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Napoleon: the rise and fall of a dictator
Napoleon was a soldier who made himself Emperor of the French and defined early 19th-century Europe through the Napoleonic Wars. Follow the ups and downs of the great conqueror, who was born a Corsican outsider but rose to become Europe's greatest military mind, only to spend his final years as an exile on St Helena
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Published: April 6, 2021 at 5:02 pm
Each day at Longwood House was not very different from the last. The man living – or confined – there would be awoken early, sip a cup of tea or coffee in his white pique dressing gown and red Morocco slippers, then wash from a silver basin.
Mornings could include a ride around the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, 1,000 miles from anywhere, but he found it humiliating to be followed by a British officer so put a stop to these excursions.
Instead Napoleon kept himself to the damp, windswept and rat-infested house, which stood alone so as better to be guarded by 125 sentries during the day, 72 at night. He staved off boredom by taking long baths, reading, talking with companions and dictating his memoirs.
Gardening became another keen hobby as he considered it expansion of territory against his jailors. In the evenings, he entertained his few friends with a five-course meal and reciting French writers such as Molière, Corneille and Racine.
The longer he could make these last, he remarked, meant a “victory against time”. After retiring, he slept on an iron camp bed, a reminder of his glory days in battle. This is how Napoleon passed the final five and a half years of his life in the wake of the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
This had been the man who conquered continental Europe the greatest military mind of his, perhaps any, time a man whose battlefield nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, had described him as being worth 40,000 men. He had risen to be emperor of France, then fallen to be prisoner of St Helena.
Napoleon on St Helena: how exile became the French emperor’s last battle
He’d already escaped one island internment, but Napoleon’s banishment to St Helena in 1815 was permanent. All at sea in the Atlantic, the fallen French ruler’s final years were a battle of a different kind…
Follow the links below to jump to each section:
Who was Napoleon?
Napoleon’s career began 30 years before Waterloo, in 1785, when he graduated from the military academy in Paris. Although skilled in his studies and a ravenous reader of military strategies, it had been a trying education for the Corsican-born Napoleone di Buonaparte (he changed it to the more French-sounding name in 1796) as classmates always regarded him as an outsider, not helped by his strange accent.
When his father died, the 15-year-old became head of his family. He ended up bringing them to France in 1793 after relations in Corsica, where he had advocated independence from the French, broke down. Yet while the beloved homeland rejected him, his adopted nation offered opportunities to flourish.
Revolution swept through the country bringing about a new era, allowing the ambitious Napoleon to rise through the ranks. For his pivotal role in capturing the city of Toulon from royalists, during which he picked up a wound to the thigh, he became a brigadier-general at the age of 24.
Coming to the rescue of the republic again in October 1795, he quashed a revolt in Paris that threatened to overthrow the National Convention. For this, he became military adviser to the new government, the Directory, and commander-in-chief of the French Army of Italy.
Just before leaving on his highly successful Italian campaign, Napoleon became utterly besotted by, and married, a woman six years older than him, a widow of the guillotine named Joséphine de Beauharnais. The countless letters professing his love (often using extremely fruity language: “A kiss on your heart and one much lower down, much lower!”) did not stop her taking another lover. When he got suspicious, his tone dramatically shifted: “I don’t love you, not at all on the contrary, I detest you. You’re a naughty, gawky, foolish slut”.
Was Napoleon a good commander?
While his marriage may have been tumultuous, the same could not be said about his record on the battlefield. The campaign gave early demonstrations of his military prowess: devastating speed of soldier movement, marshalling a mobile artillery, and concealing his true deployments to trick the enemy. The ‘Little Corporal’ returned to France a hero.
Napoleon became the Directory’s only choice to lead their desired invasion of Britain. Although he quickly dismissed that idea, declaring that the French stood little chance at sea against the British Navy, he did suggest that an attack on Egypt could cripple British trade routes to India. It was a canny move and got off to a victorious start in mid-1798 with Napoleon’s 30,000 men flowing through Malta, landing at Alexandria and overcoming Egyptian forces at the battle of the Pyramids on 21 July.
By using defensive ‘squares’, the French reportedly lost only 29 men in exchange for thousands of cavalry and infantry. The campaign, however, fell apart when the British obliterated the fleet at the battle of the Nile on 1 August.
With his army stranded on land, Napoleon marched into Syria in early 1799 and began a brutal series of conquests, only being halted at Acre, in modern-day Israel. Napoleon had a reputation for being loved by his men, but theories also suggest he tested their loyalty dearly by having plague-ridden soldiers poisoned so they would not slow the retreat.
Yet this ultimate failure did nothing to ruin Napoleon’s reputation or rise to power. Internal rifts and military losses had made the French government vulnerable, and he spotted an opportunity. Abandoning his army and hightailing it back to Paris, he and a small group staged a bloodless coup on 9 November, making him, at the age of 30, the most powerful man in France.
The uncertainty that let Napoleon become First Consul had persisted since the start of the French Revolution, so he knew he needed stability. A military man to the core, he went on a characteristic offensive by driving the Austrians out of Italy at the battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800, while back home he set about building and reorganising his new Grande Armée and establishing new training academies.
By 1802, he had managed to buy himself time by signing the Treaty of Amiens with the British to restore peace in Europe, albeit an uneasy one. It only lasted a year.
What defined Napoleon’s years as First Consul were his wide-ranging reforms, designed with a mix of pragmatism and Enlightenment thinking. The Napoleonic Code rewrote civil law, while the judicial, police and education systems all underwent significant changes.
Napoleon improved infrastructure founded the country’s first central bank instituted the Légion d’honneur to recognise military and civil achievements (it remains the country’s highest decoration) and completed the Louisiana Purchase, where France sold huge tracts of land to the United States for millions. And although far from religious himself, Napoleon signed the Concordat in 1801 with the Pope, reconciling the Catholic Church with the Revolution.
Keeping things civil: the Napoleonic code
Near the end of his life, Napoleon declared: “My real glory is not the 40 battles I won, for Waterloo’s defeat will destroy the memory of as many victories. What nothing will destroy, what will live forever, is my Civil Code.”
The Napoleonic Code replaced the confusing, contradictory and cluttered laws of pre-revolutionary France with a single, up-to-date set of laws.
It took four years for the country’s top jurists – with the help of Napoleon himself – to draft its 2,281 articles. Enacted on 21 March 1804, the code concerns individual and group civil rights, as well as property rights compiled with a mix of liberalism and conservatism. So while all male citizens were granted equal rights, the code established women, in keeping with the general law of the time, as subordinate to their fathers or husbands.
Written so clearly and rationally, and with a desire to be accessible to all, the code was introduced to lands under Napoleon’s control and went on to influence civil codes around Europe and even the Americas. Its impact can still be seen in laws today.
How did Napoleon become emperor?
All the while, Napoleon made himself more powerful. In 1802, a referendum overwhelmingly anointed him as ‘consul for life’, a title that nonetheless still proved insufficient. Following the uncovering of an assassination attempt, Napoleon decided the security of his regime depended on a hereditary line of succession, so he made himself emperor. So France went from monarchy to revolution to empire in 15 years.
At Napoleon’s lavish coronation at Notre-Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804, Pope Pius VII presented the crown to the new emperor, who took it and placed it on his head, demonstrating how he reached the pinnacle of power in France by his own merit.
The corpulent ceremony must have upset a great number of revolutionaries, who saw too many similarities with the pomp of the royals they had removed. Their concern would only be exacerbated when Napoleon became King of Italy in 1805, handing out titles to family and friends, and creating a nobility once again. He wanted the countries of Europe to see that France reigned supreme, but this inevitably meant war.
The battle of Trafalgar (Horatio Nelson in his finest, if final, hour) once again confirmed British naval superiority and spoiled Napoleon’s hopes of an invasion for good. On land, though, the Grande Armée seemed invincible, thanks to their leader’s brilliantly conceived and executed strategies.
Napoleon demonstrated a mercurial ability to adapt to changing circumstances and still make quick commands. A year to the day after his coronation, he won his most spectacular victory at the battle of Austerlitz, followed by defeats for the Prussians and the Russians.
The resulting Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, signed on a raft in the middle of the Neman River, allowed Napoleon to return to France for the first time in 300 days. It added Russia to his ‘Continental System’ too – an attempt to diminish the British economy by forbidding trade with European powers and putting a price on their ships. Not all countries complied enthusiastically though. The most reluctant was Portugal, of which Napoleon then prepared another invasion.
Initially, French troops marched through Spain with the permission of king Charles IV and occupied Lisbon, inciting revolts on the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon escalated by appointing his brother Joseph as the new Spanish King and personally leading his Grande Armée across the Ebro River.
During that 1808 campaign, he crushed the Spanish and drove the British troops to the coast, before having to turn his attention to a new Austrian threat in Bavaria. There, as the Peninsular War continued, Napoleon lost to an army at least twice the size of his at the Battle of Aspern-Essling in May 1809. He quickly avenged his first defeat in a decade at Wagram, his largest engagement to date with his 154,000-strong force beating back 158,000 Austrians.
By 1811, Napoleon’s empire was at its greatest, encompassing Italy and parts of Germany and Holland. And he finally had a male heir. As he had no children with Joséphine, he divorced her and swiftly married Marie-Louise, the 18-year-old daughter of the Austrian Emperor. She gave birth to a son, named after his father and given the title ‘King of Rome’. Napoleon had been the most powerful figure in Europe for more than a decade, and now looked to establish a dynasty.
What was Napoleon’s downfall?
Then came a blunder, a fatally arrogant overreach, which brought his empire crumbling down. “In five years,” he declared, “I shall be master of the world. There only remains Russia, but I shall crush her.” Having amassed an immense force of more than 600,000, Napoleon marched into Russia in June 1812 to deter them from forming an alliance with Britain and to drag them into line over the Continental System. By the time the dregs of his Grande Armée stumbled out that November – some 400,000 having perished from starvation, a freezing winter and a merciless foe – many thought Napoleon could never recover.
Suddenly, the political map of Europe shifted. Countries defied Napoleon by pulling their soldiers from his ranks. The British, Spanish and Portuguese pushed the French back over the Pyrenees in the Peninsular War and another coalition formed against him. Napoleon still proved formidable on the battlefield, but the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813 saw the Russians, Prussians, Austrians and Swedes achieve the decisive victory. The ‘Battle of the Nations’, as it became known, left 38,000 French dead or wounded and 20,000 captured.
