The Importance of Bees to Napoleon Bonaparte

The importance of bees to Napoleon Bonaparte became obvious when he decided to adopt this ancient symbol older than the fleur-de-lys. Supposedly, when Napoleon thought about wearing the imperial purple, he decided to adopt the bee based on the following story:

“It was a custom in France, during its early and barbarous ages, that whenever a monarch died, his horse and page were killed and buried with their master, that they might be in ready attendance upon him in the next world. In the year 1658, the tomb of Childeric, the father of Clovis, was discovered [by the archeologist Jean-Jacques Chifflet*], and within it were found the skeleton of a man that of a horse, and part of the skeleton of a youth, concluded to be the remains of Childeric and his companions … a gold signet ring was taken from the finger of the large skeleton; upon it appeared an engraved head, having long hair flowing over the shoulders, and around it the words, ‘Childerici Regis;’ several buckles, massy gold bracelets and a gold head of an ox, supposed to be an image of the idolatrous worship of the deceased. … [In addition,] on further search in the tomb were found a purse, containing a hundred pieces of gold and two hundred pieces of silver, bearing the heads of different emperors of France; a crystal ball or orb, a pike, a battleaxe, the hand, mounting, and blade of a sword; gold tablets and style; the bit and part of the harness of a horse; fragments of a dress or robe; and more than three hundred little bees of the purest gold, their wings behind inlaid with a red stone like cornelian.”[1]

Childeric’s bee. Courtesy of Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

When Childeric’s tomb was discovered in 1653, Louis XIV received the treasure, but he wasn’t impressed and stored it at what later became the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. When Napoleon came to power, his advisor, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, suggested he adopt the bee as his personal symbol and mentioned the treasure of Childeric. Napoleon took his advisor’s advice after learning that Childeric had lived between 437 and 481 and that he founded the Merovingian dynasty. Moreover, Napoleon learned that Childeric’s symbol of the bee preceded the fleur-de-lis adopted by his son Clovis.

Besides being associated with the Merovingians, Napoleon also wanted to be associated with the Carolingians, a dynasty that reached its peak in AD 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne as the first Emperor of Romans. The spread eagle that Napoleon used on his shield came from the Carolingian founder Charlemagne and was suggested for use by by the Council Commission, made up from members of the Council of State, whose job was to oversee the coronation of Napoleon and his Empress, Josephine. They soon determined:

“Even if the arms of Charlemagne were not accurately known, it could still be pointed out … that in the time of Louis le Débonnaire, and doubtless earlier, ‘an eagle of metal was placed in the western portion of the Imperial palace at Aix, and it was always the custom of those who got possession of the palace, first of all to seize upon this eagle.’”[2]

Charlemagne. Public domain.

It was also pointed out that the fleur de lys would have been inappropriate alongside the Carolingian symbol of the eagle, another reason for selecting the bee. Moreover, some in the Council Commission erroneously suggested that the fleur-de-lys were just badly drawn bees. One twentieth-century historian noted:

“The fleurs de lys which had been sown broadcast on the carpets, hangings, and insignia of the Capetian kings would have been scarcely suitable to match with the eagles. Besides, they belonged to the old order of things which was to be forgotten. It was necessary to choose some plant or animal from the heraldic flora or fauna which could be adopted in the place of the fleur de lys, and was yet known to French historical tradition. As nothing suitable of this kind could be found in the Age of Charlemagne, it was necessary to search farther back. … [It was also] remembered that, during the sitting of the National Convention on the 3rd of Brumaire of the year IV, Daubermesnil, speaking in the name of the Committee of Public Instruction, had proposed that the emblem of the State should be a hive swarming with bees, and that it should be placed upon the front of every national building. To which Citizen Barallion had indeed objected that ‘bees were cognizance of several Kings of France of the first dynasty, such as Childebert and Chileric. Besides,’ he added, ‘bees can never be the emblem of the Republic, for is it not well known that they all pay court to a queen?’ The convention was struck with this merry quip, and rejected the harmless suggestion of Daubermesnil.”[3]

Napoleon apparently ignored the idea that bees might be related to a queen and found bees an appropriate symbol for his empire. He knew illusion was power and that the bee had greater antiquity than the fleur-de-lis. He also thought because the bees were a symbol of the Merovingian kings, it would give him added legitimacy to rule as Emperor. Thus, when he was crowned, he made sure bees appeared prominently on his coronation robes.

To aid in this, he used the best-known miniature painter Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who also happened to be a close friend of the Bonaparte family. Isabey decided the bee found with Childeric’s remains lacked detail and was too small and dense. Therefore, he developed a new larger bee created volant en arrière, or in other words, when viewed from the top its wings were partially opened.

