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Napoleon crossing the Alps
Napoleon crossing the Alps

Was Napoleon the Bad Guy?

Key facts about Napoleon

  • Napoleon was a French general and leader
  • He became first consul in 1799 after a coupA sudden, and often violent, illegal seizure of power from a government. A sudden, and often violent, illegal seizure of power from a government.
  • He named himself emperor in 1804
  • Napoleon invaded, and lost, much of Europe during the Napoleonic WarsThe Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1803 until 1815 (although some people also include the French Revolutionary Wars in this, which started in 1792 and continued until 1802. The Napoleonic Wars were therefore a continuation of the Revolutionary Wars). A number of European powers fought against the… The Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1803 until 1815 (although some people also include the French Revolutionary Wars in this, which started in 1792 and continued until 1802. The Napoleonic Wars were therefore a continuation of the Revolutionary Wars). A number of European powers fought against the…
  • He oversaw a number of changes in society and in the law
  • Few historians can agree on whether he was a force for good, or for bad
  • He was eventually exiled on the South Atlantic island of St Helena

People you need to know

  • Alexander I - Russia tsarOr Tzar/Czar: the title of monarchs or supreme rulers in certain eastern European countries. Or Tzar/Czar: the title of monarchs or supreme rulers in certain eastern European countries. from 1801 until 1825.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte - a French military and political leader who gained power during the French Revolution and became French emperor.
  • Neil Campbell - a British gentleman and general during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Frederick Maitland - Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars and captain of HMS Bellerophon.
  • Marshal Ney - French military commander, known by Napoleon as 'the bravest of the brave' during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
  • Maximilien Robespierre - a leading French lawyer and politician during the Revolution, until his arrest and execution in 1794.

In Britain, Napoleon is seen as a villain, mainly remembered for overthrowing the government and for war. His reputation is such that a (disproven) neurosisA relatively mild mental illness not caused by physical disease. A relatively mild mental illness not caused by physical disease. is named after him – the ‘Napoleon complex’, which suggests all those of limited height act in an aggressive manner to compensate. Actually, Napoleon was of average height, although he looked short when compared with his Imperial Guard, who were all expected to be over six foot. This, and much else that we think we know of Napoleon, has no – or very little – basis in reality, but has instead come from effective British propagandaBiased and misleading information used to promote a political cause or point of view. Biased and misleading information used to promote a political cause or point of view. against him.

The British establishment liked neither the French Revolution nor Napoleon. This is not to say that all Britons disapproved of him: he actually had quite a long list of admirers, particularly amongst the Whigs. He was also seen as useful by some, both in stabilising France and in providing a bulwark against Prussia and Russia. Despite Britain not having an absolute monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. The king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. , there was much to concern the upper classes about events in France, particularly once the TerrorA period of violence that occurred after the start of the French Revolution, marked by mass executions of 'enemies of the Revolution'. A period of violence that occurred after the start of the French Revolution, marked by mass executions of 'enemies of the Revolution'. began. Too much had changed in the last century in British society and in the economy; there had been too much movement of people, both socially (with power transferring from those with land to those with money, often made through the agrarian and industrial revolutions) and geographically (as those working on the land moved to the cities, a hotbed of dissentAn opinion or belief that goes against official teaching or commonly held views. An opinion or belief that goes against official teaching or commonly held views. ). Fundamental aspects of belief were changing and being questioned; and Britain had just lost America to revolutionaries, making her feel more insecure. The British establishment worried it would be next. It was in their interests not just to fight the French, but to win the hearts and minds of those at home.

Napoleon's life and career

Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon, by Edouard Detaille
Napoleon at the SiegeA military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender. of Toulon, by Edouard Detaille

Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor Corsican nobilityThe highest hereditary stratum of the aristocracy, sitting immediately below the monarch in terms of blood and title; or the quality of being noble (virtuous, honourable, etc.) in character. in 1769. Until 1796, he kept the original Corsican spelling of his name, Napoleone di Buonoparte, as well as an interest in Corsican politics. Enrolled in school in France, he was considered socially and financially inferior by his peers who teased him for his accent. Nevertheless, he gained admittance to the prestigious and very expensive École Militaire in Paris at 15, shortly before the loss of his father to stomach cancer. With the family’s only source of income gone, Napoleon was forced to complete the two year course in just one. He graduated 42nd out of 58, becoming a commissioned officer just after his 16th birthday, and went on to serve in the French Revolutionary Wars.

