The Cultural Tutor - Napoleon’s Briefcase

The Cultural Tutor - Napoleon’s Briefcase

How did Napoleon keep a sprawling empire under his thumb? Ask Sheehan Quirke. He runs the popular history feed, The Cultural Tutor, and he’ll tell you that the great historical leader depended on a vast network of spies to keep him clued up. The fruits of their toil were delivered to him each morning in a leather briefcase. Here, Quirke and host Alice Loxton open up that tired old folio and explore the secrets hidden within.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects - Episode 13: The Cultural Tutor - Napoleon’s Briefcase

What are the objects that define espionage? What secrets lie hiding in plain sight? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. Have you ever known the thrill of holding a piece of history in your palms? Of gazing down at an object and seeing the past unfurl before your very eyes, in vivid color. 

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: I'm currently holding in my hands a briefcase which belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte… the Napoleon Bonaparte. It's about the size of an A4 sheet of paper - red leather with gilded edges - a lovely little bit of floral decoration. And we've got this wonderful brass clasp. And then in big gold letters, it says À sa Majesté, l'Empereur est Roi. His Majesty, the Emperor and King.

NARRATOR: You are about to step into the inner chambers of one of the most important figures in all of history. Your guide is a young man who lives for moments like this one, where the past comes flooding into the present.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: Hello there, my name is Sheehan Quirke although I’m better known by my online pseudonym The Cultural Tutor. I'm not an academic or professional historian. I did law at university but I'm a very curious person and anything that excites me - and particularly with history - I suppose, anything that brings history to life. It's easy to read a book and imagine that people just did X, Y, and Z - like a film, where everything was preordained - but when you get something in your hands and it makes you feel the past alive and present, that's what I love.

NARRATOR: The red leather briefcase that sits before Sheehan is one such portal into the past. To gaze at it is to gather close to Napoleon himself, to lean in and hear his secrets. Because this isn't just any old briefcase. It's one that served a very specific purpose. The clue comes in the form of two words, embossed in gold foil, beneath Napoleon's title.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: Gazette Étrangère. So, foreign gazettes, foreign papers. As far as I'm aware, a man like Napoleon had many briefcases brought to him. This one was brought to him by his chief spy, Count Lavalette, every morning. It included reports from Cabinet Noir, the Black Chamber, which is a secret department of the French Post Office which - well, as you can guess - spied on what people were saying and sending to each other. Diplomats, politicians, rich people, anybody.

NARRATOR: You might be tempted to dismiss this empty portfolio as a quaint souvenir from a fallen empire. Just another artifact from a forgotten time. But Sheehan Quirke would encourage you to think differently.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: Right now, to me, this is a historical oddity. It's curious. It's interesting. It's fascinating. Two hundred years ago this wasn't just, ‘Oh, wow, this is cool.’ This was one of the most sought-after things in the world. Imagine if, right now, I could give you Joe Biden's briefcase or Vladimir Putin's briefcase. That's what we're looking at. This was something that people all over the world would have literally died to get because it could have turned the tide in the Napoleonic Wars.

NARRATOR: The documents that this case once contained may be long since lost to the sands of time, but it still reveals so much about the man who once held it.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: Napoleon held this in his hands. A man like Napoleon is one who is almost so famous - like Julius Caesar, your Cleopatras - they're so famous they cease to seem like real people. But he was there in the morning, probably feeling grumpy, maybe having the smoke of a pipe and a coffee, trying to wake up. And bloody Lavalette comes in with this and says, “All right your Majesty, time to see what people have been saying about you." Because apparently, as well, Lavalette used to bring together what foreign newspapers were saying about Napoleon and his family. Obviously, he was a man who cared deeply about his reputation. Hence in art, he was always very careful to pick the right artists to depict him. That's why we have so many dashing and glorious portraits of Napoleon. But he held this in his hands. He was there, not like me, holding it delicately. He was just chucking it around, opening it, rifling through it. There are ink stains on it, and scratches, scratches which may have been left by Napoleon himself.

