Online Talk on Napoleonic Prisoners of War

Last year I conducted research into the conditions of Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I wrote about my findings in two blog posts for the archives I work at, as well as talking through my findings with a lovely local group that I was involved with at the time. That went very well and all who heard about it said it was a very interesting topic.

Since then I have looked into the parish registers at the time and found a lot of examples of the prisoners and how they married and had children with local women. The most interesting find for me is that one prisoner brought his Egyptian wife to Chesterfield, whilst another brought his Caribbean servant with him. For this reason, I added it to my list of possible talks I could be booked to do and I’m so glad that I did as I have been booked to do it twice more.

The first will be for the Be Bold History Network, a group that connects history knowledge with the classroom. I did a talk for them back in 2021, talking about my book research on Anthony Woodville and was kindly invited back any time. So I will be giving the talk on Wednesday 9th of February. Whilst it is aimed at teachers, anyone is welcome to attend.

If you would like to get hold of a ticket, then it is free to book using the following link,

St Mary and All Saints Church, St Mary’s Gate, Chesterfield, as it would have looked in 1793, from the King’s Topographical Collection, British Library

Napoleonic Prisoners of War Talk

During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.

One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

General Exelmans changing horses at the Battle of Wertingen in October 1805, Wikimedia Commons

Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.

As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.

If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!

Napoleon’s Expedition in Egypt

On the 1st of July 1798, Napoleon, along with nearly 55,000 men and 400 ships arrived in Egypt. Among them were around 150 scientists, engineers, and academics, hoping to learn more about the mysterious country. Napoleon claimed that the so-called invasion had two aims, to liberate the people of Egypt from despotism, and to bring knowledge of the history, nature, and culture of the country to the Western World.[1] As Peter Hicks argues, the 3 year long expedition to gain knowledge following the invasion was used as a romantic ‘smoke screen’ to cover up the military reasons Napoleon had arrived in Egypt, specifically to curb British interests in the country.[2] Whatever motives lay behind the invasion and subsequent expedition, there is no doubt that it did “open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt” and helped to start the “professional study of Egyptology”.[3]

Napoleon in Egypt, 1867–68, Jean-Léon Gérôme, French, 1824–1904, Oil on wood panel, Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase, John Maclean Magie, Class of 1892, and Gertrude Magie Fund

The academics who came with the French to Egypt were tasked with collecting knowledge and cloning French style learning. To do this, they created the Institute of Egypt, which focused on 4 main areas of study: mathematics, physics (which covered all the sciences), political economy and culture.[4] The Institute followed 3 simple objectives:

  1. To progress and spread the enlightenment in Egypt.
  2. Research, study and publish about the natural, industrial, and historical context of Egypt.
  3. Advice the government on relevant topics.[5]

In order to achieve these aims, the academics had to take part in intellectual debate and report on long term investigations, such as agricultural improvements, studies of ancient monuments, geology and wildlife, just to name a few.[6] However, much of the intellectual debate that took place was actually not relevant to Egypt, instead focusing on their own personal work they had research prior to the expedition. Whilst this appeared to follow the aim of spreading enlightenment ideas in Egypt, these previous studies had nothing to do with the unique context of Egypt itself.

‘Interior of the Temple of Phile’, from G. A. Hoskins, A Winter in Upper and Lower Egypt (1863), The British Library

The Institute was housed in two former palaces outside Cairo, which were well equipped with a library full of books specifically chosen by Napoleon for the expedition, alongside printing presses to print their findings.[7] This did cause controversy as many in the Egyptian high society saw this as blasphemous, as only religious texts should be printed. Following discussions on the topic, it was found that many of them actually owned books on other topics, such as history and philosophy, meaning that the opposition didn’t last long. Other activities were found to be more favourable. These included a workshop and foundry used to recreate scientific equipment lost from Alexandria harbour, and a botanical garden featuring a menagerie of local birds, monkeys, and snakes.[8]

