Napoleon: Hero or Tyrant?

The French still cannot agree on whether Napoleon was a hero or a tyrant.

In a 2010 opinion poll, French people were asked who was the most important man in French history. General Charles de Gaulle, who governed Free France from exile during the German occupation in World War II was voted number one, followed by Napoleon.

Only two statues commemorate Napoleon in Paris: one beneath the clock tower at Les Invalides (a military hospital), the other atop a column in the Place Vendôme. No grand boulevard, square, or place bears Napoleon’s name. Just a narrow street—the rue Bonaparte.

“It’s almost as if Napoleon Bonaparte is not part of the national story,” said professor Peter Hicks, a British historian with the Napoléon Foundation in Paris.

Join me as we explore some of the reasons why Napoleon was such a controversial figure.

Then vote below whether you think Napoleon was a hero or a tyrant.

Napoleon the Hero vs Napoleon the Tyrant

Napoleon Hero vs Tyrant
Napoleon: Hero or Tyrant?

Napoleon the Hero

Napoleon enthusiast David Chanteranne, editor of a magazine published by Napoléonic Memory, France’s oldest and largest Napoleonic association, cites some of Napoleon’s achievements: the Civil Code, the Council of State, the Bank of France, the National Audit office, a centralized and coherent administrative system, lycées, universities, centers of advanced learning known as école normale, chambers of commerce, the metric system and freedom of religion.

These were ambitions unachieved during the chaos of the revolution. He was a savior of France. If there had been no Napoleon, the Republic would not have survived.David Chanteranne

Many of the institutions started by Napoleon were copied in countries that he conquered—Italy, Germany, and Poland, and laid the foundations for the modern state.

The University of France was a central organizing body for education founded by Napoleon in 1808 and given authority over universities as well as primary and secondary education.

Napoleon set in motion a system of secular and public education reforms that are the foundation for the modern educational system in France and much of Europe. He founded a number of state secondary schools, called lycées, to provide a standardized education open to everyone. All students were taught the sciences, plus modern and classical languages. Advanced centers—notably the École Polytechnique—provided both military expertise and state-of-the-art research in science. The system offered scholarships and strict discipline and outperformed its European counterparts.

Clovis bell tower and cloister, Lycée Henri-IV, Paris. Credit Lucdew

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand is a public secondary school located in Paris, widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in France.

Napoleon is considered one of the greatest commanders in history—his campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Hundreds of groups study, discuss and venerate him; stage re-enactments of his battles in costume; throw lavish balls; and stage events. Napoleon was regarded by the influential military theorist Carl von Clausewitz as a genius in the operational art of war, and historians rank him as a great military commander. The Duke of Wellington, when asked who was the greatest general of the day, answered: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.” Israeli military historian and theorist, Martin van Creveld, described him as “the most competent human being who ever lived”.

Across Europe, Napoleon implemented several liberal reforms to civil affairs, including abolishing feudalism, establishing legal equality, religious toleration, and legalizing divorce. His lasting achievement, the Napoleonic Code, has been adopted by dozens of nations around the world. The Code forbade birthright privilege, granted freedom of religion and specified that government jobs should be awarded on merit alone.

The Napoleonic Code. Credit DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0

Prior to the Napoleonic Code, France did not have a single set of laws; the law was based on local customs, exemptions, privileges, and special charters granted by kings or other feudal lords. Although the Code has been altered since its inception, the general structure remains the same.

Napoleon implemented a wide array of liberal reforms in France and across Europe, especially in Italy and Germany, as summarized by British historian Andrew Roberts in his book Napoleon: A Life, p.33:

The ideas that underpin our modern world–meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on–were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts also claims that, contrary to popular belief, Napoleon wasn’t a warmonger. He started two wars—the Peninsula War against Portugal and Spain, and later the Invasion of Russia—versus seven coalition wars declared against Napoleonic France.

In 1806, Napoleon emancipated Jews, (as well as Protestants in Catholic countries and Catholics in Protestant countries), from laws restricting them to ghettos, expanding their rights to property, worship, and careers.

I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.

Weakness in the French economy during the 1790’s caused a drop in foreign trade and soaring prices. Inflation and debt escalated with the issuance of more paper money until, by 1795, inflation reached 3500%. In 1800, Napoleon founded the Bank of France, which together with a revised tax code, finally brought inflation under control, eliminated the national debt within a year and balanced the budget for the first time since 1738.

After conquering Egypt in the expedition of 1798, Napoleon founded the Institut d’Égypte. Accompanying the voyage was an immense contingent of scholars, scientists, artists, and engravers who set about studying mummies, surveying temples, and recording their findings. They produced a monumental 24-volume document called Description of Egypta comprehensive scientific account of ancient and modern Egypt, which laid the foundation for the study of “Egyptology”. They also discovered the Rosetta Stone, which proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme
The true conquests, the only ones that leave no regret, are those that have been wrested from ignorance.Bonaparte

The last word goes to France’s foremost Napoleonic scholar, Jean Tulard, who said that Bonaparte was the architect of modern France.

If Napoleon had not crushed a Royalist rebellion and seized power in 1799, the French monarchy and feudalism would have returned. Like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome, Napoleon wanted a dictatorship of public salvation. He gets all the power, and, when the project is finished, he returns to his plough.Jean Tulard

Napoleon the Tyrant

Professor Chris Clark, a Cambridge University historian, said of Napoleon:

Napoleon was not a French patriot—he was first a Corsican and later an imperial figure, a journey in which he bypassed any deep affiliation with the French nation. His relationship with the French Revolution is deeply ambivalent. Did he stabilize it or shut it down? He seems to have done both. He rejected democracy, he suffocated the representative dimension of politics, and he created a culture of courtly display.Professor Chris Clark

Napoleon tried to represent himself as a Caesar: his coronation crown was a laurel wreath made of gold; his icon, the eagle, was also borrowed from Rome; and he wears a Roman toga on the bas-reliefs in his tomb.

From The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

Before crowning himself emperor, Napoleon sought approval in a rigged plebiscite in which 3,572,329 voted in favor, 2,567 against. A plebiscite was a national referendum, for which voters were not allowed to debate the issues involved. Napoleon didn’t trust voters’ opinions, so he had his loyal agents count the votes to make sure the results came out as desired. Furthermore, each “yes” or “no” was recorded, along with the name and address of the voter. The minister of police, Joseph Fouché, promptly suppressed any criticism. The combination of a ruthless police state and rigged elections became a staple of populist dictatorial regimes to the present.

Napoleon personally oversaw the productions of plays in the theaters of France. If Napoleon disapproved of a playwright’s work, his career was over. Napoleon also controlled the press, dropping the number of newspapers in Paris from over sixty in 1799 to four by 1814.

Considered a master of the use of propaganda, Napoleon recognized the power of manipulation of symbols to glorify his victories while blaming others for his failures. Like Caesar before him, he self-congratulated his military exploits and created the image of a dashing commander. Napoleon understood how to convince the population that sacrifice for one’s emperor and nation were more important than the rights of the individual. This is how he was able to assemble such large armies, no matter how bad things were.

His extravagant coronation in Notre Dame in December 1804 cost 8.5 million francs or $8.5 million in today’s money. He made his brothers, sisters and stepchildren kings, queens, princes and princesses and created a Napoleonic aristocracy numbering 3,500. By any measure, it was a bizarre progression for someone often described as “a child of the Revolution.”

“He guaranteed some principles of the revolution and at the same time, changed its course, finished it and betrayed it,” said Lionel Jospin, the Socialist former prime minister and author of The Napoleonic Evil, which has topped the best-seller lists. For instance, Napoleon reintroduced slavery in French colonies, revived a system that allowed the rich to dodge conscription in the military and did nothing to advance gender equality.

The grandiose image Napoleon created for himself, as well as the tightly controlled society that he established once in power, was a model for a totalitarian state that Hitler and Stalin would follow with such ruthlessness in the next century. Those who deified him were crushed under his iron hand. Joseph Fouche, the head of the secret police, extending Emperor Napoleon’s reach into every aspect of French society through a vast network of spies. Jean-Paul Bertaud, a Professor Emeritus of History at La Sorbonne in Paris, and a specialist on the French Revolution and military history explained what life was like under Napoleon’s iron rule:

You go to a salon, there’s a spy. You go a brothel, there is a spy. You go to a restaurant, there is a spy. Everywhere there are spies of the police. Everyone listens to what you say. It’s impossible to express yourself unless Napoleon wants you to.

Napoleon had no qualms about killing French citizens. In 1795, he mowed down the Parisian mob with cannons, an event known as the 13 Vendémiaire. He showed no hesitation in using extreme force to quell the uprising with what became known as “a whiff of grapeshot”—deadly slugs of metal packed into bags or canisters, then fired into the mob at close range, ripping through flesh with terrifying effectiveness.

In a PBS documentary, Owen Connelly Professor of History at The University of South Carolina said:

Napoleon was not one to pussy-foot around. He would use all his weapons. Nobody had really used cannon on the Paris mobs before. He was gonna shoot. He waited ’til he could see the whites of their eyes. Almost in one blast the whole thing was over. He probably killed a hundred people. He was not a very popular man with the rank and file, the man on the street in Paris after that.Professor Owen Connelly

Napoleon was famously worshiped by his troops, but did he return their loyalty? During the Egyptian campaign of 1798-1801, Bonaparte’s failed siege of the fortified city of Acre (now Akko in modern Israel) left his army poorly supplied and weakened by disease—mostly bubonic plague. To hasten the retreat back to Egypt, he ordered plague-stricken men to be poisoned. He later abandoned the remainder of his army—some 30,000—secretly returning to France to a hero’s welcome, while his loyal army remained in Egypt to fend for themselves. In exile on St Helena, he said:

I care only for people who are useful to me— and only so long as they are useful.

