Search This Blog

Sunday, 14 August 2016



Napoléon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, one of five sons and two daughters of Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. Napoleon was the second son.

Napoleon's family was of minor Corsican nobility. His father, Carlo Bonaparte was a lawyer who’d actively plotted against the French occupation of Corsica. He was named Corsica's representative to the court of Louis XVI in 1778, where he remained for a number of years.

His mother, the beautiful Maria Letizia Ramolino, had married Napoleon’s father at the age of 14.

Napoleon was born in the palatial Maison Bonaparte on the River Saint Charles in the old part of Ajaccio on the west coast of Corsica. He lived there until he attended the military college at the age of 9.

He was originally named Napoleone Buonaparte. He later adopted the more French-sounding Napoléon Bonaparte, the first known instance of which appears in an official report dated March 28, 1796.

Napoleon's mother was the dominant influence of his childhood. Ahead of her time, she had her eight children bathe every other day—at a time when even those in the upper classes took a bath perhaps once a month. Her firm discipline helped restrain the rambunctious boy, nicknamed Rabullione (the "meddler" or "disrupter."

At the age of 9, Napoleon was admitted to a French military school at Brienne-le-Château, a small town near Troyes in Burgundy. He had to learn to speak French before entering the school. Napoleon spoke French with a marked Italian accent throughout his life, and was a poor speller.

He started his studies at the Brienne Military academy on May 15, 1779. Napoleon earned high marks in mathematics and geography, and passable grades in other subjects.

Upon graduation from Brienne in 1784, Napoleon attended Ecole Militaire in Paris where he received training as an artillery man and an officer.

Napoleon had a habit of speaking through his nose so his fellow cadets at the army training school and was nicknamed him “straw-in-the-nose”.

Napoleon had an IQ of 145, nearly Mensa standard.


Upon graduation from Ecole Militaire in September, 1785, Napoleon was commissioned as a second lieutenant of artillery, and took up his new duties in January 1786, at the age of 16.

Napoleon served on garrison duty in Valence and Auxonne until after the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 (although he took nearly two years of leave in Corsica and Paris during this period). He spent most of the next several years on Corsica, where a complex three-way struggle was played out among royalists, revolutionaries, and Corsican nationalists. Bonaparte supported the Jacobin faction, and gained the position of lieutenant-colonel of a regiment of volunteers.

Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers

After coming into conflict with the increasingly conservative nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, Bonaparte and his family were forced to flee from Corsica to France in June 1793.

In September 1793, a young Napoleon assumed command of an artillery brigade at the siege of Toulon, where royalist leaders had welcomed a British fleet and enemy troops. The British were driven out of the French port in December 17, 1793 when Napoleon dragged his cannon to high ground to pound the city more effectively. He was rewarded with promotion to brigadier general and assigned to the French army in Italy in February 1794.

Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon

It took only 20 minutes for news to reach Paris from Lille (230 kms away) of Napoleon's 1794 recapture of Le Quesnoly from the Austrians. The news was communicated by the newly invented semaphore system.

Napoleon's actions brought him to the attention of the Committee of Public Safety, and he became a close associate of Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of the Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. After the guillotining of Robespierre, Napoleon was arrested in suspicion of being a supporter of the revolutionary. 11 days later he was released at the request of Commander of Chief of Alps and Italy's forces to reinforce his staff.

General Napoleon Bonaparte was appointed by the republic to repel the royalists on October 5, 1795. He used cannons with grapeshot to destroy a rebel gathering in front of the church of Saint-Roch. More than a 1,400 royalists died and the rest fled. The defeat of the Royalist rebellions ended the threat to the Convention and earned Bonaparte sudden fame, wealth, and the patronage of the new Directory.

Bonaparte's soldiers fire upon insurgents at the church of Saint Roch

In 1797 Napoleon set up the Cisalpine republic with its capital of Milan. It was governed by a directorate of five members and a parliament of two houses. In 1805 it became the Kingdom of Italy.

When Napoleon was in charge of the French army of the interior, he offered a prize for a practical way of preserving food for his marching army. On hearing of this potential reward, Nicholas-Francois Appert, a French maker of conserves of fruit came up with the can, winning the reward and starting the canning industry.

