Think of French history, and one of the first names that is bound to crop up is Napoleon Bonaparte. Born in Corsica, he rose to lead the French empire in a fascinating story that is told in multiple books, films and documentaries about his eventful reign as Emperor of France, his military career and his two separate exiles on the islands of Elba and St Helena. In fact, a new film is being released towards the end of November 2023 – answering the question: who was Napoleon? – and starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby as his wife, Josephine.
Here are ten fascinating facts about Napoleon Bonaparte.
1- The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte was Corsica, not France
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica in 1769. His father, Carlo Buonaparte, was a lawyer in the court of the French king. His mother, Laetitia Bonaparte, was a Corsican noblewoman who was later known by the French people as ‘Madame Mere’ in recognition of her status as mother of the Emperor. She died in 1836 while living in Rome, under the protection of Pope Pius VII
2- The young Napoleon enjoyed a privileged upbringing and an eventful military career
As the son of a wealthy family, Napoleon enjoyed an excellent education, eventually attending a military academy in France and becoming an officer in the French army. He was just 26 years old when he started his first military campaign against the Austrian army in 1795. Three years later in 1798, Napoleon’s forces clashed with the British Royal Navy and Sir Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay near Alexandria in Egypt. Napoleon was defeated in this tactically important battle that was just one small part of the wider French Revolutionary Wars.
Discover the Medallion: 1798 Battle of the Nile Historical Medallion by J G Hancock/P Kempson
3- Not content with military glory, Napoleon sought power right at the top of the French empire
After the ruling government of France began to lose control in 1799, Napoleon saw his chance to aim for the ‘top job’. In 1804, he formed a new government called the Consulate and appointed himself ‘First Consul’. Pope Pius VII crowned him Emperor of France at a Coronation held in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in December 1804. Although it is recorded that Napoleon insisted on placing the crown on his head himself, rather than have Pope Pius VII do it.
4- During his rule, Napoleon championed equality and oversaw a ‘modern empire’
Napoleon established a number of reforms designed to modernise France during his reign. He brought in the Napoleonic Code, which stated that government positions would be filled on the basis of people’s qualifications and abilities, rather than their status of birth or religion. He built new roads and promoted commerce. He set up non-religious schools so more French children could access education.
5- Napoleon’s time as Emperor was spent fighting many military campaigns
Thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte’s expertise in military planning, France controlled most of Europe by 1811. In 1812, he set his sights on invading Russia, having already defeated the Russian and Austrian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. By 1813, however, Europe was turning against France and his control was rapidly slipping away. He abdicated as Emperor in 1814 and was forced into exile on the island of Elba, close to the Tuscan coast in Italy.
6- Napoleon Bonaparte’s One Hundred Days in Paris
By March 1815, Napoleon had escaped form Elba, gathered his forces and returned to Paris, where he managed to retain control for a period known as the Hundred Days. During this time, he reclaimed his title as Emperor Napoleon. His victory did not last long, however. In June of the same year, Napoleon was defeated by the English and Prussian forces, led by Wellington and Blucher, at the Battle of Waterloo.
7- Napoleon was exiled a second time after military defeat, on a completely different island
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon faced island exile once more, this time on Saint Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. It was chosen by the British government for its much further distance away from France and mainland Europe. He never left Saint Helena alive, dying in 1821 as a British prisoner at the age of 54.
8- Napoleon was actually of average height
One of the most common myths about Napoleon Bonaparte was that he was a man of small stature. Some reports described him as 5 feet 2 inches. In fact, it is thought to be more likely that he stood at 5 feet 6 inches. Still not especially tall and imposing, but closer to the average height of French men of that time. The belief that he was unusually short has given rise to the term ‘Napoleon complex’ – describing smaller men who act more aggressively to make up for their lack of height.
9- Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb is in Paris, not on Saint Helena, where he died
Despite the fallen French Emperor being forced into exile twice, his body was repatriated to France ion 1840 for its final resting place. He is buried in Les Invalides, a magnificent monument in the heart of Paris with a distinctive golden dome. Les Invalides took 21 years to complete, with the body finally interred there in 1861. The ceremony was low-key, with the only attendees being Napoleon III and selected members of his family, plus a handful of senior crown officials. In 1940, the body of his son, Napoleon II was transferred from Vienna to be placed next to his in Les Invalides following a decision to reunite the two.
10- Napoleon Bonaparte was known for his military prowess; however, he was also a master of motivational quotes.
Napoleon Bonaparte rose to military glory; however, many wise words have also been attributed to him, including the following insightful quotes:
- “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
- “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
- Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.”
- “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.”