France found itself attacked on all frontiers and its people, who had cheered Napoleon when he seemed invincible, now grew discontent over the ongoing wars, conscription and the numbers dying in battle. The legislative assembly, the Senate and his own generals turned on Napoleon, and on 6 April 1814 the emperor was left with no choice but to abdicate. In his place, the monarchy would be restored to France under King Louis XVIII.
Elba and the Hundred Days
It was agreed to send Napoleon into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he would have sovereignty, an annual income and a guard of 400 volunteers. Perhaps to go out on his own terms, the 45-year-old attempted suicide by taking a poison pill he had carried since Russia, but it had lost its potency and failed to kill him. Instead, he arrived on Elba on 4 May, and many thought that would be the end of Napoleon.
They were wrong. His time on the island lasted less than a year. Facing a life on Elba without his wife and son (who had been sent to Austria), being denied his income and being aware of how the Bourbon Restoration of the monarchy rankled with the French people, he plotted a return.
Napoleon landed in France on 1 March 1815 with a guard of several hundred soldiers and headed north to Paris, gathering support along the way. When he reached the capital on 20 March, Louis XVIII had already fled and Napoleon, with an army already behind him, took power immediately. So began his second rule, known as the Hundred Days.
With an alliance of Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia preparing for war against the “Corsican ogre”, Napoleon wasted no time mustering 120,000 men for an offensive strike into Belgium. He landed the first blow at the battle of Ligny on 16 June, but at Waterloo could not repeat his earlier military glories. Following his final defeat, Napoleon abdicated again on 22 June and went back into exile. This time, though, the British chose their distant, remote territory St Helena as Napoleon’s prison.
Napoleon’s second exile on St Helena
It took ten weeks for HMS Bellerophon to get to the South Atlantic island and it soon became clear early on that any hope of escape – and there were plans – would be extremely slim. The British had Napoleon constantly under watch and the sight of an approaching boat would signal some 500 guns to be manned.
So Napoleon, cut off from the world he had shaped for so long, settled into a life that would be nothing but tedious when compared to the achievements of his life. All he could do was relive them for his memoirs, which have helped define his legacy and reputation ever since. Napoleon’s health began to fail in 1817, limiting what he could do with his days even further.
He died, likely from stomach cancer, on 5 May 1821 at the age of 51, lying in that iron camp bed that reminded him of how he once conquered Europe.
St Helena will be hosting a series of events and special projects ahead of the bicentenary death of Napoleon in May 2021. To find out more visit napoleon200.org and plan your trip with St Helena Tourism.
1 Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.144
2 Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon , p.182
3 Ibid. , p.183
4 It should be noted that the Dictionnaire Larousse was still in its early days, which may explain the different definitions.
5 Thiers, Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire , XX, p.793
6 Jones, Napoleon: Man and Myth , p.203
7 Ibid. , p.205
8 Alexander, Napoleon, p.118
9 Jones, Napoleon: Man and Myth, p.204
10 Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Vol III, p.447
11 Markham. Napoleon, p.241
12 "Napoleon after death", The Irish Penny Journal , vol. 1, 19 (7 November 1840), p.152
13 Appendix A, Horace Vernet, The death of Napoleon
14 Appendix B, Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, Napoleon on his death bed , Châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau
15 Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte , Vol III, p.449
16 Ibid. , p.449
17 Ibid. , p.450
18 Gallica, Bibliothèque Numérique
19 Pensée d'un patriote sur Napoléon Bonaparte
20 « Un devoir, un oeuvre patriotique de dire la vérité sur l'illustre prisonnier », Pensée d'un patriote sur Napoléon Bonaparte , p.4
21 "Although defeated at Waterloo appears before us bedecked in glory", Gallica, Pensée d'un patriote sur Napoléon Bonaparte , p.4
22 Alexandre Barginey, Vers et romance sur la mort de Napoleon Bonaparte
23 "He has fallen, this fearsome giant, whose name reminds us of grandeur he was superb and guilty, but his achievements equalled his mistakes.", Vers et romance sur la mort de Napoléon Bonaparte , p.6
24 Vers et romance sur la mort de Napoléon Bonaparte
25 Souvenir et regret d'un soldat, à Napoléon Bonaparte
26 "In his last hour he saw only the ferocious smile of his enemies taking pity on them, he closed his eyelids," Souvenir et regret d'un soldat, à Napoleon Bonaparte, p.1
27 Poisson. L'aventure du Retour des Cendres , p.22
28 Avmer, Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France, 1789-1996 , p.65
29 It should also be noted that although this was an event to show sentimental attachment to the late emperor, it was also an occasion for people to show their unhappiness with the current political regime (see "15 août 1844", Revue de l'Empire , vol. 2, pp.307-310).
