Top 10 Things About Napoleon Bonaparte You Probably Didn’t Know About

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most fascinating leaders in world history. Born on the French-owned Mediterranean island of Corsica in 1769, Napoleon quickly rose through the ranks of the French military and reached the rank of commander in 1796. He travelled throughout Italy and Egypt and won a series of military campaigns, but he returned to France in 1799 upon hearing that his homeland’s armies had suffered defeat at the hands of the Second Coalition consisting of Britain, Austria and Russia. Hailed with a hero’s welcome, Napoleon overthrew the Directory (the government which had emerged after the French Revolution) with a coup d’état and emerged as France’s ‘First Consul’. In 1804 he was elected Emperor of France and his ongoing victories in Europe against a series of different coalitions gained the country new territories and considerable power. However, defeats in the Peninsular War which started in 1808 against the Spanish Empire, United Kingdom and Portugal drained French military resources, and a disastrous attempt to invade Russia in 1812 saw the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s reign of power. He was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and lived out the rest of his life in British imposed exile on the tropical island of Saint Helena. Ruthlessly ambitious and a genius military commander, Napoleon’s campaigns truly changed the world and he is an important figure in modern history. However, there are many fascinating facts and quirks about Napoleon which most people probably haven’t heard about.

10. He didn’t have a Napoleon Complex

Napoleon Complex

The first fact that comes into most people’s heads when they think about Napoleon is that he was really, really short. Napoleon has the dubious honour of being the origin of the term ‘Napoleon complex’ which is typically a derogatory remark directed at short people who have an overly-aggressive personality or inflated sense of superiority. In reality Napoleon was actually thought to be of average height for his time period and historians think that he was probably around 5ft 6 inches tall. There are several possible reasons for the popular belief that Napoleon was short in stature. Napoleon was typically flanked by the Imperial Guard, a small group of elite soldiers who had to be at least 5ft 8 inches to join (and they wore large bearskin head-dresses, which made them seem taller), so he looked small in comparison to them. He also had the nickname “Le Petit Caporal” which translates to the “The Little Corporal”. However, this nickname came from a place of affection as it meant that his soldiers considered Napoleon to be one of them. It is widely agreed upon that these rumours about his height were spread by British. A miscalculation converting between French and English units of measurement led to his height being widely reported as only 5ft 2 inches, and the English were keen to use this to their advantage by literally belittling the emperor as part of their propaganda efforts in the war against the French.

9. We Probably Wouldn’t Have the Braille System without Him


Braille is a universal writing system which uses embossed dots instead of text so that visually impaired people can read. Braille is still used to this day, but it may not have been invented were it not for Napoleon. The emperor requested a code system which could be used by soldiers on the battlefield so that could read documents in the dark at night and also communicate without having to make a sound. Charles Barbier was a captain in the French army who devised a system called ‘night writing’. Barbier’s system used two digit codes (represented by dots) which corresponded to different characters in the French alphabet. As up to 12 dots could be required for just one character, the military rejected night writing as being too difficult for soldiers to learn and use on the battlefield. However, the system later proved to have worth as in 1821 a twelve year old blind boy by the name of Louis Braille learned about night writing while studying at the Royal Institute for the Blind. Braille was inspired by Barbier’s original system and simplified it down to a series of 6 dots instead of 12 which made it much easier and more efficient to learn and read with.

8. His Penis was Cut Off During his Autopsy

After Napoleon died in exile on the island of Saint Helena 1821, his autopsy was carried out by his personal physician Francesco Antommarchi. No one quite knows how or why, but during the procedure Antommarchi cut off Napoleon’s penis and gave it to the priest Abbé Anges Paul Vignali, who had given the French ruler his last rites. Apparently the penis remained in the possession of Vignali’s family until they sold it, along with other possessions they had of Napoleon’s, to an American rare book dealer in 1924 for $2,000. In 1927, it was displayed in a glass case in the Museum of French Art in New York where it was said to have resembled a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace.” The penis apparently changed hands several times over the years until it was finally bought by an American Urology professor at a Paris auction house in 1977 for the relatively paltry sum of $3,000. Although this bizarre sequence of events has been met with suspicion over the years, the urologist’s son permitted a DNA test to be carried out on the penis in 2014 and it was proven that the appendage did in fact belong to the Napoleon. Sadly, Napoleon’s legacy has been tarnished somewhat by reports that his dismembered penis barely measured more than one inch in length. However, in fairness to the man the penis was said to never have been properly preserved, so some shrinkage was probably to be expected after nearly two centuries.

