Napoleon is famous for his military acumen, thirst for power, and the Louisiana Purchase - yet few people know he inadvertently helped create the world-famous hazelnut spread known as Nutella, or that he had his marriage to Josephine, the love of his life, annulled.
Napoleone di Buonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, on the island of Corsica, to Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Romalino Buonaparte. He was one of their eight children who survived to adulthood.
Corsica had been acquired by France from Italy one year before Napoleone was born. The Buonaparte family were part of the Corsican nobility, and Napoleone's parents had opposed French rule of their island country.
Young Napoleone, then called "Nabulio," attended school in France and learned to speak French, but his classmates mocked him for his Corsican accent. He was the first Corsican to graduate from Ecole Militaire, in 1785. He joined the French army as a second lieutenant. In that same year, Nabulio's father died of stomach cancer and Nabulio assumed his place as head of the family.
Although he loved Corsica and disliked France when he was young, in later years Napoleone came to prefer France for its broader culture. He adopted the French spelling of his name - Napoleon Bonaparte - to reflect his new preference.
Political Turmoil in France
In 1789, the French Revolution began. Napoleon spent the early years of the revolution in Corsica, away from the action, and he joined the Jacobins, a revolutionary political organization. The Jacobins and other revolutionaries, led by Robespierre, established the Republic of France in 1792 and executed King Louis XVI in 1793. During the so-called Reign of Terror which followed, tens of thousands of citizens were executed.
Robespierre was executed in 1794 and France was ruled by a group of men called the Directory. Napoleon took leadership of the Italian army and gained territory for France. His invasion of Egypt, however, was a failure. His troops were left vulnerable after their loss at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Britain, Austria, Russia, and Turkey formed a coalition and defeated France in Italy.
The French Directory was overthrown in 1799 by Napoleon and his allies in the coup of 18 Brumaire. Napoleon, who was a general by that time, became the first consul of a three-member Consulate that governed France from 1799 to 1804.
In 1801, during his term as first consul, Napoleon signed a Concordat with Pope Pius VII, an agreement which had advantages for both parties. It strengthened Catholicism as the majority religion in France and ended hostilities between Catholics and the French government.
Napoleon sold France's Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, for $15 million, to fund his military exploits. This sale is known as the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Napoleon I, the first emperor of France. Napoleon once said, "I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies."
The crowning ceremony took place at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Napoleon was supposed to be crowned by Pope Pius VII, but in a surprise move he grabbed the crown from the pope's hands and placed it on his own head. Napoleon seized the Papal States in 1809, causing Pius VII to excommunicate him.
Napoleon met the love of his life, Josephine de Beauharnais, at a dinner in Paris in 1795. She was 32 and a widow. Her husband from an arranged marriage, the Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, had been guillotined in 1794, during the French Revolution, leaving her with a son and daughter. Josephine assumed a new identity as Citizen Beauharnais, wearing muslin dresses instead of her usual stately attire, but she was discovered and nearly executed.
Napoleon, six years younger than Josephine, was infatuated with her. She did not return his feelings, but, lacking other prospects, she agreed to marry him. The day after their wedding, Napoleon left for Italy without her.
Over the years the lovestruck Napoleon sent countless love letters to Josephine during his travels, to which she responded infrequently and without his degree of passion. In one early letter, he wrote, "You have robbed me of more than my soul; you are the one only thought of my life. When I am weary of the worries of my profession, when I mistrust the issue, when men disgust me, when I am ready to curse my life, I put my hand on my heart where your portrait beats in unison."
In 1798, love letters from Josephine to her lover, Hippolyte Charles, were intercepted and published in the "Morning Chronicle." Napoleon was humiliated. He threatened divorce, but Josephine and her children begged him to reconsider.
With time, Josephine came to like Napoleon better, but, unfortunately, the couple failed to have children. Their failure is not surprising, given the fact that the couple spent most of their days apart, but Napoleon came to the conclusion that he had to replace Josephine with a wife who could produce an heir. Their marriage was annulled in 1809.
In 1810, Napoleon married Marie Louise, the daughter of the emperor of Austria, who was 18 years old. She gave birth to a son, Napoleon Francois Joseph Charles Bonaparte, in 1811. He would later be known as Napoleon II, with the title of King of Rome. Napoleon reportedly fathered several other illegitimate children.
Despite their annulment, the love between Napoleon and Josephine never died. They walked in the rain together at the Chateau de Malmaison, her residence, on the day after their marriage ended. They continued to exchange love letters. While he was married to Marie Louise, Napoleon wrote to Josephine, "Never doubt the whole truth of my affection for you; it will last as long as I. You would be very unjust if you doubted it."
Josephine died in 1814, of grief according to some, whispering his name. On his own deathbed in 1821, Napoleon's last words were, "France, army, head of the army, Josephine."
During his time in power, Napoleon centralized the government in an attempt to re-establish order within France. He created the Napoleonic Code to established specific laws about property, prohibited privilege based on birth, and declared equal rights for men. However, the Napoleonic Code also increased the power of men over their families, stripped women of their individual rights, and permitted colonial slavery.
He declared that the state religion of France was Roman Catholicism, but he included freedom of religion in his Napoleonic Code.
Napoleon embraced science and the arts. To support French silk workers, he banned imported fabrics from his court - although the empress Josephine violated this decree.
The Napoleonic Wars began in 1803. France, under Napoleon's leadership, invaded a number of European countries. Before long, France had expanded its empire.
