When Bertie met Boney: Warwickshire aristocrat Bertie Greatheed’s meeting with Napoleon

Using the diaries of the former owner of Guy’s Cliffe, local historian George Evans-Hulme explores Bertie Greatheed’s time as a Briton in Paris during Napoleon’s rule.

The Tuileries Palace stood here, at the western end of the Louvre, between the Pavillion de Flore (front right) and the Pavillion de Marsan (back left).
The Tuileries Palace stood here, at the western end of the Louvre, between the Pavillion de Flore (front right) and the Pavillion de Marsan (back left).

The main sight in Paris

British visitors to Paris in the early nineteenth century, like many tourists today, were drawn to it by their desire to visit the main sights of the city, such as the Louvre, the Pantheon and Les Invalides.

However, the principal draw for most people was the prospect of seeing, perhaps even meeting, the key political figures in French society, an audience with Napoleon Bonaparte being the most coveted.

Napoleon as he looked as a younger man, with long hair and a more athletic figure

Last week, we saw how Warwickshire aristocrat Bertie Greatheed and his family defied the crowd by visiting Paris mainly to create an opportunity for their son, an artist, also called Bertie, to see and learn from the great painters and paintings exhibited in the Louvre.

Nevertheless, when they arose, Bertie Greatheed readily accepted opportunities to meet the great figures of the day.

France’s Foreign Minister

One of the first major political players Greatheed was introduced to was Charles-Maurice Talleyrand, Bonaparte’s foreign minister.

The Tuileries Palace stood here, at the western end of the Louvre, between the Pavillion de Flore (front right) and the Pavillion de Marsan (back left).

Talleyrand was a most captivating figure. Indeed, it was an impressive feat to be, successively, a bishop in the old regime, a revolutionary politician, and a Napoleonic minister at a time when to be even one of those things could leave you in gaol, in exile or dead.

Talleyrand was a survivor in an age of revolutions. However, Bertie Greatheed was not especially impressed with the figure he saw before him.

Despite considering Talleyrand to be a great man, Greatheed also thought him to be ‘a nasty looking dog in a blue coat embroidered with silver’.

Not that Napoleon Bonaparte’s opinion of his then foreign minister was any higher (he would later go on to describe him as a ‘s*** in a silk stocking’).

A first glimpse of Bonaparte

Bertie Greatheed was also underwhelmed by his meeting with First Consul Bonaparte (who was not yet an Emperor) at an audience in the Tuileries Palace on 5 January 1803.

The two Bertie Greatheeds (for Bertie Sr. had brought along Bertie Jr.) first caught a glimpse of Bonaparte, dressed in his green military uniform, as he inspected French troops in the Place du Carrousel in front of the Tuileries palace.

As the troops left the square, they marched past Bonaparte who had positioned himself in the central door of the palace. At one point, he shared a nod of familiarity with Eugene du Beauharnais, his stepson and a captain of the Consular Guard (and a future Viceroy of Italy).

The Greatheeds were then invited into the palace, where they had to endure a long wait before they were finally admitted into the audience chamber, although the wait was softened by the provision of ‘coffee, chocolate, wines and liqueurs’.

The walk to the chamber itself was indicative of the increasingly military overtones of the Consular regime: grenadiers lined the stairs, the first room featured a platoon of guards, the second and third was lined with officers, and in the audience chamber itself, a group of generals stood behind the politicians with Bonaparte at their head.

Meeting Napoleon Bonaparte

First Consul Bonaparte had changed from his military uniform into his red and gold civilian clothes.

Of the French officials and soldiers present, only he spoke as he moved his way around the room, talking to the various parties who had assembled.

Greatheed Sr. left this description of Bonaparte: ‘his dark hair was unpowdered and neglected, his countenance cheerful, fatter and not so sallow as I expected, his eyes I thought light and not so large, nor so melancholy or so sunk as I expected; the whole face not picturesque’.

He continued: ‘His voice is musical and deep, he leans forward: his person is not only little but, I think, mean; perhaps the scarlet embroidered consular dress did not become him’ (although he would later record that Bonaparte looked better in his more familiar, blue military uniform).

