The month of May marks the 197th anniversary of Napoleon’s death and an opportunity to look at a hidden gem in the Royal Armouries collection. In this blog post, Shannon Kee, placement student at the Royal Armouries Museum, explores the elaborately decorated percussion double-barrelled shotgun, which commemorates the return of Napoleon’s body to France in 1841 and pays homage to his lifetime and legacy.
After his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo Napoleon was exiled to the small island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic where he remained until his death in May 1821. Petitions were made to the British government and King Louis XVIII to bring his remains back to France, but they refused as there was too much political unrest surrounding Napoleon for them to risk bring his body back to Europe. It was not until the reign of King Louis Philippe that they felt the time was right, and in July 1840 an expedition was fitted out to go to St. Helena to bring back his remains. It became known as “retour des cendres” (“return of the ashes”). Huge celebrations took place in Paris on 15 December to celebrate the arrival of Napoleon’s remains on French soil, and his interment in Les Invalides.
The commemorative shotgun
This percussion double-barreled eight bore shotgun was made by the French gunmaker Henri LePage to commemorate the return of Napoleon’s body. The gun is engraved in the early neo-gothic style of decoration which was emerging in the 1840s. What makes this gun distinct is the iconography that embellishes it. Much of the iconography on the gun represents symbols used by Napoleon during his reign.
Bees were an important symbol for Napoleon. Representations of the insects had been discovered in the tomb of Childeric I, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty which was considered to be the first official ruling dynasty of France. Napoleon wanted to be associated with the Merovingians and used this symbol to represent his sovereignty over France. Bees, in general, represent immortality and resurrection. Bees are found on Napoleon’s coat of arms and on the percussion caps and butt plate of the gun.
Throughout Napoleon’s life, he was a superstitious man. He believed he was guided by a lucky star, and this is represented several times on the underside of the stock, and rising above the Imperial Eagle on the percussion nipples. Stars also represent a symbol of destiny.
One symbol closely associated with Napoleon is the Imperial Eagle which forms the centre point of his coat of arms. The eagle was a symbol of the Roman Empire and associated with military victory, and Napoleon was once again trying to link himself to the great rulers of the past. The gun features the eagle on the left side of the butt, and the breech of the barrel.
On the right side of the butt of the gun is the Ouroboros, or snake eating its own tail. There seems to be no specific symbolism relating to Napoleon about this, and it is not seen on other items relating to him. The original origins of the icon come from ancient Egyptian iconography and can symbolize eternity, and it may signify that Napoleon’s name will live on in the memories of his supporters. It may also represent a connection to the Kingdom of Italy which he had established in 1806, and which features on its coat of arms a blue Milanic serpent. The serpent is shown ‘spitting out’ the first human.
Napoleon’s time at St. Helena was not forgotten and was included on the sporting gun. On the underside of the butt plate an image of his tomb on St. Helena is depicted. Napoleon was buried in the Sane Valley (Valley of the Willows, which it was known as) where he frequented during his exile on the island. While the image includes an N on the tomb, the actual tomb was left blank because no agreement was made on what to put on it. Several watercolours and illustrations depict Willow trees surrounding Napoleon’s tomb, generally one or two sweeping over the tomb. Including this part of Napoleon’s legacy/lifetime pays homage to his time in the South Atlantic. St. Helena was a faraway destination for most who would never visit in their lifetimes.
The barrel of the gun has the names of a number of battles that Napoleon fought during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, including his famous last battle at Waterloo. The battles are listed in chronological order, except for the Battle of the Pyramids and the Battle of Arcole which are reversed. The Battle of the Pyramids and the Retreat from Moscow, two key events in Napoleon’s life, are represented as scenes on the lock plates of the gun. The Battle of the Pyramids allowed Napoleon to come back to France and take over control of the government in a coup d’etat. The Retreat from Moscow was a decisive defeat for Napoleon and led to his eventual defeat and first exile.
This gun is adorned with other symbols and icons related to Napoleon’s reign, but probably the greatest mystery surrounding it is actually who it was made for.
On the wooden case there is a brass plate with the initials ‘A.C.’ but no clues as to who this could be. One person who could be the possible owner is Abbe Felix Coquereau, who was the Chaplain in Chief of the French Navy in 1840, and took part in the expedition to retrieve Napoleon’s body from St. Helena. He was present when they exhumed Napoleon’s coffin and wrote an account of his travels that was published in 1841. Whoever the owner was, he was clearly a great supporter of Napoleon, who spared no expense to commemorate the return of his remains to France.
This particular shotgun is currently in storage and not on display. A similar shotgun made in the 1850s to commemorate the event by French gunmaker Verney can be seen in the Hunting Gallery on Floor 4 of the Royal Armouries Museum.
To view this object and other items from the Royal Armouries collection in greater detail, visit our Collections Online service.