Imperial bee from coronation decorations in Notre-Dame de Paris, 1804, gilt bronze. Courtesy of © Paris – Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN. Photo: Pascal Segrette.

Isabey’s bee was the one used to embellish the coronation mantles. Embroidery of the bees on the mantles cost 15,000 francs and were accomplished by Picot, embroiderer to the Emperor and the Empress. One historian gave the details of Napoleon’s mantle, stating:

“The Imperial mantle of purple velvet powdered with golden bees; in the embroidery are interlaced branches of olive, laurel and oak surrounding the letter N. The lining, the border, and the tippet are of ermine. The mantle, open on the left side, allows the sword to be seen, which is sustained by a scarf of white satin embroidered and trimmed with a cord of gold; the long robe is of white satin embroidered with gold on all the seams, the hem of the robe embroidered with a cord of gold.”[4]

The Empress was also resplendent and likewise had a mantle of purple velvet powdered with golden bees, as did the French princes. Pages wore green coats with shoulder-knots of green silk embroidered with eagles at each end and powdered with bees. Moreover, golden bees also appeared on the square purple velvet cushion that held Charlemagne’s crown. (To see the only known embroidered bee that survives, click here).

Detail from “Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804” by Jacques-Louis David. Note the bees on the Emperor’s and Empress’ mantles. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite embracing the bee, Napoleon never gave an Order in Council or officially announced the adoption of it. He also never gave a formal explanation for why he chose the bee. He did, however, make sure that the bee was an important symbol at his imperial court after he was crowned. Bees could be found embellishing clothing and fabric and were incorporated into ceramics, furniture, glass, and metalwork. One historian also reported:

“He [Napoleon] sprinkled bees liberally on his ensign as General-in-Chief, he introduced them on the borders of the Army colours, he adorned the upper portion of the escutcheons of the Grand Dignitaries and good towns with them, he powdered them over his own carpets and hangings.”[5]

The bee was so important to Napoleon, it was exclusively reserved for the imperial family, and not even dukes could use it. However, on 19 May 1802, Napoleon established a reward for civil and military merit called the Légion d’Honneur and to indicate the importance of the bee, he used a version in the medal. This was, and is, France’s highest honor, and although there were critics who thought of it as a bauble, Napoleon knew its value, stating, “It is with baubles that men are led.”[6]

After the Treaty of Fontainebleau and his exile to Elba, he designed his own flag for Elba and used the bee that he so cherished. Perhaps, he did so because it linked him to the imperial mantle. The flag that floated over the island had a white background with a diagonal red stripe and three golden bees in the stripe. Gloria Peria, director of the Historical Archives of the Communes of the Island of Elba, notes:

“Having chosen to give the Island of Elba three bees meant giving the island a sense of unity under his reign, even though from an administrative point of view it was divided into several Municipalities … Napoleon’s flag of Elba was immediately a great success, so much so that, according to Pons de l’Herault in his Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Ile d’Elbe, even the Barbaresque pirates greeted it, because they saw in it the symbol of their war hero, Napoleon, in person, as they sailed the Tyrrhenian Sea.”[7]

A photograph of a flag made during Napoleon’s reign on the island. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Louis XVIII came to power in 1815, he methodically replaced or destroyed Napoleon’s bee with the fleur-de-lys. Ultimately, few bees from Napoleon’s reign survived Louis’ eradication. The bee seemed to all but disappear until Napoleon’s remains were returned in 1840. One newspaper reported that the car carrying Napoleon’s body was “truly magnificent,” and that on the pedestal, “on both sides hung two velvet imperial mantles, sprinkled with bees.”[8]

Napoleon’s funeral cortege with the mantle of bees. Author’s collection.


*Although Chifflet thought what he discovered was bees, some scholars have suggested they were cicadas, a symbol that meant both death and resurrection to the Merovingians. However, other scholars believe they were flies because flies were found on the coats of arms of families from the territories of Venice and Flanders that were once controlled by the Merovingians. If they were flies, Napoleon’s enemies would have likely got a chuckle thinking he was covered with flies rather than bees.

References:

  • [1] W. H. Ireland, The Napoleon anecdotes, ed. by W.H. Ireland (London: C.S. Arnold, 1822), p. 18.
  • [2] F. Masson, Napoleon and His Coronation, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1907), p. 97.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 98–99.
  • [4] Ibid, p. 314.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 99.
  • [6] B. Farwell, The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), p. 488.
  • [7] “History of the flag of the Island of Elba,” Info Elba, accessed November 16, 2018, https://www.infoelba.com/discovering-elba/curious-facts/the-flag-of-the-island-of-elba/
  • [8] Downpatrick Recorder, “Funeral of Napoleon,” December 26, 1840, p. 1.

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