30 Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon , p.142
31 Appendix C, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Napoleon Musing at St Helena (National Portrait Gallery, London), in Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.235
32 Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.327
33 Ibid. , p.237
34 Ibid. , p.237
35 Appendix D, Capt. Marryat's framed and original sketch of Napoleon Bonaparte after his death at St Helena, MRY/7 , National Maritime Musuem, Greenwich
36 Buonparte's Rise, Progress and Downfall
37 Letter from Hudson Lowe dated 6 May 1821
38 Robert Postans, "The Two Funerals of Napoleon", Bentley's Miscellany , 23 (January 1848), p.270
39 Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.227
40 Ibid. , p.228
41 Ibid. , p.229
42 See Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.230
43 Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.231
44 Ibid. , p.228
45 "The NWC Songbook"
46 See Semmel, Napoleon and the British , p.228
47 "Death of Napoleon", The Liverpool Mercury , 13 July, 1821
48 "Death of Buonarparte", The Morning Chronicle , June 1821
49 "Death and Funeral of Bonaparte", Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction , 7:202 (1 July, 1826) pp.403-405
50 Charles-Gilbert Heulhard de Montigny served as député for the Cher département between 1830 and 1831.
51 Adrien Dansette, "Le retour des cendres", Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien , 258 (April 1971), p.31
52 Michael Paul Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , c1993, p.28
53 In Poisson, L'aventure du Retour des Cendres , pp.19-21
54 "You are scared of a shadow and scared of a bit of dust. Oh! How small you all are!"
55 Avmer. Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France, 1789-1996 , p.71
56 Dansette, "Le retour des cendres", Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien , 258 (April 1971), p.31
57 It was Thiers who inaugurated the Arc de Triomphe (see Avmer, Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France, 1789-1996 , p.70).
58 Avmer, Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France, 1789-1996 , p.71
59 Appendix E, Gustave Tassaert, France and the Prince de Joinville at the Tomb of Saint Helena (Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.23
60 Appendix F, Anonymous, Tremble All! Kings in League with One Another! Because of his Open Tomb… in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.24
61 Quoted in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.22
62 Appendix G, Adolphe Lafosse, lithograph, in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.62
63 Avmer. Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France , p.73
64 Gilbert Martineau. Le Retour des Cendres , p.125
65 Appendix H, Napoleon Thomas, The Translation of the Ashes of Napoleon to the Invalides , in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 . Another print (Appendix I) by A Guey - Transfer of Napoleon's Ashes to the Invalides - can be found in Barbara Ann Day-Hickamn, Napoleonic Art: nationalism and the spirit of rebellion in France (1815-1848) , p.139.
66 Avmer, Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France , p.65
67 Ibid. , p.65
68 André-Jean Tudesq, « Le reflet donné par la presse » in Napoléon aux Invalides : 1840, Le Retour des Cendres , p.95
69 Avmer, Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France , p.70
70 Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.31
71 Poisson. L'aventure du Retour des Cendres , p.225
72 Avmer. Funeral, politics, and memory in modern France , p.78
73 Ibid. , p.78
74 Ibid. , p.78
75 Robert Postans, "The Two Funerals of Napoleon", Bentley's Miscellany , 23 (January 1848)
76 "It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well", "Napoleon's last will and testament"
77 Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.56
78 Alain Pougetoux, "Le Tombeau de Napoléon aux Invalides", Revue du Souvenir Napoleon , 374 (1990), p.14
79 Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.58
80 He was, however, popular with Thiers, which could explain why the government appointed him in the first place.
81 Marochetti, "Second Project for the Tomb of Napoleon", in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.63
82 Appendix G, Adolphe Lafosse, litograph in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.64
83 Quoted in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.86
84 Appendix L, in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.91
85 Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p.66
86 Appendices J (monument project) and K (tomb project), in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , pp.66-67
87 Appendix M, in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p. 118
88 Appendix N, in Driskel, As befits a legend: building a tomb for Napoleon, 1840-1861 , p. 120
89 Robert Postans, "The Two Funerals of Napoleon", Bentley's Miscellany , 23 (January 1848), p.270
Napoleon was a bitter man in his final years
A childhood history book included a reproduction of Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. It’s an idealized representation, not a realistic one. Mounted on a rearing Marengo – his grey Arabian stallion – the man who became emperor of the French and conqueror of Europe gives off an invincible vibe.
Two recent news stories brought that image to mind.
One was on the 200 th anniversary of Napoleon’s May 5, 1821, death. And the other was on the idea of placing a reproduction of Marengo’s skeleton over Napoleon’s Les Invalides tomb.
Born Napoleon Bonaparte on the French island of Corsica in 1769, he’s one of history’s dominant figures. He was many things: dictator, superbly gifted military commander and significant legal reformer. Some regard him as an intellectual father of the European Union.
Following his June 1815 defeat at Waterloo and subsequent abdication, Napoleon wanted to migrate to the United States. But the victorious European powers wouldn’t go for that. So on July 15, 1815, he surrendered to a British ship and was taken into custody as a prisoner of war.
It probably saved his life. Many of those who’d fought him, particularly the Prussians, wanted him dead.
One of Napoleon’s saviours was the Duke of Wellington, the man who beat him at Waterloo. As Wellington directly expressed it, “if the Sovereigns wished to put him to death they should appoint an executioner, which should not be me.”
Rather than being delivered to a firing squad or scaffold, Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic that was uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered it in the early 16 th century. It subsequently came into British hands and Napoleon arrived there on a British ship in October 1815. He never left alive.
