Solitary school days

The compass a young Napoleon used to draw maps
The compass a young Napoleon used to draw maps. This was his introduction to strategy. (Image by Alamy)

Napoleon’s school compass (above) is a reminder of the rudimentary beginnings of his career. Made from wood, copper and leather, it was his introduction to strategy, used in map drawing and fortification classes. Napoleon, who was born on 15 August 1769, attended École Royale Militaire in Brienne as a new member of the French nobility – his Corsican family were elevated in status after the country’s invasion by the French, as his father had swapped sides and supported the attackers. Fiercely patriotic of his Corsican heritage, Napoleon had a deep connection to home, writing to his mother: “I hasten to testify to you the love that inspires in me the kindness that you have had for us.”

Throughout his education, Napoleon was a solitary creature, reflecting later in life: “I lived like a bear in a little room, with my books for my only friends.” He learnt gentlemanly pursuits such as Latin, mathematics, fencing and dancing. In his own time, he began work on historical and philosophical essays, even beginning a gothic novel: “O horror! The countess’s fingers sank into his broad wounds and came out covered with blood.” Despite his authorial ambitions, however, he ultimately settled on the path his family set for him. A life in the military lay before him, in a country on the edge of revolution.

Rising star of the revolution

One of Napoleon’s bicorne hats
One of Napoleon’s bicorne hats, adorned with his customary red, white and blue cockade. This signified his revolutionary ideals. (Image by Alamy)

“The Bat” was Napoleon’s battlefield nickname, inspired by his hat’s bat-like silhouette. He always carried 12 bicorne hats with him, specifically tailored to be unusually en bataille (with corns parallel to the shoulders) rather than en colonne, with the corns perpendicular, as was the fashion for most of his officers.

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As well as a fashion statement, the hat was Napoleon’s homage to his early revolutionary ideals. The red, white and blue cockade, the only flourish to adorn it, was the symbol of the French Revolution, of the everyman and his revolutionary yearning for democracy and liberty.

When the revolution had begun, Napoleon, four years out of military school, fervently embraced its ideals, eventually becoming president of the Jacobin Club, the most famous political revolutionary group. He also rose quickly through the French military ranks, even capturing the attention of Robespierre’s brother, who claimed he showed “transcendent merit”.

Despite the ever-changing seas of France’s political allegiances, Napoleon kept its revolutionary principles with him. As he built his empire, he was determined to cultivate a “man of the people” image. Thus the cockade was a conscious fashion statement to his loyal troops, signifying that Napoleon promised to serve them, and deliver France justice.

Enthralled by Egypt

The frontispiece of the first volume of Description of Egypt
The frontispiece of the first volume of Description of Egypt, a comprehensive survey of the country. The research for this book was conducted during Napoleon’s military campaign. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Napoleon thought of Egypt as the “geographical key to the world”. In 1798 and 1799 he led a campaign through Egypt and Syria to protect French trade interests, undermine the British and to enforce a colonial presence in the Middle East. The invasion was also Napoleon’s attempt to craft his image in that of his military heroes, particularly Alexander the Great, who had forged a sprawling empire through conquest.

Alongside his military force was also a group of 167 academics, scientists, geographers, artists, engineers and musicians. As members of the Commission of Sciences and Arts, their goal was to record a comprehensive survey of Egypt, bringing cultural and scientific flair to the campaign. The Description of Egypt (published 1809–29) was a series of works that were illustrated with plates of the archaeological sites, antiquities, maps and ecology of Egypt. (The frontispiece of the first volume is shown above.) These eye-catching plates sparked European interest in what would become the discipline of Egyptology.

Napoleon was also interested in excavating and looting ancient Egyptian sites. These stolen artefacts, such as the Rosetta Stone, would be seized by the British after Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of the Nile – potent symbols of the way Europe exploited ancient Egypt for national pride.

Crowned in glory

A gold laurel leaf from one of Napoleon’s crowns
A gold laurel leaf from one of Napoleon’s crowns. It sold at auction in 2017 for more than half a million euros. (Image by Reuters)

Napoleon made himself emperor of the French on 2 December 1804 in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Spectators watched as he was anointed by Pope Pius VII and then lifted a crown, made of gold laurel leaves, above his own head – the self-made man became the self-crowned king.

His crown had proved problematic, however. Composed of 44 laurel leaves, 12 smaller leaves and 42 seeds, it was too heavy to be worn during the coronation, and six leaves were removed to make it more bearable. The goldsmith who created it, Martin Guillaume Biennais, reportedly gave his daughters the six leaves – one of which (above) went to auction in 2017 and fetched €625,000, or around £540,000. This is the only leaf whose whereabouts we know of today: the other five are lost, and the crown itself was melted down.

The laurel crown was a symbol of military power and imperial triumph in the ancient world and, by wearing one, Napoleon hoped to emulate the Roman emperors he admired. A second crown, called the “Crown of Charlemagne”, was designed in the medieval style of the famed ruler. These two crowns were visual emblems of Napoleon’s reign: he was portraying himself as the inheritor of ancient power and medieval grandeur, heralding a new imperial era for France and the empire he had helped to shape.

Desperate for an heir

The intricately carved cradle that was given to Napoleon’s infant son
The intricately carved cradle that was given to Napoleon’s infant son and heir. (Image by Getty Images)

One of Napoleon’s chief concerns after he had established an empire was finding a way to secure it. He needed a legitimate male heir. Despite their passionate 14-year love affair, in 1809 the emperor had his marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais annulled. His dynastic hopes were placed on his second wife, the Austrian archduchess Marie Louise, eldest daughter of Francis II of Austria, whom he married in 1810. On 20 March 1811, the couple welcomed a son, named Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, and proclaimed “King of Rome” in the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire.

This elaborate cradle was gifted to the infant prince by the city of Paris and was adorned with meaningful symbols – the baby watched over by an eaglet and the winged goddess of victory. Napoleon doted on his son, nicknamed “the Eaglet”. His private secretary, Baron De Meneval, wrote that “sometimes, dismissing the great thoughts that occupied his mind, [Napoleon] would lie down on the floor beside his cherished son, playing with him like another child”.

After Napoleon’s first exile, to the island of Elba, his wife and young son fled to Austria; he would never see them again. In Austria the younger Napoleon was given the nickname “Franz” and tragically died of tuberculosis aged just 21.

A worthy steed

The skeleton of Marengo, Napoleon's trusted war-horse
The skeleton of Marengo, the emperor’s trusted war-horse. Napoleon rode him during the disastrous battle of Waterloo. (Image by Bridgeman)

In 1815, the armies of Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher met at the battle of Waterloo, marking the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It was a ferocious fight, with thousands of soldiers, artillery and horses crammed into a few square miles.

Napoleon rode into battle on his trusted horse, Marengo (whose skeleton is shown above), named after the French victory at Marengo in 1800. Fourteen hands tall, Marengo was an Arab stallion purchased in Egypt. He was trained to be calm and poised on the battlefield; French riding masters fired guns around him, waved flags and drove dogs through his legs to prepare him for the chaos of war. Over the course of his career Marengo was wounded eight times, yet he was always considered reliable and steady. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he was captured by the British and rebranded into a London celebrity.

When he died, after outliving his master by a decade, his skeleton was exhibited for the delight of audiences; even Queen Victoria visited the remains. Today, he’s housed in London’s National Army Museum. Perhaps more macabre, his hooves were made into an inkwell and snuff boxes, and one of the latter has gleamed on the sideboard in the Officers’ Mess in St James’s Palace for around 190 years.

Master of nothing

The 1815 print The Devil Addressing the Sun
The 1815 print The Devil Addressing the Sun shows the exiled emperor’s fall from power. (Image by Bridgeman)

St Helena, Napoleon’s final home, was described as a place “further away from anywhere else in all the world”. There he lived with an entourage of his loyal generals in a damp house among the lava fields. He was heavily guarded with no access to newspapers.

George Cruikshank’s 1815 engraving The Devil Addressing the Sun (above), which depicts Napoleon as the Miltonic Lucifer, is a strong visual statement of his fall from power. He lauds over the small island with clawed feet and broken wings, staring up at beams of light, each named after his adversaries, and emanating from his chief adversary, the Prince Regent (shown in the sun).

This dark tone captures Napoleon’s daily struggle for the remaining few years of his life. He was depressed and reflective, according to those who lived with him. His surgeon, Barry O’Meara, noted his shifts between egoism and despair. Lines such as “from nothing I raised myself to be the most powerful monarch in the world” were followed by him “reclining on the sofa, in a pensive attitude, his head resting upon one of his hands”.

