Life of the Week: Napoleon Bonaparte

We look back at the life and career of one of history’s greatest military leaders...

Born: 15 August 1769, in Corsica

Died: 5 May 1821, on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena

Ruled: Emperor of the French from 1804–1814, and again in 1815

Family: Napoleon was the second of eight surviving children born to Carlo Maria Buonaparte (1746–85), a lawyer, and Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte (1750–1836). The Buonapartes were minor Corsican nobility.

Napoleon was twice married: to Joséphine de Beauharnais, from 1796–1810, and Marie Louise, [later known as the Duchess of Parma], from 1810–1821. His second wife bore him a son, Napoleon II.

Napoleon acknowledged one illegitimate son, Charles Léon (b 1806), but may have had further unacknowledged illegitimate offspring.

Successor: Louis XVIII

Remembered for: Many things, but in particular his roles, which included Emperor of the French, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), and his defeat at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

His life: Although Napoleon’s parents were members of minor Corsican nobility, the family was not affluent. Educated at French military academies, which he attended on scholarships, Napoleon was poor compared to his classmates, who came from wealthy, well-connected families. Having grown up in Corsica, Napoleon’s first language was Italian, not French, and he was teased for allegedly sounding like a peasant.

Aged 15, Napoleon was admitted to the elite École Militaire in Paris, but was forced to complete the two-year course in just one after his father died of stomach cancer, leaving Napoleon as the family’s chief source of income. He became a commissioned officer just after his 16th birthday.

As war was about to break out across Europe, Napoleon was still a second lieutenant stationed in a sleepy garrison town, and went on leave to see his family in Corsica.
Nevertheless, in July 1792 Napoleon was promoted to captain in the regular army, and in 1796, having helped to suppress a royalist insurrection against the revolutionary government in Paris, he was made commander of the French army in Italy.

'General Bonaparte at Arcole, 17 November 1796', (c1797). From the Musee National, Chateau de Versailles. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Napoleon’s national profile was bolstered dramatically by his numerous critical victories against the Austrians and his marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais, whose first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, was famously guillotined during the Reign of Terror [a period of violence following the onset of the French Revolution].

In November 1799, Napoleon became first consul, and worked to establish a European empire under his military dictatorship. He centralised the government, reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state religion, instituted education reforms, and managed the creation of the Bank of France.

Napoleon triumphed over the Austrians at Marengo in 1800, and then negotiated a general European peace (which established French power on the continent). In 1802 Napoleon proclaimed himself consul for life, and two years later he became emperor of France.

But the peace Napoleon had negotiated was short-lived – by 1803 Britain had resumed war with France, later joined by Russia and Austria.

Britain’s naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805 forced Napoleon to abandon his plans to invade England, and he turned his attention instead to Austro-Russian forces, which he defeated at Austerlitz later that year in what is considered to be one of his greatest victories.

Napoleon gained much new territory in the years that followed, which seemingly gave him control of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, and Napoleon's relatives and loyalists were installed as leaders in Italy, Naples, Spain and Sweden, as well as Holland and Westphalia – territories newly created by Napoleon.

In 1810 Napoleon arranged for the annulment of his childless marriage to Joséphine, and married Marie-Louise, the 18-year-old daughter of the emperor of Austria. She gave birth to a son, Napoleon II (aka the King of Rome) the following year.

Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte (1763-1814) in 1801. Found in the collection of the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

From 1810, the tide began to turn against Napoleon: France suffered several military defeats that drained resources, and in 1812 Napoleon oversaw the catastrophic failed invasion of Russia. France was forced to retreat, and of the original 400,000 frontline troops, fewer than 40,000 returned.

Paris fell in March 1814, and Napoleon went into exile on the island of Elba, over which he was given sovereignty. Meanwhile, his wife and son went to Austria.

But in February 1815, after less than a year in exile, Napoleon escaped from Elba and marched on the French capital, and victoriously returned to power. This prompted Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria to declare war. His success was short-lived: he governed for a period now known as the Hundred Days – a brief second reign brought to an end by the battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

Following his humiliating defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821, aged 51, most likely from stomach cancer. Napoleon was buried on the island and his remains were not returned to France until 1840 – an event marked by what expert Fiona Parr describes as a “a level of splendour never before seen”.

Napoleon’s remains are entombed in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris, where other French military leaders are interred.

The first episode of Napoleon airs on BBC Two on Wednesday 10 June at 9.30pm. To find out more, click here.

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