Later in 1812, Napoleon ignored advice from his closest advisors and invaded Russia. A doomed campaign, his inflated ego cost the lives of some 500,000 men, most dying not from fighting, but from starvation, sickness, and exposure during the long retreat back to France. When rumors of a coup in Paris reached him, he once again abandoned what remained of the Grande Armée—from the 600,000 men he took into Russia, only 93,000 survived.

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow by Adolph Northen

As Napoleon’s power waned, his censorship was no longer able to hide his failures. He needed victories on the battlefield in order to maintain control of his empire. After his eventual defeat, his soldiers still considered him their true leader and helped him regain control of France. Under Napoleon’s command, he promised to raise them and make them all heroes once again.

The last word goes to former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from an article in Newsweek:

Napoleon was “an obvious failure”—bad for France and the rest of Europe. When he was shown the door, France was isolated, beaten, occupied, dominated, hated and smaller than before. What’s more, Napoleon smothered the forces of emancipation awakened by the French and American revolutions and enabled the survival and restoration of monarchies.Lionel Jospin

Hero or Tyrant? Cast Your Vote.

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Cast your vote: was Napoleon a Hero or a Tyrant?


References (Contains some Amazon affiliate links)

Why Napoleon’s Still a Problem in France – Newsweek.
Napoleon – PBS.
Napoleon: A Biography – Frank McLynn.
Reforms Under Napoleon Bonaparte – Nicholas Stark.
Napoleon – Wikipedia.
A Short History of Europe –  Lisa Rosner, John Theibault
Napoleon and the Revolution – David P. Jordan

5 Historical Figures Feeling the Blues

Feeling down in the dumps? Got a case of the Mondays?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Take solace in these melancholy moments from history.

Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Dante Alighieri

Considered to have written the most important poem of the Middle Ages and the greatest literary work in the Italian language, at first glance, it may seem like a complete mystery why Dante would be pictured as grossly miserable in most portraits.

But not many people get to see Hell as vividly as Dante.

Dante Alighieri portrait. c. 1500s.
Dante Alighieri portrait. c. 1500s.

Paradoxically called the “Divine Comedy”, the poem is a narrative of Dante’s travels through Hell, followed by a stay in Purgatory to endure some further suffering and torment before, at last, reaching the Paradise of Heaven.

“Comedy” in the classical sense meant a Providential will that ordered the universe; thus the pilgrimage from Hell to Heaven is the archetypal expression of “comedy”.

Dante's Inferno depicted in wall frescos by Joseph Anton Koch. Credit Sailko
Dante’s Inferno depicted in wall frescos by Joseph Anton Koch. Credit Sailko

When he was just nine years old, Dante fell in love.

That same year, his mother died.

And his love would go unrequited because he was promised in marriage to the daughter of a powerful Florentine family at age 12.

Channeling his emotional pain into poetry, he depicted his lost love, Beatrice, as semi-divine, watching over him constantly and providing spiritual instruction.

This theme would recur in the Divine Comedy as Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil through Hell and Purgatory, and then by Beatrice herself, who guides him through Heaven—one of the few times Dante looks the least bit happy.

Dante in Heaven by William Cave Thomas
Dante in Heaven by William Cave Thomas

Influencing many parts of the Comedy was Dante’s bitterness at being exiled from his beloved Florence simply for being on the wrong side of the ideological war between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

Still, with the eternal damnation to which he condemned his opponents in the Divine Comedy, perhaps Dante had the last laugh.

Andrew Jackson

Serving as the seventh President of the United States from 1829 to 1837, Andrew Jackson is best remembered for his triumphal victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 .

Lauded as an American hero, one may be forgiven for wondering why Andrew Jackson looks so sad in many portraits.

But there is a darker side to his past.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States

Prospering as a cotton planter, Jackson may have owned as many as 300 slaves throughout his lifetime.

Permitting slaves to be whipped to increase productivity, his sweeping plantation, the Hermitage in Tennessee, grew to 1,050 acres, while slaves lived in 20 sq ft cabins.

Andrew Jackson's plantation, The Hermitage in Tennessee
Andrew Jackson’s plantation, The Hermitage in Tennessee

In 1838, as many as 4,000 Cherokees died on the “Trail of Tears”—Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of Native American nations from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to designated territory west of the Mississippi River.

Trail of Tears mural at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, NC. Credit Nick Chapman, flickr
Trail of Tears mural at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, NC. Credit Nick Chapman, flickr

Maybe Jackson felt remorse over some of these actions.

But his own life had not been easy by any means.

At the age of 14, he was captured by the British during the Revolutionary War, along with his brother.

When he refused to clean the boots of a British officer, the officer slashed at him with a sword, leaving scars on his left hand and head.

While held prisoner, the two brothers contracted smallpox and nearly starved to death.

Securing their release, his mother walked them home, but his brother died along the way.

Volunteering to help prisoners of war recover from cholera, his mother died after contracting the disease and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Andrew Jackson, age 78. Daguerreotype, 1845
Andrew Jackson, age 78. Daguerreotype, 1845

Later in Jackson’s traumatic life, he dueled with American lawyer Charles Dickinson and was struck in the chest near his heart.

Remaining lodged in his lung, the bullet would never be removed and caused a hacking cough that often brought up blood, sometimes making his whole body shake.

Jackson got his revenge by shooting the man stone cold dead, but chronic headaches and abdominal pains plagued him for the rest of his life.

Observers likened him to a volcano, and only the most intrepid or recklessly curious cared to see it erupt.Biographer H. W. Brands

Napoleon Bonaparte

Rising to prominence during the French Revolution, Napoleon went on to dominate Europe and global affairs as Emperor of the French.

Celebrated as one of the greatest commanders in history, what could possibly cause him to look so down in the dumps?

Answer: defeat.

Napoleon I at Fontainebleau by Paul Delaroche
Napoleon I at Fontainebleau by Paul Delaroche

Winning was everything to Napoleon.

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.Napoleon Bonaparte

Early signs of Napoleon’s sadness are revealed in an oft-cited letter of 1795 to his brother Joseph, revealing that he felt “little attached to life”, finding himself as though “constantly on the eve of battle.”

He despaired that he would end up “by not moving aside when a carriage goes by”.

His incapacity for pleasure, his all-pervading sadness, his suicidal thoughts, his despair of finding his place in the world were, to some extent, a part of the Romantic era of Byron and Shelley.

But finding action in the field of battle would be all the medicine Napoleon needed.

'Long live the Emperor!' Napoleon on the battlefield
‘Long live the Emperor!’ Napoleon on the battlefield

As long as he was moving forward, taking action, strategizing, he was in his element.

Nothing could stop him.

Even the failed invasion of Russia in 1812 was just a setback to Napoleon.

But after Waterloo, everything changed.

Exiled on Saint Helena, 1,162 miles from the west coast of Africa, Napoleon fell into deep depression and ill health.

Describing St Helena as “this accursed”, “frightful”, “vile”, and “miserable” rock, Napoleon suffered from nervous headaches, a shooting pain in his shoulder blade and down his right side, stomach pains, swollen cheeks and ankles, and bleeding gums.

Talking of suicide by charcoal fumes, he wrote, “death is nothing but a sleep without dreams”.

Napoleon on Saint Helena
Napoleon on Saint Helena

Napoleon died on 5 May 1821.

But he really died six years earlier when he stepped foot on St Helena and no longer had control over an army.

Napoleon had lost his purpose in life.

His last words were, “France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine” (“France, army, head of the army, Joséphine”).

Napoleon on his deathbed by Horace Vernet, 1826
Napoleon on his deathbed by Horace Vernet, 1826

Queen Victoria

Known as the “the grandmother of Europe”, her nine children married into European royalty and nobility, giving her 42 grandchildren.

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years and seven months—longer than any of her predecessors.

Marked by industrial, cultural, political, and scientific advancement, one could be forgiven for wondering what on earth could make the Queen so miserable?

In a word, Albert.

Queen Victoria, by Bertha Müller, 1899
Queen Victoria, by Bertha Müller, 1899

Not that there was anything wrong with her husband Albert, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, quite the opposite.

After 21 years of blissful married life, Albert contracted cholera and died an early death, plunging her into a deep depression.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854

She wrote to her daughter in Germany,

How I, who leant on him for all and everything—without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn’t put on a gown or bonnet if he didn’t approve it shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?Queen Victoria

Victorian-era widows were expected to wear black for the mourning period of up to four years.

Women who mourned in black for longer periods were accorded great respect in public for their devotion to the departed.

Queen Victoria mourned for 40 years.

Queen Victoria and Prince Leopold, 1862
Queen Victoria and Prince Leopold, 1862

Finding solace in unexpected places is a part of the grieving process.

Queen Victoria developed a curious relationship with John Brown, a Scottish horse attendant in her household.

Proud of his heritage, his brusque manner was the bane of her ministers and family.

But she adored him.

John Brown and Queen Victoria, 1868
John Brown and Queen Victoria, 1868

Vincent van Gogh

Struggling with poverty and mental illness for most of his life, Van Gogh is perhaps the most famous tortured artist of all time.

Considered a madman and a failure, his fame grew only after his suicide, with several paintings he couldn’t sell now worth over $100 million each.

No wonder he looked miserable in his numerous self-portraits.

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1887
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Quiet and thoughtful as a child, Van Gogh first began to feel depressed when he moved to London as a young art dealer.

Turning to religion and spending some time as a missionary in Belgium, he drifted into ill health and solitude.

Moving back with his parents in the Netherlands, he took up painting.

But as his talent grew, there was only one place to be for an aspiring artist in the late 19th century—Paris.