Napoleon bitterly resented this fate, blaming it on Wellington. In fact, the British government made the decision on the recommendation of a London civil servant. Napoleon had escaped from an earlier exile on the island of Elba off Italy and no chances were to be taken this time.
His second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, didn’t accompany him to St. Helena. Their 1810 marriage had been a political one, calculated to legitimize the dynasty he intended to found and to divide his enemies.
But despite the circumstances and the substantial age difference, the marriage produced an heir and seems to have been reasonably harmonious, perhaps even affectionate. However, she hadn’t accompanied him to Elba either and had become romantically involved with an Austrian count to whom she subsequently bore three children.
The St. Helena exile brought out some of Napoleon’s lesser characteristics. You might describe it as egomania.
He was obsessed with self-justification. The crucial defeat at Waterloo was everybody’s fault except his. He’d been surrounded by incompetents and traitors.
The weirdest bit was the constant denigration of Wellington’s ability. Wellington was a second-rate general who lacked imagination. And his tactics at Waterloo had been all wrong. Indeed, sound strategy held that Wellington should never have engaged there!
It was criticism bordering on the bizarre. To quote historian Andrew Roberts, “there is something comic about the emperor complaining that his victorious opponents failed to observe the conventions of warfare.”
Wellington, for his part, was more generous in assessing Napoleon. Of course, there was a crafty element of self-promotion at work. If Napoleon had been one of history’s greatest commanders, surely the man who beat him was no slouch.
Then there was the matter of Napoleon’s will. It raised some eyebrows.
The multiple bequests came to just shy of seven million francs, and included one for the French officer who tried to assassinate Wellington in Paris in 1818. Unfortunately for the beneficiaries, the estate lacked the requisite funds.
The other figure in the famous crossing-the-Alps portrait – the stallion Marengo – did rather better than his rider.
Taken to England in the wake of Waterloo, Marengo became an equine celebrity and a star attraction at public events. Later in life, he stood at stud. When he died in 1831, his skeleton was preserved and now – recently refurbished and cleaned – is on display at London’s National Army Museum.
Marengo was 38 years old at the end, which translates to around 105 in human terms. This gives a lifespan more than twice that of Napoleon, who died at age 51.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.
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Napoleon was a bitter man in his final years added by Pat Murphy on May 11, 2021
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Napoleon’s Rise & Fall: Illustrated Timeline
Explore this in depth illustrated timeline of Napoleon's rise and fall!
Napoleon’s Rise & Fall: Illustrated Timeline
Find the abbreviated pdf of the timeline as it appears at the exit of the Napoleon: Power and Splendor exhibition here: Napoleon’s Rise & Fall: Illustrated Timeline (Exhibition Version)
August 15, 1769: Napoleon Bonaparte is born in Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean, a subject of King Louis XV of France.
1778–85: Napoleon attends military school in France, where he excels at math and history. He receives a commission as an officer in the artillery division of the French army.
The French Revolution
The Fortress of the Bastille, Jean Francois Rigaud (1742–ca. 1810), colored engraving. Paris, Nusée Carnavalet
July 14, 1789: Parisian mobs storm the Bastille, and the French Revolution begins.
August 1792–January 1793: The French Legislative Assembly abolishes the monarchy and declares France a Republic to be governed by an assembly known as the Convention. The following January, King Louis XVI is guillotined. Thousands of aristocrats, including many French military officers, flee from France.
September 5, 1793: The Reign of Terror, the most radical period of the French Revolution, begins. At least 300,000 suspects are arrested 17,000 are executed, and perhaps 10,000 die in prison or without trial.
September–December 1793: Napoleon wins fame by defeating Royalist forces supported by the British navy in the port of Toulon.
July 27–28, 1794: The Reign of Terror ends.
The Execution of Louis XVI (detail), 1794, Charles Monnet (artist), Antoine-Jean Duclos and Isidore Stanislas Helman (engraving), Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Bonaparte Fires Grapeshot at the Royalist Insurgents (Oct. 5, 1795), drawing by Yan’ Dargent, engraving by V. Trové, from Histoire de la Révolution, by Adolphe Thiers, 1866 edition
August 22–October 5, 1795: The Convention of the French Republic creates a new constitution, establishing the Directory (a five-member committee) as the leaders of the French government. On October 5, in support of the Directory, Napoleon fires into a crowd of Royalists and defeats the anti-Republican forces that threaten the new government.
Napoleon’s Legend Begins
March 2–9, 1796: Hailed as a hero for defending the Directory, young general Bonaparte is appointed commander in chief of the French army. Seven days later, he marries Josephine de Beauharnais.
1796–99: Napoleon defeats Austrian forces, and France acquires significant new territory. From 1798 to 1799, he leads the campaign to conquer Egypt, eventually abandoning his army after a series of failures.
October–November 1799: Napoleon engineers the overthrow of the Directory in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (November 9). A new government called the Consulate is proposed.
Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, 1840, François Bouchot (1800–1842), oil on canvas, Château de Versailles
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), oil on canvas, Chateau de Malmaison
December 13, 1799: The Consulate is established with Bonaparte as First Consul. A few months later, he leads the French army in a daring march across the Alps, defeating the Austrian army in the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800).
1800–1801: Taking advantage of this period of relative peace, Napoleon takes steps to restore order in France through new policies of reconciliation. Amnesties are granted to many exiled aristocrats, who return to France.
July 16, 1801: The Concordat of 1801 is signed by Pope Pius VII and Napoleon. This pact recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the vast majority of the French citizens, reconciling many French Catholics to the Consulate Government and healing one of the deepest wounds of the Revolution.
January 29, 1802: Napoleon sends an army to re-establish control over Saint Domingue, the most valuable of France’s colonies in the West Indies.
August 3, 1802: Bonaparte becomes First Consul for Life.
May 2, 1802: Napoleon passes a law reintroducing the slave trade in all French colonies he has visions of a French empire in the Americas.
Spring–Summer 1803: With insufficient sea power to overcome the British navy—and in need of money, Napoleon abandons his plan for an empire in American and sells the Louisiana Territory to the United States, doubling its size.
March 21, 1804: Napoleon’s French Civil Code is enacted and extended to all parts of the Empire.
Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, 1806, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), oil on canvas, Paris, Musée du Louvre
May 18–December 2, 1804: The Consulate is transformed into the Empire and Napoleon is declared Emperor of the French. In December, the Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine takes place at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Imperial Household is officially established.
March–October 1805: After Napoleon is crowned King of Italy (March 17), Austria and Russia join Britain in a new anti-French alliance. Napoleon makes plans to invade England.
October 21, 1805: At the Battle of Trafalgar, the British naval fleet commanded by Admiral Nelson destroys the French navy. Napoleon’s invasion plans are ended.
December 2, 1805: Napoleon defeats the forces of Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II at the Battle of Austerlitz.
The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December, 1805, 1810, François-Pascal Simon Gérard (1770–1837), oil on canvas. Château de Versailles
July 7–9, 1807: Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I sign the Treaties of Tilsit, giving Napoleon control of an empire that encompasses most of Europe.
Portrait of Empress Josephine in Ceremonial Robes, 1808, Francois-Pascal-Simon Gerard. Rome 1770-Paris 1837, oil on canvas, Château de Fontainebleau, Musée Napoléon
December 15, 1809: As Napoleon’s dynastic ambitions grow, he divorces Josephine because of her inability to provide an heir.
1810–11: Napoleon marries Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810. Napoleon-François-Charles Joseph Bonaparte, son of Napoleon and Marie-Louise, is born on March 20, 1811. The new heir is given the title King of Rome.
Portrait of Empress Marie-Louise Presenting the King of Rome, After 1812, Anonymous, After François-Pascal-Simon Gérard (1770–1837), oil on canvas, Château de Fontainebleau, Musée Napoléon
A Reversal of Fortune
Battle of Moscow, 7 September 1812, 1822, Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, (1775–1848), oil on canvas. Château de Versailles
June 1812: Following Russia’s withdrawal from the Continental System (Napoleon’s policy forbidding European trade with Britain), Napoleon invades Russia.
September 7, 1812: Borodino, the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic wars, is fought near Moscow. When Moscow falls a week later, the inhabitants set fire to the city.
November 1812: Tsar Alexander I refuses to surrender. The Russian winter and lack of supplies cause the French army to retreat. Napoleon abandons his army and returns to Paris.
The Grande Armée Crossing the Berezhina, 1866, January Sulchodolsky (1797–1875), oil on canvas. National Museum, Poznań
1813–14: At the Battle of Leipzig (October 19, 1813), the combined forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden defeat Napoleon’s remaining forces. Napoleon abdicates the throne on April 11, 1814 and is banished to the Mediterranean island of Elba.
February 26, 1815: Napoleon escapes from Elba and takes back the French throne during the period known as the “Hundred Days.”
June 18, 1815: At the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon’s final army is decisively defeated. Four days later, he abdicates for the second time.
The Battle of Waterloo, William Sadler (1782–1839), oil on canvas. Pyms Gallery, London
October 16, 1815: Napoleon begins his exile on Saint Helena, a remote volcanic island in the south Atlantic. Even though 600-foot cliffs rose on both sides of the port of the only town, two British Navy frigates patrol the island at all times. During most of Napoleon’s exile, at least 125 men guard his house during the day with 72 on duty at night.
May 5, 1821: Napoleon dies at the age of 51.
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The son of an army officer, Charles de Steuben was born in 1788, his youth and artistic training coinciding with Napoleon’s rise to power. The portrayal of key moments in Napoleon’s dramatic military career would feature among some of Steuben’s best known works.
Using his high-level contacts among figures in Napoleon’s circle, Steuben interviewed and sketched many of the people who had been present when Napoleon died at Longwood House on St. Helena. Painstakingly researching the room’s furniture and layout, he painted a carefully composed scene of hushed grief. Notable among the figures are Gen. Henri Bertrand, who loyally followed Napoleon into exile Bertrand’s wife, Fanny and their children, of whom Napoleon had become very fond.
What the witnesses said
Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, describes the state of Napoleon’s attendants during Napoleon’s final night.
