It is one of the most beautiful monuments of Paris, a jewel, which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year. He welcomed soldiers wounded in combat. We also brought back the remains of Napoleon ... In this new episode of "At the heart of history", produced by Europe 1 Studio, Jean des Cars returns to the often overlooked history of the Hôtel des Invalides.

In 1670, 350 years ago, Louis XIV decided to build a huge architectural ensemble. Almost 200 years later, King Louis-Philippe will make this place the final tomb of Napoleon. Today it is at the same time a residence, a hospital and a museum. In this new episode of "At the heart of history", produced by Europe 1 Studio, Jean des Cars returns to the history of the Invalides.

We are in 1840 and Louis-Philippe, king of the French since 1830, has just made an eminently symbolic decision. He will bring back Napoleon's ashes from Saint Helena. The ministers agree. It must be said that for a month and a half, the president of the Council is Soult, a Marshal of the Empire. For the king, it was a way of working for national reconciliation after the upheavals of the Revolution, the Empire and the Restoration.

Previously, Louis-Philippe had restored Versailles not to make it his residence but to install a museum dedicated to " To all the glories of France ". The period is favorable: the memory of the emperor is still popular. Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène , the story of Las Cases, published for the first time in 1823, will be reprinted. This will include the detailed account of the " return of the ashes ".

The choice to install Napoleon's tomb under the Dôme des Invalides is not new. The emperor himself had expressed the wish to rest by the Seine " in the midst of the people he had loved so much ". The second reason is that the Hôtel des Invalides, wanted by Louis XIV, embodies, like Versailles, the prestige and glory of France. 

It is one of the sons of Louis-Philippe, the prince of Joinville, a sailor, who is responsible for this mission. He took command of "La belle Poule", a superb frigate repainted in black for the occasion, accompanied by former relatives of the emperor: Bertrand, Gourgaud and the son Las Cases. The journey is long and perilous to the rock of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic. The exhumation takes place in meditation and dignity, in close agreement with the English authorities. The emperor's triple coffin, a tin can inserted into a mahogany case, itself in a lead coffin, all enclosed in another mahogany beer, is opened by torchlight. Then, we close these successive envelopes. A monumental ebony coffin had been brought from France. We slide everything into a sixth oak coffin, to protect the others. Six coffins nested one inside the other! The set is so heavy that it takes 43 men to carry it to the hearse. He was transferred on board La Belle Poule. Mass for the dead is celebrated. The ship leaves Saint Helena on October 18. 

Meanwhile, in Paris, preparations are being made for the reception of the Emperor's remains. The Duchess of Dino, niece of Talleyrand, tells us about these preparations: " The preoccupation of the spirits begins to turn towards the" Fête des Cendres ", as the people say in Paris. The ceremony will cost a million. Thousands of workers are busy with the preparations day and night and thousands of onlookers watch them, as long as the day lasts. Statues and columns of gilded plaster are erected all along the route. What nonsense is this whole comedy! ... the rock of Saint Helena was a more touching tomb, and perhaps even a safer haven than the stormy and revolutionary Paris. "

Over a million people

The ship arrived in Cherbourg on November 20, 1840. An enthusiastic crowd gathered on the quay. About 60,000 people parade aboard La belle Poule to bow before the remains of the emperor. On December 8, the coffin was transferred on board a river boat, the Normandie, which runs along the coast and then goes up the Seine to Rouen. There, a new transfer takes place on a shallow boat La Dorade. He arrived in Courbevoie on December 14. The next day, at 5 a.m., while the cannon of the Invalides begins to thunder, the imperial coffin is placed on a catafalque. Let the academician Alain Decaux describe it to us: " It is a huge machine, ten meters long, similar in height, five meters wide and thirteen tonnes heavy. Despite the accumulation of symbols, geniuses, fame, flags, eagles, bees, victories, garlands and capital letters N the set did not lack allure. , embroidered with golden bees, surrounded him like a cloud and floated behind him in light swirls. "

Entry into Paris is through the Arc de Triomphe, topped by an apotheosis of the emperor and the avenue des Champs-Elysées. The crowd, massed on the route to the Invalides, is estimated at more than a million people, despite the appalling cold. The sky is snowy. We hear the cries of "Long live the Emperor!", "Long live Napoleon!". 

