When the Lilies Were Cut Off the Bees

In 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte was plotting to promote himself from First Consul of the French to Emperor of France and all its conquered territories, he created a "Council Commission" which would have the responsibility of planning all of the events related to his grand coronation ceremony. A large part of that responsibility was to select the unique emblems and other ornamentation which would visually reinforce Bonaparte’s right to kingship. To the upstart Corsican, the trappings of royalty were nearly as important to him as the real power he had gathered to himself, for they were the illusion which he needed to maintain his position, not only with the French people, but with the crowned heads of Europe. And so the cycle began. Napoleon supplanted the royal emblems of the Bourbon kings with his own, only to have his emblems supplanted when the Bourbon king was restored to the French throne a decade later.

Then, Napoleon surprised nearly everyone and returned to Paris from Elba . . .

Bonaparte approved his Council Commission’s choice of the eagle as the imperial symbol of France. But he also needed a personal symbol to supplant the fleur-de-lys, which had been the personal emblem of the Bourbon kings for several centuries. The fleur-de-lys had been proscribed during the Revolution by the National Convention and though Napoleon felt no loyalty to that body, he did realize that he could not use the very symbol of the family he intended to supercede on the throne of France. An alternative to the fleur-de-lys would have to be found.

Fortunately, the members of Bonaparte’s commission were very diligent in their research and looked back into the early history of France, specifically to the dynasty of the Merovingian kings. In the tomb of Childeric I, one of the early Merovingian kings, had been found a set of small gold insects, set with garnets, which looked very much like bees. The National Convention had also refused to allow the use of bees as a national image of their new republic, because bees had a queen. Again, Napoleon felt no qualms whatsoever about any comparison with his new empire and the structure of bee society. Bonaparte chose to adopt the bee as his personal emblem. Nor did he mind very much that the image of the bee looked enough like that of the fleur-de-lys that it might be mistaken for that royal emblem.

However, Napoleon took the importance of this new emblem very seriously and allowed its use only by members of his immediate "royal" family and a few of his highest ranking officials. By the time Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in December of 1804, the Napoleonic bee had been woven, embroidered or printed everywhere. It not only covered both his and Josephine’s royal robes and other garments, it had also been incorporated into many of the furnishings of his imperial residences. Napoleonic bees were to be found in carpets, draperies, upholstery fabrics and paper-hangings in all of the important rooms of the palaces and other residences which Bonaparte and his family controlled.

The bees of Napoleon remained a symbol of imperial power until April of 1814, when the Allies pushed the French army deeper and deeper into France, finally invading Paris itself. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the tiny island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea. Within a few weeks, Louis XVIII had returned from exile in England and was restored as the rightful King of France. King Louis had become grossly obese during his exile and was only able to walk a short distance. He was typically pushed around in a great Bath chair. As his attendants wheeled him through the great rooms of the Tuileries Palace and his family’s other residences, he was horrified at the sight of the Napoleonic bees, which were everywhere. Something had to be done.

Though the furnishings which sported the detestable Napoleonic bees had been in place for more than ten years, Bonaparte had employed only the best designers and craftsmen, who had used the finest materials. All of these furnishings were still in very good condition, and, since Bonaparte had very deliberately intended to mirror the lavish style of his predecessors, they were all in the traditional colors of the French royal house. When Louis XVIII returned to France, there was very little money left in the French treasury. So little that even the spoiled and selfish King Louis could not justify the replacement of all of these imperial furnishings. Someone hit upon an economical solution which would please the king. The Bourbon fleur-de-lys was woven, embroidered and painted in large quantities, in the appropriate sizes. Then, each Napoleonic bee had a golden Bourbon fleur-de-lys appliqued or pasted over it. Thus, the grand furnishings of Bonaparte’s imperial palaces were rendered acceptable to the restored royal house of Bourbon at a fairly reasonable price.

However, late in February of 1815, the unexpected happened. Napoleon Bonaparte slipped his leash and escaped from Elba. He landed his diminutive navy on the southern coast of France and marched inexorably northward, gathering troops to him as he came. Partly due to the hatred of the French for their arrogant and lazy king and partly due to his own personal charisma, no real barrier was placed in his way, and within the month, Bonaparte was once again on the outskirts of Paris, without firing a single shot. Concerned that there might be attempts to assassinate him, he paused for a few days at the Palace of Fontainebleau, until his operatives could ensure his safe entry into the capital.