After fighting campaigns in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon returned to Paris in October 1799 at a time when the Republic was bankrupt, and the ineffective government of the Directory was unpopular with the French population. He overthrew the Directory and established his own dictatorship on November 9, 1899, nominally as First Consul. Bonaparte was now the most powerful person in France, and he took up residence at the Tuileries.

Bonaparte, First Consul, by Ingres. 


Napoleon often worked a 16-hour day and expected the Council of State to match his stamina.

In May 1802, Napoleon instituted the Legion of Honour, a substitute for the old royalist decorations and orders of chivalry, to encourage civilian and military achievements; the order is still the highest decoration in France.

The Napoleonic Code was drafted by a commission of four eminent jurists and entered into force on March 21, 1804. It emphasized equality in the eyes of the law, justice and common sense and formed the basis of modern French law. They were forced on all conquered countries.

First page of the 1804 original edition

Napoleon took 14,000 French decrees and simplified them into a unified set of seven laws. The laws are so impressive that by 1960, more than 70 governments had patterned their own laws after them or used them verbatim. It was the first time in modern history that a nation’s laws applied equally to all citizens.

Thomas Jefferson wrote. "It is really more questionable than may at first be thought, whether Bonaparte's dumb legislature, which said nothing and did much, may not be preferable to one which talks much and does nothing."

To restore prosperity, Napoleon modernized finance. He regulated the economy to control prices, encouraged new industry, and built roads and canals. To ensure well-trained officials and military officers, he promoted a system of public schools under firm government control.

In February 1804, a British-financial plot against Bonaparte was uncovered by the former police minister Joseph Fouche. It gave Napoleon a reason to start a hereditary dynasty. Napoleon was crowned Emperor on December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame de Paris in a ceremony presided over by Pope Pius VII.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David in 1804.

The habit of driving on the right was introduced in France during the French Revolution reforms. Napoleon then exported this idea to other countries which he had conquered, all who had driven on the left before.

After defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon had no choice but to abdicate in favor of his son. However, the Allies refused to accept this. Napoleon abdicated without conditions on April 11, 1814.

Napoleon's farewell to his Imperial Guard, 20 April 1814

In the Treaty of Fontainebleau the victors exiled him to Elba, an island of 12,000 inhabitants in the Mediterranean. The Allies allowed Napoleon to keep an imperial title "Emperor of Elba" and an allowance of 2 million francs a year

Separated from his son and wife, who had come under Austrian control and aware of rumors he was about to be banished to a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26, 1815. He made a surprise march to Paris, accompanied by a regular army of 140,000 and a volunteer force of around 200,000,  Napoleon again became ruler of France.

Napoleon returned from Elba, by Karl Stenben, 19th century

The period of Napoleon's last period of power in France, from March 20 to July 8, 1815 is often called the Hundred Days. It is in fact 111 days.


Napoleon is credited with introducing the concept of the modern professional conscript army to Europe, an innovation which other states were forced to follow.

A great inspirer, during the Italian campaign Napoleon would tell his tired, hungry men about the good food and the comfortable lodgings they would find beyond the mountains.

In 1800, Napoleon ensured his power by crossing the Alps and defeating the Austrians at Marengo. He then negotiated a general European peace that established the Rhine River as the eastern border of France.

Two years before the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon passed up the opportunity of owning the first steam warship ever built. The inventor, Robert Fulton, had been experimenting in France with the encouragement of Napoleon. Fulton had also designed a cigar shaped submarine but again Napoleon would have nothing to do with the scheme. Either one would probably have resulted in the invasion of Britain.

Napoleon's had ambitions in Louisiana wishing to create a new empire centered on the Caribbean sugar trade. However, when the army led by Napoleon's brother-in-law Leclerc was defeated, the French emperor decided to sell Louisiana.

On April 30, 1803. France transferred the land to the United States as the Louisiana Purchase. The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million or less than US$0.03 per acre.

Napoleon was taking a bath one morning in 1803 when his brothers Joseph and Lucian rushed in furious as they had just heard of his plan to sell Louisiana to the Americans. Joseph warned Napoleon that he might end up in exile if he carried out his plan. At this Napoleon fell back angrily in his tub, splashing water over his valet who fainted and crushed to the floor with hot towels over his arms.