Meanwhile, the royal family, the chancellor, the ministers and a large part of the court waited in the large lounge on the first floor of the Hôtel des Invalides. It has, at each end, a huge fireplace. Everyone is cold. The chimneys smoke. We wonder about the progress of the procession hoping that it will not be too long. Queen Marie-Amélie, wife of Louis-Philippe, has a fever but for nothing in the world she would have missed this memorable event. She will be much sicker after the ceremony. But whatever: it is there.

Upon arrival in the courtyard of the Invalides, Louis-Philippe steps forward. His son Joinville said to him: "Sire, I present to you the body of the Emperor Napoleon whom I brought back to France in accordance with your orders".

The King replied: " I receive it in the name of France". The religious ceremony lasts two hours, in the cold. But Mozart's Requiem is always admirable. The old Marshal Moncey, who was transported, dying, near the catafalque, murmurs: "Now let's go back to die ... "

Some discordant voices were heard. Chateaubriand, still grumpy, said: " Deprived of his rock catafalque, Napoleon came to bury himself in the filth of Paris. " Victor Hugo, he will find, that we have not done enough. According to him, we seemed to both show and hide Napoleon ... It is not very honest because the ceremony is grand, even if it is reserved for Parisians. 

The expression " the return of the ashes " can be misleading: Napoleon was not cremated. Here, the ashes represent, figuratively speaking, the remains of the deceased. For Louis-Philippe, the exercise was difficult but, ultimately, rather successful. We know why this king had chosen the Invalides for the final tomb of Napoleon. But why did Louis XIV decide to build this enormous architectural ensemble?

A construction to the glory of the soldiers

It was in 1670 that the Sun King decided, on the advice of Louvois, the Minister of War, to found a " Royal Hotel where those who had served his military glory would be received" . Indeed, the living conditions of demobilized soldiers, valid, disabled or too old, have always posed problems for governments. Already in the 12th century, Philippe-Auguste had thought of a hospice for the disabled. As for Saint-Louis, it was for the same reasons that he had the Quinze-Vingt hospice built. Under Henri IV, the wounded soldiers were received in certain convents and then at the hospital in Lourcine. Under Louis XIII, it was at Bicêtre.

Louis XIV explains his decision: " We felt that it was no less worthy of our pity than our justice to draw from misery and begging the poor officers and soldiers of our troops who, having aged in service , or who in past wars, having been crippled, were not only unable to continue to render us services, but also to do nothing to be able to live and subsist; and that it was quite reasonable that those who exposed freely their life and lavished their blood for the defense and the supports of this monarchy, which contributed so usefully to the gain of the battles which we gained on our enemies, and which by their vigorous resistance and their generous efforts often reduced them to us ask for peace, enjoy rest assured to our other subjects and spend the rest of their days in peace.

For his brave soldiers, as always, Louis XIV saw big. He chose the plain of Grenelle, then outside Paris. It was close to the capital but above all close to the Seine. This is important because at the time, everything was routed by the river. Grenelle had another advantage: healthy air, which would be conducive to the convalescence of the sick. The architect chosen by the King and Louvois is Libéral Bruant. It replaces, so to speak, Le Vau, who died the same year.

The plan chosen is inspired by the Saint-Laurent palace-convent of El Escorial, in Spain. It is a succession of courtyards on either side of the main building. The architect Liberal Bruant carried out this work with great speed: the military enclosure was completed in three years. The first boarders can settle in October 1674. The huge building deploys its long facade on the esplanade: 195 meters. It is organized around a large arcaded courtyard, built like a two-story monastic cloister flanked by four secondary courtyards. This court of honor is now known to all, it is where official tributes are now paid to missing personalities or soldiers killed in action.

Classic architecture, a magnificent dome

The architecture is classic, rather austere, only embellished with dormers in the roof in the form of breastplates. They recall the military function of the establishment, both barracks and hospital. At each end of the building, above the skylights, there are sculpted groups, as if to balance and enhance the central frontispiece, that of the entrance: it is a triumphal arch to the glory of Louis XIV on horseback as a Roman emperor.