Bonaparte may have been comparatively short but, at 5 foot 6 inches, he was about average height for the time. In fact, he was only slightly smaller than the Duke of Wellington, and he was taller than Admiral Nelson.

At 33 years old, his black hair had begun to recede. And whilst he may not have had the same athletic figure of his twenties, he remained relatively svelte and was not yet the obese character that comes immediately to the modern mind when we think of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In conversation with Napoleon

The Greatheeds’ conversation with Bonaparte would have taken place in French as the latter could not speak English (although he would later attempt to learn the language whilst imprisoned on St Helena, with limited success).

The First Consul saw Bertie Jr. and spoke to him in ‘a kind manner’ before saying that he thought he was ‘too young to have visited Paris before’.

Bonaparte then asked Bertie Sr. how long he had ‘been at Paris and if it was the first time’. Otherwise, he spoke of hunting, and asked the group what they thought the best country was for it.

The senior Greatheed judged that Bonaparte’s ‘apprehension is quick’ although he frequently repeated the words of the people speaking to him back to them.

Bonaparte’s ulterior motive

One of the purposes of these audiences were that they served as a forum for the First Consul to interact with people outside of government and allowed him to gather intelligence on public opinion and test out the public’s reaction to new policies.

There were limits to the value of this exercise. The people admitted to the Tuileries were of a certain social rank and, therefore, their views were not representative of wider public opinion beyond this select circle.

However, aside from the prestige of being introduced to Bonaparte, there seems to be little value in the audience for the people who attended. Indeed, Greatheed makes the whole process of meeting Bonaparte sound dull, if not disappointing.

The mundanity of the conversation was not because of a lack of personality on Bonaparte’s part.

Behind the scenes, the First Consul was known to be quite expressive, and even possess a good sense of humour (frequently making jokes and pinching the ears of those he was close to).

Instead, the decision to suppress his character was an exhibition of power.

The power of the Court

The immediate years after the French Revolution (c. 1792-1799) saw a deliberate end to many of the practices of the old regime of France, including the dissolution of the monarchy.

The logic for this was that a royal court based on hereditary titles and venality, rather than a court that rewarded talent regardless of social background, was incongruous with the values of a republican regime.

However, upon coming to power in late-1799, Napoleon Bonaparte recognised the benefits that re-establishing a court could have for his new government, particularly because it could inspire the French elite to support him.

The survival of Bonaparte’s new regime was by no means guaranteed, therefore he needed as many people as possible, of all political persuasions, to rally round him and the new French government.

Amongst the measures Bonaparte pursued to ensure this, the re-establishment of a court for the French elite was one of his key policies.

As historian Philip Mansel has said, the French elite remained ‘greedy for titles, favours and rewards’ therefore a court, with the titles, pensions, and social-status that came with it, was a sensible measure for satisfying their egos and bringing them on-side with the new regime.

Bonaparte’s cool façade

Part of the appeal to the vanity of the French elite lay in the hierarchy that the court created. The higher one’s rank, the more access one had to the centre of power. Therefore, it paid to serve the Consular regime.

The impersonal, cold façade that Bertie Greatheed saw when he met Bonaparte was designed to create a separation between the First Consul and the people he spoke to. It was a method of distinguishing him as the pinnacle of the court hierarchy he had created.

This carefully constructed barrier was not always raised, however; and there were several instances where Bonaparte’s cultivated mask slipped, and his frustrations were laid bare in a public forum.

And despite Greatheed’s lacklustre impression of the First Consul, he would return to the Tuileries Palace where, by chance, he witnessed one of these explosive audiences on an occasion that some have interpreted as a key event in the build-up to the resumption of war between Britain and France, as we shall see next week.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Dr. A. A. Caiani, of the University of Kent, for his insightful comments and advice on the content of my articles on Napoleon Bonaparte. Any and all errors are my own. To read more about Napoleon’s court, see either: The Eagle in Splendour: Napoleon I and his Court (IB Taurus, 2015); or The Court of France: 1789-1830 (1988), both by Philip Mansel.

Next Week’s Article: Bertie Greatheed and the Outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars