History Podcasts

How did Napoleon I succeed in France despite his shortcomings in French?

How did Napoleon I succeed in France despite his shortcomings in French?

TL;DR. My question: The following sources onfirm that despite Napoleon's industry and perseverance, he never refined his French to the level of a native fluent speaker.
So how did he succeed in France, especially were it more elitist from 1769 to 1821?

Optional Additional Information:

[Source:]… He always spoke with a marked Corsican accent and never learned to spell French properly.[17]'

Source: Napoleon: Educating a Genius, by J. David Markham

While at Autun, Napoleon had to learn French; as of yet, the future Emperor of the French could hardly speak the language. The effort did not go well. Napoleon found memorizing difficult, and his natural inclination to hurry did not do him well in the study of language. Worse yet, his French had (and always would have) a strong Corsican accent, a fact that did him no favors throughout his schooling. Still, after three months at Autun, Napoleon had learned conversational French and was able to pass his language exams.

… The opportunity to be an officer was reserved almost exclusively for the nobility and almost exclusively for native Frenchmen. To say that the system was elitist would be an understatement…

Worse yet, Napoleon wasn't even French! True, Corsica had become a French territory, but the French had a very low opinion of Corsicans (noble or otherwise), seeing them as just this side of barbarians… On Corsica, Napoleon's family was fairly high on the social scale. At Brienne, he was virtually at the bottom.

Add to that the fact that Napoleon didn't speak great French (and spoke it with a heavy Corsican accent), and it was clear that Napoleon was stepping into a situation that could prove to be very difficult…

Fortunately for Napoleon, not speaking French well was still very common in France in this period. In 1794, only one tenth of the population were fluent in French. The pre-Napoleonic revolutionary government made strides to rectify this by banning all non-Parisian French dialects for official business, but they didn't devote the resources to educate the people and ensure the language was spoken universally.

Mao Zedong never learned to speak standard Chinese (Putonghua, alias Mandarin); he could only speak Hunan dialect, which Chinese people in other provinces find incomprehensible. This did not prevent him from becoming China's absolute leader.

France and northern Europe, 1809–12

Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden abdicated in March 1809. His uncle, who succeeded him as Charles XIII, made peace with Russia by the treaty of Fredrikshamn of September 17, ceding Finland. Sweden next made peace with France by the treaty of Paris of January 6, 1810, and joined the Continental System (officially at least). When Bernadotte was chosen heir to the Swedish crown as Charles XIV John, Napoleon obtained a declaration of war by Sweden against Great Britain (November 17). This had no effect, and Bernadotte soon told Alexander that he would remain independent of French influence and loyal to the treaty of Fredrikshamn.

Franco-Russian relations were exacerbated early in 1810 when Napoleon’s betrothal to the Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise was announced before Alexander had declared his mother’s refusal of Napoleon’s overtures for a marriage alliance with the Russian imperial family. If the suggestion had been unwelcome, the denouement was slighting, and the growth of French influence in Vienna increased Alexander’s impatience of French tutelage. The difficulties occasioned to Russia by the Continental System, together with Napoleon’s own example in permitting relaxation of his commercial measures where French interests were involved, prompted Alexander to issue the ukase (“decree”) of December 31, 1810. It forbade some imports by land (whose provenance was the French empire and the satellite states), doubled the duty on some French merchandise, and opened Russian ports to neutral shipping and British goods. Before this, Napoleon had taken the unmistakably hostile course of annexing Oldenburg. Thenceforward France and Russia both prepared for war.

Early in 1811 Napoleon had only the 50,000 troops of the duchy of Warsaw and the 45,000 French garrisoned in Germany to protect his eastern frontier. The Russians could soon put 240,000 men in the field. Alexander concluded that if the Poles would join him, together with the 50,000 Prussians who could, he believed, then also join him without risk, he “could advance to the Oder without striking a blow.” This plan was dropped when the Poles refused to change sides despite Alexander’s offer to reconstitute Poland. Napoleon remained on the alert in the spring of 1811, and by August 16 he was discussing the general plan of a Russian campaign to begin in June 1812.

In December 1811 Napoleon secured Austria’s informal agreement to furnish 30,000 men for his campaign against Russia and by a treaty of February 24, 1812, Frederick William of Prussia, to the dismay of Prussian patriots, consented to the occupation of his country by the Grande Armée on its way to Russia and undertook to provide supplies and materials to it (the cost to be set against the balance of the Tilsit indemnity) and also to send and maintain at full strength a contingent of 20,000 men. Both Austria and Prussia, however, informed Alexander that they would make no serious effort in the forthcoming campaign. Napoleon offended Bernadotte by opposing the latter’s plan for the annexation of Norway to Sweden and by occupying Swedish Pomerania (January 1812) in reprisal for Sweden’s failure to exclude colonial goods. Bernadotte therefore sought alliance with Russia and by the agreement of April 5–9, 1812, it was arranged that the Swedes should invade Germany when the French were deeply enough engaged in Russia and that the Russians should later help the Swedes to annex Norway. On May 28 Russia made peace with Turkey.


Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria was born in 1791 to Archduke Francis of Austria and his second wife, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily. Her father became Holy Roman Emperor a year later as Francis II. Marie-Louise was a great granddaughter of Empress Maria Theresa through her father and thus a great niece of Marie Antoinette. She was also a maternal granddaughter of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, Marie Antoinette’s favorite sister.

Marie-Louise’s formative years overlapped with a period of conflict between France and her family she was thus brought up to detest France and French ideas. She was influenced by her grandmother Maria Carolina, who despised the French Revolution that ultimately caused the death of her sister, Marie Antoinette. Maria Carolina’s Kingdom of Naples also came into direct conflict with French forces led by Napoleon. The War of the Third Coalition brought Austria to the brink of ruin, increasing Marie-Louise’s resentment towards Napoleon. The Imperial family was forced to flee Vienna in 1805 Marie-Louise took refuge in Hungary and later Galicia before returning to Vienna in 1806. Napoleon also contributed directly to the final dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and Maria-Louise’s father relinquished the title of Holy Roman Emperor although he remained Emperor of Austria. Another war broke out between France and Austria in 1809, resulting in another defeat for the Austrians. The Imperial family had to flee Vienna again.

This Secret Weapon is How Napoleon Nearly Conquered Europe

The Emperor's elite cuirassiers and carabiniers dominated the battlefield with shock tactics.

Most historians agree that Napoleon was not a great military innovator. Instead, he won his battles by brilliantly combining the innovations of others, such as Marshal de Broglie’s system of military divisions, Jean de Gribeauval’s standardized artillery, and the effective French infantry drill regulations of 1791. In this respect, Napoleon’s military ideas were in line with the general direction of European military thought in the early nineteenth century. However, Napoleon did innovate in one significant way: while during the eighteenth century most European cavalry had cast off their armor, Napoleon was a fanatic for heavy cavalry, and re-established a massive corps of armored men on horseback, his elite cuirassiers and carabiniers. This seemingly anachronistic development was a key part of his military legacy, and should be remembered as one of his lasting contributions to military science.

A Short History of Napoleon’s Heavy Cavalry

Napoleon considered heavy cavalry essential to achieving decisive military victories. “Without cavalry,” he held, “battles are without result.” His heavy cavalry was the ultimate shock weapon, intended to charge home and force the collapse of the enemy’s line of battle, much like medieval knights. Napoleon’s concept of employment for heavy cavalry remained consistent from his first effort to drill a heavy-cavalry force at the Camp of Bolougne in 1803 until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, where his cavalry force of 13,000 men and horses included over 8,000 armored heavy cavalry. Napoleon invariably formed his heavy cavalry into a mass “reserve” under his immediate control. He typically committed it in times of desperate need or to inflict a final blow on a buckling enemy, where it reaped an outsized share of military glory (despite relying on infantry support to succeed). Napoleon used his heavy cavalry liberally, recognizing that its charges would both inflict and receive massive casualties. This pursuit of the knockout blow at any cost was a significant break from the limited wars of the eighteenth century, where marshals typically sought to avoid casualties.

Heavy cavalry served Napoleon well throughout his reign. He inherited a single regiment of cuirassiers in 1799, and expanded the corps to twelve regiments by 1804. Napoleon first committed his reorganized and re-armored cuirassiers to combat against the Austrians at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805. They impressed him, and after Austerlitz he proclaimed armored cavalry “more useful than other cavalry.” Napoleon credited a timely charge by the cuirassiers for his victory over Prussia at Jena in 1806. French cuirassiers also played key roles in the battles of Eylau and Friedland in 1807. And 4,000 cuirassiers famously halted an Austrian advance at Wagram in 1809, earning laurels in what historian Andrew Roberts calls “the last decisive use of cavalry on a Napoleonic battlefield.”

Although artillery became increasingly dominant on ever-more-crowded battlefields after 1809, Napoleon’s heavy cavalry mania was undiminished. Two regiments of Carabiniers-à-Cheval received cuirasses and neoclassical helmets in 1809, and the French heavy cavalry corps reached a peak strength of sixteen armored cavalry regiments in September 1810, with an average strength of over 800 troopers per regiment. The cuirassiers and carabiniers fought valiantly at Borodino in 1812, where they seized a poorly entrenched Russian redoubt, but that battle failed to turn the tide of the campaign. The Grande Armée’s subsequent retreat from Russia marked the end of the heavy-cavalry corps as a decisive force. “The horses of the cuirassiers,” recalled the French cavalry general Étienne de Nansouty, “not, unfortunately, being able to sustain themselves on their patriotism, fell down by the roadside and died.” Napoleon would never be happy with their remounts.

The Armored Cavalryman as a Weapons System

Napoleon’s heavy cavalry were defined by their armor. The cuirassier and carabinier regiments received the strongest conscripts and the largest horses—and least 160 centimeters-tall—in order to bear the weight of their 16-pound cuirasses—comprised of both breastplate and backplate—and iron helmets. Napoleonic musketry was inaccurate and had a low rate of fire, so cuirasses provided significant protection for cavalry swiftly charging infantry. While the famous cannonball-punctured cuirass of Carabinier Antoine Faveau in the Musée de l’Armée is a grim reminder of how artillery literally blew Napoleonic cavalry off the battlefield, cuirasses probably stopped musket fire as often as they yielded to it.

It is more challenging to evaluate how useful the cuirass was in melee, because contemporary sources disagree about the risk posed by torso wounds from edged weapons, which the cuirass theoretically mitigated. On the one hand, many Napoleonic beau sabreurs survived repeated sword and lance wounds to their extremities, suggesting protection from edged weapons was almost superfluous. On the other hand, being stabbed in the chest or belly is exceptionally grave and often fatal, so the number of combat deaths resulting from torso wounds among unarmored troops may be underrated due to survivorship bias. An indicator of the benefit armor conferred is that even back plates saves many lives in melee, according to a famous statistic: when French cuirassiers met Austrian cuirassiers, who did not wear backplates, at the battle of Eckmühl in 1809, “the proportion of Austrians wounded and killed amounted respectively to eight and thirteen for one Frenchman.”

Above all, the armor gave its wearer psychological benefits. “To engage with infantry,” Napoleon‘s Marshal Auguste de Marmont held, “heavy and iron-clad cavalry is necessary, which is sufficiently protected and sheltered from the fire, so as to confront it fearlessly.” The idea that cuirassiers were braver remained the conventional military wisdom in France for a century after Napoleon’s reign. Ardant du Picq, the famous advocate of the importance of moral force in battle, wrote in his 1870 book Battle Studies that cuirassiers “alone, in all history, have charged and do charge to the end.” He considered armored cavalry “clearly required for moral reasons.” Battle Studies remained a key French military textbook through Great War, perhaps explaining in part why French cuirassiers only gave up their cuirasses on the Western Front October 1915. By then the moral benefits conferred by armor had diminished, and the Medievalist Bashford Dean, who was commissioned by the U.S. Army to design neo-Gothic armor for trench warfare, concluded that despite its utility, armor “finds little favor with the soldier” who would rather “take his chances.”

Just as important as his cuirass was the heavy cavalryman’s sword. While heavy cavalry intermittently carried muskets and pistols, their firearms were auxiliary weapons, and the sword was the weapon they employed when charging. The French heavy cavalry sword introduced in 1801 was 97 centimeters long, and despite being uncomfortably heavy, gave Napoleon’s armored cavalry a lethal forward reach. Like a lance, it was meant to stab with the tip, not to slash with the blade. As Napoleon reminded his cuirassiers before they charged at Wagram, “Ne sabrez pas! Pointez! Pointez!” (Don’t slash! Use the points of your swords! The points!).

Indeed, the heavy cavalry sword was so long that in some ways Napoleon’s swordsmiths had invented a sword that was, in practice, a lance. Napoleon probably did not mind this, as he was influenced by M. de Lessac’s 1783 book De l’esprit militaire, which argued that the lance was the most efficient shock weapon for cavalry. In 1811, Napoleon created six regiments of unarmored lancers, planning to brigade them with the heavy cavalry. They proved effective anti-infantry troops and complemented the heavy cavalry well. Indeed, after Waterloo, the lance underwent a renaissance, with prominent military commentators such as Auguste de Marmont and Antoine-Henri Jomini arguing the lance was a superior anti-infantry weapon for cavalry and should be widely readopted.

Napoleon, however, always preferred armored heavy cavalry to lancers. He considered his armored cuirassiers “the best cavalry in the world” for attacking infantry.

Assessing Napoleonic Armored Cavalry: Innovation, Medieval Anachronism, or Both?

Not everyone agreed with Napoleon’s assessment that armored cavalry were a battle-winning force. Capt. Louis Nolan, the British military writer and cavalryman famous for his role in the Charge of the Light Brigade, quipped in his influential 1851 treatise Cavalry: Its History and Tactics that "Armour protects the wearer, and prevents him from injuring others,” quoting an unnamed Austrian emperor. While at their best they were devastating shock weapons, heavy cavalry overburdened their horses with heavy cuirasses, and thus were ponderous and vulnerable. (This was why armored lancers fared poorly: the lancer relied on speed and momentum to deliver shock to the enemy, but armored cavalry was heavier and slower.) Other military commentators considered armored cavalry a vain throwback. The great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz acerbically wrote in his classic On War that Napoleon had no trouble winning battles without heavy cavalry, but that without heavy cavalry Napoleon typically captured fewer trophies of war, and thus reaped less glory. “Victory alone is not everything,” Clausewitz wrote, poking fun at Bonaparte, “but is it not, after all, what really counts?” He predicted, correctly, that cavalry would become less common on future battlefields, and artillery more common. But that trend was challenging to identify during the Napoleonic wars themselves, and so in perhaps the ultimate vanity, Napoleon’s last military gambit was a desperate charge of 5,000 cuirassiers shouting “Vive l’Empreur!” at Waterloo in 1815. The cavalry were committed prematurely and failed to break the British line.

The Merovingians were a Salian Frankish dynasty that came to rule the Franks in a region (known as Francia in Latin) largely corresponding to ancient Gaul from the middle of the 5th century.

Clovis I was the first Germanic ruler to convert to Roman Catholicism. The Franks began to adopt Christianity following the baptism of Clovis, an event that inaugurated the alliance between the Frankish kingdom and the Roman Catholic Church. Even so, the Merovingian kings were largely beyond the control of the Pope. Because they were able to worship with their Catholic neighbors, the newly-Christianized Franks found much easier acceptance from the local Gallo-Roman population than did the Arian Visigoths, Vandals or Burgundians. The Merovingians thus built what eventually proved the most stable of the successor-kingdoms in the west.

Following Frankish custom, the kingdom was partitioned among Clovis' four sons, and over the next century this tradition of partition continued. Even when several Merovingian kings simultaneously ruled their own realms, the kingdom — not unlike the late Roman Empire — was conceived of as a single entity. Externally, the kingdom, even when divided under different kings, maintained unity and conquered Burgundy in 534. After the fall of the Ostrogoths, the Franks also conquered Provence. Internally, the kingdom was divided among Clovis' sons and later among his grandsons which frequently saw war between the different kings, who allied among themselves and against one another. The death of one king created conflict between the surviving brothers and the deceased's sons, with differing outcomes. Due to frequent warfare, the kingdom was occasionally united under one king. Although this prevented the kingdom from being fragmented into numerous parts, this practice weakened royal power, for they had to make concessions to the nobility to procure their support in war.

In each Frankish kingdom the Mayor of the Palace served as the chief officer of state. From about the turn of the eighth century, the Austrasian Mayors tended to wield the real power in the kingdom, laying the foundation for a new dynasty.

The Carolingians consolidated their power in the late seventh century, eventually making the offices of mayor of the palace and dux et princeps Francorum hereditary and becoming the de facto rulers of the Franks as the real powers behind the throne.

To legalize the power already being exercised by the mayors of the palace, Pepin requested and received from the pope a decision that whoever exercised the actual power in the kingdom should be the legal ruler. After this decision the throne was declared vacant. Childeric III was deposed and confined to a monastery.

According to ancient custom, Pepin was then elected King of the Franks by an assembly of Frankish nobles, with a large portion of his army on hand (in case the nobility inclined not to honor the Papal bull). Although such elections happened infrequently, a general rule in Germanic law stated that the king relied on the support of his leading men. These men reserved the right to choose a new leader if they felt that the old one could not lead them in profitable battle. While in later France the kingdom became hereditary, the kings of the later Holy Roman Empire proved unable to abolish the elective tradition and continued as elected rulers until the Empire's formal end in 1806. In 754 the pope reaffirmed the election of Pepin by crossing the Alps and personally anointing the new king in the Old Testament manner, as the Chosen of the Lord.

Behind the pope's action lay his need for a powerful protector. In 751 the Lombards had conquered the Exarchate of Ravenna, the center of Byzantine government in Italy, were demanding tribute from the pope, and threatened to besiege Rome. Following Pepin's coronation, the pope secured the new ruler's promise of armed intervention in Italy and his pledge to give the papacy the Exarchate of Ravenna, once it was conquered. In 756 a Frankish army forced the Lombard king to relinquish his conquests, and Pepin officially gave Ravenna to the pope. Known as the "Donation of Pepin," the gift made the pope a temporal ruler over the Papal States, a strip of territory that extended diagonally across northern Italy.

The greatest Carolingian monarch was Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III at Rome in 800. His empire, ostensibly a continuation of the Roman Empire, is referred to historiographically as the Carolingian Empire.

The Carolingians followed the Frankish custom of dividing inheritances among the surviving sons, though the concept of the indivisibility of the Empire was also accepted. The Carolingians had the practice of making their sons (sub-)kings in the various regions (regna) of the Empire, which they would inherit on the death of their father. Though the Carolingian Empire may have several kings, the imperial dignity was accorded only to the oldest son.

Charlemagne had three legitimate sons who survived infancy: Charles the Younger, King of Neustria, Pepin, King of Italy, and Louis, King of Aquitaine. In the Divisio Regnorum of 806, Charlemagne had slated Charles the Younger as his successor as emperor and chief king, ruling over the Frankish heartland of Neustria and Austrasia, while giving Pepin the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which Charlemagne possessed by conquest. To Louis's kingdom of Aquitaine, he added Septimania, Provence, and part of Burgundy. But Charlemagne's other legitimate sons died – Pepin in 810 and Charles in 811 – and Louis alone remained to be crowned co-emperor with Charlemagne in 813. Pepin, King of Italy, left behind a son, Bernard. On the death of Charlemagne in 814, Louis inherited the entire Frankish kingdom and all its possessions (the concept of successional representation was not yet well-established). But Bernard was allowed to retain control of Italy, the sub-kingdom of his father.

