The first question that comes to mind in considering the daily life of Napoleon is why, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we should concern ourselves with the trivial details of a man who lived two hundred years ago. The first answer is that Napoleon was not born to royalty, and his lifestyle gives us a glimpse into the way many upper class people lived at the time. The second and far more important answer is that it allows us to study the mind and methods of the most brilliantly talented chief executive officer ever to manage a major human enterprise.
The Ceremonial Monarch The royal courts of Europe in Napoleon’s day were fossilized in often meaningless ceremony, to a point where some monarchs did little but participate in a series of public rituals from the moment they arose to the moment they went to bed. This clearly did not suite the style of a hands-on ruler like Napoleon. Although he realized the importance of pomp and ceremony in establishing the prestige of the monarchy, he never let it interfere with running his empire. He recognized in his own person two separate beings: the man, who needed to retain his freedom to think, to work and to live as he pleased; and the sovereign, whose role was designed to maintain the mystery and dignity of the crown. "A king," he said, "does not exist in nature, he exists only in civilization; there cannot be a naked king — he is only a king when he is dressed." Napoleon restricted his ceremonial functions to those which were directly symbolic of the duties which he carried out in private. Superfluous rituals quickly fell by the wayside.
The Emperor's Lifestyle
The Emperor’s living quarters reflected these different roles. The state apartments were for public and ceremonial occasions; the private apartments were the inner sanctum in which he lived and worked.
Napoleon spent an average of three months a year at the Tuileries, more than in all his other residences combined. He may have been Emperor, but at heart he was still the junior officer who could pack and be off at a moment’s notice when the trumpet sounded "to horse." It was not unusual for him to suddenly decide one evening to start for Malmaison or St. Cloud, and his household staff had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. This was partly the habit of a footloose soldier, but was more a reflection of his restless mind, which enjoyed the stimulation of continual activity and movement.
Napoleon had a passion for consistency and routine, which was closely related to his extraordinary powers of organization. Wherever he went, he liked to find the rooms arranged in the same order as they were at the Tuileries. In particular, he wished his private apartments in each location to be identical, even down to the design and arrangement of the furniture. Napoleon's personal necessities were contained in a few small chests, which moved with him from place to place. He was very much a man of simple habits, with few special needs or requirements. As soon as his personal necessities were unpacked and his portfolios open, he felt at home. For this reason, all of his palaces had the air of an inn, a temporary place of residence that could change at a moment's notice. He took little notice of sumptuous surroundings, although as Emperor he invariably found himself immersed in them. His only insistence was that his working environment be the same wherever he went.
The Imperial Apartments at the Tuileries
The Emperor's apartments were on the north end of the Tuileries, just south of the Pavilion de Flore, which is now part of the Louvre. The rest of the Tuileries Palace burned during the Commune of 1871 and was torn down. Napoleon's rooms in the Tuileries were arranged in the following manner.
The Antechamber, or waiting room, was normally occupied by several pages waiting to run errands and an NCO of the garde à cheval. The next room was the Salon de Service. Here were stationed the more senior members of his staff: aides de camp,chamberlains etc. Access to this room was restricted, but senior officials could come and go as they chose. The next room was the Emperor's Salon which was used for audiences with the Emperor. These first three rooms constituted the outer apartments. Here Napoleon met formally with his visitors, and conducted official business.
The remaining rooms were considered the Emperor's inner apartments, to which only a handful of close advisors ever gained admission, and where he dressed as he pleased.
The first of these private rooms was the Emperor's Cabinet, or study, his sanctum sanctorum, and next to it the Topographical Study or map room. In a small room off to one side a clerk received incoming dispatches and reports from the narrow hallway, sorted them, and passed them through a window into these most private of offices.
Opening off the map room was a short passage that led to the Emperor's bedroom and dressing room. Although the bedroom was ornately decorated, the furnishings were sparse, being restricted to a large bed on a platform at one end, a few gilt chairs and a chest of drawers. A door to one side led to a small private staircase connecting to the Empress's bedroom below. During the Consulate, Napoleon and Josephine shared the bedroom downstairs, but in later years as the demands of government grew he felt more comfortable sleeping closer to his place of work. These seven rooms composed the full extent of the Imperial private apartments. In each doorway leading into the private apartments stood a doorkeeper or usher, and sometimes both. These men were unarmed, except for the doorkeeper in the stairwell by the Antechamber, who was provided with a ceremonial halberd and sword.
