Napoleon’s coronation happened because there were so many attempts on his life. It was decided there needed to be an institution that would survive him, and, thus, the idea of a monarchy was re-born and Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed “Emperor of the French” by his hand-picked Senate, known as the Sénat conservator. The hereditary title was given him on 18 May 1804, and, in addition, a referendum was presented to French citizens to elevate Napoleon to Emperor and confirm the change. The results of the referendum were nearly unanimous because when announced of the 7 million called to participate, less than half abstained, over 3.5 million voters favored the change, and a mere 2,569 voted against it.
Napoleon’s coronation was held Sunday, 2 December 1804, and from the beginning problems arose. One of the first issues was that Pope Pius VII was not inclined to perform the traditional consecration or anointing because of how the church had been mistreated and decimated during the French Revolution. Even though the Pope’s consecration was nothing more than a symbolic gesture, it was important, and, so, Napoleon appealed to his uncle, Joseph Fesch, who was now a Cardinal. He acted as an intermediary with the Pope, and Napoleon exerted pressure, threatened, and cajoled until the Pope finally agreed to perform the consecration. That also meant he had to meet with Napoleon’s timeline and hurry, which the Pope declared was beneath and unsuited to his dignity.
Another problem was Napoleon’s and Josephine’s civil marriage. The Pope was offended when he learned that the couple had been living together in “deadly sin,” and the consecration could not go ahead without the couple being religiously married. To accomplish that, Fesch once again stepped in and arranged a secret, hasty, and religious marriage ceremony. It happened on 1 December 1804, the day before Napoleon’s crowning.
Interestingly, Napoleon favored religious marriages. He desired his sister Caroline religiously marry the daring, brave, and charismatic cavalry officer Joachim Murat and that Louis, his younger brother, do likewise when he married Josephine’s daughter Hortense. Even though Napoleon attended both these ceremonies with Josephine at his side, he had never once thought of asking the priest to officiate a similar union between him and her. Now he was forced into doing something he had avoided, and according to one twentieth-century historian,
“[N]ot perhaps altogether because it would irrevocably settle his future, but because it offended his conscience; for he felt that a true wife, a wife in the sight of God, should possess a purity and maidenliness of soul and body such as could not be looked for in Josephine.”
Egos within the Bonaparte family was another hurdle Napoleon had to overcome. None of the Bonaparte’s liked Josephine. When Napoleon’s sisters (Elisa, Pauline, and Caroline) learned that they were to carry Josephine’s massive velvet train, they adamantly refused, and their brother Joseph backed them. Napoleon then threatened they would lose their titles, and so they quickly but unhappily agreed to participate.
Also his mother Letizia boycotted the ceremonies unhappy over the new title Napoleon had bestowed on her. The title she received was “Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l’Empereur” (Mother of His Majesty, the Emperor), which everyone shortened to Madame Mère. In addition, since her son Lucien was not attending either, she traveled to Rome to be with him. He was absent because he was living in exile due to his marriage on 26 October 1803 to the widow Alexandrine de Bleschamp, better known as Madame Jouberthon, whom Napoleon refused to recognize.
Napoleon’s coronation ceremony was to be held at Notre Dame, which had been newly painted for the occasion. The pews and galleries were also adorned, and two thrones were placed at the end opposite the entrance on an elevated platform facing the choir. The Pope’s pontifical throne was in the choir sitting beside the high altar. The French writer Laure Junot, Duchess of Abrantès attended Napoleon’s coronation and reported:
“Who that saw Notre Dame on that memorable day can forget it? I have witnessed … the celebration of sumptuous and solemn festivals; but never did I see anything at all approximating in splendour to the coup d’oeil exhibited at Napoleon’s coronation. The vaulted roof re-echoed the sacred chanting of the priests, who invoked the blessing of the Almighty on the ceremony about to be celebrated, while they awaited the arrival of the Vicar of Christ. … Along the ancient walls of tapestry were ranged, according to their ranks, the different bodies of the State, the deputies from every city; in short, the representatives of all France assembled to implore the benediction of heaven on the sovereign of the people’s choice. The waving plumes which adorned the hats of the Senators, Councillors, of State, and Tribunes; the splendid uniforms of the military; the clergy in all their ecclesiastical pomp, and the multitude of young and beautiful women, glittering in jewels, and arrayed in that style of grace and elegance which is to be seen only in Paris – all together presented a picture which has perhaps rarely been equaled, and certainly never excelled.”
