Napoleon as Romantic Hero? Let me think…

Poor, poor, poor, poor Napoleon.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauI mean, look at him, poor fellow, sent by that nasty-wasty British Government (what a pack of Grinches, eh?) to that pestiferous outcrop of black rocks in the middle of bally-nowhere, a.k.a. the island of St. Helena, and all because he’d been just a little naughty and had the bad luck to lose at Waterloo.  I mean, are they a bunch of bad winners or what?  Meanies.
Yes, yes, yes…of course I’ve made the mistake (again) of reading a blog by someone or other about poor, poor, poor old Boney.  And how he was forced into surrendering to the Brits, blah-di-blah…
Uhm, could we just go over a fact or two here?  Like about how he came to be in that position in the first place?
napoleon1814So, in the spring of 1814, after having run rampant over the Continent since roughly 1796, slaughtering some 5-6 million people in the process, all the way from the coast of Portugal in the west to the Kremlin in the east, Napoleon (poor fellow) had been beat to a standstill by the Allied forces of the Prussians, Russians and Austrians at the gates of Paris.
And following the Battle of Paris, when the Russians whooped those French troops who were meant to defend the capital, having drained the country of every ounce of anything resembling food or fodder or hard cash, Napoleon who was hanging out at Fontainbleau, was urged, advised, encouraged by his advisors and marshalls and generals, for the sake of the country, to abdicate power.
Which he did.  But not before he had attempted suicide, swallowing a delicious concoction of opium, belladonna and white hellebore, which he’d carried on his person for some time.  But he apparently had the constitution of an ox.  Or the poison had lost its viv during the disastrous Russian campaign, so he, er, was soon found sitting at the table (which I have seen) signing his name to the abdication papers.
So, what to do with the troublesome teen, eh?  Bootcamp?  Outward Bound?  Betty Ford?
alexander 1814The Tsar of all Russia, Alexander I, because he still rather liked and admired Napoleon, conceived of the clever plan to ship him off to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, where he could still have his own little kingdom and be happy making daisy-chains and frolicking in the sunshine and things.
The French, like Talleyrand, thought it was a bad idea.  The Austrians thought it was a disastrous idea.  The Prussians wanted him executed by firing squad.  And the British refused to have anything to do with it because they heartily disapproved–they thought it was asking for trouble.
Nevertheless, it fell to the Brits to get him there and keep him there by virtue of the fact that the Royal Navy rules the waves of the Mediterranean and elsewhere and nobody else had any ships to speak of.  So on 4 May 1814, HMS Undaunted delivered him to the 16-mile-long island of Elba.
Hence, during the ensuing months, everyone across Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief, ate food, slept in their beds without worrying about their villages being pillaged and shelled, and then met in Vienna to try and sort out some kind of modern peace plan for the much-trampled-on peoples of Europe.  This lasted for months.
During which time, Napoleon, down on his island poverty-dise constructed a new palace, furnished it, taxed the population, came up with various schemes, waited for his wife and son to arrive (they never did) and got bored.  So, on 26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped his lead, boarded the 16-gun brig, Inconstant, and made for France.
Where he proceeded to raise a new army.
The restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII eventually skedaddled and headed for Belgium.
wellingtonThe Duke of Wellington, who’d been busy at the Congress of Vienna, also headed for Belgium where he was to be Commander in Chief of the Allied Army; the Prussian Army under General Blucher also got moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, the crowned heads of Europe had put together a statement which read “The Powers declare that Napoleon Buonaparte has placed himself outside all human relations and that, as the enemy and disturber of the peace of the world, he has delivered himself up to public justice.”  And for good measure they claimed that he had forfeited “his sole lawful right to exist.”
It was the 1815 equivalent of the United Nations declaring someone an international war criminal, really.
And some 100 days following his escape, Napoleon was beaten, rolled up, squashed, creamed and otherwise defeated at the 4-day event now known as the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).
But what happened then? you ask.  Didn’t poor, poor, poor Napoleon just get snatched up by those clamouring bullies the English and thrown higgledy-piggledy onto the HMS Bellerophon without so much as an embroidered imperial hanky?
Er, no.  Not really.
The British were kind of busy, er, mopping up at Waterloo and in Brussels, you might say.  Total casualties of the days’ fighting were something in the region of 115,000 men.  Napoleon’s losses were approximately 41,400 killed or wounded, 7000 captured and 10,000 missing.
Those are big numbers.
Nevertheless, having just inflicted this new grievous loss upon France, Napoleon headed back to Paris, determined to raise yet another army–he had a plan to use General Grouchy’s troops as a core, combine them with the reserves of the National Guard and…and…impose a new round of conscription (also known as the blood tax) in order to take on the Allies with a new army of 300,000 in order to avenge Waterloo.
(I kid you not.  That was his new plan.)
But others in France…well, this time they weren’t so keen.  Or maybe they’d finally worked out that he was stark, raving bonkers and a power-junkie megalomaniac.  So, these fellows, including many within his own government, got to work to undermine him.  They included his former minister of police, Fouche, and several prominent men in the French legislature, including the Marquis de Lafayette, a former Bonapartist and hero of the American and French Revolutions.
Napoleon’s brother Lucien spoke to defend his brother as did the author of the novel, Manon Lescaut, Emmanuel Sieyes.
But it was Lafayette’s words which carried the day in response to a cry to rally the French to “drive the barbarians from our country.”
“Have you forgot where the bones of our sons and brothers whiten?  The deserts of Egypt, the snows of Russia, and now the plains of Belgium–Will it also be the streets of Paris?  France,” Lafayette lamented, already had a few million victims “of this one man who wanted to fight all Europe!  Enough!”
While the French legislature debated, Napoleon’s friends and advisors (including brother Lucien) were urging him to send in the army in order to seize power.  Advice that, for once, he did not take.
napo-creepOn 22 June–four days after the catastrophe at Waterloo–the French legislature ordered him to step down from the throne of his own free will or they would remove him.  They gave him an hour to make up his mind.  At 3.00 in the afternoon, therefore, for the second time, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated.
And with the Allied powers now heading for or encamped in Paris, Napoleon decided the best plan was to scarper.  Note that–it was his idea.
He first headed out to Malmaison, the home he’d shared with Josephine on the banks of the Seine, until he’d divorced her.  And now she was dead, though he felt her presence there…
Still, with the Prussians closing in–for the Prussians, whom his troops had brutalised for years and years, it was payback time–and the French unable or unwilling to guarantee his safety, the government ordered him out of France.
Ever the helpful one though, Napoleon offered to resume his post as general and rally the remaining army, then defeat the vicious invaders and cast them out, etc.
Strangely, this generous offer was declined.   So he left for the port of Rochefort secretly, where he trusted he would find a ship bound for the United States, or barring that, one bound for Mexico or South America.
He’d been told that there were two French frigates awaiting his pleasure, but, uh, when he got to Rochefort, they’d been joined by two of the Royal Navy’s finest, including HMS Bellerophon.  Ehem.  He toyed with the idea of escape, possibly in a barrel or on a small fishing boat, but then decided it was beneath his dignity, and so, on 15 July, he surrendered to the British and boarded the Bellerophon.
He still had a plan.  This time it was that the British would offer him asylum.  (He seems to have missed that all that stuff about killing 5-6 million people and being a war criminal.  Or maybe he thought it was irrelevant.)
The British Government declined to take him up on this–I can’t possibly imagine why–and since the island-paradise-close-to-Europe plan hadn’t worked out so well for them, they opted for the island-hell-as-far-away-from-civilisation-as-possible (nearest neighbour 700 miles away) plan.
And so, on 17 October 1815, still protesting that he’d been tricked and cheated by the British Government (yuh, like that’s credible) he was landed at Jamestown, St. Helena…where he died, in May 1821.  But not before he did his best to rewrite history and claim that all he’d ever really wanted was peace…
Yuh, right.  Poor baby.
Romantic hero?  I don’t think so…

