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The Eagle in Splendour: Inside the Court of Napoleon

London, I.B. Tauris, 30 June 2015, 256 pages, ISBN 978-1784531751 (first published by George Philip in 1987)

This book offers a fresh view of the most famous man in history. It shows him as a monarch rather than a genius on the battlefield. Although Napoleon arose through the events of the Revolution, he was primarily interested in establishing a dynasty to rank with the Bourbons or the Habsburgs, and in extending his influence throughout Europe.

Philip Mansel’s book shows the ruthlessness with which Napoleon sought to achieve these ends. His creation of a court was a calculated act, to enhance his power and prestige. His policy of territorial expansionism was pursued with an arrogance and inhumanity which turned all Europe against him. His brothers and sisters were given thrones and courts in Italy, Spain, Holland and Westphalia, where they alienated most of their subjects.

This account is based on the hitherto unpublished papers of several of Napoleon’s courtiers. This contemporary material provides fascinating insights into the careers and characters of those closest to the Emperor, including Duroc, the Emperor’s only friend, his second wife, the Empress Marie Louise, Fontaine, his architect, who helped spread the Empire style throughout Europe, and his brother Joseph, one of the few people who had the courage to tell Napoleon when he was wrong.

The Eagle in Splendour shows that personal genius is not enough to establish a monarchy. The heart of the Napoleonic court was a void, because the Emperor was not loved and his regime lacked credibility. The Emperor’s domination of Europe was an illusion, killed, like so many of his soldiers, in the Russian snow. As Malraux said to De Gaulle, Napoleon had ‘a very great mind and a rather small soul’.

‘an eloquent and original study of the Bonaparte family, delightfully acute in its depiction of the vanities, rivalries and pretensions of Napoleon and his siblings’ David Gilmour, author of The Pursuit of Italy

‘clear, well researched, always interesting’ Nigel Nicolson (History Today)

‘The title and the handsome appearance of this book are in danger of obscuring its scholarly value … Napoleon is presented to scholars in a new guise: the Eagle both in splendour and as chie-en-lit … the author’s urbane and witty style … [his] vivid description of the Napoleonic Court in this well-documented, attractively produced, but inexpensive book’ John Mackrell (Journal of Modern History)

‘Although this may seem simply a well illustrated coffee-table book, there is more to it than this suggests. Mansel’s book derives from a sound archival and bibliographical base … It is hard not to agree with [his] perceptive comment that it has really been the manufactured splendour of style which accounts for the continuing fascination with the Emperor, of which this is a not unworthy example’ Clive H. Church (British Journal of Eighteenth Century Studies).

‘This book, along with Pierre Branda’s recent study of the imperial household, presents an image of an Emperor far removed from the revolutionary ideals he claimed to embrace, that of a man intoxicated by the trappings of the very monarchy he had set out to replace.’ Alan Forrest (Times Literary Supplement, 20 November 2015).

‘Mansel’s chapter on ‘the Family Courts’ is particularly interesting... Enviable clarity... A profound comment on the very essence of the regime... An elegant, erudite exercise in a Weberian analysis of authority and the quest for legitimacy.’ Michael Broers - (H-France, October 2016)