During the early afternoon hours of May 27, 1653, a blind and mute mason named Adrien Quinquin was toiling away on a church reconstruction project for the city of Tournai, when his shovel struck gold. Just meters below the earth were leather bags full of gold coins. Then came a gold torc bracelet, followed by fine silverware, jewel-encrusted weapons, a crystal ball, a gold bull’s head, harness fittings decorated in cloisonné enamel, a heavy signet ring, and over 300 stylized gold bees with flat-cut garnet wings.
The signet ring was intaglio-decorated with the image of a long-haired man wearing a Roman-style paludamentum cloak and holding a spear, surrounded by the inscription CHILDERICI REGIS (Childeric the King).
Adrien Quinquin, humble mason, had accidentally unearthed the tomb of Childeric I, the founder-king of the Merovingian dynasty, and a key figure in the founding myths of France.
The discovery set Tournai abuzz. The city, then under the rule of the Spanish Netherlands, was located at the southern limit of the Flemish plain, near the border with France. Citizens of Tournai were proud and rather tickled to find themselves the possessors of a rival power’s royal relics.
News of the find soon reached the ear of Archduke Leopold-Guillaume, then governor of the Spanish Netherlands. He assumed stewardship over the treasure and commissioned his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to publish a study on the objects. Chifflet, a polymath who’d previously written a history of the Golden Fleece, completed the project speedily, resulting in the 1655 publication, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis; sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tomaci Nerviorum effossus (The Resurrection of Childeric the First, King of the Franks, or the Funerary Treasure of Tournai). Illustrated with twenty-seven plates and supplemented with relevant commentary, Chifflet’s study is one of the earliest scholarly publications in a field we would today consider archeology.
Childeric’s treasures had been buried around the 480s CE, during the twilight years of the Western Roman Empire, when imperial authority was nominal at best and various Germanic tribes vied for power across continental Europe. Christian rites had not yet replaced older traditions; for now, the pagan practice of burying the dead with precious items was still observed.
Childeric I was a Salian-Frank leader who, in the mid-5th century CE, had once pursued a military career within the Roman system, but seized power for himself when the imperial yoke disintegrated. His establishment of a capital and seat of power at Tournai would provide a basis for the Merovingian dynasty, under which Frank kings ruled over an area that would come to be called Francia.
In design and craftsmanship, the jewelry and ornament found in Childeric’s tomb are closely related to examples found throughout Gallic Europe, in regions controlled by various Germanic, Frankish, and Visigothic tribes. The workmanship and production techniques suggest goldsmiths were familiar with the work of Late Roman workshops. Surviving pieces display a blend of technical complexity with boldness and beauty of design. Sophisticated polychrome inlay (cloisonné enameling) is one characteristic, as well as a favoring of geometric contours and forms over figural ones.
In many examples, an abundance of geometric cloisons dominate the entire surface, giving the impression of stained glass windows. Garnet, likely imported from faraway India, was the favored gem. The stone’s instructure allows for it to be cleaved smoothly along a parting plane; skilled lapidary craftsmen would be able to produce flat panels with complex shapes. Indeed, the garnets set within the wings of Childeric’s gold bees are so thinly cut that they resemble translucent glass, allowing for the underlying textured gold to show.
Following the death of Archduke Leopold-Guillaume in 1662, the Childeric hoard was bequeathed to his nephew, Emperor Leopold I of Austria. Three years later, the treasures would pass hands yet again— this time back to a royal house of France, serving as thank you presents to Louis XIV, whose armies had supported Austria in a military conflict against the Ottoman Turks the year before. Emperor Leopold had held the treasures in high regard, taking care to make replicas before sending off the originals. But Louis XIV, ever the Sun King, was so ostentatious in his tastes that he was reportedly unimpressed with what appeared to be unrefined works of “barbaric” 5th century tribesmen. The Childeric treasures were stored in a cabinet at the Louvre and forgotten.
That is, until they came to the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte.