Following the death of Louis the Pious, the surviving adult Carolingians fought a three-year civil war ending only in the Treaty of Verdun, which divided the empire into three regna while imperial status and a nominal lordship was accorded to Lothair I.

The Carolingians differed markedly from the Merovingians in that they disallowed inheritance to illegitimate offspring, possibly in an effort to prevent infighting among heirs and assure a limit to the division of the realm. In the late ninth century, however, the lack of suitable adults among the Carolingians necessitated the rise of Arnulf of Carinthia, a bastard child of a legitimate Carolingian king.

The Carolingians were displaced in most of the regna of the Empire in 888. They ruled on in East Francia until 911 and they held the throne of West Francia intermittently until 987. Though they asserted their prerogative to rule, their hereditary, God-given right, and their usual alliance with the Church, they were unable to stem the principle of electoral monarchy and their propagandism failed them in the long run. Carolingian cadet branches continued to rule in Vermandois and Lower Lorraine after the last king died in 987, but they never sought thrones of principalities and made peace with the new ruling families.

The election of Hugh Capet Edit

From 977 to 986, Hugh Capet, son of Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks, allied himself with the German emperors Otto II and Otto III and with Archbishop Adalberon of Reims to dominate the Carolingian king, Lothair. By 986, he was king in all but name. After Lothair's son Louis V died in May 987, Adalberon and Gerbert of Aurillac convened an assembly of nobles to elect Hugh Capet as their king.

Immediately after his coronation, Hugh began to push for the coronation of his son Robert. Hugh's own claimed reason was that he was planning an expedition against the Moorish armies harassing Borrel II of Barcelona, an invasion which never occurred, and that the stability of the country necessitated two kings should he die while on expedition. Ralph Glaber, however, attributes Hugh's request to his old age and inability to control the nobility. Modern scholarship has largely imputed to Hugh the motive of establishing a dynasty against the claims of electoral power on the part of the aristocracy, but this is not the typical view of his contemporaries and even some modern scholars have been less skeptical of Hugh's "plan" to campaign in Spain. Robert was eventually crowned on 25 December 987. A measure of Hugh's success is that when he died in 996, Robert continued to reign without anyone disputing his rights, but during his long reign actual royal power dissipated into the hands of the great territorial magnates.

Thus, the early Capetians made their position de facto hereditary by associating their eldest sons to the kingship while they still live. By the death of Philip I, this hereditary feature had become established in custom. Even though Philip refused to have his son crowned during his lifetime, Louis succeeded with little trouble. Yet the association of the eldest son to the kingship continued for two more generations, with Philip II Augustus being the last king so crowned.

The succession in 1031 Edit

Henry I became sole ruler on his father's death in 1031. The succession, however, was hotly contested by his younger brother Robert. Constance of Arles, Henry's mother, preferred to place her younger son, Robert, on the throne. She allied herself with one of the more powerful counts of the time, Odo II, Count of Blois.

This alliance was particularly worrisome for Henry I. Odo II of Blois was a very powerful lord and had warred against Henry's father throughout his reign he had enlarged his possessions to the point of encircling the royal demesne. With his alliance, the queen mother and her son Robert managed to expel King Henry from his own demesne lands, forcing him to seek refuge at the court of the duke of Normandy, Robert.

King Henry formed an alliance with the powerful duke of Normandy, Robert, by granting him the French Vexin, or the lands between the rivers Epte and Oise. Although this has been debated by modern scholarship, the fact remains that Robert fought alongside the king. Henry also managed to gain the alliance of another powerful count, Baldwin IV of Flanders.

Finally, Henry added Emperor Henry II to his camp. The emperor had personal issues with Odo II. He wished nothing more than to rid himself of a powerful foe and troublesome neighbour. Odo had invaded Henry's lands in Burgundy and took many castles and places. Henry and his allies recovered the royal lands that had been lost to the usurpers. The conflict didn't end there there was still a chance for Robert to win the throne. Henry, to guarantee his brother's submission, granted him the vast duchy of Burgundy, which had been added to the royal demesne by Robert II.

Odo found himself in Imperial Burgundy against Henry II. At the battle of Bar-le-Duc, Odo was killed in battle in the year 1037. His lands and properties were divided amongst his sons, ending a threat against the Capetian monarchy.

Henry I had managed to maintain his royal title and dignity, but the price was great. The greatest problem to have arisen from the crisis was the growth in independence of the lords and castellans in the lands of the royal demesne. This had the effect of weakening royal authority even further. Secondly, Henry I lost a great deal of territory and land in suppressing the revolt. The French Vexin was granted away to the duke of Normandy, the duchy of Burgundy, a substantial part of the royal demesne, was given away to Robert, the king's younger brother.

The appanage system Edit

An appanage is a fief conceded to a younger son or a younger brother of the king. In France, the origin of the appanage can be found either in the old Frankish custom of dividing the inheritance between the sons (a custom which feudalism replaced with the partage noble in which the eldest son received most of the estates) or in the fact that, at its origins, the Capetian monarchy was relatively weak, and the principle of succession by the eldest son was not secure until the late 12th century.

The first such appanage in the history of the Capetian monarchy was the duchy of Burgundy, which Henry I ceded to his younger brother Robert. Later, Louis VII gave Dreux to his son Robert, in 1137, Philip Augustus gave Domfront and Mortain to his younger son Philip Hurepel (who had also become count of Boulogne by marriage). The last two cases were not under the same kind of duress, but probably reflect the same desire to ward off quarrels.

The original appanages, just like other feudal fiefs, could pass through the female line. As the monarchy became more powerful, they began to restrict the transmission of appanages in the male line, although this did not become standard for some time. The greatest example is the Duchy of Burgundy, which may have been illegally confiscated by Louis XI after the death of the last male duke. After Burgundy, the restriction to male heirs became standard (it is mentioned in an ordinance of Charles V in 1374), but was not formalized until the Edict of Moulins in 1566. [1]

The Capetians also conceded fiefs to daughters or sisters in the form of dowry, although this practice became less and less common over time.

The end of the "Capetian miracle" Edit

The Salic Law (Lex Salica) is a code of law written around the time of Clovis I for the Salian Franks, in Latin mixed with Germanic words. It deals mainly with monetary compensations (wehrgeld) and also with civil law with respect to men and land. Clause 6 in title 59, which deals with inheritance rules for allodial lands (i.e. family lands not held in benefice) specifies that in "concerning salic lands (terra Salica) no portion or inheritance is for a woman but all the land belongs to members of the male sex who are brothers." A capitulary of Chilperic, ca. 575, expands this by admitting inheritance by a daughter in the absence of sons: "if a man had neighbors but after his death sons and daughters remained, as long as there were sons they should have the land just as the Salic Law provides. And if the sons are already dead then a daughter may receive the land just as the sons would have done had they lived." The monarchy is nowhere mentioned. The Salic Law was reformulated under Charlemagne and still applied in the 9th century, but it slowly disappeared as it became incorporated into local common laws. By the 14th century it was completely forgotten. [2]

From 987 to 1316, every king of France was fortunate to have a son to succeed him. This state of affairs lasted over three hundred years, spanning 13 generations. The Capetians did not even have to deal with the question of successional representation Hugh Magnus, eldest son of Robert II, and Philip, eldest son of Louis VI, did not leave behind children of their own when they predeceased their respective fathers. Thus, for such a long time, the succession to the throne was undisputed, so that there was no reason for the peers of the realm to elect a new king. Since 987, the Capetians had always passed the crown to their eldest surviving son, and this birthright became itself a source of unquestionable legitimacy. Louis VIII was the last king acclaimed before the sacred unction (last remnant of the original election). From St. Louis, in 1226, King was acclaimed after the anointing. The voice of the barons was no longer necessary in determining the king.

Philip the Fair was not concerned about the lack of male heirs. He had three sons, well married, and a daughter, Isabella of France, Queen of England by her marriage to Edward II of England. The eldest son, Louis the Quarrelsome, was King of Navarre and Count of Champagne since the death of his mother. He would, at the death of his father, become King of France and Navarre. His wife, Margaret of Burgundy had given him a daughter, but she was young and he could expect her to give him a son later. As for his two other sons, Philip, Count of Poitiers and Charles, Count of La Marche, they had married the two daughters of Otto IV, Count of Burgundy and Mahaut, Countess of Artois, Joan and Blanche. The king could believe his succession was assured.

Everything collapsed in the spring of 1314, when the affairs of the daughters-in-law of the king were discovered (also known as the Tour de Nesle Affair). Somewhat neglected by their husbands, the princesses entertained themselves without them. The lover of Margaret of Burgundy was a young knight named Gauthier d'Aunay. Gautier's brother, Philippe d'Aunay, was meanwhile Blanche's lover. Without participating in the adventures of her sister and her sister-in-law, Joan knew everything and kept silent. Royal reaction was brutal. The Aunay brothers were tried and executed summarily Margaret of Burgundy died of cold in the tower of Chateau Gaillard Blanche of Burgundy was imprisoned for ten years before ending her days in Maubuisson Abbey, near Pontoise.

The dynastic succession was jeopardized. Margaret's death would allow Louis to remarry. But for the summer of 1314, the future king of France had no wife and no son. He only had a daughter, Joan, who could not be denied the inheritance of Navarre (which allowed female inheritance). This girl was suspected of illegitimacy, because of her mother's adultery with Gauthier d'Aunay, which could be dangerous for the crown of France, given the risk of particularly serious political crises because of suspicions of illegitimacy. Any rebellious vassal, to legitimize his rebellion, could accuse the future queen of bastardy.

Louis X died on June 5, 1316, having just had time to marry again, after a reign of eighteen months, leaving his new wife Clementia of Hungary pregnant. Philip of Poitiers was at Lyon at the day of the death of his brother. The prince took the regency of both France and Navarre. Joan's claim was supported by her maternal grandmother, Agnes of France, and her uncle, Odo IV, Duke of Burgundy. The arguments they invoked in favor of Joan were in full conformity with feudal law which has always authorized a daughter to succeed to the fief in the absence of sons. Indeed, female succession was a reality in France. Aquitaine had been ruled by a duchess, Eleanor, and countesses had ruled Toulouse and Champagne, as well as in Flanders and Artois. Mahaut, Countess of Artois, belonged to the Court of Peers since 1302. Outside the realm, women have played a role in the devolution of the English crown as well as the crown of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. And Joan I of Navarre had brought her kingdom of Navarre to her husband Philip the Fair. The idea that a woman would become queen of France was in itself nothing shocking to the barons. Indeed, at the death of Louis VIII, the kingdom was governed by a woman — Blanche of Castile — regent in the name of her young son Louis IX.

The regent made a treaty with the Duke of Burgundy. It was agreed that if Queen Clementia of Hungary gave birth to a son, Philip will maintain the regency until his nephew's majority. In the event that the queen gave birth to a daughter, Philip undertook to renounce Navarre and Champagne in favor of the princesses, if they renounced the crown of France at the age of consent. If not, their claim was to remain, and "right was to be done to them therein" but Philip would no longer renounce Navarre and Champagne.

On November 15, 1316, Queen Clementia gave birth to a son, John the Posthumous. Unfortunately, the child lived only five days, and the kingdom remained without a direct heir. By his treaty with the Duke of Burgundy, Philip would only rule the two kingdoms as regent or governor, until Joan reached the age of consent. But Philip had himself crowned at Rheims, on January 9, 1317. Opposed by the Duke of Burgundy, and his own brother, Charles, Count of La Marche, it was thought prudent to shut the gates of the town during the ceremony. Back at Paris, an assembly of prelates, barons and burgesses acknowledged Philip as their sovereign, and asserted that "women do not succeed to the French throne."

The Duke of Burgundy championed his niece's rights. Philip won him over by giving him his daughter, Joan of France, with the promise of the counties of Artois and Burgundy. The princess Joan, daughter of Louis X, was given an annuity of 15,000 pounds. In return, Joan of Navarre must, at her twelfth year, ratify the treaty which disinherited her, not only of her claim to France, but also of her unquestionable right to Navarre and Champagne.

In 1322, Philip V the Tall died after a reign of six years. He left only daughters. Thus, his younger brother, Charles of La Marche, would become king under the name of Charles IV the Fair. Despite two successive marriages with Marie of Luxembourg and Joan of Évreux, Charles the Fair, as his brother Philip the Tall, left only daughters when he died in 1328. Thus, in less than fourteen years, the three sons of Philip the Fair, Louis X the Quarrelsome, Philip V the Tall and Charles IV the Fair, had died.

However, like his brother Louis X, Charles IV the Fair left his wife pregnant. Before dying, the youngest son of Philip the Fair designated as regent his cousin, Philip of Valois. He was the eldest son of Charles of Valois, brother of Philip the Fair. A few months later, Queen Joan of Évreux gave birth to a daughter, Blanche. Philip of Valois, a grown man and prominent lord, had no trouble being proclaimed king by another assembly of lords and prelates in Vincennes and crowned on May 29, 1328.

The succession in 1328 Edit

King Charles IV was no longer. He had no male descendants. He was the youngest son of Philip the Fair. The situation in 1328 was unlike that of 1316. In 1316, a king's son was competing with a brother and a younger child. In 1328, Philip of Valois was not the closest in the line, or the more direct, because the last Capetians girls left now had husbands. But the Count of Valois was the closest male relative in the male line, and he was 35 years old. He was the eldest male of the family.

The contenders for the throne Edit

    , nephew of Philip IV, cousin of the last three kings, regent of the kingdom by the wish of Charles the Fair. He was in a strong position: he was popular with the nobility and supported by influential figures such as Robert of Artois. In the male line, he was closest to the scepter. , also a nephew of Philip the Fair, (he was the son of Louis of Évreux, younger half-brother of Philip IV and Charles of Valois). Philip of Évreux was also first cousin of the last three kings. Moreover, he had improved his position by marrying the daughter of Louis X, Joan of France.

While the peers of France deliberated which of these two powerful lords would ascend the throne, a letter arrived from across the Channel. In this letter, Isabella claimed the crown of France for her young son Edward III, King of England, and he would be regarded as the third contender:

    , King of England and Duke of Guyenne: grandson of Philip IV by his mother, Isabella, sister to Louis X, Philip V and Charles IV. He was the nephew of the last three kings of France. In 1328, he was only 16 years and is still under the tutelage of his mother.

The peers and the lawyers were studying this question: can Isabella of France transmit a right she did not have? Can her son Edward claim the crown of the Capetians?

Isabella of France had a horrible reputation. Nicknamed the "She-Wolf of France", she joined the English nobles against her husband, King Edward II, who was defeated and captured. After putting her husband to death, she displayed herself in public with her lover, the regicide Roger Mortimer. All of this was well known in France. Also, her son Edward III belonged to the House of Plantagenet, a dynasty that had long been in conflict with the French crown.

But Isabella's reasoning was flawed by a detail as it were negligible: if, as a woman, Isabella could transfer that right to the crown although she cannot have it for herself, then by primogeniture the true heir would have been Philip of Burgundy, a grandson of Philip V of France. Isabella of France may have simply forgotten that her brothers had left daughters of their own.

However, no one thought of nominating one of the daughters of three kings to do so would recognize the right of women to the throne, and would be de facto considering the reigns of Philip V the Tall and Charles IV the Fair as nothing but a theft at the expense of Joan of France, daughter Louis X the Stubborn. Nor did they nominate the young Philip of Burgundy, the senior living male heir of Philip IV.

The peers did not want to risk giving the throne to a bastard. And, instead of proposing a daughter of Philip V or Charles IV, they decided that women should be excluded from succession to avoid endless squabbles of law.

The famous Salic law was rediscovered in 1358, and used in a propaganda fight to defend the rights of Valois against the claims of the English king. Thus, whatever the legal twist, the rights of Edward III were very questionable.

The king found Edit

The day after the funeral of Charles IV of France, the great nobles convened. Valois has already taken the title of regent, and used it already, while his cousin was dying. The assembly can only bow to the facts. Having postponed for a moment the question of the legitimacy of excluding women from succession, the will to rule out the English king was stronger. Edward III was thus ousted from the competition, but there remained two claimants to the throne, Philip of Valois and Philip of Évreux.

An agreement was reached to satisfy everyone. Philip of Évreux and his wife Joan received the kingdom of Navarre and other territorial compensation in exchange for which they would recognize Philip of Valois as King of France.

The kingdom of Navarre belonged to the King of France since the marriage of Philip IV and Joan I of Navarre, Countess of Champagne and Brie. Louis X had inherited Navarre from his mother and in 1328 his daughter Joan was finally recognized as Queen of Navarre, despite the suspicions of illegitimacy (the late return was not in the least prevented Philip the Tall and Charles the Fair, who officially called themselves Kings of France and Navarre). In addition, Philip of Valois, not being himself a descendant and heir of the kings of Navarre as were his predecessors, could restore the kingdom of Navarre without regret to Joan, the rightful heir, in exchange for her giving up the crown of France. The kingdom of Navarre will not return to the kings of France until much later, when Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV, accedes to the throne of France, thus establishing the Bourbon dynasty. Thereafter, the French kings will again bear the title "King of France and Navarre."

Soon after, Philip of Valois was proclaimed King of France under the name of Philip VI of France by the peers of the realm. The Valois took power following the direct Capetians.

The Hundred Years War Edit

The last royal election dates back to Louis VIII the Lion in 1223. The royal power was weakened and so was the legitimacy of the Count of Valois, for it was not as unassailable as that of his predecessors on the throne. They were expecting their generous gifts, great concessions from the new king. Edward III came to pay tribute to French king, hoping also for some territorial compensation. Philip VI did not understand the danger that threatened him and did nothing to protect himself.

The succession to Charles IV the Fair, decided in favor of Philip VI, was used as a pretext by Edward III to transform what would have been a feudal struggle between himself as Duke of Guyenne against the King of France, to a dynastic struggle between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois for control of the French throne.

The conflict, known as the Hundred Years War, dragged on for decades. England won several famous military victories, but was unable to fully overcome French resistance. Yet in the aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V of England, great-grandson of Edward III, became the heir to the French throne in accordance to the Treaty of Troyes. He would marry Catherine, daughter of King Charles VI of France, while Charles' son, the Dauphin Charles was declared illegitimate and disinherited.

Yet Henry V would predecease Charles VI, and it was his infant son who would become "King of France". The Dauphin still had his supporters, and became Charles VII. Eventually, the tide would turn in favor of the French, and the English were driven out. The Treaty of Troyes, which had been ratified by the Estates-General of France, was never repudiated, but the military victory of Charles VII rendered its provisions moot. The Kings of England would thereby continue to call themselves "Kings of England and France", dropping the nominal claim to France only in 1800.

Thus emerged the principle of the unavailability of the crown — no person or body could divert the succession from the lawful heir. The throne would pass by the sheer force of custom, not by the testament of the king, or by any edict, decree, or treaty, or by the generosity of any person. By this principle, the French do not consider Henry VI of England as a legitimate king of France.

The succession in 1589 Edit

The House of Valois had secured the principle of agnatic succession following their victory in the Hundred Years War. When the senior line of the Valois became extinct, they were followed by the Valois-Orléans line descended from Louis I, Duke of Orléans, younger brother of Charles VI, and then, by the Valois-Angoulême line descended from a younger son of Louis I.

Henry II of France was succeeded by his sons, none of whom would succeed in producing a male heir. The sons of Henry II would be the last heirs male of Philip III of France. Right after them ranked the Bourbons, descended from a younger brother of Philip III.

Thus, with the death of François, Duke of Anjou, younger brother of King Henry III of France, the heir presumptive became the Head of the House of Bourbon, Henry III, King of Navarre. Since Henry was a Protestant, most of Catholic France found him unacceptable. By the Treaty of Nemours, the Catholic League attempted to disinherit the King of Navarre by recognizing Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, Navarre's uncle, as heir. Navarre had been excommunicated by Pope Sixtus V.

On his deathbed, Henry III called for Henry of Navarre, and begged him, in the name of Statecraft, to become a Catholic, citing the brutal warfare that would ensue if he refused. In keeping with Salic law, he named Navarre as his heir.

On Henry III's death in 1589, the League proclaimed the Cardinal de Bourbon king, while he was still a prisoner of Henry III in the castle of Chinon. He was recognized as Charles X by the Parliament of Paris on 21 November 1589. With Henry III's death, custody of the Cardinal fell to Navarre (now Henry IV of France), the Cardinal's nephew. When the old Cardinal died in 1590, the League could not agree on a new candidate. The Catholic League had great hopes for Charles, Duke of Guise, whom they considered to elect as king. However, the Duke of Guise declared his support for Henry IV of France in 1594, for which Henry paid him four million livres and made him Governor of Provence. Some supported Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, the daughter of Philip II of Spain and Elisabeth of France, eldest daughter of Henry II of France. The prominence of her candidacy hurt the League, which became suspect as agents of the Spanish.

For a time, Henry IV attempted to take his kingdom by conquest. For this, he had to capture Paris, which was defended by the Catholic League and the Spanish. Despite the campaigns between 1590 and 1592, Henry IV was "no closer to capturing Paris". Realizing that Henry III had been right and that there was no prospect of a Protestant king succeeding in resolutely Catholic Paris, Henry agreed to convert, reputedly stating "Paris vaut bien une messe" ("Paris is well worth a Mass"). He was formally received into the Catholic Church in 1593, and was crowned at Chartres in 1594 as League members maintained control of the Cathedral of Rheims, and, skeptical of Henry's sincerity, continued to oppose him. He was finally received into Paris in March 1594, and 120 League members in the city who refused to submit were banished from the capital. Paris' capitulation encouraged the same of many other towns, while others returned to support the crown after Pope Clement VIII absolved Henry, revoking his excommunication in return for the publishing of the Tridentine Decrees, the restoration of Catholicism in Béarn, and appointing only Catholics to high office.

With the success of Henry IV, the principles of the French succession were kept inviolable. The kingship of Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, as Charles X, was delegitimized, having been contrary to these principles. A new requirement to the French succession was recognized: the King of France must be Catholic. Yet since religion could be changed, it could not be the basis for permanent exclusion from the throne.

The Bourbons in Spain Edit

Louis XIV, grandson of Henry IV, was the longest-reigning king in European history. Louis XIV had only one son to survive to adulthood, the Dauphin Louis. The Dauphin, in turn, had three sons: Louis, Duke of Burgundy, Philip, Duke of Anjou, and Charles, Duke of Berry.

In 1700, Charles II of Spain died. His heir, in accordance to cognatic primogeniture followed in Spain, would have been the Dauphin Louis. However, since the Dauphin was the heir to the French throne, and the Duke of Burgundy was in turn the Dauphin's heir, Charles II settled his succession on the Duke of Anjou in order to prevent the union of France and Spain.

Most European rulers accepted Philip as King of Spain, though some only reluctantly. Louis XIV confirmed that Philip V retained his French rights despite his new Spanish position. Admittedly, he may only have been hypothesizing a theoretical eventuality and not attempting a Franco-Spanish union. However, Louis also sent troops to the Spanish Netherlands, evicting Dutch garrisons and securing Dutch recognition of Philip V. In 1701, he transferred the asiento to France, alienating English traders. He also acknowledged James Stuart, James II's son, as king on the latter's death. These actions enraged Britain and the United Provinces. Consequently, with the Emperor and the petty German states, they formed another Grand Alliance, declaring war on France in 1702. French diplomacy, however, secured Bavaria, Portugal and Savoy as Franco-Spanish allies.

Thus, the War of the Spanish Succession began. The war, over a decade long, was concluded by the treaties of Utrecht (1713) and Rastatt (1714). The allies were bent on removing Philip V from the succession to the French throne he only agreed to this after the semi-Salic law was successfully enacted in Spain.

However, the fact remained that the Treaty of Utrecht had disregarded the French principles of succession. Indeed, taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by Louis XIV's death in 1715, Philip announced he would claim the French crown if the infant Louis XV died. [3]

The validity of the renunciations were not debated in public until the French Revolution, when the National Assembly first addressed this issue in a three-day session beginning on 15 September 1789. After many debates, the Assembly voted on a final text of a statement defining the succession to the Crown. This read: "The crown is hereditary from male to male, by order of primogeniture, with the absolute exclusion of women and their descendants, without prejudging the effect of renunciations". The Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Fernan Nuñez wrote to the Spanish Prime Minister, the Count of Floridablanca, that same date: "All the clergy and the major part of the nobility and also of the Third Estate has pronounced for the resolution favorable to the House of Spain… by 698 votes to 265 the majority had concluded the question in a sense again most advantageous for us. "

In 1791 the French National Assembly drew up a new, written Constitution to which the King gave his assent, and which governed France for the last year of the 18th century monarchy. For the first time it was necessary to define formally, as a matter of statutory constitutional law, the system of succession, and the titles, privileges and prerogatives of the Crown. In debating the succession to the Crown the contemporary understanding of the law of succession was publicly clarified. It rebutted the assertion by some that the claim by the Spanish line is a late construct, made to satisfy the ambitions of princes deprived of other claims. Indeed, it is evident that the issue of the rights of the Spanish line to the French crown remained an important constitutional issue.

When the issue of the rights of the Spanish line arose, the Assembly voted to include a phrase in the article on the succession that implicitly protected their rights. That this was the purpose of the clause seems certain: hence the phrase in Title III, Chapter II, article I:

"The Kingship is indivisible, and delegated hereditarily to the reigning dynasty from male to male, by order of primogeniture, with the permanent exclusion of women and their descendants. (Nothing is prejudged on the effect of renunciations in the dynasty actually reigning)."

The end of a dynasty Edit

Louis XV had ten legitimate children, but there were only two sons, only one of whom survived to adulthood, Louis, Dauphin of France. This did not help dispel the concerns about the future of the dynasty should his male line fail, the succession would be disputed by a possible war of succession between the descendants of Philip V and the House of Orléans descended from the younger brother of Louis XIV.

The Dauphin Louis predeceased his father but left behind three sons, Louis Auguste, Duke of Berry, Louis Stanislas, Count of Provence and Charles Philippe, Count of Artois. The Duke of Berry succeeded his grandfather as King Louis XVI.

Louis XVI would be the only French king to be executed, during the French Revolution. For the first time, the Capetian monarchy had been overthrown. The monarchy would be restored under his younger brother, the Count of Provence, who took the name Louis XVIII in consideration of the dynastic seniority of his nephew, Louis, from 1793 to 1795 (the child never actually reigned). Louis XVIII died childless and was succeeded by his younger brother, the Count of Artois, as Charles X.

Compelled by what he felt to be a growing, manipulative radicalism in the elected government, Charles felt that his primary duty was the guarantee of order and happiness in France and its people not in political bipartisanship and the self-interpreted rights of implacable political enemies. He issued the Four Ordinances of Saint-Cloud, which was intended to quell the people of France. However, the ordinances had the opposite effect of angering the French citizens. In Paris, a committee of the liberal opposition had drawn up and signed a petition in which, they asked for the ordonnances to be withdrawn more surprising was their criticism "not of the King, but his ministers" – thereby disproving Charles X's conviction that his liberal opponents were enemies of his dynasty. Charles X considered the ordonnances vital to the safety and dignity of the French throne. Thus, he did not withdraw the ordonnances. This resulted in the July Revolution.

Charles X abdicated in favor of his 10-year-old grandson, Henri, Duke of Bordeaux, (forcing his son Louis Antoine to renounce his rights along the way) and naming Louis Philippe III, Duke of Orléans Lieutenant General of the Kingdom, charging him to announce to the popularly elected Chamber of Deputies his desire to have his grandson succeed him. Louis Philippe requested that the duke of Bordeaux was sent to Paris but both Charles X and the duchess of Berry refused to leave the child behind. [4] As a consequence, the chamber proclaimed the vacancy of the throne and designated Louis Philippe, who for eleven days had been acting as the regent for his small cousin, as the new French king, displacing the senior branch of the House of Bourbon.

The House of Orléans Edit

The House of Orléans took the throne in defiance of the principles of the Capetian monarchy, and could be viewed as a separate institution altogether.

Upon his accession to the throne, Louis Philippe assumed the title of King of the French – a title already adopted by Louis XVI in the short-lived Constitution of 1791. Linking the monarchy to a people instead of a territory (as the previous designation King of France and of Navarre) was aimed at undercutting the legitimist claims of Charles X and his family.

By an ordinance he signed on 13 August 1830, the new king defined the manner in which his children, as well as his sister, would continue to bear the surname "d'Orléans" and the arms of Orléans, declared that his eldest son, as Prince Royal (not Dauphin), would bear the title Duke of Orléans, that the younger sons would continue to have their previous titles, and that his sister and daughters would only be styled Princesses of Orléans, not of France.

The government of Louis Philippe grew increasingly conservative over the years. After ruling for 18 years, the 1848 wave of revolutions reached France and overthrew Louis Philippe. The king abdicated in favor of his nine-year-old grandson, Philippe, Count of Paris. The National Assembly initially planned to accept young Philippe as king, but the strong current of public opinion rejected that. On 26 February, the Second Republic was proclaimed.

First French Empire Edit

Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) came to power by a military coup on Nov 10, 1799. The regime he put in place was headed by three Consuls, and he was the First Consul. He became Consul for Life in 1802, and then transformed the regime into a hereditary monarchy in 1804. The rules of succession as set down in the constitution are: [5]

  • The legitimate heir to the imperial throne should pass firstly to Napoleon I's own legitimate male descendants through the male line, excluding women and their issue. Napoléon could adopt a son or grandson (aged 18 or more) of one of his brothers, if he had no children of his own. No other adoptions were allowed.
  • In default of Napoléon's line (of the body or adoptive), the succession calls Joseph and his line, followed by Louis and his line. His other brothers, Lucien Bonaparte and Jérôme Bonaparte, and their descendants, were omitted from the succession, even though Lucien was older than Louis, because they had either politically opposed the emperor or made marriages of which he disapproved.
  • Princes were forbidden from marrying without prior consent, on pain of losing their succession rights and excluding their issue but if the marriage ended without children, the prince would recover his rights.
  • Upon extinction of the legitimate natural and adopted males, agnatic descendants of Napoleon I, and those of two of his brothers, Joseph and Louis, the Grand Dignitaries of the Empire (non-dynastic princely and ducal houses) would submit a proposal to the Senate, to be approved by referendum, choosing a new emperor.

At the time the law of succession was decreed Napoleon I had no legitimate sons, and it seemed unlikely he would have any due to the age of his wife, Josephine of Beauharnais. His eventual response was an unacceptable one, in the eyes of Catholic France, of engineering a dubious annulment, without papal approval, of his marriage to Josephine and undertaking a second marriage to the younger Mary Louise of Austria, with whom he had one son, Napoleon, King of Rome, also as Napoleon II and the Duke of Reichstadt. He was not married and had no children, thus leaving no further direct descendants of Napoleon I.

The law was proclaimed on May 20, 1804. No contradiction was seen between France being a Republic and it being governed by an Emperor. Indeed, until 1809, French coins bore "République Française" on one side and "Napoléon Empereur" on the other, pursuant to a decree of June 26, 1804 the legend on the reverse was replaced by "Empire français" by decree of October 22, 1808). This was a return to the Roman use of the word Emperor (Augustus was officially only the First Citizen, rather than monarch, of the Roman Republic).

Second French Empire Edit

In 1852, Napoleon III, having restored the Bonapartes to power in France, enacted a new decree on the succession. The claim first went to his own male legitimate descendants in the male line.

If his own direct line died out, the new decree allowed the claim to pass to Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon I's youngest brother who had previously been excluded, and his male descendants by Princess Catharina of Württemberg in the male line. His descendants by his original marriage to the American commoner Elizabeth Patterson, of which Napoleon I had greatly disapproved, were excluded.

The only remaining Bonapartist claimants since 1879, and today, have been descendants of Jérôme Bonaparte and Catherina of Württemberg in the male line.

Failure of the Restoration Edit

In 1871, royalists became the majority in the National Assembly. There were two claimants to the French royal legacy: Henri d'Artois, Count of Chambord, and Philippe d'Orléans, Count of Paris. The former were supported by the Legitimists, supporters of the elder line of the Bourbons, and the Orléanists, liberal constitutional monarchists that had supported Louis Philippe and his line. Since the Count of Chambord was childless, and was expected to remain so, the Orléans line agreed to support the Count of Chambord.

Raised however, by his grandfather Charles X of France, as if the Revolution never happened, the Count of Chambord insisted that he would only take the crown if France would abandon the tricolour flag in favor of the white fleur de lys flag. He refused to compromise this point, which upset the restoration of the monarchy. The Orléans did not oppose him, and did not make an immediate claim to the throne while the Count of Chambord lived. The Count of Chambord lived, however, longer than expected. At the time of his death, monarchists no longer held a majority of the legislature and the impetus behind the monarchical restoration was lost.

Thus, after the death of the Count of Chambord, the Orléans line had two distinct claims to the throne of France: the right derived from Orléanist theory, as heirs of Louis Philippe and the right derived from Legitimist theory, as heirs of Hugh Capet.

Legitimists and Orléanists Edit

The death of the Count of Chambord split the Legitimists in two camps [ citation needed ] . Most acknowledged the House of Orléans as the new royal house [ citation needed ] . Yet a party, with a hatred for that house, recognized the Carlists of Spain, then the eldest descendants of Philip V of Spain. The Orléanist party derisively called them the Blancs d'Espagne (Spanish Whites), for having supported a Spanish prince over a French prince. In later times the Orléanist and Legitimist claims of the House of Orléans was merged into the name of Orléanist, as the pro-Spanish party assumed the name of Legitimists.

The unacceptability of the House of Orléans to the Blancs d'Espagne stems from the actions of two ancestors of that house — Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, also known as Philippe Egalite, and his son Louis Philippe, later King of the French. According to Charles Dumoulin, a French jurist of the sixteenth century, treason is one case wherein a person of the royal blood could be deprived of his succession to the throne. [6] Philippe Egalite had voted for the abolition of the monarchy, the guilt of Louis XVI of France, and the death sentence for that unhappy monarch. His son, Louis Philippe, restored in royal favor following the Bourbon Restoration, appointed lieutenant-general of the kingdom during the final days of the reign of Charles X of France, overthrew the senior line by accepting kingship for himself. [7]

The Legitimist stand is that the succession to the throne is based on customs and precedents thereafter unalterable. The heir to the throne, according to those customs, is the heir of Louis XIV, who cannot be excluded. The Orléanist stand is that the laws of succession could be altered, and that among those customs and precedents is the requirement that the heir must be French. The heir to the throne, according to them, is the Orléans line, since not one of Philip V's descendants was French when the succession opened in 1883. [7]

In the Treaty of Utrecht, Philip V of Spain renounced his right of succession to the French throne on the condition that the semi-Salic law of succession should be instituted in Spain. For Legitimists the treaty is void ab initio, since the succession law cannot be altered in this way. Further, assuming arguendo that the treaty is valid, the repeal of semi-Salic law in Spain had broken the condition of the renunciation the purpose of the treaty — the separation of the crowns of France and Spain — has been served, since the King of Spain is not the heir to France. [8] For Orléanists the treaty is a valid alteration to the French law of succession. Further, Louis Philippe was the last official First Prince of the Blood, who were, by tradition, immediate heir to the throne after the royal family itself.

The second point of contention between the Legitimists and the Orléanists is the nationality requirement. For Orléanists, foreign-born heirs forfeit their right of succession to estates in France by the law of aubain. Foreigners include, apart from the usual definition, those Frenchmen who left without intent of returning. They also cite the opinion of Charles Dumoulin, a French jurist of the sixteenth century:

Common sense requires that princes of the blood who have become foreigners be excluded from the throne just as the male descendants of princesses. The exclusion of both is in the spirit of the fundamental custom, which overlooks the royal blood in princesses only to prevent the scepter from falling in foreign hands. [9]

For this reason, Orléanists also exclude the Orléans-Braganza (Brazilians) and Orléans-Galliera (Spanish), junior descendants of Louis Philippe, King of the French, from the succession to the French throne.

Legitimists and Orléanists cite numerous examples and counter-examples of foreigners included and excluded in the French line of succession. [9] [10] There is no clear precedent on whether foreigners ought to be included or excluded. But in 1573, the Duke of Anjou, the future Henry III of France, who was elected King of Poland, had been assured by letters patent that his rights to the French throne would not lapse, nor those of any children he may have, even though they were to be born outside France. Similar letters patent were issued for Philip V of Spain, but later withdrawn. In these instances, the French court had shown themselves ready to recognize that the Capetian blood right overcame the law of aubain. [6] For Orléanists, the function of the letters patent was to preserve the French nationality of Philip V and his descendants, and with those letters patent withdrawn, they ceased to be French. [9]

Supporters of the Orleans cite the text of the letters patent in question for their evidence that the purpose of the letters was to preserve the French status of Henry III and his heirs, stating that they would remain "original and régnicoles." [11] A régnicole was someone who was naturally French or "every man who was born in the kingdom, country, lands and lordships of the obedience of the King of France." [12]

How Did Napoleon Come to Power in France?

Napoleon came into power in France due to military success in Italy, as well as his attack on the French Revolutionary government while it was under assault by a Parisian mob. On November 9th and 10th, 1799, he was put into power with two other consuls, Sieyes and Ducos.

Napoleon was able to take advantage of a situation where the French government was bankrupt and inflation, unemployment and taxation were continuing to climb. There was a fear in France that a Jacobin resurgence or royalist resurgence would come, and Napoleon was a strong military general who had continually won against the British. This led the people to believe that this was a sign that Napoleon should be the leader.

Napoleon was officially given the title of First Consul on December 13, 1799, and was given full executive powers. It was also on this day that the new constitution for France was proclaimed to all. A short 5 years later, Napoleon would become the first Emperor of France.

Napoleon was born in 1769 and died in 1821. He is remembered for his ambition to expand his country through the military. He also reorganized education while in office, rebuilt and added additional power to the military training programs and created the Concordat with the Pope.

What Impact Did Napoleon Have on Europe?

Napoleon ended the French Revolution, created the Napoleonic code of civil law and waged conquest throughout Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon's ideals of freedom, social equality and abolishing European feudalism impacted many European nations.

Ended the French Revolution The French Revolution was a tumultuous time in France. Political upheaval was constant as the people of France suffered through a successive cycle of regimes taking power and then failing. Napoleon ended this when he took power. He gave the country a strong economy backed by silver and gold. He established religious freedom and low prices for basic foods to keep the citizens from starving. Not only did he improve life in France but he established legal precedents for civil law that are still recognized today. All of Napoleon's accomplishments helped him maintain his power and stability.

Napoleonic Codes These legal precedents, referred to as the Napoleonic codes, divided civil law into three distinct categories: personal status, property and the acquisition of property. This system influenced many of the legal systems that would subsequently develop throughout the Atlantic Ocean.

The Codes involving personal status included the establishment of all male citizens as equal and disregarded the previous establishment of rule by class and nobility. Also, the Code enforced freedom and civil rights. Also, it put women below men, who were in charge of all matters surrounding family property and children. The Code also established property rights as well as the process for contracts.

Although Napoleon wrote the Code for France, many other countries adopted similar translations following its initial implementation. It is still actively in place in some Latin American countries. Napoleon recognized his contribution to the countries around the world as his most timeless and enduring.

