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The Underground Cult of Napoleon - Relics of the Dead Emperor, 1840
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The Underground Cult of Napoleon - Relics of the Dead Emperor, 1840

Measurements: Diameter: 7.5cm (3in)

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A turned boxwood snuff box, the lid set with a piece of circular stone (diameter 12mm) taken from Napoleon’s tomb in the Valley of the Willows; the box containing a piece of folded paper (10cm x 10cm) wrapped around a small fragment of black cloth (40mm x 17mm) - the outer side of the manuscript note inscribed ‘A Portion of the Cloth that covered the Bier of Napoleon Buonaparte from G.L. to J.W.D.’  / ‘And the Stone within the centre of this box-lid is of his first burial place in St. Helena - J.W.D.’ The paper further inscribed verso in a different hand ‘A Portion of the Cloth that covered the Bier of Napoleon Buonaparte from G.L. to J.W.D.’; the note paper itself bearing the watermark ‘Brown 1820’.

It was perhaps a regret of the Governor of St. Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, that he he did not order the immediate cremation of Napoleon and scatter his ashes in the Atlantic. Instead, a dispute occurred between Napoleon’s staff and the British. Napoleon’s will asked that he be buried on the banks of the Seine, but Lowe, insisted he should be buried on St. Helena. The French staff wanted ‘The Emperor Napoleon’ on his grave stone, the British ‘General Bonaparte’, as he was named in the Act of Parliament which gave authority for his perpetual detention on the island. In the end the grave stone was simply marked Ci-git - ‘Here lies’. The corpse was dressed in Napoleon’s favourite green uniform of the Guards Cavalry and the famous grey overcoat worn at Marengo. The burial place was the dramatic and romantic setting of the Valley of Willows, a site that helped further foster a nascent secular cult around the dead dictator.

The political struggles for reform in Europe of the next two decades saw the fall of the restored Bourbon monarchy in France, and the loosening of the Tories iron grip on power in Britain. In France the Orléanist Monarchy’s populist agenda included restoring Napoleon’s statue to the column in the Place Vendôme, and discreet backing for the return of Napoléon’s mortal remains to France, that was finally sanctioned by the British Government in May 1840.

Meanwhile the Napoleon cult, kept alive by countless veterans of his armies in France, Romantics and anti-establishment supporters elsewhere, peaked at the time of the official French mission to bring the Emperor home. Napoleon was exhumed in 15 October 1840 - the likely date that the present relics were collected - twenty-five years to the day after the he arrived at Jamestown aboard the British warship Northumberland. The pilgrims of the 1840 voyage to St. Helena and Napoleon’s companions made a point of bringing back various souvenirs from the island in memory of his exhumation, and in particularly from the burial place. Such souvenirs included plants and stones from the burial place, pieces of the sarcophagus, and even water samples from the source from which the Emperor drank. One such group of such relics was collected by Louis Joseph Marchand (1791-1876), the Emperor’s valet who followed Napoleon into exile, on both occasions: to Elba and to St Helena. They are now in the collection of the Fondation Napoléon in Paris.
 

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