By 1804, Bonaparte, the upstart Corsican general who’d outmaneuvered the chaos of post-Revolution politics, was firmly the master of France. For five years previous, Napoleon had maintained republican pretensions by serving as First Consul, heading a government that courted the image of a republic but was effectively a military dictatorship. Buoyed by a string of decisive battlefield victories, which ended the revolutionary wars by forcing the monarchies of Europe to formally recognize the new French regime, Napoleon’s popularity at home soared. The public—weary of war, hunger, and the guillotine—seemed eager to embrace Napoleon as dictator for life: voters moved to make his government permanent during the plebiscite of 1802. But Napoleon, never one for small gestures and temperate ambitions, took things several degrees further by declaring himself Emperor in 1804.
In the world of revolutionary ideals, Napoleon’s rise to power was ideologically justified: here was a self-made man, a humble artillery officer who had succeeded on the basis of talent and ability alone, thanks to the liberté, égalité, fraternité atmosphere of the First Republic. But the realm of crowns and thrones was a different beast all together. Absolutism in Europe was founded on the divine right of kings, which proclaimed the monarch an appointee of God and thus not subject to the will of his people. The Revolution had debauched this divine right by unceremoniously sending the last God-appointed King of France to the chopping block. Napoleon’s ambition to restore absolutism to France was thus complicated by a need to transcend the traditional divine right of kings, and to justify the ascension of a different kind of autocrat.
Napoleon and his advisors attacked this ideological challenge with the comprehensiveness and fervor of a modern corporation launching a rebranding campaign. All that was lacking—Napoleon being born on a island, the son of an unremarkable lineage, with a birth name (Napoleone di Buonaparte) that was decidedly not French—was swept aside. They were not interested in a monarchy, and Napoleon himself, aware he had no birthright to speak of, once declared, “To be a king is to inherit old ideas and genealogy. I don’t want to descend from anyone.” For these reasons and more, Napoleonic era propaganda consistently burrowed material from ancient Rome, that age before the divine right of kings, when emperors were revered not so much as appointees of God but as dominus et deus (i.e. your lord and god).
The Roman Empire of old had been helmed by emperors from every social strata high and low; power was not so much forged by dynastic birthright as it was won by military command. Such was the norm during the Nerva–Antonine period, when transfers of power between the Five Good Emperors were based on merit rather than blood-ties. Dynastic succession became further irrelevant during the final centuries of the Imperium, when the Empire was ruled by a series of army generals each unrelated to the other. And so, Napoleon too shall be a barrack Emperor à la Rome, and France, newly enlarged, his imperial empire.
On May 18th, 1804, the French senate (Sénat Conservateur) vested the powers of government in an emperor, proclaiming Napoleon the sole master of France. On June 12th, the state council (Conseil d’État) convened to draw up the symbols of empire. The new regime required a heraldic animal and an emblem to adorn the new coat of arms. Various proposals emerged. The comte de Ségur noted that a lion is stronger than the English Leopard. Jean-Charles-Joseph Laumond retorted then the elephant is best, for it is the strongest of all animals. The men then proposed the French cockerel, that sacred animal of the Gauls, but Napoleon denounced the poor creature as “low and weak”, insisting he preferred the lion. Emmanuel Crétet, a merchant-turned-politician, persuaded Napoleon to consider the eagle, which had once been the standard of Roman legions. After a month of wavering, Napoleon crossed out the lion from the decree instituting his seal and coat of arms, and imposed the eagle.
The first matter settled, the committee then puzzled over the emblem, which heretofore had been the ever ubiquitous fleur-de-lis. Charles-François Lebrun, who had once shared power with Napoleon as consul, urged for the preservation of the fleur-de-lis, arguing that it is an emblem of France itself, having been the sacred lily of French saints and a symbol of national unity. But the council rejected the idea, believing the fleur-de-lis too intimately associated with the previous Bourbon monarchy. A clean break with the Ancien Régime must be made.
