Wednesday, 6 August 2014

France 2014 - Fontainebleau Chateau

Napoleon at Fontainebleau March 31st 1814
The picture above shows Napoleon at Fontainebleau at the end of the 1814 Campaign looking rather war weary and resigned to his fate. After touring some of the key sites during that campaign and going back to his tomb at Les Invalides, I was really looking forward to seeing the place he called home for the eleven years he was Emperor, and where he decided to return to in 1814 when all was lost and abdication was the only option left.

Fontainebleau started out as a medieval chateau in 1137 and only the keep survives from that original building. Since that time it was home to the Kings and Emperors of France until the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 and then was occupied by Presidents of the Third Republic. Today it is the most fully furnished of the French Royal Chateaux and has a large section of former Royal and Imperial apartments open to view to the public as well as access to the beautiful formal gardens and water features.

The imposing facade of Fontainebleau
I have really been looking forward to this visit ever since we booked the holiday and decided to stay near to the palace. The history of the building and its former Royal inhabitants is a draw, but as someone interested particularly in the life and times of Napoleon it held an even greater attraction.

The gates to the palace with pillars still surmounted with Imperial Eagles
After donning our audio guides to the Chateau we climbed the staircase to, for me the main attraction, the Napoleon I museum where artifacts and personal belongings of the Emperor and his family are on display.

On entering the corridor leading to the display galleries you encounter massive portraits of the Imperial Family, with the first gallery displaying the imperial regalia worn by the Emperor and two imposing portraits one of the Emperor and the other of Empress Marie Louise.

Napoleon I, Emperor of France and King of Italy

The regalia worn by Napoleon is a clever mix and match of the new and the ancien order, in that the the traditional symbols of royal supremacy are still on display with the orb and hand of justice on the cushion  beside him plus the wearing of the ermine cloak. As a Brit. familiar with our own royalty, when they get dressed up, this is all familiar stuff. The familiar is then mixed with the new imperial symbols of the Eagle surmounting the staff, the Roman style of laurel crown and the bee motif replacing the fleur de lys on the imperial red cloth where the royal colour had been blue.

I am always surprised by some commentators who in their admiration for Napoleon's achievements, of which I number myself, forget the political nature of his regime. This was about as far away from republicanism as you can get and much closer to the "divine right of Kings" where the law is the man at the top and he can create other sub Kings, ie his family members and some senior generals, in other peoples countries at will. The portrait above is all about justifying the right to do that, by a man who was a a former general who grabbed power in a military coup. This, in my opinion, is the paradox that is Napoleon.

Empress Marie Louise
The portrait of Marie Louise of Austria, underlines this desperate need to legitimise the regime by marriage and association with one of the great royal families of Europe, the Hapsburgs; and the more pressing desperation for a male heir to continue that regime, especially after Empress Josephine was unable to fulfil this part of the previous partnership. On both counts Marie Louise ticked the boxes, and with the Hapsburgs being one of the most productive royal families in Europe was soon pregnant with the future King of Rome, Napoleon II.

The portrait of Napoleon displays many of the objects that are on display in the gallery and it was great to see them worn by the Emperor and then to see them close up. I have posted a series of pictures of those items

The Diamond encrusted sword as worn in the portrait

The award created by Napoleon and still in existence today as a mark of excellence

The next gallery featured dinner services used by Napoleon at his wedding to Marie Louise, 2nd April 1810. This was a curious state affair where the Imperial Family sat at a long table and ate their dinner whilst being observed, rather than joined, by the great and the good of French society.

The beautiful dinner service was created specifically for the marriage of Napoleon to Marie Louise of Austria, and aware that his new wife would not want any references to his previous campaigns and battles, especially all the ones where he beat the Austrians, very cleverly had designs that actually reflected his previous campaigns without any references to battles. So we have a lot of designs focused on his travels in Egypt, the bottom plate is of Dresden a city that was more than familiar with visits from the Emperor, then  Prague a lovely little city just up the road from Austerlitz, sadly no photo of that one. Wargamers take a note from the Emperor, if you want to get something past your significant other half, just make sure it's attractive enough that she won't notice its significance, but all your mates will know what it's about!