He first came to the attention of Paris as an artilleryLarge guns used in warfare, or referring to the group that uses those guns. Large guns used in warfare, or referring to the group that uses those guns. lieutenant by capturing the naval fort of Toulon in 1793 after a royalist uprising supported by the British navy. Following Toulon he was earmarked for promotion and in 1797, he succeeded in driving the Austrians out of Italy (despite them having the much larger force).

Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine by Jacques-Louis David
Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and CoronationThe ceremony of crowning a king or queen (and their consort). of the Empress Josephine by Jacques-Louis David

Only two years later, Napoleon led a coup against the DirectoryThe ruling committee of five established after the fall of Robespierre in 1795 in revolutionary France The ruling committee of five established after the fall of Robespierre in 1795 in revolutionary France , the ruling committee of five established in 1795 shortly after the fall of Robespierre. The DirectoryThe ruling committee of five established after the fall of Robespierre in 1795 in revolutionary France had overseen a number of French defeats and Napoleon, naming himself first consul, effectively established a military dictatorship. He reorganised the army and went on to win a series of victories, in what became known as the Napoleonic Wars. No consensus exists as to when the French Revolutionary Wars finished and the Napoleonic Wars started: some put the date - as I have done - with Napoleon's takeover of power; others put it at 1803 (when the Peace of Amiens collapsed) or 1804 (when Napoleon declared himself emperor). The Second Coalition of countries against France collapsed, leaving Britain to fight alone and eventually to sign the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. This treaty lasted only a year amid further moves by Napoleon to expand France's territories.

By 1808, the Emperor Napoleon (he had declared himself Emperor in 1804) had conquered much of Europe, but started making serious military mistakes. In 1808, he placed his elder brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne, starting the expensive Peninsular War; and in 1812 he invaded, and was defeated by, Russia. By March 1814, the allies of the Sixth Coalition had reached Paris. The leaders of Paris surrendered, Napoleon was forced to abdicate on 1 April 1814 and was retired to Elba. However in February 1815 he escaped, thanks to the foresight of the Russians in placing him so close to France, the gossiping nature of Napoleon’s British guests and the carelessness of his guard, Sir Neil Campbell. Sir Neil Campbell had been issued with no clear instructions from the British government on his duties as guard. In response to a direct request for direction, he'd been told to be a 'British resident in Elba without assuming any further official character'. He had therefore not taken his job seriously, often being absent from the island.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816
'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

Following Napoleon’s escape, he marched on Paris where many sent against him supported him: the French general sent to capture Napoleon, Marshal Ney, switched sides as did a number of prisoners of war and other seasoned soldiers. But at Waterloo, Napoleon was defeated and fled the battlefield. He made his way to Rochefort, probably hoping to find safe passage to America, which had supported the French during the Wars. Finding all ports blockaded by the British, he was left with little choice but to claim asylum. On 15 July 1815, almost a month after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon turned himself over to Captain Frederick Maitland, commander of HMS Bellerophon

He died six years later, miserable and illegally exiled by the British on the island of St Helena. The British, rather than following the law, decided to follow the 'law of self-preservation', and used extraordinary rendition (the transferral of a person to a separate state for detention) a long time before America and Guantanamo Bay. Their actions were so disreputable that the Lord Chancellor felt he couldn't even put his seal to it. The official cause of death was stomach cancer, although many conspiracy theories surround it, mainly because his symptoms suggest arsenic poisoning. Some think it was the British state quietly killing their enemy, although analysis of his hair throughout his life shows he had always been exposed to high levels of arsenic.

Napoleon's character and legacy

Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon's home on Elba
Villa dei Mulini, Napoleon's home on Elba

Napoleon's character is difficult to pin down. He was full of contradictions and seemed to change according to the person, the circumstance and his mood. Some historians, such as Geoffrey Ellis and R.S. Alexander, have seen this as the basis for his popularity, allowing others to see in him what they wanted. His goal was not to please humanity, but to find something to make his critics respond to him as either a lawmaker, warrior or saviour. This ability to adapt could be why there is still so little agreement over him today. Whatever else though, he was considered intelligent, proven by his ability to dictate four different letters to four different secretaries on four different subjects at a time. While sometimes being likened to a volcano because of his temper, he could also be charismatic and likeable. In addition to convincing a number of people to turn traitor, he charmed the gaoler on the ship taking him into exile in 1814, Captain Thomas Ussher exchanged a number of lavish gifts with his prisoner, including a barge. and a stream of English guests who visited him on Elba.

There is no doubt Napoleon had a dark side. He copied the ancien régimeThe political and social system that existed in France before the revolution. The political and social system that existed in France before the revolution. , living in luxury and promoting friends and relatives to positions of power. This tendency of revolutionaries to ape their former oppressors is nothing new. The ParliamentarianA supporter of parliament, particularly during the Civil Wars of 1642-1651. A supporter of parliament, particularly during the Civil Wars of 1642-1651. Oliver Cromwell, for example, made himself Lord Protector, and the CommunistSomeone who believes in the ideals of communism, where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. Someone who believes in the ideals of communismA theory of system of government and social organisation where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs., where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. regime in the Soviet UnionThe Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union, was a Marxist€“Leninist state covering much of eastern Europe, Russia and Asia between 1922 and 1991. The Union of Soviet SocialistSomeone who believes in the political ideal of socialism, promoting the political will of the people (over, for example, big business). Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union, was a Marxist€“Leninist state covering much of eastern Europe, Russia and Asia between 1922 and 1991. proved Orwell's point that 'some animals are more equal than others'. In Spain he invaded and toppled the old regime, placing his brother, Joseph, on the throne, prompting the Peninsular War. Perhaps he wanted to bring liberté, égalité, fraternité to the rest of Europe, but Napoleon didn't just fight against monarchies: he inflicted regime change on several ancient republicanSomeone who believes power should belong to the people; someone who doesn't support a monarchy. Someone who believes power should belong to the people; someone who doesn't support a monarchy. city states, such as Venice and Dubrovnik. His wars killed over a million people from his own country, and perhaps double that from other European nations. He could be absolutely brutal, abandoning entire armies, like in Egypt, when strategy required. At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798, Nelson devastated Napoleon's fleet in a surprise attack. Napoleon fled, leaving his landlocked army trapped. Nor was he always successful in war: he was totally defeated (and forced to abdicate) twice. His wars against the Holy Roman EmpireA complex of territories in central Europe, covering at various times modern-day Germany Switzerland, Austria, the Low Countries, and parts of northern Italy and the Czech Republic. It developed during the Early Middle Ages and existed through the Early Modern period. A complex of territories in central Europe, covering at various times modern-day Germany Switzerland, Austria, the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands., and parts of northern Italy and the Czech Republic. It developed during the Early Middle Ages and existed through the Early Modern period. resulted in 'arguably the most damaging own goal in European history' Tim Blanning, 'Napoleon' History Today 62 (2012) by reunifying Germany, which led to the invasions of France in 1870, 1914 and 1940. Nor can it be denied that he gave Britain what she needed: the moral upper hand. The coup d’état provided the moral justification to continue fighting, as the British were no longer standing against an emerging democracy, but against a tyrantA cruel and oppressive ruler unrestrained by law or other people, although the early ancient Greeks used it to refer to anyone with absolute power.. He had turned from liberator to oppressor.

