Most tourists who visit the Hôtel des Invalides go because Napoléon's tomb is there. They enter only the one building, whip around the rotunda, looking down at the sarcophagus, and hotfoot it to a river cruise or the Eiffel Tower. We genealogists are so much more cool. We actually go inside and look around where thousands of elderly and disabled French soldiers of the ancien régime lived out their shattered lives.
Invalides was built by Louis XIV, a man who loved waging wars to expand France's borders and who lived long enough to wage many. The man also loved grand buildings -- think of Versailles. The two loves together led to the decision to create a magnificent home for the men who had sacrificed nearly their all for him. Many were crippled or mad and were begging in the streets. This may have discouraged others from wanting to serve. The king was not unique in this charitable plan, for the Chelsea Hospital in London was built a little bit later. Works began in 1671, just about half way through his 72-year-long reign, and became more grand as they went along. It is, indeed, grand. The great, gilded dome of the church is one of the most beautiful landmarks in Paris.
Invalides could house up to four thousand pensioners at a time. Their lives were still regimented, but secure. They were divided into companies and spent their days in workshops "making uniforms and boots, weaving and book illustration." They had simple but comfortable rooms, wore uniforms, attended church, sang in the choir. The hundred most severely handicapped lived in the hospital on the grounds.
Over 110,000 soldiers, of many nationalities, lived there, from 1673 to 1796. To find out who they were and to find a bit of very useful genealogical information on them, there is a searchable database of the Pensionnaires de l'Hôtel des Invalides. Typing a name in the search box will bring up a list of all pensioners' records that contain that string of letters, which is a bit messy but not too. The information comes from the entry registration forms for each pensioner and gives his:
- date of entering Invalides
- town of origin and nationality
- history of military service
- profession or skill, métier
- wounds and disabilities
- marital status
- (eventually) date of death
Once again, the military's mania for documentation plays into the genealogist's willing hands.
©2010 Anne Morddel