An Inglorious End: The Exile and Death of Napoleon | History Hit

An Inglorious End: The Exile and Death of Napoleon

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Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), by Jacques-Louis David.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Napoleon Bonaparte: a man whose legacy splits opinion 200 hundred years after his death. Misogynist, hero, villain, despot, the greatest military commander of all time? Despite the power and influence he once held in Europe, Napoleon’s death, in exile on the island of St Helena in 1821, was a sad fate for a man who had once controlled such a large empire. But how did Napoleon meet such an inglorious end?

Six years of exile on a remote island blighted with unpleasant weather conditions, in lodgings far inferior to those enjoyed whilst leader of France, hardly seems fitting for the final years of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet, in this second episode with Zack White, we hear about how this remarkable military commander came to fall so far from the top. Zack takes us through Napoleon’s loss of power, his representation in British propaganda, his two exiles and his eventual death, including the debates around the real cause of his demise. Zack specialises in crime and punishment in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars at the University of Southampton, and is the creator of the online hub TheNapoleonicWars.net.
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1. Napoleon was first exiled to Elba

The Allies decided to exile Napoleon to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. With 12,000 inhabitants, and only 20km from the Tuscan coast, it was hardly remote or isolating. Napoleon was allowed to retain his imperial title, and was permitted jurisdiction over the island. In true style, Napoleon immediately busied himself with building projects, widespread reforms and creating a small army and navy.

He managed to escape after less than a year on Elba, in February 1815. He returned to the south of France with 700 men on the brig Inconstant.

2. The French army welcomed Napoleon with open arms

Napoleon began to march north towards Paris after landing: the regiment sent to intercept him joined him, shouting ‘Vive L’Empereur’, and swearing allegiance to their exiled emperor and forgetting or ignoring their oaths to the new Bourbon king. King Louis XVIII was forced to flee to Belgium as the support for Napoleon swelled on his approach to Paris.

3. His return did not go unchallenged

Arriving in Paris in March 1815, Napoleon resumed governance and plotted offensives against Allied European forces. Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia were deeply unnerved by Napoleon’s return, and vowed to oust him once and for all. They pledged to join forces to rid Europe of Napoleon and his ambitions once and for all.

Napoleon realised the only way he had a chance of beating them was to go on the offensive, and moved his troops across the frontier into modern day Belgium.

4. The Battle of Waterloo was Napoleon’s last major defeat

British and Prussian forces, under the control of the Duke of Wellington and Marshal von Blücher, met Napoleon’s Armée du Nord at the Battle of Waterloo, on 18 June 1815. Despite the combined English and Prussian forces significantly outnumbering Napoleon’s, the battle was close run and extremely bloody.

However, the victory proved decisive, and brought the Napoleonic Wars to their end, 12 years after they had first started.

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler.

Image Credit: Public Domain

5. The British wouldn’t let Napoleon set foot on land

Following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon returned to Paris to find the people and the legislature had turned against him. He fled, throwing himself on the mercy of the British as he realised he would not be able to escape to America – he even wrote to the Prince Regent, flattering him as his best adversary in the hope of winning favourable terms.

The British returned with Napoleon on board HMS Bellerophon in July 1815, docking in Plymouth. Whilst deciding what to do with Napoleon, he was kept on board the ship, effectively in a floating prison. The British were said to be fearful of the damage Napoleon could do, and wary of the spread of the revolutionary fervour which so often accompanied him.

6. Napoleon was exiled to one of the most remote spots on earth

Napoleon was exiled to the island of St Helena in the south Atlantic: around 1900km from the nearest shoreline. Unlike the French attempts to exile Napoleon on Elba, the British took no chances. A garrison was dispatched to both St Helena and Ascension Island in order to prevent any attempts at escape.

Originally lodged at Briars, the home of the governor and East India company merchant William Balcombe, Napoleon was later moved to the somewhat decrepit Longwood House and Balcombe was sent back to England in 1818 as people grew suspicious of the family’s relationship with Napoleon.

Longwood House was damp and windswept: some insinuated the British were trying to hasten Napoleon’s death by putting him in such a residence.

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.
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7. He spent nearly 6 years on St Helena

Between 1815 and 1821, Napoleon was kept imprisoned on St Helena. In an odd balance, Napoleon’s captors tried to prevent him receiving anything which might allude to his once imperial status and kept him on a tight budget, but he was prone to throwing dinner parties which required guests to arrive in military or formal evening dress.

Napoleon also began to learn English as there were few French speakers or resources on the island. He wrote a book about Julius Caesar, his great hero, and some believed Napoleon to be a great Romantic hero, a tragic genius. No attempts were ever made to rescue him.

8. Accusations of poisoning were thrown around after his death

Conspiracy theories surrounding Napoleon’s death have long been bounded around. One of the most prevalent is that he in fact died as a result of arsenic poisoning – possibly from the paint and wallpaper in Longford House, which would have contained lead. His remarkably well-preserved body further fuelled rumours: arsenic is a known preservative.

A lock of his hair also showed traces of arsenic, and his painful and prolonged death gave rise to further speculation. In fact, studies have shown that the concentration of arsenic in Napoleon’s hair was no higher than what would have been expected at the time, and his illness was in keeping with a stomach ulcer.

Napoleon full length portrait

Jacques-Louis David – The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812).

9. Autopsies have proven his cause of death conclusively

An autopsy was conducted the day after his death: observers agreed unanimously that stomach cancer was the cause of death. The autopsy reports were re-examined in the early 21st century, and these studies concluded that in fact, Napoleon’s cause of death was a massive gastric haemorrhage, probably as a result of a peptic ulcer caused by gastric cancer.

10. Napoleon is buried at Les Invalides in Paris

Originally, Napoleon was interred on St Helena. In 1840, the new French king, Louis-Philippe, and the Prime Minister decided that Napoleon’s remains should be returned to France and buried in Paris.

In July of that year, his body was brought back and buried in the crypt at Les Invalides, which had originally been built as a military hospital. It was decided this military connection made the site the most fitting place for Napoleon’s burial, but several other sites, including the Pantheon, the Arc de Triomphe and the Basilica of St Denis, were suggested.

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Tags: Napoleon Bonaparte

Sarah Roller

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