However, on the Continent and particularly in France, memories are much more forgiving. Some of this is reaction against the political order that emerged after his exile, where his faults were forgotten but his great acts remembered fondly. It was also a result of his own propaganda machine. Even after his defeat at Waterloo, he was still concerned with image, leading him to dictate memoirs which, to a large extent, have affected how he has been viewed by history. Through exaggeration, self-promotion, and censorship he built a cult of personality around himself. His reputation as a military genius was at least in part deserved. While some would argue he didn't change tactics at all between 1800 and 1815 - suggesting he didn't have the necessary flexibility to be a competent general - others have pointed to his reorganisation of the army which changed the scale of warfare across Europe. He was quick to publicise his military successes, no matter how small: a skirmishSmall and unplanned bouts of fighting. Small and unplanned bouts of fighting. over a bridge at Lodi in modern Italy was turned within three days into a major triumph. But he was also a successful military leader, winning almost all of his 50 pitched battlesBattles in which the time and place are agreed by both sides beforehand, rather than a casual or chance skirmish. Battles in which the time and place are agreed by both sides beforehand, rather than a casual or chance skirmish. . Out of those fifty, he lost four, at Aspern (1809), Leipzig (1813), Laon (1814) and Waterloo (1815), and almost lost two: at Eylau (1807) and Wagram (1809). Some historians have gone so far as to say 'it is doubtful that the legend does the man justice'. David Gates, 'Napoleon as General', History Today 48 (1998)

Statue of Napoleon in Paris
Statue of Napoleon in Paris

But he was remembered for more than military success, and by his contemporaries he was perhaps thought of as a politician first. As Harvey puts it, he was seen 'not as a general who became a dictatorA ruler with total power over a country. A ruler with total power over a country. but as a dictator who was also a general.' A.D. Harvey, 'Napoleon's Wars', History Today 48 (1998)  He portrayed himself as the strong man who could bring peace and security to his country following the terrible years of the Revolution. He promised a return to order and a reduction in crime. This he did by shaping the two police forces he inherited, turning them into models for much of Europe during the 19th century. Robert Peel used the Gendarmes as the basis for his Royal Irish Constabulary, although not for the London Metropolitan Police.  Rather than simply invading and destroying, he could be a progressive moderniser and boasted about preserving the achievements of the Revolution. In 1804 he introduced the Code Napoleon, or the Code civil des Français, across the conquered territories, And in their dominions, including Latin America, Quebec, Indonesia, ex-French Africa, Louisiana and the Philippines which is still the core of civil code today. Revisions to the French legal system were underway before Napoleon came to power, so some have not been willing to attribute the change to Napoleon. However, there can be little doubt that he was central to its implementation. This code included three main principles: clarity, so that all could understand the law, rather than relying on experts; secularism; and the right to ownership of property and employment free from servile obligations. This code modernised law, and thereby society itself. Despite his own tendencies towards despotism, he is remembered as having liberated Europe from the tyrannies of the church and religious oppression.More infoThe French Revolution had, in general, not been a friend of the Catholics. Herbert favoured atheismDisbelief or lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods, Robespierre Deism and the Directory Theo-philanthropy. Pope Pius VI was arrested and died in Valence in 1799. Napoleon attempted reconciliationThe restoration of friendly relations. with the Catholic Church, resulting in the Concordat of 1801, but within a year he had made it clear it should be on his own terms. Despite this, the Pope later wrote that ‘to Napoleon more than to anyone, after God, is due the restoration of our Religion in the Great Kingdom of France’.

Napoleon had a vision for Europe and he succeeded in making that vision a reality, at least for a while. Whether he was a saviour of the people or a war-mad megalomaniac might simply be down to the loudest propaganda. Whatever else, he was an enigma, and someone who will continue to fascinate, inspire and disgust down the generations.

Things to think about

  • How much has British propaganda affected our opinion of Napoleon?
  • How did Napoleon die?
  • How would you describe Napoleon's character?
  • What good did Napoleon do?
  • Was Napoleon a good general?
  • On balance, was Napoleon a force for good, or for bad?

Things to do

  • There are a number of places associated with Napoleon dotted round Europe, if you've got the time and money to visit them. These include the Musée de l’Armée Invalides in Paris, where you can see Napoleon's final resting place (information can be found here); the Villa dei Mulini on Elba, where Napoleon was exiled and which is now a museum (information can be found here); and the museum of his birthplace (information can be found here).
  • For those wanting to stay on this side of the Channel, it is possible to find out what life was like in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars by visiting, for example, HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Our review can be found here and you can purchase tickets here.

Further reading

There are a number of biographies on Napoleon, varying in quality. Two of the best are Vincent Cronin's Napoleon and Alan Forrest's Napoleon. For information about the British response to Napoleon, a very good book is Roger Knight's Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to expand and write for Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian, working with the likes of Histories of the Unexpected.