Friday, 7 March 2008

Napoleon's Funeral on St. Helena

When you visit the Valley of the Tomb now it is hard to imagine what it was like on the day of the funeral in May 1821.

It hardly needs saying that this funeral was dwarfed by the later one in Paris, but this valley provided a natural theatre for an occasion which was as memorable and whose emotions as sincere as the later event.

His coffin was borne to the spot he himself had chosen for his grave - over which a willow hung its weeping boughs - upon the shoulders of those who had once fought against him, but who now mourned over him with such heartfelt sorrow as the truly brave of every nation spontaneously pay to fallen greatness, and with such deep pity for his sad untimely fate ...

The emotion felt by all was not produced by scenic effect, by martial strains, by sacred harmonies, the mighty organ's pealing tones, and full-voiced choir below; it was from nature's source alone - genuine and spontaneous. They wept in very pity while beholding the humble obsequies of the man who, for a few brief years, had 'made the earth to tremble, and did shake the kingdoms'.
- a British Officer

Contemporary French Image of the Funeral (circa 1826)
The heavy lead-lined coffin was covered with a pall of violet-coloured velvet, and with the cloak which Napoleon had worn at Marengo;
It was placed on a carriage drawn by four horses, led by grooms, and escorted by twelve grenadiers without arms.

The procession began at Longwood. Behind the hearse came the members of the Emperor's household. Then came Napoleon's horse, led by his groom; then the British naval and army officers on horseback and on foot; then the members of the Island Council; then the Admiral and the Governor on horseback; then the inhabitants of the island.

Lady Lowe and her daughter were waiting in a carriage at Hutts Gate and joined the procession there. The whole garrison of some 3000 soldiers lined the route with arms reversed, and themselves joined the procession as it passed. Military bands played specially composed music.(1) Warships in the harbour fired salutes, and a shore battery responded.

At the point where the newly cut road to the graveside ended, the coffin was carried in relays by teams of soldiers and naval ratings. When the coffin was lowered into the grave three salvoes of fifteen rounds were fired. The waiting crowds then rushed forward to strip the trees of leaves and twigs as souvenirs. The Governor and Admiral tried to stop them, but in vain.(2)

Among the British Officers was Lieutenant George Horsley Wood.(3) His comments appear at the beginning of this entry. He was inspired to write a poem:

Oft have I gazed on this wondrous man,
But aye with strange emotions, undefined,
Akin to fearful dread and wonderment,
As if oppress'd by some mysterious power,
Like some poor bird beneath the serpent's gaze,
Spell-bound, and shivering with sudden fear;
For, oh! there was a magic in his eye,
That seem'd to penetrate the very soul,
And trace all secrets deeply buried there
Thus could he read the thoughts of other men,
Himself-a sealed book-unread the while.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But I did gaze upon that eye,-how changed
When all its bright celestial fire had fled;
Upon that pallid lip, where, e'en in death,
That smile still lingering play'd, that won all hearts
And I did hold that pale cold hand in mine,
Which once did grasp the sceptre of the world

The two lines in bold seem to me still to ring very true. Kauffmann tried to get below the surface. Few others have. Many have and still do project what they want to believe on to this most complex of men.


1. The music was composed by Charles McCarthy, a Lieutenant in the 66th Foot.
2. Afterwards the Governor surrounded the area with the railings constructed for new Longwood House, to which Napoleon had so strongly objected; the area was also guarded by sentries.
3. Lt. Wood came from a famous Isle of Man family. An evangelical Christian, he was one of a group who used to meet regularly on the island to pray for Napoleon's soul. He was a man of some literary pretensions and dogmatic beliefs. By some strange chance he was also present on the island in 1840 at the time of the exhumation.

No comments: