March 20 1815: Napoleon Enters Paris


“On the 19th Napoleon lunched at Joigny, reached Sens by 5 p.m. and dined and slept at Pont-sur-Yonne. Then at 1 a.m. on Monday, March 20 he left for Fontainebleau, where he arrived in the White Horse courtyard eleven months to the day after leaving it. At 1.30 that morning the gouty Louis XVIII was bodily lifted into his carriage at the Tuileries – no easy task given his weight – and fled Paris. He went first to Lille, where the garrison seemed hostile, so he crossed into Belgium and then waited upon events from Ghent.

With his customary veneration for anniversaries, Napoleon had wanted to enter Paris on the 20th – the King of Rome’s fourth birthday – and sure enough, at nine o’clock that evening he entered the Tuileries once again as de facto emperor of the French. The courtyard of the Tuileries was packed with soldiers and civilians who had come to witness his return. There are several accounts of what happened next, all agreeing on the din of excitement and the general approval that Napoleon elicited upon his arrival. Colonel Léon-Michel Routier, who had fought in Italy, Calabria and Catalonia, was walking and chatting with comrades-in-arms near the pavilion clock at the Tuileries when

suddenly very simple carriages without any escort showed up at the wicket-gate by the river and the Emperor was announced … The carriages enter, we all rush around them and we see Napoleon get out. Then everyone’s in delirium; we jump on him in disorder, we surround him, we squeeze him, we almost suffocate him … The memory of this unique moment in the history of the world still makes my heart pound with pleasure. Happy who, like me, was the witness of this magical arrival, the result of a road of over two hundred leagues travelled in eighteen days on French soil without spilling one drop of blood.

Even General Thiébault, who until earlier that day had been in charge of the defence of southern Paris against Napoleon, felt that ‘There was an instantaneous and irresistible outburst … you would have thought the ceilings were coming down … I seemed to have become a Frenchman once more, and nothing could equal the transports and the shouts with which I tried to show the party I was taking part in the homage rendered to him.’

Lavalette recalled that Napoleon walked up the staircase of the Tuileries ‘slowly, with his eyes half closed, his arms extended before him, like a blind man, and expressing his joy only by a smile’. Such was the press of cheering supporters that it was only with difficulty that the door to his apartment could be closed behind him. When Mollien arrived that night to offer his congratulations, he embraced him and said, ‘Enough, enough, my dear, the time for compliments has passed; they let me come as they let them go.’

After the dramas of the journey from Golfe-Juan, changing the regime in Paris came easily. That first night it was noticed that the fleur-de-lys covering the carpet in the palace’s audience chamber could be removed, and underneath could still be seen the old Napoleonic bees. ‘Immediately all the ladies set to work,’ recalled a spectator of Queen Julie of Spain, Queen Hortense of Holland and their returning ladies-in-waiting, ‘and in less than half an hour, to the great mirth of the company, the carpet became imperial again.’

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

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