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The Eagle in Splendour

Inside the Court of Napoleon


Philip Mansel


London: I.B. Tauris, 2015.

Hardcover. ix+246 p. ISBN 978-1784531751. £17.99


Reviewed by Philip Dwyer

University of Newcastle, Australia


This is a reissue of a book first published by Philip Mansel in 1987 under the slightly different title, The Eagle in Splendour : Napoleon I and His Court. It contains a new introduction that looks at some of the literature on court studies that has been published since the first edition, following through to the Second Empire. The book explores the recreation and the role of the court in the French Empire, looking at three aspects in particular. The first consists of dissecting the workings of Napoleon’s court; from there Mansel makes a number of observations about Napoleon’s ambitions and the nature of the Empire; Mansel then looks at what might be called the satellite courts instituted by his siblings on the margins of the Empire.

Courts are the result of a ‘combination of power, visual splendor, [and] outward deference’ [18] all of which is held together by members of the political and social elite, who attend court and often attend to the person of the monarch. These elements were all present as early as the Consulate under Bonaparte who, as we see in chapter one, went about creating a new court in stages, culminating in the proclamation of the Empire in May 1804, and later the creation of a new aristocracy in 1808. Of course, Napoleon was not the first to create a new dynasty – it had been done many times before in Europe – but as a parvenu he felt he needed a more ‘splendid’ court than other monarchs [29]. By 1813, more than 3,500 people were employed in the Emperor’s Household, taking in around forty palaces at which a more elaborate court etiquette prevailed than during the ancien régime.

Mansel argues, unlike a number of historians who even recently maintained the myth of Napoleon as the Revolution on horseback, that Napoleon was an ‘ultra-monarchist’ [1], and that by creating a new court and a new dynasty, he acknowledged ‘dynastic monarchy was still the accepted norm’ [117]. For Mansel, Napoleon was a monarch ‘whose principal concerns were the power of his throne, the splendor of his court and the future of his dynasty’ [66]. The only principles of the Revolution Napoleon was truly interested in, pace Mansel, were those that could increase the power of the French government. This is why Mansel concludes that the Empire was ‘one of the most elitist, as well as the most monarchical [although I am not entirely sure what he means by that], regimes in recent European history’ [93].

Although the term ‘ultra-monarchist’ is an exaggeration Napoleon and a number of people in his entourage believed that monarchy was the best available political system. In Mansel’s work, however, we get little sense of why that was so or how Napoleon was persuaded to opt for a monarchical system. Napoleon did, after all, start his political career as a Jacobin. I would suggest that he came to monarchy reluctantly, and that there was a good deal more to the transformation of both Napoleon’s thinking and the French Republic into an Empire than Mansel allows for. Moreover, to reduce the Empire to something that revolved entirely around Napoleon and his court is to ignore the complexities of governing over so many people and such a large swathe of territory. Similarly, reducing the motives of the courtiers themselves to objectives that were entirely self-serving is a little reductionist.

The third strand running through this book focuses on the court societies created by Napoleon’s siblings, the object of chapter 6. Their courts were necessarily based on the Tuileries, and were often just as elaborate in terms of etiquette. Napoleon’s siblings, and even his mother, certainly expected the French state to provide them with handsome sums of money in order to maintain lifestyles that the Princes of the Blood in ancien régime France would never have enjoyed. The relationship between the Bonaparte siblings was often reduced to petty squabbling over precedent, which became so bad in Rome that Letizia stopped giving dinners. Mansel does not provide us with particularly edifying portraits of the siblings, who with the exception of Louis and to a lesser extent Joseph, surrounded themselves with French courtiers and administrators. It underlines how much the others – Jérôme, Lucien, Caroline, Élisa and Pauline – were out of touch with their subjects. Mansel is right in pointing out that they were largely a self-serving lot, but there is much to be said for Joseph’s reforming efforts in Naples and Louis’ stint as King of Holland. It is also a bit of a puzzle why Eugène de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy, appears to have been left out of this analysis.

This work was initially based on archival material, some of which had not been used before by historians, or at least not in any systematic way. But what might have been once new is no longer fresh. A modern history of Napoleonic court society would have to incorporate a more complex analysis of the relationship between Napoleon and his elites, civilian and military, the Empire’s reforming tendencies, religion, a more detailed analysis of the role of palaces and gardens (the object of chapter 3: Mansel points out that Napoleon had forty or more chateaux, but the political-cultural implications of that remain largely unexplored), and the culture of the courtier. It is a pity in some respects that the work has been republished without taking into account the considerable amount of literature that has appeared over the last thirty years and added to our understanding of court studies, as well as our understanding of the reigns of Louis in Holland and Joseph in Naples. But then it really depends on who ultimately this book is aimed at. This is a good introduction for the general reader or the student interested in Napoleonic Europe, despite some generalisations that no longer ring true, but it is not what today would pass for a rigorous analysis of court society.


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