Di Taylor – Napoleon Bonaparte

Michael Fowler:  Thank you for coming tonight. We’re having about once a year a wildcard speaker, and tonight we’re going to be having Di Taylor to talk about Napoleon. So welcome to Di.

Di: This is an enormous period. Napoleon was born in 1769 and he died in 1821 so that’s fifty years, and it is probably some of the most memorable fifty years in the whole of the world history … perhaps not so much as between 1910 and 1960, perhaps, but it still was pretty memorable. And one of the things that makes it memorable for me is the actual effect Napoleon had on the world. And I’ve got a lot of books here from my library which I’ll reference to in various parts, and if you’re interested in not necessarily Napoleon himself, but the Napoleonic era, there are some books that are really quite handy to have.

 [Shows and discusses slides] 

Okay, here he is. He was crowned emperor … crowned himself in 1802-3. So here we go. I’ve given you some quotes, and I’ve also given you a map of the world at the time – well, a map of Europe at the time … what am I saying? And I’ve also given you the family, because one of the things he did was he made all of his brothers and sisters Kings and Queens, which would be a useful sort of thing to be able to do.

Okay – so what can you say about the one of the greatest men that ever lived? Now at this moment in time, I do not want any dissent on this – even if you even feel it, don’t tell me. You can tell me afterwards.

A man who came from nowhere, the second son of a poor family living on the outskirts of France, with neither connections, family, or money, who rose entirely by his own efforts to the position not only of ruler of his own country, but also for a period of over ten years, the ruler of most of Europe as well. The French Revolution made him, and we’ll have a little bit on that for you shortly. He was fortunate … indeed very lucky … to come of age after the Reign of Terror, at a time when the French people were sickened by the excesses of the various factions and looking for a period of stability under a strong leader. He believed all his life in what he called his ‘star’, which was really his genius at being in the right place at the right time during his rise to power. We can argue it was luck, but it takes a very clever personality to make the most of opportunities that came his way.

When he sold Louisiana to the Americans he gave them room to expand in their country, laying the foundations for the rise of the United States. He gave the French nation a code of law by which they still live, and set up a system of districts and magistrates, which is the way that local government still works today in France.

He was one of the greatest military leaders the world has known. Arguments still rage over the merits of Caesar, Alexander, and Napoleon, but many military men consider Napoleon to be the greatest of these. He was always very forward thinking – when he went to Egypt he took with the troops the very first expedition ever to look at the history and culture of another country in a scientific way. And of course it was the French that found the Rosetta Stone, and it was a Frenchman that deciphered it.

Many people see him only as a power-mad megalomaniac … don’t you tell me that! … who caused both the rise and the fall of France, but you have to remember that the countries surrounding France – Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain – all declared war on the French Revolution Republic long before Napoleon became its ruler. The Declaration of The Rights of Man and the rise of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, were anathema to the monarchies and the rule of aristocracy in the surrounding countries, because of the fears that their own people could do the same.

Now how I came to be passionate about Napoleon, and I’m sure this relates to lots of you as well … I read a book in my teenage years which opened my eyes to his magnificence.

[Inaudible] … called ‘Désirée’, which is a novel of a lady who was actually Napoleon’s fiancée, and lost him when he went to Paris and met Joséphine. And she actually in real life ended up marrying the King of Sweden, so she didn’t do too badly, although she didn’t like Sweden very much. And that made me really interested in Napoleon. It was actually made into a movie at the time and Marlon Brando played Napoleon, and I have to say he looked very much like him. And as I go through, I will point out a couple of the books that fit into the different periods. You have to realise, too, Jane Austen wrote at this period – not that she wrote a lot about the Army or anything to do with Napoleon, but lots of the women in her books are interested in military men.

Since Christmas I’ve been reading on and off a very interesting cultural history of the past five hundred years of western civilisation, which actually belongs to my daughter. And this is the … [inaudible] … this is a very interesting book, because it gives you almost a revisionist account of the history of Western Europe. And I’ve got some quotes which I have given you, because the first one in particular I think, explains exactly why Napoleon was so successful; what sort of a person he was.

Now, we’re just talking about what happened with the French Revolution. You have to realise that the French Revolution was one of the seminal events in the history of the world, in that it’s the very first time that the ordinary, everyday person … and I really mean man, unfortunately, not woman … had a vote or had some say in the way a country was run. Even though the English had had their revolution and their civil war, it was still men of property that were in Parliament, where the French Revolution gave the everyday person … So:

“When the French Revolution occurred there ensued a chaotic time of regimes and violence that lasted for a quarter of a century. The first span, five years long, may be divided into two parts. During the first three and a half years, an attempt was made to liberise [liberalise] the monarchy and modernise the country. And the next eighteen months, which was the Reign of Terror, dictatorship carried on terror at home and war abroad. Then came an interim of relative freedom, five years of successful war that brought Napoleon to the fore, and then a return to dictatorship under him as a Consort and Emperor for a decade and a half war, unabating.

“The men and ideas that produced this cascade of outcomes are many and cannot be given individual notice here. But one condition of cultural import can be suggested. The men who came to lead factions or gain power, for a time lacked mature political talent. To govern well” – and I think of our own government – “requires two distinctive kinds of ability. You need political skill and you need the administrative mind. Both are very rare, either in combination or separately. The former depends on sensing what can be done at what moment, and how to move others to want it. Anyone who has served open-eyed on a committee knows how many good ideas are proposed by well-meaning members that could not be possibly be carried out, because what is proposed consists only of results, with no means in sight for getting from here to there. After serving on a local government body, Bernard Shaw guessed that perhaps five per cent of mankind possessed true political ability. But one can be a true politico and be at the same time incapable of administration. To administer is to keep order in a situation that continually tends to disorder. In running any organisation, both people and things have to kept straight from day to day, otherwise workable ideas will not work. So more than talent, genius is required to set up a national system of administration. Napoleon’s success at home and abroad was due to this gift, as much as his art of commanding Armies.”

So that’s one of the things you have to remember – that not only was he the premier military person who ran all of the Armies, he also ran every single thing that happened in France at the same time. And as he moved into other countries and took over the administration in those countries, he kept all of those reins of power in his hands.

“He worked eighteen hours a day. He was one of those people that needs about four hours’ sleep. When they did a dissection on him after he died, for his size” – and he was only small – sometimes I think that’s one of the reasons I really liked him; he was five foot five inches high – “is that he had an enormous pair of lungs, and so he obviously had a tremendous capacity to draw oxygen in to feed his brain with all that oxygen.” So you know, he was an outstanding figure.

There you have in a couple of paragraphs, the characteristics possessed by Napoleon that made him such a great man. However, to keep all the balls in the air wore him out. He delegated very little in war and in administration, and certainly no one was capable of succeeding him.

The second quotation from the same book is taken from Stendhal, who wrote ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ which talked about Napoleon, and ‘The Scarlet and the Black’:

“I feel a kind of religious sentiment as I dare to write the first sentence of a history of Napoleon. It deals with the greatest man since Caesar. His superiority lay entirely in his way of finding new ideas with incredible speed, of judging men with complete rationality, and of carrying them out with a world power that has never been equalled.”

And you’ve got to remember that he was a tremendously determined person, and he had charisma, and he could make people do what he wanted them to do.

[Shows photo] “And I think part of my fascination with him is the idea is – where did he come from? And this is the same of any great people, or geniuses, is what combination of genes causes such an incredible personality like this? In the argument ‘Nature versus Nurture’, neither can explain this genius. There was nothing in his poor, lonely upbringing to suggest it, and certainly nothing in his antecedents or immediate family to encourage its development. Most of his seven brothers and sisters became rulers of the countries he’d conquered, but that was entirely due to his exertions and not to theirs.”

And the very last quotation is from Beethoven, arguably the greatest composer that ever lived, and what he said was, “Napoleon understood the spirit of the times. As a German” … because Prussia was the main German country at the time … “I have been his greatest enemy, but actual conditions have reconciled me to him. He understood art and science and hated ignorance”.

Actually Beethoven dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Napoleon, but once Napoleon crowned himself Beethoven was really angry, because he saw him as a revolutionary and someone who had given in. So [chuckle] you know, he took the dedication off it.

So during this session we will look at Napoleon’s life and time, detailing his military successes and failures, and also looking at him as a man. I’ll also try and talk a bit about the fantastic personalities that surrounded him – either his allies or his enemies – and of his wonderful grand Army.

And one of the gentleman attending has just brought an authentic Napoleonic drum of the period – not necessarily belonging to Napoleon of course, but of that period – and I was really pleased to see it.

So this is one of the most effective Armies ever raised, led by officers chosen on merit, and you’ve got to remember, all at the same time. The English Army and certainly most of the other Armies were officered by people who bought their commissions … didn’t matter if they had any training or not. And it fought time and time all over Europe by soldiers who were treated as people, who believed ardently in what they were doing and in their ‘Little Corporal’, and who led the way for the peoples of the world to achieve ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,’ which is the slogan.

Okay. [Inaudible] Remember, no photographs in these times, so you’re basically seeing paintings and drawings of people at the time. And as he became more famous and more in control of everything, the paintings became more and more propaganda-ish. So this is him [shows slide] – he was small and slight, with lank hair, and he was born in Corsica. [Inaudible] Now Corsica had for a very long time belonged to Italy, and only [in] the last two or three years before Napoleon was born did it become French. And in lots of ways his character was more Italian than French, especially the way he looked after his family.

So he was born on the 15th of August – one of my best friends has got that birthday, and she doesn’t even care! I feel really cross about that, ‘cause I would love to be born on that day – 1769. He was the second son – you’ll find there’s a whole family tree there. His father was a lawyer; his mother came from a family of soldiers. He went to local schools, and taught by the nuns and Jesuits, and then was sent in 1779 when he was ten, to a place called Brienne in the north of France where he went to military college. He was extremely good at maths and he was always destined for the artillery.