7. He Requested Military Service in Russia

Napoleon’s attempts to invade Russia in 1812 were beaten back by the dreaded Russian Winter, and he was forced to withdraw his troops and suffer massive losses. The Russian defeat severely affected Napoleon’s reputation and it was a turning-point in his eventual downfall. It’s therefore quite surprising that Napoleon actually applied for Russian military service but he was rejected. Of course, this was long before he became the ruler of France and during his early military career. Original documents and letters show that in 1789 Napoleon, then a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Corsican National Guard, applied to Russian service seeking the rank of Major. By the time the Russians had received Napoleon’s application, foreign officers were only allowed to join Russian service if they were willing to effectively ‘go down’ a rank. Because Napoleon applied to be a Major – the equivalent of the French Lieutenant-Colonel – his application was denied. However, when Napoleon originally sent his application it is thought that this rule was not in force and he was under the impression he would not have to abate one military rank. It’s interesting that what was effectively an administrative error could have completely changed the course of history.

6. He Helped Invent Canned Food

Canned Food
photo: Jean-Paul Barbier / Wikicommons

Ever the strategist, Napoleon wanted to find a way to effectively feed his large armies when they were in enemy territory and unable to find ample provisions. He offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs to any person who came up with a way to better preserve large amounts of food. In 1809, French confectioner Nicolas François Appert came forward with a method which involved sealing food inside an airtight jar and boiling it until it was properly cooked through. Although it took him 15 years to perfect this idea, the food did not spoil unless the seals on the jar were broken and Appert claimed the cash prize. However, the taste left a lot to be desired for and it was difficult to transport glass bottles without breaking them. A year later, the method was refined by Philippe de Girard who patented the idea of using tin cans. However, it would be another 50 years until someone came up with the idea of a can opener.

5. He Ordered Ten Days of Mourning When George Washington Died

George Washington

There are many similarities between America’s First President George Washington and Napoleon. Both rose through the ranks of military service at a young age and both led campaigns against the British. Both essentially owed their positions of power to revolutions and France had also given Washington considerable support during the American Revolutionary War. It’s reasonable to assume that the two men had a mutual admiration of each other, even though America and France were on the precipice of war when George Washington died in 1799. Nevertheless, when word of Washington’s death reached Napoleon (who was then First Consul of France) he ordered ten days of mourning throughout the country and enlisted poet Louis-Marcelin de Fontanes to write a eulogy.

4. Historians Argued that his Wallpaper Killed Him

The official cause of Napoleon’s death was thought to be stomach cancer, but historians have argued back and forth about the possibility that he was actually poisoned by arsenic. When Napoleon was exiled to Longwood House on the island of Saint Helena, his lodgings were damp and in a severe state of disrepair. Napoleon wrote letters complaining about the conditions and some even speculated at the time that the British government were deliberately attempting to worsen his health to hasten his death. Although Napoleon’s autopsy revealed that he had been suffering from a severe stomach ulcer, a prevailing theory developed over the years that arsenic played a part in his death. Following his autopsy, some people took locks of hair from Napoleon and they passed them down as treasured possessions over generations or even put them up for auction. In the 1960s, a sample of Napoleon’s hair was analysed with modern scientific methods and it was discovered that the arsenic levels were 100 times more than the average amount found in a person. Arsenic had been used as a traceless but effective poison since the Middle Ages, and historians suspected that the British government had gradually poisoned Napoleon with the chemical during the time he was in exile. However, another theory was presented that the wallpaper in Napoleon’s residence contained an arsenic compound as a dye, and the humid weather on the island had created mould and released arsine vapours. Although it’s unlikely that this would have killed Napoleon (arsenic was widely used in dyes and glues so most people were exposed it to during this time anyway), it certainly wouldn’t have helped his stomach ulcer and it does explain the large amounts of the chemical levels found in his hair, discrediting the original deliberate poisoning theories.

