10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

When Napoleon Bonaparte called history “a fable agreed upon,” he was talking about his own life and times. (1) There are so many myths about Napoleon that it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Here are ten popular myths about the French Emperor. 

1. Napoleon was short.

Maniac Ravings or Little Boney in a strong fit by James Gillray, 1803. British caricatures like this one contributed to the myth that Napoleon was short.

Maniac Ravings or Little Boney in a strong fit by James Gillray, 1803. British caricatures like this one contributed to the myth that Napoleon was short.

Napoleon was 5’6” – 5’7” (168-170 cm) tall, which was slightly above average for Frenchmen of his time. The myth about Napoleon being short arose because the British liked to portray their French enemy as “little Boney.” And since Napoleon was often surrounded by soldiers from his Imperial Guard, who were above average height, he appeared short in comparison. At his autopsy, Napoleon measured 5’2”, but that was in French inches, which were larger than British and American inches. See “How tall (short) was Napoleon Bonaparte” by Margaret Rodenberg.

2. Napoleon crossed the bridge at Arcole.

Napoleon leading his troops over the bridge of Arcole by Horace Vernet, 1826. It’s a myth that Napoleon crossed the bridge.

Napoleon leading his troops over the bridge of Arcole by Horace Vernet, 1826. It’s a myth that Napoleon crossed the bridge.

In the November 1796 battle to take the Italian village of Arcole (Arcola) from the Austrians, French forces under Napoleon had to cross a small wooden bridge across the River Alpone. Austrian cannon were placed in such a way that they could fire on anyone approaching the bridge. Rather than advance, the frightened French troops took cover behind a dyke. General Pierre-François Augereau seized the lead battalion’s flag and advanced towards the enemy. Some courageous men followed him, but after several were killed, the attack faltered, and Augereau had to withdraw. Napoleon then seized a flag and tried to lead the men across the bridge, but he didn’t even make it to the bridgehead. A number of the officers around Napoleon were hit, some fatally. During the retreat, Napoleon fell into a swamp behind the dyke and his men had to drag him to safety. The myth arose because Napoleon later presented the battle in a way that suggested he had successfully charged the bridge. The fact that the attempted crossing failed was ignored. Paintings that showed Napoleon with a flag on the bridge perpetuated the myth.

3. Napoleon converted to Islam.

This myth also originated from Napoleon himself. When he invaded Egypt in 1798, Napoleon tried to reassure the people of Egypt that he came as a friend of Islam. He knew he had to gain the support of the local muftis and religious leaders. Among other things, his staff circulated the transcript of a long “Conversation of Bonaparte in the Grand Pyramid with several imans and muftis,” in which Napoleon said, “Glory to Allah! There is no other God but God; Mohammed is His prophet, and I am one of his friends.” (2) However, Napoleon never actually entered the pyramid and this supposed conversation did not take place. As Paul Strathern writes:

The muftis eventually agreed to issue a fatwa recognizing the French as the legitimate rulers of Egypt, on condition that Napoleon and the French army converted to Islam. Napoleon, for his part, had no objection to this, and felt with a little persuasion he could sell this to his army as a mere formality. … But the muftis insisted that such a move should be more than a formality: the French would all have to be circumcised and swear to abstain from alcohol. At this stage Napoleon was forced to concede that such a move was impossible: no French soldier would ever swear to abstain from alcohol. Even so, he continued to press the muftis at their afternoon meetings, until finally they found their way to a suitably devious concession: because the French were not Christians, although they were not Muslims they could be recognized as allies of the Muslim religion. (3)

See “Napoleon at the Pyramids: Myth versus Fact.”

4. Napoleon shot off the Sphinx’s nose.

View of the Sphinx by Frederik Ludvig Norden, 1737. Sixty years before Napoleon’s troops allegedly shot it off, the Sphinx’s nose was already missing. Source: Wellcome Images, https://wellcomeimages.org/.

View of the Sphinx by Frederik Ludvig Norden, 1737. Sixty years before Napoleon’s troops allegedly shot it off, the Sphinx’s nose was already missing. Source: Wellcome Images, https://wellcomeimages.org/

Another myth says that Napoleon was responsible for the destruction of the Sphinx’s nose, having ordered his troops to use it for target practice with their cannons. In fact, the Sphinx’s nose was gone years before Napoleon and his troops arrived in Egypt. In 1737, Danish naval captain Frederik Ludvig Norden made sketches of the Sphinx that were published in 1755 and clearly show a nose-free monument. See “Did Napoleon’s troops shoot the nose off the Sphinx?” by Tom Holmberg on The Napoleon Series.

5. Napoleon met Princess Caraboo.

In April 1817, a British imposter named Mary Baker convinced residents in the Bristol area that she was the exotic Princess Caraboo from a far-off island kingdom. After Baker’s fraud was discovered, she set sail for Philadelphia. On September 13, 1817, the Bristol Journal reported that Baker’s ship had been blown close to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena by a storm. “Princess Caraboo” allegedly leapt into a boat, cut herself adrift and rowed ashore, where St. Helena Governor Hudson Lowe introduced her to Napoleon, who was  imprisoned on the island. Napoleon “embraced her with every demonstration of enthusiastic rapture” and “intimated to Sir Hudson his determination to apply to the Pope for a dispensation to dissolve his marriage with Maria Louisa, and to sanction his indissoluble union with the enchanting Caraboo.” (4) The report was a joke by a British journalist. There is zero evidence that Baker ever reached St. Helena, let alone met Napoleon. For more about Princess Caraboo, see “Mary Baker – The Princess Caraboo” by Geri Walton.

6. Napoleon escaped from St. Helena and a double took his place on the island.

The myth that Napoleon was replaced by a double named François-Eugène Robeaud first appeared in print in 1911, “supposedly derived from the memoirs of a police agent named Ledru (purportedly published in Liège in 1840 but not to be found in any library today).” (5) Robeaud, allegedly impoverished and living in the French village of Baleycourt, was said to have disappeared sometime in 1818 after reportedly being visited by General Gaspard Gourgaud, one of Napoleon’s former companions on St. Helena. There is no evidence that Robeaud ever existed, or that he replaced Napoleon. And, though my novel Napoleon in America is based on Napoleon escaping from St. Helena, there is no evidence that Napoleon ever left the island. See “Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

7. Napoleon’s last word was Josephine.

Napoleon died on St. Helena on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51. In the eyewitness accounts of his final hours, there are differences regarding his last words. There is general agreement that Napoleon said (in French; he did not speak English) something about the “army,” possibly “head of the army.” According to two witnesses, Napoleon also said “France” and “my son.” Only one witness, General Charles de Montholon reported that Napoleon said “Josephine.” Montholon did not write this down until 20 years after Napoleon’s death, when he was imprisoned in a fortress with Louis-Napoléon (the future Napoleon III), who was the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis and Josephine’s daughter Hortense. Montholon and Louis-Napoléon had been captured during one of the latter’s attempted coups. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Montholon wanted to honour his friend and help rally the French to Louis-Napoléon’s cause by showing that Napoleon’s last thought was for Louis-Napoléon’s grandmother. Thus, although “Josephine” is often cited as one of Napoleon’s last words, it is actually the least probable of them. See “What were Napoleon’s last words?

8. Napoleon was poisoned.

At an autopsy conducted the day after Napoleon’s death, doctors concluded that Napoleon died from a cancerous growth in his stomach (see “What happened to Napoleon’s body?”). Nonetheless, rumours that Napoleon had been poisoned soon arose. They were revived in 1961 by Swedish dentist Sten Forshufvud and widely circulated by Canadian businessman Ben Weider. Forshufvud and Weider accused Montholon of poisoning Napoleon with arsenic. Others claimed that Napoleon was killed by high levels of arsenic in the wallpaper of Longwood House, his St. Helena home. However, the claim that Napoleon was killed by arsenic has been convincingly refuted in a number of scientific studies. Most notably, in a study published in 2007, American, Swiss and Canadian researchers used modern medical techniques to analyze historical accounts of Napoleon’s illness, death and autopsy. They found no signs of arsenic poisoning. Instead, they concluded that Napoleon died of an advance case of gastric cancer. (6)

9. The British substituted another body for Napoleon’s.

The opening of Napoleon’s coffin on St. Helena in October 1840, by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin. Napoleon's body was perfectly preserved.

The opening of Napoleon’s coffin on St. Helena in October 1840, by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin

The substitution myth, first advanced by French photographer and journalist Georges de Rétif de la Bretonne in 1969, claims that the British government secretly removed Napoleon’s body from St. Helena in 1828 and substituted the corpse of his Corsican maître d’hôtel, Jean-Baptiste Cipriani Franceschi, who died on the island in February 1818. The alleged British motive? To conceal that Napoleon had died of arsenic poisoning, in case the body was ever exhumed. The theory rests on alleged discrepancies between the state of Napoleon’s body and caskets in 1821, and how they appeared when his body was disinterred for transportation to France in 1840. The fact that Cipriani’s grave has never been found is also presented as evidence, as are differences between Napoleon’s death masks. However, numerous people who were present at Napoleon’s original burial confirmed that it was still him in the tomb in 1840. See “What Happened to Napoleon’s body?

10. Napoleon’s penis wound up in the United States.

In 1927, an object described as a “mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the post-mortem” was displayed at the Museum of French Art in New York. The “tendon,” purported to be Napoleon’s penis, was allegedly cut off by Napoleon’s physician Dr. François Antommarchi during Napolon’s autopsy and given to the Corsican priest, Ange-Paul Vignali. After Vignali’s death, it was passed down through his family and eventually sold to various collectors, until acquired in 1977 by American urologist John K. Lattimer. Upon Lattimer’s death, his son inherited the object. A 1924 catalogue claimed:

The authenticity of this remarkable relic has lately been confirmed by the publication in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a posthumous memoir by St. Denis, in which he expressly states that he and Vignali took away small pieces of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy. (7)

What the memoir by Napoleon’s valet Louis Étienne Saint-Denis actually says is that Vignali was given a little piece from Napoleon’s rib. (8) Nowhere does Saint-Denis, or any of the 16 other people present at the autopsy, say that Napoleon’s penis was removed. It is hard to believe that such a significant part of Napoleon’s anatomy could have been cut off without anyone noticing and eventually saying something about it.

With thanks to Paul Maney, whose favourite Napoleon myths inspired this article.

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  1. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 4, Part 7 (London, 1823), pp. 250-255.
  2. A. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Volume I (London, 1884), p. 222.
  3. Paul Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt (New York, 2007), p. 140.
  4. “The Princess Caraboo,” Milwaukee Daily Journal, May 13, 1884.
  5. Michael Sibalis, “Conspiracy on St. Helena? (Mis)remembering Napoleon’s Exile,” French History and Civilization, Vol. 4, January 2011, p. 96.
  6. See UT Southwestern Medical Center. “Napoleon’s Mysterious Death Unmasked.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 January 2007. sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070116131630.htm and Alessandro Lugli et al., “Napoleon Bonaparte’s gastric cancer: a clinicopathologic approach to staging, pathogenesis, and etiology,” Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Vol. 4 (2007), pp. 52-57. http://www.nature.com/nrgastro/journal/v4/n1/full/ncpgasthep0684.html See also J. Thomas Hindmarsh and John Savory, “The Death of Napoleon, Cancer or Arsenic?” Clinical Chemistry, Vol. 54, No. 12 (December 2008), pp. 2092-2093. http://www.clinchem.org/content/54/12/2092.full For a study of Napoleon’s case presented as a modern clinicopathologic conference, see Robert E. Gosselin, “Exhuming Bonaparte,” Dartmouth Medicine, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring 2003), pp. 38-47, 61.
  7. Description of the Vignali Collection of Relics of Napoleon (Philadelphia and New York, 1924), p. 5.
  8. “Souvenirs de Saint-Denis dit ali Second Mameluck de l’Empereur; V – La Mort et les Funérailles de l’Empereur,” Revue Des Deux Mondes, Vol. 65, No. 5 (September-October 1921), p. 40.

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Napoleon intimated to Sir Hudson his determination to apply to the Pope for a dispensation to dissolve his marriage with Maria Louisa, and to sanction his indissoluble union with the enchanting Caraboo.

Bristol Journal