Security at the Palace
There were no other guards posted, and not a single soldier. The only military guard in this section of the Palace was a ceremonial detachment of 20 men posted below the state apartments, and a single sentry at the public passageway under the central pavilion. There were additional detachments of horse and foot posted elsewhere in the Palace and on the grounds, totaling 118 men in all, but this was the extent of the daily garrison.
Security at night was much the same, with the staff officers, pages and servants sleeping at their posts so as to be ready at a moment’s notice if their services were needed. The Emperor’s mameluk, Roustam, slept outside the door of his bedroom and the valet and wardrobe assistant slept in closets nearby. To gain access to the Emperor when an urgent dispatch arrived during the night, the aide de camp would knock on the door against which the mameluk lay. Roustam would then open the door, let the aide pass through, and then shut it carefully so the man would be satisfied that no one had followed him in. The aide then knocked on the bedchamber door, which the Emperor would open only if he recognized the voice.
These were the only security precautions taken to protect the life of the most important man in Europe. One night the Comte de Segur found a man perched on a window sill waiting for a chance to slip inside, and in 1802 a deranged ex-soldier managed to get into the antechamber before he was disarmed and led away, but these are the only incidents on record. While there was no shortage of conspiracies against Napoleon, none of these targeted the Tuileries because it was assumed he would be well guarded there.
The Morning Routine
Being a man of habit, Napoleon’s daily routine rarely varied. He got by comfortably on only six hours of sleep and had the ability to doze and wake at will, whether he took those six hours straight or broken into intervals. In any case, his day started early. He would often wake up at midnight, go into his study and work for several hours, and then go back to bed.
In the morning, his valet-de-chambre, Constant, would enter his bedroom between six and seven. Napoleon would wake cheerfully and ask Constant to open the windows so he could breath some fresh air. He had a horror of bad smells (peculiar in one who spent so much of his life on battlefields) and of stuffy rooms; the smell of fresh paint made him ill. The only scent he liked in his rooms was that of aloe wood, a fancy he brought back with him from Egypt.
As soon as the room was aired, the Emperor would rise, wrap himself in his dressing gown and sit down by the fire to open and read the newest correspondence, setting aside the ones that needed attention and scattering the rest across the carpet, which were then considered "answered." He quickly scanned the newspapers, and his list of appointments for the day.
In busy times he would often go directly into his study, where his secretary was already preparing the day's business. He could spend as little as a few minutes or as long as an hour, depending on the urgency of the situation, before resuming the day’s routine.
He then went into the dressing room to wash and dress, a daily ritual during which he often consulted with a number of his personal advisors — his architect, his librarian, and his doctors. Napoleon was not the least bit bashful about bathing or washing in front of others, whether they be servants, staff officers, or in the field, the entire army.
Although Baron Larrey was Surgeon-general of the Army, he was not Napoleon’s personal physician. This honor was shared by several men, of whom the most prominent was Doctor Corvisart, a man in his late forties in whose opinion the Emperor had great confidence. Corvisart visited on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the distinguished physician was usually greeted with a jocular " Hello, you old quack! How many patients have you killed today?"
Such joking was common during this petit levée, and typical of Napoleon’s working relationship with his close associates. If the doctor wasn’t there, he would chatter away with his valets, seeking the informal news of the town and the latest palace gossip, even down to the servant's level. During this time he would have a cup of tea or orange-flower water in a silver cup from his traveling kit. He sweetened it himself, but if he detected the slightest bad taste he rejected it immediately. It was the only precaution he took against poison.
Having put on his favorite red or green slippers, which, like many men, he used until they were embarrassingly shabby, he retired to his bath. The hot bath was a passion, and he often stayed in it for an hour, continually turning on the hot-water tap and raising the temperature until clouds of steam filled the room and the servants were forced to open the door to air it out. The time spent in the tub was not wasted, however, as he often listened to his dispatches or read his newspapers while he soaked.
Napoleon had an obsession with personal cleanliness far beyond the standards of his day, but the bath served another function as well. From his infancy, he had suffered what was described as "an obstinate constipation," and first experienced hemorrhoids during the Italian Campaign (he proudly claimed to have cured this attack with the application of three or four leeches, but the less said of that solution the better). At any rate, the bath soothed his discomfort, and as the years passed he would remain longer and longer, until at St. Helena he seemed to pass entire days and nights in the water.
