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Rare Napoleon letter illuminates English skills

FONTAINEBLEAU, France--An illuminating letter written by Napoleon in English, sold at auction Sunday for 325,000 euros (US$405,000), offers a window into the mind of the French emperor, struggling with syntax of the language of enemy Britain.

The standard-sized sheet of paper is a homework exercise Napoleon sent to an English teacher for correction in 1816 and was sealed with the imperial eagle wax stamp.

It's one of three such English-language letters by Napoleon in the world, according to the auction organizers, and was bought by Paris' Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in a dramatic bidding war near the Chateau of Fontainebleau, one of Napoleon's south of Paris.

The selling price — five times what was predicted — suggests the document's historic value, as rare proof that Napoleon, who famously dismissed England as a “nation of shopkeepers,” learned to speak the language of Shakespeare late in life.

He wrote the letter while a captive by the British in the remote island of Saint Helena following his defeat at Waterloo, according to the Osenat auction house.

The house's president, Jean-Pierre Osenat, says Napoleon's English lessons were “very noble, respectful.”

“He really had a great admiration for England, the rules and history. The English have the wrong idea: Napoleon didn't hate them, he was just a military man, and the French interests were different to the English,” he said.

But did admiration alone lead the empire-building Frenchman to learn English?

It seems that vanity, too, may have played a role — and though he was stranded on the South Atlantic Ocean island, he still cared about what people thought.

“Of course, he was always very worried about his image. He wanted to read what was said about him in the English press,” added Osenat, with a wry smile.

Whatever the reason and despite Napoleon's best efforts — months of hard study, often late into the night — the letter shows he still had some way to go in mastering the language of Shakespeare.

It begins: “It's two o'clock after midnight, I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night with you.”

Napoleon addressed the letter to the Count Las Cases, his teacher, “at his bonk” — thought to be the word “bunk” misspelled.

In a moment of surprising humility, Napoleon Bonaparte asks his teacher in the letter to indulge him and correct his mistakes.

The document offers insight into the historical jigsaw puzzle of who Napoleon became when imprisoned and in exile.

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A March 9, 1816 letter written in English by French emperor Napoleon the 1st is presented in Fontainebleau, South of Paris, before being auctioned on Sunday, June 10.

(AP)

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