10 Facts About Napoleon

Harry Atkins

4 mins

18 Jun 2018

Revered as a brilliant military tactician and a hugely influential statesman, Napoleon Bonaparte’s status as one of history’s great leaders is beyond doubt — even if it sometimes seems as though he is more famous for his diminutive stature.

Perhaps surprisingly given the zeal with which he went on to lead the French Empire, Napoleon more readily identified as a Corsican and, in his early career, fought fervently for Corsican independence.

It was only after a falling out with Corsican resistance leader Pasquale Paoli that Napoleon made France his home and began to establish himself as the new republic’s rising star by masterminding a succession of vital military victories, including the resistance-breaking Siege of Toulon and, in 1785, the defeat of 20,000 royalists in Paris.

Dan talks to Adam Zamoyski, a historian who has recently written a new biography of Napoleon.Listen Now

Identified by republican politicians as a natural leader, Napoleon’s ascent to the head of the government was meteoric, propelled by numerous battlefield victories in Italy and then Egypt. In 1799 he seized power of France and became first consul, quickly establishing himself as a hugely popular leader by overseeing continued military dominance and instituting influential legal reforms.

These legal reforms, enshrined in the Napoleonic Code, cemented the aims of the Revolution by replacing the outmoded inconsistencies of old feudal legislation.

Napoleon is perhaps more famous today for being short than for his military prowess and political talents.

Napoleon even succeeded in bringing about peace by defeating Austria and, for a time, quelling Britain’s efforts to stand against the French military. His irresistible ascent to power culminated in his coronation as the Emperor of France in 1804.

Peace in Europe did not last long, however, and the rest of Napoleon’s reign was defined by years of wars across Europe against various coalitions. During this time his reputation as a brilliant military leader was further enhanced, until the War of the Seventh Coalition and the French defeat at Waterloo led to his abdication on the 22 June 1815.

Napoleon saw out the rest of his days in exile on the remote island of Saint Helena.

Here are 10 facts you may not have known about the French emperor.

1. He wrote a romance novel

Behind the ruthless, battle-hardened facade, Napoleon was a bit of a softie, as both his embarrassingly soppy love letters and a recently unearthed romantic novella prove. Penned in 1795, when Napoleon was 26, Clisson et Eugénie is a brief (just 17 pages) exercise in sentimental self-mythologising that, according to most reviews, fails to establish him as a lost literary genius.

2. His first wife, Josephine Bonaparte, narrowly avoided the guillotine

Napoleon’s first wife nearly did not live to marry the French emperor.

Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was previously married to Alexandre de Beauharnais (with whom she had three children), an aristocrat who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Josephine was also imprisoned and scheduled for execution before being released five days later when the Reign of Terror’s architect, Robespierre, was himself guillotined. 

3. He would disguise himself and walk the streets

At the height of his powers Napoleon developed the habit of dressing up as a lower-class bourgeoisie and wandering the streets of Paris. Seemingly, his aim was to find out what the man on the street really thought of him and he reportedly quizzed random passers-by about their Emperor’s merits. 

4. He was tone deaf

Apparently, one of Napoleon’s least endearing habits was his penchant for singing (or humming and mumbling) whenever he became agitated. Unfortunately, pained accounts suggest that his singing voice was distinctly unmusical.

5. He was afraid of cats (possibly)

Oddly, a whole host of historic tyrants — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Mussolini, Hitler and our man Napoleon — are reputed to have suffered from Ailurophobia, the fear of cats. It turns out, however, that there is little in the way of evidence to support the common claim that Napoleon was terrified of cats, although the fact that it’s become such a well-worn rumour is interesting. It is even claimed that his alleged fear stemmed from a wildcat attack when he was an infant.

Dan Snow's History Hit is revisiting its very first episode, on the Battle of Waterloo with Dan's dad, veteran broadcaster Peter Snow.Listen Now

6. He discovered the Rosetta Stone

Now held in the British Museum in London, the Rosetta Stone is a granite slab carved in three scripts: hieroglyphic Egyptian, demotic Egyptian and ancient Greek. It played a vital part in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and has long been considered a hugely important artefact. Less well known is the fact that it was discovered by Napoleon’s soldiers during the Egyptian campaign in 1799.

7. He wore poison around his neck

It is said that Napoleon carried a vial of poison, attached to a cord he wore around his neck, that could be swiftly downed should he ever be captured. Apparently, he did eventually imbibe the poison in 1814, following his exile to Elba, but its potency was by then diminished and only succeeded in making him violently ill. 

8. A submarine escape plot was hatched to rescue him from exile in Saint Helena

An aerial view of the island where Napoleon lived out his final years.

Following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles from the nearest land. Escape from such isolated incarceration was reckoned to be near-impossible. Even so, numerous plans were hatched to rescue the exiled Emperor, including an audacious plan involving two early submarines and a mechanical chair.

The Battle of Waterloo was be a watershed moment in European history, finally ending Napoleon's military career and ushering in a new era of relative peace. This is the story of Napoleon's final battle.Watch Now

9. He wasn’t that short

Napoleon has become synonymous with shortness. Indeed, the term “Napoleon complex”, used to characterise short, overly aggressive people, is conceptually bound to his famously diminutive stature. But in fact, at the time of his death, Napoleon measured 5 feet 2 inches in French units — the equivalent of 5 feet 6.5 inches in modern measurement units — which was a distinctly average height at the time.

10. The cause of his death remains a mystery

Napoleon died, aged 51, on the island of Saint Helena after a long, unpleasant illness. The cause of this illness has never been conclusively established, however, and his death remains a subject surrounded by conspiracy theories and speculation. The official cause of death was recorded as stomach cancer, but some claim foul play was involved. Indeed, claims that he was in fact poisoned appear to be supported by analysis of hair samples that show a far higher than normal concentration of arsenic. Although it is also contended that arsenic was present in the wallpaper of his bedroom.