The Honey Bees of Napoleon

Napoleon's bee

The 5th of May, 1821. On this day, Napoleon Bonaparte, the former French Emperor, died on St. Helena.

Although he was never a beekeeper, Napoleon used the honey bee as one of the most important symbols of the power and prestige of his empire.

There seems to be two schools of thought of why Napoleon’s government chose the honey bee as part of its iconography.

One school of thought says the honey bee is representational of the Merovingian kings, the founders of France, with whom Napoleon sought to align himself.

Or...

“When Napoleon moved into the Royal Palace at Tuileries he refused to spend money on new decor. However, he could not allow the drapery – with its embroidered fleur-de-lis (the French Royal emblem) – to continue to hang in the windows of the palace. His solution was to have the rich and elegant drapes turned upside down. The inverted symbol of the overthrown monarchy looked like a bee.  From then on, the tenacious bee became the emblem of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I honestly don’t know which is right….I’m an amateur historian….to me they both sound like Napoleon.

Napoleon's robes with enbroidered bees

But I do know this...

I have had a thing about bees since elementary school. I won several prizes and advanced to a citywide science fair competition with my project on the honey bee. I think I just liked the whole concept of a Queen always being in charge.  But I digress.  I have photographed the Coronation robes several times hoping to catch my own copy of the golden bees. The artist David managed to paint the embroidery beautifully. I know he had the robes in his studio for months. From a distance, you see the bees. Up close…the blur makes you wish the camera was invented during Napoleon’s life time.

So.  I love the bee.  I love Napoleon.  I should be happy to have seen the painting up close and personal so many times.  I just always wondered about the robe. Where is it? Did he wear it again to wedding number two?  Was it cut down to look slightly different? These are the thoughts that go through my mind.
So you can imagine my surprise to get an email from someone saying they have a beeand did I want to pop by his website for a look?
My first thought was who’s pulling my leg now? He’s got a bee. Sure. And I have a lock of Nappy’s hair.
My second though. Why don’t I have a bee?
So off I go to check out.  www.frenchempirecollection.com. I have a moment. No harm in looking.

HE HAS A BEE!

And so began my email correspondence with my new best Napoleon friend Ken. So this week I asked Ken about the bee and this is what he shared with me:

The Bee!!! Well there’s a little bit of a story….

I first heard about it when a friend of mine, David Markham a writer of Napoleonic books, contacted me saying he had received an email asking if he could help identify an embroidered bee with document saying that it was from Napoleon’s coronation robes. David contacted me, as he knew I was a bit more of a collector than he is. When I saw the photo I knew straight away that the design conformed to the one used of the coronation robes, but everything I’d read and had been told stated that the robes had been completely destroyed in the 1820’s under the orders of Louis XVIII.
I started corresponding with the ‘seller’ only to find out he was a ‘stamp seller’ and had found it with a bunch of letters and documents from a closed legal firm. While dealing with him I also conducted a lot more research and corresponded with some contacts in France and to my surprise I found out that the embroidery had been removed from the robes and sold off by the pound in 1814!! So it all matched with the letter attached with the bee. After finding all that out I asked it the guy wanted to sell it and he did so I purchased it!

As for ‘other’ bees, this is the only one I have every seen…. and Bernard Chevallier, the curator at Malmaison told me he has not seen any others, but has heard rumors that some items do exist, but where he does not know.

So Ken has a bee.
And I have a picture of his bee.
I think I am okay with that.
(Although if it was mine it would be in a soldered glass case I would be wearing as a pendant.)

Guest post by Carmi Cimicataat of My Napoleon Obsession


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05 2011
  • This is actually a new information for me, as I never knew that Nepoleon had a soft corner over bees.

  • The first school of thought is right: the bees are a throw-back to the Merovingian dynasty. The second explanation is obviously false: by the time Napoleon moved into the Tuileries, the revolutionaries had long erased the fleur de lys and other symbols of the old monarchy.

  • Web design London says:

    The second explanation is obviously false: by the time Napoleon moved into the Tuileries.