Napoleon Bonaparte: the rise and fall of a dictator

Napoleon Bonaparte, the soldier who made himself Emperor of the French and defined early 19th-century Europe through the Napoleonic Wars. BBC History Revealed charts the ups and downs of the great conqueror, who was born a Corsican outsider but rose to become Europe's greatest military mind

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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.

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Mornings could include a ride around the island (a speck 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 he 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 Bonaparte 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 Saint Helena.

Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Napoleon Bonaparte on the imperial throne at his coronation
Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte on the imperial throne in coronation dress (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

NINE CONQUERORS TO RIVAL NAPOLEON

SARGON OF AKKAD (r2334-2279 BC)

Considered to be probably the first empire builder in history, he conquered most of Mesopotamia. He was the founder of the Sargonic dynasty, which ruled the Akkadian Empire for a century after his death.

CYRUS THE GREAT (r550-29 BC)

He founded the largest empire the world had seen and established such a strong political infrastructure in his conquered lands that it endured long after his death as the Persian Empire.

ALEXANDER THE GREAT (r336-23 BC)

By the time he was 30, the King of Macedonia conquered Greece, defeated the Persians and reached India, all without losing a battle. More than 20 cities are named after him.

ATTILA THE HUN (rAD 434-53)

Another name bestowed to the barbarian ruler is ‘Scourge of God’. His hordes left destruction and death as they plundered the Roman Empire. It took the Romans to join up with the Visigoths to bring him down.

WU ZETIAN (rAD 690-705)

Not only was Wu Zetian at the heart of Chinese politics for more than half a century, but she took the throne for herself to become empress and oversaw the unification and major expansion of the empire.

CHARLEMAGNE (rAD 800-14)

The founder of what would become the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne united huge swathes of Europe – no wonder Napoleon wanted to draw comparisons with the great leader at his coronation.

MAHMUD OF GHAZNA (rAD 998-1030)

With the vast wealth he looted from his conquests (from modern-day Iran to India), the first ruler with the title of ‘Sultan’ transformed his capital into a centre of culture and learning.

GENGHIS KHAN (r1206-27)

With a domain that stretched from Asia to Western Europe (the largest contiguous empire in history), a death toll exceeding 40 million and a neat line of innovative military tactics, the Mongol puts other conquerors to shame.

HARI SINGH NALWA (r1804-37)

The ‘Tiger killer’ – he supposedly broke the jaw of a tiger with his bare hands – won victory after victory despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered. He even seized the Khyber Pass, something the British Empire couldn’t do.

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.

Napoleon abdicates at Fontainebleau in April 1814
Napoleon abdicates at Fontainebleau in April 1814 (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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.

Napoleon’s second exile

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 Saint Helena as Napoleon’s prison.

It took ten weeks for HMS Bellerophon to get to the South Atlantic island and when he first saw his new home through his field glasses, Napoleon commented: “It’s not an attractive place. I should have done better to remain in Egypt.” It 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 in to 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.

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This content was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed