For a man who legend has it once dismissed the English as a “nation of shopkeepers,” Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t seem to mind their language. A rare letter from Napoleon written in English sold at auction over the weekend for $405,000.
The letter, a homework exercise that Napoleon sent to an English teacher to be corrected, was originally written in 1816, just five years before his death. After toiling for hours, he painfully wrote: “It’s two o’clock after midnight, I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night with you.”
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The year before, Napoleon had been famously defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by the armies of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain, bringing the Napoleonic wars to a close and marking the end of his reign. Napoleon spent the rest of his life — a brief six years — in exile on the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.
The French emperor-general grew frustrated and depressed in his final years. Nineteenth-century manuscript expert Alain Nicolas told the Associated Press that “He had a lot of moments to sit and reflect in Saint Helena. Learning English was a way to fill his time. It was near the end of his life: he used it as a time to think about his life, his campaigns, regrets and remorse… It’s very moving, since it’s one of the last pieces of writings in English before his death.”
According to auction organizers, the document is one of only three English letters written by Napoleon still in existence. The letter ultimately went to the highest bidder, the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris, for nearly five times its original estimate.
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Napoleon’s motivations may not have been purely educational. By all accounts, he still very much cared about what other people thought despite his loss at Waterloo. “He was always very worried about his image,” noted Jean-Pierre Osenat, president of the Osenat auction house. “He wanted to read what was said about him in the English press.”