Birth of an Emperor: Napoleon Bonaparte

Birth of an Emperor: Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the most significant figures of history, Napoleon Bonaparte was a preeminent military leader, social reformer and also the first Emperor of France.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica on 15 August 1769, one of eleven children in the family of Carlo Buonaparte, an Italian nobleman.

Carlo’s connections, together with good relations with the French who were occupying Corsica at the time, saw Napoleon receive an excellent education at French military schools.

He eventually settled in France and began a military career where he soon gained a reputation as a commander by helping defeat the British at the Siege of Toulon in 1793.

A tumultuous period followed across the next decade that saw him win several major battles against the Austrians, but followed by a major defeat at the hands of the British, under Admiral Horatio Nelson, at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

However his political star remained ascendant and returning to France he assumed the important position of First Consul.  This enabled him to institute a series of far reaching social reforms that extended into the legal system, finance, education and the reestablishment of Roman Catholicism as the official religion of France. He also proclaimed the “Napoleonic Code” that banned privileges based on birth and declared that Government employment was to be based on ability and qualification alone. The popularity of these reforms led to his instatement as the first Emperor of France in 1804.

However prolonged conflict ensued against England, Austria and Russia, a period known as the Napoleonic Wars, and following some great victories heavy losses also followed a after 1810. In particular Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia turned into a calamitous defeat that resulted in a significant fall in his popularity back home.

Napoleon went into exile on the island of Elba in 1814, but a year later escaped and returned to Paris in triumph. However the continued warfare of the period eventually led to his downfall and a resounding defeat followed at the hands of his old enemy the British at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

The British sent him into exile once more, this time at the far away island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic where he died in 1821.


Image: A portrait of Napoleon, by the French artist Jacques Louis David, 1812, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.