28 Things You Didn’t Know About Napoleon

Aside from the height jabs and the Waterloo shaming, there are lots of interesting Napoleon facts, such as his saucy letters to Joséphine in the early days of their lust and love, the fact that Beethoven was a fan of his until Napoleon went a step too far and appointed himself emperor, that he probably wasn’t afraid of cats, or that a priest may have smuggled his penis out of the country. He also wrote a romance novella as the age of 26, Clisson et Eugénie, which appears to be roughly based on his own life and heart’s desire. A lot of people gave if four and five stars on Amazon.

Who was Napoleon? Well, for one thing, he had numerous supporters and was beloved among the common people across Europe. So beloved that the British made sure he was locked away on a remote island for his second and final stint in exile. They also knew just how determined and intelligent the man was. They beefed up the garrison on the island of St. Helena, called in the Royal Navy, and even stationed soldiers on a neighboring island just in case of a rescue expedition.

He was ambitious and was made for war, but Napoleon facts reveal that he was a positive catalyst for Europe, bringing order to government even if by helping mount a coup. He also introduced conscription, religious freedom, offered a cash prize to solve food preservation for armies, and opened up society so that the common man who worked and studied could improve his station. As he created power for himself, he created powerful enemies, leading to his ultimate downfall.

  1. He Wasn’t Short

    Napoleon was probably around 5’6”, the average height for a Frenchman in the early 1800s, but members of his Imperial Guard were taller so he appeared short in comparison. His English detractors embellished on his height by making him appear diminutive. Added to the visuals were rumors that he sought power to compensate for his height, also known as the “Napoleon complex.”

    The “Napoleon Complex” has been debunked by studies. Upon his death, the attending physician made a note that Napoleon’s body was 5’2″ “from the top of the head to the heels” which equals 5’ 6” in English measurements.

  2. A Priest Stole Napoleon’s Penis

    Supposedly, the priest Vignali removed some of Napoleon’s organs after his death and may have also taken his penis. The ruler’s penis was handed down through the Vignali family, as one does, and ended up being sold to a British book firm in 1916.

    John K. Lattimer, former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, purchased Napoleon’s penis at auction in 1977. It was described as a “shriveled seahorse” (hey, it’s cold in the afterlife) and sold for $3,000.

  3. Napoleon Helped Solidify Driving on the Right Side of the Road

    Riders across continental Europe rode on the left side of the road, specifically so that they could wield a sword or a weapon from their right hand. It was also considered safer to mount and dismount a horse from the side of the road. Sorry, left-handed people! Also, nobility rode on the left, pushing the poor folk to the right side of the road. After the French Revolution, aristocrats got the idea to pass on the right in order to blend with the peasants and escape detection.   

    In 1709 in Russia, Peter the Great recognized the custom and Empress Elizabeth made it an official edict in 1752. But Napoleon decided to change road traffic to the right to surprise the enemy. This new way quickly spread among his conquests and was adopted across Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and across many areas in Italy and Spain. Britain, Portugal, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire resisted.

  4. Napleon and Joséphine Had a Tumultuous Relationship

    The relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Joséphine started out very passionately, at least on his part. She definitely played the game and did have feelings for him, but her past and old habits of taking lovers plagued their marriage.

    The letters between the couple show a man at war on the battlefield and with his feelings for his fickle wife. At times, passionate and naughty, and then later upon hearing of an affair from his brother, full of rage and downcast. She overplayed her hand and soon Napoleon’s feeling began to turn.

    In revenge, he took a mistress, Pauline Bellisle Foures (a junior officer’s wife), and wrote to his brother, “The veil is torn… It is sad when one and the same heart is torn by such conflicting feelings for one person… I need to be alone. I am tired of grandeur; all my feelings have dried up. I no longer care about my glory. At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything.” Unfortunately, the letter was intercepted by the British and then all of Europe knew of Joséphine’s unfaithfulness and the emperor’s changed feelings.

  5. He Probably Didn’t Say “Not Tonight, Joséphine,” but Did Friendzone Her

    Most of the historical accounts (based on letters between Napoleon and his wife) state that Napoleon was infatuated with his wife to the point that his feelings weren’t reciprocated to the fullest. The pair came from lower means and bonded over improving their lot in life. Napoleon built a life on education, strategy, and powerful social allies. Joséphine charmed her way up through society with skill and aplomb.