Finished with his bath, Napoleon would put on an undershirt, simple white overalls with feet, and a white dressing gown, these garments being of cotton in the summer and wool in the winter. On his head he kept the bandanna he had slept in, knotted over the forehead with the two loose ends passing back over his shoulders.
In this costume he would begin to shave. For daily grooming he made use of one of several elaborate traveling cases made for him by the court jeweler Biennais. In an era when every middle class merchant had a servant to shave him every day, Napoleon liked to do the job himself.
Constant had taught him to use a straight razor early in his reign, but apparently he wasn't really good at it, and would occasionally cut himself. Roustam would hold the mirror, and Constant the basin, towel and soap. After shaving, he would wash his hands with almond paste and rose soap, and then his face with fine sponges.
He then picked his teeth very carefully with a boxwood tooth pick, brushed them for some time with an opiate, and then again with fine tooth powder, finally rinsing his mouth with a mixture of brandy and water. Then he scraped his tongue with a silver scraper. It was to these fastidious habits that he ascribed the perfect preservation of his teeth, in an age where many people had none left by the age of twenty one.
The final act was a generous application of eau de cologne over his entire body, followed by a vigorous brushing of the skin with a stiff bristled brush This was a habit he seems to have acquired in Egypt, and his assistants were not allowed to do this gently, being urged on with repeated admonitions of "harder! harder!" From time to time, the Imperial hairdresser Duplan, who spent most of his time catering to the Empress, would appear to cut the emperor's hair.
The Imperial Wardrobe
After finishing his ablutions, Napoleon dressed, first in a flannel undershirt, over which he often wore a neck cord with a small packet of poison. This packet was never changed, and when he finally attempted to use it in 1814, it had lost its potency and only made him violently ill. Next came a linen shirt, followed by light woolen socks and silk stockings, kept up by elastic garters.
The drawers worn in this period were knee length, similar in cut to the breeches which were worn over them. His shoes were finely made and carefully broken in for him for him by one of the servants who had the same size foot. His riding boots were specially lined with soft material so he could wear them over his regular stockings.
At the neck he wore a thin cravat of muslin, and a stiff black stock. The waistcoat was of the same fine white kerseymere as the breeches. He put on a fresh, clean waistcoat and breeches every morning. However careful he may have been with his person, this fastidiousness did not extend to his clothes. He thought nothing of wiping his pen on his breeches, and routinely splattered ink on his waistcoat as he signed documents. Since these were washed only a few times before being discarded, he went though them at an alarming rate. 48 were supplied yearly and were supposed to last three years, but a wardrobe inventory in 1811 found only 74, in place of the 144 that should have been there.
Napoleon had only two swords in constant use, the one carried at Austerlitz that is now preserved in the Musée de l'Armée, and a second one of similar design. These were worn on a small waist or shoulder belt, normally concealed by the waistcoat.
Finally the Emperor was handed his coat, usually the green with red facings of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard. On Sundays and state occasions he would wear the blue dress coat of the Foot Grenadiers. The epaulettes for these coats were smaller and lighter than usual. He disliked the bother of dismounting the epaulettes and swinging them down onto the chest for wear under an overcoat, as was the usual practice, and had his overcoats specially tailored to fit over the epaulettes in their mounted position.<
On the left breast of the coat he wore the breast star of the Legion of Honor, and a couple of small decorations. Initially, he wore only the simple red ribbon and silver medal of a chevalier of the Legion of Honor; after Austerlitz, he wore the gold cross of an officer, unusually coupled with the order of the Iron Crown of Italy. Occasionally these would be joined by the light blue ribbon of the ordre de la Réunion. He generally wore the sash of the Legion of honor under his coat, showing a thin red line between the edge of the coat and waistcoat. The sash was worn over the coat only on state occasions.
As he prepared to leave his apartment, the emperor took his hat, the one that Wellington said was worth 50,000 men on the field of battle. This famous piece of headgear was of plain black felt, with no border or lace, and ornamented only with the tricolor cockade held in place by a simple black ribbon. It was not a terribly practical hat; in the rain it would sometimes lose its stiffness and the front and back would flop down over his neck and face. But it was his trademark and he was constant to it. He always had it with him, even indoors. He carried it by the front flap, and often waved it about in conversation. When he was angry (or wished people to think he was) he would throw it to the ground and kick it with his foot.
