Napoleon's will to be auctioned off in Paris

The only known copy of Napoleon's will, which the famed French emperor wrote just 19 days before his death in exile in 1821, is to be auctioned off in Paris Wednesday.

Only known copy of French emperor's will, written 19 days before death in exile, expected to fetch $162K

By the time he wrote his will, the once-feared general who conquered half of Europe, whose statue is shown at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, had few possessions to his name. The will the former French emperor wrote just 19 days before his death while living in exile on the island of Saint Helena will be auctioned off in Paris Wednesday. (Reuters)

The frail Napoleon knew he was near his end as he penned his will and asked that his ashes be scattered along the Seine among the French people he loved.

This rare flash of emotion from the once-mighty French emperor is revealed in the only known copy of the historic document being auctioned in Paris' Drouot Auction house Wednesday. It gives an unusual insight into the final days of Napoleon's life.

Napoleon wrote the letter on April 16, 1821, 19 days before his death. As the ailing 51-year-old was putting ink to paper, he said to a friend, "My son, it's time I go, I feel it," according to the auction notes.

The original letter, penned in Napoleon's own illegible hand, is in France's national archives and unavailable for purchase. The only copy, written by a close adviser, is expected to fetch 120,000 euros ($162,000 US).

"This document is very special in the great mass of documents produced in Napoleon's era," said Napoleon expert Pierre Gheno. "Napoleon always writes in a factual way. But here we see emotion, saying that he wants his ashes to be scattered on the banks of the [river] Seine among the beloved French. He knew he was dying."

Napoleon's wishes ignored

As it turns out, the fallen emperor's ashes weren't exactly scattered along the river, but transferred to the Invalides monument in Paris around two decades later in 1840.

The document that will go up for auction at the Drouot Auction house in Paris is believed to be the only copy of Napoleon's original will, which is in France's national archives. The copy is expected to fetch $162,000. (Benjamin Girette/Associated Press)

Historians say that the new king ignored the will's wishes and delayed bringing Napoleon's remains back to Paris out of fear his legacy was too linked with the French Revolution.

In addition to Napoleon's wishes for his ashes, the will also calls for his remaining possessions to be distributed among his close friends in exile on the island of Saint Helena. The will reveals how little Napoleon had during his punitive six years of captivity at the hands of the British following his defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

The once-feared general, who conquered half of Europe, had nothing more than a few jewels, sculptures, porcelain crockery and the odd painting at the time of his death.

"He was very modestly housed. He hardly had anything," Gheno said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.