On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 December 1805

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12Napoleon is crowned Emperor of the French

The question of legitimising Napoleon’s rule and establishing a dynasty had come to the fore after a number of assassination attempts against the First Consul. It was also believed that, for Napoleon to be seen as an equal by the monarchs of Europe, he needed to become one of them. ‘A hereditary principle alone could prevent a counter-Revolution,’ Napoleon said. 27 out of 28 councillors approved Napoleon’s becoming an Emperor, and so did the majority of French citizen in a plebiscite.

Because Napoleon and Josephine only married in a civil ceremony, the church didn’t recognise their marriage. In order for Josephine to be crowned as Empress, the couple were married on 1 December in the Tuileries Palace by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, with Talleyrand, Berthier and Duroc as witnesses. The coronation led to many family squabbles. Joseph argued against Josephine being crowned. He was jealous of Louis and Hortense, whose children would be grandchildren of an Empress, while his own children only those of a bourgeois. All three of Napoleon’s sisters refused to carry Josephine’s train. Lucien didn’t attend the ceremony at all, and neither did Madame Mère, who stayed with Lucien in Rome, even though Napoleon bought a large house for her in Paris. She is present, however, in the famous painting of Napoleon’s coronation by Jacques-Louis David, who was told to paint her in. Later she would say about her family’s elevation, ‘Let’s hope that it lasts.’ Napoleon wasn’t impressed by his family’s attitude. He stood by Josephine: ‘My wife is a good woman who doesn’t harm them. I’ve never loved her blindly. If I make her Empress, it’s only an act of justice.’

The coronation was a magnificent affair. ‘If only our father could see us now,’ Napoleon whispered to Joseph as they stood in the majestic Notre Dame de Paris. ‘I swear to maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic, to respect and to cause to be respected the laws of the Concordat and of freedom of worship, of political and civil liberty,’ promised Napoleon in his coronation oath. Napoleon’s coronation was the ultimate triumph of the self-made man who wasn’t born to power but attained it through merit and popularity. The title Napoleon was to assume – Emperor of the French rather than Emperor of France – illustrated that very well.

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