3. There was a Plot to Rescue him From Exile in a Submarine


Napoleon had little hope of rescue or escape when he was finally exiled on the small island of St Helena. Situated off the coast of Africa, the British garrison was heavily fortified with troops and naval ships and the island was surrounded by cliffs which made landing by ship very difficult (and very easy to spot). Although Napoleon had free reign to roam around Longwood estate, the British kept a very close eye on this important prisoner and took every precaution necessary. Nevertheless, there were still loyalist plots to attempt a rescue of the former French emperor. Apparently, steamboats, fast yachts and even hot air balloons were considered as a means to help Napoleon escape from the island, but the most interesting plot involved a makeshift submarine. Famous smuggler Tom Johnson claimed in his autobiography that in 1820 he was offered £40,000 to rescue Napoleon from his prison island. Johnson’s plan was to approach the island at night with a small crew in two small submarines and get close enough to land on the shore. They were then going to climb the cliffs, make their way inland to rescue Napoleon and then scale back down to the shore on a makeshift boson’s chair. Although the first submarine wasn’t successfully launched until 1864, many years after Napoleon’s death, there had been experimental craft before this. Napoleon himself even helped fund one of the earliest success stories – The Nautilus built by American Robert Fulton – in 1800. Johnson was said to have worked with Fulton at some point and a letter from 1820 shows that he had a primitive submarine (which wasn’t mechanical and used oars when submerged underwater) which he was attempting to sell to the Royal Navy. Although Johnson was apparently fond of telling tall tales, it is possible that he may have been approached to rescue Napoleon using the vessel he was flaunting, but clearly the plan was never seriously attempted.

2. He Wrote a Saucy, Semi-Autobiographical Romantic Love Story

Clisson et Eugénie

Apparently even world leaders have a softer side. In 1795 Napoleon wrote Clisson et Eugénie, a rather melodramatic tale which follows the ill-fated love of a soldier, Clisson, and his wife, Eugénie. When the retired Clisson returns to the front to fight for his country, his wife is seduced by his former comrade Berville. Heartbroken by his wife’s betrayal, Clisson seeks to end his own life in battle. Written when he was 26, the short novella is thought to have been inspired by Napoleon’s own relationship with Eugénie Désirée Clary. Napoleon was engaged to Désirée in 1795, but shortly afterwards he was posted to Brittany with the military and it seems obvious that Napoleon likened himself to the heroic, honour bound Clisson. However, it wasn’t long after writing Clisson et Eugénie that Napoleon met Joséphine de Beauharnais and left Désirée for her instead, so he wasn’t quite the bleeding romantic he thought he was.

1. He Was Beaten by a Fake Chess-Playing Machine

Mechanical Turk

Napoleon may have been an expert strategist, but these skills apparently didn’t transfer to the game of chess. During his campaign against Austria in 1809, Napoleon visited Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and was shown a machine known as the Mechanical Turk. Inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel travelled the world with this device and boasted that it could beat any challenger at a game of chess. The Mechanical Turk was a large wooden cabinet which housed a very complex series of cogs and clockwork-like machinery. On top of the box sat a human-sized model of a torso and head which was dressed in traditional Turkish dress. This model was seemingly able to pick up and move pieces against its human opponents by receiving commands from the machinery inside the box. However, through the use of misdirection, mirrors, magnets and levers, the Turk was secretly operated from inside a hidden compartment by a chess master. It wasn’t until the 1820s that this hoax was exposed, so Napoleon was none the wiser that the ‘machine’ he was playing against was in fact a person in a box. Napoleon was said to be amused by the contraption and even tried to test it by making illegal moves on the board. Of course, each time he did this the machine corrected Napoleon’s errors (the model would shake its head and move the piece back if an opponent attempted to cheat in such a way) and the Mechanical Turk went on to win the match.