28 Things You Didn't Know About Napoleon

Here’s a list for all those Napoleon Bonaparte biography and historical facts fans. Who was Napoleon? A lot of Napoleon facts have been shortened - ahem - over time, omitting vital information. Others have been created out of whole cloth. For instance, he was the average height of a Frenchman in his time at 5’6”. Sure, he was ambitious and fell prey to narcissism and power madness, but he also helped usher in a new age of a more cohesive and rational governmental structure for France. He was a brilliant military strategist with a drive to rebuild his country and expand France's power, but he also marched himself into infamy. Such is the man that was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Aside from the height jabs and the Waterloo shaming, there are lots of interesting Napoleon facts, such as his saucy letters to Joséphine in the early days of their lust and love, the fact that Beethoven was a fan of his until Napoleon went a step too far and appointed himself emperor, that he probably wasn’t afraid of cats, or that a priest may have smuggled his penis out of the country. He also wrote a romance novella at the age of 26, Clisson et Eugénie, which appears to be roughly based on his own life and heart’s desire.

Who was Napoleon? Well, for one thing, he had numerous supporters and was beloved among the common people across Europe. So beloved that the British made sure he was locked away on a remote island for his second and final stint in exile. They also knew just how determined and intelligent the man was. They beefed up the garrison on the island of St. Helena, called in the Royal Navy, and even stationed soldiers on a neighboring island just in case of a rescue expedition.

He was ambitious and was made for war, but Napoleon facts reveal that he was a positive catalyst for Europe, bringing order to government even if by helping mount a coup. He also introduced conscription, religious freedom, offered a cash prize to solve food preservation for armies, and opened up society so that the common man who worked and studied could improve his station. As he created power for himself, he created powerful enemies, leading to his ultimate downfall.

Was Napoleon a villain or a savior? A man of the people, or the untouchable emperor? All of the above, perhaps? Read through these Napoleon Bonaparte facts and remember: “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

Photo: Horace Vernet / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • He Wasn’t Short
    Photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Auguste Raffet / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Wasn’t Short

    Napoleon was probably around 5’6”, the average height for a Frenchman in the early 1800s, but members of his Imperial Guard were taller so he appeared short in comparison. His English detractors embellished on his height by making him appear diminutive. Added to the visuals were rumors that he sought power to compensate for his height, also known as the "Napoleon complex."

    The “Napoleon Complex” has been debunked by studies. Upon his death, the attending physician made a note that Napoleon’s body was 5'2" "from the top of the head to the heels" which equals 5’ 6” in English measurements.

  • A Priest Stole Napoleon's Member

    Supposedly, the priest Vignali removed some of Napoleon’s organs after his death and may have also taken his penis. The ruler’s member was handed down through the Vignali family, and ended up being sold to a British book firm in 1916.

    John K. Lattimer, former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, purchased the organ at auction in 1977. It was described as a “shriveled seahorse” and sold for $3,000.

  • Napoleon Helped Solidify Driving On The Right Side Of The Road

    Riders across continental Europe rode on the left side of the road, specifically so that they could wield a sword or a weapon from their right hand. It was also considered safer to mount and dismount a horse from the side of the road. Also, nobility rode on the left, pushing the poor folk to the right side of the road. After the French Revolution, aristocrats got the idea to pass on the right in order to blend with the peasants and escape detection.   

    In 1709 in Russia, Peter the Great recognized the custom and Empress Elizabeth made it an official edict in 1752. But Napoleon decided to change road traffic to the right to surprise the enemy. This new way quickly spread among his conquests and was adopted across Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and across many areas in Italy and Spain. Britain, Portugal, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire resisted.

  • Napoleon And Joséphine Had A Tumultuous Relationship
    Photo: Antoine-Jean Gros / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Napoleon And Joséphine Had A Tumultuous Relationship

    The relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Joséphine started out very passionately, at least on his part. She definitely played the game and did have feelings for him, but her past and old habits of taking lovers plagued their marriage.

    The letters between the couple show a man at war on the battlefield and with his feelings for his fickle wife. At times, passionate and naughty, and then later upon hearing of an affair from his brother, full of rage and downcast. She overplayed her hand and soon Napoleon’s feeling began to turn.

    In revenge, he took a mistress, Pauline Bellisle Foures (a junior officer’s wife), and wrote to his brother, "The veil is torn… It is sad when one and the same heart is torn by such conflicting feelings for one person... I need to be alone. I am tired of grandeur; all my feelings have dried up. I no longer care about my glory. At twenty-nine I have exhausted everything." Unfortunately, the letter was intercepted by the British and then all of Europe knew of Joséphine’s unfaithfulness and the emperor’s changed feelings.

  • He Probably Didn’t Say 'Not Tonight, Joséphine,' But Did Friendzone Her
    Photo: Musée national du Château de Fontainebleau/Baron François Gérard / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Probably Didn’t Say 'Not Tonight, Joséphine,' But Did Friendzone Her

    Most of the historical accounts (based on letters between Napoleon and his wife) state that Napoleon was infatuated with his wife to the point that his feelings weren’t reciprocated to the fullest. The pair came from lower means and bonded over improving their lot in life. Napoleon built a life on education, strategy, and powerful social allies. Joséphine charmed her way up through society with skill and aplomb.

    Historian and author Kate Williams says that Napoleon was “graceless” with women and Joséphine played into his ego, especially when it came to his war tactics and attempt to grab the attention of the ladies. This is a woman who went to prison and narrowly escaped the guillotine in the wake of the fall of King Louis and Marie Antoinette. She knew a thing or two about men and social power.

    When they first got together, Napoleon was so wild for her, he actually wrote to her, “I am coming home. Don’t wash.” So he probably didn’t tell her, “Not tonight,” but he did call her a “beastly sl*t” and other things through their correspondence when she didn't respond to his letters and spent time with other men.

    He might have uttered something to that effect just before he divorced and exiled her because she was 46 and couldn’t produce a male heir. Williams recounts that he said, “Go, Joséphine. I will always be your friend.” Her wailing could be heard across the palace.

  • He Was Once Beaten By A Chess-Playing Automaton

    Designed and built by Wolfgang von Kempelen, the automaton was known as The Turk, a “thinking machine” that could defeat humans at chess. It came complete with a seated life-size wooden man dressed in the garb of a magi or sorcerer, as most European audiences imagined them to look. The figure sat at a cabinet with a chessboard on top.

    In 1809, Napoleon played against the machine. Cosmos magazine best describes the match:

    As usual, the Turk was soon in a commanding position. The Emperor attempted an illegal move. The Turk replaced the piece on to its proper square. Napoleon tried another illegal move. This time, the Turk removed the offending piece from the board entirely. Amused by this, Napoleon attempted a third illegal move. The Turk swept his arm across the board, knocking over all of the pieces – to Napoleon's delight.

    It was later discovered that a master chess player was hidden inside the cabinet and the invention was deemed a hoax.