The Battle of Trafalgar was a sea battle fought on October 21, 1805 between the navies of France and Spain on one side, and Great Britain on the other. The battle took place near Cape Trafalgar in southwest Spain. At the battle, 27 British ships led by Admiral Nelson defeated 33 French and Spanish ships. The French and Spaniards lost 22 ships in the battle; all the British ships survived. Britain's victory allowed them to become the world's largest sea power for 100 years.

Emperor Napoleon abandoned plans to invade Britain and turned his armies against the Austro-Russian forces, defeating them at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.

Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard 1805

Napoleon's historic triumph at the Battle of Austerlitz, led to the elimination of the Holy Roman Empire, 1000 years after it had been set up by Charlemagne.

Napoleon's 1806 Continental System Berlin Decree excluded British goods from French controlled Europe, thus attempting to destroy Britain economically and affect its war revenues. This failed due to Britain's 1807 counter, The Order of Council, which closed continental ports to neutral ships thus greatly hindering French overseas trade.

On May 21, 1809 the French made their first major effort to cross the Danube, precipitating the Battle of Aspern-Essling. However, they were driven back by the Austrians under Archduke Charles. The result was the first defeat Napoleon suffered personally in a major set-piece battle in over a decade. The French emperor's set back caused excitement throughout many parts of Europe because it proved that he could be beaten on the battlefield.

The Battle of Aspern-Essling,

Two months later, Napoleon solidified his grip over Europe after triumphing at the Battle of Wagram in July 1809.

In 1812 Napoleon decided to attack Russia. However the invasion proved to be a disaster and he lost hundreds of thousands of his hungry and cold troops during their retreat through the freezing Russian winter.

The Russians actually considered the winter when Napoleon invaded their country to be "a relatively mild winter"

By December 14, 1812, the last French troops had escaped Russia, starving, cold and stalked by Cossacks. More than 400,000 Frenchmen died during Napoleon's disastrous six-month-long invasion attempt. The campaign shattered the Grande Armée and was a major turning point in the war.

Napoleon's withdrawal from Russia, a painting by Adolph Northen

After the Russian debacle Napoleon hurried back to France unaccompanied. Feeling his position at home precarious he arrived at the River Nemen. The French Emperor asked the ferryman if many deserters had come through "no" replied the Russian. "You are the first."

Napoleon said to the Abbe du Pradt about the retreat "Du sublime au ridicule il n'yy qu'un pas". ("From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.")

The coalition armies led by Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, launched the German campaign. Napoleon assumed command against them in Germany and inflicted a series of defeats on the Coalition culminating in the Battle of Dresden in August 1813.

Despite these successes, the numbers continued to mount against Napoleon, and the French army was pinned down by a force twice its size and lost at the Battle of Leipzig between October 16-19. The battle involved about 600,000 soldiers, making it the largest battle before World War I.

After defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon had was forced to abdicate without conditions. He said: "There is no personal sacrifice [I am] not willing to make for France." The victors exiled him to the Mediterranean island of Elba.

Napoleon escaped from Elba by taking advantage of the fact that his guardian, Neil Campbell, the British commissioner, had gone to Naples to have his ears tested.

Napoleon's Hundred Days ended when he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by the British under Duke of Wellington and the Prussians on June 18, 1815. He was captured and taken to his second exile on the island of Saint Helena on the Atlantic Ocean.

Out of the 60 battles Napoleon fought, he only lost 7 of them.


Having been bought up by a devoutly Catholic mother, Napoleon became influenced by Rousseau's ideas before adopting the popular cult of reason. By the mid-1790s he was an agnostic who counted the Catholic Church as an enemy.

As first consul, though Napoleon did not share the beliefs of the French people, for their sake he restored the Catholic Church and legalized the Huguenot Church. He saw how men behave when they remove God from the equation. "Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet", Napoleon said.


The stereotype look of Napoleon is with his black felt hat turned down in the front and up at the back with his left hand tucked into his waistcoat. Posing with the hand inside the waistcoat was often used in portraits of rulers to indicate calm and stable leadership.

By Édouard Detaille -Wikipedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon was not especially short. After his death in 1821, the French emperor's height was recorded as 5 foot 2 inches in French feet. This corresponds to 5 foot 6.5 inches in English feet, or 1.7 meters, making him slightly taller than an average Frenchman of the 1800s.