The Tomb of the Mamelukes - I wonder where that could be!

The city of Dresden
The next gallery has items relating to Napoleon's brothers with two in particular, Jerome and Joseph. None of his brothers inherited the marshal talents of the Emperor, but all were quite happy to accept the benefits that come with having a warlord in the family.

Jerome Bonaparte King of Westphalia 1807-13

Jerome Bonaparte
Kingdom of Westphalia

Jerome's Imperial Chain
I have a certain sympathy for Joseph the eldest of the brothers in that he was practically dragged from the best job in the world, ie King of Naples and Sicily and given a job that nobody wanted, not even Murat. The position of King of Spain was always a difficult job even for the legitimate  holders of the title, but when Napoleon engineered another military takeover with a bit of over the top brutality thrown in for good measure, to let the locals know who was in charge now, the role was likely to be ten times harder.

To his credit King Joseph really tried his best to be the enlightened monarch that Spain needed and worked at the legal code and civil reforms that might have helped Spain recover its lost prestige under the Bourbons. Sadly for him all the other stuff just got in the way and Joseph, from then on, always seemed to be the guy holding the can when things inevitably went wrong. I bet you can't guess who was running Paris in 1814 when the allies came calling?

Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and Sicily, then King of Spain 1808 -14

King Joseph's Spanish Imperial chain suitably embellished with
 Spanish insignia including the castle of Castille
The next gallery displayed items used by the Emperor when on campaign. I enjoyed the camp equipment on display at Les Invalides but the Fontainebleau display takes things to another level with a recreation of the interior of the Imperial tent lit to imply a night time setting. The materials and carpet are authentic and the lighting just adds the finishing effect. You only have to imagine Roustam, Napoleons Mameluke servant, lying on the floor in front of the drawn curtains and the effect is complete.

The Emperors camp bed set up in a tent with material used on campaign

The brass food containers designed to provide the Emperor with hot food any time any where

The Emperor was always keen to be well groomed, even when on campaign

You can never have too many razors
The classic dress of Napoleon was very clever and thought through in that its very plain appearance made it stand out immediately among the feathers and gold embroidery of the marshals. The deliberate style also gave an impression of a simple soul, similar to the common soldier, just doing his bit for the state and country, but very approachable and relateable to his men. Mix this in with some awards and decorations, "because it is with such baubles that men are encouraged" , and laced with an ability to deliver dramatic rhetoric, you have a powerful image that compliments the ability to win battles, perfectly.

With such a combination legends are made!
Hat, coat, spurs, document wallet and a brace of pistols. Let's go on campaign.

The final gallery has a display of personal objects associated with the family and I have put up pictures of the items that caught my eye.

The sabre pictured below was a gift from the King of Prussia, probably given to Napoleon with a smile through gritted teeth after the events of 1806. The sabre's blade is inscribed with the names of great warriors and leaders going back to ancient times and the scabbard has a crystal glass inlay to display the workmanship. This is supposed to be one of the Emperors most prized possessions.

Presented to Napoleon by the King of Prussia, and believed to be his most prized sabre
Next up the King of Westphalia's cuirass, helmet and uniform. I have posted this image from the Napoleon Series posting on Westphalian uniforms in 1810 to illustrate the look the Jerome was probably going for.

A Lieutenant Colonel of the Westphalian Garde du Corps

Jerome Napoleon's cuirass and helmet as King of Westphalia

The rest of Jerome's ensemble
From the Napoleon 1st museum, the tour of the Chateau proceeded through other apartments associated with French Royalty and the set of rooms given over to the visit and then house arrest of Pope Pius VII. I think it is true to say that the relationship between Napoleon and the Pope was a difficult one, to say the least, and the French invasion of Italy and Napoleon making himself King of Italy probably didn't help!

