The Objects

24th Jun 1815

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Source: Newcastle Discovery Museum, with the permission of the Tyne and Wear Archives Service.

Napoleon's Purse

Contributed by: Tom Stammers, with information compiled by Newcastle Discovery Museum curator Roberta Goldwater

With his armies defeated at Waterloo, Napoleon fled on the road towards Charleroi. Hot in pursuit were the Prussian cavalry, led by Marshal Blücher. When the Prussians seized hold of the Emperor’s campaign baggage they paraded the Emperor’s dress around on a pole in triumph. Alongside the Prussians, a patrol of the 15th Hussars galloped up to Napoleon’s abandoned travelling carriage, from which one intrepid soldier, Corporal Henry Rolfe, lunged in to snatch Napoleon’s cloak; inside one of the pockets he stumbled across this purse. Richly decorated with green embroidery, the fine workmanship and intimate connection to the Emperor ensured the purse was preserved by Rolfe like a relic.

Its authenticity has recently been corroborated thanks to a chance discovery of the purse’s contents by staff at the Newcastle Discovery Museum. One crumpled note contained a brief obituary of Henry Rolfe who had died in January 1871, recalling his role on Napoleonic battlefields like Vitoria, Toulouse and Waterloo. A second note outlines the later transmission of the artefact from Rolfe’s widow, to a close friend who had supported her in old age, to one Captain James Redmond Gordon, who recorded the purse’s strange provenance from Waterloo into his hands in 1895.