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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > July 2017 > Napoleon


A soldier who made himself an emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte towered over Europe. Jonny Wilkes charts the ups and downs of the great conqueror


From being an outsider growing up in Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to become Europe's greatest military mind

Each day at Longwood House was not very different from the last. The man living – or confined – there would be awoken early, sip a cup of tea or coffee in his white pique dressing gown and red Morocco slippers, then wash from a silver basin. Mornings could include a ride around the island (a speck in the South Atlantic 1,000 miles from anywhere), but he found it humiliating to be followed by a British officer so put a stop to these excursions.

Instead he kept himself to the damp, windswept and rat-infested house, which stood alone so as better to be guarded by 125 sentries during the day, 72 at night. He staved off boredom by taking long baths, reading, talking with companions and dictating his memoirs. Gardening became another keen hobby as he considered it expansion of territory against his jailors. In the evenings, he entertained his few friends with a five-course meal and reciting French writers such as Molière, Corneille and Racine.

TEENAGE DREAMS As a military student, a young Napoleon considers his future

The longer he could make these last, the remarked, meant a “victory against time”. After retiring, he slept on an iron camp bed, a reminder of his glory days in battle. This is how Napoleon Bonaparte passed the final five and a half years of his life in the wake of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

CAPITAL GAINS In 1795, Napoleon quells a revolt in Paris with "a whiff of grapeshot"

This had been the man who conquered continental Europe; the greatest military mind of his, perhaps any, time; a man whose battlefield nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, had described him as being worth 40,000 men. He had risen to be Emperor of France, then fallen to be prisoner of Saint Helena.


Napoleon’s career began 30 years before Waterloo, in 1785, when he graduated from the military academy in Paris. Although skilled in his studies and a ravenous reader of military strategies, it had been a trying education for the Corsican-born Napoleone di Buonaparte (he changed it to the more French-sounding name in 1796 as classmates always regarded him as an outsider, not helped by his strange accent. Then when his father died, the 15-year-old became head of his family. He ended up bringing them to France in 1793 after relations in Corsica, where he had advocated independence from the French, broke down. Yet while the beloved homeland rejected him, his adopted nation offered opportunities to flourish.

Revolution swept through the country bringing about a new era, allowing the ambitious Napoleon to rise through the ranks. For his pivotal role in capturing the city of Toulon from royalists, during which he picked up a wound to the thigh, he became a brigadier-general at the age of 24. Coming to the rescue of the republic again in October 1795, he quashed a revolt in Paris that threatened to overthrow the National Convention.

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About History Revealed

Follow the rise and fall of France's most infamous dictator, Napoleon, all the way from emperor to exile. Also inside, celebrate 200 years of Jane Austen and discover what life was really like for Ancient Greeks living in Sparta, the civilisation's most brutal city-state. We've also lined up ten of the greatest partnerships in history, from Marks and Spencer to Rolls and Royce, plus meet the man who inspired 007 – Elizabeth I's forgotten spy, John Dee.