Conquests and Ideologies Napoleon was also one of the greatest generals in military history. He conquered many European nations and spread ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity throughout Europe. The leaders of competing empires did not like this, as it challenged the feudalism and aristocratic status quo that protected the higher echelons of society. Despite Napoleon's eventual defeat and exile, he had a supreme impact on the shaping of European politics.

Napoleon's Exile
In 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, a Mediterranean Island. He was forced into exile when he miscalculated an invasion of Russia. Within the year, Napoleon escaped and regained his power as Napoleon I, but quickly lost the Battle of Waterloo and exiled a second time to Saint Helena as a British prisoner. During the second exile, Napoleon died of causes which are still undetermined, but some believe it was stomach cancer. While he was on Saint Helena, he was on an island with no chances of escape.

Napoleon's Contributions to Elba Interestingly enough, Napoleon's time in exile in Elba was not completely in isolation or without its merits. His mother and sister lived there in big mansions, and he had lovers. Napoleon even improved the infrastructure of the island, increased agriculture. He also improved the school and legal systems. The people of Elba still commemorate Napoleon to this day with a parade on the day of his death during his exile in Saint Helena.

6 Major Accomplishments Of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte is hailed as one of the greatest rulers, military commanders and conquerors in the history of mankind. He is also infamous for plundering wealth and building a massive personal fortune. However, every coin has two sides. Napoleon Bonaparte was the outcome of the socioeconomic and political crisis that existed in France towards the end of the eighteenth century. There was inflation, unemployment, religious problems and financial crisis. The society and people at large were benefited by some of Napoleon Bonaparte major accomplishments.

1. Napoleon Bonaparte succeeded in finding a midway between religious leaders and revolutionary reforms that urged the nationalization of lands and assets owned by the church. Catholic was made a state religion but the concordat of 1801 also assured freedom of worship. Frenchmen could own land and even transfer their properties. He relinquished feudalism. He was a skilled administrator and that showed in how he structured the administration of France. He curbed down on corruption, inefficiency and embezzlement. He centralized the administrative departments and had mayors and prefects to govern the communes and departments. The officers were directly appointed by him and were thus loyal and also accountable to him. He succeeded in maintaining law and order.

2. Napoleon reformed the education system. He is considered as the harbinger of modern French education. He brought in semi military schools, secondary schools and specialized education focusing on science, math, political and military science.

3. Napoleon improved the commercial and industrial sectors. He made trade restrictions lenient, reduced corruption and enhanced support from the government. Loans were made available from the Central Bank of France. He encouraged trade and small businesses that attended to the problem of unemployment.

4. Not only did Napoleon Bonaparte succeed in restoring peace, the rule of law and cordial order in the society, he also managed to promote agriculture. His government started spending on agriculture, brought in land reforms, promoted better drainage systems and the use of various kinds of modern methods of farming. Under his reign, France recorded a staggering growth in the production of food crops.

5. Napoleon changed the tax system. People were fairly taxed, assessed based on their assets and what they truly owed. Discretion and any kind of predatory taxation were not permitted. People could directly pay their taxes, thus avoiding corrupt officials and siphoning of funds.

6. One of the finest Napoleon Bonaparte major accomplishments was The Code Napoleon. The Code Napoleon was a set of laws. There was the criminal and civil code, commercial and military code along with penal code.

Ten Famous Things Napoleon Bonaparte Never Said

Napoleon Bonaparte is probably one of the most quoted men in history. Take, for example, his legendary quip to his foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, when the minister conspired to have him overthrown.

“You are s***, Talleyrand…s*** in silk stockings,” the Emperor of France allegedly said.

But only saying that it was “a pity that so great a man should have been so badly brought up,” as Talleyrand remarked when the emperor had left the room after the insult, would not do Napoleon justice.

In fact, many a famous quote can be attributed to Napoleon, like “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap” or “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.” And that is just to name two of the many witty things he said during his life.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord by François Gérard, 1808

However, despite the Frenchman’s obvious cunning and intelligence, many of the quotes attributed to him were either never voiced by him or were merely rephrased quotations ascribed to other famous men. Let’s take a look at ten outstanding statements that are falsely assigned or credited to Napoleon.

“England is a nation of shopkeepers.”

Anyone who has read The Wealth of Nations, the so-called magnum opus of economics by the renowned British economist, author, and philosopher Adam Smith, will recognize this as Smith’s words. He was the pioneer of political economy, a central figure during the Scottish Enlightenment and, many say, the Father of Economics or Capitalism.

Portrait of the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) by an unknown artist, which is known as the ‘Muir portrait’ after the family who once owned it. The portrait was probably painted posthumously, based on a medallion by James Tassie.

It was Adam Smith who first described Great Britain as a nation of shopkeepers:

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may, at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

Napoleon, as the clever man and avid reader he was, had of course read Adam Smith’s famous work – and he cunningly used the economist’s words as an insult to the British because of their staunch resistance to his plans.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812

“An army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions, led by a sheep.”

Now, this one goes as far back as the indefatigable Macedonian General Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. And even then, Alexander probably cadged the words and changed a few things said by another wily and ancient Greek commander, for the Spartan General Chabrias had said, “I should prefer an army of stags led by a lion, to an army of lions led by a stag.”

There is no evidence that Napoleon ever said either of the aforementioned versions, although one has to admit that the words do sound like something he might have said.

Chabrias (left) with Spartan king Agesilaus (center), in the service of Egyptian king Nectanebo I and his regent Teos, Egypt 361 BCE.

“An army travels on its stomach.”

This one is attributed to either Frederick the Great of Prussia or Napoleon. Having said that, Napoleon did not phrase the sentiment that way. Instead, he said, “The basic principle that we must follow in directing the armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.”

Frederick the Great inspects the potato harvest outside Neustettin (now Szczecinek, Poland), Eastern Pomerania

“God always favors the big battalions.”

This one is a classic example of a great man rephrasing the words of other exceptional men.

“Providence is always on the side of the big battalions” was a proverbial saying in the early 19th century. Earlier versions are attributed to the Comte de Bussy-Rabutin (1618-93), “God is usually on the side of the big squadrons against the small,” and Voltaire (1694-1778), “God is on the side not of the heavy battalions but of the best shots.”

Comte Roger de Bussy-Rabutin.Photo: Arnaud 25 CC BY-SA 3.0

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Many people credit U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower with this quote. Others insist that it was General George Patton who said it. Yet others believe that it was Napoleon who uttered the words.

In truth, the general observation actually belongs to the mid-nineteenth century Prussian Field Marshall Helmut von Moltke whose phraseology was not as pithy: “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.”

It is most likely that his statement was adapted over time and, judging by the conciseness of the above quote, that particular one is most likely American in origin. However, we cannot be sure.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

“I gave them a whiff of grapeshot.”

Sure, that sounds cocksure and very much like something a confident military man like Napoleon might have said. However, if you take a moment and attempt to translate the above words into French, you will find that they really do not translate all that well.

The French word for grapeshot is mitraille, and the closest you would get to “whiff” is bouffée, so accordingly the above quote could be translated into “Une bouffée de mitraille.”

Napoleon Bonaparte, aged 23, lieutenant-colonel of a battalion of Corsican Republican volunteers. Portrait by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux.

A “whiff” has something decidedly Anglo-Saxon about it, so one might guess the quote is most likely something conceived in the mind of an English-speaking novelist or historian.

And that is the case here. “A whiff of grapeshot” is the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle in his book The French Revolution: A History. It was published in 1837, sixteen years after the death of Napoleon.

Thomas Carlyle in 1854

“Not tonight Josephine.”

Men are always up for it, right? Wrong! Apparently, Napoleon was not always in the mood to make sweet love to his wife, Josephine. But did he say the above words to his wife? Maybe—we cannot be sure of the happenings in the privacy of the emperor and empress’ bedroom.

Nevertheless, it is more likely that the above phrase was the creation of English satirists who loved to mock one of history’s greatest love affairs.

Joséphine, Viscountess of Beauharnais, Duchess of Navarre

“You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.”

Yes, Napoleon did say this. However—and again, there is nothing wrong with this—he sponged off a more ancient historical figure in the form of Plutarch.

Marengo was ridden by Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815 where he was defeated by the British

“Give me lucky generals.”

This is another quote that is often attributed to Napoleon, but there is no evidence to suggest he ever said the words. If he did, then as an avid amateur historian he probably based them on something Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France in the 17th century, said.

Mazarin had noted that one must not ask of a general “Est-il habile?” (“Is he skillful?”), but rather “Est-il heureux?” (“Is he lucky?”)

Retreat of Napoleon on 19 October 1813, showing the explosion of the bridge

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The above quote is often accredited to Napoleon, but there is simply no evidence to suggest he said it.

Some people claim that the quote is from the 1980 compilation of Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, edited by Arthur Bloch.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.1828

However, it can safely be said that the above words belong to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the man who embodies German classical literature. In his work The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, he wrote “Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.”

The research of important and meaningful citations is a precise art, which is as fickle in its execution as April weather. So while Napoleon Bonaparte said a lot of wise things, he cannot be credited with every witticism ever uttered. Moreover, as we have seen, he, like the rest of us, occasionally pinched the odd phrase from other learned men. It is thanks to his fame that so many familiar sayings were easily linked to him.

“Sleeping China” and Napoleon

Napoleon liked a good apothegm. Bourrienne recorded (almost contemporaneously) how the First Consul liked the expression “England is a nation of shopkeepers” – a bon mot snitched from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. Much later, the Abbé de Pradt noted the Emperor’s predilection (in 1812) for the maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” – which Napoleon must have heard (or read) but not invented, since that wise old saw had been current in France since the 1760s. Other folk too around him appreciated his curious ability for striking turns of phrase. And fascination for the great man’s pearls of wisdom carried on beyond the glory years, as the St Helena literature shows. Indeed, a selection of more than three hundred quotes were to be published in English in 1820, supposedly found amongst the papers confiscated from Las Cases in 1816. And Balzac would famously go so far as to invent some remarks that Napoleon probably should have said, and in an edition of those maxims the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, would make annotations… but I am getting ahead of myself.

