On the 2nd December 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. His coronation was attended by Pope Pius VII, but significantly he did not place the crown on the new Emperor’s head.

Napoleon had risen to prominence during the French Revolution, during which he led a number of successful campaigns in the Revolutionary Wars. He returned to France in 1799, where the coup of 18 Brumaire resulted in him becoming First Consul. Having secured the Senate’s agreement that he could rule by decree, Napoleon then began extending his political control.

In January 1804 the secret police exposed a plot supported by the previous Bourbon royal family to assassinate Napoleon. He used this as an excuse to reinstate hereditary leadership under his own family, as a way to avoid a return of the Bourbons. This was supported by a constitutional referendum in November that year, in which over 99% of voters cast their ballots in favour. Notably 52% of the eligible population abstained.

The Coronation itself was a lavish affair that referenced various elements of Carolingian tradition, the ancien regime, and the French Revolution. Although Napoleon crowning himself is sometimes presented as an unplanned move by the new Emperor, there is evidence that it was agreed in advance. However, this still didn’t please everyone. The composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who had originally dedicated his 3rd Symphony to Napoleon, reportedly exclaimed, ” Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”

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© Scott Allsop