Now, even though in all Armies at the time – and this includes the French Army, ‘cause remember this is before the Revolution – people did choose people of talent to run the artillery, ‘cause that’s shooting the big guns. So if you were stupid, you weren’t considered to be able to … you could lead regiments and even the Army, but you couldn’t run the guns. So the guns have always been done by people who actually had talent. And it was the same in the England as well.

He went off to the École Militaire, which is a military college in Paris, in 1784, and then his father died in 1785. And it’s generally considered that his father … well, they thought his father died of cancer of the stomach. And that left this family, which at that time was four sons and three daughters, with no money, and Joseph, the oldest son, who was a nonenity [nonentity] really when compared with Napoleon, was studying law at the time. So Napoleon decided that he would have to get through these classes much more quickly than usual. He studied very hard, he read everything he could lay his hands on, and he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1785, so he basically got through about three years’ worth of study in about a year. And when he was sixteen he was sent off to the artillery [?].

He also became quite involved in Corsican politics, and was actually sent, more or less, from Corsica, because the person he supported didn’t win. So he was ‘persona non grata’, and had to go back to Marseille where he took all his family.  Now the family were pretty grotty really – none of them were particularly clever or careful or good … which is my daughter and I’s  [daughter’s and my]  standard for people. And they really were a drag on him for the rest of his life, but … you know, he was very much involved with family.

Okay, so the thing that first came to his attention – now remember the French Revolution started in 1789. Now there are lots of reasons for the French Revolution and I won’t bore you with all of them, but mostly … there was  [were]  two main things:

One, the Enlightenment. There was  [were]  lots of scientific discoveries in the world, and people were becoming much more happy with the idea that God wasn’t the centre of the world; the world wasn’t the centre of the universe; the sun was the centre of the universe, and the people were really important.

And secondly, France was so, so badly off. They had the First Estate, which is the aristocracy; the Second Estate, which is the Church, and neither of them paid taxes. The only people who paid taxes were the peasants and the middle class, such as it was. And so they were just loaded up – they had this terrible system of tax farming, where the Royalty would give out to people the opportunity to collect taxes on their behalf. And there was taxes on everything – salt, and windows, and land, and bread, and everything.

And then because France and England have always been at war – ‘cept lately – they had supported the American Revolution with money and men … to get back at England really as much as anything, ‘cause remember, they’d lost Quebec … so that they were just drowning amongst no money at all. And the King, who didn’t think anything of the populace – that’s not a true story about Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake” – but they were very much at that level, they didn’t really care what was happening to the people – had to call Parliament because he could no longer govern without any money. And once he did, then the Revolution started after that.

Now  [inaudible]  … three years while they tried to get a constitution together.  [Shows slide]  This is the group of them all together, the whole of the Estates, and what they call National Assembly – it’s still called National Assembly. I have to tell you, that’s where the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ came from – the left were the more radical people; the right were the more conservative, and it began at that time, calling them the left and the right and the centre. And they did try to make the King like the English King … a constitutional monarch … and he wouldn’t have a bar of it. And his mad wife encouraged him to stand up to them. And then they decided to leave France, they fled from France – Louis and Marie Antoinette – and were caught and dragged back, by which time the Revolution was taken over by people like Robespierre, and you had that eighteen months when all the aristocracy had their heads cut off.

And at the time there was [were] all the Armies trying to get into France, and Napoleon was leading a group down Toulon … God alone knows if that’s how you say it, but … on the south coast where the English were fighting to get back onto the fort. And he managed to fight them off with his guns, and that’s where he made his name, basically, at Toulon.

[Shows slide] Now this is, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive picture from the French Revolution … this is the ‘Death of Marat’ by a person called David. And he was one of the revolutionaries who was stabbed in his bath, ‘cause he had a really particularly nasty type of eczema, and he was always taking baths. And he was stabbed in his bath by a woman who was a supporter of the Royalists’ cause.

And it was a terribly difficult time to be ambitious in the Revolution, ‘cause you never knew who was going to get it next, really. And Robespierre was guillotined as well, even though, you know, he started off by certainly being the person who was in charge of it for quite some time. And Napoleon wrote a paper about Robespierre, and once Robespierre fell, then Napoleon was thrown into jail, but he managed to talk his way out of it, more or less, after a couple of weeks.

[Shows slide] This is him looking very tall, dashing and – he’s not that tall – and young and eager. Now remember, he’s just past twenty – twenty-one, twenty-two. He goes back to Paris. Now this is the time he meets Joséphine – he’s sort of engaged to Désirée back there in Marseille – he goes to Paris, and Paris is frenetic. They’ve got rid of the worst of the terror; they’ve got a Directory and they’ve got four or five men in charge of it, one of whom is a character called Paul Barras. And Joséphine is Paul’s mistress. And … took me a hell of a job to try and find a picture of this – this is out of a child’s book, and that’s Napoleon with the nose, in the middle. [Shows slide]

And he’s in Paris under the spell of Joséphine, and there comes another group of Royalists that are trying to get back into power, and this is called ‘The Whiff of Grapeshot’. Barras went to Napoleon and said, “What can we do about it?” They got some guns – him and one of his later on Marshals called Marat – and they got the guns and they shot the people. And it made Napoleon’s name, really, with the people who were in charge.

