Despite reaching maturity in the anti-clerical, deistic, even atheistic world of the French Revolution, Napoleon always exhibited an interest in religion. In power his biggest break with the Revolution had been the Concordat with the Papacy which restored the Catholic Church to its central place in French life, as well as conveniently neutralising a major source of opposition.
On St Helena where he had almost endless time for speculation about the mysteries of life and the universe, he spoke often about such matters, although he never expressed any deep religious beliefs. As Lord Rosebery comments, it is possible to find quotations from him taking all manner of religious positions: materialist, Mohammedan, Christian and even sun worship. In some cases he was simply saying things to provoke a reaction, and without anyone in whom he confided his innermost thoughts, it is impossible to know what he really believed. (1)
To his Corsican doctor, Antommarchi, several months before he himself died, Napoleon recalled his own father's return to the Catholic church in words which hardly suggested any personal religious faith:
"my father, who was far from being religiously inclined, and who had even composed some anti-religious poetry, no sooner saw the grave half-opened, than he became passionately fond of priests; there were not priests enough in Montpellier to satisfy him. A change so sudden, and which, however, occurs in the case of every individual labouring under a serious illness, can only be accounted for by the disorder into which the disease throws the human frame. - The organs become blunted, their re-action ceases, the moral faculties are shaken; the head is gone, and thence the desire for confession, oremuses, and all the fine things, without which, it seems, we cannot die." (2)
As the end drew near Napoleon gave to his doctor Antommarchi clear instructions about the post-mortem he wished to take place, and to Vignali, one of the priests sent to St Helena by his uncle Cardinal Fesch, he spoke about the arrangements after his death and the religious ceremonies to be performed for the duration of his life.
He told the priest that he was a Catholic "and will fulfill the duties prescribed by the Catholic religion ", and he instructed him to say mass every day, to perform the holy forty hours devotion, and after his death to continue to say mass and perform the customary ceremonies until I am under ground. (3)
Perhaps sensing Antommarchi's incredulity, Napoleon became rather defensive,
You are above those weaknesses, but what is to be done? I am neither a philosopher nor a physician. I believe in God, and am of the religion of my father. It is not every body who can be an Atheist. (4)
"Can you not believe in God, whose existence every thing proclaims, and in whom the greatest minds have believed?" (5)
Napoleon had apparently been attending mass at Longwood since the arrival of the priests, but his companions in exile did not quite know what to make of his meetings with Vignali. Count Montholon said that he would not be surprised if he were to become religious. (6) Grand Marshall Bertrand, loyal as always, commented
"whether the Emperor has had a religious or a political aim, he should be upheld. If you are agreeable Montholon, tomorrow at noon and at six o'clock in the evening, my wife and I and our children will go and pray." (7)
On May 1st 1821, the same day that Vignali administered the extreme unction to Napoleon, Bertrand recorded in his diary that Napoleon had "raised the supreme question. He would seem to say that there was no afterwards . (8)
Two days later Bertrand, concerned about Napoleon's reputation, asked Vignali not to spend too much time with the Emperor
and even to make a point of showing himself to the English so that ill wishers, slanderers, and enemies of the Emperor should not be able to say - as he knew it had already been said on the island - that the strong man, the Emperor, was dying like a monk with a priest always in attendance - all of which Vignali quite understood. (9)
The young evangelical christians who met at Mason's Stock House, a short distance from Longwoood, and used to pray for the Emperor's soul, were encouraged by what they were told after his death:
his suite informed us, that towards the close of his days, he had not only been in the constant habit of praying with the priest, but that also, when he was in his apartment, he was often heard to pray earnestly to God, through Jesus Christ, for the salvation of his soul.
A day or two before his death, and knowing that he was dying, he received with great apparent earnestness and devotion, the sacrament of the Lord's supper, as we heard from Madame Bertrand and others of his household. (10)
For Chateaubriand, an enemy of Napoleon, but flattered by the small recognition Napoleon had given him from far off St Helena, Antommarchi's account was proof of Napoleon's Christian convictions:
You Rationalists abandon your admiration for Napoleon; you have nothing in common with that poor man .. this foremost man of modern times, this man for all the centuries, was a Christian of the nineteenth century! (11)
More recently the editor of Bertrand's diary concludes: "He makes a sacrifice to ritual; but he has no profound faith" , and in the diaries themselves is a note by Bertrand, "The Emperor died a Theist." (12) That still seems the most likely description of his beliefs at the end, but the evidence is not conclusive.
1. Lord Rosebery pp 168-173
2. The Last Days of the Emperor Napoleon by Doctor F. Antommarchi his Physician (London 1925) vol 1 pp 240-241
3. On 21st April 1821. Antommarchi Vol 2 p. 120
4. Antommarchi Vol 2 p. 120
5. Antommarchi Vol 2 p. 121
6. Napoleon at St Helena, Memoirs of General Bertrand, Grand Marshall of the Palace, January to May 1821 (Cassell 1953) p.162
7. Bertrand p. 162
8. Bertrand p 247 Antommarchi dates the giving of the extreme unction as May 3rd. On March 27th Bertrand had recorded a similar opinion by Napoleon: "I am very glad that I have no religion, .. I find it a great consolation, as I have no imaginary terrors and no fear of the future." Betrand p. 133.
9. Bertrand p. 247
10. The Last Days of Bonaparte
Religious magazine: or, Spirit of the foreign theological journals ..., Volume 2
11. François de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe Book XXIV Chapter 11
12 Bertrand xxiii ; p. 182