Some interesting things you may not know about… Napoleon Bonaparte

Historian Andrew Roberts wants us to think of a new Napoleon in his BBC documentary series, which starts tonight. But what are the more unusual truths about the little Frenchman who caused the world so much trouble 200 years ago?

In his BBC2 series starting tonight, historian and self-confessed Napoleon Bonaparte obsessive Andrew Roberts paints a picture of the man behind the myth and reveals a clever operator who is not the ogre of legend – but an insecure lover and a great general.


Marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the three-part series tells the story of the Corsican Army officer who would eventually become the First Consul and then Emperor of France.

The series examines Napoleon’s early military successes in Italy and Egypt, as well as his role in pacifying anti-revolutionary activists in Paris during the 1790s, and his role as a progressive moderniser in the early years of his dictatorship. And so on.

But enough about that. What are the more unusual facts about Napoleon? You know, the fun stuff?

He wasn’t short

Napoleon is famous for his allegedly short stature, however he was about 1.70 m, an average height during those times. The reason for his diminutive reputation is because the height recorded on his death was 5ft 2 in French units… which translates to about 5 foot 6 today. In fact he was taller than another French leader – ex President Nicolas Sarkozy who comes in at 5 foot 5 inches.

Napoleon also liked to surround himself with extremely tall soldiers from the Elite Guard, which could have made him seem shorter than he was. However he may have been lacking in other areas. A Channel 4 documentary last years revealed that he was in the possession of a “very small” penis. The piece of his anatomy is believed to have been cut off during Napoleon’s autopsy nearly two centuries ago by a resentful doctor, and is an inch and a half long.

Not tonight, Josephine?

Napoleon’s relationship with his wife Josephine – real name Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie (but he understandably preferred simply Josephine) – wasn’t the great love story of legend (perhaps the previous fact may provide a clue as to why). Theirs was a marriage of convenience. When they first met, he was going places and she had powerful friends who helped him get there. He was obsessed with her but she was less infatuated… and she wasn’t even faithful. Also, her dog hated him. During their wedding night Napoleon had to share the bed with the mutt, which bit him on the leg while he was sleeping. Incidentally, there is no record of him ever saying “Not tonight, Josephine”. The famous phrase originated in the 20th century.

He was an insecure lover

His letters to Josephine reveal a puppy dog devotion that wasn’t reciprocated. She had lovers while they were together but he was – by all accounts – faithful. He thought that Josephine brought him good luck so he always carried a portrait miniature of her into battle. Napoleon’s last words were “France, army, head of the army, Josephine.”

Can it, Boney, and stick to the right

Napoleon’s army was the first to use canned foods. Napoleon is also credited with inaugurating the Europe-wide (well in most instances) trend of travelling on the right. Before Napoleon, horse riders would hold their left on a road. That way, the right hand that carried the sword was able to attack the road directly. In battles, the left flank traditionally attacked first. Napoleon decided to change sides in order to surprise his enemies. This new way of attacking spread over all the conquered lands in Europe. We Brits, of course, were never defeated by Napoleon, so we have no truck with that sort of nonsense and still stick to the left.

He was a sore loser

Not just on the battlefield either. He apparently hated losing at cards and was said by contemporaries to be a terrible cheat whenever playing.

Scaredy cat

It was said that Napoleon had “Ailurophobia”, meaning he was afraid of cats. He was also said to have an intense dislike of open doors. According to contemporary accounts, anybody entering a room had to close the portal immediately.

He was very fastidious

Napoleon was said to have an acute sense of smell and apparently loathed the odour of paint. He was very clean – and would often read his papers over two-hour bath sessions. He took great care of looking after his prized hands – which were said to be extremely soft and well-manicured. He also insisted that all his meals were eaten quickly and in silence. Sleep, however, was for wimps as far he was concerned – Napoleon got by on just four hours a night.

But he did like his grub

His favorite food, incidentally, was roast chicken with fried potatoes and onions – and liquorice. He couldn’t get enough of the stuff according to his valet and it left his teeth blackened. In fact one of his last requests before his death on 5th May 1821 was for liquorice-flavoured water.


Napoleon begins tonight on BBC2 at 9:30pm