The Man Behind the Hat
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Most people know Napoleon Bonaparte was a remarkable military leader. His campaigns are, in fact, still studied and admired. Fewer, however, understand how he shaped history and changed the world. This summer marks the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, the battle where Napoleon finally met his match. In June, thousands of history buffs will gather there to re-create the battle that involved four armies and 200,000 soldiers. Why is Napoleon worthy of so much attention today?
He was an intelligent, complex man who believed in the worth of the individual and equality under the law. He banned torture and slavery, yet had no compunctions about summarily executing his adversaries. Once the most powerful man in Europe, he died in lonely exile, his body ravaged by cancer.
Andrew Roberts, a native of London and current resident of Manhattan, has written Napoleon: A Life, the first comprehensive, one-volume biography of the military powerhouse, tracing his life from birth to death and using 33,000 letters to delve into the character and personality of a historical figure who was both triumphant and tragic.
Roberts has been fascinated by Napoleon since he was a child. “He was both a statesman and a political figure, and one of the great soldiers in history. But he was also a reformer,” he says. “He completely changed the face of French education, administration and law. He also changed the face of Paris and was responsible for some of the city’s greatest architectural features.”
Napoleon grew up in an age when feudalism reigned, and nearly all people remained in the social class to which they were born. “He introduced the concept of meritocracy,” Roberts says. “Before Napoleon, a member of the working class would never have risen to a position of importance in the French army. Your position in life depended on who your grandparents and parents were. But he appointed people because of their military and administrative abilities.”
Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769. He studied for five years at a military academy in Paris, but while he was there, his father died of stomach cancer. Although Napoleon was just 15, he had to take over as head of the family and help support his brothers and sisters.
The bloody French Revolution broke out in 1789 and ravaged the country. Ten years afterward, Napoleon returned to France from a campaign
in Egypt and managed to overthrow the corrupt government that was then in power. “He thought he could do better, and he was right,” Roberts says.
He established a new constitution and initially became the country’s First Consul, and then its emperor. “He kept the best parts of the French Revolution —
religious tolerance and equality under the law, and he abolished feudalism,” Roberts says. “But he was also ruthless.” An example: He had 3,000 enemy soldiers shot and bayoneted — after they had already surrendered.
Napoleon ruled from 1804 to 1814, when he lost a military campaign in Russia. He went into exile in April of that year on the island of Elba. “But he escaped in late February of 1815 and landed on the south coast of France on the first of March,” Roberts says. “He managed to recapture his crown within three weeks without a shot being fired.”
“By showing his hat,” Roberts says. “He was instantly recognized by his hat.”
Perhaps then, it’s no wonder that one of his two cornered bicornes recently fetched $2.4 million at auction.
The Real Story of Napoleon and Josephine
The love affair of Napoleon and Josephine was not the romantic saga that many people think, Roberts says. Josephine’s first husband had been guillotined during the revolution, and she herself spent time in prison. After her release, she began an affair with the prime minister and ran up large debts. “She was as extravagant as Marie Antoinette,” Roberts says. “Her lover got tired of paying her debts, so he pushed Napoleon and Josephine together.
“It wasn’t a Romeo and Juliet story,” Roberts continues. “She was unfaithful shortly after their marriage.”
When Napoleon discovered her betrayal, he got his revenge. “He embarked on 22 love affairs with various mistresses,” Roberts says. Later, however, the two reconciled—for a while.
Napoleon divorced Josephine in 1810 and later married an Austrian duchess. They had one son, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 21.
The Waterloo Exile
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena. Although he had a country house and 26 servants to run it, it truly was imprisonment, Roberts says. “He hated it. The island was eight miles by eight miles, and he couldn’t leave it. He had been master of Europe for years, and he knew he would never escape—that he was going to die on the island.”
And so he did. But contrary to some legends, he was not poisoned, Roberts says. Like his father, he succumbed to cancer.
Although he died a prisoner abandoned by friends, his legacy is profound. “He was a builder, a creator, and one of the great enlightened autocrats,” Roberts says. “He was a calculated risk taker and very shrewd. And he is responsible for many underlying facets of politics and society in civilized democratic countries that still follow his practices.”
Prince Albert Puts Historic Napoleon Artifacts on the Auction Block
As evidence of the continued interest in one of the most celebrated military figures of all time, a recent auction of Napoleon memorabilia earned almost $12.5 million. One of his signature two-cornered hats, a 19-inch-long, silk-lined beaver fur chapeau known as a bicorne, drew a whopping $2.4 million.
The hat style was common among military men of the time, but Napoleon wore his a little differently: He put it on his head sideways so he was always easy to recognize. In fact, recognition of the signature hat is said to have been a deciding factor in the retaking of his crown in 1815, according to Napoleon biographer Andrew Roberts.
Prince Albert of Monaco put the relics up for auction to raise money for refurbishing the palace.
Private collectors and museum representatives bid on nearly 1,000 other items, including a kitchen knife which
a German student planned to use to assassinate Napoleon. The plot was uncovered in time, however, and the student was caught and executed.
Also on the block were a lock of Napoleon’s hair, which sold for nearly $50,000; an embroidered purse that belonged to his first wife, Josephine; and white satin slippers worn by his son at his baptism. With the 200th anniversary of Waterloo approaching, experts expect the value of Napoleonic relics to continue to rise.
Vew some of the items sold at auction below:[print_gllr id=10561]