Paris Perspective #8: Downfall of the Emperor - the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte - Pt.2

Audio 17:40
Napoleon at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 (detail; 1840), Paul Delaroche. Musée de l'armée/Alamy Stock Photo
Napoleon at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 (detail; 1840), Paul Delaroche. Musée de l'armée/Alamy Stock Photo © Musée de l'armée

From his disastrous invasion of Russia to his infamous defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte's downfall – and final years spent in exile – are the stuff of legend. In the second part of our series unpacking the French Emperor's legacy two centuries on, Paris Perspective recounts the events that brought an end to his conquest of Europe. 


Napoleon's first tasks upon his ascent as Emperor of France in 1804 were focused on getting his "house in order", given the country was still deeply traumatised and economically crippled by the 1789 Revolution and its bloody aftermath.

A year later he got busy expanding his military and defeating the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz, in what is viewed as his most tactically brilliant victory. Napoleon went on to defeat the Prussians at Iéna and Auerstadt in 1806, and the Russians again at Friedland in 1807.

At the Peace Treaty of Tilsit signed that year with Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the defeated powers were forced to join the Empire's Continental System blocking trade links with Britain.

By 1807 Napoleon occupied Portugal and, by 1808, Spain. This led to the Iberian Peninsular War – during which French forces were opposed by the British, Spanish and Portuguese – which in turn led to the ultimate defeat of Napoleonic forces.

Yet despite some losses, by 1809 Napoleon again beat the Austrians at Wagram forcing yet another peace treaty.

Napoleons Russia Campaign 1812
Napoleons Russia Campaign 1812 © Britannica

Following a period of relative peace, Napoleon launched his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812 with his Grande Armée, which numbered almost 700,000 men at its zenith. 

After a solid start for Napoleon's forces and the eventual occupation of Moscow, the Tsar's scorched-earth retreat had drawn the Grande Armée much further into Russian territory than had been anticipated.

With the early arrival of the harsh Russian winter and no food or resources to sustain them, the Grande Armée retreated in disarray and was decimated by starvation, disease, hypothermia and skirmishes with Russian forces.

To this day, mass graves are still unearthed on the Grande Armée's line of retreat. Of the 110,000 French soldiers who left Moscow in October 1812, only 8,000 troops returned. 

This disaster for Napoleon resulted in Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Sweden forming a new coalition against France and its few remaining allies. 

The retreat of Napoleon's forces from Moscow, 1812
The retreat of Napoleon's forces from Moscow, 1812 © Lithub

By 1813, during a campaign in lower Germany, Napoleon was defeated at the so-called Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, which involved armies from almost all the European states.

Forced to retreat on all fronts back into France, Napoleon was compelled to abdicate in 1814 after the occupation of Paris by the allies, led by Russia.

The Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed and Napoleon was banished to the small Mediterranean island of Elba, off the west coast of Italy.

"Tsar Alexander I wants to show that he is merciful, and so he agrees to enter into negotiations with Napoleon so that he can become sovereign of Elba ... a tiny place," Peter Hicks, an historian with the Fondation Napoléon in Paris, tells RFI.

"It also suits Alexander for Napoleon to be on Elba, because that's rather annoying to Austria, which is top dog in Italy."

How did Napoleon react to satirical caricatures in the 1800s?
Napoleon and King George III by James Gillray in 1803
Napoleon and King George III by James Gillray in 1803 © wikipedia

The great escape

As sovereign of Elba, with no money coming from Paris, Napoleon realises he's risks running out of money. That's when he decides to leave.

"It's not an escape; he literally decides to chance it all – one go of 'pitch and toss', and he wins," says Hicks of the events of March, 1815.

"It's extraordinary. The world cannot believe the Vol de l’Aigle – the flight of the eagle. He lands with 100 or so men in the Golfe-Juan, in Provence. Within weeks, he's at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, with the support of France."

Louis XVIII, the restored Bourbon king of France, quickly fled the capital only hours before Napoleon's arrival.

When he enters the palace "the coffee is still warm – a delightful, strange detail," Hicks adds.

While Europe was taken aback by Napoleon's return to power, he had already been proclaimed as an outlaw by the Congress of Vienna, an international diplomatic conference tasked with reconfiguring Europe's political order.

In the eyes of the French, however, Napoleon was still their Emperor. This led him to confront the Duke of Wellington, commander of the British Army, at the Battle of Waterloo – fought in the Belgian countryside.


Defeat and exile

On 18 June, 1815, Napoleon's men suffered their final defeat at the hands of Wellington's army, with the assistance of Prussian forces.

Fearing capture by the Prussians and French troops loyal to King Louis XVIII, and abandoning plans to escape to the United States, Napoleon surrendered to the British. 

His hopes of living out his days in a stately manor were dashed when, along with Britain's allies, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool decided to exile Napoleon to the British territory of St Helena in the South Atlantic. 

Napoleon was appalled by the decision, and would have preferred to have been captured and executed by the Bourbons, says Hicks.

"St Helena had a strange reputation ... French governments of the revolution had a thing called 'the dry guillotine'," Hicks explains.

"You didn't actually kill the people, you just sent them to places in French Guiana like Papillion, or a penal colony, and hopefully you died of malaria or of malnutrition digging up sugar beet under the sun." 

St Helena is not at all like French Guiana, and this becomes an issue, says Hicks.

"Napoleon says 'No way. You can't send me to a place that's terrible'."

It was the first impressions of Napoleon's entourage upon their approach to St Helena that resonates most – especially that of Madame Bertrand, wife of the Grand Marshall of the Palace, who was furious she had become part of Napoleon's "court" in exile.

"She said it looked like a 'suppository shat there by the devil'," Hicks says. "Very colourful words."

Illustration of Longwood, Napoleon Bonaparte's residence on St.Helena.
Illustration of Longwood, Napoleon Bonaparte's residence on St.Helena. © wikipedia

Final years

The people of St Helena, located 4,400 kilometres west of southern Africa, only learned that Napoleon was coming three days ahead of his arrival.

"They had no idea, because of the time difference between news leaving London and arriving in St Helena – between two to three months," Hicks explains.

"Three days before Napoleon arrived, a boat came and told the governor of St Helena 'By the way, guess who's coming to town?'"

Despite its isolation, St Helena in the early 1800s was not just a forgotten outpost of the British Empire, but a strategic shipping hub.

"Before the creation of the Suez Canal, St Helena was the standard stopping point for boats belonging to the East India Company coming from India going to London," Hicks says.

The interior of Longwood, Napoleon Bonaparte's residence on St.Helena
The interior of Longwood, Napoleon Bonaparte's residence on St.Helena © wikipedia

So once he was ensconced on the island, in the damp, leak-prone residence of Longwood, Napoleon put pen to paper writing his memoirs to "set the record straight".

"A great work of fiction or fact, or a mixture?" muses Hicks on the accuracy of Napoleon's version of history. 

"It's always important to mix your fiction with your facts. That way, you can't tease out what's right and what's wrong. You create the legend." 

Anecdotally, Napoleon also played skittles on St Helena. Sometimes he'd set out for a ride in his carriage, with locals complaining about the speed of his driving, frightening the residents.

Did Napoleon interact with the locals on St.Helena?

However, the former Emperor did mingle with the locals on the island, at least at the beginning of his exile. He also struck up a friendship with a local slave named Toby. 

British Library archives show Napoleon met a lot of slaves on the island, Hicks says.

"I have a list of all of the slaves to whom Napoleon gave a dollar ... one of them was given three napoleons for creating a path through a hedge."

Napoleon had taken his own coffers to the island, and he had taken his own currency. Generosity was Napoleon's policy, says Hicks.

"When he meets a slave, he destabilises the social contract because these slaves – who don't have any money at all – suddenly have quite a lot of cash, and that creates complications between the owners and the slaves," he says.

Death and legacy

Coming into the final year of Napoleon's exile, he complained of bowel pains, recounting to the island's medics that he feared he was being consumed by the same disease that claimed his father's life. Modern medicine would diagnose this as stomach cancer. 

On 5 May, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte – the Corsican soldier of minor nobility who had risen to the title of Emperor and controlled an empire rivalling the apex of ancient Rome – died in exile in the South Atlantic at the age of 51. 

Napoleon portrait in death
Napoleon portrait in death © wikipedia

St Helena’s governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, sent news of Napoleon’s death to London. The news reached Paris on 6 July. It would take a further 19 years before Napoleon's remains would be returned to France, to finally lay in state at the Chapelle Royale des Invalides in Paris, where he resides to this day. 

So how should we interpret Napoleon's achievements in a modern context, from 2021 through the prism of two centuries of socio-economic evolution, emancipation and technological advances? It depends, says Hicks.

"Napoleon himself said '50 battles is all very well, but in the end, people will remember me for the Code Civil'," Hicks says.

"Something like 30 to 40 percent of the Napoleonic code is still in use today. The Conseil d'Etat, which was founded by Napoleon, is still there today and is still a key part of French polity, and has been imitated in Italy in Germany."

There's also a flip side to Napoleon's legacy. "As people have pointed out, the Code Civil is a little retrograde. Women's rights take a hit. He's a macho man. He's not a feminist. You can say that that's a bad thing," Hicks adds.

"The same is true of slavery. There's an [anti-slavery] movement in Britain that begins in the 1750s, but it doesn't have political power."

Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb at Invalides, Paris
Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb at Invalides, Paris © wikipedia

The France that Napoleon left behind was also smaller than the France that Napoleon took over.

"The country's borders had shrunk," Hicks says. "When you draw up the report of what's good and what's bad at the end, it's looking pretty bad."

But his memory is ever present, when one looks at the names of Paris streets, metro stops, arcades, canals and the quais of the river Seine. While there is no street named specifically after Napoleon himself, many of them are a genuflection to his battles and to the people and events that made up his empire.

"Paris is shot through with the legend [of Napoleon], but also in ways in which simple people actually intersected with the legend," says Hicks. "And it actually really works."

Watch full video here

Written, produced & presented by David Coffey

Recorded, mixed & edited by Vincent Pora

Full Interview - Downwall of the Emperor - The Legacy of Napoleon Part 2

Dr Peter Hicks is an historian and international affairs director with the Fondation Napoléon in Paris 

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