Napoleon’s bees

Symbol of immortality and resurrection, the bee was chosen so as to link the new dynasty to the very origins of France. Golden bees (in fact, cicadas) were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I, founder in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis. They were considered as the oldest emblem of the sovereigns of France.

No, Napoleon was not a bee-keeper. However, he often wore bees, or rather images of the small, industrious insects, sometimes quite a lot of them, embroidered on some of his regal garments. They also ornamented many objects in his imperial residences, and he allowed some of his highest ranking courtiers to wear them and decorate with them as well. By the time the Prince of Wales took the oath by which he became Regent of England, the bee was one of the most important symbols of the power and prestige of Napoleon’s empire. An yet, the objects from which the little Corsican took his inspiration were not actually bees at all.

Napoleon was well aware that, at least in part, his power was based on maintaining the illusion of it. He also understood the use of display to demonstrate his authority and was fully aware of the prestige value attached to antiquity and pageantry. Therefore, in the spring of 1804, he created the Council Commission, made up of several members of his Council of State, and chaired by Emmanuel Cretet. It was the responsibility of this commission to plan everything to do with the coronation of the Emperor and Empress, which was scheduled for December of that year. Not only did the commission have to determine the protocol of the coronation, who would attend and where it would take place, they also had to select the emblems and ornamentation which would be employed on the imperial garments and decorations which would be needed. Of course, all of their choices would be subject to Bonaparte’s personal approval.

The primary emblem the commission chose was the eagle, symbolic of the empires of both Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. This choice met with the wholehearted approval of all of the commission members as well as the Emperor himself. But there was still the matter of the Emperor’s personal emblem. The French kings had used the fleur-de-lys as their personal symbol, since it had been adopted by King Clovis I, the first Christian king of France and the son of Childeric I. But the fleur-de-lys had been proscribed by the National Convention during the Revolution, not that Napoleon would have cared one whit for that. The real problem was that it was too closely associated with the Bourbon kings whom Napoleon intended to supplant. Another emblem had to be found.

The commissioners began to look further back into French history, and reviewed Chifflet’s report on the treasures found in Childeric’s tomb. Chifflet had considered that the three hundred small gold and garnet fluerons which had been found with the remains of the horse harness were intended to represent bees, and were thus a symbol of the Frankish kings. He even went so far as to suggest that the fluerons might have been the origin of the fleur-de-lys adopted by Childeric’s son, Clovis. After considerable discussion and consultation with several noted scholars, the majority of the commissioners suggested that the bee should become the personal emblem of the Emperor. Napoleon, desiring ornaments which had even greater antiquity than the fleur-de-lys, but still strongly associated with the early Merovingian kings, felt the bee would give additional legitimacy to his imperial pretensions. He therefore accepted the bee as his personal emblem. Nor was the Emperor averse to the idea that his subjects might confuse the bee with the royal fleur-de-lys.

Once the bee had been settled upon as the Emperor’s emblem, several artists spent time studying the fluerons which were part of the Childeric tomb treasure. The treasure was still housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, where it had remained since the Austrian Emperor had given it to Louis XIV in 1665. For some purposes, the original shape of the “bees” was acceptable, but not for the imperial cloaks which the Emperor and Empress would wear during the coronation ceremonies. Jean-Baptiste Isabey, best known as a miniature painter, and a close friend of the Bonapartes, was charged with the design of these very important garments. He was also responsible for the design of the garments to be worn by the highest-ranking dignitaries who would attend the ceremony. Isabey found that the Childeric “bee” was too compact and too lacking in detail to give the desired effect when embroidered in a semé (all-over) pattern in gilt thread on the red velvet of the coronation cloaks. Isabey developed a new bee design in a larger size, and volant en arrière, that is, seen from the top with partially open wings. It was this design, with variations, which became the primary version of Napoleon’s bee emblem.

