Vive l’Empéreur !! (3)

Last time I was busy listing all the things that Napoléon did to help his country and its ordinary people. They are the reason that he was so hated by the British aristocracy with their mad king and his disgraceful son. They were all afraid that Napoléon’s ideas would sweep away their comfortable and lucrative world.

The best book about Napoléon was the source of the author’s TV series on BBC2:


In it, Andrew Roberts summarises Napoleon’s legacy:

“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.”

Napoleon had no time for the idea that men were superior just because of their birth. He believed totally in having people around him who were genuinely talented rather than members of the nobility:


Napoleon had between 20-25 “Marshals of the Empire”. Here is a list of the occupations of their fathers. Nobody got a job with Napoleon because his Dad owned huge tracts of land:

“An officer in the Engineers, a Hussar, a well off farmer and an innkeeper, a small town lawyer, a surgeon (although his son enlisted in the army as a private), a shopkeeper, a fruit seller and servant, a small town prosecutor, a lawyer, a country solicitor, a surgeon barber, two farmers, a master barrel-cooper and ex-soldier, a farmer (whose son served in the army as a drummer boy), a Jacobite rebel, exiled from the Outer Hebrides, a brewer, a farmer and distiller of brandy, a silk manufacturer and a tanner.”

Napoleon made use of the nobility, with four major nobles and two members of the petty nobility. None of the noblemen he used, though, were from the absolute top of the Nobility Tree.  Napoleon chose one petty noble who was a Seigneur de Sort. His bizarre job was to act as a mole-catcher at the king’s horse breeding stud. Another was a mere sergeant in the city of his birth and had the job of locking the city gates every night. Another one had begun his career as a lowly page-boy.
This wasn’t how the English kings organised things. Nor indeed, the way anybody has ever organised things in England, right up till the present year.
No wonder the English upper classes wanted Napoleon dead. And that is why they exiled him to a place where the appalling weather would soon kill him off, housing him in a property where water ran down the walls when the weather was damp:


When the ship with Napoleon’s coffin arrived back in France from St Helena, a million people were waiting there to shout “Vive l’Empéreur !!” And this was 25 years after he was exiled from France for ever.

In Paris, between the River Seine and the site of his funeral at Les Invalides, another crowd of around a million people were assembled. There were in excess of 150,000 ex-soldiers there too, loyal veterans of the Emperor’s army. There would, no doubt, have been more spectators, had there not been a blizzard that particular day. Here is his ornate sarcophagus:


And here is how his people remember him. The man who crowned himself Emperor:



Filed under France, History, Politics

18 responses to “Vive l’Empéreur !! (3)

  1. I saw a documentary about Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena just last week. He was certainly melancholic, today we would say he was deeply depressed. One can understand why. His accommodation in Longwood House possibly contributed to his death. It was so damp, they covered the walls in long white hanging drapes to disguise the mould. Interestingly, Napoleon’s days were brightened by visitation’s from the Governor’s daughter, Betsy Balcombe. She was apparently the only English person he tolerated, she was 13 years old and delighted in chasing the former Emperor of France around the table with his own sword! Thank you for an enlightening series of articles John.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! The British treated Napoleon abominably. They apparently selected a house that would get the very worst of the weather and when he died a few years later, there was even an argument about what name would be carved on his tombstone. The little girl showed Napoleon the nicer side of the English, though….thank goodness.

      • I heard about the name on the documentary. Napoleon simply wanted ‘Napoleon’ on his tomb. The British government said ‘no’ because using just his first name would suggest he was Royal or an Emperor. They told him he had to have Napoleon Bonaparte, or nothing. He chose to have nothing.

  2. Excellent post on a man that I have always had in personal top ten of greats!

    • Thank you. The era of 1715-1840 was a very cruel time in this country when the nobility’s behaviour, if not as bad as their counterparts in France, played with fire for many, many years ,We were very lucky, or unlucky, not to have had a revolution pretty much like the French one in my opinion..

      • We had our revolution a hundred and fifty years earlier and it followed a roughly similar course to the French as the pace of change from moderate reform to violence and radicalisation increased the drama of the event. England had the Levellers and France the Jacobins. Both extremist organisations. Napoleon like Cromwell brought stability after a period of trauma. I have always admired them both.

  3. A fascinating insight into a man portrayed very differently. It’s been a fabulous read John and totally enlightening.

  4. Chris Waller

    I have to confess that I had imbibed the British establishment narrative which portrayed Napoleon as an obnoxious little Frog. They seem to have done to him what the Tudors did to Richard III. Had it not been for Trafalgar and Waterloo then European history could have been very different.

    • It certainly could. I watched Andrew Robert’s series about Napoleon on BBC2 and then I bought the book “Napoleon the Great” and I then realised why there is so much respect for him in France. What made life impossible for Napoleon was the British who hired every army in Europe to fight him….and even then, he nearly won.

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    I have enjoyed all three parts. You made me realise how great this man was.

  6. It’s a shame Napoleon’s ideology of achieving something because you earned it NOT because of who you are, is not more in existence today. The more I have read about this man, the more I really liked him. History has this guy pegged all wrong! Thank you, John, for telling us the truth! 🎉

    • My pleasure, Amy. Like you, I feel that too many institutions award top jobs because of who people and not because of what they can do. That just creates a ruling class with no access to it for poorer people. They then start to feel disregarded, and before long, you have a very big problem. Over here, nepotism is the great curse and the best example of it is the BBC where the same surnames seem to crop up year after year.

  7. Chris Waller

    I recently listened to a short programme on Radio 4 about Napoleon. The speaker described him as ‘the Enlightenment on horseback’.

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