It was then that Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, another consul who had once shared power with Napoleon, brought up Childeric’s bees. Cambacérès, a brilliant lawyer best remembered today for having authored the Napoleonic code, must have read Chifflet’s 1655 publication on Childeric’s treasures, because it was brought up that the fleur-de-lis may have originally been Childeric’s bees, positioned upside-down and stylized overtime to resemble lilies— an argument originally made by Chiflet in his archeological study. The bee was proposed as an all-around winsome choice: it preserves the spirit of the fleur-de-lis, but overrides the Bourbon monarchy to connect with the Merovingian past, that period of junction when the Roman world bridged with that of the Franks. Cambacérès, a moderate Republican who secretly disapproved of Napoleon’s autocracy, further remarked—perhaps with a note of irony—that bees suited the new regime just fine, for France will be a giant hive with Napoleon at the head.
The council took Cambacérès seriously, and despatched commissioners to study Childeric’s bees. Chifflet’s work was reviewed by the group and a favorable consensus was reached. Napoleon agreed and the bee became the new emblem of the French Empire.
But while the eagle was a herald of the state, the bee came to represent Napoleon intimately, serving as his personal emblem. Jean-Baptiste Isabey, a miniature portraitist and friend of the Bonapartes, took to redesigning Childeric’s bees. The stylized, near-abstract originals were updated with a fuller rendering, replete with added details for verisimilitude, though the volant en arrière (seen from the top) form was preserved from the original. The resulting design was immensely handsome and suitable for fashionable wear, and would come to dominate the interiors, decorative arts, fashion, and general material culture of the Napoleonic court.
Childeric’s bees had been noteworthy for their numerousness (over 300 unearthed). Chifflet’s study made note of this and of the fastenings at back, suggesting perhaps the bees were once attached to Childeric’s cloak or burial mantle. Isabey, who also designed Napoleon’s coronation robes, incorporated this original function into his plans: bees of gilt wire were ordered from the imperial embroiderer and attached all over Napoleon and Josephine’s ermine-lined coronation robes. Even the Empress’ satin slippers were adorned with golden bees.
The bee became a symbol infused with power, its use reserved expressly for the Emperor and his inner circle. Anyone below the rank of High Officer were forbidden to take up the bee; dukes had to be content with stars, and those below dukes content with neither bees nor stars.
Imperial residences were decorated with carpets, wall-hangings, upholstery, and various textiles woven with bees. These creatures also appeared on furniture, ceramics, glass, and metalware.
But beyond expressions of privilege, the bee held an intimate position within the lives of the Bonapartes. Bees can be found at Empress Josephine’s Château de Malmaison, the private residence she had purchased as a newlywed and restored, and to where she would retreat after being deposed as Empress. Napoleon himself adopted the bee as a personal emblem. A jeweled cameo bearing his profile, executed by Nicola Morelli (1771-1838), shows the Emperor wearing a cloak of diamonds studded with bees. His own cloak, captured during the fraught hours of Waterloo, was decorated with a clasp framed with two bees.
In the end, the glory of emperors and bees would not last. On May 5th 1821, Napoleon would die in a damp and wind-shackled house thousands of miles off the west coast of Africa, his empire lost and ambitions dashed. Ten years later, the bees, along with most of Childeric’s treasures, would be lost the night of November 5th 1831, when thieves broke into the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and stole the treasure. The gold was melted down for their value and the scraps that remained tossed into a river. After an eight-month hunt, the Parisian police was only able to recover two of the originally 300 bees, along with scattered remnants.
Aside from the two small bees rescued from an original cache of over 300, Childeric’s bees would survive, unexpectedly, on the flag of Elba, which to this day features a simple banner lined with three bees. This flag was personally designed and donated to the island by Napoleon himself in 1814, following his defeat and exile to Elba. Gone are the Roman wreaths and imperial eagles. It’s ironic and somewhat poignant that a man who had once called the rooster weak and admired the lion would end up with three small bees. When asked by Admiral Thomas Ussher why he’d chosen three bees, Napoleon explained that the people of Elba has been ruled by three rulers, but under him, will see unity once more. But various accounts also suggest he wished to honor his soldiers and symbolize the hardworking people of Elba. And this: from the dust I rise again; buried and then unveiled, Childeric’s bees represents immortality and resurrection.