The Pope’s train left at 9am headed by a squadron of dragoons and near its end was the Pope’s gilded carriage with a triple crown on the roof supported by four gilded doves. Josephine had previously used the carriage but to ready it for the Pope, Napoleon had it refurbished. Eight enormous windows made it was easy to see the Pope dressed in white sitting upon a white upholstered velvet seat with gold embroidery. Pulling the carriage were eight dappled-grey horses with plumed crests headed by grooms and outriders dressed like the coachman in yellow livery trimmed with gold lace. One English paper provided more details stating:
“The weather was peculiarly favourable to the pomp and external magnificence of the procession. A fine winter’s day, the sky lightly clouded, a slight frost, facilitated the full display of all the great preparations made; and was equally favourable to those who made part of the procession, and to the spectators. The carriage of his Holiness was, as usual, preceded by an Ecclesiastic upon a mule, carrying the Papal Cross. The Holy Father on the way, gave the apostolic benediction, and in return, received those of gratitude and piety.”
Napoleon, Josephine, and their procession departed from the Tuileries Palace about 10am and their departure was announced with salvos of artillery. The procession consisted of 152 horses drawing 25 carriages and 6 cavalry regiments. Like the Pope’s procession, security was tight as there were some 80,000 soldiers in uniform, three rows deep on either side of the route. The procession proceeded slowly, and the widest streets were chosen wherever possible. Several stops happened along the way partly because of confusion and partly because several small accidents happened.
Napoleon and Josephine’s carriage was near the middle of the procession. Napoleon was decked out in Spanish dress of purple velvet, glittering with gold and precious stones. To his left sat Josephine in a robe and mantle of white satin embroidered with gold and silver.
“The body of the carriage was all gilt and decorated with a frieze of medallions, representing the Departments of the Empire, and linked with a chain of palm-leaves. On the doors were the grand armorial bearings. Four allegorical figures upheld the roof, which was covered with green velvet embroidered with branches of olive and laurel, and surrounded by a garland of gilded bronze laurels fastened with golden eagles. … The inside was upholstered in white velvet embroidered with gold. On the ceiling was a winged thunderbolt surrounded with a double crown of olives and laurels. On the floor and in front were branches of laurels rounded a coroneted N. On the lower parts of the doors under the windows was a garland of oak enclosing a crown of sixteen stars, with the star of the Legion in the centre stamped with an N. Everywhere were laurels and swarms of bees. … The eight livery bay horses with white plumes, their manes plaited, decked with rosettes and cockades of red and gold, were harnessed with red morocco leather, and the bronze-work on the pole was carved and gilded. They were driven eight-in-hand by a coachman … stout and prosperous with gold lace on all the seams of his long green coat. An outrider was mounted on the one of the leaders, a groom was at the head of each pair. Behind the coachman’s seat and behind the carriage were knots of pages – as many as there was room for.”
Upon arriving at their destination, Napoleon and Josephine had to change into State robes. His purple mantle was lined with ermine and covered with embroidery, and hers was a similar velvet mantle but 20 ells long with 1,600 francs of embroidery and 10,300 francs worth of ermine fur. To ensure her breast area remained uncovered, the immense mantle was fastened only to her left shoulder and secured by a clasp to her belt.