The Emperor had been in bed for forty-odd days, and we who had been constantly with him, waiting on him, were so tired, and needed rest so much, that we could not control our sleepiness. The quiet of the apartment favored it. All of us, whether on chairs or sofas, took some instants of rest. If we woke up, we hurried to the bed, we listened attentively to hear the breath, and we poured into the Emperor’s mouth, which was a little open, a spoonful or two of sugar and water to refresh him. We would examine the sick man’s face as well as we could by the reflection of the light hidden behind the screen which was before the door of the dining room. It was in this way that the night passed. (1)
Saint-Denis does not give us Napoleon’s last words. All he says on the matter is that Napoleon “could only speak a few words, and with difficulty.” (2)
Napoleon’s Grand Marshal, General Henri Bertrand, did hear some last words early in the morning of May 5th.
From three o’clock until half-past four there were hiccups and stifled groans. Then afterwards he moaned and yawned. He appeared to be in great pain. He uttered several words which could not be distinguished and then said ‘Who retreats’ or definitely: ‘At the head of the Army.’ (3)
Napoleon’s doctor Francesco Antommarchi confirms a couple of these.
The clock struck half-past five [in the morning], and Napoleon was still delirious, speaking with difficulty, and uttering words broken and inarticulate amongst others, we heard the words, ‘Head…army,’ and these were the last he pronounced for they had no sooner passed his lips than he lost the power of speech. (4)
Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, also records Napoleon’s last words. They differ somewhat from those heard by Bertrand and Antommarchi.
The hiccups that had appeared at intervals became much more frequent, and delirium set in the Emperor pronounced a lot of inarticulate words that were translated ‘France,… my son,… The army…’ One can conclude with absolute certainty that his last preoccupation, his last thoughts were for France, his son, and the army. These were the last words we were to hear. (5)
General Charles de Montholon provides yet another last word.
The night was very bad: towards two o’clock delirium became evident, and was accompanied by nervous contractions. Twice I thought I distinguished the unconnected words, France – armée, tête d’armée – Josephine…. (6)
Why Napoleon Probably Should Have Just Stayed in Exile the First Time
F or the man with history&rsquos first recorded Napoleon complex, it must have been the consummate insult. After Napoleon Bonaparte&rsquos disastrous campaign in Russia ended in defeat, he was forced into exile on Elba. He retained the title of emperor &mdash but of the Mediterranean island&rsquos 12,000 inhabitants, not the 70 million Europeans over whom he&rsquod once had dominion.
Two hundred years ago today, on Feb. 26, 1815, just short of a year after his exile began, Napoleon left the tiny island behind and returned to France to reclaim his larger empire. It was an impressive effort, but one that ended in a second defeat, at Waterloo, and a second exile to an even more remote island &mdash Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic, where escape proved impossible. And he didn&rsquot even get to call himself emperor.
From this new prison perspective, he may have missed Elba. After all, as much as he hated the idea of his reduced empire, he didn&rsquot seem to dislike the island itself. His mother and sister had moved there with him, and they occupied lavish mansions. According to a travel writer for the Telegraph, &ldquoThough his wife kept away, his Polish mistress visited. He apparently also found comfort in the company of a local girl, Sbarra. According to a contemporary chronicler, he &lsquospent many happy hours eating cherries with her.&rsquo&rdquo
It was easy to believe &mdash until he fled &mdash that he meant what he said when he first arrived: &ldquoI want to live from now on like a justice of the peace.&rdquo He tended to his empire with apparent gusto, albeit on a smaller scale than he was used to. In his 300 days as Elba&rsquos ruler, Napoleon ordered and oversaw massive infrastructure improvements: building roads and draining marshes, boosting agriculture and developing mines, as well as overhauling the island&rsquos schools and its entire legal system.
The size of the island, it seemed, did not weaken Napoleon&rsquos impulse to shape it in his own image. The title of emperor brought out the unrepentant dictator in him, so confident in his own vision that, as TIME once attested, he &ldquonever doubted that [he] was wise enough to teach law to lawyers, science to scientists, and religion to Popes.&rdquo
When a collection of Napoleon&rsquos letters was published in 1954, TIME noted that his &ldquoprodigious&rdquo vanity was most apparent in the letters he&rsquod written from Elba, in which &ldquohe referred to his 18 marines as &lsquoMy Guard&rsquo and to his small boats as &lsquothe Navy.&rsquo &rdquo
The Elbans seemed to think as highly of their short-lived emperor as he did of himself. They still have a parade every year to mark the anniversary his death (on May 5, 1821, while imprisoned on his other exile island). And, as TIME has pointed out, &ldquonot every place that the old Emperor conquered is so fond of his memory that they annually dress a short man in a big hat and parade him around…&rdquo
Read TIME’s review of a collection of Napoleon’s letters, here in the archives: From the Pen of N
Napoleon's Final Exile - HISTORY
Wikimedia Commons Former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte experienced a slow and agonizing death.
At a lonely house on a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a somber group gathered around a dying man. As they watched, he mumbled a few words — something about the army — and then he was gone. Napoleon Bonaparte was dead.
But how did Napoleon die? Not in battle, as he may have hoped. Instead, the former French emperor and military commander spent his final days in exile. After losing the Battle of Waterloo to the British in 1815, he had been sent to Saint Helena, a British-held island off the coast of southwestern Africa.
There, after a few years of loneliness, he died on May 5, 1821. But Napoleon did not go quickly — or quietly. When he dictated his will in April, he said, “I die before my time, killed by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins.”