[Shows slide] Now this is one of the most [inaudible] … six years older than Napoleon, and she had a very, very chequered career. She was born in Martinique – she was called ‘the Creole’, because she was born in the West Indies. They weren’t particularly successful or rich – her father was … well, he was an aristocrat really, but he had a sugar plantation. She met this guy who was her cousin, Beauharnais, and they were married and she went back to France with him, and she had two children, Hortense and Eugène. And Alexandre, because he was an aristocrat, was taken to prison, and ended up by having his head chopped off on the 24th July. And just after that was when Robespierre fell and had his head chopped off.

And so Joséphine managed to get out of jail, so she escaped the guillotine. She became good friends with the wife of one of the Directors, and then she became the mistress of Paul Barras. She had met Napoleon, who was by that time General of the Army of the Interior. He had a huge, meteoric rise. There were several different Armies; this was the Army that was charged with looking after Paris and the inside of France. All weapons had to be surrendered, and so Joséphine sent Eugène along with a sword to the office, and moved by the boy, Napoleon said he could keep the sword. And then later Joséphine called to thank the General for her [his] kindness to her son.

It is not hard to imagine this meeting between the revolutionary soldier and the former Viscountess. Joséphine, radiant in her social position, was mistress of the art of charm. Bonaparte was pale, thin, awkward, and careless of his appearance, with lank hair reaching to his shoulders, wearing ill-fitting boots and wretched clothes. He fell passionately in love with her. If you’ve ever read any of the love letters that they … well, he sent her … she wasn’t in love with him at this particular time. They saw great deal of each other in the later months of 1795, and Napoleon became more and more besotted with her. Barras had grown tired of her and was quite happy to sort of move her on to Napoleon.

The banns for the wedding were issued in February 1796, and Napoleon was appointed to be the General of the Army of Italy on March 2nd. He was determined to marry before leaving, and so the contract for the marriage was signed on the 8th March and the civil ceremony took place on 9th. Napoleon overstated his age by two years and Joséphine reduced her years by four, so they both appeared to be twenty-eight. No members of either family were present. After the wedding, Napoleon decided he would call her Joséphine because before that she was called Rose, and Joséphine was one of her … third or fourth names. And the couple returned to the house where Joséphine’s dog, Fortune, awaited. Legend has it that the dog wanted to share the marriage bed and bit Napoleon on the leg when he kicked it out. The next day they visited the children at school and then he went off to Italy.

Now while he was in Italy fighting these incredible battles … now he’s twenty-six, and these are some of the most famous battles in his career. He had a smallish Army that was ill-equipped and very badly in morale, and he managed with his force of personality just about alone, to take a lot of those northern Italian states. And he fought his way through them and started sending stuff back to Paris, which is now in the Louvre. And we’re talking about ‘Mona Lisa’ – sorry, my memory’s going – and those sorts of things came back to Paris. One of the things he actually sent back to Paris when he got Venice … it wasn’t quite yet, but didn’t bother later on … was the ‘Four Horses’ that sit on Saint Mark’s. And for quite some time they were in Paris, ‘til after his fall. So he was great at sort of … and he of course sent back a lot of money as well, so the Directors were very, very pleased with him.

[Inaudible; shows slide, refers to Joséphine] … romance with another soldier, Hippolyte … Hippolyte Charles, his name was. And Napoleon kept on writing to her and saying all these things – how much he loved her, and how much he wanted her to come – and half of the time she never even replied. [Inaudible]

Okay, so they had the victories in Italy. He sued … without any direction from the Directory at all, he sued for peace with the Austrians, ‘cause the Austrians actually controlled the larger part of Italy … and came back to Paris. And he was famous and well-known; he’d provided them with a lot of money, he was successful, and everybody likes a winner, don’t they, really?

So he then … he looked at invading England, but Napoleon never, ever understood the sea, you know, he was never interested in Navies – Armies were everything, and he never really realised just how good the British Navy was. And so if he had to invade England he had to get through the British Navy, and there was no way he could do that.

So he gave up the idea, but thought he might try and attack them through Egypt and then India. So he decided to go off to Egypt, and this is the Egyptian campaign. [Shows slide] This is the same book with the French soldiers. And I’ve actually been to Egypt and I’ve seen … you know, they carved their names on some of the tombs and things like that, in Egypt. He, as I said, took along scientists. They discovered lots of things – they dug the Sphinx out of the sand, ‘cause The Sphinx was almost covered by sand, and they found a great deal about it, and the Rosetta Stone as well.

Unfortunately … for those of you who know Naval history, Nelson attacked the British [French and Spanish] Navy [Navies] and defeated them … and Napoleon realised that he was going to be stuck in Egypt if he couldn’t get back to France, so he sort of left his Army, which unfortunately he did quite a few times, and went back to Paris. And back in Paris, where everybody still thought he was absolutely wonderful, there was a time of … [Inaudible]

One of the things that the French government – and I’ve got a nephew who’s in the New Zealand Army, an Officer in the New Zealand Army – and one of the things he said was that the thing that came out of the French Revolution … and then these Napoleonic battles … was what they called, you know, “total war.” For everybody. Up until this period of time, and in lots of the other countries, war was fought by the Armies who were paid, and that was a profession for them – not necessarily for the ordinary working soldier, but certainly for the Officers – and it was a thing apart from the country, where in France, everybody between the ages of eighteen and say, thirty-six, was called up to the Army. You know, they were fighting for the revolution, for the fact that they were free from aristocrats. A lot of the Church funds and the Church lands had come to the ordinary people and they didn’t want to give them up.

[Inaudible] The fact that the people knew the Army was behind them and actually taking control of the government, he went along to the National Assembly. He became what’s called the First Consul. They decided they would then appoint three consuls – Napoleon was the first one, and really, he was the only one that mattered. And once he had that sort of power he then made all of these changes.

He sorted out the educational system, and if you’ve read the paper recently, the French educational system that they use now is the one that he developed. They sorted out all the laws; he sorted out all these different Departments with the Prefects in each of the Departments. And so he had this huge capacity for organising society as well.

He was still the serving soldier; he was still in charge of the Army. And the Austrians … none of these people ever stayed down, you know – you made a treaty with them, but they – everybody wants to be free. Nobody wants to be run by another country. And so off he goes, over the passes of the Alps, and takes … falls on Austria again … beats Austria again. And this is the period that he actually takes over Venice and frees Venice from the rule of the Austrians.

[Shows slide] This is what one of the painters – I think it was David again – painted him as, as this heroic person going over … and this is quite a famous picture, and – actually, that’s really what it was like. He was really on a donkey – I mean he was no horseman. You know, he had these dramatic-looking pictures, but he spent a lot of his time campaigning in a special carriage that was like an office. And he had this … you know, secretaries came – he had three secretaries in any one time, just came in and out of the carriage while he was dictating things.

Now, one of the things he did in that period of time too, was he made a whole group of Marshals. Altogether there was [were] twenty-six Marshals. I’ve given you a list of the Marshals there. Now, when you look at the Armies of England or Russia, Prussia or Austria—all the senior soldiers are people who come from good families, or the ruling families, where these people were … fathers were coopers and bakers and … So the Army was a place where, if you had talent you would come to the top. And the Marshals were a type of noble who Napoleon felt the country needed – that he would reward people. And they were given titles, like the Duke of this and the Prince of that, which didn’t last the past the end of Napoleon’s reign, nearly. And they became quite powerful, and some of them are more interesting than the others.

[Shows slide] This is the one I like the very, very most – this is Michel Ney – he was the ‘The Bravest of the Brave’, that’s what his name was. He wasn’t very clever, in fact, he was a relatively … not stupid but he certainly wasn’t particularly smart, but he was [an] extremely good soldier and he was tremendously brave. And he was in charge of the Rear Guard when they came out of Russia. And once you’d been through that … never be the same again.

[Shows slide] This is Murat, the gentleman who was a friend of Napoleon right from the word ‘go’. He was the premier Cavalryman, which is what he’s wearing – he’s wearing a Hussars’ uniform, the short uniform with all the frogs across the front. He was incredibly ambitious. He married one of Napoleon’s sisters, and Napoleon made him the King of Naples. And when Napoleon fell, Murat … they didn’t want to fall really, they would’ve like to keep on being the King and Queen of Naples, but they got put up against a wall and shot.

[Shows slide] This is one is Berthier. Now Berthier’s not one of the most popular ones, or one that everyone knows, but this is the man who was Napoleon’s Chief of Staff over the whole period of the time – right from when he first started fighting in 1796, right through to the Battle of Waterloo. And he was absolutely indispensable, so he’s one of these back-room people that actually do a huge amount of the work, and he’s one of my particular favourites. There are lots of other that got killed on active service, or at the end when Napoleon was banished. They made their peace with the Royals that came back – Louis XVIII – and stayed in charge of the Army. But different people, and I’ll tell you what happened to Michel Ney very shortly.

Okay. And he decided that he was going to be the Emperor. He’d done a huge amount of reading on ancient Rome and Greece – you know, the classical period, and he felt that this is what he was aiming for – a democracy – without women voters. And they needed to have this figurehead. And this was the one thing that really set the revolutionaries against him – this is the thing that set Beethoven against him. ‘Cause they believed he was, as they were – that he didn’t really want to take the baubles of Office – he was in it for you know, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. But he felt that this was something that would make him more successful and more popular, and generally more in control of the country, although he was pretty much in control of it. It is excessively famous because he managed to make the Pope … because he’d reconciled himself with the Catholics – the French of course were all Catholics, and during the Revolution they had stopped practising religion … and he managed to get the Pope to come to Paris, ostensibly to crown him in Notre Dame, but at the very last moment he crowned himself. He had this extraordinary mother who’d had all these children. She never believed any of it would last – any money she got she hung onto like grim death. And she was right, of course, you know …

At this time he’d beaten Austria, he’d beaten Prussia and he’d beaten Russia. One of the great battles was the battle of Austerlitz. And that’s probably the most famous battle that he fought, the one that was fought in a way that they study at military colleges still. And it’s one of the battles that’s in the book called ‘War and Peace’, and ‘War and Peace’ is generally considered … and not just by me, but by people better than me … as one of the greatest, or the greatest novel that’s ever been written. Hands up, who’s ever read it? It’s actually very good – it’s much better than you think.

