Napoleon Bonaparte: History, Accomplishments, Demise, & Death
Napoleon Bonaparte, the first emperor of France and one of the greatest, as well as one of the most controversial leaders to ever rule the country.
His exceptional military skills, along with his fierce defiance saw France win several battles against major European powers following the French Revolution.
Below, we take a deep dive into the history and facts of this great French ruler as well as his demise and ultimate death.
Napoléon Bonaparte: Fast Facts
Birthday: August 15, 1769
Place of Birth: Ajaccio, Corsica, Kingdom of France
Date of Death: May 5, 1821
Burial place: Longwood, Saint Helena, British Empire
Mother: Letizia Ramolino
Father: Carlo Buonaparte
Spouses: Joséphine de Beauharnais (1796-1810); Marie Louise of Austria (married in 1810)
Issue: Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles (Napoleon II)
First Reign: 1804-1814
Successor: Louis XVIII
Second Reign: March 20, 1815 – June 22, 1815
Successor: Napoleon II
Title: Emperor of the French (1804 – 1814); King of Italy (March 17, 1805 – April 11, 1814); First Consul of France (1799 – 1804)
Most famous for: Being a powerful Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814; his numerous Napoleonic Wars; Conquering vast territories in continental Europe
Early Years: Birth & Family
Bonaparte was born on a Tuesday, the 15th of August, in the year 1769 in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. He was born to Carlo Maria di Buonaparte, a lawyer, and Maria Letizia Ramolino, who turned nineteen, nine days after his birth.
Napoleon was the fourth child of the family. His family descended from a minor Italian nobility of the Tuscan region. He had two older siblings who had died as infants before he was born. Napoleon had a brother, Joseph Giuseppe, who was nineteen months old when he was born. He had younger siblings, Elisa, Pauline, Louis, Caroline, Lucien, and Jerome.
At age 17 Napoleon changed his name from Napoleon Di Buonaparte to Napoléon Bonaparte.
In January 1779, Bonaparte, nine at that time, was enrolled in a religious school in Autun, France. Later, he transferred to a military academy at Brienne Le Chateau on scholarship. Napoleon started to learn French in school around the age of ten and became fluent but could not shake the Corsican accent, which often got him teased by his classmates.
He could speak and read Corsican and Italian. He was someone who often kept to himself and read a lot mainly as an escape from the bullying he had to endure from his mates.
The Corsican native earned the nickname “Le Petit Corporal” (French for the Little Corporal). Today, we know for a fact that the nickname had nothing to do with his physique. Instead, the nickname was given to him by his soldiers as a term of term of admiration [of his military prowess].
He gained entrance into the École Militaire and trained to become an Artillery Officer. His income dwindled when his father died, forcing him to attain in one year the course he should have taken two years to complete. This made him become the first Corsican to graduate École Militaire.
Marriage and Family
At the age of 26, he married his first wife Josephine de Beauhanais. She was a 32 year old widow, whose husband one of the numerous victims of the French Revolution. Josephine was freed five days after her husband’s death. Everyone called her Rose, a name she did not like until she met Napoleon. He went on to adopt her son Eugene and second cousin Stephanie. It’s said that Napoleon even even arranged marriages for them.
During his campaign, Josephine was known for having a plethora of lovers, including Lieutenant Hippolyte Charles. When Napoleon found out, he wrote a letter about it. This letter found its way into the hands of the British who then published and circulated it to shame the French general.
Napoleon too had his fair share extramarital affairs. In Egypt, he had an amorous relationship with Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer. She became his mistress and was given the nickname Cleopatra, a reference to the famed first-century BC Egyptian queen Cleopatra who had romantic relationships with two renowned Roman generals – Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
The French general didn’t have any children with Josephine, though he had issues with other women. It was suspected that Josephine’s inability to give birth was as a result of an abortion she had in her early twenties or the consequence of the ordeal she went through during her time in prison.
As Napoleon needed a male hair in order to have his newly formed empire firmly cemented so that it could be passed on to his descendants, he divorced Josephine in 1810. Even after the divorce, he continued to take care of Josephine for the rest of his life. With his increased status in Europe, the French emperor was bent on marrying into one of Europe’s royal houses in an attempt to give his emperorship a bit more legitimacy in the eyes of other European monarchs.
Napoléon Bonaparte was commissioned as second lieutenant in La Fère artillery regiment when he graduated from the military academy. He served in Valence and Auxonne.
From 1786, the economic situation in France led the country into bankruptcy and debt. The situation caused an increase in taxes in order to reduce their debt.
The embattled French monarch King Louis XVI and a revolving door of finance ministers tried to stay on top of the situation by introducing a series of reforms, including land taxation for the nobility. Parlements (a provincial appellate court) refused to register them but kept imposing taxes on the people in France who were the poorest. This rather aggravated the situation. The country faced unemployment issues and food prices kept going up.
A national assembly was formed to challenge King Louis XVI. Power was then transferred to the middle class who were put in charge of France from the 17th of June 1789.
A Corsican national guard was formed with Napoleon’s backing. At the age of 22, in the year 1792, he became a lieutenant colonel. He returned to Paris where he witnessed a riot that turned violent between the national guard (which was being influenced by the Paris Commune) and Louis XVI’s Swiss guards at Tuilires palace on the 10th of August 1792.
The riot caused the massacre of around 500 Swiss guardsmen and 300 citizens. France was still bankrupt at the time. The people believed Louis XVI was joining forces with royal families in Europe so that he could gain control again.
Napoleon was then made captain in the regular French army artillery whiles he maintained his office as a lieutenant colonel with the Corsican National Guard. Mobs of people from Parisians of the third Estate went on a rampage and killed many priests of the first estate and aristocrats of the second estate as they were in Paris prisons. The King, along with his wife Marie Antoinette tried to run away so they could garner support from allies.
This led to their arrest as their people lost faith in them. They were immediately brought back to Paris and confined in Tuileries. All of Louis XVI’s powers were suspended, and three days after an attack on the palace, members of the royal family were arrested. Louis XVI was executed by guillotine whiles his wife and son were still in prison.
Napoleon’s duty now required him to defend the constitutional republic against opposition, especially from European monarchs that wanted nothing than France to return France to monarchy. This led to France declaring war on the Dutch Republic and Great Britain.
Napoleon had connections with Augustine Robespierre, the brother of Maximilien Robespierre, the main force behind the terror and violence against enemies of the revolution. He was promoted to Brigadier General during this time but when Maximilien lost power and was executed with his brother, Napoleon was put under house arrest due to his connection with the brothers.
He led his army in a series of battles against the army of Austria. They signed the treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, giving the French some territories. In the following year, the French directory, a group of five who had been in power since 1795 tasked Napoleon to prepare an invasion of England,
He believed that their forces were not ready so he suggested that they rather invade Egypt in order to destroy the routes of trade between Britain and India.
His army emerged victorious against Egypt at the Battle of the Pyramids in July 1798. Not long after, his forces got stranded after his fleet was almost destroyed by the British at the battle of the Nile in August 1798. His army again went on to invade Syria which was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Having suffered defeats at the hands of the Anglo-Ottoman forces in Egypt, Napoleon chose to abandon his army in Egypt and return to France.
The Coup of 18 Brumaire
In November 1799, Napoleon, along with some associates of his and his brother’s, overthrew the French directory. The event came to be known as the Coup of Brumaire.
A three-member consulate replaced the directory, with Napoleon being the first consul. This made him the leading political figure in France.
In June 1800, his army defeated the Austrians and threw them out of Italy in the Battle of Marengo.
Also with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 Britain who was tired of war agreed to peace with the French. In 1802, a constitution was amended making Napoleon first consul for life.
Two years later in 1804, he made himself emperor of France in a luxurious celebration at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s fall
Regardless of his marriage to Austrian princess Marie-Louise, Austria declared war on France. Paris was defeated by a coalition of Sweden, Britain, Prussia, and Austria. In April, Napoleon stepped down and was succeeded by Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI.
Napoléon then went into exile in Elba. However, in February 1815, he returned to France along with about 1050 soldiers and reclaimed his throne. Realizing the Europeans were against his return, he was forced to go back to war but it only took a week for the armies of Britain and Prussia to defeat him in the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.
He stepped down from power again on 22nd June and surrendered to the British who sent him into exile to St. Helena. an island in the South Atlantic. British soldiers were sent to Ascension Island, which is between St. Helena Island and Europe, as a form of precaution to prevent his escape.