23 comments on “Napoleon as Romantic Hero? Let me think…

  1. Linda Root says:

    This is thorough, beautifully succinct, and tells it so that even Boney’s fans will have a hard time defeating the argument. One of my grandfather’s far removed great aunties married one of the Bonapartes in Mexico, and even my grandfather did not like any of them.

  2. rappleyea says:

    So informative and well-written (as always!). I love the tongue firmly in cheek today! I kept thinking that the top picture of Napoleon reminded me of someone, and I finally figured it out – George C. Scott!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha. That’s a pic of him just before or after Waterloo–certainly in Brussels. It’s quite an interesting image because it’s a direct counterbalance to the great coronation portraits of him by Ingres. The palette is the same, but is the man?

      One thing too, I’m often reminded of in this day and age of air-brushing, and that’s that he had very bad acne as an adolescent, and his face was scarred by it, but as he became more of a ‘hero’ and more of the iconic military demi-god leader, the acne scars were painted out.

      He was shorter than George C. though–no taller than 5’4″, though by my measurement of his clothes, he was closer to 5’3″. (And I doubt he would have made such a fine Ebeneezer Scrooge as Scott did either! Ha ha.)

      • rappleyea says:

        I doubt he would have made as good a Patton either, although Napoleon certainly would have agreed with his famous sentiment: “Wars are not won by dying for your country. They’re won by making the other poor S.O.B. die for his country!”

        Interesting about the “oil brushing”!

  3. Lisa says:

    I thought this was really interesting and love the sarcastic humour and wit -entertaining and informative thank you for raising my intellect xx

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’m very glad you approve! Because I’ve just been called a xenophobic John Bull and a few other choice epithets. (I thought I was being amusing and offhand…) And glad I could sharpen the working of the little grey cells–watch out students today! *wink*

  4. I think “Bonkers” sums it up quite neatly.

  5. This was really funny! And informative as well. I love it when I can learn things through humor. You had my interest all the way.

  6. athabascastation says:

    Very wittily done and shows the man for what he was – an absolute cochon.

    I discovered, however, that my gggggfr had an audience with him during the “Peace” of Amiens. I found this in a rather interesting book: Napoleon’s British visitors and captives, 1801-1815; … . Alger, John Goldworth [;q1=Napoleon%E2%80%99s%20British%20Visitors%20and%20Captives;seq=9;view=1up]. I can’t imagine what they had to say to each other since Louis was a royalist and can’t have been too keen on Boney.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      How fascinating! How very very cool!

      It’s an extra-ordinary period of time, the Peace of Amiens. Charles James Fox, the great Whig, went across the Channel to meet Bonaparte–he’d always been a great admirer–but he didn’t like him a bit, saw that he was not to be trusted, and returned rather less full of praise than when he had departed…

      And of course, Boney was also using the Peace as an opportunity to attempt to lure the aristocracy back to France–I fancy he believed their presence and fealty would add credibility to his regime. Though probably he just liked aristos sucking up to him–a poor Corsican boy’s dream come true, especially as he cannot have been well treated by his richer fellows when he was a lad in military school there in France.

  7. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Although the politically sage saw the ‘peace’ for what it was – a ploy by Napoleon to remove the blockade on the French ports to allow the re-provisioning of his army – the British Haut Ton lost no time in returning to their beloved Paris – and in their thousands.

    The above book said:
    “The Dover and Calais mail packets did not recommence running till the 18th November 1801, but English visitors had begun to arrive as early as September or October. One of the earliest packets brought sixty-three ladies, and the Calais hotels were packed, seven hundred and ninety-eight passengers landing in ten days. In the last decade of Prairial (June 1802) there were ninety-one arrivals, in the last decade of Thermidor (August) ninety-seven, in the last decade of Fructidor (September) one hundred and fifty-six.”

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The English did flock to France during the Peace, yes. (And quite a few of them got stuck there when the Peace came to an abrupt halt…)

      I think it’s important to look at the social history of the relationships between France and England though, in the period preceding the wars, to understand it. Many aristocratic English families either had French cousins or French friends of longstanding with whom they’d been forcibly out of touch for nearly ten years.

      I’m thinking, for example, of the Duchess of Devonshire and her sister. Georgiana was close friends with several of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting. She was a close friend/correspondent of Marie Antoinette herself. When either of the Spencer sisters needed to be got out of England either for the birth of an indiscretion or to save an abusive husband’s neck (literally), they went to France–even during the war.

      Jane Austen’s sister-in-law was French and had been married to a Frenchman who died on the guillotine. She and her young son had escaped and come to England seeking refuge…

      The ties were close. It’s not surprising that at the first opportunity these people hurried to visit, I think…

  8. PFreeman says:

    My brother spent a couple of years in France in his college years and is rather a “but-but-but” fan of the Monster. But he did this. He did that. He did the other. I say, “He did it at the end of a bayonet and millions of people died. He destroyed his own country.” Piffle, says he. Nuance.

