02 July 2011

Napoleon's house in exile: St Helena

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled, for the first time, following his abdication at Fontainebleau and arrived on Elba Island in May 1814. He was allowed a personal escort of some 1000 men and a household staff, plus he was given the title Emperor of Elba and rule over its 110,000 people. It may have been exile, but life was good.

Longwood House, St Helena

When Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile for a second time, his British captors were very serious about him not escaping, as he had done from his first exile. It was inevitable that the British would be very angry with their violent enemy who, for 20 years, had cost them blood, sweat and many tears.

They selected St Helena Island, a remote Atlantic island located between the equator and the tropic of Capricorn, 1920 ks off the west coast of Africa. The island, with its fortress-like geology, was uncomfortably exposed to the strong trade winds. In June 1816, the French Commissioner wrote about St Helena that “This is the most isolated, the more unaffordable, the most difficult to attack, the poorest, the most unsociable and the dearest place in the world”.

Longwood's salon, renovated

Longwood House was the residence of Napoleon during his St Helena exile, from December 1815 until his death in May 1821. It is situated on a windswept plain, 6 ks from Jamestown. Formerly the summer residence of the Lieutenant Governor, Longwood was converted for the use of Napoleon in 1815 but it was never truly posh.

As L'AUTRE SAINTE-HÉLÈNE has shown, Longwood House offered the following rooms to the exiled ex-Emperor :
1. his bedroom
2. his study
3. his bathroom
4. a small service room for his valet
5. the dining-room where Napoleon entertained his followers
6. the library
7. the salon where Napoleon and his guests retired after dinner
8. the parlour, where his billiard table stood and
9. the veranda
The rest of the pre-existing rooms were service rooms: kitchen, a common room for domestic staff, storage space and a laundry.

St Helena's isolation in the Atlantic Ocean

New rooms were built after 1815, for the officers and their families, as laid out in the contemporary architectural plans. A section of the servants’ quarters and the generals’ wing has been dedicated to a good collection of Napoleonic era prints, furniture and objects.

In Feb 1818, Governor Sir Hudson Lowe proposed to Lord Bathurst that Napoleon be moved to Rosemary Hall, an empty house that was located in a more hospitable and sheltered part of the island. But Lord Bathurst saw that Longwood House was quite a distance from any other dwelling, thereby reducing any communication with the outside. Escape would be harder to plan.

The Emperor chose Sane Valley for his own burial site. He hiked into Sane Valley on one of his walks and was delighted with the peaceful landscape and attractive plants that grew there. He was indeed buried in this Valley of the Tomb. But as we know, but Napoleon didn’t know, his body was later (in 1840) exhumed and returned to Paris.

After Napoleon's death, Longwood House reverted to the East India Company and later to the Crown. Reports of its neglect reached Napoleon III who, from 1854, negotiated with the British Government for the house’s transfer to France. In 1858 it was transferred to the French Government, along with the Valley of the Tomb for a sum of £7,100. Since then both sites have been under the control of the French Foreign Ministry; a French Government representative has lived on the island and has been responsible for managing both properties.

Napoleon on St Helena, by Charles Von Steuben

The French Government planned to demolish the neglected building in the 1940s. Amazingly Longwood House was saved, and was accurately restored by French curators although I suspect much of the material is not original. But it doesn't matter because the house is now an important historical museum owned by the French government.

Country Life magazine (13th April 2011) reported that sections of the Lockwood House Museum are now crumbling and in urgent need of repair. An appeal has been launched by the Foundation Napoleon to rescue the house, its grounds and its woods. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also well aware of the exceptional historical importance of the French domains on St Helena.

Napoleon was buried in the Valley of the Tomb, in 1821.

If you thought Foundation Napoleon had an uphill battle convincing people that Napoleonic history on St Helena was worth saving, consider this. The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena already offers voyages between the UK and Cape Town, via the island of St. Helena. The ship recognises that it is virtually the only way of getting to these remote, rugged and beautiful islands. Everything on them must be delivered by sea. Ship visitors are taken to examine, amongst other places, three Napoleonic sites:  the Briars, where Napoleon stayed when he first arrived on the island; Longwood House, where he lived; and the Valley of the Tomb, where he was buried. 


BigJack said...

If the French government wanted to demolish the house in the 1940s, we can guess that they saw Napoleon as a national humiliation. Now 70 years later, the French government wants to pour money into the house and all its artefacts. Do they now think that Napoleon was a national hero.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realise how far St Helena was from the African coast. We had a friend years ago who maybe lived or grew up on St Helena. I can't recall now, but she pronounced it quite strangely, something like Senalena.

Hels said...

Jack, what an interesting observation.

According to Beau in Yahoo Answers, Napoleon was the symbol of the French Republic for French republicans. He spread the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity around a Europe ruled by absolute rulers in Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and Spain. As a result, many democratic countries to this day use the Napoleonic Code as their basic law.

But David Grubin, director and writer of Napoleon, gave a more equivocal response. The French had beheaded a King who ruled by divine right and then set about trying to establish a democratic Republic. But the French couldn’t make democracy work. Chaos and terror tore France apart.

Grubin said Napoleon was a man who came from nowhere to dominate first France, and then all of Europe. Napoleon stood at a turning point in history, a figure who embodied all the conflicting currents of his time and ruled over 70 million people. The French Revolution changed Europe, and the world forever. Napoleon restored order, but did he preserve the values of the French Revolution, or did he crush them?

Hels said...


In Feb 1815 Napoleon escaped Elba with his soldiers, marching back to France. The return of Napoleon was apparently popular and he soon grabbed power back from the restored Bourbon monarchy. Napoleon marched in triumph into Paris in March. After mobilising the armed forces again, Napoleon took France to war again, this time against a new Coalition of enemies. He was finally and permanently defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.

There was no way the Brits were going to allow Napoleon to escape again. They looked for a location at the arse-end of the British empire and found St Helena.

Alberti's Window said...

What an interesting post! I was just thinking about Napoleon the other week, having read an article that Napoleon died of stomach cancer while in exile.

It's great to know more about Napoleon's exile and the Longwood House. I realize that it might not have been posh by Napoleonic standards, but I think it looks like a lovely place!

Hels said...


Thanks! I loved that article, particularly because of this line: "even if the emperor had been released or escaped from the island, his terminal condition would have prevented him from playing a further major role in the theatre of European history". Just so.

The Lieutenant Governor's old house had plenty of rooms for Napoleon and his household staff. And then they built even more rooms for the officers. So it wasn't like living in a prison. Or a boarding house.

Hermes said...

Absolutely fascinating. The St Helena tourist site shows a lovely landscape. Napoleons final tomb at the Invalidees has always fascinated me.

Hels said...


Napoleon was initially buried on Saint Helena in that very peaceful outdoor site you enjoyed.

King Louis-Philippe (reigned 1830-48) arranged for the remains to be brought to France in 1840, and when the Interior Minister announced the decision to the French Parliament, it was accepted with quite some joy.

Napoléon's ashes were temporarily buried in the Invalides in 1840 until his final resting place, that amazing granite tomb, was finished in 1861. Victor Hugo was rapturous. The rest of France seemed very excited that their hero and martyr had been returned.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for this fascinating post Hels. Napoleon is an endlessly intriguing topic.

There's a suburb near mine called St Helena, I wonder if that's where it derives its name from :)


Hels said...

sometimes we find great stories from very unpromising beginnings. If I hadn't have glimpsed the tiny notice of appeal from the Foundation Napoleon to rescue the house, grounds and woods, I wouldn't have looked for photos of Longwood as it was in the mid 19th century.

albertuk said...

Here are my comments on a few points:
- Napoleon a hero? In France, his image is still debated, as he is thought to have deviated from the original motives, and wanted to build his own dynasty as any other ruling family of the times; yet, he is also remembered today as the great inspirer to modern France, the one who built institutions, code of law, equalitarian society, state-sponsored religions, etc. So some mixed feelings today
- death of Napoleon: yes cancer, and other things such as poor medical help, etc but above all, as Napoleon stated it himself in his Will, he died at the hands of the English oligarchy and revengeful ministers who wanted him dead; the restrictions, the boredom and lack of society, the pressure on his mind, the humide climate in constant trade winds, etc did only accelerate the decline of his health whereas, in a normal political exile, he may have lived longer; we would never know
- "lovely" Longwood... don't get too excited about what you see today about Longwood; it is a re-built museum above all; the reality of 1815-1821 was that Longwood House was wretched place, extremely humid, and extremely hot at the same time, infested by rats and other nuisances; Napoleon confined himself most of the time in his suffocating rooms where he could keep fireplaces running all day to get rid of the humidity; not all a healthy place at all; he would refrain to go out because of the unnecessary restrictions imposed by the governor Hudson Lowe to prevent an impossible escape from this island so isolated at the middle of a vast ocean ! Simply said, this governor had orders, official ones and secret ones...
If you understand French, check out my pages at www.lautresaintehelene.com, and there are some of them in English too

Anonymous said...

Perhaps albertuk was correct - "in a normal political exile, he may have lived longer". But they tried that once in Elba from where Napoleon promptly escaped. Worse still, he went to war again. Normal political exile doesn't always work.

albertuk said...

Elba was not a "normal political exile"... Napoleon escaped from there for 3 reasons:
1- he had learned that at the congress of Vienna, the allied powers discussed his removal from them by force, and exile to farther away from Europe (St Helena, The Cape, etc)
2- the king of France didn't respect the agreement for Napoleon to accept the exile to Elba: he didn't pay the agreed allowance to Napoleon, who was then running out of money to subside his 1000-man small army
3- the allied powers were retaining his wife and son, and would not let them to visit the exilee in Elba
If you were in Napoleon's shoes, you would have escaped from Elba and thrown the dices again. In 1814, Napoleon accepted abdication and exile in good faith, but the allied powers didn't follow their word. He knew it was a matter of time until an army would come after him in this puppet kingdom

Hels said...

thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree that the French still have mixed views about Napoleon today. But the Allies, who saw their young men die at French hands, did not. They never wanted to see Napoleon on European soil again.

You say that Longwood in 1815-1821 was a "wretched place, extremely humid, and extremely hot at the same time, infested by rats and other nuisances; Napoleon confined himself most of the time in his suffocating rooms where he could keep fireplaces running all day to get rid of the humidity; not all a healthy place at all; he would refrain to go out because of the unnecessary restrictions imposed by the governor Hudson Lowe to prevent an impossible escape".

Here I feel comfortable in disagreeing. The house had been the summer residence of the Lieutenant Governor and had vice regal comfort. St Helena is not a humid island at all, warm but not hot in summer and mild in winter.

His staff were given decent accommodation was well, so that although the British did not want to escape, they certainly treated him with the dignity due to an ex-head of state.

Hels said...

good point. It would be interesting to find out who selected Elba for the first exile and who was responsible for his (and all his soldiers') escape.

Hels said...

that is a very telling point that you make: "the king of France didn't respect the agreement for Napoleon to accept the exile to Elba".

I wonder what he would have done with Napoleon instead. I also wonder who should have paid for Napoleon's his 1000-man army on Elba.

Hels said...

If readers are uncertain of the large number of rooms in Longwood, or the different types of rooms that Napoleon and his staff lived in, I have created a link to the architectural plans.

From this layout, I would estimate that Napoleon and his senior staff had 22 rooms, his domestics had 3-4 rooms and there were 4 storage rooms. Not plush, but decent.

Mandy said...

I'm familiar with St Helena (only because I grew up in St Helens near Liverpool and we learned of the other namesakes) but I was unaware of the Napoleonic history.

How sad that he was moved after his death!!! I wouls want to remain where I was interred and am sure he would have wanted to remain in that place he chose.

andrew1860 said...

What a wonderful post! Thanks for the map showing where St Helena is. It is in the middle of no where. I don't think I will ever be able to visit here.

Hels said...


When he was still in power, Emperor Napoleon had planned a burial in the cathedral of St Denis, where the other French kings were buried.

But by the time he was writing his will on St Helena, I wonder if Citizen Napoleon thought he was loved by the French or feared by the French.

Certainly Napoleon's body was not going anywhere, as long as the Bourbon king Charles X was on the throne. He was not a fan of Napoleon.

Once Charles X was overthrown in 1830, the Duke of Orleans Louis Philippe was proclaimed King. Louis-Philippe I had no quarrel with Napoleon.

Hels said...


same for me.

albertuk said...

Hello again,
A few points to comment on:

- Longwood: indeed summer residence of the deputy-governor before Napoleon; but living there for a few weeks a year, and free to move out when desired, or visiting there for a day or so on a trip to the island, is not the same as being confined all your life in a perimeter, exposed to the humidity (more present at Longwood than on the rest of island) and the constant trade winds; and when it doesnt rain, the heat is strong (sub-tropical place after all); there are lots of testimonial (even from Englishmen) that Longwood in 1815-1821 was a wretched place, not fit for a healthy life; even the Governor admitted it and wanted to move Napoleon to a better climate near Plantation House, but this was refused by the ministers in London; these are facts

- treated as head of state? surely not by insisting in calling him "general Buonaparte", nor letting his followers write what they wished on his grave (they wanted "Napoleon" only, and the governor insisted in "Napoleon Bonaparte"); all was designed to _force_ on him the denial of ~16 years of French history (from the time he was no longer "general" and rules France in 1799); futile attempt, as we know

- Louis 18: indeed Hels, nothing to expect from him nor from his brother, the "ultra" future Charles X who infuriated French people so much that they toppled him and all his dynasty in the 1830 revolution; but Napoleon had agreed to give up power (although he was very much still popular at the time, as proven by his return from Elba walking all the way to Paris without firing a shot), and there was agreement to subside such peace; failing to abide to it could only lead to war again; this is why, if you notice, England never blamed the British officer (Campbell) who was in charge of surveillance around Elba; they knew Napoleon would either escape one day, or they would have to take him by force; Elba was a temp situation that didn't bluff anyone; but, had the allies respected the agreement, and let his wife & son join him at will, he may well have stayed there, very close to France, Italy and Corsica: not a bad exile (if not threatened); we would never know

- large estate of Longwood: indeed, many rooms and extensions in every part; not a "palace" though, but nobody expected a palace; most of the rooms were extensions built by seamen within 2.5 months in 1815; they were made of planks, joined together as they could, and tar thrown on the planked roof; humidity was everywhere when it rained, and scorching sun heat was strong when it didn't; nothing to do with the (museum-like) buildings seen today on a visit; at the time of Napoleon, the planks would rot in a matter of time, and the place had to undergo frequent repairs

- visiting St Helena: the project of an airport is still on the plate, and approved I believe; from what I understand, it will be ready for ~2015

(see next post for the end of this message)

albertuk said...

(cont'd and end)

Napoleon was surely not a saint, and made the mistake to try to create a dynasty, idea which was truly alien to most Frenchmen at the exit of the French Revolution. But he was not evil either (not a Hitler or Stalin as some detractors would love to compare him to). He waged wars mostly because he was pushed to do so: remember that wars always started after a "coalition" was formed against France (and paid by the English who, for the first time, invented Income Tax in order to pay the Russians, Austrians etc to join in the effort against Napoleon). Napoleon, and the French Revolution with its equalitarian society and removal of "rights by birth", was a "cancer" that European monarchies and aristocraties could not afford to live alone, hence the continuous wars; I would recommend to read "Napoleon" from Vincent Cronin to get a better understanding: I think it is a fair and balanced book about him, his achievements and mistakes

Sorry if I appeared to preach the Devil's advocate on this but, as seen today, Napoleon gives still a mixed feeling to people, not just French people, and remains a special character in History

Hels said...


no need to apologise at all. I think most non-French readers of this blog would be delighted to read a French perspective on an important subject.

