The First Empire

Three imperial court visits recall the lavish trips of the Ancien Régime. However, if we are to retain just one image of Napoleon I’s rule, it could only be that of his Farewell ceremony to his troops, at the foot of the famous Escalier du Fer-à-Cheval (horseshoe staircase).

Throne Room - © FMR / Château de Fontainebleau
The Emperor’s Chamber - © Sophie Lloyd
Detail from the Grille d’Honneur gate- © Sophie Lloyd
Pope Pius VII – © Sophie Lloyd
Napoleon’s Farewell to the Troops, in the Cheval Blanc courtyard © All Rights Reserved

A Palace on the Road to Italy

Life at the Château de Fontainebleau under the First Empire was closely linked to the rise and fall of the Imperial Eagle, who made his own mark on the “True home of Kings”. Napoleon did more than anyone to restore the Château de Fontainebleau, refurbishing it completely immediately after the Revolution, during which time the former royal residence had seen its collections broken up and sold off, as was the case for so many other Crown properties.

On 20 November 1803, Napoleon first came to the Château de Fontainebleau to inspect the military academy known as the École spéciale militaire, set up in June of that year. A second inspection was carried out here on 28 June 1804. On 29 June he visited the Château accompanied by architect Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, to whom he gave instructions to transform it into a second country residence, after that at Saint-Cloud, for the autumn months.

Fontainebleau was a stop-off point on the way to Paris for Pope Pius VII, who came to crown Napoleon Emperor of the French at Notre Dame Cathedral. Napoleon and Josephine came to receive him on 22 November, they left for Paris on the 28th, and the coronation took place on 2 December.

On route to Italy, Napoleon stopped off at Fontainebleau between 31 March and 2 April 1805, then again between 12 and 17 July on his return from his military campaign.

The Three Imperial Court Visits

Between 21 September and 16 November 1807, a thousand people were staying at the château, with four thousand in the town. During this first visit on 28 September, the Emperor signed an imperial decree setting up the Cour des Comptes (roughly equivalent to the UK’s National Audit Office). On 10 October a treaty was ratified setting the boundaries between Austria and Italy. On 15 October, a treaty between France and Denmark was signed. On 27 October a secret alliance was formed with Spain, with a view to breaking up Portugal. On 6 November, Count Tolstoy was received here as the new Russian Ambassador.

On 16 November the Emperor left again for Italy. On his return on 1 January 1808 he stopped off at Fontainebleau for just three-quarters of an hour. From 23 May through to the beginning of June 1808, King Charles IV of Spain and Queen Consort Maria Luisa came to stay at Fontainebleau, accompanied by the Prime Minister Godoy.

It was towards the end of the second court visit, between 26 October and 14 November 1808, that the impending divorce was announced to Josephine.

The third court visit took place between 25 September and 16 November 1810, during which time the new empress Marie-Louise, great-niece of Marie Antoinette came to the château. On November 4, Prince Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, son of King Louis and Queen Hortense (the future Napoleon III) was baptised in the Chapel of the Trinity.

The End of the Empire…

After Pope Pius VII was arrested and his lands seized, he was held captive from 19 June 1812 at Fontainebleau in the former Queen Mothers’ apartment (now known as the Papal Apartment), the very room which had been specially converted for use in the 1804 Coronation.

On 19 January 1813 the unexpected arrival of the Emperor and Empress on their way back from hunting at Grosbois brought matters to a head. On 25 January the Emperor secured a concordat from Pius VII, but on 24 March the Pope abrogated it. Bearing the brunt of Napoleon’s wrath, he was only released from the Château de Fontainebleau the following year on 23 January 1814.

On 24 January 1814 Napoleon bade farewell to Marie-Louise and the King of Rome for the last time : he was never to see them again. He embarked on the Campaign for France. Napoleon held out against the allies but was ultimately outnumbered and thus defeated. Paris was taken on 30 March. On 31 March, Napoleon fled to Fontainebleau.

…and the surrender of Fontainebleau

On 2 April 1814 the French Senate voted to depose Napoleon. He initially abdicated the throne on 5 April. On 6 April the Emperor abdicated for a second time and renounced the throne both for himself and his family. On the night of 12-13 April, he tried to poison himself. On 20 April, he made his famous farewell speech to the soldiers of the Old Guard.

Napoleon would return only once more to Fontainebleau, after his escape from Elba, during the Hundred Days : on 20 March 1815, he made a flying visit, from 10am to 2pm.

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