[Shows book] Jane gave me this to me when I went around Russia, and it’s a … you know, small volume and very thin pages, and I actually enjoyed it very much. And that’s about the battle of Austerlitz. It’s the first battle, and when Pierre becomes involved in the Army in the Battle of Borodino, which is the battle that took place in Russia. At this particular time he’d beaten everybody. The only people he hadn’t beaten were the English because they were across the water. And the English were madly trying to pay … give money to the different countries to keep on fighting him. So that’s how they were against him.

At that time, he put his brothers on various thrones. First of all, Joseph became the King of Naples before Murat was. Louis, who had married Hortense who was Josephine’s daughter, remember? Probably don’t – became the King of Holland, and they were the parents of Napoleon III, the one who came into power in the 1850s. His step-son Eugène, who’d married a Princess, became the Viceroy of Italy. I like Eugène very much because he remained loyal to Napoleon right to the end. And Jérôme, who was the youngest son who was the spoilt one, became the king of Württemberg, which is one of the German provinces. The only brother who didn’t get anything was Lucien and they had a really bad argument and he wasn’t particularly happy with him. And the three sisters were given various things as well.

And one of the things he decided that he would have to do is to bring England to its knees. And Napoleon was the person who said, “The English are a nation of shopkeepers” – that he would have to cut off trade with England and the rest of the Continent. So he started what’s called the Continental Blockade.

He won the Battle of Jena, which took the Prussians out of the war. He won the Battle of Austerlitz, took Russia out of the war, and at that stage he was basically in charge. And he decided to meet the Emperor Alexander, who was Alexander I of Russia, on a bridge in the river [shows slide] – that’s a barge – in the river at a place called Tilsit, which you’ll find on your map right across there in Poland. And the two of them made peace, and decided that basically they’d split Poland between the two of them. The Polish had hoped like mad that they would get their own country out of it, but they didn’t.

Now one of the things that happened – he met this famous Countess who was trying to persuade him to make Poland free, named Marie Walewska, and he had an affair with her. By this time he wasn’t quite so passionately in love with Joséphine. And they had a baby … Marie Walewska had a baby … so it actually proved to him that because they hadn’t had any children together, it wasn’t his fault, it was Joséphine’s fault. And Joséphine had had two children, so she considered it wasn’t her fault. But she’d had lots of abortions and things like that since then, so she was the reason he was unable to get an heir. So this just put in his mind that, you know – perhaps he should get rid of Joséphine.

All right. Now the other thing that was going on that was the … I mean, this is what I’m trying to say to you – there are enough going on at this period to have millions of books. This is a whole group of [inaudible] … by a guy called Richard Sharpe. It’s been on television … Sean Penn, the thinking women’s crumpet, as Richard Sharpe. And they are really impressive.

And the Peninsular War in itself is a particularly interesting time. [Inaudible] … talk to the Duke of Wellington. That’s by Goya [shows slide] – The Duke of Wellington. [Inaudible] … Sir John Moore in the Battle of Corunna. Napoleon defeated him and chased him out of Spain, but then he had to dash off [inaudible] … and so the Duke of Wellington, who at that time was the Marquess of Wellesley, came to Spain and with a small group, came to Portugal. And over the next … suppose four or five … six years, fought his way through Spain and back into France. So there was a lot going on in the Peninsula as well.

The Battle of Corunna was … [inaudible] … must’ve learnt it at school:

‘The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna’

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
Over the grave where our hero we hurried

We buried him darkly at dead of night
The sods with our bayonets turning
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light
And the lantern dimly burning

No useless coffin enclosed his breast
Not in a sheet or a shroud we wound him
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him

Few and short were the prayers we said
And we spoke not a word of sorrow
But we steadfastly gazed at the face that was dead
And we bitterly thought of tomorrow

And it goes on like that.  And the last one:

Slowly and sadly we laid him down
From the field of his fame fresh and gory
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone
But we left him alone with his glory

And that was written actually at the time of the death of John Moore.  The thing about that, it shows that the Spanish hated Napoleon, hated the French, and they were determined to get rid of them. So that’s where the guerrilla war first started. And so the Spanish people themselves actually rose against – not in the way of the Army, although there was Army fighting alongside the Duke of Wellington – the Spanish Army – but ordinary people. And when you think about the long lines that you have to go … any of you ever been to Spain? It’s a big, big country. There’s long lines to take the provisions across to the Army, and all the way they were fighting off the guerrillas

[Shows painting] And this is one of the most famous paintings, and this is some of the guerrillas being shot by the French. And that is in The Prado, and it’s magnificent.

