Gems of one type or another have been thought to possess a host of magical properties for many centuries across a number of different cultures. The magical property of each gem depended upon the type of stone and the culture in which it obtained. Despite the gradual diminution in superstitions through the course of the Age of Enlightenment during the eighteenth century, a few lingered into the nineteenth century. One of those lingering superstitions was the belief in the power of certain gemstones to provide some kind of special protection to the person who carried it.
During the Regency, these superstitions were not limited to the uneducated or those of the lower classes. There were even some among Continental royalty who held this opinion, including the Queen of Holland . . .
In 1802, Hortense de Beauharnais, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the French Empress Joséphine, was put under intense pressure to marry the younger brother of her step-father. Not only was young Hortense deeply in love with General Géraud Duroc, she heartily disliked Louis Bonaparte, who almost certainly suffered from mental illness which led to sporadic periods of erratic behavior. However, by that time, it was clear that Joséphine would not be able to give her second husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, the heir he needed to secure his new dynasty. Joséphine convinced her young daughter that General Duroc was only courting her to gain a closer relationship to Napoleon, not because he loved her. Joséphine was desperate, believing that Napoleon would accept the child of Hortense and his brother as his heir, thus securing Joséphine’s position as Empress despite her inability to bear a child herself. Napoleon was also pressuring his step-daughter to marry his younger brother. Hortense loved her mother deeply, so she did finally agree to marry a man she not only abhorred, but sometimes feared.
Though her marriage to Louis was not pleasant, Hortense was able to endure her married life because she continued to live in Paris. Therefore, she was able to maintain a close relationship with her beloved mother and enjoy Paris society. However, that all changed four years later when Napoleon appointed his brother, Louis, the King of Holland. Hortense intended to remain in Paris when her husband traveled to Holland, but her step-father ordered her to accompany Louis to his new kingdom. She and her husband arrived in Holland on Wednesday, 18 June 1806. Queen Hortense selected apartments in the palace as far from those of her husband as possible and did her best to avoid him. She wrote to a friend that she often felt like a prisoner there. However, she came to like the Dutch people, which went some way to make her enforced exile more bearable.
Sadly, Hortense’s eldest surviving son died in May of 1807, before he had reached his fifth birthday. (Her first son had been still born.) In consideration of the health of her younger son, Hortense was allowed to return to Paris a few months later. Despite her husband’s demands that she return to Holland, she remained in Paris until 1810. That year, Napoleon had divorced her mother and was about to marry an Austrian arch-duchess who he believed would give him the heir he wanted. Therefore, the Emperor did not want Joséphine’s daughter and his erstwhile heir around at the start of his second marriage. He sent Hortense and her son back to Holland. Fortunately for Queen Hortense, later that year, Napoleon deposed his brother, Louis, when he annexed Holland as part of France. Though he was no longer king, Louis remained in Holland for three more years, but Hortense returned to Paris with her children as soon as arrangements could be made.
Despite her own unhappiness, or perhaps because of it, Queen Hortense devoted herself to helping others. In addition to providing for the poor and other more general good deeds, she believed she had found a way to protect a number of the men who served in her step-father’s army. As a young girl, Hortense had begun collecting gemstones which were engraved with Islamic inscriptions. The majority of these stones were carnelians, a semi-precious gemstone which could range in color from a deep red to a rich gold. Such stones had been polished and engraved for centuries all around the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, for use as seals or other ornaments. Over the years, large numbers of them had made their way to Europe as curiosities.
In turn-of-the-century France, these engraved gemstones were usually referred to as "Turkish engraved stones," regardless of their real country of origin. They had become quite fashionable and many people wanted to own one of these attractive engraved semi-precious gems. It is known that Napoleon picked up one of these engraved carnelians while he was on his Egyptian campaign in 1799, and that he always carried it with him, believing it was a protective talisman. It may be from her step-father that Hortense got the idea that her Turkish engraved stones might have protective properties. Sometime after she returned to Paris in 1807, she began to present engraved carnelians from her collection to some of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, and other members of the army. She advised each recipient to keep the inscribed stone with them at all times in order to protect themselves from danger.
Initially, most of those to whom Hortense offered a Turkish amulet accepted it because they did not want to offend her, not because they believed the stones had any protective power. They were aware she was grieving the death of her young son, and most would have done anything which might ease her grief, for she was much loved among those in the society which surrounded Bonaparte’s court. And their willingness to accept her small gifts of protection did help Hortense deal with her grief and the cold emptiness of her marriage. In a memoir, she wrote, "I thought that a seal given by me might serve as a talisman, or I liked to think so, . . . for as I liked to tell myself, surely I deserved some consolation. My life may be sad, but if I bring good luck to others then I will stop complaining about my own fate."
