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Retour Des Cendres

Twenty years after his death, Napoleon’s ashes were brought back to France.

The negotiations leading up to the return of Napoleon Bonaparte’s mortal remains from St Helena to France, known as the retour des cendres, were long and complex. There was little opposition from the English side - indeed, when calls were made to bring his body to France just after his death, the English government had made it clear to their French equivalents that,

‘le gouvernement anglais ne se regardait que comme le dépositaire des cendres de l’Empereur et qu’il le rendrait à la France dès que le gouvernement français lui en témoignerait le désir’. However, in 1821 the government of Louis XVIII still feared a resurrection of Bonapartist sentiments and another coup d’état.

By 1840, the French government felt that the July Monarchy was strong enough to recognise the importance of Napoleon to France’s heritage. Publicly, there was a lot of support. In his Ode à la Colonne, Victor Hugo summed up the public’s anger towards the députés who voted against the retour des cendres: ‘Vous avez peur d’une ombre et peur d’un peu de cendre. Oh ! Vous êtes petits !’

The British government were approached and gave their consent, not before consulting the Duke of Wellington who replied indifferently that, ‘he has no hesitation in saying that he does not care one two penny damn what becomes of the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte’. Bonaparte was frequently depicted as a prince or Christ-like figure in lithographs and paintings of the retour des cendres. Jazet’s painting Napoléon sortant de son tombeau alludes to the resurrection of Christ, with Napoleon rising from his tomb bathed in ethereal light. Allusions to Christ suggest that not only was Napoleon Emperor of the French, but the saviour of the nation. In a popular song of the period, Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena is compared to Jesus’s suffering for man: ‘Jesus, by his strength/Saved the pagan, lost in sin,/Napoleon saved France;/Like Jesus he was sold/After odious sufferings,/Jesus died on the cross:/Napoleon at Saint Helena,/Has suffered like Jesus.’

The coffin transshipped from "Belle Poule" to the steamship Normandie, Cherbourg, 8 December 1840, by Léon Morel-Fatio, 1841

In September 2020, Napoleon200 ran an internship programme alongside the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Interns worked to produce research reports and blogs for use in bicentenary events.


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