He wore his red hair in a Brutus, Neo classical cut with short curls brushed forward over the forehead.

Jacques-Louis David - The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries

When Napoleon wore black silk handkerchiefs around his neck during a battle he always won. At Waterloo he wore a white cravat and lost the battle.

The French emperor often wore mid calf Hessian boots and tight white breeches with long tail coats.

Napoleon was taciturn and emotional. He had a pompous manner and was nicknamed “the little corporal” by his soldiers.

Such was Napoleon's charisma that Wellington calculated Napoleon's known presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 extra men to the French.

He had a predictable conversational style with little humor.


The willowy Joséphine de Beauharnais was among the gayest of French women in her era. She was good-natured, with refined manners, grace and charm.

Napoleon's first wife, Joséphine

Napoléon was attracted by Joséphine's grace and charm, her delicately turned up nose and her long lashed eyes.

Until meeting Napoléon, she was known as Rose, but Bonaparte preferred to call her Joséphine, the name she adopted from then on.

They married on March 9, 1796 in a civil marriage ceremony.

Napoleon once bought Josephine a dress entirely covered in fresh rose petals.

Napoleon and Josephine were both very fond of jewels and they spent vast sums on them. The French emperor recovered almost all the stones from the old French crown jewels and had them reset for his wife.

Josephine did not have any children with Napoleon. Because of this he divorced her on January 10, 1810.  Joséphine agreed to the divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir.

A few months after divorcing Josephine, Napoleon married his second wife, the 19 year old Marie-Louise of Austria, a daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor, Francis II on April 1, 1810. She duly presented him with a son the future Napoléon II. (He is known as Napoléon II of France although he never ruled. In his later life he was known as the Duke of Reichstadt.)

Napoleon was very fond of Marie-Louise. He referred to her as “Donne Louise” and he daily wrote affectionate letters to her whilst on campaign.

Napoleon's second wife, Marie-Louise

Marie-Louise died in Parma in 1847 having remarried twice.

It is claimed Napoleon's success with women was partly due to the cologne (a mixture of lemon, orange and bergamot essences) that he splashed on himself between engagements.

Napoleon chose to be celebrate in his later years eschewing the female companionship available.

The word "chauvinistic" is derived from the 19th century French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin who was over enthusiastic in his attachment to his emperor, Napoleon. Some of his contemporaries used his name to illustrate exaggerated patriotism in plays and the name stuck.


Napoleon and Josephine held their lively parties at Malmaison Chateau. This Seine retreat was given to Josephine as part of her divorce settlement.

Napoleon adored Fontainebleau's Chateaux, 37 miles South East of Paris. He called it the House of Eternity.


Napoleon was fond of Italian music. He wanted melodious, pompous, formal music for France, which was at the time the Italian style.

A keen reader, Napoleon could digest a book at an astonishing speed but would chuck it out of the window if it bored him.

His palace at Elba had 2378 books.

Napoleon always hated losing; when playing chess he would replace a forfeited piece on the board.

The card game known as "Nap" is named after him.

At home or on military campaign, Napoleon often would relax with a session with his yo-yo.

Napoleon once commanded a rabbit shoot of such magnitude that masses of tame rabbits were released to supplement the wild ones. Instead of hopping away to be shot they swarmed fearlessly over the great Corsican and his carriage.


Napoleon hated cats so much that some belief he suffered from ailurophonbia, the fear of cats.

The French emperor was once spotted lunging with his sword through the tapestry that lined the walls trying to get rid of a sweet little kitten.

Napoleon loved white horses and at one time owned at least 50 including a white Barbary Egyptian horse called Marengo. He was named after the 1800 Battle of Maremgo where his performance had impressed Napoleon. He was still riding it at Waterloo and Marengo outlived Napoleon after he was captured by the British and brought to London.

In 1813, Napoleon ordered painted portraits of his 23 horses. He used at least 100 steeds during his reign.

Josephine had a pug called Fortune who once bit Napoleon on the leg for crowding him in bed.

Napoleon's favourite flower was the violet. The flower and color became the symbol of Bonapartists but after Waterloo it became dangerous to even admire one.


Napoleon ate very rapidly; he never took more than 20 minutes to finish a meal, often eating with his fingers. He usually finished long before anyone else.

Sometimes Napoleon ate in reverse order starting with a sweet and finishing with a starter. The sweet toothed emperor was very fond of liquorice-indeed his teeth were almost permanently black from chewing it.

Napoleon was superstitious about dining at a dinner table with 12 others. He feared that the first person to rise from the dinner table with 13 would die before the year was out.

On one occasion, Napoleon was pursuing his enemy with such vigor that he left the commissary, but not his cook, Dunand, far behind. The French emperor, as was his habit, had not eaten before the battle; and was certain to be famished. When he called for a meal he demanded immediate service. Dunand was desperate. Foragers were sent out and turned up only meager booty - a scrawny chicken, four tomatoes, three eggs, a few crayfish, a pinch of garlic - and a frying pan. Napoleon found the dish excellent and ordered that it be served after every battle. It was christened Chicken Marengo.

He carried chocolate with him on his military campaigns and always consumed some when he needed a boost of energy.

Napoleon was partial to Vin de Constance, a sweet South African wine.


Napoleon liked neither doctors nor medicines. He preferred fresh air, water and cleanliness and relied on hot baths to cure every kind of cold and fever.

The French emperor appeared to be unusually slow and inept in his decision making during the Russian campaign, probably because his pituitary gland had failed, which made him listless and overweight.

When the defeated Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba, he swallowed the contents of a small bottle of opium he had carried about him for the last two years. It left him alive but screaming with stomach cramps. Napoleon had planned to blow his brains out but his valet had removed the powder from the two pistols he kept by his bed.

A hemorrhoids sufferer, his piles were so painful that he couldn't mount his horse to survey the field at Waterloo, which may well have contributed to the outcome. He also had a headache in the morning before the battle.

An insomniac, he could get by on four night's sleep a night.

Napoleon experienced a relatively injury free career and was only wounded once in his campaigns at the Battle of Pyramids when his horse kicked him on the foot.


After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered on his ship "Bellerophon" and was exiled to St Helena.

After escaping from Elba and being recaptured, Napoleon was held for a time off the hamlet of Causand on the Cornish shore off Plymouth sound on the Man of War Bellerophon. Boatloads of sightseers crowded round the vessel trying to get a look at the great man.

When the Northumberland first reached St Helena, Napoleon's first reaction was to spend two hours surveying it through a glass telescope.

Napoleon arrived on St Helena accompanied by 2,000 English soldiers and their government officials as well as the former French emperor's servants, including his pastry cook, groom and two personal valets.

On St Helena Napoleon wrote "Everything breaths a mortal boredom here".

Napoleon on Saint Helena

Napoleon spent his last six years on St Helena watching clouds, gardening, playing cards and chess and lying in his bath. Some of his baths on St Helena lasted several hours.

The news that Napoleon had taken up gardening at St Helena appealed to more domestic British sensibilities.

Napoleon kept himself up to date of the world's events through The London Times.

The home made scent that Napoleon sprinkled on his socks at St Helena is now housed in the Osmotheque Museum of Smells, France.

The converted cattle barn where he lived at Longwood, St Helena is now a museum containing some Napoleon mementos.

Longwood House, Saint Helena: site of Napoleon's captivity. CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikipedia Commons


In February 1821, Napoleon's health began to deteriorate rapidly and he reconciled with the Catholic Church.

He died of stomach cancer on May 5, 1821, after confession, Extreme Unction and Viaticum in the presence of Father Ange Vignali. Napoleon's last words were, "France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine" ("France, army, head of the army, Joséphine")

Napoleon on his death bed, by Horace Vernet, 1826

Napoléon had asked in his will to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but when he died in 1821 he was buried on Saint Helena. This final wish was not executed until 1840, when his remains were taken to France in the frigate Belle-Poule and were buried in a Neo classical tomb under the dome of the Hotel Des Invalides, Paris in 1840 along with his brothers Jerome and Joseph.

Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides

The last member of the famous Bonaparte family, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, died in 1945, of injuries sustained from tripping over his dog's leash.

Sources Food For Thought by Ed Pearce, A History of Fashion by J Anderson Black

No comments:

Post a Comment