‘Buried beneath the willow trees’, news of Napoleon’s death reaches Belfast

News of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte in captivity in British St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean finally reached these islands in July 1821 – two hundred years ago this month.

British and French soldiers fighting during the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815. The farmhouse in the centre is 'La Haye Sainte'. Drawn and etched by W. Heath, aquatinted by J. C. Stadler, from 'The War of Wellington'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British and French soldiers fighting during the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815. The farmhouse in the centre is 'La Haye Sainte'. Drawn and etched by W. Heath, aquatinted by J. C. Stadler, from 'The War of Wellington'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dispatches had reached London on Thursday, July 5, 1821 thanks to the arrival of the Rosario, a sloop of war, from St Helena, which carried news of Napoleon’s on May the 5th, 1821.The dispatches were brought by Captain Crockat of the 20th Regiment and they were immediately communicated to all the ministers and to the ambassadors, “by whom couriers were dispatched to their different Courts”.

It took several news to travel across the Irish Sea to the News Letter’s offices in Belfast and then the news was speedily relayed to the newspaper’s readers.

An editorial in the News Letter on Tuesday, July 10, 1821 remarked: “Intelligence of the death of Bonaparte reached our office by the Dublin mail of Saturday, and, in order to communicate the information to our readers as speedily as possible, we immediately published a bulletin which was sent to our subscribers in the country by every mode of conveyance we could find.”

circa 1800: French emperor Napoleon I (1769 - 1821), born Napoleone Buonaparte in Corsica. An engraving by B Roger after a painting by Muneret. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


The details of those dispatches from St Helena to the Earl of Bathurst from Lieutenant-General Sir Hudson Lowe, KCB were not to appear in the columns of the News Letter until the edition of Friday, July 13, 1821.


Dated St Helena, May 6, 1821 the dispatch read: “My Lord – It falls to my duty to inform your Lordship, that Napoleon Bonaparte expired at about ten minutes before six o’clocl in the evening of the 5th instant, after an illness which had confined him to his apartment since the 17th of March last. He was attended, during the early part of his indisposition, from the 17th to the 31st of March by his Medical Assistant, Professor Antommarchi, alone.

“During the latter period, from the 1st of April to the 5th of May, he received the daily visits of Dr Arnott, of His Majesty’s 20th Regiment, generally in conjunction with Professor Antommarchi. Doctor Short, physician to the forces, and Dr Mitchell, principal medical officer of the Royal Navy, on the station, whose services, as well as those of any other medical persons on the island, had been offered, were called upon in a consultation by Professor Antommarchi, on 3rd of May, but they had not any opportunity afforded to them of seeing the patient.

TOPSHOT - This picture taken on June 14, 2018 in Lyon, southern France, shows the hat allegedly attributed to Emperor Napoleon I. - This hat would have been collected, after the battle of Waterloo and the escape of Napoleon, by the captain of Dragons, the baron Arnout Jacques van Zuijlen van Nijevelt. This war trophy will go on auction on June 18, 2018. (Photo by JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP via Getty Images)

“Dr Arnott was with him at the moment of his decease, and saw him expire. Captain Crockat, orderly officer, in attendance, and Doctors Short and Mitchell, saw the body immediately aftewards. Dr Arnott remained with the body during the night.”

Lieutenant-General Hudson’s dispatch from St Helena continued: “Early this morning, at about seven o’clock, I proceeded to the apartment where the body lay, accompanied by the Rear-Admiral Lambert, Naval Commander-in-Chief on this station; the Marquis de Montchenu, Commissioner of His Majesty the King of France, charged with the same duty also on the part of His Majesty the Emperor of Austria, the Brigadier-General Coffin, second in command of the troops; Thomas H Brooke and Thomas Greentree, Esqrs, members of the Council in the Government of this island; and Captains Brown, Hendry and Marryatt, of the Royal Navy. After viewing the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, which lay with the face uncovered, we retired.

“An opportunity was afterwards, with the concurrence of the person who composed the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, to as many officers as were desirous, naval and military, to the Honourable The East India Company’s officers, and civil servants, and to various other individuals resident here, to enter the room in which the body lay, and to view it.”


Lowe concluded his dispatch by saying: “I shall cause the body to be interred with the honours due to a General Officer of the highest rank.”

Portrait of Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, KG, GCB, GCH, PC, FRS (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), who was a British soldier and statesman, a native of Ireland and one of the leading military and political figures of the19th century and is noted for having defeated Emperor Napoleon I at the Battle of Waterloo. Engraving from an original by Antoine Maurin. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Napoleon Bonaparte was buried on Wednesday, May 9 “beneath the Willow Trees, in the spot he had pointed out, about a mile and half from Longwood House (by the road)”, detailed a letter from St Helena dated May 15, 1821.

The following was the order of Napoleon funeral procession: Napoleon Bertrand, son of the Marshall, The priests “in full robes”, Dr Arnott, 20th Regiment, Bonaparte’s physician, Professor Antommarchi. Then came the first 12 Grenadiers, followed by Bonaparte’s body, “in a car, drawn by four horses”, and then a further 12 Grenadiers. Count Montholet, Bonaparte’s horse led by two servants, and then Marshal Bertrand. Then followed a number of servants, then Madame Bertrand and daughter, “in an open vehicle”, and then further set of servants. Next were naval officers, staff officers, members of council, General Coffin, the Admiral, Marquis de Montchenu, the Governor. Again more servants, then Lady Lowe and daughter, “in an open vehicle”, then more servants. Then came the Dragoons, St Helena Volunteers, St Helena Regiment, St Helena Artillery, 66th Regiment, Royal Marines, 20th Regiment and finally the Royal Artillery.

The letter added of details of the burial: “When the body was lowered into the grave, three rounds of eleven guns were fired by the artillery, and the minute guns of the Vigo, which were heard at intervals between the discharges, moaning in the distance – twenty-five were fired.


“His grave was about 14 feet deep, very wide at the top, but the lower part chambered to receive the coffin. One large stone covered the whole of the chamber. The remaining space was filled up with solid masonry, clamped with iron. Thus every precaution is taken to prevent the removal of the body, and I believe it has been full as much by the desire of the French Commissioners as from the wish of the government of the island.

“The spot had previously been consecrated by his priest. The body of Bonaparte is enclosed in three coffins, of mahogany, lead and oak. His heart, which Bertrand and Montchenu earnestly desire to take them wit them to Europe, was restored to the coffin, but it remains in a silver cup, filled with spirits.”

Bonaparte had specially chosen the site for his burial. The letter detailed: “When he first arrived, Marshal Bertrand resided at Hut’s Gate, until a house was built for him near the ex-Emperor’s, who frequently visited the General’s family, and he (Bonaparte) would very often stroll down to the a spring of excellent water (considered the best water on the island), and ordered a glass to be brought that he might drink. Madame and Marshal Bertrand were always with him, and he several times said to them, ‘if it pleases God that I should die on this rock, have me buried on this spot’, which he pointed out, near the spring, beneath some willow trees.”