My first visit to Napoléon’s tomb was in the 1960s. It was a memorable visit because of the elderly gentleman who told us in great detail about the glorious life and victories of “l’Emperrrreurrrrr”. For over fifty years now I have been trying (occasionally) to say it that way, but it doesn’t work because my French pronunciation isn’t good enough and especially because I can’t work up anything approaching our guide’s impassioned imperial fervor.
Actually I don’t know if he was really a guide or just a guard or maybe one of the disabled veterans of the French army who lived and in fact still live in one wing of the Invalides. In any case, he was a true believer in the greatness of Napoléon I and seemed determined to wretch us degenerate modern visitors out of our lethargy and transport us back to those golden years in the early nineteenth century when Napoléon I was the Emperor of the French and the ruler of much of Europe.
Originally Napoléon was buried on the island of Sainte-Hélène, where he lived in exile for the last six years of his life. Nineteen years later his casket was dug up and transported to Paris, where it was interred with great pomp, first in St. Jerome’s chapel and later here in the Dôme des Invalides.
His original burial site on Sainte-Hélène still exists and is still maintained by the French government, though it is now of course empty. You can see it and read about it in this blog entry by The Rambling Wombat, who used to go by the name of Wabat on VirtualTourist.
On one of the side walls of the circle surrounding his tomb in Paris you can find this quotation from Napoléon, meaning roughly: “In all the places where my reign has passed through, it has left durable traces of its benefit.” (Which is not entirely false, despite all the suffering his wars caused. In Frankfurt am Main, for instance, he ordered that old city walls be torn down and replaced by a ring of parks, most of which still exist today. And his legal code was certainly an improvement over the feudal laws that were still in force in many parts of Europe until Napoléon came through.)
Near Napoléon’s tomb, in one of the side niches, is a monument to another remarkable man, Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), a French military engineer and adviser to King Louis XIV.
Unlike most military officers in the seventeenth century, Vauban did not belong to any sort of illustrious aristocratic family. He joined the army when he was seventeen (first a rebel army, but he soon switched over to the king’s side) and swiftly rose through the ranks entirely on merit, which in those days was nearly unheard of.
While he was still in his twenties, Vauban quickly impressed Louis XIV (who was five years younger) by his talent for designing and building fortifications and for conducting and repelling sieges. At age 22 Vauban was named an “engineer of the king” and spent several years strengthening the fortifications on the northern border of France.
When the next war began in 1667, Vauban was 34. Under the appreciative eye of the king, he successfully conducted the sieges of Turnai, Douai, Lille and Dôle, then returned to Lille and turned the Citadel into a formidable fortress.
In the next war, against Holland, Vauban successfully besieged the fortified city of Maastricht, using tactics of his own invention that revolutionized siege warfare. In the following years, he just as successfully besieged the fortified cities of Luxembourg, Mons, Namur and Charleroi.
When he was 45, Vauban was named Commissioner General of Fortifications. In this capacity, he traveled constantly all around the borders of France, inspecting the fortifications and designing improvements. In Toulon he fortified the harbor, built city walls and designed a new arsenal. In Marseille he inspected the island of If (the prison of the fictional Count of Montecristo) and wrote a scathing report about the inadequacy of that island’s fortifications.
Altogether, in his long career, Vauban repaired and strengthened the existing fortifications in three hundred places, conducted fifty-three sieges and built thirty-three completely new fortresses. Many of these fortresses still exist today, and in 2008 twelve of them were designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
Since Vauban was constantly on the road for over forty years, travelling through and around France, he got to know the country very well — certainly much better than Louis XIV, who as he grew older became increasingly immobile in his palace in Versailles, surrounded by courtiers who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know.
In the last two decades of his life, Vauban tried unsuccessfully to convince the king of two things, first that he should restore freedom of religion and allow the exiled Huguenots (Protestants) to return to France, and second that to prevent the French people from starving he should institute a sweeping reform of the tax system, to make aristocrats and rich landowners pay their fair share. Vauban wrote entire books on these topics, and these are the books that he is leaning his elbow on in the sculpture in his monument in the Dôme des Invalides.
Louis XIV listened politely to these suggestions but never acted on them. Later generations found them more convincing, so Vauban’s posthumous reputation continued to rise.
A century after Vauban’s death (101 years after, to be exact), Napoléon ordered that Vauban’s heart should be taken from his grave, in his home town of Bazoches, and interred in the Invalides in Paris. (Of course after 101 years there wouldn’t have been much left of his heart, but it was the symbolic gesture that mattered.)
Location and photo of Dôme des Invalides on monumentum.fr
My photos in this post are from 2012, 2013 and 2014. The text was last revised in 2017.
For more on Vauban, see The Aqueduct of Maintenon