    Historian and author Kate Williams says that Napoleon was “graceless” with women and Joséphine played into his ego, especially when it came to his war tactics and attempt to grab the attention of the ladies. This is a woman who went to prison and narrowly escaped the guillotine in the wake of the fall of King Louis and Marie Antoinette. She knew a thing or two about men and social power.

    When they first got together, Napoleon was so crazy for her, he actually wrote to her, “I am coming home. Don’t wash.” So he probably didn’t tell her, “Not tonight,” but he did call her a “beastly slut” and other things through their correspondence when she didn’t respond to his letters and spent time with other men.

    He might have uttered something to that effect just before he divorced and exiled her because she was 46 and couldn’t produce a male heir. Williams recounts that he said, “Go, Joséphine. I will always be your friend.” Her wailing could be heard across the palace.

  6. He Was Once Beaten by a Chess-Playing Automaton

    Designed and built by Wolfgang von Kempelen, the automaton was known as The Turk, a “thinking machine” that could defeat humans at chess. It came complete with a seated life-size wooden man dressed in the garb of a magi or sorcerer, as most European audiences imagined them to look. The figure sat at a cabinet with a chess board on top.

    In 1809, Napoleon played against the machine. Cosmos magazine best describes the match: “As usual, the Turk was soon in a commanding position. The Emperor attempted an illegal move. The Turk replaced the piece on to its proper square. Napoleon tried another illegal move. This time, the Turk removed the offending piece from the board entirely. Amused by this, Napoleon attempted a third illegal move. The Turk swept his arm across the board, knocking over all of the pieces – to Napoleon’s delight.”

    It was later discovered that a master chess player was hidden inside the cabinet and the invention was deemed a hoax.

  7. The Last Word He Uttered Was “Joséphine”

    After he divorced Joséphine, Napoleon’s reign took a turn when his invasion of Russia was a flop. In turn, Russia and Britain marched on Paris and imprisoned the emperor. Joséphine, who never stopped being devoted to her ex-husband, was devastated by his capture and imprisonment. She became sickly and died soon after. Napoleon was exiled and became a former shadow of himself. As he lay dying, he was reported to have said, “Joséphine.”
  8. Napoleon Came from a “Backwater” Province

    Napoleon’s story is definitely a sort of rags to riches tale. He was born in Corsica, a decidedly “backwater” province, and was mocked for it all of his life. His father was determined to see his son excel and put Napoleon and his other son through university in mainland France.

    Napoleon became an officer in the French army and might have merely stayed there. The French Revolution provided an opportunity for him to step up in the world. Through wits, social positioning, brilliant military strategy, and patronage, Napoleon was able to ride his ambition to prominence. He seized power in a coup in 1799 and made himself emperor in 1804. He expanded France’s domain across Europe from the Elbe through southern Italy, and from the Pyrenees to the Dalmatian Coast.

  9. Joséphine’s Infidelity Fanned Napoleon’s Thirst for Power

    Who knows what would have happened if Napoleon’s ego hadn’t of been damaged. Joséphine’s constant rejection and affairs could have driven Napoleon to come to the conclusion that feelings for a woman weren’t a thing with which he needed to be concerned.

    After his feelings for Joséphine waned, Napoleon wrote, “I am not a man like others and moral laws or the laws that govern conventional behavior do not apply to me. My mistresses do not in the least engage my feelings. Power is my mistress.”

  10. Old Poison Thwarted Napoleon’s Suicide Attempt

    Napoleon was forced to abdicate on April 11, 1814, as part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau and it was determined that he would be exiled to the island of Elba. He didn’t take his loss of power and impending exile very well, attempting suicide while he was still at Fontainebleau. He had carried a poisonous pill since the failed invasion of Russia and took it on April 12, but it must have lost its potency and failed to do much more than make him violently ill.

    He escaped from Elba and made his way to France in 1815. After a brief power grab during the Hundred Days Campaign and then his disastrous Battle of Waterloo in June, Napoleon was once again exiled, this time to Saint Helena, a remote island off the coast of Africa. He died there at the age of 51, of stomach cancer.

