The Glitter of the Imperial Court

The memoirs of Claire, Countess of Rémusat provide a bird’s-eye view into the operation of Napoleon’s imperial household. Rémusat was a lady-in-waiting to Napoleon’s first wife Josephine. Napoleon wanted an elaborate court to underline his imperial power.


The details I am about to give relate to several periods of his reign; but from the year 1806 the rules of his household were pretty nearly invariable, and the slight modifications which they sometimes received scarcely altered the general plan of the arrangement. . . .

The Grand Marshal, or Master of the Household, superintended all the expenses of the table, of the domestic service, lighting and heating, etc. These expenses amounted to nearly two millions.

Bonaparte's table was abundant and well served. The plate was of silver and very handsome; on great occasions the dinner service was of silver-gilt. Mme. Murat and the Princess Borghese used dinner-services of silver-gilt.

The Grand Marshal was the chief of the Prefects of the Palace; his uniform was amethyst-colored, embroidered in silver. The Prefects of the Palace wore the same colored uniform, less richly embroidered.

The expenditures of the Grand Equerry (Master of the Horse) amounted to three or four millions. There were about twelve hundred horses. The carriages, which were more ponderous than elegant, were all painted green. The Empress had some equipages, among them some pretty open carriages, but no separate stable establishment. The Grand Equerry and the other Equerries wore a uniform of dark blue, embroidered in silver.

The Grand Chamberlain had charge of all the attendance in the interior of all the palaces, of the wardrobe, the Court theatricals, the fêtes, the chapel choir, of the Emperor's Chamberlains, and of those of the Empress. The expenditure on all these scarcely exceeded three millions. His uniform was red, with silver embroidery. (The embroidery was the same for all the great officers.) The Grand Master of Ceremonies received little more than three hundred thousand francs; his costume was of violet and silver. The Grand Veneur, or Master of the Hunt, received seven hundred thousand francs: he wore green and silver. The expenditure on the chapel was three hundred thousand francs.

The decoration of the apartments, as well as the care of the buildings, was in charge of the Intendant. The expenses of these would amount to five or six millions.

It will be seen that, on an average, the expenditure of the Emperor's household would amount to fifteen or sixteen million of francs annually.

In later years he built extensively, and the expenditure was increased.

Every year he ordered hangings and furniture for the various palaces from Lyons. This was with a view to encouraging the manufactures of that city. For the same reason he bought handsome pieces of furniture in mahogany, which were placed in storerooms, and also bronzes, etc. Porcelain manufacturers had orders to supply complete services of extreme beauty.

On the return of the King [in 1815], the palaces were all found to be newly furnished, and the furniture stores quite full.

But, including all these things, the expenditure never exceeded twenty millions, even in the most costly years, such as those of the coronation and of the marriage.

Bonaparte's expenditure on dress was put down on the budget at forty thousand francs. Sometimes it slightly exceeded this sum. During campaigns it was necessary to send him both linen and clothes to several places at once. The slightest sense of inconvenience, or the smallest difference of quality in the linen or cloth, would make him throw aside a coat or any other garment.

He always said he wished to dress like a simple officer of his own Guards, and grumbled continually at what, as he said, “he was made to spend”; while, from his caprice or awkwardness, the entire renewal of his wardrobe was constantly necessary. Among other destructive habits, he had that of stirring the wood-fires with his foot, thereby scorching his shoes and boots. This generally happened when he was in a passion; at such times he would violently kick the blazing logs in the nearest fireplace. . . .

Bonaparte's hour for rising was irregular, but usually it was seven o'clock. If he woke during the night, he would resume his work, or take a bath or a meal. He generally awoke depressed, and apparently in pain. He suffered frequently from spasms in the stomach, which produced vomiting. At times this appeared to alarm him greatly, as if he feared he had taken poison, and then it was difficult to prevent him from increasing the sickness by taking emetics (the principal physician, Corvisart, gave me these details). . . .

The other physicians or surgeons on duty might not come unless they were summoned. Bonaparte seemed to put no great faith [in] medicine—it was frequently a matter of jesting with him; but he had great confidence in Corvisart, and much esteem for him. He had good health, and a strong constitution; but, when he suffered from any indisposition, he became uneasy and nervous. He was occasionally troubled with a slight affection of the skin, and sometimes complained of his liver. He ate moderately, drank little, and indulged in no excesses of any kind. He took a good deal of coffee. . . .