Napoleon’s bee became very busy indeed prior to his coronation, as it was used on nearly every object having to do with that grand ceremony. Not only did it cover the surface of the imperial cloaks of both the Emperor and the Empress, but Josephine‘s white satin gown was embroidered all over with golden bees and even her white satin slippers had a golden bee embroidered on each toe, surmounted by a cluster of gilt bobbin lace. The bee was incorporated into Napoleon’s coat of arms and was also added to the arms of the “Princes-Grand-Dignitaries,” or the High Officers of the Empire. No one else was allowed to use the bee in their arms or other decorations, even dukes could only use stars, and those below dukes could use neither stars nor bees. The bee was scattered all over the tops of the great gold nefs which where created to stand on the table before the Emperor and Empress at the banquet held after the coronation. Bees were woven into carpets, wall-hangings and upholstery fabrics for the imperial residences. They also appeared on furniture, glass, metalwork, ceramics and paper-hangings. Josephine used bees heavily in the decoration and furnishing of her Château of Malmaison. But bees were to be used only on objects for the imperial residences and those of Napoleon’s hand-picked High Officers. No one else was allowed to use the emblem of the bee. With one exception.

In May of 1804, Napoleon established his Légion d’Honneur, which remains to this day the highest decoration awarded in France. The insignia for the Legion of Honor which Napoleon had designed included a version of his bee emblem, with partially open wings. Recipients of the Legion of Honor award were the only people outside the French imperial circle who were allowed to display the bee of Napoleon, when they wore their insignia on special occasions.

There is still confusion around the “bees” of Childeric over which scholars continue to argue, even today. Though Chifflet stated that the fluerons had been found with the remains of a horse and its harness, some scholars believe the fluerons had been attached to Childeric’s cloak, as they have tiny holes by which they could have been sewn to the cloth. However, those same holes could just as easily have been used to attach them to the leather of a harness. Three hundred of them were found in Childeric’s tomb in 1653, and if all of them had been attached to the king’s cloak, it would have been quite a heavy and uncomfortable garment to wear. There is also the identification of these small objects. Though Chifflet thought they looked like bees, many modern-day scholars believe they were intended to represent cicadas or crickets, which were the symbols of death and resurrection to the Merovingians. There are others who believe they represent flies, which are found on the coats of arms of families from both Venice and Flanders, a territory once controled by the Merovingian kings. But the fly is not often considered a noble insect, and thus not appropriate for an imperial symbol, though it would no doubt have amused the British troops to think of Boney covered with flies.

The bee has for many centuries been considered a most admirable insect. They are social, industrious, well-organized, and productive. Napoleon’s advisor, Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, suggested that a swarm of bees would be the perfect emblem of the French nation, exemplifying a great republic with a single, all-powerful leader. But Napoleon could not have cared less how bees ruled themselves, his only concern was that they help him rule by linking him to the French kings of the past. King Louis XII had used a beehive as part of his coat of arms in the Middle Ages. However, the French National Convention rejected the use of a hive as an emblem of the Republic, ” … because bees do have a queen.”

Napoleon and his senior officials continued to use the emblem of the bee for as long as he held power in France. Upon the restoration of Louis XVIII to the throne of France in 1815, the Napoleonic bee was replaced by the Bourbon fleur-de-lys wherever it was possible, though a few bees here and there eluded destruction. However, when Napoleon’s remains were returned to France in 1840, bees were one of the emblems used on the funeral pall and other decorations for the ceremony. When Napoleon’s nephew took power as Napoleon III, he also adopted the bee as one of his symbols, the last time a bee was to serve as symbol of French imperial power.

For further reading about Napoleon and his bees:

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles, A Complete Guide to Heraldry. New York: Grammercy Press, 1978.

Goffart, Walter A. and Murray, Alexander C., After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Marchese, C. Marina, Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2009.

Nouvel-Kammerer, Odile, Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800 – 1815. New York: Abrams, Inc., 2007.

Warner Morley, Margaret, The Honey-Makers. Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1899.

Wells, Peter S., Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.

Wilson, Bee, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Wilson-Smith, Timothy, Napoleon: Man of War, Man of Peace. New York: Carroll and Graff Publishers, 2002.