  11. Lucien Bonaparte Saved the Coup, Ensured His Little Brother’s Rise to Power

    The coup that led to the events that essentially ended the French Revolution and Napoleon’s installment as emperor didn’t exactly go smoothly. Fresh off of his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon joined conspirators (Sieyès, police chief Joseph Fouché, foreign minister Talleyrand, and banker and coup financial backer Jean-Pierre Collot) to bring down the Directory (Paul Barras, Abbé Sieyès, Roger Ducos, General Moulin, and Gohier), which had been set up in 1795 after the fall of Robespierre.

    After the warning of an impending Jacobin plot, the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Elders moved away from central Paris to the former royal palace in St. Cloud. The conspirators were able to isolate the assemblies and pull off a power switch. The Directory either stepped down or were arrested. But the assemblies were not convinced of Napoleon’s suitability as a new leader and there threats of violence towards the general. He was even struck and scratched. The troops guarding the palace were also riled up.

    It was Lucien, his older brother and newly-elected Council of Five Hundred president, who stepped forward and put a sword to his brother, saying that he’d kill him himself if he destroyed French freedom.

    After a hasty reassembly (many deputies ran for their lives as the tide turned), Napoleon was appointed First Consul alongside Sieyès and Ducos. Five years later, Napoleon would appoint himself Emperor.

  12. He May Have Poisoned a Bunch of Soldiers

    After the Siege of Jaffa in 1799, Napoleon’s army left soldiers sick with plague behind at an Armenian monastery. Rumors abounded that he actually poisoned the soldiers to hasten their demise. To quell these rumors, he ordered a painting (by Antoine-Jean Gros) depicting Napoleon as a messiah figure, touching a plague-ridden soldier.
  13. Napoleon and Joséphine Changed Their Ages on Their Wedding Contract

    Napoleon, 26, married widow Joséphine de Beauharnais, 32, on March 8, 1796. The contract had been drawn up a year after the couple met and they signed it the day before their wedding. It stated that the pair had “no common property” and that neither were “responsible for the debts and mortgages of the other.”

    Napoleon’s family didn’t approve of the worldly widow. Maybe the couple edited their public persona by changing their ages on the wedding contract to create a kind of legitimacy. Or he simply wanted to close the age gap between them. Joséphine listed her age as four years younger and he added 18 months to his.

  14. His Second Wife Was France’s Shot at Unity with Austria

    Napoleon had his marriage to first wife Joséphine annulled, because, at 46, she could not give him an heir. He married Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia in 1810. Marie Louise was the daughter of the emperor of Austria, Francis I. Marie Louise was not only seen by Napoleon as the great hope to produce a male heir but also as a unifier between France and Austria, or at least an attempt at one.

    When Marie Louise was told that she was to wed the unattractive emperor who conquered her country, she wasn’t exactly over the moon. She wrote that the very sight of him “would be the worst form of torture.” Eventually, she warmed to him and had a son, Napoleon II who was named the king of Rome.

    Napoleon named her regent, albeit with limited powers, in his absence to deal with his enemies. While he was away in 1814, though, she fled the city fearing a coup. Not too soon afterwards, both of their fears were realized and Napoleon was forced to abdicate the throne. Marie Louise’s father opposed her accompanying Napoleon to his exile in Elba, although she wanted to go with him. She was escorted back to Austria by Adam Adalbert, Count von Neipperg, whom she would marry after Napoleon’s death.

  15. He Re-Established the French Aristocracy

    Napoleon Bonaparte was born in French-occupied Corsica in 1769. His father, Carlo Buonaparte, switched allegiance from the Corsican nationalists to the French after leader Pasquale Paoli fled the island. Buonaparte was a lawyer who saw his career blossom after being appointed as assessor of the judicial district of Ajaccio in 1771. This appointment gave him the opportunity to enroll his sons Napoleon and Josh in France’s College d’Autun in mainland France.

    After the Napoleonic Code was instituted, Napoleon re-established a French aristocracy eliminated during the French Revolution. He handed out titles of nobility to his loyal friends and family as his empire expanded across much of western and central continental Europe.

  16. The Hand in the Waistcoat Thing Was Likely an Attempt to Appear Noble

    There have been theories as to why Napoleon was often painted with his hand inside his coat. Some of the more popular theories hold that he had chronic stomach pain or some kind of skin ailment and wanted to cover it up. Others say he was winding his watch.