Certainly, the most successful part of the expedition was the surveying of the historical sites in Egypt. All the sites we now recognise when we think of Ancient Egypt were studied, ranging from temples, tombs, statues, and pyramids, including Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.[9] Each one was meticulously measured, mapped and drawn, so they could be turned into engravings. All of these engravings later featured in the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by the academics following their return to France in 1801. It featured aspects of Egyptian life and culture such as antiquities, customs, and natural history, including the first large-scale map of the Nile Valley.[10] The sheer volume of information collected during their 3 years in Egypt is noticeable in the extent of what was published in the Description de l’Egypte. A total of 23 volumes were published between 1809 and 1828, featuring 837 engravings.[11] Copies of this were sold all over Europe, meaning that the interest in Egypt and its treasures would reach never seen before levels. Prior to the expedition, interest had only been on an individual scale, but the publication of these new wonders meant people wanted to travel to see them for themselves.

Léon Cogniet, The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte (1835; Musée du Louvre), Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most important find of the expedition was the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone would later become the key to reading hieroglyphics as it featured Greek letters which were used to decipher the unused Egyptian language. It was actually found by accident when French soldiers were digging foundations for an extension to the fort at Rosetta. It had been used as a building stone for a very old wall.[12] Luckily some of the academics were residing at Rosetta and recognised the significance of the stone. Following the French being kicked out of Egypt in 1801 by the British, any antiquities not already sent to France were forfeited under the terms if the Treaty of Alexandria.[13] It was eventually sent back to England and arrived at Portsmouth in 1802. This started a race between the English physicist, Thomas Young, and the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, to decode the ancient mystery of hieroglyphics. The Frenchman won, much to the dismay of Young, who was in the audience at the lecture where the findings were unveiled.

Napoléon Bonaparte (‘Buonaparté leaving Egypt’) by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
hand-coloured etching, published 8 March 1800, NPG D12727, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The military aspect of the expedition was a failure because the soldiers sent were going into unmarked territory and weren’t prepared for the hot climate of Egypt. Sadly, an estimated 10,000-15,000 died of disease or heat exhaustion.[14] For this reason Napoleon abandoned his men and sailed back to France, preparing for the coup that would see him become First Consul. There was also strong opposition from the Egyptians, who saw the expedition as the first time since the Crusades that the West unwantedly intruded in the Arab world.[15] Whilst of course this is true as the invasion and expedition sought to ‘acquire’ the people and intellectual property of Egypt, it did start the study and appreciation of the history and culture that formed Ancient Egypt.[16] After seeing the Tutankhamun exhibition in London as a birthday present for my mum last November, I must admit I have a newfound appreciation for all the treasures of Ancient Egypt. The amount of gold and wonderful craftsmanship in the objects was truly outstanding. When the French saw such things, it would have been the first time anyone in the West would have known about them, so I can only begin to imagine just what they felt when they first saw such things.

[1] Coulston Gillespie, C., ‘Scientific Aspects of the French Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133.4 (1989), p. 447; Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, in Jeffreys D. (ed), Views of Ancient Egypt Since Napoleon Bonaparte: Imperialism, Colonialism and Modern Appropriations (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 1.

[2] P. Hicks cited in Soussi, A., ‘Napoleon by the Nile: How the French Emperor’s Egypt Invasion Set the Tone for Western Incursions’, The National, 30 Aug 2019,

[3] Coulston Gillespie, C., ‘Scientific Aspects of the French Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133.4 (1989), p. 447

[4] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt (London: Vintage Books, 2008), p. 191.

[5] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 191.

[6] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 191.

[7] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 196.

[8] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 196.

[9] Lynda Hall Library, Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition in Egypt,

[10] Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, p. 2.

[11] Lynda Hall Library, Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition in Egypt,

[12] ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Rosetta Stone’, British Museum,

[13] ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Rosetta Stone’, British Museum,

[14] P. Hicks cited in Soussi, A., ‘Napoleon by the Nile: How the French Emperor’s Egypt Invasion Set the Tone for Western Incursions’

[15] Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, p. 2.

[16] Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, p. 2.

The Figure of National Glory: The Repatriation and Funeral of Napoleon

Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, he would remain in exile on the remote island of St Helena until his death in 1821. His death created discussion about what to do with the body. It was chosen that he would be buried in a low-key grave on the island, rather than sending the remains back to France to avoid further fuelling the rise in Napoleon nostalgia that had started to occur. This expressly went against Napoleon’s own wished to be returned back to France and other Frenchmen who had given their opinion along the same lines.

Nicolas-Eustache Maurin, The opening of Napoleon’s casket on St. Helena in October 1840

Whilst Napoleon’s a controversial figure in history, I have always been intrigued as a regular visitor to Paris, how monuments and cultural aspects related to him. Hazareesingh suggests that his symbolic significance for France, especially through commemorations and monuments is more important than his well-known controversy suggests.[1] Whilst looking back on my two visits to see his current tomb at Les Invalids, this thought is less abstract as I vividly remember the last time I went 2 years ago. Whilst paying for tickets and walking around the museum, which is the national army museum of France, I could tell that some of the staff were confused about why an English family would wish to see French army related things, most notably Napoleon’s tomb. As my dad has always had a military interest in history and I have written many essays on him, we wanted to go see it again as we hadn’t seen it since our first visit to the city in 2007.

Following the death of the great military figure, his end of life transformed him into a ‘tragic hero’ and pamphlets soon began to show themes of the glorification and nostalgia towards the Bonapartist era.[2] The Napoleon legend this created was originally started with Napoleon himself, who viewed himself as the political saviour who was forced to live on St Helena.[3] This idea gained much credit following the publishing of Emmanuel de Las Cases’ memoirs of Napoleon, which told the story of the first 18 months Napoleon lived on Helena and the humiliation this brought to a man who was “compellingly and often pathetically human”.[4] This opinion was bolstered by veterans returning from the Napoleonic Wars, who struggled to adjust to civilian life, adopted a nostalgic view on their past lives, quickly featuring in literature.[5]

Emile J. H. Vernet, Napoleon Leaving his Tomb (c. 1860)

It is in this context that Napoleon’s repatriation began to take flight. However, with a constitutional monarchy in place after the topple of the First Empire, it was only a small minority that wished for Napoleon to be returned to France. With a growing friendship with Britain, it was unlikely for the government to wish for a great spectacle involving returning the returns of Britain’s great prisoner. However, in 1840 with King Louis-Phillipe’s decision to allow the repatriation of Napoleon’s remains came as he could no longer ignore the increasing demand and popularity of thought on the Bonapartist era.

In doing so, the idea of repatriation transitioned from an individual and minority prerogative to one that had state indorsement.[6] Even the officialness of this scheme posed problems of exactly how to create Napoleon’s image of an inclusive figure. It was problematic as to how to show him in a way which wouldn’t encourage an anti-monarchist fever. With these problems taken into consideration, his posthumous legacy and memory became one of social mobility, “adventure, daring and action”, things that epitomised ideals set up during the Revolution and that continued under the newer constitutional monarchy.[7]

The funeral procession that flowed through Paris was massive spectacle, acceptable for a man who was to be represented as a French collective figure. It has been described as something that “belonged more to the poetic realm of legend”.[8] Really the funeral, despite being done with great flamboyance which Napoleon could have only dreamed of, was really done for undercurrent political reasons. The decision for his final resting place at Les Invalids was done so that he could rest in a politically neutral space and as it was the home of Napoleonic veterans, it appeased those who originally wished for a nostalgic repatriation.[9] This act showed Napoleon as something above politics and reflected the nineteenth century idea subtle that national unity was vital to carrying on the Revolution’s aims, again indicating Napoleon was being used as a symbol of this on both sides of the political spectrum.[10]

Jacques Guiaud, Napoleon’s funeral carriage crossing the Place de la Concorde

The repatriation of the remains wasn’t the end. There was still a tomb and the alterations to the church at Les Invalids to complete. These took much longer than anticipated following the end of the constitutional monarch and the accession of Napoleon III and his choice to create the Second Empire. Due to this political upheaval, it was actually during Napoleon III’s reign was this finally finished. It became a priority as Napoleon III, nephew to his namesake, legitimised his rule as the heir to Bonapartism and guardian of the Napoleonic tradition.[11] The main way this as done was by commemorating the First Empire through culture, especially the Arc de Triumphe, the finishing of the Napoleon’s final resting place and making his birthday a national holiday.[12]


Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalids (author’s own photograph)

Whatever your personal thoughts on Napoleon, the events that surrounded his repatriation were a major international effort in a time when repatriation wasn’t a common thing. It has since been a vital moment in defining French national identity. Napoleon was used to reinforce ideas of French national identity relating to militarism at a time when it is believed to be in crisis. He is a symbol of French national prestige which as Nicholson suggests, is an emotive response to “military capacity” and “magnificent cultural achievements”.[13] Napoleon as a nation builder aimed to establish a French identity that would create unity within France, whilst using it to create difference from other countries.[14] This identity was important in an era built upon war and to make the citizen soldier feel loyalty to France in a way where it would be worth the courage and self-sacrifice.[15] As a symbol of the ‘official’ memory of France and “of the nation’s past grandeur” he could be seen as an “inspiration to both the right and the left”.[16]

[1] Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France: the Making of a Liberal Legend’, MLN, 120.4 (2005), pp. 748-749.

[2] Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France’, pp. 756-757.

[3] McLynn, F., Napoleon: a Biography (London: Pimlico, 1998), p. 664.

[4] Las Cases, Le Memorial de Sainte-Helene cited in Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France’, pp. 757-758.

[5] McMillan, J. F., Napoleon III (Harlow: Longman, 1991), p. 19; Tombs, R., France, 1814-1914 (Harlow: Longman, 1996), p. 39.

[6] Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France’, p. 763.

[7] Lyons. M., Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1994), pp. 299-300.

[8] Avener Ben-Amos, Funerals, Politics and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996 cited in Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France’, p. 763.

[9] J. Tulard, ‘Le Retour des Cendres’ in P. Nora (ed), Les Lieux de Memoire, Vol 2 (1986) cited in Lyons. M., Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution, p. 300.

[10] Tombs, R., France, 1814-1914, p. 302.

[11] Tombs, R., France, 1814-1914, p. 82; Price, R., The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 44.

[12] Tombs, R., France, 1814-1914, p. 40; McMillan, J. F., Napoleon III, p. 61.

[13] H. Nicholson, The Meaning of Prestige (1937) cited in Wood, S., ‘Nations, National Identity and Prestige’, p. 101.

[14] Tombs, R., France, 1814-1914, p. 83.

[15] Baycroft, T., Inventing the Nation: France, pp. 111 and 121.

[16] McLynn, F., Napoleon: a Biography, p. 667; Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France’, p. 762.

Reincarnation of Napoleon

In the summer, I presented a paper during my time as an MA Public History and Heritage student at the University of Derby that discussed the cultural legacy of Napoleon. This paper discussed how Napoleon has been used as a symbol to reinforce an official type French national identity at a time when multiculturalism is thought to be eroding it.

Whilst it is certainly true that rumours of Napoleon not dying on St Helena were rife (despite this being true) had created a sort of cult around Napoleon. This was largely due to the failing economy France faced after his defeat and imprisonment. Still, this meant an increase in nostalgia towards the Napoleonic era. This nostalgia has always had periods of increase and decrease over the last 200 years. This type of nostalgia helped to contribute to France’s national pride being based on the belief that glory can be found in both military and cultural achievements.[1]

What is most intriguing is his resurrection within contemporary French society. The identity based on France’s glory in military and cultural achievements has felt to be under threat in the modern age due to multiculturalism. Since Nicolas Sarkozy’s creation of the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Mutually-Supportive Development in 2007, it has created debate about what French identity means to a multi-racial society. This debate culminated in an online survey taken in 2010. What this survey found was that participants suggested that Napoleon, alongside other military figures such as Charles de Gaulle and Joan of Arc, were some of the “most pivotal aspects of their identity”.[2] This has led to a form of resurrection for Napoleon and his political regime.

