We like to think of Libertà as a hive of worker bees, buzzing away industriously, creating good and sweet produce for readers to enjoy. But 200-odd years ago, the bee was a French Imperial symbol. Napoleon’s Bees were — to coin a phrase — the bees’ knees.
(Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Feel free to groan!)
Where did Napoleon’s bees come from? Why did the bee become a French symbol rather than the fleur-de-lys?
Napoleon’s Bees: Stories & Myths
According to Andrew Roberts’ new biography, Napoleon The Great, the bee emblem dates from the time of Napoleon’s coronation in 1804. It can be seen in the embroidery on his coronation robe in this painting by Ingres.
There was apparently much prior discussion in Council about heraldic emblems. The cockerel, the symbol of Ancient Gaul, was recommended, but Napoleon dismissed it as “too feeble”. Napoleon himself originally chose the lion, but later changed to an eagle with spread wings. He certainly distributed eagle standards, rather like those of ancient Rome, to the army just a few days after his coronation.
So, what about Napoleon’s bees? It seems he chose the bee as a personal and family emblem because it was a symbol of immortality and regeneration. Hundreds of gold and garnet jewels had been found, in 1653, in the tomb of the 5th century King Childeric of the ancient Merovingian dynasty. Childeric’s bees had the great advantage of predating the Bourbon dynasty, of course. I imagine such things matter when you’re creating a new imperial line.
Are these actually bees? They could be.
Some say they’re cicadas,
Could they be misdrawn eagles? Or even — possibly? — upside-down fleurs-de-lys?
That reminds me of one of the stories I love. It is quoted on the website My Napoleon Obsession. Carmi, the blogger, says that Napoleon wouldn’t pay for new curtains in the Tuileries but equally wouldn’t tolerate the existing ones, with their Bourbon fleur-de-lys emblems. Solution? Rehang the curtains upside down. An upside-down fleur-de-lys looked a bit like Childeric’s bees and so, Carmi says, Napoleon adopted the bee symbol as a personal emblem.
Is there any truth in this story? I don’t know and I can’t find any provenance for it. If you do know the historical source, please let me know.
Whatever Napoleon’s reason for adopting the bee, it certainly appeared on all sorts of artefacts including wallpaper, and curtains, and carpets. It was also on furniture, and books, and arms. In fact, everywhere you looked there were bees. It still appears on the famous Hermès Napoleon scarf, both on the illustrations and woven into the white silk ground. (Photos courtesy of Louise Allen.)
Napoleon’s Bees and Elba
It sheds a fascinating light on Napoleon’s character that, after he’d been defeated in 1814 and was on his way to exile in Elba, he was concentrating on the minutiae of ruling his new independent principality. He spent time designing a new flag for Elba and handed it over on his arrival on the island. It was a simple design: a red diagonal stripe on a white ground. On the stripe were 3 golden bees.
Napoleon’s Bees and the Hundred Days
In 1815, when he returned to Paris, triumphantly, during the Hundred Days, there was no sign of the bees. Or so it seemed. During the first reception for the returned Emperor in the grand audience chamber of the Tuileries, an eagle-eyed lady noticed that the huge carpet had patches sewn on to it. The patches showed the white fleur-de-lys of the Bourbons. The lady unpicked a patch and found, to her delight (for she was, of course, a Bonapartist) that the bee emblem was intact, underneath. Soon all the ladies at the reception, including Queen Julie of Spain and Queen Hortense of Holland, were happily unpicking the carpet and exposing the bees. “To the great mirth of the company,” a spectator reported, “the carpet became imperial again.”
No doubt Napoleon was very pleased at the result of his buzzing workers!
(from the buzzing Libertà hive)
Joanna’s latest ebook, His Silken Seduction, is set during the Hundred Days. Napoleon himself appears in the story but, sadly, the buzzy carpet incident does not. Joanna is still trying to find a way of sneaking that story into one of her books 😉
His Silken Seduction is available from your local Amazon as an ebook download. And now as a paperback too, from your local Amazon and all good bookstores, ISBN 978-0995704626
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I’ve just read His Silken Seduction and enjoyed it, thank you! I also enjoyed all this interesting information about Napoleon’s bees. I love bees and, as a gardner, feel a real affinity with them. I wonder if Napoleon did too, or whether he was only concerned with them as emblems?
Glad you enjoyed His Silken Seduction, Helenjust, and thank you for saying so.
Your question about Napoleon is really hard and I don’t know the answer. Napoleon was an amazing man, with huge energy and the ability to immerse himself in detail as well as strategy, so he may well have appreciated the importance of bees to agriculture and horticulture as well as their usefulness to him, as a symbol. According to Andrew Roberts, the suggestion of the bee came, not from Napoleon himself, but from Cambacérès “as they have a powerful chief (albeit a queen), and General Lacuée added that it could both sting and make honey.”
Must admit that I still love the upside-down fleur-de-lys idea!