Obviously, such a building must include a church whose bell will punctuate the regular life of the residents. If he has successfully completed his project, Bruant will have problems with the chapel. He will multiply the plans. The difficulty is to harmoniously insert the church while separating, as in convents, the space reserved for boarders and that open to outsiders. Bruant will have all of his projects refused by Louvois. Finally, the minister will ask Jules Hardouin Mansart to build the church. This young architect of 30 years has the advantage of being the nephew and the spiritual heir of Mansart. He skillfully took over Bruant's projects and used his uncle's drawing for the Bourbon funeral chapel in Saint-Denis, which had not been built. The long traditional nave of the Saint-Louis des Invalides church will be accessible to soldiers by the main courtyard. To build his magnificent chestnut frame, Bruant will have found these trees in the forest so close, on the site of the current avenue de Breteuil.

Its interior design is sober. Behind her, communicating by a large bay closed by mirrors, he raises the sumptuous church from the outside, turned in the other direction, towards the Plaine de Grenelle and no longer towards the Seine, today on Place Vauban. This church is crowned with a dome considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. From the outside, a ground floor and a second floor are extended by a smaller, round elevation, which supports the famous dome. On both sides of the entrance and windows, columns seem to support the elevation of the whole towards the sky. It is of perfect harmony and real beauty. Smaller than the Saint-Louis church, it will be called the Saint-Louis chapel.

The first church was completed in 1679, the dome built by Robert de Cotte was not completed until 1690. The completion of the interior decor, paintings and sculptures will last until 1706. At this date, the dome, which s pupil at 107 meters, makes Saint-Louis des Invalides the tallest monument in the capital. We can see it from afar with its gilding which required twelve kilos of gold. Some people thought that Louis XIV had for a moment thought of raising his tomb there. This is the idea that Louis-Philippe took up to receive the ashes of Napoleon there.

The tomb of Napoleon that you see today is not Louis-Philippe's ebony coffin. Indeed, Napoleon's nephew, Emperor Napoleon III, wanted a sarcophagus of Russian porphyry designed by Visconti. The little story ensures that it was a gift from Tsar Nicholas 1st. In reality, it was Napoleon III who paid for the porphyry, for an amount estimated at 200,000 francs. This final tomb, begun in 1843, was inaugurated solemnly under the Second Empire, on April 22, 1861.

But at the Invalides, it's not just Napoleon's tomb. There is also a small necropolis called the Cave of the Governors. It contains forty lead coffins and a few urns. It is here that the former governors of the Invalides rest, but not only. The chief surgeon of the Grande Armée, Baron Larrey, Rouget de l'Isle, the author of La Marseillaise, Marshals Leclerc and June are also buried there.

A residence, a hospital and a museum 

In the time of Louis XIV and under the following reigns, the Hôtel des Invalides, designed for 2,000 soldiers, will have nearly 4,000 residents. Four or five of them slept in rooms. Only the officers had a private room. These rooms were upstairs, above four huge refectories decorated with war scenes. The residents wore uniforms. Those who wished could work in workshops. They made shoes, tapestries and illuminated books. There was, permanently, a medical corps and nuns.

The hotel had a pharmacy and six infirmaries. In 1905, the northern half of the building was transformed into an Army museum. The southern part remains dedicated to hospital equipment and housing. The museum houses superb collections of weapons, uniforms and archives. It regularly organizes thematic exhibitions. As for the hospital function, it is quite remarkable. The care is of high quality and the equipment for rehabilitation is exceptional. A swimming pool heated to 35 degrees has been built in the basement. This is essential for the healing process of the injured. 

These services do not only receive soldiers injured on missions but also, sometimes, civilians such as victims of terrorist attacks in recent years. We can cite the case of Philippe Lançon, survivor of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He has spent seven long months which he recounts in his book The Shred. Obviously, in his immense suffering, he appreciated the welcome, the care and the staff but perhaps, too, suffered the charm and the beauty of the place. A set that embodies the History of France for three and a half centuries.

At the heart of history is a Europe 1 Studio podcast

Author and presentation: Jean des Cars 
Project manager: Adèle Ponticelli
Sound recording and production: Guillaume Vasseau and Laurent Sirguy
Distribution and editing: Clémence Olivier
Illustration: Europe 1 Studio
Direction Europe 1 Studio: Olivier Lendresse 

Bibliographic references:

  • Alain Decaux, of the French Academy,  Le Journal de la France  (Tome VII, Tallandier, 1978).
  • Jean-Pierre Babelon, Paris Monumental  (Flammarion, 1974).
  • Duchess of Dino, Souvenirs and chronicle . (Edition established, presented and annotated by Anne and Laurent Theis, Robert Laffont, 2016).

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