    Author and historian Arline Meyer says this was a common pose for men of nobility and was used well before the birth of Napoleon. As Napoleon was all about ambition and appearance, he just made the pose a thing.

    Meyer points out in the article Re-Dressing Classical Statuary: The Eighteenth -Century Hand-in-Waistcoat Portrait that this pose was rendered with “relentless frequency” in eighteenth-century portrait painting and statuary.

  17. He Wrote a Romance Novella Called Clisson et Eugénie

    He began the fictional work at the age of 26, just before he met Joséphine. Clisson et Eugénie appears to be loosely based on his own life and experiences. His main character, Clisson, is a brilliant soldier who has a tumultuous and tragic relationship with Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary.

    The opening paragraph could very well have been written about Napoleon himself, “From birth Clisson was strongly attracted to war. Whilst others of his age were still listening avidly to fireside tales, he was ardently dreaming of battle. As soon as he was old enough to bear arms, he took part in military campaigns, always distinguishing himself with acts of gallantry. Although still a boy, his natural ability and his love of action led him to attain the highest rank in the Revolutionary National Guard.”

    He compares Eugénie (the lesser attractive of the two sisters but more compelling) and her beautiful sister Amélie: “Amélie had the same effect as a piece of French music that everyone listens to with pleasure because they appreciate the succession of chords and are soothed by the harmony. Eugénie, on the other hand, was like a piece by Paesiello which transports and elevates only those souls born to appreciate it, leaving ordinary people unaffected.”

  18. He Probably Liked Cats Just Fine

    It’s been a commonly held belief that Napoleon had ailurophobia, or the irrational and persistent fear of cats. Author and historian Katharine MacDonogh, an expert on pets throughout history, says, “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats.”

    So where did the idea that Napoleon was a feline hater come from? MacDonogh says, “Cats have been endowed with a magical ability to detect the overweening ambitions of dictators, many of whom have consequently been accused of ailurophobia on the flimsiest evidence.”

  19. Napoleon’s Army Found the Rosetta Stone

    As part of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign to cut off British trade routes, the French army was also ordered to seize all important artifacts. Napoleon also regarded himself as a scientist and he sent 150 scientists, engineers, and scholars to survey the topography, culture, climate, and history of Egypt.

    On July 19, 1799, Captain Pierre François-Xavier Bouchard unearthed a black basalt stone, four feet long and two and a half feet wide, in the Nile delta. The slab was inscribed with three different texts: Greek, Egyptian demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Bouchard immediately understood its importance and had the stone shipped to Cairo for further study. The ancient Greek text revealed that it was inscribed by priests honoring King Ptolemy V in the second century B.C. Using the Greek script, archaeologists also discovered that the other two scripts had the same message, thus unlocking the understanding of hieroglyphics.

    When the British defeated Napoleon’s army in Egypt, they took the Rosetta Stone to England to the British Museum where it has been housed since 1802. The Egyptian government has demanded that the stone be returned. They have asked for the stone back, but have said that they will “aggressively” seek its return if necessary.

  20. Beethoven Was a Napoleon Fan – Until He Wasn’t

    Ludwig van Beethoven admired Napoleon from his early days as general to his leadership as First Consul. Beethoven was so struck by Napoleon’s military endeavors and political strategy that he planned to dedicate his third symphony to him. But when Napoleon appointed himself emperor, Beethoven was enraged. The composer reportedly said, “Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!” Beethoven then tore the title page of Symphony No. 3 in two.

    However, it seems he couldn’t stay mad at Napoleon, admitting in a letter, “the title of the symphony really is ‘Bonaparte.'”

  21. There Were Numerous Attempts to Rescue Napoleon from Exile at St. Helena

    Napoleon may have been a thorn in Britain, Russia, and Austria’s side, but common folk loved him. He was a self-made man, and he had escaped his first exile on Elba to rule France again for a short time before being forced to abdicate once again. This time, they weren’t taking any chances and exiled Napoleon to remote St. Helena, guarded by 2,800 men and 500 cannons.

    The waters around the island were constantly patrolled by 11 ships of the Royal Navy. Another island 1,200 miles out in the Atlantic held a garrison to prevent rescue from South America. That might seem extreme until you consider that during his six years in exile, there were numerous attempts to rescue Napoleon.