Le Moulin de la Galette by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Le Moulin de la Galette by Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Falling in with the avant-garde, he became friends with Paul Gauguin and painted some of his best-loved scenes of Montmartre.

But delusional episodes, poor health, and heavy drinking led to a confrontation with Gauguin that ended their friendship and cost Van Gogh an ear.

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Brandishing a cut-throat razor at Gauguin and later cutting off part of his own ear was enough to see him institutionalized.

When you paint your own doctor in a way that suggests he was either deeply depressed himself or powerless to help you, then you know things are pretty dire.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh
Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest on 27 July 1890.

But look on the bright side—it’s possible that our minds are at their most creative when we’re at least a little sad.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

British Hero Admiral Lord Nelson: Victor at the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

Born a small sickly baby, the son of a Rector in Norfolk, England, Nelson would go on to become the greatest British military hero of all time.

When we think of Admiral Lord Nelson, a vision of a tall man standing atop a 169ft column at Trafalgar Square in London probably enters our mind.

But it may come as a surprise to discover that he was about the same height, or perhaps even shorter than his archenemy Napoleon.

Read more …

According to a measurement taken in the old Admiralty Board Room, he was 5ft 4ins, but a supposedly life-sized effigy in Westminster Abbey is 5ft 5ins, and calculations from his uniforms make him as much as 5ft 6ins.

What he lacked in stature, he most certainly made up for in courage, leadership, and an excellent grasp of strategy.

After losing the sight in one eye at the Siege of Calvi in 1794, and an arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, most of us might have forgiven him if he’d taken more of a backseat role at that point.

But not Nelson.

He went on to win his greatest victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 by leading from the front and paying the ultimate sacrifice.

With 33 ships, he decimated a joint force of 41 ships from the French and Spanish navies.

The difference in casualties is staggering: Nelson lost a total of 1,666 killed or wounded, whereas the French and Spanish lost 13,781 killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Moreover, the victory foiled Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain.

Nelson was lauded a conquering hero and commemorated with one of the most famous monuments in the world.

The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793 - 1867)
The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793 – 1867)
Trafalgar by Auguste Mayer, 1836
Trafalgar by Auguste Mayer, 1836
The Battle of Trafalgar by John Christian Schetky, 1841
The Battle of Trafalgar by John Christian Schetky, 1841
Scene of the Battle of Trafalgar by Louis-Philippe Crépin, 1807
Scene of the Battle of Trafalgar by Louis-Philippe Crépin, 1807
Churruca's Death by Eugenio Alvarez Dumont, 1892
Churruca’s Death by Eugenio Alvarez Dumont, 1892
The Battle of Trafalgar by Juan Vallejo
The Battle of Trafalgar by Juan Vallejo
The Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Luny
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Luny
Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Buttersworth
Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Buttersworth
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Luny, 1810
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Luny, 1810
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Samuel Drummond
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Samuel Drummond
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Luny
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Thomas Luny
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 - Beginning of the Action by Thomas Buttersworth
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 – Beginning of the Action by Thomas Buttersworth
The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1808
The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1808
The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Samuel Drummond, 1806
The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Samuel Drummond, 1806
The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Samuel Drummond, 1806
The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Samuel Drummond, 1806
Destruction by Fire of the Gun Ship 'Achille' at the Close of the Battle of Trafalgar by Richard Brydges Beechey
Destruction by Fire of the Gun Ship ‘Achille’ at the Close of the Battle of Trafalgar by Richard Brydges Beechey
The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Denis Dighton, c.1825
The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Denis Dighton, c.1825
Trafalgar by George Chambers, Jr
Trafalgar by George Chambers, Jr
Northumberland House and Whitehall from the North Side of Trafalgar Square, London, by Moonlight by Henry Pether, 1867
Northumberland House and Whitehall from the North Side of Trafalgar Square, London, by Moonlight by Henry Pether, 1867

The “Beau Monde” High Fashion of the 18th Century

On August 1, 1714, Queen Anne of Great Britain drew her last breath, and the first of a series of Georges ascended to the throne, marking the dawn of an extraordinary new era of exploration, invention, industry, and art—the Georgian Era.

As the rural economy shifted to an urban industrial one, huge advances in science, design and engineering brought wealth to a new class of merchants, businessmen, and financiers.

This nouveau riche “middling sort”, or middle class, imitated the lifestyle of the aristocracy. Looking fashionable was a full-time occupation, and a tall order—since the Georgian aristocracy didn’t do things by halves.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England. Credit Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England. Credit Blenheim Palace
Imperial pleasure palace Schoenbrunn, courtyard by Bernardo Bellotto, 1761.
Imperial pleasure palace Schoenbrunn, courtyard by Bernardo Bellotto, 1761.

Unlike the 17th century, it was parliament, not the monarchy, that held sway over governing the country.

Plush new town homes were built to house the politicians and their servants for the London season—corresponding to the sitting of parliament.