It was only when the great throne room in the Tuileries Palace was being made ready for the Emperor’s return that someone noticed there was not a bee in sight, since each had been covered with a golden Bourbon fleur-de-lys. By then, Napoleon was already on his way from Fontainbleau and something must be done. Quickly, the ladies of the Bonapartist court snatched up their embroidery scissors. Some sank to their knees on the floor, where they carefully cut away each appliqued fleur-de-lys, while others performed the same service with the draperies and the furniture, including the great throne itself. By the time Napoleon arrived at the palace and entered the throne room, there was not a Bourbon fleur-de-lys in sight.

Over the course of the next few weeks, workers in each imperial palace and residence gradually removed every Bourbon fleur-de-lys from the furnishings to once again reveal the Napoleonic bee. The only residence where this effort was not necessary was at the home of the late Empress Joséphine, the Château de Malmaison. Since Joséphine died there not long after the Bourbons were restored, and it was considered a private residence which now belonged to her children, the furnishings there were not defaced with the fleur-de-lys.

Despite all the effort made to free the Napoleonic bee from the Bourbon fleur-de-lys, Bonaparte had little time to enjoy his restored palaces. On the evening of 12 June 1815, he departed Paris, making for Belgium. In less than a week, he would pit his army against that of the combined Allied forces outside a small village called Waterloo. After his defeat, he fled back to Paris, where he remained only briefly before seeking refuge at Joséphine’s old country home at Malmaison. Perhaps he enjoyed the sight of the Napoleonic bee scattered over the furnishings there before he traveled north where he would ultimately surrender to the British.

When Louis XVIII was once again restored to the throne of France, the French treasury was in no better state than it had been the year before. He would once again order that vast numbers of the golden Bourbon fleur-de-lys be made to cover the hated Napoleonic bee. This second time, the bees would remain out of sight until the furnishings of each palace could gradually be replaced. Most of them survived with their hidden bees long after the death of Napoleon Bonaparte on the remote island of St. Helena. Very few people living in this century fully grasp how important these symbols were to the rulers of that time, so this hiding and revealing of emblems of power and kingship may seem rather silly today. But those symbols were of great importance in France, even throughout Europe at this time.

Dear Regency Authors, might the switch from the Napoleonic bee to the Bourbon fleur-de-lys, or back again, be made to serve the plot of a Regency novel? Perhaps a Bonaparte loyalist is able to get a position covering Napoleonic bees at one of the Bourbon palaces in order to gather information to be sent to the exiled Napoleon? Or, might a British spy, perhaps a young lady, get a position at one of Bonaparte’s palaces, clipping away the Bourbon fleur-de-lys which obscured the Napoleonic bee? Are there other ways in which this curious activity might be woven into a Regency tale?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to When the Lilies Were Cut Off the Bees

  1. The politics of symbols is alive and well. The swastika, a sun symbol of life spontaneously used in cultures as disparate as the Keltoi and Japan has only one meaning across the western world, and it symbolises Nazi oppression, even if used the other way round. It matters in parts of America whether you display the flag of the Confederacy or Union.
    The plot bunny that occurred to me was if, whilst Napoleon was on Elba, the heroine is wearing a piece of jewellery in the shape of a bee, unaware what it stood for [perhaps a signet ring with sentimenal attachment to a dead family member worn as a thumb ring] she might be wrongly identified as an agent, and passed secret papers, placing her in danger from both sides. I might actually use that in one of my ‘Brandon Scandals’ series, as I plan to have one heroine caught in Paris during the 100 days, escaping with the aid of a one-time British spy through the catacombs.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The swastika is found throughout the desert southwest, where I grew up, since it was used by several ancient Indian tribes. A pity nasty old Adolph had to give it such negative connotations! They did wonderful designs with them.

      The problem is, if the heroine, or any one not a member of the royal family or Napoleon’s senior officials, was found to be wearing a bee, they would almost certainly be arrested. Napoleon forbid the use of the bee by anyone but his family and very close officials, and the Bourbons forbid them when they returned. It is highly unlikely any jewelery with bees would have been made, jewelers would have been too frightened to take the chance. Your heroine would be much better off wearing something with a violet on it. Much less controversial at the time, but did show loyalty to Napoleon.



  2. HAH! she has some silk violets trimming her gown and innocently remarks how realistic they are as there is a bee looking for nectar…

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