A rare letter written by Napoleon in English was auctioned off in an intense bidding war in Paris last Sunday, with Paris’ Museum of Letters and Manuscripts taking home the letter for €325,000 ($405,000). The selling price was five times what was estimated prior to the auction. It is one of only three (surviving) English-language letters written by Napoleon.
The letter was written in 1816, while Napoleon was being held captive by the British on the island Saint Helena following his defeat at Waterloo. It was a homework exercise the deposed emperor sent to his English teacher for correction, and was sealed with an imperial eagle wax stamp. Some may find it surprising that Napoleon was studying the language of his nemesis, England, a land he once dismissed as “a nation of shopkeepers”, but Jean Pierre-Osenat, head of the auction house that handled the sale, said that Napoleon “really had a great admiration for England, the rules and history.” Osenat went on to say that it’s a misconception that Napoleon hated the English; rather, that Napoleon was a staunch military man and the French interests differed from that of the English. Napoleon’s English lessons were not purely a tribute, however, ego was involved as well. ”Of course, he was always very worried about his image. He wanted to read what was said about him in the English press,” Osenat added.
The letter is revealing, and shows a different side of a historical figure who provokes strong associations. Napoleon was under constant watch on Saint Helena, and he became quite depressed and ill (he had stomach cancer). He was also an insomniac, and this letter was composed in the middle of the night. Napoleon’s diligence is impressive; it took him two hours to compose the thirteen line note. Alain Nicolas, an expert on 19th century manuscripts, explained that Napoleon “had a lot of moments to sit and reflect in Saint Helena. English was a way to fill his time. It was near the end of his life: he used it as a time to think about his life, his campaigns, regrets and remorse.” The letter is one of the Napoleon’s last English writings before his death in 1821 while he was still in exile.
Rare Napoleon Letter Exhibits English Skills [ABC News]