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The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon: The biggest myths debunked

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David | CC BY-SA 4.0

Napoleon Bonaparte, who died on 5 May 1821, was the towering figure of his age. Yet, even today, some popular myths continue to swirl around the soldier who rose up to become an emperor.

Myth 1: Napoleon was short

If there’s one thing everyone “knows” about Napoleon, it’s that he was a short. His diminutive dimensions are an integral part of his pop-cultural image, even giving rise to the popular concept of the 'Napoleon Complex' – the idea that some smaller men overcompensate for their physical stature through overly aggressive or domineering behaviour. There’s a snag, though. Although Napoleon was recorded as being around 5ft2, it’s widely thought this figure utilised French units, which were longer than the imperial equivalent. When converted, Napoleon winds up being 5ft6 or 5ft7, which would have been average or above average for his day.

The lasting legend of a short Napoleon is likely down to British propaganda of the time, which savagely mocked the much-hated Frenchman. The cartoonist James Gillray parodied him as the small and childish 'Little Boney'. Another artist, Isaac Cruikshank, depicted the military leader as a comically furious figure towered over by his own wife and soldiers. This kind of imagery would leave a lasting and probably misleading impression, long after the Napoleonic Wars were over.

Myth 2: Napoleon shot off the Sphinx’s Nose

The Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most remarkable and mysterious monuments on Earth. Perhaps the greatest riddle associated with the statue is the fate of its missing nose. One popular explanation passed down across the generations, is that it was actually shot off by a cannonball fired by Napoleon’s troops during his Egyptian military campaign which commenced in 1798.

While it’s passed into folklore, the story can be easily debunked by glancing at the historical record. The Sphinx had, in fact, lost its nose long before Napoleon and his men came upon the scene. Drawings made by the Danish explorer Frederic Louis Norden in the late 1730s clearly depict the Sphinx with that familiar, iconic expanse where the nose should be. Indeed, a 15th Century Arab historian wrote that the nose had been destroyed by a Muslim man who was angered by Egyptian peasants making tributes to the Sphinx in a show of idolatry. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth.

Myth 3: Napoleon was poisoned

Napoleon died in exile on the island of St Helena, after a lingering illness. There has been persistent speculation that he had in fact been poisoned by British agents, possibly because of a fear he would somehow manage to escape and embark on a fresh military adventure, just as he had after fleeing his first island of exile, Elba, years before. This assassination theory was so widely held that scientific tests were conducted on locks of his hair in the 20th Century, to check for the presence of arsenic.

However, exhaustive analysis carried out on hair fragments clipped at different points in Napoleon’s life have shown that he actually had consistently high levels of arsenic in his system from boyhood onwards. Analysis of hair samples of his contemporaries have also shown a striking amount of arsenic, implying nothing suspicious about the presence of the toxin in Napoleon’s system. The general consensus is that Napoleon expired from stomach cancer, which had also taken the life of his father.

Myth 4: He once said 'Not tonight, Josephine'

One of the more amusing stories connected with Napoleon is that he impatiently shooed off his beloved Josephine’s advances with the words 'Not tonight, Josephine'. The phrase fell into popular use during the 20th Century, inspiring songs and comedy skits, but there’s absolutely no evidence he ever actually said it. In fact, its exact etymology is uncertain. As with the tall tales of Napoleon’s smallness, it may have its roots in parodies, cartoons and general British mockery that spread during the Napoleonic Wars. Speaking of Josephine…

Myth 5: Napoleon and Josephine had a great and enduring romance

Napoleon’s relationship with his wife Josephine has been romanticised through the centuries. It’s generally thought of as passionate, fiery, carnal and poignantly doomed, comparable to Heathcliff and Cathy’s immortal romance in Wuthering Heights. While it’s true that Napoleon certainly adored Josephine to begin with, she started cheating on him soon after they were married. Indeed, in one of her letters to that lover she wrote 'My life is a constant torment! Only you can restore me to happiness!'

Napoleon, too, had affairs, including with the wife of an officer who was dubbed 'Napoleon’s Cleopatra'. He would later describe Josephine as 'decidedly old', complaining that she 'cries every time she has indigestion'. They eventually divorced, and Napoleon went on to marry the young Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, whom he adored. As an ambassador wrote, 'He is so evidently in love with her that all his habits are subordinated to her wishes.' With this in mind, it’s perhaps time the story of Napoleon and Marie Louise shares equal historical billing with his much-touted romance with Josephine.