Thank you for taking the time.

the foto fanatic said...

Very informative post, as usual, Hels.

Here in Moreton Bay, an aboriginal man named Napoleon was imprisoned on an island in 1826, and as a result the island was named St Helena.

It continued to be a very foreboding prison through to the 1930s, by which time most prisoners were transported to Boggo Road.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

The real Napoleon arrived in the real St Helena only in Dec 1815! Yet within a decade the Atlantic island's reputation as a formidable and historical house-prison clearly had an impact on the newest Australian colony.

I remember that you said in a post that John Oxley was sent from Sydney by Governor Brisbane to find a new convict settlement as last as 1823. Your poor Queensland prisoner was imprisoned in 1826.

News travels fast.

the foto fanatic said...

I'm not sure of the background to "Napoleon" being sent there in 1826. One source calls it "exile" which may in fact refer to indigenous punishment. Still researching.

The island was a formal jail for male prisoners from the 1860s when the Petrie Terrace jail became overcrowded.

student of history said...

You said Napoleon's body was exhumed in 1840 and returned to Paris. Did all French citizens want him to become a hero again? What about the British and his other enemies?

Hels said...


Napoleon clearly wanted to be (re)buried on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people that he loved. In 1821 the French petitioned the British government to let Napoleon's wish be granted. But they refused, and King Louis XVIII seemed uncertain.

So it is interesting that by 1840, the British didn't care any longer and the French were very keen to have France's winningest military commander back home again. In that short time (19 years), the concept of French nationalism had turned around.

In 1840, the French Interior minister could say, without blushing, that "Napoleon was Emperor and King, he was our country's legitimate sovereign. Thus he could be buried at Saint-Denis, but Napoleon must not receive the ordinary burial of Kings. He must still reign and command in the fortress where soldiers of the fatherland will always rest, and where they will always be inspired by those who have been called to defend her."

albertuk said...

About the return of Napoleon's ashes, Britain already declared, back in 1821 during the first demands, that they will return tem to France when a French Govt will request them officially. Obviously, there was no French Govt willing to do so in the 1820s. In 1830, a new revolution occurred in France which toppled the old dynasty once more, and Louis-Philippe was rushed by the middle-class as king "of the French people" (not king of France). He was very unpopular among the mass people, and survived many assassination attempts during his reign. In 1840, always in quest for popularity, he chose a prime minister who was napoleonic: Thiers. The latter immediately convinced the king that the return of Napoleon ashes will please the people and will help gain popularity. And it did.

Hels said...

thank you for that.

I had written "In that short time (19 years), the concept of French nationalism had turned around". My sentence was perfectly true, but not helpful by itself. Your time table of changes in France makes sense.

Wooden Blinds said...

Jack well done!! You have covered some interesting points in this article.

Hels said...

Wooden blinds,

thank you. I continued with the topic in a post called "Did Napoleon step on British soil or not?" Once again, there was a lot of interest.

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Hels said...


thank you. I have a fascinating post on Napoleon coming out in a fortnight. I hope it will interest you and shed some light on an underreported bit of history.

Linda said...

Dear Helen,

Thank you for the time you spend providing historical information. I was reading your entry on Bonaparte and St Helena and enjoyed it very much. Im 56, live in Texas and unable to travel to St Helena but I can imagine it through your descriptions. I am fascinated by history.

Thank you again,

Hels said...


Excellent that you are fascinated by history. I can only hope that my students are too, and that they do the reading they are set :)

It is interesting that you mentioned Napoleon in particular. I have written dozens of posts over the years relating to Napoleon and they ALWAYS receive far more readers (and triple the number of comments) than any other posts. In the top left hand corner, you will find a search space - just stick in the word Napoleon.