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A Brief History of the Les Invalides in Paris

Updated: Nov 9

What is Les Invalides?


Les Invalides is a complex of buildings in Paris relating to French military history and housing France’’s war heroes, including Napoleon Bonaparte.


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Les Invalides History


As he lay dying in the Palace of Versailles, King Louis XIV expressed two profound regrets about his 72-year reign. Firstly, that he had loved war too much; secondly, that he had spent too much money. The old king was worried about his destination in the afterlife, but during his time on earth the sins for which he feared divine Judgment were key to his success. He significantly expanded French territory by waging war on his neighbours, and his overspending helped to transform Paris into a flourishing centre for the arts and sciences.


Les Invalides, a grand military retirement home and hospital, was the culmination of Louis’s proclivity for warmongering and overspending. Commissioned in 1670, it was perhaps his most ambitious architectural project. Since France was constantly at war, Les Invalides was judged to be a sound investment. In a time before states dispensed organised social welfare, the king was anxious that his injured, disabled and elderly soldiers would be cared for. By 1714, the rambling complex of buildings could accommodate 4,000 patients at any one time.


During the 18th century, the cellars at Les Invalides were used to store ammunition. This decision came back to haunt the French establishment during the Revolution: on 14 July 1789, prior to the storming of the Bastille, partisans captured Les Invalides, stealing several cannons and thousands of muskets that would prove instrumental in their success.


Louis wasn’t the only French leader associated with Les Invalides. Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s last great military imperialist, used to visit convalescing troops here. He was eventually laid to rest here as well, in the Dôme des Invalides, although he had not died a soldier’s death – he developed gastric cancer following his defeat by the Coalition and subsequent exile on the isle of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. Napoleon’s final years as French leader involved several enormities, including a neglect of his own forces: despite his public show of support for his Grande Armée, on the battlefield he considered his soldiers expendable. During the retreat from Moscow in 1812 he squandered the lives of 400,000 loyal men. Their starved corpses were found in the snow, frozen in their last desperate moments. Yet despite such cruelty, Napoleon remained incredibly popular within France, and in 1840 King Louis-Philippe arranged for the return of his remains from Saint Helena. The excavation and erection of the crypt at Les Invalides took 20 years to complete which meant that Napoleon’s body was only laid to rest 40 years after he died.


By the early 20th century the number of veterans living at Les Invalides had dwindled. The military had become a conscript army and a national military welfare scheme was developed. As a result, the relevance of supporting a few cherished veterans declined, and in 1905 the veterans of Les Invalides were moved out of their old home, and it was dedicated to military history.


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