Turkey oak, Quercus cerris; Hedgeley Dean, Malvern (April 2020)

Having watched Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and read Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon the Great (both of which rely heavily on the recently curated correspondence of Napoleon), I was keen to find some quirky Quercus connections in this complex man’s life.

First up the Montenotte medal, which Roberts describes as ‘just over 1½ inches in diameter, depicting a bust of Napoleon on the obverse side with his coat embroidered with oak leaves and acorns, a figure representing the ‘Genius of War’ on the reverse’. The medal was struck during his successful campaign leading the Army of Italy, in 1796, before he became Emperor.

The oak appears on the collar and as a border down the front of Napoleon’s coat. It seems this was standard French military dress at the time: ‘a single-breasted blue woollen coat with a red collar, red cuffs with white flaps, gold oak-leaf embroidery on the collar, cuffs, pockets and front and rear openings, and a red-and-white sash with gold trim’. 

From the leaf outline, the oak could be a downy oak, Quercus pubescens, a species growing naturally in Napoleon’s homeland, Corsica (along with holm oak, Quercus ilex, and cork oak, Quercus suber). But that is pure romance. Given he is wearing a standard French uniform it is more likely to be a species like the Turkey oak, Quercus cerris. That leaf is also a good match, although the acorns don’t have the bristly cup.

Turkey oak, Quercus cerris; Hedgeley Dean, Malvern (April 2020)
Turkey oak, Quercus cerris, acorn; Hedgeley Dean, Malvern (April 2020)

Another version of the medal, also struck in 1796, shows a different rendition of the oak but again it could be the Turkey oak. In both cases, though, I suspect it is a poor rendition of the English or pedunculate oak, Quercus robur, found throughout France. The acorns of that species are less ornate and so more like those in the medals.

Sadly for us oak buffs, later medals have plant material only in laurels around his head, which seem to be made from … laurel (Laurus nobilis) leaves. 

However, as Roberts tells us, at his coronation Napoleon ‘wore a long satin, gold-embroidered gown that reached his ankles, over which he had an ermine-line crimson velvet mantle with a golden bee motif bordered with olive, laurel and oak leaves, which weighed more than 80 pounds’. Apparently, it took his brother Joseph and three others lift it to his shoulders. 

Given the amount of travel Napoleon did during his years as General and Emperor, he will have passed many oak trees, perhaps camping next to some. At least two of these have been designated ‘Napoleon Oaks’. 

The best known is, or was, in Zabór, Lubusz Voivodeship, in Poland. According to Wikipedia, it was deliberately burnt (for at least the third time in its life apparently) and died in 2010, it was considered the largest oak in Poland (although so too is the Chrobry Oak, also set on fire in recent years). Both are what we – but I doubt Napoleon – would call an English oak (Quercus robur). Reputedly, Napoleon Bonaparte stopped near this one in Zabór on his ill-fated trip to Russia in 1812, when the tree was 300-400 years old. 

There is another Napoleon Oak at Saint-Sulpice, Lausanne, Switzerland; again, to rub it in, an English oak. This tree was 22 years old when on 12 May 1800, Napoleon marched past what is now the University of Lausanne, into Italy. The age of that tree is considered reasonably accurate, but there a story circulating that it may have been replanted after Napoleon’s visit, by the de Loys family, who owned the Dorigny Estate which became the university. 

They may have moved the tree to a position better suited to Napoleon’s new status. That status has changed over the years of course, but both the film and the book, portray an intriguing – if deeply flawed – individual.  

Turkey oak, Quercus cerris; Hedgeley Dean, Malvern (April 2020)
  • "NAPOLEON" (jacket, pants, boot covers, hat) - (S)
    Thème : époques Ligne : 01 costumes Souligne : costumes adultes Genre : Adulte Homme

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