NARRATOR: And perhaps the most revealing detail of this artifact is not in the intricate and secret reports that it once contained but, instead, in the words emblazoned so boldly on its exterior.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: À sa majesté, l'Empereur est roi. To His Majesty, the Emperor and King. Napoleon emerged during the French Revolution, came to the head of the French Republic, and people all across Europe thought, “This man is going to save the continent from all these old rotten monarchies, and aristocracies. He's the new order of a fairer, better, juster, more equal, more democratic world.” And Beethoven, for example, in 1803, when he wrote Symphony No. 3, he dedicated it to Bonaparte. Napoleon was the hero of Europe. It's almost hard to overstate how famous and how admired and feared he was, of course, by foreign governments. Anyway, come 1804, Napoleon has himself crowned Emperor by the Pope. He becomes Emperor Napoleon I. And this dream that everyone had that he was going to free Europe has suddenly fallen to pieces. And there's this amazing story about how Beethoven ripped off the dedication page in Symphony No. 3 and tried to destroy the music as well. And was, with difficulty, prevented from doing so. Because he was so devastated that the guy, this Napoleon who just came out of nowhere, this enlightened man who's very literary - he loved poetry - and all that had come to an end. And what we're seeing here, on this briefcase, the Emperor and King, they're the words which essentially caused Napoleon's, let's say, not his downfall per se, but certainly in the minds of the people who loved him so much. And even what it contained because this was essentially the papers gathered by his secret police.

NARRATOR: Napoleon had won the hearts and minds of the French people with the promise of something radically different from what had come before. But in the end, he offered them another version of something all too familiar.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: The Cabernet Noir, the Black Chamber, as I understand it, was a leftover from the days of the monarchy, which is what Napoleon was supposed to destroy. He was supposed to bring them down. And yet, he just adopted exactly what they'd already created for him, which was a way to spy on his own citizens, on his own people. 

NARRATOR: And so, when Sheehan looks at Napoleon's briefcase, he also sees a tale as old as time - a story of corruption and shattered idealism. 

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: Those who have power, there's nothing they fear more than losing that power, and it's very easy to have ideals when you're a philosopher or a writer, suddenly you are thrust into this position of authority. And, oh, I could just have a load of people who are very good at knowing how to decrypt secret letters who are very good at opening a letter and reading it and putting it back together so no one knows it's being read. And I could do this and it might just give me the edge in the war. It might just let me hold onto power. Then the ideals are tested, and time and time again throughout history as we've seen, they just immediately come crashing down. Although, the thing with Napoleon, the great mystery… Was he really this great idealist? Did he really believe in the cause of republicanism and freedom and human liberty and what was the French motto? Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Did he believe in that? Maybe, or maybe not.

NARRATOR: The story of Napoleon's rise and downfall is, by now, the stuff of legend. A story of blockbuster proportions.

SHEEHAN QUIRKE: History's probably never seen a greater fall from grace, as it were, than when Napoleon, from First Consul of the French Republic to Empereur et Roi. And there's a little poem here. Lord Byron, the great poet Lord Byron, had a bust of Napoleon in his bedroom, on his mantelpiece, because he, like everyone else, was kind of liberal-minded, and progressive in Europe. Toward the close of the 18th century and early 19th, all adored him. But then, after Napoleon declared himself Emperor, waged war on the entirety of Europe, and tried to make himself essentially king of the world, Byron smashed his bust and wrote a poem. And there's a little stanza I want to - read from this poem. And this is after Napoleon had been defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Byron says:

'TIS done - but yesterday a King!

   And arm'd with Kings to strive -

And now thou art a nameless thing:

   So abject - yet alive!

Is this the man of thousand thrones,

Who strew'd our Earth with hostile bones,

   And can he thus survive?

Since he, miscall'd the Morning Star,

Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.

And that sentiment of Byron saying of this great man who's supposed to save us all from the tyrannies and hypocrisies and the oppressiveness of the old order. All of that, that great fall is almost epitomized by this case which has emperor and king written on it. The man who's supposed to save us, gathering information on all these people. The head of a vast secret spy network. It's actually quite, quite moving when I think about it like that.

The rise and fall of an emperor. The hopes and frustrations of a nation. The birth and collapse of a legend - all contained within a single artifact. Yes, it is precisely moments like these that Sheehan Quirke is talking about when he talks about taking an object between two hands and watching the past come to life in the present. I’m Alice Loxton. More secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects.

Guest Bio

Sheehan Quirke - a.k.a. The Cultural Tutor - is an online educator.

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