In his pockets, he carried a linen handkerchief scented with eau de cologne, an eyeglass, a bonbonière with bits of licorice, and a snuff box. He was slightly shortsighted, and often made use of an eyeglass or telescope, even when at home in Paris. Although numerous jeweled snuff boxes associated with Napoleon survive, these were generally given as gifts. For personal use he preferred simpler oval tortoise shell or wooden ones, lined with gold and decorated with cameos or antique coins. He went though large quantities of snuff, but rarely sniffed it. Instead he would take large doses, pass them under his nose, and discard them.
He never carried money and does not seem to have habitually carried a watch. When he did, he was hard on them, dropping them to the floor with his clothes when he undressed, or throwing them to the ground in anger like he did his hat. His watches were of simple design, but made by the finest makers. They spent a lot of time being repaired.
The Morning Levée
At 9:00am the chamberlain came to the door of the bedroom and the Emperor left to attend the first official function of his day, the morning levée. This was a formal gathering at which the principal activity was the issuing of orders — no jocular exchanges, no little stories to be told, no kind expressions of concern. Those attending were there to hand in reports and receive orders. All would be in the impressive costume specified for their office: Tallyrand, the Grand Chamberlain, in the prescribed coat of red, Cambacères in the violet coat of the Arch-Chancellor, Lebrun wearing the black of the Arch-Treasurer. Ministers, marshals, senators, deputies, tribunes, prefects and generals all wore blue, differentiated by the color and pattern of their embroidery.
In the Emperor's Salon, they would form an informal circle, along which the Emperor would pass, exchanging a few words with each person. Without preparation and without consulting notes, he would question his visitors sharply on a wide variety of subjects. The atmosphere was strictly business, and he was not above giving a public rebuke to those who have fallen short of his expectations. The levée did not last long, for there was no idle talk and anything that needed to be discussed in greater depth would be treated in private audiences, which began as soon as those attending the levéewere ushered out.
Except for the ministers, nearly all of those seeking an audience had requests. Many were requests for money. To some he gave, to others he loaned. Small amounts were paid out in cash; for larger ones he wrote a quick order to the treasury. Since the Emperor had already screened the requests, those granted an audience could be confident of getting at least part of what they came for. The interviews were short and formal, being restricted to a few questions and an abrupt conclusion. There was never any familiarity; he rarely so much as shook hands. He hated to be thanked, and dismissed his visitors with a quick nod when the interview was concluded. Napoleon had never mastered (nor cared to) the art of light conversation with the ladies, and women supplicants were often offended by his abrupt manner.
The dining routine at the beginning of the nineteenth century consisted of only two meals a day. The first of these, the déjeuner, was resting under silver covers on a small table in the antechamber at 9:30, waiting for the Emperor to give notice of his readiness to eat. The audiences often delayed its serving an hour or more, during which time, in spite of the best efforts of the servants, it often grew cold and stale. Napoleon’s attitude toward food was simple. "If you want to eat well," he would tell people, "dine with the Second Consul; if you want to eat a lot, visit the Third Consul; if you want to eat quickly, dine with me." The table was carried into the salon and the meal served under the auspices of the maître d’hôtel. The menu was simple and allowed the maître d’hôtel little chance to display his artistry. A soup, a choice of several main courses, two side dishes, rolls, and coffee, were washed down with a bottle of chambertin.<
Napoleon was not a fussy eater, but expressed a preference for plain roast or sautéed chicken, à l'italienne or àla marengo, fried foods and pastries. He was particularly fond of pasta with parmesan cheese. His meat was always well done. He maintained no private cellar, and his wine was almost always chambertin, heavily watered. The service on which the meal was served was entirely of silver, but of a simple and unostentatious design. Gold vermeil was use only on Sundays and state occasions.
Napoleon nearly always ate his déjeuner alone, although a stream of visitors came and went. He ate hastily and rather messily, going swiftly from soup to main course to dessert and back again until he was satisfied, in the end leaving a substantial part of the meal untouched. In seven or eight minutes he was done, and ready to turn his attention to his visitors.
He enjoyed the laughter of children, and often had his nieces and nephews call on him during the déjeuner. He teased them mischievously, and enjoyed a raucous good time. After the King of Rome was born, the governess was instructed to bring the child every day at this time, and the Emperor would laugh and play with his son. The Empress often joined them. He also entertained artists and scholars at the déjeuner, discussing their latest works and discoveries. The artists were sometimes invited to make sketches, but this was primarily an occasion for the informal exchange of ideas.
If the Empress wasn't present at his déjeuner, he would sometimes make a quick trip down the private stairs to join her briefly for hers.