He lived in a dilapidated house on the island. It was said that he wrote a letter to the government complaining of his terrible living conditions. It was insinuated at a point that there was copper arsenide in the wallpaper at the Longwood House where he lived. This probably led to his death.
His expenditure was cut and he wasn’t allowed gifts. In exile, he put together a book about the famous Roman general Julius Caesar and was also taught English by Count Emmanuel de Las Cases. This was to help him read English newspapers and books since he wasn’t allowed French reading material.
Final Days and Death
Napoléon’s doctor Barry O’Meara informed London that the deposed emperor’s health was deteriorating because of the ill-treatment he was receiving on the island. He stayed indoors indoors for months as his health got worse with each passing day.
On May 5, 1821, his health had declined so much that called for a priest called Father Ange Vignali to take his confession. The last words he reportedly spoke were “France, the army, head of the Army, Josephine.”
He requested in his will to be buried on the banks of the Seine in northern France. However, a senior British official did not grant him his last wish; instead, the general was buried in the Valley of the Willows in Saint Helena, a British overseas territory in the south Atlantic Ocean.
Louis Philippe I was granted permission from Britain for Napoleon’s remains to be returned to France where a state funeral was held on the 15th of December 1840. His remains were entombed in porphyry stone sarcophagus in the crypt under the Dome at Les Invalides.
Possible causes of Napoleon’s death
Francois Carlo Antommarchi, Napoleon’s doctor, conducted an autopsy which attributed the death to stomach cancer. Though the doctor did not sign the official report, it was known later that his father had also died of stomach cancer.
There was evidence that the former French emperor had stomach ulcer which was the explanation the British preferred so they could avoid being blamed for his death.
However, Louis Marchand, Napoleon’s valet had a diary in which there was documentation of Napoleon’s life months before his death. Published in 1955, the diary alleged that he had died of arsenic poisoning.
It was also stated that, when Napoleon’s body was moved in 1840, his body was well preserved which went on to confirm the suspicions, considering the fact that arsenic is a strong preservative.
It was also observed that he had an abnormal thirst and sought to quench it by drinking large amounts of orgeat syrup that contained cyanide compounds. There were claims he was treated with potassium tartrate which stopped his stomach from getting rid of these compounds.
Some experts have claimed that his thirst was a symptom of poisoning and the calomel that was administered to him became an overdose which caused massive damage to his tissues and resulted in his death.
In a 2007 article, Dr. Patrick Kintz concluded that Napoléon’s hair shaft contained significant amounts of arsenic. Kintz’s research led him to support the view that Napoleon was murdered.
How tall was Napoleon?
Napoleon’s height has been a subject of debate for quite a long time. The fact that the general, a master propagandist, was known for inflating his personal features made the debate even more pronounced. The question that begs to be answered is: Was Napoleon short?
Well, there is no straightforward answer to the above question. Some have argued that the general was he was certainly not seen as a tall person in his days. His detractors fanned the flames of the rumors of his short height by citing his nickname “The Little Corporal”. As we have already stated in the above section, that nickname had more to do with his military prowess than his height.
In reality, the general was most likely a man of average height. This is confirmed in many of the portraits of him. But then, those portraits were commissioned either by Napoleon himself or by European monarchs allied to the monarch. It would not come as a surprise that those artists did their best to portray him in a very good light, including not painting him short.
His foes, however, took to depicting the general as a very short person. For example, the English, who were perhaps one of Napoleon’s arch rivals, were known for highlighting the not so-pleasing features of the general, especially his height. In some depictions, Napoleon was portrayed as a child throwing a fist of tantrums. Famous English caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) named one his political caricatures “Little Boney” that ended up being very well circulated in not just Britain but Europe as well. Considering the English were foes of Napoleon, one must take those paintings and caricatures of Napoleon that emerged from England with a pinch of salt.
On his death certificate, it is stated that he measured between 5’2” and 5’7”. Back then, the average Frenchman measured between 5’2” and 5’6’’. In that regard, the general’s height was indeed average in his time.
It must also be noted that back then an inch was the equivalent of 2.71 cm. An inch today is 2.54 cm. What this means is that Napoleon’s height could be placed around 5’6” or 5’7” in today’s standards.
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