E. J. H. Vernet, Napoleon Emerging from His Tomb (1860), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

The ‘official memory’ or accepted memory of France has been linked to defence against invasion or oppression.[3] Napoleon helped to create this type of ‘official nationalism’ by mixing military and political legitimacy to his rule, for he recognised that after the French Revolution, he would need the people’s will if he was to survive in both these areas.[4] In successive regimes, Napoleon’s rule was seen with nostalgia and that he was seen as a unifying symbol that represented glory for the French nation.[5] Napoleon is being used in contemporary France as a symbol of the old glory that France once knew and which is seen as being at threat due to multiculturalism. Fears have arisen that this multicultural and at times multireligious society is seen to be a threat to France’s age-old adage of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.[6] This type of French unity has been based on connection with high culture and military heroism being sources of pride, which Napoleon established, and was exaggerated by his political successors.[7] However, there has been fears that migrants have not been connecting to this ‘official’ form of French identity. In this case, Napoleon, and other French military figures, are again being used to fight multiculturalism by trying to reinforce ideas of what the French nation and French national consciousness means.[8]

Even President Macron is trying to emulate the most well-known Frenchman. In his first year as president, Macron has continued Napoleon’s themes of security and sovereignty. Whilst these themes are in a different context to the one’s Napoleon would have understood, there are still similarities. In Macron’s speech on the Europeon Migrant Crisis in September 2017, themes such as “controlling our borders” and “preserving our values” were some of the main points.[9] These themes can all be linked to the defence and cultural superiority that Napoleon promoted.

If that was too subtle a link to make, then the two following images show just how much Macron is emulating his presidency on Napoleon. The first is David’s portrait of Napoleon in his study from 1812. This portrait is symbolic of Napoleon’s desire to create a legacy for himself that was based on self-promotion through ideas of civic duty and being the right choice to uphold the public’s interest.[10] Very similar in style and symbolism is Macron’s official presidency portrait, which suggests that Macron, just as Napoleon two centuries before, was the best person to lead France into the future by subtly using similar imagery to show a form of state power.[11]

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812 (oil on canvas)
L. David, ‘The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries’ (1812), National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA / Bridgeman Images

Elysée Palace, Macron’s Official Portrait (2017)

Napoleon has been used by contemporary French society and the current French president to reinforce ideas of recreating the “reputation, status, respect, pride, honour and esteem” of France both in the past and present. As Nicholson suggests, Napoleon is used as an emotive response to ideas of France being linked to “military capacity” and “magnificent cultural achievements”, which has become an increasing priority at a time when it’s believed to be in crisis due to immigration.[12]

[1] Tombs, R., France, 1814-1914 (Harlow: Longman, 1996), p. 313; H. Nicholson, The Meaning of Prestige (1937) cited in Wood, S., ‘Nations, National Identity and Prestige’, National Identities, 16.2 (2014), p. 101.

[2] P. Marchand and P. Ratinaud, Being French Today: the Words of the Debate on National Identity Survey (2010) cited in Caron, J., ‘Understanding and Interpreting France’s National Identity: The Meanings of Being French’, National Identities, 15.3 (2013), p.  226.

[3] Caron, J., ‘Understanding and Interpreting France’s National Identity’, p. 226.

[4] Hazareesingh, S., ‘Napoleonic Memory in Nineteenth-Century France: the Making of a Liberal Legend’, MLN, 120.4 (2005), p. 23.

[5] McLynn, F., Napoleon: a Biography (London: Pimlico, 1998), pp. 667-688.

[6] P. Marchand and P. Ratinaud, Being French Today: the Words of the Debate on National Identity Survey (2010) cited in Caron, J., ‘Understanding and Interpreting France’s National Identity’, p. 230.

[7] Baycroft, T., Inventing the Nation: France (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), p. 121.

[8] Nora, P., ‘The Era of Commemoration’, in Nora, P., Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, Vol 3, translated by A. Goldhammer, ed. By L. D. Kritzman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 633.

[9] Macron, E., ‘French President Emmanuel Macron on the European Migration Crisis and the Future of the European Union’, Population and Development Review, 43.4 (2017), p. 760.

[10] Lyons. M., Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1994), p. 189.

[11] Green, C., ‘Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Macron: The Choreography of Portraits’, JSTOR Daily, October 13th 2017

[12] H. Nicholson, The Meaning of Prestige (1937) cited in Wood, S., ‘Nations, National Identity and Prestige’, p. 101.