Bonaparte so thoroughly accustomed himself during his reign to make no account of those about him, that this habitual disregard pervaded all his habits. He had not any of the delicacy that is ordinarily imparted by training and education, and would make his toilet in the most thorough fashion in the presence of any person whomsoever. In the same way, if he got impatient while his valet was dressing him, he would fly into a passion, heedless of all respect for himself or others. He would throw any garment that did not please him on the floor or into the fire. He attended to his hands and nails with great care. Several pairs of nail-scissors had to be in readiness, as he would break or throw them away if they were not sufficiently sharp. He never made use of any perfume except eau de Cologne, but of that he would get through sixty bottles in a month. He considered it a very wholesome practice to sprinkle himself thoroughly with eau de Cologne. Personal cleanliness was with him a matter of calculation, for, as I said before, he was naturally careless.

When his toilet was concluded, he went to his cabinet, where his private secretary was in attendance. Precisely at nine o'clock, the Chamberlain on duty, who had arrived at the palace at eight a.m., had carefully inspected the whole suite of rooms, that all might be in perfect order, and seen that the servants were at their posts, knocked at the door and announced the levée. He never entered the cabinet unless told to come in by the Emperor. I have already given an account of these levées. When they were over, Bonaparte frequently gave private audiences to some of the principal persons present—princes, ministers, high officials or prefects on leave. Those who had not the right of entry to the levée could only obtain an audience by applying to the Chamberlain on duty, who presented their names to the Emperor. He generally refused to see the applicants.

The levée and audiences would last until the hour of breakfast. That meal was served at eleven o'clock, in what was called the salon de service, the same apartment in which he held private audiences and received his ministers. The Prefect of the Palace announced breakfast, and remained present, standing all the time. During breakfast the Emperor received artists or actors. He would eat quickly of two or three dishes, and finish with a large cup of coffee without milk. After breakfast he returned to his work. The salon of which I have just spoken was ordinarily occupied by the Colonel-General of the Guards on duty for the week, the Chamberlain, the Equerry, the Prefect of the Palace, and, on a hunting morning, one of the officers of the hunt.

The ministerial councils were held on fixed days. There were three State councils a week. For five or six years the Emperor frequently presided over them, his Colonel-General and the Chamberlain being in attendance on him. He is said to have generally displayed remarkable ability in carrying on or suggesting discussions. He frequently astonished his hearers by observations full of luminousness and depth on subjects which would have seemed to be quite beyond his reach. In more recent times he showed less tolerance for others in these discussions, and adopted a more imperious tone. The State council, or that of the Ministers, or his own private work, lasted to six p.m. . . .

With all this extreme luxury, the exquisite taste of the Empress, and the rich costumes of the men, the Court was, as may readily be imagined, most brilliant. It may even be said that on certain days the coup d'oeil was absolutely dazzling. Foreigners were much struck by it. It was during this year (1806) that the Emperor decided to give occasional concerts in the Hall of the Marshals, as a certain large hall, hung with portraits of the Marshals, was called. These portraits are very likely there now. This hall was lighted by an infinite number of candles, and to it were invited all those persons who had any connection with the Government and those who had been presented. Thus there were assembled usually between four and five hundred persons.

After having walked through the salons where all these people were assembled, Bonaparte entered the hall and took his place at the end; the Empress on his left, as well as the Princesses of his family, in the most dazzling costumes; his mother on his right—still a very handsome woman, with an air of great distinction. His brothers were richly dressed, and they with foreign princes and other dignitaries were seated. Behind were the grand officers, the chamberlains, and all the staff, in their embroidered uniforms. Upon the right and the left, in curved lines, sat two rows of ladies—the Lady of Honor, the Lady in Waiting, and the Ladies of the Palace, almost all of them young, the greater number of them pretty and beautifully dressed. (A court dress at the least cost fifty louis, and we changed them very often. As a general thing this costume was embroidered in gold or silver, and trimmed with mother-of-pearl. Many diamonds were worn, in sprays and scattered among garlands for the hair, or set in bands for the neck and arms.) Then came a large number of ladies—foreigners and Frenchwomen—whose toilets were exquisite beyond words. Behind these two rows of seated ladies were men standing—ambassadors, ministers, marshals, senators, generals, and so on—all in the most gorgeous costumes. Opposite the imperial chairs were the musicians, and as soon as the Emperor was seated they executed the best music, which, however, in spite of the strict silence that was enjoined and preserved, fell on inattentive ears. When the concert was over, in the center of the room, which had been kept vacant, appeared the best dancers, male and female, from the opera, and executed a charming ballet. This part of the entertainment of the evening amused every one even the Emperor.

Source: Memoirs of Madame de Remusat, 1802-1808, tr. Mrs. Cashel Hoey and John Lillie, 3 vols. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880), II: pp. 365, 368-373, 378-379.