Officially, Napoleon’s death at age 51 was attributed to stomach cancer. But questions lingered, especially since his doctor had refused to sign the autopsy report. Some even wondered if he’d been poisoned.
Go inside the death of Napoleon Bonaparte — and the fraught aftermath.
Napoleon’s Return From Exile, Rallying an Army With His Words Alone
The ranks opened suddenly, and a figure stepped into view.
He was taller than many of his enemies described him. Taller and leaner, the angles of his face clearly defined. His eyes were colder than depicted in the paintings and the propaganda, and they sparkled with a strange ferocity as he surveyed the lines of armed men before him.
The 5th Infantry Regiment had leveled their weapons, the barrels of their guns held steady as the small army advanced towards them.
Napoleon Bonaparte had returned.
The old Emperor had moved quickly, but word of his approach moved quicker still. It was said that he and his men were yet to fire a single shot in their defense – his words alone were enough to win the people to his cause.
He promised free elections, political reform, a new era of peace and empowerment for the citizens of France. It was a stirring message, uplifting and powerful – wherever he went, his forces swelled.
By the time he reached Grenoble, however, the royalist authorities were well aware of his progress. Holding a line across the road, their rifles aimed squarely at Napoleon’s oncoming troops, the 5th Infantry Regiment were ready and waiting.
Less than ten months ago, France’s greatest general had been sent into exile.
The Coalition had marched on Paris, and after an increasing number of severe defeats and setbacks, the capital was taken. Following the Battle of Montmartre, Napoleon surrendered to his enemies and abdicated his throne.
Napoleon leaves Elba.
He was promptly exiled to the island of Elba, there to live out the rest of his days in seclusion while the powers of Europe rebuilt their nations. Of course, it was not to be.
From his new home, Napoleon had watched as tensions escalated across the continent. The Congress of Vienna, where heads of state from throughout Europe gathered to redefine the borders, was always going to be a difficult situation. However, against a backdrop of increasing civil unrest in France, fuelled by the actions of the new royalist regime, it looked as if peace might be short-lived.
Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. Mjobling – CC BY 3.0
Returning to their country for the first time in years, the old French nobility mistreated everyone from the veterans of Napoleon’s wars to the lower classes in general. On top of this, the people of France had to watch their once great empire being rapidly portioned off and reduced by the Coalition.
All this was fuel for the fire Napoleon was now about to light.
So it was that, on the 26th of February 1815, the exiled Emperor left the island where his enemies had hoped he would end his days. In fact, some members of the French nobility were even pushing to have him assassinated, or at least moved further away, as they astutely feared he might take advantage of the growing unrest.
Of course, even as such plans were formulated, they were already too late.
During a brief window of opportunity, with both British and Spanish ships temporarily absent, Napoleon and 1000 loyal men left Elba and sailed away undetected. By the time word reached Paris of the exiled Emperor’s escape, he was back on French soil.
With tensions between the royalist nobility and the oppressed lower classes nearing breaking point, there could have been no better time for the old Emperor’s return.
Napoleon’s farewell to his Imperial Guard, 20 April 1814.
The people of France welcomed back their leader with open arms men flocked to his cause. His army had grown rapidly and, until Grenoble, no one had stood in his way.
Now, however, royalist troops barred the way. The 5th Infantry Regiment had taken their positions as the enemy approached, and as the vanguard of Napoleon’s forces came to a halt, a tense silence fell.
As the sun set, lighting up the western horizon, Napoleon strode out into the open.
He was unarmed, yet he showed no fear as he surveyed the line of gleaming rifles before him. For a moment he stood quite still, his face inscrutable. Then, without taking his eyes away from the royalist regiment, he seized the front of his coat and ripped it open.
“If there is any man among you who would kill his emperor,” Napoleon declared, “Here I stand!”
The 5th Infantry Regiment joined Napoleon on the spot.
Some accounts differ as to exactly what happened next, but most agree on the fundamentals of the event itself. After a moment of silence, voices within the ranks of the 5th Regiment began shouting
As the cry spread, it was taken up by more and more of the royalist soldiers. Before long they had lowered their weapons and, en masse, the entire regiment joined Napoleon’s army.
The following day, the 7th Infantry Regiment joined the cause, followed by an ever increasing number of soldiers. Marshal Ney, a high-ranking royalist commander, promised the King that he would bring Napoleon to Paris bound inside an iron cage. With 6000 men at this back, Ney then proceeded to march against the Imperialist army – only to swear his allegiance to Napoleon upon their meeting.
By the time the army reached Paris, they were able to enter the capital city unopposed. The royalists had fled before the Emperor’s advance and, once again, Napoleon Bonaparte had reclaimed his throne.
The Battle of Waterloo, and the end of the 100 Days.
In the end, of course, his reign would only last for a brief period. Remembered in history as Napoleon’s 100 Days, his fleeting return to power would end in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. That crushing defeat for Napoleon and his troops saw the end of the war and the final abdication of the Emperor himself.
However, regardless of that outcome, Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from exile remains a fascinating moment in his remarkable life. The subsequent march through France, gathering support and rallying troops with nothing but his words and charisma, defines perfectly one of Europe’s greatest military leaders.