All right. So … [inaudible] with that going on in the period in the Peninsula.

And then they had the Battle of Wagram, which is this one here [shows slide] which was the Austrians trying again, and Napoleon beat them again. And he made advances to Metternich, who was one of the famous people that worked in Austria – he was the Austrian Foreign Minister – he either could marry one of the Archbishop Joseph’s daughter[s], so he married Marie Louise – divorced Joséphine. Joséphine had a fit … cried and screamed and yelled and … and he didn’t really … he really loved her. [Sigh] But for dynastic purposes he was desperate to have a son, so he divorced Joséphine and he married Marie Louise, who at the time was about eighteen. And he would’ve been forty … forty-two, something like that.

All right. And lo and behold, nine months to the day later, they had a baby, who was then christened the King of Rome. Poor little boy was taken by his mother when Napoleon went to Saint Helena, and grew up in Austria and died at twenty-one of TB, [tuberculosis] which was particularly common at the time.

All right … so we’re back in the Peninsula for the Battle of Salamanca, the Battle of Vittoria. Wellington was becoming more and more powerful, and he was moving into the South of France. And before that, Napoleon, for some unknown reason … no, because Alexander of Russia was not really taking a great deal of notice of the Continental Blockade – he was trying still to trade with England – so Napoleon decided he was going to invade Russia, which is one of the [most] foolish decisions you can ever make.

And so off he goes to Russia. Now this is a fantastic story on its own. And there’s a whole book on pictures that one of the soldiers [inaudible] … The fact that [inaudible] … was six hundred thousand men, the biggest Army they’d ever seen at the time. It was composed of Frenchmen and from all the various countries that he’d conquered, so there were Austrians, and Prussians, and various German States, and Italians, all in this Army, and off they went. Now remember, everybody used horses, so we’re looking at heaps and heaps and heaps of forage. And the whole thing was a gay adventure. And it started on the 22nd June, which is almost the same time as Hitler decided to invade – that time of the year, because they think ‘there’s a long time to winter.’ But unfortunately winter comes quite early sometimes in Russia.

So they fought their way through Russia and their main battle was the Battle of Borodino, which is also in ‘War and Peace’, and it was a stalemate, really, neither side won. But the thing about the Russians – the Russians just melted away, went back into this huge country, back to Moscow, even on the other side of Moscow, and Napoleon had nothing else to do except follow them ‘cause he was trying to bring them to battle again, and defeat them. He got to Moscow, and the people of Moscow decided to burn the city rather than let Napoleon have it. So Moscow was burning and he couldn’t meet the Tsar … the Tsar had gone miles away and they couldn’t follow him ‘cause he’s right at the end of his … and there’s nothing to eat, and things are getting desperate. So they decide to retreat, and as they decide to retreat, the snow and the bad weather comes. Now you’ve read about the Germans in Russia – exactly the same thing happened to them and things became absolutely dreadful.

It was a fighting retreat, because the Cossacks that were loyal to Alexander were attacking the French all the way back. They blew up bridges and the French Engineer Corps had to stand in freezing cold water and build bridges. And my hero, Michel Ney, was fighting at the very end at the Rear Guard all of the way. And one part there they thought he’d had been killed, because a lot of them got across one of the bridges, and they blew the bridge. And he wasn’t there, but he managed to find another way across the river. If you ever read the story of the retreat from Moscow, it is a really great story. There’s been a modern version.

There’s another one about the Congress of Vienna. It looks big, but it’s … you know, big writing, so … [chuckle] … not particularly interesting [inaudible] … by the fire. You know, they were exposed – there was no shelter. He stayed outside at night, and froze to death … [inaudible] The people who got through were the NCOs, the more experienced people of the French Army. And there’s my hero [shows slide, inaudible] … the rear guard, fighting their way out.

And here’s our hero. [Shows slide] He didn’t feel like he’d been defeated. He just felt like it was a bit of setback, really, and every year there were new young men coming forward to go into the Army. A bit like Hitler Youth, really. By the time this had happened an awful lot of French soldiers had been killed, and so they were using up all the young men and things were looking bad. And this was the very first time that Napoleon had actually been beaten in any shape or form, so it sort of made everybody else feel that it was possible, that … you know, that he could be beaten.

Austria and Prussia raised another Army and they started fighting back, and it’s generally considered that some of these battles in 1813 and 1814 were some of the worst … [inaudible]

His Marshals and friends and generally people that were administrating the Empire convinced him to abdicate. This is the abdication for the first time, so he abdicated, [shows slides] and that’s him sitting there, looking very sad.

He was very skinny and pale and thin when he was young, but all of a sudden he tended to get fat. He got fat, and even when he died – and people thought he died of cancer of the stomach – he was still this sort of sleek, sort of much rounder type of person. And there’s been lots of theories about what was wrong with him, but one theory is that he had something wrong with his pituitary gland, and he generally slowed down. And certainly, you cannot continue to live like this, fighting all the time, running all these countries, and stay in any sort of … [Inaudible]

Okay. This is the Battle of Waterloo. [Shows slide]

So … they decide that once he’s abdicated, they will give him the island of Elba, which is the little island up above Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. So he goes off there in 1814 and he’s sort of in charge of it … like it’s his country. And it keeps him occupied for a little while, but it’s never going to be enough. And he’s got lots of people that are loyal to him.

