How Did Napoleon Become Emperor?

Feb 9, 2023 | Aristocracy, Emporers, France, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

The stories of Emperors throughout the ages are often tales of royal birth, esteemed noble lineage, and inherited wealth and power. This is perhaps what makes the story of Napoleon Bonaparte all the more captivating and historic. 

The whole world loves a rags-to-riches tale, and the story of a fatherless young Corsican soldier rising to become the self-proclaimed emperor of the French makes for a fascinating narrative – particularly in the wake of the bitter anti-royalist battles of France’s infamous Revolution.

The life and times of Napoleon entranced the historians and lay folk of the period and have continued to capture the public’s imagination ever since. 

The astonishing story of the Napoleonic Era and the remarkable character at the centre of it all still appeals to history lovers around the world – so much so that a new Ridley Scott film documenting his life story, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirkby, is set to be a box office hit.

But who was this complex and intriguing military powerhouse? Where did he come from? What force was driving his relentless ambition? How did he rise to become Emperor of France? And how did his mesmerising story end? 

Where Did Napoleon Bonaparte Come From? 

Napoleon’s origins reflect a curious mix of revolution and conflict that would echo throughout his life. 

He was born in Corsica, which had endured a history of power struggles between the Republic of Genoa and the Kingdom of France. While Napoleon’s parents were Genoese, by the time of his birth, Corsica had been annexed by France and Napoleon would be born as a French national, a detail of timing that would go on to play a key role in his life. 

Napoleon moved to mainland France as a child and embarked on his military education, albeit with shifting loyalties – he was at times in favour of Corsican Independence and later a staunch supporter of the French Revolution. 

Though he endured a troubled childhood, reportedly bullied for his appearance, accent and academic shortcomings, Napoleon became a devoted student of military history, becoming obsessed with the great martial legends and warriors of the ages. 

While his childhood and teens may not have been the happiest years, they no doubt paved the way for the character that would rise to imperial status, govern the whole of France, and change the face of Europe forever. 

How Did Napoleon Rise To Power? 

Napoleon Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to power has baffled historians for centuries. From relatively unremarkable origins as a young soldier in the French Army, Napoleon embarked on a path of relentless ambition that saw him achieve victory after victory in the battlefield until he became the adored leader of the entire nation. 

His military endeavours became the stuff of legend as he rose through the ranks and played a key role in restoring peace to the French nation after the horrors of The Revolution. 

Once he had proven his skill as a military leader on French soil, Napoleon embarked on a number of foreign campaigns, driven by an ambition to expand the power and influence of France throughout Europe. 

Bonaparte during the Italian campaign in 1797

Bonaparte during the Italian campaign in 1797 – Nicolas-Antoine Taunay (1755-1830), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As he made a name as a conquering hero, Napoleon was lauded throughout all of France and heralded as its new political leader.

Napoleon, tired of the excesses, anarchy and discord of the French Revolution and the power of the remaining Jacobins, plotted the downfall of the Directory.

  1. He gave a coup d’etat with the support of the army and conservative landowners and politicians.
  2. The seizure of political power occurred the 9 November of 1799, the 18th of Brumaire, according to the French Republican calendar system.
  3. He created a New Political System called “The Consulate”. It was not designed to last, only to facilitate the ascension of Napoleon.
  4. This brief “Consulate” was a masterpiece of political engineering, and made possible the transition to a Monarchy.
  5. Napoleon became the First Consul of France, and leader of this new “Triumvirate”.
  6. The Church, anointing him as Emperor in the name of God, backed in fact the Coronation of Napoleon.
  7. After a period of conspiracy, he was crowned as emperor in Paris, in the presence of Pope Pious VII, in the cathedral of Notre Dame, in December 2, 1804, in a lavish coronation ceremony in Latin. This moment was immortalized by the famous imperial painter Jacques-Louis David.
  8. Emperor Napoleon, in need of legitimacy, created an Imperial Aristocracy and a Senate with Peers. In fact, a brand new nobility happened to dominate France again.
  9. It is remarkable that a former revolutionary became a monarch and obtained a crown and a throne for himself, becoming a new “Charlemagne”, and a de facto “dictator”.
  10. Napoleon reshaped Europe with the help of Talleyrand, the former Bishop of Autun, being instrumental in the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and the Conquest of Italy.
  11. Some consider him as an early example of totalitarianism. In fact, some new historians have even compared him with Adolf Hitler.
  12. In the end, Napoleon failed to implement his utopian dreams. He is famous however for his unquenchable thirst for power and for the legacy of a very influential bureaucracy, and the important Napoleonic Code, which was extremely influential in many countries.

What Happened To Napoleon Bonaparte? 

Perhaps almost as captivating as his rise to power was Napoleon’s legendary abdication and fall from grace. 

After years of a relentless pursuit of power and territory throughout Europe, a period known in history as the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon ultimately overstretched his reach and became a victim of his own ambition. After an ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon was defeated and the decline of his power and rule had begun. 

He was initially exiled to Elba, yet many suspected this would not be the end of the story of Napoleon Bonaparte. They were right. He escaped from exile and returned to lead one last valiant dash for glory, only to be defeated once more. This final battle – the infamous Battle of Waterloo – would seal Napoleon’s fate and he was exiled once again, this time to a remote island in the South Atlantic called St Helena. 

The once-great Emperor of France would live the rest of his days exiled from the nation he had fought so passionately to support. Although his former wife and empress Josephine would petition to join him, Napoleon remained cut off from his family on his island prison, spending his days writing dramatic accounts of his life and adventures. 

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on St Helena in 1821 at the age of 51. Though he may have failed in his ultimate vision for France, one consolation was a son and heir from his second wife, the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise. Though his son would bear his historic name, he would not become the successor or military champion that had been the enduring hope of Napoleon’s life. 

The life and legend of Napoleon Bonaparte is, on the surface, a common story in the history books – an unlikely hero rises to power and then falls from grace. Yet the details of Napoleon’s life story reveal an astonishing path that is rare among military success stories or sovereign conquerors. 

His achievements and popularity as a self-proclaimed Emperor are even more surprising against the backdrop of the French Revolution and its violent social shifts toward a more egalitarian rule and away from royalist traditions. 

Perhaps this contrast is what lends the story of Napoleon its captivating air of legend and almost mythical status. 

Whatever the appeal of this rare and complex character, one thing is clear – the story of Napoleon endures centuries after his rise to power and continues to captivate modern audiences around the world.

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