Napoleon's Burnous

A man's cloak said to have been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte. c. 1800. A man's cloak said to have been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte. c. 1800. Royal Collection Trust / copyright Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Acc. no. RCIN 61156.

A burnous is a man’s hooded cloak traditionally worn in North Africa, especially Morocco. There is a particular example that is now in the Royal Collection, London (RCIN 61156). It is believed to have been owned by the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and taken after he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo (Belgium) on 18 June 1815.

'Napoleon’s burnous’ was among the items confiscated by General Blücher (the Prussian military leader and opponent of Napoleon at Waterloo), who presented it to the Prince Regent (the future George IV of Britain). It was recorded in July 1816 in the Carlton House Inventory as “Said to be a Cloak worn by Bonaparte” and “A large cloak made of Scarlet Cloth with Large Hood. The Hood, The Front Embroidered with Gold. Parts of the inside of the Front of the Cloak lined with Silk Embroidered with Gold.”

The garment was transferred to Windsor Castle in March 1837, as being the “Cloak of Napoleon 1st said to have been brought by him from Egypt, and teken [sic] out of his Carriage by the Prussians after Waterloo.” This attribution was strengthened in 1870 by a former Aide de Camp of Blücher who is said to have recognised it as the one he personally removed from the emperor’s baggage train.

The burnous is made from a thick red felt with a yellow silk brocade lining decorated with woven pink roses. The lower front of the garment is embellished with appliqué purple silk on the red felt. The stylised design so created is said to represent the French Imperial Eagle. There is also intricate passementerie decoration with a silver coloured cord on the hood, around the front and along the hem of the cloak. In addition, there are two decorative tassels hanging from the neck opening.

The hooded cloak is believed to have been made sometime between 1798-1805, possibly while Napoleon was in Egypt (in Tolstoy's War and Peace, Napoleon is described to have worn a cloak of this nature while in Egypt). Although the cloak is often described as Egyptian in style (probably because of the quote given above that it was “brought by him from Egypt”), in fact it is not. It is Maghrebi in style and closer to Algerian and Moroccan forms than Egyptian cloaks of the period. It would appear that the long shape of this burnous is particularly linked to Algerian authorities called bachagha.

It is not clear, however, if this particular burnous was actually made in North Africa or in France. The yellow silk cloth appears to be French in origin, while the red felt could be North African or French. The passementerie is typical of Maghrebi work. The use of a deep panel in the front connecting the two long sides of the cloak is also North African in style rather than French. Whatever its actual origins, the garment remains a very fine example of an early nineteenth century burnous style cloak

Royal Collection online catalogue (retrieved 16 August 2020)


Last modified on Sunday, 16 August 2020 18:59