Melancholia gave way to physical decline, triggering abdominal pains and fevers. Eventually, the island became Napoleon’s tomb.

Grief and gold

A gold mourning ring containing a lock of Napoleon’s hair
A gold mourning ring containing a lock of Napoleon’s hair that was gifted to John Soane in the 1820s. (Image by Bridgeman)

Napoleon died on Saint Helena on 5 May 1821, aged 51, most likely of stomach cancer. The lock of his hair in this ring was gifted to the architect John Soane by Elizabeth “Betsy” Balcombe.

Napoleon had lived with Balcombe, the daughter of an official of the East India Company, and her family on St Helena before his nearby residence, Longwood House, was completed. The exiled ruler formed an unlikely friendship with the teenage Balcombe, whom he nicknamed “Lettle Monkee”, playing games and telling her stories of his life and family. She would publish a memoir of their friendship on St Helena in 1844.

Balcombe, “knowing how much Mr Soane esteems the reliques of great men”, gifted the lock of hair to Soane in the early 1820s, where he had it set into a gold mourning ring, inscribed in French with the following: “This lock of hair of Napoleon Buonaparte was presented to John Soane Esquire by Miss Elizabeth Balcombe. Pray for Me.”

Balcombe’s memoir and Soane’s mourning ring show the sentimental and romantic attachments that were formed with Napoleon after his death – even among some of his former foes, the British.

The ultimate power play

Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Napoleon as the Roman god Mars
Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Napoleon as the Roman god Mars, which the Duke of Wellington displayed in his home. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In April 1811 a new portrait sculpture of Napoleon by the famed neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova was unveiled in Paris. The monumental 11ft artwork depicted Napoleon as the ancient Roman god of war, Mars. It also presented Bonaparte in the nude, in the heroic style of the Roman emperors he so admired. Napoleon hated it, calling the physique “too athletic”, and hid it from public view within the Musée Napoléon (the Louvre).

After his defeat at Waterloo, the statue was sold to the British government, who presented it to the Duke of Wellington. The duke installed the sculpture at the base of the stairway of his London home, Apsley House. Wellington continued to collect trophies of his foe: he became the lover of two of Napoleon’s mistresses; bought his sister Pauline’s mansion in Paris; and amassed an extensive collection of Napoleonic memorabilia including weaponry, books, busts, paintings, and even the vast Sèvres Egyptian dinner service refused by Josephine as a divorce present.

In public, Wellington was the picture of modest Victorian masculinity and self-effacement. But at Apsley, Mars the Peacemaker was used as the ultimate display of personal triumph over the naked emperor, a self-made god forever on undignified display.

Risen from the grave

A piece of Napoleon’s coffin
A piece of Napoleon’s coffin, which fell into the hands of Charlotte Brontë. (Image by Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum)

In 1844 George Reynolds described Napoleon as that “meteor which blazed so brightly, and which so long terrified all the nations of the universe with its supernal lustre”. Despite the emperor’s death, his celebrity continued. In Britain, his true nature was hotly debated. Arguments ranged from Napoleon being a misunderstood leader who “neither party even understood” to being responsible for causing “slaughter, fire and human misery”, as claimed by Sir Walter Scott in the first full-length biography of the emperor.

In France, Napoleon’s continued popularity, paired with ongoing political unrest, led to the joint political move by statesman Adolphe Thiers and King Louis-Philippe to reinter Napoleon in Paris. In 1840, a team went to St Helena to exhume the body, which had hardly decomposed. Some took pieces of the old coffin as souvenirs, such as the one pictured here, which ended up in the possession of the novelist Charlotte Brontë, gifted to her from her Belgian tutor, Constantin Héger.

In December Napoleon’s remains were brought to Paris for retour des cendres, “return of the ashes”. A huge crowd gathered on a day described by Victor Hugo as “beautiful as glory / Cold as the tomb”. A fitting parade for a sensational life.

Dr Nicole Cochrane is an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter. Dr Emma Butcher is a lecturer in literature and cultural heritage at Edge Hill University

LISTEN: Andrew Roberts explores the French leader’s life in the five-part BBC Radio 4 series Napoleon: The Man and the Myths


This article was first published in the May 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine