on 5 May 1821.

The national flag used during the First Empire was the blue-white-red Tricolore flag.

Ivan Sache, 16 December 2001

The return of Napoléon from Elba

The return of Napoléon to France from Elba Island on 1 March 1815 was the first step of the reestablishment of the First Empire for a short period, which ended with the battle of Waterloo. This period is known as the Cent-Jours (Hundred Days). Most historians agree that Napoléon's return was a disastrous expedition, but the early days of the expedition are part of the Napoleonic golden legend.

Napoléon flotilla escaped from Elba on 26 February in the evening and reached the coasts of France on 1 March in a gulf located between Cannes and Antibes then called Golfe-Jouan, today Golfe-Juan. Napoléon ordered to lower the Elba ensign and to hoist the French ensign, of course the Tricolore, which was prohibited in France since the restoration of the monarchy.
The day before, Napoléon dictated his famous proclamation, antedated from 1 March. The proclamation was made of two parts, the first for the French people (Français !), the second for the French soldiers (Soldats !). After the monarchic restoration, most of the imperial marshals had rallied the monarchy and the soldiers of the Grande Armée had been incorporated into the royal regiments. Napoléon's expedition could be successful only if he changed the minds of his former soldiers for him. In the proclamation to the soldiers, he used a reference to the national colours which has remained famous:

[...] ; l'aigle avec les couleurs nationales volera de clocher en clocher jusqu'aux tours de Notre-Dame ; [...]
([...] ; the eagle with the national colours will fly from bell-tower to bell-tower as far as the towers of Notre-Dame ; [...])

After landing, Napoléon widely avoided Provence, which was Royalist, and walked through the Southern Alps, trying on his way to rally to his small troop as many soldiers as possible. His route from Golfe-Juan to Grenoble is known today as the Route Napoléon.
The main episode of the expedition took place in Laffrey, a village located 30 km south of Grenoble, on 7 March. King Louis XVIII ordered General Marchand, Military Governor of Grenoble, to arrest "Bonaparte's rascals". Facing the regiment sent to arrest him, Napoléon ordered to raise the Tricolore flag and to play the national anthem, La Marseillaise, also prohibited by the monarchy. Captain Randon ordered the Royal troops to shoot, to no avail, and Napoléon uttered two famous sentences:

Soldats du 5e, je suis votre empereur. Reconnaissez-moi.
(Soldiers of the 5th, I am your Emperor. Recognize me.)

And after having half-opened his coat:

S'il est parmi vous un soldat qui veuille tuer son empereur, me voilà.
(If there is among you a soldier who wants to kill his Emperor, here I am.)

Napoléon was answered by a general shout Vive l'Empereur ! and all soldiers rallied him. After his entry in Grenoble, Napoléon said "As far as Grenoble, I was an adventurer: in Grenoble, I was a prince".

Source: André Castelot. L'aigle prend son vol. Historia #220 (1965).

Newspaper headlines confirm that the perception in Paris of Napoléon's expedition gradually changed from complete aversion to idolatry. The Moniteur Universel wrote:
- 10 March: The Corsican ogre has just landed in Golfe-Juan
- 11 March: The tiger has arrived to Gap
- 12 March: The monster has slept in Grenoble
- 13 March: The tyran has crossed Lyon
- 18 March: The usurpator has been seen sixty leagues from Paris
- 19 March: Bonaparte strides along but he will never enter Paris
- 20 March: Napoléon will be tomorrow below our city walls
- 21 March: The Emperor has reached Fontainebleau
- 22 March: His Imperial and Royal Majesty entered yesterday His castle of Tuileries among his lawful subjects.

Ivan Sache & Santiago Dotor, 4 September 2005

Alleged Imperial standard

[Napoleon's standard]

Alleged Napoléon's personal standard - Image by Ivan Sache & Theo van der Zwalm, 11 February 2006

According to a Bulgaria cigarette card, drawn by Neubecker [neu32], Napoléon's standard (labelled there Kaiserstandarte Napoleons I.) shows the Roman Jupiter's eagle, standing on the thunderbolt which that god threw against the giants when he surpressed their rebellion against his rule. The border of the flag shows the French colours.

