The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon on a horse at the Battle of Wagram

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of modern history’s most well-known military figures. With a political determination like none other, by the early 19th century, Bonaparte had managed to conquer vast swathes of Europe. An ambitious military strategist, Bonaparte is remembered for his leadership and political feats. 

We have summarised everything you need to know about Napoleon Bonaparte’s life and career. A life of ambition, battle, and intrigue. 

The Early Life of Napoleon

The father of Napoleon, Carlo Buonaparte.
The father of Napoleon, Carlo Buonaparte.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in August 1769, to a family descended from Tuscan nobility. In fact, Bonaparte was actually born, Napoleone di Buonaparte, but he had this changed in 1796 following his marriage. 

It has been noted and confirmed by historians, that Bonaparte was a particularly lively and rambunctious child who was only controlled by a strong discipline instilled by his mother. When Bonaparte was 9 years old, his family moved to mainland France, where the young Bonaparte continued to be bullied in school for his accent, looks, and inability to speak or read French. 

Bonaparte’s Military Career

General Napoleon wearing military uniform
General Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy. Painting by Edouard Detaille.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1784, Bonaparte began studying at a military school in Paris, where he ended up graduating as a Second Lieutenant of Artillery. Following this, Bonaparte was then sent and stationed in Valence, however, this was during peacetime so the young military commander spends this period re-educating himself on European history and philosophy. 

Bonaparte quickly climbed the ranks in the French military, especially after his work in the Battle of Toulon. Following this, he was then appointed the Brigadier General which then earns him command of the French army in Italy. 

In his early career, Napoleon headed military operations across Europe and the middle east. In fact, Bonaparte took an army to Egypt in order to gain control and halt the British trade with India. 

The Marriage of Napoleon to Josephine

Josephine getting a divorce from Napoleon in 1809.
The Divorce of Empress Josephine by Henri Frédéric Schopin.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Bonaparte married Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (Josephine), in 1804. It is widely believed that Bonaparte was immediately smitten with Josephine. Their marriage proved unpopular amongst Bonaparte’s family, who did not like the fact that Josephine was widowed and also older than Bonaparte but they both took no notice. 

Josephine was born in 1763, making her 6 years Bonaparte’s senior. Prior to her marriage in 1804, Josephine was married to Alexandre de Beauharnais, with who she had two children. Her marriage to the young Alexandre was unhappy and, during the Reign of Terror, Alexandre was executed. 

Unfortunately, as the marriage progressed, it became clear that despite Josephine having two other children there would be no heirs produced from this union. Bonaparte is known to have struggled with this and, despite his well-documented love and commitment to Josephine, he informed her that he would need a new wife in order to produce an heir. 

Josephine and Bonaparte were divorced in 1810, with both of them famously reading out a ‘statement of devotion’ following the finalizing of their divorce. Two months later, Bonaparte married Marie-Louise of Austria (by proxy). In fact, the emperor even expressed that he had ‘married a womb’ in order to secure his succession. 

Nevertheless, Bonaparte continued to always show his devotion to Josephine. In fact, even following his separation from this second wife, he reinstated Josephine as the official empress. It is believed that when informed of her death, he shut himself away for days on end and it is also known that his last words were ‘Josephine’ when he died in 1821. 

Château de Malmaison

The residence of Napoleon Château de Malmaison from the front.
The Château de Malmaison from the front.
Credit: Pedro Faber // CC BY-SA 4.0

Chateau de Malmaison remained the primary residence of Josephine and Bonaparte throughout their marriage. When Bonaparte was away in Egypt, Josephine purchased the palace for 300,000 Francs at the time. It is widely known that, upon returning from Egypt, Bonaparte was upset that the empress had spent so much on a palace that needed such extensive renovation. 

However, throughout their lives, Chateau de Malmaison brought great joy and happiness to the family with Josephine renovating and transforming the palace into an oasis. She had a particular penchant for exotic plants and animals and is even known to have had 300 pineapple plants growing in the palace’s orangery at one point. 

Napoleon’s Later Career and Exile

Napoleon on a remote island.
Napoleon on St Helena by Franz Josef Sandmann
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Following Bonaparte’s failed attempt at invading and defeating Russia in 1812, he then returned to Europe in order to raise a new army to continue his conquests across Europe. Despite these efforts, Bonaparte’s army was defeated for a second time by a coalition of European forces in Leipzig in 1814. 

Following this defeat, Bonaparte was subsequently exiled to the Isle of Elba in Italy. During his time in Elba, Bonaparte was offered sovereignty over the island and was still allowed to retain the title of Emperor despite the circumstances. It is believed that Bonaparte attempted suicide whilst he was exiled here, but the pills he had taken was not nearly potent enough to take his life. 

Although, Bonaparte was so driven to retain control that he ended up escaping Elba and decided to raise a new army in France to fight in the battle of Waterloo. However, Bonaparte’s efforts fell short and he was exiled once again, this time to the remote St. Helena. St. Helena, off the coast of Africa, 

was in disrepair when Bonaparte arrived. Throughout his exile on the island, his expenditure was cut each year and he was known to have complained of the living conditions throughout his time on the island. 

Napoleon Bonaparte’s Death

Napoleon on his death bed
Napoleon on his death bed painted by Horace Vernet.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It is widely believed that the poor living conditions on St. Helena contributed significantly to Bonaparte’s eventual death. In fact, his doctor Barry O’Meara, continually informed officials in London that the damp and cold conditions on the island were causing Bonaparte to slip into ill health. However, it is widely believed that Bonaparte was exiled to this island specifically for these reasons. 

In early 1821, Bonaparte decided to reconcile with the Catholic Church, and following his final confession, he died in May 1821. 

Bonaparte’s cause of death was initially recorded as stomach cancer, which his father died of as well. The autopsy revealed a large stomach ulcer, although more recent studies have concluded that Bonaparte could have also died of arsenic poisoning as samples reveal that these levels were over 100 times an average person’s.


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