Park Crescent, London. Credit spudgun67
Park Crescent, London. Credit spudgun67

Fashion established the social pecking order. Aristocratic elites aped each other’s tastes, the middle class watched and learned, and the press fanned the public’s fascination with the glitterati.

This was the age of the Beau Monde.

Pleasure gardens, exhibitions and assemblies were open to all who could afford tickets.

Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785
Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785

At Vauxhall Gardens, London, a shopkeeper’s wife and daughters could rub shoulders with the landed gentry.

Men looked resplendent in their finery …

1760. British Suit. Wool, gilt metal. metmuseum
1760. British Suit. Wool, gilt metal. metmuseum

… a declaration of fashion on both sides of the Big Pond.

John Hancock by John Singleton Copley, 1765
John Hancock by John Singleton Copley, 1765

Men’s attire remained fairly static throughout the 18th century—predominantly coats, waistcoats and breeches—with stylistic changes to the fabric and cut.

Suits ranged from the elaborately embroidered silks and velvets of formal “full dress” to hard-wearing woolen garments more suitable for outdoor sport and country pursuits.

The 18th-century Beau Monde male wanted to look as fashionable as possible with seemingly little effort—exuding an air of “nonchalance.”

c. 1800. Man's ensemble. Silk cut and voided velvet on plain-weave foundation with supplementary weft-float patterning and silk embroidery. LACMA
c. 1800. Man’s ensemble. Silk cut and voided velvet on plain-weave foundation with supplementary weft-float patterning and silk embroidery. LACMA
c. 1755 Man's ensemble. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé) on satin foundation. LACMA
c. 1755 Man’s ensemble. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé) on satin foundation. LACMA

But it was women who really stole the show.

1750. British. Woman's Dress and Petticoat with Stomacher (Robe à l'anglaise). Brocaded silk satin. LACMA
1750. British. Woman’s Dress and Petticoat with Stomacher (Robe à l’anglaise). Brocaded silk satin. LACMA
Portrait of Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern by Antoine Pesne, 1739
Portrait of Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern by Antoine Pesne, 1739
Fan 1760s Netherlands. Credit KCI
Fan 1760s Netherlands. Credit KCI

Between 1720 and 1780, ladies wore imposing Robes à la Française (French Dress) and Robes à l’Anglaise (English Dress).

Derived from the loose negligée sacque dress of the early part of the century, Robes à la Française had an open funnel-shaped front—often with stomacher panel—and wide rectangular skirts of expansive fabric decorated with delicate Rococo designs.

c. 1765. Robe à la Française. European. Silk. metmuseum
c. 1765. Robe à la Française. European. Silk. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Woman's Dress and Petticoat (Robe à la française). Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary-weft patterning, and metallic lace. LACMA
1765. Woman’s Dress and Petticoat (Robe à la française). Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary-weft patterning, and metallic lace. LACMA
1760. Robe à la française. French. Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary weft patterning, and metallic lace trim. LACMA
1760. Robe à la française. French. Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary weft patterning, and metallic lace trim. LACMA
c1775. Robe a la Francaise. French. Silk bobbin lace. mfa.org
c. 1775. Robe a la Francaise. French. Silk bobbin lace. mfa.org

Obtaining such a silhouette took some hidden magic—an undergarment structure of panniers.

Panniers, 1750. metmuseum
Panniers, 1750. metmuseum
Panniers 1780. Credit LACMA
Panniers 1780. Credit LACMA

But, oh, what power the dress held over the male of the species …

Porcelain figurine dancer wearing a pannier
Porcelain figurine dancer wearing a pannier

The robe à la française compelled men everywhere to declare their love on bended knee.

The Declaration of Love by Jean François de Troy, 1731
The Declaration of Love by Jean François de Troy, 1731

Court etiquette demanded an altogether higher level of commitment to fashion. Size mattered. And one name stood out across Europe as synonymous with court fashion—Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1778
Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1778
1765 Robe à la française. Silk satin with weft-float patterning and silk passementerie. LACMA
1765 Robe à la française. Silk satin with weft-float patterning and silk passementerie. LACMA

You may be wondering, what’s the point? Well, the whole idea behind such width was to provide a panel where woven patterns, elaborate decorations and rich embroidery could be displayed and fully appreciated.

c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum

For the wearer of this little number, the only way to pass through doorways was literally sideways.

c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
1755 Mantua. England. Silk, silver-gilt thread, linen thread, silk thread, hand-sewn. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1755 Mantua. England. Silk, silver-gilt thread, linen thread, silk thread, hand-sewn. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A variation on the Robe à la Française was the Robe à l’Anglaise, having a tight, fitted back, rather than the draped pleats of the Française.

1750. Robe à l'Anglaise. British. Silk.
1750. Robe à l’Anglaise. British. Silk.
1750. Robe à l'Anglaise. British. Silk
1750. Robe à l’Anglaise. British. Silk
1776. Robe à l'Anglaise. British. Silk
1776. Robe à l’Anglaise. British. Silk

Another popular style of gown in the 18th-century was the Robe à la Polonaise (Polish Dress).

