Most of the crowns of history are gone. Long ago they were lost or broken or stolen. Kingdoms fall. Raiders and thieves carry off the crown jewels which are then picked apart and melted down for gold. Famous national symbols like crowns are also deliberately destroyed for political reasons. This blog has told the story of many such missing crowns—for example the crown of the Tudors, the crown of the kings of France, the crown of the arrogant little banker-prince of Liechtenstein, and the crown of Poland. Such is life—silly hats cannot last forever, no matter how precious their manufacture or how blood-sodden their history. Considering this, it is strange that we have the crown of one of history’s most controversial monarchs—and that said infamous crown is somehow relatively obscure.
Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history’s greatest conquerors. He needs no introduction, but I am going to give him a short biography anyway (ha). Bonaparte was a gifted soldier and political manipulator who rode the chaos of the French Revolution to national power at the end of the 18th century. As dictator of France from 1799 onward he proceeded to conquer most of Europe until he was defeated and permanently deposed in 1815. As ruler of France, Napoleon initially styled himself as “First Consul” but as his authority grew, he adopted the more nakedly authoritarian title of “Emperor of the French in 1804. For his coronation ceremony at Notre Dame, he needed an appropriate crown (since the traditional crown jewels of France had largely vanished during the revolution). Napoleon opted to use two crowns for the ceremony: the first was a plain gold laurel meant to evoke the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. The second crown, however, was specially made for Bonaparte and it is this crown which still survives at the Louvre.
The crown of Napoleon was made in mock-medieval style with eight half arches holding up a gold globe with a cross. The reason the crown is still intact and was not sold by the French state (or stolen by Prussians or Germans) is that the precious stones in the crown are not really that precious. Instead of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, the crown of Napoleon was set with shell cameos and carved carnelians. These carved pieces evoked the grandeur of ancient Rome (and followed the fashion of French empire) but did not compare with the huge gaudy gems which were popular for European crowns later in the 19th century. When Napoleon went to Saint Helena, his crown stayed in Paris, but subsequent Bourbon monarchs (and even Napoleon III) eschewed the crown for other royal symbols.
History’s thieves, plunderers, and auctioneers all likewise ignored the crown regarding it as a fishpaste and gilt style prop rather than an actual precious relic. It can still be found in the Louvre, a bit threadbare but not substantially the worse for wear thanks to its handicraft “Etsy” aesthetic!