    Imagining myself in that era, I imagine my three sons dead, their children starving, my country devastated. Yeah, but I have the decimal system. Oh. Well. That’s all right, then. Not. (and I’m not even British).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s not just those who’ve visited France or spent years abroad there who find it difficult to square the image with the facts. The Napoleonic propaganda machine was absolutely the best in the world. Ever. These are the fellows who proclaimed the Battle of Trafalgar as a French victory. They were spin doctors such as our politicians can only dream of! There was complete censorship of the press and as such there was no such thing as public opinion. And if you disagreed, you went to prison–from whence you just might not return. Ever.

      So it was a totalitarian state. Yes, the art was great. The architecture though–like the Arc de Triomphe–was mostly of the grand scheme variety that didn’t get finished until fifty years later because they always ran out of money, which usually had been spent on the army. Again.

      But with the returning to the original sources, which has been the drive of historians during the last twenty years or so, and with the coming down of the Iron Curtain–behind which there was a treasure trove of sources the West hadn’t seen for 100 years–we’re getting a picture which tells a very different story than that of the Napoleonic iconography. And frankly, some of it scares me witless. The work of the French historian, Claude Ribbe, detailing the atrocities dictated and carried out in Haiti and Guadaloupe on Napoleon’s explicit orders, that’s as terrible (worse even) than anything from the September Massacres or the Vendee.

      And yes, you’re right. Your sons would have been taken by the blood tax as they called conscription. You might hear from them sometime. But where and when they fell, how they died, you would have known nothing. It would have been silence. Or they would have returned traumatised and brutalised and maimed.

      Your brother might wish to read a fascinating study of the period by an American scholar who did all his work in Paris, using French sources: David A. Bell. The book’s called The First Total War and it’s quite an astounding and superb work of historical research.

      As for the destruction of his own country–again you’ve got that right. Oxford historian Michael Broers has written and lectured about that for years. And I’ve recently been studying the Banque de France’s records during the spring of 1814 campaign. Bankrupt is the nicest way to describe it–destitute is closer to the truth.

      Cheers! MM

  9. It’s a small quibble and I’m prepared to be corrected, but Manon Lescaut was written by the Abbé Prévost, not the Abbé Sieyès.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You are absolutely correct. My mistake and my apologies. In my defense I can only say that by this point in the run-up to the festivities, I feel as though my brains may have been left out for the past few days in one of the many deep puddles/ponds that are adorning the garden and walkway…

  10. […] Napoleon as a romanitc hero? The notorious Emma Hart Hamilton  The Monument to Henry VIII Bias in history-a necessary evil? […]

  11. No need to apologise, MM. I find the run-up to Christmas similarly de-marbling and I’m sure I am much older than you are. I remember having to read ML in French for ‘A’ level and hardly taking the trouble to do so, which accounts for the ‘D’s all round in languages! Puddles – well, I’d rather have them but having been born and brought up in Devon I know you can have too much of a good thing. I would still swap them for the -28C and snow where I am now…

    Compliments of the season, by the way. I always find your blogs amusing, passionate, informative and above all readable.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I remember reading Manon Lescaut…that is to say, I know I did read it…I suffered an exam on it…but that is not why my grade was less than impressive. My French was flawless, but my argument that the females in question (Manon, La Bovary and the females from Therese Desqueroux and Therese Raquin) were selfish, whiney, abysmally stupid cows and should have been put down on the first pages of the respective books, thus sparing generations of people the misery of reading about their moaning, did not, I believe, sit well with the examiners.

      Devon and Hampshire have been particularly badly hit by the torrents of rain in the past fortnight and many roads are now lakes…Our river was just a foot short of the bridge yesterday…glad to say it’s gone down overnight…

      And a very merry Christmas to you too, sir.

  12. LOL – yes, those heroines rank with Anna Karenina and Hedda Gabler. I agree we would be better off without them, or at least not having to read about them. I still did the exams but not surprisingly failed to write anything sensible about the set books that I hadn’t read. I had a block about them at the time. However, a bit like you, I scraped through by doing ‘word-perfect’ unseens and translations. Sorry – got a bit off-topic…. Keep your feet dry!

  13. […] Napoleon as a romanitc hero? The notorious Emma Hart Hamilton  The Monument to Henry VIII Bias in history-a necessary evil? […]

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