Napoleon Bonaparte was a minor aristocrat who rose to power after the French Revolution. He was crowned Emperor of the French on December 2, 1804. He then nearly succeeded in conquering most of Europe. But on June 18, 1815, Napoleon’s luck turned one last time, and he was defeated at Waterloo. He was banished (for a second time) to Saint Helena, where he died at age 51.
On the anniversary of Napoleon’s greatest defeat, let’s look back at the life of one of the world’s greatest historical figures.
Birthplace in Ajaccio, Corsica
Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, into a large family of minor nobility. His family lived in the ancestral family home, which had been in the family since 1682.
The home was eventually donated to the French government, and in 1962, it was turned into a national museum. It’s now one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions.
In order to move up in society, Napoleon’s family enrolled him in French military school when he was nine years old, and he only returned to his home island a few times after his youth.
Campaign in Egypt and Syria
Napoleon demonstrated his military genius early. At the age of 27, he was promoted to major general and given control of an entire army. Then, he began planning a campaign in Egypt and Syria, to prepare France to invade Great Britain.
Napoleon’s troops fought many battles in the Middle East and North Africa, and had some major successes. The Battle of the Pyramids, where French troops scored a decisive victory, led to Napoleon seizing Cairo and taking over rule of Egypt.
Chateau Malmaison, Paris, France
When Napoleon returned to Paris, he took up residence at the Chateau Malmaison, a large estate just outside the city. His wife Josephine had purchased it for 300,000 francs, and spent more money restoring the home.
Josephine lived here after her divorce from Napoleon, until she passed away in 1814. Napoleon took up a brief residence there before he was exiled. Later, the house was abandoned, ransacked, and partly destroyed. In the 20th century, it was restored and is now an important historical site.
It was while living here that Napoleon seized power and made himself leader of France. Within a few short years he went from being a temporary leader to an all-powerful emperor. After years of chaos and turmoil, the people of France largely welcomed Napoleon and the stability he promised.
Crowned Emperor at Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame has long been the religious center of Paris, but it was not the where the Kings of France were crowned. This event usually took place in the Cathedral of Saint Denis, just outside the city. However, Napoleon chose to be crowned emperor in Notre Dame.
Pope Pius VII participated in the coronation ceremony, but unusually, he gave the crown to Napoleon, who crowned himself. This sent a clear message: Napoleon was not controlled by the Catholic church.
Notre Dame took nearly 200 years to build, and was finished in 1345. In 2019, the roof caught fire and caused an international outpouring of grief and sympathy. The cathedral is still open, but with limited areas open to the public.
Place Vendome Column, Paris, France
Part of what the French people, and people even today, loved about Napoleon was his aggressive and successful military campaigns that brought pride and victory to the people of France after years of internal turmoil and international struggle.
He defeated combined armies of the Great Britain, the Prussian Empire, and the Russian Empire at the Battle of Austerlitz, in modern day Czech Republic. He had a monument erected in honor of the victory in a plaza named for the battle. The column was destroyed by revolutionaries in 1871, but later reconstructed, and is still on display in the plaza.
Home on Elba
After Napoleon tried to conquer all of Europe, Europe fought back, and the combined forces conquered France and forced the now-former emperor to exile on Elba, an island off the coast of Italy. He had two homes, including this home in Portoferraio. It is now a museum where people can learn about Napoleon, his reign, and his improbable escape from Elba after less than a year in exile.
Route Napoleon, France
Napoleon refused to remain away from power, and from France. After a short time on Elba, he broke free and seized power over France, declaring himself emperor once again.
There are now markers and paths along the route Napoleon took along the French Riviera. It starts in Golfe-Juan, where Napoleon landed and began his fateful campaign that ended just a few months later at Waterloo.
Immediately after taking power in France, the forces of Europe and England rallied to oppose Napoleon, knowing that the militaristic emperor would not stop until he was king of all Europe, or removed permanently.
Napoleon and his troops faced forces from a dozen countries on a field outside Waterloo in present-day Belgium. On Sunday, June 18, forces began fighting. The British Duke of Wellington repelled the French forces all day, and with help from the Prussians, defeated Napoleon.
Today, the site is preserved, with a large man-made mound with stairs and a giant lion statue on top. Tourists can pay a small fee to climb the 226 steps up the mound and get a good look at the entire vista, literally a place where the fate of the world hung in the balance one fateful day.
Residence on St. Helena
Once again, Napoleon was banished. This time, however, he was banished to an island 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa, closer to South America than to France! The tiny island is a protectorate of the United Kingdom, and it was here Napoleon lived out his last days, in a large home built specifically for him.
While the out of the way island has few tourists, this and other locations related to Napoleon are available to the public.
Les Invalides, Paris
In downtown Paris, Les Invalides was founded as a hospital for veterans and others, and Napoleon added crypts for famous military leaders. After his death in 1821, Napoleon was interred at Les Invalides in a giant sarcophagus.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, his attempt to conquer all of Europe and Russia, Napoleon remains a larger than life hero in France.