Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

General Junot and the Holy Bible of Belem

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

In the year 1807, a poweful French host under the authoritative leadership of the Jean-Andoche Junot (born at Bussy-le-Grand, Côte d’Or, on 25 September 1771) commenced the invasion of Portugal. The French contingents started their offensive pushing on November 19; by November 30, a mobile force of 2000 entered the capital --  Lisbon. Aware of the approaching military storm, the Portuguese royal family, the Braganzas, had evacuated the city just two days before Junot’s arrival.  On the way to the port, a last sparkling gleam of aristocratic effusion was showed by the old queen: “Not so fast”, she told her coachman, “people will think we are fleeing”.

On 23 December, Junot was appointed commandant en chef l’ armée de Portugal(1).

However, the political and military events unfolding in Portugal were to become more circumstanced, and sharp-cut(2).  

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Junot’s Theological Induction

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in Belem, Lisbon, Portugal.

After the return of General Junot, complaints had been made to the Emperor about the too great extension which the Duke d’Abrantès had given to the right of conquest in Portugal, amongst other things the seizure of the famous Bible at the convent of Belem.

To understand the value attached to this manuscript by the Portuguese Government, it is necessary to give a brief outline of its history. At the time of the discovery of the route to East India by the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco de Gama sent the King of Portugal, Dom Manuel, the first fruits of the riches of these countries, consisting in gold, pearls, and diamonds. According to the ideas current at that time Dom Manuel thought it his duty to offer these first fruits to the Holy See. Julius II, who at that time occupied the pontifical chair, sent back in return a manuscript to the King of Portugal. This manuscript was remarkable for the perfection of its writing, the beauty of the vignettes, picked out with gold, for the magnificence of its binding and of its clasps which were enriched with precious stones. This manuscript was a Bible with a commentary by Dom Thomas de Lira, in seven big quarto volumes.

Dom Manuel had just founded the Convent of Hieronymites at Belem.  He had the work deposited there and placed it under the prior’s care. This book was only shown, even in quite recent times, with the greatest circumspection. The monks were not allowed to part with it without an authorization not only signed but entirely written by the King.

General Junot having heard about this marvel and using the right of conquest, had it brought to him, promising to return it in three days, a promise which he forgot to keep. Events brought on the battle of Vimeiro and the Convention of Cintra, which stipulated for the evacuation of Portugal by the French troops.

The Prior of the Hieronymites asked the English commander for the return of the Bible and an officer was despatched to General Junot to ask for its restitution. Junot alleged that the manuscript had been sent to France by the aviso which had informed the Emperor of the Convention of Cintra and expressed his regret at not being able to restore it. This Bible accordingly remained in Paris in the General’s library.

At his death his furniture, pictures, and books were sold.  The Bible was not included in the catalogue and was reserved for sale by private treaty. A Frenchman who had lived twelve years in Portugal and who had returned to France was charged to write to the Emperor, who was in Dresden at the time, to inform him of the matters and to solicit his interference for the restitution of this Bible.  The Emperor wrote to the Duke of Rovigo, Minister of Police, on the subject who took the steps prescribed by Napoleon.

The wretched Duke d’Abrantès had died in consequence of a deplorable mental illness.  Out of interest for Madame d’Abrantès, left a widow and without fortune, and considering perhaps that time had, so to speak, legitimized the possession of a booty taken in war, the Emperor did not insist on the order of restitution which he had given.  He was, moreover, much too busy to pay any serious attention to this matter and it remained as it stood.

The Restoration

Marquis de Palmella, Portuguese ambassador to Paris, and Count de Funchal, Portuguese ambassador to Rome, took steps for the restitution of the precious manuscript. Count Funchal asked for an audience with King Louis XVIII and obtained an order from him which obliged the Duchess d’Abrantès to restore the Bible. But, in view of Madame d’Abrantès precarious position, the King insisted that a sum of eighty thousand francs, the sum at which the Bible had been estimated, should be paid to the Duchess. Thanks to this arrangement, the Bible, with the commentary of Dom Thomas de Lira, found its way back to the Hieronymite Convent, where it is to this day.

The poor prior of the monastery had been exiled for three years for having allowed himself to be deprived of this manuscript, in spite of the fact that he had been quite powerless to oppose it”(3).

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It is worth recalling Junot collected fine editions. It is known he built up a fine collection of works on vellum; they were from Didot of Paris, and Bodoni(4) in Parma. The Duke had Didot’s editions of Horace, and the works of the French poet Jean de  La Fontaine; the original drawings of Perciers provided a lavishly illustrated embellishment to both the primeval pieces. Bodoni had equally produced a three volume masterpiece: the Iliad – intended to be presented to the Emperor as the maximum expression of the art of printing.

Junot’s collecting during his stay in Portugal was very disputable.  The taking of the Bible of Belem was the most notorious example of illegal seizing. As it is understood, Divine Providence had things restored to their proper order, and the sacred writings came back in the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in Belem. The plundering of foreign military occupiers had to cede to the renewed flux of civilization and behaviour probity. Preserving cultural values, and a secular heritage, were once more appreciated beyond the fluctations of times.


(1)Further promotion was gained on 1 February 1808, when Junot was appointed gouverneur-général du Pourtugal.

(2)A 14000-man British expeditionary force under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesly landed at Mondego Bay (early August). From August 15 to 21, Wellesly inflicted defeats and setbacks on Junot’s forces.   French troops were routed after heavy fighting at the battle of Vimeiro (21 August).

The engagement started toward 09.00 a.m., and was over by midday; out of 18800 units, British and Portuguese casualties numbered 720 killed and wounded; French losses (killed and wounded), out of 13050, were estimated at 2000. They also lost 13 artillery pieces.  In the tactical sphere, the British-Portuguese  army lost a most favourable opportunity to follow up their strategic advantage by by not advancing on Lisbon. These defeats compelled Junot to open negotiations.

Following talks between Sir Hew Dalrymple and François Etienne Kellermann, a convention was signed at the Palace of Queluz, in Queluz-Sintra, Estremadura, on August 30, 1808.

According to its compensative (or lenient) clauses, Junot’s army, numbering over twenty thousand effectives, were allowed to evacuate from Portugal without further conflict.  The British repatriated them to Rochefort, Junot arriving on October 11.  Quick news of yet another massive French defeat widely spread throughout the countries of Europe.

(3) Excerpt quoted from: Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs, Vol. II, pp. 180-182.

(4) Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813), of Saluzzo, was a printer who lived in Parma. In this town, he directed the Stamperia reale; master of the typographical art, he created the printing-types that originated from his name, and a new aesthetics of the book.


Méneval, Claude-François de. Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1894.Vol. II.

Oman, Sir, Charles. A History of the Peninsular War. Volume One: 1807-1809 From The Treaty Of Fontainebleau To The Battle of Corunna. London: Greenhill Books, 1995.

Weller, Jac. Wellington In The Peninsula. London: Greenhill Books, 1999.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2006

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