December of 1805 brought one of Napoleon's greatest victories, at the Battle of Austerlitz. The French army defeated the Austrians and the Russians; as a result the Holy Roman Empire was replaced by the Confederation of the Rhine. In a letter to his empress, Josephine, Napoleon wrote, "The battle of Austerlitz is the grandest of all I have fought."
Napoleon sought to block British trade in 1806, with the Continental System of European port blockades.
Napoleon's fortunes eventually turned. After the 1812 Battle of Borodino in Russia, fleeing Russian citizens set fires to cut off supplies to Napoleon's troops. The men faced starvation and exhaustion, and ultimately thousands of French troops were lost. Napoleon and his men suffered additional military defeats against Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden in 1813.
In March of 1814 Napoleon surrendered to his foes; in April of the same year he abdicated his throne and was exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy. Napoleon's new wife and their son went to live in Austria and, under the Treaty of Fountainebleau, Napoleon ruled over Elba.
Brief Return to Glory, Followed by Waterloo
In 1815 Napoleon left Elba and returned to Paris, then he resumed his position as the leader of France. The citizens welcomed him at first, but they soon grew dissatisfied. Napoleon's return to power, known as the Hundred Days, actually lasted for 111 days.
A number of nations, who justifiably considered Napoleon to be a threat, joined forces to depose him. Napoleon suffered his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, after which, in 1815, he was forced to abdicate once again. In an attempt to preserve his dynasty, he announced, "I offer myself a sacrifice to the hatred of the enemies of France. May they prove sincere in their declarations, and really have directed them only against my power. My political life is terminated, and I proclaim my son, under the title of Napoleon II, Emperor of the French."
Napoleon was permanently exiled by the British government to the island of Saint Helena in October of 1815. Although he was allowed to move about freely on the island, he lived the life of a recluse. He wrote and read. He developed stomach problems - either an ulcer or stomach cancer - and became bedridden in 1821.
Napoleon was often depicted in paintings with one hand tucked into his vest. Some historians interpret this as evidence that he was suffering with stomach pain for many years.
Napoleon once said, "An army marches on its stomach." His army was the first to use canned foods.
Napoleon employed a man named Jacquard to improve the method of weaving patterns in silk. Jacquard ultimately invented a punch-card system to create and replicate complex patterns. This punch-card technology was later used by computer programmers to manage data in the twentieth century. Elaborately-patterned silk is still known as Jacquard fabric.
On their marriage certificate, Napoleon added eighteen months to his age and Josephine subtracted four years from hers, to offset the actual six-year difference in their ages.
When he was a young man, Napoleon wrote a romantic novella. It was not published during his lifetime. After Napoleon died, the individual manuscript pages were sold to collectors around the world. Attempts were later made to reconstruct his work, but Napoleon's handwriting was difficult to read and the first page could not be found. Eventually the text was gathered from all sources and published in French, in 2008, as "Clisson and Eugenie." In Napoleon's novella, the heroine Eugenie wrote to her beloved Clisson: "Last night I dreamt you were on your deathbed. The life had gone out of your beautiful eyes, your mouth was lifeless, you had lost all your colour. I threw myself on your body: it was icy cold. I wanted to bring you back to life with my breath, to bring you warmth and life. But you could no longer hear me. You no longer knew me."
Napoleon's wife, the empress Josephine, always posed for portraits with her lips closed because her teeth were decayed from sucking on sugar cane when she was a child.
Both Napoleon and Josephine worked to soften their accents - his Corsican and hers Creole - to earn the approval of French society.
Napoleon preferred to eat his meals quickly, with no conversation. His favorite dish was roasted chicken with fried potatoes, onions, and licorice.
During an invasion of Egypt in 1799, one of Napoleon's soldiers, Pierre Francois Bouchard, discovered what is now called the Rosetta Stone. This priceless stone contains a decree written in three languages - Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian Demotic script, and Ancient Greek - thus providing experts with clues to read the hieroglyphs.
Napoleon furnished his residence with fashionable furniture and luxurious French fabrics, with an eye toward history and his son's future. He instructed his artisans to construct furniture durable enough to last 100 years or more.
Although Napoleon is famous for being short - even inspiring the term "Napoleon complex" - he was actually five-foot-six, close to average. The misinformation came from his habit of standing near his taller-than-average imperial guards, and also from the fact that the physician's note subsequent to his death listed his height as five-foot-two. This measurement was French, however. It was equal to five-foot-six when converted to English measurements.
When Napoleon blocked British shipping in 1806, the resulting chocolate shortage across Europe inspired chocolatiers to seek substitutes. In Turin, someone added chopped hazelnuts to some chocolate, to stretch it further, thereby creating a paste called giandula, now better known as Nutella.
Final Days and Final Thoughts
During Napoleon's final years in exile on Saint Helena, he devised escape plans involving balloons, submarines, and even ships with collapsible masts. Nonetheless, he died on Saint Helena on May 5, 1821. His physician listed the cause of death as stomach cancer, but some experts suspect arsenic poisoning, which may have been intentional or environmental.
In his will, Napoleon had requested, "It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom I have loved so well." Despite this request, he was buried on the island of Saint Helena. His wish was later fulfilled, however, when his remains were moved to a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris, in 1840, to rest beside other French military leaders.
Napoleon rose to unimaginable heights, but he sacrificed the love of his life to reach those heights. He spent his final days in ill health and in exile. He once said, "To do all that one is able to do, is to be a man; to do all that one would like to do, is to be a god." Napoleon was, after all, only a man.