    Those attempts included balloons, boats, and two crudely made submarines, cobbled together by famous British smuggler Tom Johnson. Johnson said he was offered £40,000 (roughly $60,000) to rescue the deposed ruler.

  22. The Mayor of New Orleans Renovated a House for Him

    Frenchman and mayor of New Orleans Nicholas Girod was a supporter of Napoleon. After the ruler’s defeat at Waterloo and subsequent abdication, Girod helped members of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard escape to the New World and provided them with new lives.

    Girod also renovated a home at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis for Napoleon after he was to escape from St. Helena, lead by the Dominique You expedition. Before Girod could realize his dream of housing and hosting Napoleon, the exiled ruler died in St. Helena.

  23. He Probably Died of Stomach Cancer

    Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51, while in exile on St. Helena and the attending physician stated on his death certificate that he died of stomach cancer. He had suffered chronic stomach pain and nausea toward the end of his life, but because Napoleon’s body was well preserved at his death, many speculated that he was murdered by arsenic poisoning.  

    In 1961, researchers took hair samples from Napoleon’s remains, which did reveal elevated levels of arsenic. While this discovery fueled an assassination plot, others believe that he could have accidentally been poisoned by the wallpaper in his bedroom which contained arsenic and was activated by the damp and humidity.

    The arsenic poisoning theory was disproved in 2008 by a team of scientists from the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Milan-Bicocca and Pavia. They were able to take hair samples from four different periods of Napoleon’s life from boyhood, during his exile on Elba island, the day of his death on St. Helena, and the day after his death. Although the samples showed that the levels of arsenic were greatly elevated compared to today’s standards, they remained the same throughout Napoleon’s life. The levels were attributed to paints and medicines of the time, but may have excelled his death.

  24. Napoleon’s Cash Offer Introduced Canned Food to Feed Armies

    An army marches on its stomach, and carrying preserving food for extended periods of time during war time was unsuccessful. Napoleon offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could find the best methods for food preservation. 15 years later, confectioner Nicolas Francois Appert proved that his method of heating, boiling, and sealing food in airtight glass jars was one of the best ways to make food last.
  25. His Last Wishes Were Ignored

    Napoleon wanted to be cremated and spread along the River Seine. Instead, he was buried at L’Hôtel national des Invalides. Initially, he was interred at St. Helena. In his will, Napoleon also stated, “I die prematurely, assassinated by the English oligarchy and its assassin. The English nation will not be slow in avenging me.”
  26. One of Napoleon’s Death Masks Is at UNC Chapel Hill

    There are four authentic copies of Napoleon’s death mask and one of them made its way to the University of North Carolina. A Dr. Antommarchi was in attendance when Napoleon died at St. Helena and made copies of the original death mask made by Dr. Francis Burton. Dr. Antommarchi then presented a bronze copy to the city of New Orleans and gave a plaster copy to a colleague there. After his colleague pasted away, the death mask was given to Francis Bryan, a UNC alum, who donated it to the university.
  27. He Liked to Eat Quickly and in Silence

    Busy, successful people tend to have some specific and peculiar habits, especially when it comes to food. In his book Napoleon: A Biography, Frank McLynn writes, “No meal with him ever lasted more than twenty minutes, for he would immediately rise from the table when he had finished dessert. He liked to eat, little, fast and often, and expected his favourite food to be ready at any hour of day or night. Duroc made sure that his favourite repast – a roast chicken – was always to hand and kept careful inventory of the beloved fowl. Another favourite Bonaparte dish was potatoes fried with onions.”

    “He drank little wine and always unmixed, his favourite tipple being a glass of Chambertin. Napoleon would demolish his food in silence and at express speed, something eating the courses in reverse order and even eating with his fingers if he had pressing matters on his mine.”

    He was also known to eat sitting in the saddle when traveling or on the battlefield.

  28. Napoleon’s Religious Beliefs Were Situational

    Baptized and raised Catholic, Napoleon saw religion as a tactical tool and tended to take on the belief system of the region he was in, like spiritual tofu. His beliefs were situational at best. “I am nothing. In Egypt I was a Mussulman; here I shall be a Catholic.”

    He worked to restore the relationship between France and the Catholic Church because he recognized it as the religion of the majority. However, he did bring the Church under the authority of the state. His many quotes reflected just what he thought of religion.