Pope Pius VII

I was really interested to see the private apartments of Napoleon, his family and staff. The order of viewing the rooms is in reverse to the way visitors would have been admitted, and so we started with the bedrooms and private sitting rooms and progressed to the state rooms including the throne room to the ADC's common room and the antechamber, formerly Louis XVI bathroom converted in 1808, where visitors would wait to be summoned within.

Napoleon away from the affairs of state, the family man and doting Dad
I love the way that even when "off duty" just being a family man, Napoleon is pictured wearing military dress. The contrast is stark when compared to the plain civilian dress adopted by many senior British General Officers, very often when they were at work on the field of battle. I think it goes back to a British tradition of being suspicious of experts and British officers wanted to project the image of "the gifted amateur".

The King of Rome's bedroom and cot
The portrait below of the King of Rome was very familiar, and I remember seeing it or something similar in a picture showing Napoleon presenting his new baby son to his marshals prior to the start of the Battle of Borodino. I might be wrong and I couldn't find that specific picture, but found the black and white engraving similar to the picture I had in mind.

Little Napoleon II the King of Rome in the portrait that I believe was
unveiled by Napoleon to the marshals on the eve of Borodino

Napoleon was a great reader and was known for taking his historical military reference books on campaign with him. His knowledge of the Great Captains of history and their campaigns added hugely to his understanding of strategy and he was avidly interested in the lands, climates and traditions of the areas his troops would be forced to operate in.

The library of Napoleon was just as I might have imagined with a huge globe occupying one end of the long gallery of book shelves well lit by long windows to encourage the casual reader to stop, take a book, find a comfortable chair and loose oneself in another world. Ah yes I know the feeling.

Part of the Emperor Napoleon's library, the other part
lay behind a hidden door in his study

The throne room reemphasises this Royal/Imperial combination to the imagery with Imperial and Royal symbols used in combination.

The throne room

The Emperors bedchamber was created in 1808 from a former royal powder room and toilet. It was here in the depths of depression following the 1814 campaign that Napoleon made a failed suicide attempt.

Napoleons bedchamber
The Emperor was renowned for his work capacity and it was no surprise to see a cot set up in his study On either side of the cot can be made out the secret doors, one leading down via a spiral staircase to the library and map room below.

Napoleon's study with overnight cot

The Emperor's clock in his study has been keeping the time since 1810
One of the most evocative rooms and set of furniture is the Private Salon known as the abdication room. It was here that the marshals of France summoned Napoleon to halt the war, relinquish command and abdicate, signing the document on the table with the bronzed pedestal.

The abdication

The table and chairs used during the signing of the abdication
Like the Emperor, I do some of my best thinking in the bathroom, and he liked nothing better than a long hot soak in his tinned copper bath. I imagine he headed here soon after the portrait of him was done that headed up this post.

Napoleon loved to soak in his copper bath
To run an Empire in Napoleon's day took a lot of man and horse power and the people that would administer this control worked out of this the penultimate room in the suite of Imperial apartments, the ADC's common room. The wall lamps are suitably decorated with Mercury's emblem.

The Imperial ADC's common room
And finally the room that greeted visitors to the Emperors home and personal office, the Emperor's Antechamber where the Marshals could check their portmanteaus had all the documents they needed and take another quick read of their notes before being ushered in to meet the master past members of the Old Guard in precisely turned out parade dress.

The visitors vestibule at the entrance to the Imperial apartments
After a very pleasant stroll through the interior of the chateau and a light lunch we took the opportunity to see the amazing gardens and carp ponds that have some very large fish that seem well fed on bread.

And so like the Emperor it was time to say adieu to Fontainebleau and head for home.

As a postscript to Fontainebleau.

