The more I read about the household of Napoleon, it seems to me more like the cast of a “Carry On” film rather than the inner circle of one of the most important figures in history. Drunken coachman, melancholic tailor, antagonistic chef, exotic bodyguard, gossiping valet. I can’t help but think of their parts being played by Messrs. James, Connor, Williams, Bresslaw and Hawtrey.
But they say fact is often stranger than fiction and the retinue of Napoleon seems to bear this out.
Let’s start with Cesar, the coachman. He was a notorious drunk and it is something of a mystery why Napoleon put up with him. Perhaps because the great man always seemed to be in such a hurry Cesar’s manic driving somehow fitted the bill.
Yet it was just such driving, Cesar’s recklessness, that saved the life of Napoleon on Christmas Eve 1800. Josephine had persuaded him to attend a concert that evening and he set off in his carriage, driven as usual by Cesar, who was most decidedly full of the Christmas spirit. Josephine, her two daughters Caroline and Hortense, with Napoleon’s ADC Jean Rapp, followed in a second carriage a couple of minutes behind.
On the Rue St. Nicaise, plotters had set a bomb in a cart by the side of the road, held there at their behest by an unwitting girl. As the Consul’s escort trotted past the bomb’s fuse was ignited. Any other coachman, seeing the road partially blocked by the cart would have slowed to edge past the obstacle but not Cesar. Without a care in the world he raced the carriage past the cart that held the bomb. When it detonated Napoleon was safely round the corner in the Rue de la Loi. The bomb took out most of the block, bringing down the frontages of buildings on both sides of the street and killing nine innocent civilians. Nearly thirty more were injured. In the second carriage Hortense received a gash to her arm from flying glass and Caroline, who was eight months pregnant was badly shocked. It was the closest any assassination attempt came to succeeding.
Moving on, I would guess that Napoleon, for his evening at the concert, would not have dressed up. His simple taste in clothes was the bane of his tailor’s life. Bastide, the tailor, was the make-do-and-mend flunky. Napoleon was frugal and spent as little as possible on his wardrobe, preferring simple uniforms and clothes that were comfortable and practical… and would last for an eternity. It was Bastide’s job to keep them serviceable. Even when Napoleon did splash out on something elaborate, such as his coronation robes, poor Bastide never got a look in. Those jobs were always farmed out to someone famous. So the lot of the great man’s tailor was not a happy one.
Also often unhappy, but more prepared to make a fight of it, was Napoleon’s chef, Dinan. Formerly the chef of the one of the Bourbon dukes, he considered his culinary inventions to be works of art. But Napoleon’s view of food was purely functional. He considered food as fuel and little more. His tastes were simple and he wolfed down his food. Meals were sprints, over and done with in twenty minutes. But Dinan was stubborn too and persisted in producing his multiple courses, rich sauces and lavish desserts. He also took it upon himself to make executive decisions about the Emperor’s menu… big mistake. When he substituted a strong garlic sausage that was a particular favourite of Napoleon’s because he thought it was too vulgar that was a decision too far and Napoleon let rip at his chef. In the ensuing argument Dinan threatened to resign but compromise was finally reached. The maestro agreed to give the Emperor more of the food he preferred while Napoleon agreed to the multiple courses though he tended to leave more than he ate.
Witness and chronicler of all of his was Constant, Napoleon’s valet. His memoirs read like a gossip’s charter but he was faithful to Napoleon for many years. Though I can’t help but think he must have been the sort who imagined their own status was somehow a reflection of their master’s import.
And finally their was Roustam Raza, the massive bodyguard. Armenian by birth, he was a slave in the service of the Sheik of Cairo when he was presented to Napoleon as a gift. From that time the giant bodyguard was never more than a few feet from his master. Always attired in traditional Mamluk dress – plumed turban, baggy trousers, embroidered jacket and massive curved scimitar. When they travelled by coach Roustam sat beside Cesar driving the carriage (worse luck for him). At night he slept outside Napoleon’s bedroom, lying across the door like some devoted guard dog.
He accompanied his master on all his great campaigns, including Russia where he found the cold intolerable. In the final months of the empire with Napoleon falling back on Paris he fought bravely in numerous engagements.
Although he finally broke with Napoleon when the Emperor was exiled to Elba, a decision which Napoleon found more hurtful than many of the betrayals he experienced at that time, he was on hand when in 1840 his old master’s body was returned from St. Helena for re-interment in Paris.