It was a quarter to twelve when Napoleon, Josephine, and their procession finally entered the cathedral. As they entered, they found the galleries full of spectators, and the spectators upon seeing their leader, cried out with great enthusiasm, Vive l’Empereur. Josephine’s sister-in-laws were to carry her mantle and did so “as little as possible; in return for their submission each had an officer of her household to act a train-bearer.”
The procession eventually reached the altar and as Napoleon had requested the unctions, the blessing, and the bestowal were accomplished unseen with only a brief glimpse given of him crowning himself. During the coronation, Napoleon wore two crowns. The first was a golden laurel wreath meant to invoke memories of the Roman empire and the second, a replica of Charlemagne’s crown, as the original could not be obtained from Austria. Napoleon initially placed the laurel crown on, afterward Charlemagne’s crown, which he also touched to the head of the Empress.
Later, there were comments about the Empress’ enthronement. After she “mounted the first five steps, … the weight of her mantle, no longer upheld by the Princesses, who remained at the bottom of the steps, brought her up with a jerk, and almost made her fall backwards. She had to put forth all her strength to recover herself and continue the ascent.” Some people may have thought the princesses were getting revenge, but apparently Napoleon also staggered, recovered, and mounted the steps.
After the enthronement, the Pope kissed the Emperor’s cheek and declared, “Vivat Imperator in æternum.” The orchestra began to play, offerings were given, and other comings and goings happened until Mass finally ended. That was when Napoleon removed one of his gold embroidered gloves, placed his hand on the “Book of the Gospel” and took an oath thereby becoming the new recognized leader of the French.
Estimates are that over 2 million people were in Paris to celebrate Napoleon’s coronation. When the procession left Notre Dame around 5:00pm the Emperor and Empress were greeted by people holding flickering torches or candles and upon reaching the boulevard they found that two rows of lamp stands, other illuminations, and wreaths of colored lights lit their pathway. The ensuing celebration was intense and festivities lasted two weeks. Hundreds of church bells chimed, fireworks were set off, and several formal dances were held. It was a costly event paid for by the crown and state treasuries that totaled about 8.5 million francs.
Years later an anecdote appeared in an English newspaper related to the boots Napoleon wore at his coronation ceremony. It happened when they sold in Alsace in 1889. According to the Dundee Courier:
“Napoleon was particular about his coronation boots, because he was proud of his little feet, and because [Jacques-Louis] David, the great historical painter, was to make a great picture of the coronation. In fact, David himself drew the design for the boots, which were built by an Alsatian cordonnier named Moll out of cream-coloured morocco. The first two pairs were thrown away, but the third pair suited.
After the coronation was over, and the great painting made … Moll brought in a bill for his boots. He wanted £40, which Napoleon called robbery. ‘All right,’ said Moll, ‘Give me back the shoes and you need pay nothing.’ … Napoleon agreed. Ten years later, when the Bourbons came in, Moll’s trade went to pieces, and his savings were lost in speculation by his son. Then he went back, broken-hearted, to his native Alsatian town, carrying with him the Napoleonic boots. …
When Moll died he willed the boots to the village. But when in 1870 the little Napoleon was caught at Sedan, Alsace became German … Then one day the boots were thrown away. A villager picked them up, and took them home. He died not long ago, and it was at the vendue of his effects that they brought 25 marks.”
-  F. Masson, Napoleon and His Coronatio (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1907), p. 181.
-  L. J. Abrantès, The Autobiography and Recollections of Laura, Duchess of Abrantès (widow of General Junot): With Reminiscences of Her Life in Corsica, Paris, and in Spain and Portugal v. 3 (New York: C. Scribner, 1893), p. 51.
-  Lancaster Gazette, “France: The Coronation of The Emperor Napoleon,” December 22, 1804, p. 4.
-  F. Masson, p. 228–29.
-  Ibid., p. 232.
-  Ibid., p. 234–35.
-  Ibid., p. 235.
-  Dundee Courier, “Napoleon’s Coronation Boots,” November 21, 1899, p. 4.