The lid of this circular box, possibly a snuff box, shows Louis XVIII's attempt to rally public opinion against Napoleon I as the latter advanced on Paris at the beginning of the Hundred Days.
Made in 1820, it depicts the King, the Princes, Peers and Deputies swearing to maintain the Charte constitutionnelle des français in the Chamber of Deputies on 16 March 1815. The scene symbolises both the importance and the fragility of constitutionalism in nineteenth-century France.
The Charte, composed in May 1814 and proclaimed 'by the free exercise of our royal authority' on 4 June, retained massive powers for the monarchy. But it also guaranteed equality before the law; religious toleration; a bicameral legislature with control over taxation; freedom of the press; and the inviolability of all past sales of 'biens nationaux': in other words of the revolutionary property settlement.
On 16 March 1815, Louis XVIII called it 'our sacred standard' and 'my finest title in the eyes of posterity', denouncing 'he who comes to reignite among us the fires of civil war, [who] also brings the scourge of foreign war' and offering to die in the defence of the French people.
All present, including his younger brother and heir the Comte d' Artois, who had absented himself on 4 June, swore loyalty to the Charte. Cheers of 'Vive le roi!’, ‘Mourir pour le roi!' resounded through the chamber. In reality Artois had reservations about the Charte, while the troops outside were preparing to join Napoleon I. Four days later, in the early morning of 20 March, the King who had sworn to remain in Paris fled north towards the Belgian frontier and spent the 100 Days in Ghent.
For more about the reverse of the lid and the Charte, click on Further Information.
The reverse of the lid is painted with a list of liberal peers and deputies in 1820, with the inscription 'Honneur des députés des droits et des libertés de la nation'. One can also see a soldier showing his son the column in the Place Vendôme (from which the statue of Napoleon I had been removed in 1814), accompanied by a famous line from a popular song of 1818 by Émile Debraux: 'Ah! Qu'on est fier d'être français, quand on regarde la colonne'. The implication is that the liberals of 1820, rather than the King and his supporters in 1815, are the true defenders of the Charte. This box is a reminder that the Hundred Days was not only a dynastic contest between Louis XVIII and Napoleon I, and a military conflict between France and Europe, but also a political dispute over the French constitution.
The Charte under Louis XVIII continued to function better than most French constitutions. Three times, in September 1815, February 1820 and December 1821, the King dismissed a ministry or minister who no longer commanded a majority in the Chamber of Deputies in favour of one who did. The Charte guaranteed the monarchy's future. Six years after Artois ascended the throne as Charles X in 1824, his attempt to violate the Charte led to the revolution of July 1830, conducted to cries of ‘Vive la Charte!’ and the proclamation of their cousin the Duc d'Orleans as Louis Philippe I. An amended version of the Charte served as the French constitution until the revolution of 1848.
Outlasting all Napoleonic constitutions, the Charte would be the principal basis of other constitutions in Europe, from Portugal to the Ottoman Empire. It has also influenced later French constitutions, including that of the Fifth Republic.
Philip Mansel is author of "The Eagle in Splendour: Napoleon I and his Court", London, George Philip, 25 June 1987, 232 pages, ISBN 0540011215