And Louis the XVIII it is by then, because the King that had his head cut off was Louis XVI; his son, the Dauphin, who died in prison was Louis XVII, so it was Louis XVIII, who was the King that had his head cut off’s brother, comes back from England where’s he’s been all of this time. And there’s this famous quote that says, ‘He learnt nothing and he forgot nothing’, in all of that time. And so he came back and was determined to try and put the rule of the Aristocrats back, but of course it was very difficult, ‘cause all the lands and all the monies had been spread out round the populace, and it’s almost impossible to get it back. And he made himself quite unpopular.

So Napoleon was starting to look quite good really, and he had his spies in France and could hear what was going on. So he decided to leave Elba in March of 1815 and to go back to France. Now at the time, as I said, some of the Marshals had made their peace with the Royalists and they were working for the Army, which was now … they didn’t do what they did in Iraq … they kept the Army even though it was Napoleon’s Army. They made it the King’s Army. And so Ney took a large part of this Army down to Marseille … down to the south of France to arrest Napoleon and take him back to Paris in chains – that’s what Michel Ney said, “I’ll take him back to Paris in chains.” And they got together, and this charisma, and this charm, and this fantastic personality – and they all went over to Napoleon. And Michel Ney as well. So off they go to Paris with the Army, and King Louis XVIII runs off again, and there is a period called the ‘Hundred Days’. And that’s where the Hundred Days comes from … the Hundred Days of John F Kennedy – any Hundred Days of new government … comes from. He had this Hundred Days, and he decided that he couldn’t have a battle with everybody who was now approaching France in French soil, so he decided to go up to Belgium.

Now the Duke of Wellington – you read about the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, all of the sort of things that happened around that time. [Inaudible] I’m trying to get a selection of people who’ve written about it. This is Georgette Heyer [shows slide] writing about the Battle of Waterloo, which is quite a factual book. While the Duke of Wellington was dancing around, he realised that Napoleon had got between him and General Blücher, who was running the Prussian Army. And he actually managed to beat one of the Armies – not to a standstill, but enough to give them a fright – and he then thought that the next day he could take on the Duke of Wellington.

Now there are lots of reasons why he lost. I would think it’s because Napoleon had piles, and couldn’t fight as well as he normally did. He certainly was what we would call ‘battle fatigued’ … you know, he was not the person he used to be. But you have to admit that probably the Duke of Wellington’s Army, which was a polyglot Army with lots of different nationalities – was actually better on the day. But it was what they call a very close-run thing. And my hero behaved badly – not so much badly, but stupidly. You know, he wasted Michel Ney; he wasted some of the Cavalry Chargers. And really, I mean even though I’m extremely obsessive about Napoleon, I don’t know if I really wanted him to win. So that at the end, he lost.

Now when I was in London once, we went to the Guards’ Chapel. The Guards were at the battle on the Duke of Wellington’s side needless to say, and they fought all day in this farmhouse which had a whole series of walls and gates around it. And in the Guards’ Chapel in the museum there was these gates that were in that farm. And while you’re looking at them, all … you know, really quite broken down, they’re playing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Ha! Not a dry eye in the house, I can tell you now!

And when I was in Russia I went and had a look at the Battle of Borodino, and while we were there they were playing the 1812 Overture, which is actually … you know, this period permeated the whole of the world at the time. This man who came from nowhere, had nothing, made his stamp on every single thing.

Anyway, so he has the Battle of Waterloo – he loses the Battle of Waterloo, and is sent this time to Saint Helena, which is a tiny little island in the south Atlantic. There’s no chance of getting back from it. He goes there the end of 1815 with the British. He’s considered to be almost in jail. He has a house called ‘Longwood’, and there’s a Governor called Henry Hudson who doesn’t treat him particularly well. And what they say is there’s a liver complaint that’s endemic on the island, and I think it must be hepatitis – I mean they didn’t say what it was. And he lasted for four years, and basically he died of a broken heart. Here he is on his deathbed – this is a marble statue – on his deathbed. [Shows photos]

And in the 1840s they decided they were going to bring him back from Saint Helena. That’s his tomb now [shows slide] which is an enormous porphyry tomb in a Church … and I can’t bear to say it … it looks like Invalides. But that’s where it is, and it’s a huge shrine to Napoleon in Paris. And really that was the high point of the French control of the world, really. From then on, it’s all been downhill.

Thank you very much.

[Applause]

Original digital file

TaylorD_NapoleonBonaparte_Final_Sep18.ogg

Additional information

Landmarks talk

Accession number

874/2206/46411

Do you know something about this record?

Please note we cannot verify the accuracy of any information posted by the community.

Supporters and sponsors

We sincerely thank the following businesses and organisations for their support.