Characterized by a close-fitting bodice and skirt gathered up into three separate puffed sections at the back, the polonaise was suspended by rows of little rings sewn inside the skirt, or sometimes ribbon ties forming decorative bows.

1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum
1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum
1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum
1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum

In the latter part of the 18th century, fashion became simpler and less elaborate. Spurred by modern Enlightenment thinking, the fashionability of Rococo went into decline.

1790s, American, silk. metmuseum
1790s, American, silk. metmuseum
French cartoon showing contrats between fashions of 1793 on the left and those of 1778 on the right
French cartoon showing contrast between fashions of 1793 on the left and those of 1778 on the right

Following the French Revolution, people began dressing for individual expression rather that social status.

In trendsetting France, out went the aristocracy and in came Napoleon’s first Empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais sporting the “Empire Silhouette”. High-waisted, with a long, flowing skirt, it was a look that would take Europe by storm.

Joséphine in coronation costume by Baron François Gérard
Joséphine in coronation costume by Baron François Gérard
1800 Empire Silhouette Dress, LACMA
1800 Empire Silhouette Dress, LACMA

The 18th-century Beau Monde was over … but the 19th century would see its own excesses.

Prince Louis Napoleon: The Last Hope of the Bonapartes

On June 1, 1879, Louis Napoleon was killed in action during the Anglo-Zulu War.

Louis Napoleon (1856 – 1879) was the son of Napoleon III (1808 – 1873), Emperor of the Second French Empire until its collapse during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871.

Prince Louis with his parents in 1861
Prince Louis with his parents in 1861

Trained as a soldier in Britain, at the outbreak of the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa, Louis jumped at the chance to serve alongside British forces.

Louis was no stranger to military action—at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he had accompanied his father to the front and had come under fire at Saarbrücken.

Napoléon Eugène, Prince Imperial, at age 14

With France now a republic, many in Britain saw Louis Napoleon as the last chance for France to reinstate a monarchy.

Queen Victoria reportedly believed it was the best hope for peace in Europe. There was even speculation that Louis might marry Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice.

The Imperial Prince Louis Napoleon, 1878
The Imperial Prince Louis Napoleon, 1878

With this in mind, there was some reluctance to allow Prince Louis to take part in the African conflict.

Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford (1827-1905)
Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford (1827-1905)

It was only after significant pressure from Louis’s mother, Empress Eugénie, and from Queen Victoria herself that permission was granted.

Attached to Commander Thesiger’s staff, the intention was that Louis would only be an observer.

Louis’s close friend, Lieutenant Arthur Brigge warned him not to do anything rash, to avoid taking unnecessary risks, and to think of the Empress, his mother, at home, and the party of supporters that were full of hope to see him as the next Emperor.

Thesiger thought that attaching Louis to the Royal Engineers, whose duties were transport and reconnaissance, would not put the prince in any danger.

“don’t do anything rash, and avoid running unnecessary risks”

The prince in South Africa in 1879
The prince in South Africa in 1879

Tasked with ensuring Louis’s safety, Colonel Richard Harrison of the Royal Engineers was told that a strong escort must accompany Louis at all times.

When a forward scouting mission was planned for June 1, Louis was allowed to participate in the mistaken belief that the route would be safe.

Early in the morning of June 1, Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey, a French speaker from Guernsey led the scouting party into the African bush.

Eager to see some action, Louis couldn’t believe his luck—at last, some excitement!

To avoid delays, he had persuaded Carey that there was no need for the full escort. After all, what could possibly go wrong—the route was safe.

What he lacked in military seniority, he made up for with a powerful personality. The young prince swiftly asserted command over the troop.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1856-1879), Prince Imperial, unique child of Napoleon III of France and his Empress consort Eugénie.
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1856-1879), Prince Imperial, unique child of Napoleon III of France and his Empress consort Eugénie.

This was the life he had wished for—adventure on the African plains!

At noon, they stopped to rest, make some sketches of the terrain and start a camp fire. No one was posted on lookout duty—why bother? It wasn’t as if they were in any danger.

Famous last words.

Zulu warriors
Zulu warriors

Just as they were about to set off again, all hell broke loose.

Screaming and yelling filled the air as about 40 Zulu warriors came running towards them, armed to the teeth with spears and shields.

Louis instinctively reached for the gun holster on his horse’s saddle, but the screaming had startled the horse and it bolted, Louis’s hand still grasping the holster.

Some one hundred yards of being dragged through the bush, the strap broke and Louis fell beneath the horse, his right arm getting trampled.

Drawing the gun with his left hand, he started to run, but the Zulus were too fast.

A searing pain shot through Louis’s leg as a Zulu spear pierced his thigh.

Filled with adrenaline, Louis pulled the spear free of the searing wound then fired on the Zulus.