Over time, nearly all of those who had accepted an amulet stone from Queen Hortense had reason to be grateful. They fought in numerous battles without any serious injury, others survived terrible accidents virtually unscathed. Monsieur de Bougars, one of Napoleon’s officers, was given up for dead after a fierce battle, only to be found a few days later, recovering from a minor wound in a convent near the battlefield. When General Colbert lost his amulet stone in battle, he wrote to Hortense entreating her to send him another, for he was certain it had saved his life on several occasions. General du Rosnel also wrote to Hortense, declaring that her talisman, which he wore on his watch chain, was responsible for sparing his life during numerous battles. The General was so certain of the stone’s protective properties that he had many impressions made of it, giving one to each of his friends. Gradually, word spread of the great power of the amulet stones given by Queen Hortense. Prior to the beginning of any new military campaign, young women regularly approached Hortense, begging for an amulet stone which they might send to their brothers, husbands, or lovers, who were serving in the army. Hortense, always soft-hearted, managed to fill every request.
The engraved carnelian stone which Napoleon Bonaparte had acquired during his Egyptian campaign in 1799, was bequeathed to Hortense’s son, Louis-Napoléon. So, as Joséphine had hoped, a son of Hortense did eventually succeed his uncle Napoleon as Napoleon III, and ruled France during the Second Empire. Napoleon III always wore his uncle’s amulet stone on his watch chain, and he survived a number of attempts on his life during his reign, though it did not protect him against the eventual loss of his throne. Upon his death, the carnelian talisman was given to his son, Napoléon, Prince Imperial. Though the young man was know to carry the amulet stone, it was not found on his person when he was killed in battle during the Zulu wars in June of 1879. Nor was the talisman found among his personal effects. Its whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
There is no way to know how many engraved amulet stones Hortense gave away between 1807 and 1815, but it is believed there were a great many of them. And everyone known to have received one was convinced that having it in his possession protected him from harm and/or saved his life, often more than once. After Waterloo, many who owned one of these talismans may have continued to wear it, out of habit. Or, they might have put it away, assuming it was no longer needed, since the Napoleonic Wars were well and truly over. Gradually, over time, the story of their protective power became disassociated from them and they settled back into being an attractive, if ancient, curiosity. Today, the only evidence of these amulet stones are a few lines in a memoir written by Hortense and a handful of letters sent to her by grateful recipients of these special stones. The "Turkish engraved stones" themselves are now lost to history. But for a time, belief in the power of her special stones gave Hortense some consolation that she was doing some good in the world. That same belief enabled a number of soldiers to face each battle in which they fought with more courage and resolve, since they believed they carried special protection with them, the gift of a queen.
Though Queen Hortense only gave her amulet stones to men in her step-father’s army, that does not mean that such superstitions were restricted to France or the members of the French army at this time. In Britain, particularly in remote rural areas, the deep-rooted belief in the protective powers of certain gemstones and other objects still held sway, well into the nineteenth century. Both bloodstone and toadstone were believed to offer powerful protection to the person who carried them, as was rock crystal and, in Ireland and Scotland, even some specially painted pebbles. There were some who also ascribed this power to the hoof of an ass or the tooth of a horse, provided the horse was Irish.
Dear Regency Authors, superstition was still a powerful force in the early nineteenth century. How might you use that power in an upcoming novel of the era? Perhaps the hero is a spy for the Crown and has caught a French soldier from whom he is trying to gain information. The Englishman has heard the tales of the talisman stones dispensed by Queen Hortense and finds one among the effects of the man he has captured. Will the threat of its confiscation force the man to reveal crucial information needed by the British? Mayhap the hero has a Scottish sweetheart, who has given him a painted stone to keep him safe. He does not put much stock in the superstition, but carries it to please his love. Will that stone be in the right place to stop a bullet or a bit of shrapnel on the battlefield one day? In what other ways might an amulet stone given by Queen Hortense, or some other talisman, figure in a Regency romance?
Fascinating! I knew nothing of this superstition. Did you come across any information on the Islamic inscriptions with which these stones were engraved, and why it was done?
I first ran across this information when I was doing research into the history of signet rings. Most of these stones were probably originally carved for use as seals to mark correspondence and/or property. The majority of the inscriptions would have been names and/or titles. Many of the engraved stones which Hortense owned were probably hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
I echo the request of helanajust…
fascinating indeed, and not something I had ever heard of, I so respect your ability to ferret out obscure but marvellous bits of knowledge! No plot bunnies here yet [I hear you gasp in horror] but then I have often re-read your excellent posts to check up on something I half recalled to help start an incipient plot bunny! and I DO want to write a spy-based regency set partly in France at some point…
I was quite surprised when I came across this information, since I was also unaware of Hortense’s practice of giving away amulet stones, and the high percentage of those who do seem to have been protected by them. I was very touched by how important it was to Hortense to know she was providing good luck to others, though she felt she had none herself.
Truth is often stranger than fiction and this was such a fascinating story that I knew I had to share it. Since it continued into the Regency, there seem to be a number of options for authors to work this historical tidbit into a story set during that time. Perhaps you will find an use for this one in an upcoming story.