2 December is a day that will always loom large in the legend of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was on this day that he crowned himself Emperor of France, and then, exactly one year later, crushed his enemies at his most glorious battle; Austerlitz.
Though the Corsican eventually met his match at Waterloo, he is still regarded as one of the most romantic glamorous and important figures in history. From a bony provincial youth to a Warrior-Emperor ruling from Portugal to Russia, Napoleon’s story is an extraordinary one, and two of its finest and most famous moments happened on this day.
From outsider to emperor
After seizing control of France in 1799 Napoleon had ruled as First Consul – which effectively amounted to being a dictator over his adopted nation. Born in Corsica, which had only become a French possession on the year of his birth in 1769, he was – like Stalin the Georgian and Hitler the Austrian – an outsider.
Nevertheless, his youth, glamour and almost immaculate record of military success ensured that he was the darling of the French people, and this knowledge caused the young general to consider creating a new office that would serve as a more concrete reminder of his power and prestige.
As in ancient Rome, the word King was a dirty one after the Revolution, and again taking inspiration from the Caesars (who he greatly admired) Napoleon began to toy with the idea of crowning himself Emperor.
Despite his obvious vanity, he was not a blind megalomaniac, however, and was aware that after bloody fighting and revolution in order to depose and behead a King, replacing one title of autocrat with another might not be the best idea.
He knew that firstly, he would have to test public opinion, and secondly, the ceremony of being crowned Emperor would have to be different and distanced from those of the Bourbon Kings. In 1804 he held a constitutional referendum asking the people to approve the new title of Emperor, which came back with 99.93% in favour.
Slightly dubious though this “democratic” vote may have been, it was enough to reassure the First Consul that the people would support him.
The Revolution at its most radical had resulted in a bloody period known as “the Terror,” and the anti-monarchical fervour of a decade ago had long-since fizzled out as the revolution produced weak and incompetent leaders. France was enjoying strong rule under a figure of huge popularity, and if being lorded over by an “emperor” was the price they had to pay for their new-found success and prosperity, then so be it.
Following in the footsteps of Caesar and Charlemagne
Unlike the 20th century dictators to which Napoleon has often been compared, he was a genuinely effective ruler who cared for his people, and many of his reforms, such as the Bank of France, stand to this day.
Full of confidence and sure of his own popularity, Napoleon began to plan every stage and symbol of his coronation in meticulous detail. At 9 A.M on 2 December he set out in a great procession to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which he entered in his full Imperial finery of regal red and ermine.
Eager to disassociate himself with the hated Bourbon Kings, however, his Imperial symbol of the bee replaced the royal Fleur-de-Lis on all the regalia. The bee had been a symbol of the ancient Frankish King Childeric, and was a carefully managed attempt to associate Napoleon with the austere military values of France’s first monarchs rather than the effete and despised Bourbon dynasty.
In accordance with this, he had a new crown made, based on that of Charlemagne, the last master of Europe, a thousand years earlier. In a breathtaking and era-defining moment, Napoleon carefully took the crown off the Pope, eased the Roman-style laurel leaves off his head, and crowned himself.
The impact of this moment, at a time where Kings Lords and even politicians came from aristocratic lineages, cannot be imagined today.
This was the ultimate moment of the self-made man, placed on his throne not by divine right but by his own brilliance, and by the love of his people. Napoleon then crowned his beloved wife Josephine as Empress and left the cathedral as the first Emperor of France, the latest in a line that stretched from Caesar to Charlemagne, and now to this upstart Corsican.
The road to Austerlitz
He would not have long to enjoy his new position however. After a relatively quiet period on the foreign stage the British broke the Peace of Amiens in 1803, and over the next two years were busy creating a coalition of powers arrayed against France.
Anxious to defeat his most bitter enemy, Napoleon began training a powerful army on the Channel, intending to invade and subjugate England. He never got the chance however, for upon hearing that the Russians were heading to support their Austrian allies in Germany, he lead his troops east in a lightning march to defeat his nearest continental enemy before Tsar Alexander’s forces arrived.
Marching his army at an astonishing pace and in total secrecy, he was able to surprise General Mack’s Austrian army in what is known as the Ulm Manouvre, and surround his forces so completely that the Austrian was forced to surrender his entire army. Having lost just 2000 men, Napoleon was then able to march on and take Vienna unimpeded.
Having suffered this disaster, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and Tsar Alexander I of Russia wheeled their huge armies to face Napoleon. He met them at Austerlitz, in what is known as the Battle of the Three Emperors.
Napoleon’s tactics at Austerlitz are rightly regarded to be among the most masterful in the history of warfare. Deliberately leaving his right flank looking weak, the Emperor of France fooled his enemies into making a full-blooded attack there, not knowing that the excellent Marshal Davout’s corps were there to plug the gap.
With the enemy engaged on the French right their centre was weakened, allowing Napoleon’s crack troops to overwhelm it and then mop up the rest of the enemy army from their new commanding tactical position. Simple enough tactics, but unbelievably effective as the enemy army of 85,000 men was put to flight.
After Austerlitz, success followed success, with the defeat of Prussia in 1806 followed by victory over Russia again the following year. After the Russians sued for peace at the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, Napoleon really was the master of Europe, ruling over lands far more extensive than Charlemagne ever had.
Though it would all come tumbling down eventually, Europe’s old feudal regimes could never return after Napoleonic rule. The world had changed, and the events of 2 December were pivotal in that change. The French people always loved their Emperor, especially after the Bourbons were restored after his fall. It required yet another revolution to once again oust them from power, and in 1852, a new Emperor was crowned.
He was none other than Napoleon’s nephew, a man who owed his popularity and power to his uncle’s brilliance rather than any great ability himself. Napoleon III was crowned Emperor of France exactly 48 years after Napoleon I, on 2 December.