Again, a sharp burning burst of agony as another spear struck his shoulder.

Death of the Prince impérial during the Anglo-Zulu War, detail of a painting by Paul Jamin
Death of the Prince impérial during the Anglo-Zulu War, detail of a painting by Paul Jamin

Still the Prince fought on, facing the attackers with the spear he pulled from his leg.

But it was all in vain.

The Four Napoleons c. 1858
The Four Napoleons c. 1858

Surrounded and overwhelmed, the spears came thick and fast, one bursting through his right eye and sinking into his brain. When finally his body was recovered, it had eighteen spear wounds.

Two of the troop were also killed and another missing. The four survivors included Lt Carey, who had made no effort to fire upon the Zulus.

Following an inquiry and pressure from Empress Eugénie and Queen Victoria, Carey was court marshaled and shunned for cowardice by his fellow officers for not standing and fighting.

Europe shuddered. The last of the Bonapartes had met his day of reckoning.

Had hopes for a lasting peace in Europe died with him?

Napoleon Surrenders – marking the End of an Era

Napoleon Bonaparte on Board the ‘Bellerophon’ in Plymouth Sound by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, RA, 1815

It was early morning, July 15, 1815.

The two-masted brig Épervier sailed toward the Royal Navy’s Bellerophon with Napoleon aboard, preparing himself to officially surrender.

What must have been going through Napoleon’s mind at that moment?

No doubt he was still thinking about the outcome of Waterloo and how he could have won.

Two months later, on his way to St Helena, and exile, he would lament,

Ah! If it were only to be done over again!

And a year later, he would say,

My regrets are not for myself but for unhappy France! With twenty thousand men less than I had we ought to have won the battle of Waterloo. But it was Fate that made me lose it. (2).

But such bitterness would have to wait. Right now, he needed to swallow his pride and try to appeal to the honor of British Admirals.

His choices were few. Either he could remain in France and risk becoming prisoner to the Bourbons, Prussians or Austrians. Or he could surrender to the British and try to request political asylum, and perhaps even passage to the United States.

The ‘Bellerophon’ with Napoleon Aboard at Plymouth by John James Chalon – 1816.

At around 6:30 am, Napoleon pulled alongside Bellerophon. He had been transferred to Bellerophon’s own barge to hasten his arrival.

First to climb aboard was General Henri Gatien Bertrand. Napoleon followed.

Napoleon walked to the quarterdeck as British marines came to attention, and, taking off his hat to Admiral Maitland, announced in French,

I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and your laws.

Maitland bowed.

What a moment this was. Here was the man who had brought Europe to its knees. The man who almost won again at Waterloo. The man who once assembled an invasion force against Britain.

In his private papers, Sir William Hotham, Admiral of the Red, recalls his impressions of Napoleon after meeting him for the first time.

Napoleon’s person I was very desirous of seeing, but on doing so, I was disappointed. His figure is bad, he is short with a large head, his hands and legs small, and his body so corpulent as to project very considerably, his coat made very plain, as you see it in most prints, and from being very short in the back it gives his figure a more ridiculous appearance than it has naturally.
His profile is good … but his full face is bad. His eyes are a light blue, heavy and totally contrary to what I had expected, his teeth are bad …
His face at one moment bears the stamp of good humour and again immediately changes to a dark, penetrating, thoughtful scowl denoting the character of the thought that excites it.
He speaks quick, and runs from one subject to another with great rapidity. His knowledge is extensive and very various, and he surprised me much by his remembrance of men of every character in England.
An original sketch of Napoleon as he would have looked that day, by Captain George Hotham.

Two days before, Napoleon had written a letter to the Prince Regent (later to become George IV)

Your Royal Highness,
A victim to the factions which distract my country, and to the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, I have terminated my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself upon the hospitality of the British people. I put myself under the protection of their laws; which I claim from your Royal Highness, as the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies.
—Napoleon.

On the day the Bellerophon departed the French coast for England, a midshipman wrote of Napoleon,

I shall never forget that morning we made Ushant (a small island off the cost of France). I saw the Emperor come out of the cabin at that early hour, and make for the poop-ladder.

He explained that Napoleon was restless and not able to sleep.

If a petty care can break our sleep, what must have been his feeling who had lost the fairest empire on the face of the globe.

The deck was wet and the midshipman offered Napoleon an arm to help him up onto the poop deck.

Napoleon pointed to the island … the last time he would see France and said, “Ushant, Cape Ushant”, to which the midshipman replied, ‘Yes, sire,” and left Napoleon alone.

And there Napoleon remained, looking longingly through his pocket-glass from morning to mid-day … not speaking a word.

The Surrender of Napoleon by Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick lewis Maitland, K.C.B.

References

  1. Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud (Chicago, 1903), p. 31.
  2. Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, p. 187

The Private Papers of Sir William Hotham, G.C.B. Admiral of the Red, by A. M. W. Stirling, Vol II.