Napoleon’s Marriage Celebration: Burning of the Ballroom

On 1 July 1810, a fête was held in honor of Napoleon‘s marriage to Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma and daughter of Francis II of Austria. The fête was given by Prince Joseph Schwarzenberg, a subject of Francis II, to honor Marie Louise. It was held at the Austrian Embassy on the Chausée d’Antin and to accommodate guests, a spacious timber planked ballroom was erected and described by one sources as being “of very slight frame-work … and protected by a cloth awning [gauze, muslin, and other light stuffs] richly covered over.”[1] Another source, provides a fuller description:

“The ground floor not being spacious enough, a ball-room had been constructed of wood, which was connected to the house by a gallery, also of wood. The ceilings of this gallery were elaborately painted, and both the ball-room and gallery were raised on piles to the height of the ground-floor apartments. An enormous candelabrum was suspended form the ceiling of the ball-room, the sides of which were lighted by lustres attached to the walls. A raised platform was reserved for the members of the Imperial family in the centre of the right-hand side of the ball-room, and opposite the platform was a large entrance [that] led to the garden. Behind the platform there was a small room reserved especially for their Imperial majesties.”[2]

Napoleon and Marie Louise in 1812, Napoleon's marriage, Public Domain

Napoleon Bonaparte and Marie Louise in 1812. Public domain.

The ball was opened by Prince Esterházy around ten o’clock in the evening. He was followed by Prince Schwarzenberg and his wife, the Princess Pauline, who was mother to nine children. Besides Napoleon and his new Empress, also attending were the Queen of Westphalia and the Vice-Queen of Italy. Numerous other guests also arrived filling the ball-room and its approaches with people, so that by midnight 1,200 to 1,500 guests were packed into the area to celebrate the Napoleon’s marriage to Marie Louise. It was a glorious fête that was described as follows.

“Some singers, representing the Muses, sang a joyous chorus. Napoleon and the Empress then walked on to a cascade; harmonious sounds issued from a subterraneous grotto which led to a vine-clad arbour, ornamented with mirror, monograms, flowers and wreaths. Then a concert partly German partly French took place, and Their Imperial Majesties continued to wander about the garden till they came to a Temple of Victory and the muse Clio and Fame, where trumpets pealed, followed by songs of triumph; the whole are loaded with perfumes burning on gold tripods, and a beautiful ballet was danced on the lawn, which was intended to recall Luxemburg, that favourite resort of Marie Louise’s. Their Majesties then returned by the wooden gallery to the ball-room.”[3]

Then midnight struck! A wax candle accidentally bent. It lit one of the garlands that decorated the walls, and it in turn lit a gauze curtain on fire. One source remarked that “in a moment the flames spread, and in less than three minutes the fire, like a train of gunpowder, had reached the ceiling and all the combustible decorations.”[4] Attempts were made to pull down the curtain, but before that could be accomplished everything nearby was ablaze. The fire spread so fast it was stunning and no one had much time to think.

Fortunately, the alarm was raised, but firemen did not respond immediately, and as the danger increased, Napoleon was informed. He had just been introduced to the Princess Schwarzenberg’s daughter and was across the room from the Empress when he learned the news. He then rushed to Marie Louise and led her safely back to Tuileries. At the same time as the Emperor was taking the Empress to safety, panic spread among the guests and passageways quickly became choked with people rushing in all directions.

Napoleon's marriage celebration as people were escaping the fire

Napoleon’s marriage celebration as people were escaping the fire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By now, the timber-planked ballroom was nearly consumed by fire. Because of the crush of people trying to flee not everyone was able to escape and those remaining had the burning structure fall upon them. As the fire spread, among those fleeing was the Prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin, sometimes spelled Kourakine. He was the Russian Ambassador, and in his hurry to escape, he fell down the steps leading from the ballroom and was trampled by the frightened crowd. To make matters worse, flames ignited his clothes causing him serious injury and placing “his life for a long time in imminent danger.”[5]

One version given by an eye-witness to Napoleon’s marriage celebration was Baron Lejeune, aide-de-camp to Marshals Berthier, Davout, and Oudinot, reported:

“Fragments of the ceiling now began to fall, burning the hair and shoulders of the ladies, and setting fire to their clothes. In the terrible struggle which ensued the thicker garments of the men also caught fire, and many even of the strongest were flung down and trampled on. The sight of all these people in flames was truly awful. … One of the first I was able to drag out of the fiery furnace was Prince Kourakin, the Russian Ambassador, who was in horrible condition. One of his hands, all burnt away and bleeding, rested on my breast, and left its impress on my uniform. Beneath his body lay several half-burnt ladies, whom it was very difficult to extricate from the flames, as the swords of the men had got entangled in their clothes, and greatly hampered our efforts. … On every side rose cries of agony and terror — mothers calling to their daughters, husbands to their wives.”[6]

Portrait of Prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As the blaze continued, no firemen appeared. Even if they had appeared immediately, it was doubtful they could have saved the ballroom because the structure went up so fast. However, some people argued that the firemen might have stopped or slowed the flames, thereby allowing time for everyone to escape. When the firemen did appear, there were only six. Moreover, several of them were drunk and their engines had no water. (This later resulted in Napoleon issuing a decree militarizing the firemen.)

Despite the lack of water and drunken fireman, the fire was eventually put out. The following morning, Napoleon learned the deadly consequences of the fire. Among the revelations was that numerous people were burned, some victims suffered from hideous scars, and a dozen or so people died.

Among those that died at Napoleon’s marriage celebration was the Princess Pauline Schwarzenberg. Apparently, she had escaped but became so worried about her daughter, she foolishly returned. “She had hardly got under the blazing roof when the wood-work gave way and … crushed and consumed her, [so] that she was only distinguished by some remains of the jewels she had worn at the fête.”[7] Also dead was a Madame Touzard, the wife of a general officer of the artillery and the Countess de la Layen, wife of the Russian consul-general. She died several days after the fire due to her wounds, and similar to the Princess Schwarzenberg, she had returned to find her daughter and became a victim when the blazing structure fell on her.

Princess Pauline Schwarzenberg. Public domain.

Reports of the fire related to Napoleon’s marriage celebration were soon known far and wide. Of this Lejeune stated:

“The dismay in Paris was extreme when the news of the catastrophe was received; and all the veteran officers of the army who had so regretted the union of the Emperor with the daughter of the hereditary enemy of France, did not fail to look upon the tragedy as an evil augury for the future, and to compare it with the catastrophe on the evening of the marriage of Louis XVI with Marie Antoinette.”[8]


  • [1] The Atlas, 4 October 1828, p. 1.
  • [2] The National and English Review, 1887, Volume 8, p. 102.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 103.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Atlas, p. 1.
  • [6] Baron Lejeune, Louis François, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, 1897, Volume 2, p. 34. 
  • [7] The Atlas, p. 1.
  • [8] Baron Lejeune, Louis François, p. 36. 

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