Theo van der Zalm & Santiago Dotor, 4 February 2005

Napoléon didn't use a personal standard before he was at Elba Island. The standard (in fact the fanion) which is sometimes (and wrongly) considered as the personal standard of Napoléon was the colour of the Régiment de Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde (this regiment was in permanent charge of the personal protection of the Emperor). This colour is not the one represented above, but was green, with a semy of golden bees and a golden horn overall. I don't know what is the colour/standard shown above, but it looks like one of the many non official colours (and so very poorly known and studied) used by the differents regiments of the Imperial Guard.

Arnaud Bunel, 6 February 2005

The bees as the Imperial symbol

The explanation on the origin of the imperial bees in French symbolic are quite complicated. First an archaeologocal misinterpretation, then political deviations, or how to forge science and rewrite history for political purposes.

Bees and cicada were included in the Merovingian funeral furniture; in the steppic civilization, cicada symbolized resurrection and immortality because of its metamorphoses. In 1653, the tomb of king Childéric I (who died in 481) was discovered in Tournai (today in Belgium). Several golden jewels, ornated with granats, were found and called "bees". The Prince-Elector of Mainz gave all what has been found to Louis XIV, as the successor of Clovis and Clovis' father, Childéric. The remains of these jewels (several of them were stolen and smelted) are still preserved in the Medal Closet of the National Library in Paris.
The erudite Jean-Jacques Chifflet thought that Childéric's bee was the origin of the fleur-de-lis, which would have been its graphic derivate.
Louis XII used a hive as the main part of his arms, but the National Convention rejected this emblem for the Republic, "because bees do have a queen."
Napoléon I wanted to highlight Carolingian and even Merovingian heritage, a good manner to skip the Capetians kings' heritage, and looked for new emblems in 1804.
The State Council followed Cambacérès and Lacuée, who proposed the bees, as "a republic with a chief", with a sting but producing honey, which was the emblem of work for Ségur. The team, directed by Vivant Denon, that designed the imperial arms, proposed a semy of bees in "Merovingian style" on the imperial purple coat. The original design was deemed "too archaic". Later, a bee with well-detached wings was selected, and appeared on the Emperor and Emperess' clothes, as weel as on the hanging in the Notre-Dame cathedral during the coronation.
The bee was part of the French symbolic from 1804 to 1814 (First Empire), during the Cent-Jours (20/03-22/06/1815), and finally under Napoleon III's Second Empire (1852-1870).

Source: Encyclopaedia Universalis

Ivan Sache, 5 June 1999

Napoleon's coffin flag

[Napoleon's standard]

Napoléon's coffin flag - Image located by William Garrison, 29 April 2022

On 28 May [2022], the second part of the Grimm Collection will be auctioned at Aguttes in Paris, featuring almost 200 lots of Napoleonic memorabilia. Another piece from the Monaco royal collection is this flag that covered Napoleon's coffin when it was transported aboard boat back to France from St Helena in July 1840. The tricolour flag was representative of France and had returned to prominence as the symbol of France under Napoleon's rule. General Bertrand, Napoleon's loyal aide-de-camp, accompanied the coffin back to France and the flag passed to his descendants before entering the royal collection. [source: Barnebys website]

LOT 165: the Tricolore flag covering Napoleons Coffin during the Transfer of its remains to France on the frigate 'La Belle Poule'. circa 1840, Sold for £ 5,355 (US$ 6,726) inc. premium.
Of linen, the red being a twill weave whilst the white and blue in a 'tabby' weave, decorated to the centre with an embroidered coat of arms bearing the motto ARMIS ET AMORE surmounted by a Roman helmet flanked by two standards, with two gold stars embroidered at the upper and lower right corners, the fringed edge with gilded threads and a pair of tassels at the corners, together with a narrow canvas scarf, in red and blue, gathered at the ends. The material is linen, the red being a twill weave whilst the white and blue is known as a tabby weave. The large cover is embroidered with gilt thread.
110cm x 80cm; 115cm x 26cm, faded colours, typical wear, losses, discolouration and tears (2).
Provenance: General Bertrand, thence by descent through the family - The Napoleonic Collection of the Prince's Palace of Monaco, Osenat, Fontainebleau, 16 November 2014, lot 188. [source: Bonhams website]

Willim Garrison, 29 April 2022