We have been really lucky with the weather and this has meant that we have managed to get out on the bikes nearly every day. I really like cycling as it gives you the chance to really look around and take your time to see lots of things.

Just up the road from where we are staying is the former home of General Segur, who even has a road named after him. His career as a soldier and historian makes interesting reading, the latter causing him to be wounded in a duel.

General Segur

Beautiful countryside along the banks of the Seine
Whilst out cycling we passed a monument to another more recent war recording the events of seventy years ago and another famous general.  Patton or "Old Blood and Guts"as members of the 3rd Army may have known him has his and his army's success in crossing the Seine at this point rightly recorded. Although I seem to remember that many 3rd Army men remarked that the problem was it was "our blood and his guts".

What ever the sentiment towards their General, the US third army ripped through this part of France sorting out a couple of Panzer Brigades and the 17th SS Division that General von Manteuffel vainly attempted to put in their way.

General Patton standing in the Jeep pictured crossing the Seine 26th August 1944. Patton sent a message to General Eisenhower later that day proudly announcing "Dear Ike, today I spat in the Seine!"

Not quite Moret, but late Austrians taking on the French over a small waterway
And finally, whilst out cycling to Moret sur Loing I noticed a very curious addition to the lovely Samois gateway into the town. 

On looking closer, you can see a round shot embedded in the stone structure with the date 18th February 1814.

The round shot is recorded as Austrian,  fired by the guns covering the retreat of troops under Count Ignatius Hardegg. To quote from the Campaign of 1814 by Maurice Weil:

"Retaking of Fontainebleau and Moret by the French. - At 10 O'clock in the morning, General Charpentier, partly from Melun, had driven from Fontainebleau Colonel Simony, as well as the hussars of Hesse-Homburg and forced him to retreat on Moret that General Alix was charged with taking. But Count Ignatius Hardegg, reinforced in recent days by the arrival of two battalions of fusiliers and connected on his left with the Cossacks of Platov around Nemours, was aware of the movement of the Emperor to the Seine and the march of the reinforcements  from the Spanish army (Army of Spain). He did not wait for the attack of General Allix and when he was joined by Colonel Simony, he evacuated Moret at 5 o'clock to go and take position behind the Canal du Loing. Being informed of the loss of the Battle of Montreau, asked to expedite his retirement, knowing that the French already held the road from Montreau to Moret, Hardegg succeeded thanks to his calmness and his ability to safely get out of such a critical situation."

The road passes behind the camera through a similar gate on the other side of the town over a medieval bridge towards the Canal du Loing. 

In a final post from France I am hoping to pick up the campaign trail again by heading further north to look a Napoleon's series of wins against Marshal Blucher at Montmirail, Champaubert and Vauchamps.

More anon.


  1. Great stuff, Jonathan! Really appreciate you sharing your travels.

    1. Thanks Jon, it helps me to understand what I have seen by writing about it for others and I hope in encourages a visit to these collections and sites. I no you know how worthwhile it is.

  2. A report really interesting.
    Beautiful pictures.
    I would have loved to be there!
    Sooner or later I'll go.

    1. Hi Simmy, thank you for your comment. I'm pleased you are inspired to visit, you will not be disappointed and this part of France has other equally attractive benefits to offer.

  3. Many thanks for this great tour of Fontainbleau, it is definitely on my list of places to visit when I go to France. Your selection of photos and commentary was most interesting.
    By coincidence, this is the second of NB's bathtubs I've seen this summer. The first was at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, where I visited in July - one of NB's homes away from home, though I don't think he ever got to enjoy the bathroom he had designed there.

  4. Hi Michael, thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Yes I know what you mean what with cots, hats and coats, bath tubs and even cannon balls wedged in walls, it seems there is an awful lot of Napoleonic memorabilia around, a bit like stuff belonging to medieval saints. I have to say though, just like the medieval pilgrims, I am a sucker for this stuff and I really just go with it, letting go all my 21st century cynicism and loving every minute.