This piece concerns my search for the source (not of the Nile…) but rather of the recently celebrated, and supposedly Napoleonic remark, “Let China sleep. For when she wakes, the world will tremble”.

The Dictionnaire Napoléon, published by Fayard (most recent edition dated 1999 and edited by Jean Tulard), notes that the expression was probably not uttered by the Emperor. In other places, Jean Tulard (not just the founder of modern Napoleonic studies but also a published film specialist) remarked that, as far as he knew, the first occurrence of the words was in the 1963 Allied Artists film, “55 days at Peking”. There, Elizabeth Sellars reminds her husband David Niven (British ambassador in China during the Boxer Rebellion (1900)) of Napoleon’s warning that when China rouses from its slumber, all hell will break loose. The quotation is specific to the screenplay by principle scriptwriter, Bernard Gordon, since the remark and attribution do not appear in either the English or French versions of the 1963 book by Noel Gerson (written under the pseudonym Samuel Edwards). One would have thought they ought to since, as the front cover of the book proclaims, the book was “based on the screenplay”.

So, 1963 is a first occurrence of the quotation attributed to Napoleon.

Where did scriptwriter Bernard Gordon get his quote from?

The waters were significantly muddied ten years after the film, when the French political commentator, Alain Peyrefitte, made the prophetic remark the title of his book (Quand la Chine s’éveillera… le monde tremblera, Fayard, 1973, written in French). In this book, Peyrefitte claimed that Lenin had quoted it (attributing it to Napoleon) in the last text the Russian ever wrote (published in 1923) entitled “Fewer but better”, the implication being that, since it is earlier than the film and Lenin quoted the remark in 1923, it must be earlier than Lenin and so possibly authentic. And in addition to the reference to Lenin, Peyrefitte also proposed the possibility that Napoleon had said it on St Helena: either after reading the French translation of Lord Macartney’s description of his visit to China in 1792-1795 or during Lord Amherst’s visit to Longwood in 1817 – the British diplomat was coming back from his embassy to China in 1816. In 2012, in a special issue of the Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, Jacques Macé (building on Peyrefitte’s conclusions) imagined that Lenin had been ferreting around at the British Library (London) in “the 1890s” [sic] and had dug up the quotation in Lord Amherst’s private journal (now lost). Unfortunately for the French writer, he placed Lenin’s visit a decade too early – still existing reader tickets for the library prove that the Russian’s work sessions there date from 1902 to 1911… Worse, Lenin could not have consulted Amherst’s journal at the British Library since the text was never held by that institution – the five volumes are listed as missing from the British National Archives. In an Edinburgh PhD thesis (2013 – available online), Hao Gao surmises that the five volumes of Lord Amherst’s private journal were lost when the ship, Alceste, carrying Lord Amherst’s baggage ran aground and was pillaged by Malay pirates on the return journey from China in 1817. Worse still (if possible…), the quote does not appear in Lenin’s 1923 text… [1]

Since Lord Amherst’s private journal was available neither to Lenin nor (probably) to anyone else, it is unlikely to be the source for the quotation.

What, then, about Lord Amherst’s companions, also present at the 1817 meeting with Napoleon and who also published their accounts? Did they mention the quotation?

In 1818, Henry Ellis, later principal librarian at the British Library, not only published an account of the 1816 delegation to China, but also included at the end of his book an account of the interview with Napoleon – he alas, does not mention the Emperor’s notable remark, despite noting that Napoleon had the habit of expressing himself ‘epigrammatically’, perhaps so that people might quote him later! Ellis’s private papers (not published in 1818) included a more personal account of the interview. This was to be brought out ten or so years later as an appendix in Sir Walter Scott’s great biography of Napoleon (1827) – still however without the quote. Three other members of the delegation, John Macleod, Clarke Abel, and Basil Hall, also published (in 1817, 1818 and 1826, respectively) accounts of the 1817 meeting with Napoleon, none of which mentions the China remark.

Did Napoleon ever say anything about China?

We do know, however, that China was the subject of imperial conversation at St Helena. With Lord Amherst and his companions (and indeed Las Cases and O’Meara), Napoleon’s remarks were largely related to Amherst’s well-known diplomatic faux pas of refusing to perform “ko to” (an extreme form of obeisance from which the verb ‘to kowtow’ comes) before the Chinese Emperor. However, the French Emperor did discuss China in other ways. Las Cases notes for 3 November 1816 in the recently published proto-version of the Mémorial: “During and after his bath, Napoleon had me talk a great deal about Lord Macartney, China and England”. No details transpire unfortunately regarding the conversation. The day before, the Emperor had been reading parts of Macartney’s five-volume account that had been translated into French, the last volume appearing in 1804.

That being said, not all Chinese-related events elicited a response from Napoleon. When the Chinese fleet arrived at St Helena seven months earlier in March 1816, Las Cases records no remarks of Napoleon’s regarding China.

As for something like the “Let China sleep…” prediction, amongst the texts from St Helena, only Barry O’Meara’s notes come anywhere close (and even then, not very). The Irish doctor recorded Napoleon doubting the wisdom of going to war with China as follows:

  • “It would be the worst thing you have done for a number of years, to go to war with an immense empire like China, and possessing so many resources. You would doubtless, at first, succeed, take what vessels they have, and destroy their trade but you would teach them their own strength. They would be compelled to adopt measures to defend themselves against you they would consider, and say, ‘we must try to make ourselves equal to this nation. Why should we suffer a people, so far away, to do as they please to us? We must build ships, we must put guns into them, we must render ourselves equal to them.’ They would,” continued the emperor, “get artificers and ship-builders from France and America, even from London they would build a fleet, and, in the course of time, defeat you.” [2]
  • “Now great commercial advantage may be lost to England, and perhaps a war with China be the consequence. If I were an Englishman, I should esteem the man who advised a war with China to be the greatest enemy to my country in existence. You would in the end be beaten, and perhaps a revolution in India would follow.” [3]
  • “You ought to monopolize the whole China trade to yourselves. Instead of going to war with the Chinese, it were better to make war with nations who desire to trade with them.” [4]

In a similar vein, Napoleon spoke to Las Cases of invading Mongol hordes, supposedly on 6 November 1816 (published in 1823 in the Mémorial): “He [Napoleon, ed.] also believed the descriptions of the armies of Gengiskan and Tamerlane, however numerous they are said to have been because they were followed by gregarious nations, who, on their part, were joined by other wandering tribes as they advanced ‘and it is not impossible’, observed the Emperor, ‘that this may one day be the case in the Europe. The revolution produced by the Huns, the cause of which is unknown, because the tract is lost in the desert, may at a future period be renewed.’” No real sign of this all too famous quotation.

So, if Napoleon didn’t say it, did someone else?

Whilst we have no proof that Napoleon actually explicitly came to this (in the end, logical) conclusion, there were others who in fact did, and furthermore in print. Towards the end of the 19 th century, in the wake not only of the opening up of Japan to the world and Siamese attempts to avoid invasion, but also the Franco-British Second Opium War in 1860, the idea of China awakening from its (conservative) slumber seems to have become (relatively speaking) a commonplace amongst English speakers talking about China, as the following randomly found passages (arranged chronologically from 1877-95) would imply:

  • “unless indeed China awakes from her secular sleep and becomes a great power, which is not impossible” [5]
  • “when at length the conservatism of China awakes from its sleep of ages” [6]
  • “When China awakes and commences railway building in earnest” [7]
  • China must awake from her sleep of ages”. [8]

Even French speakers were getting in on the act. In 1904, in a posthumously published article, the Marquis de Nadaillac noted:

  • “Maybe she [China, ed.] can emerge from this quagmire, maybe she can wake up, under leaders who are more energetic, who are more able. If this huge body, today inert, is not dead, then let the world tremble, for the yellow peril is huge, and vision in the mind’s eye of millions of Huns descending as conquerors upon Europe has nothing delightful about it. This was one of the predictions of Napoleon on St Helena.” [9]

And here Napoleon is, tantalisingly, added to the mix. It does however look more likely that the Marquis was referring to Napoleon’s ‘Hun’ remarks of 6 November 1816, already noted above, and not referring to the apparently spurious quotation.

Can we draw a conclusion?

The idea that China at some point might wake up and cause the world to react was current from at least 1877 and possibly earlier. However, that the Emperor drew the same conclusion 60 years earlier, though possible, is not proven. In the end, it just looks like Bernard Gordon (or even Elizabeth Sellars, since the words do not appear in the screenplay) simply made the attribution up…


The American scriptwriter Bernard Gordon lived in Vaucresson (near Versailles) and also in the 16 th arrondissement in Paris in the 1960s. In his autobiography, Hollywood Exile, [10] there is one real Napoleonic reference. He notes that his apartment near Boulevard Suchet belonged to the Count and Madame de Bearn, and that it contained “a unique, original crayon portrait of Napoleon” […] “a gift from Napoleon to an ancestor who had been a lady-in-waiting for Napoleon and Josephine”. Shortly after moving into the apartment, Gordon wrote with Philip Yordan the screenplay for “55 days at Peking”. According to Gordon, that title was seen by Yordan’s second wife, Merlyn, in a bookshop in London in the 1960s – Gordon had initially chosen “Boxer Rebellion” as a title. Despite several other screenwriters being brought in to help Gordon finish the script, their input (according to Gordon) was minimal. That being said, two other names do appear on the poster. Gordon himself was to claim the sole credit for the screenplay in 1997 – his name had not appeared as principle on the poster since he had been blacklisted in the US during the Macarthy era.

Thank you to Charles W. Hayford (see also his letter, “Wake-up call” (Letter to the Editor),” Economist (2 August 1997): 8) for the following further information (I quote from an email from him to me):

“However, it doesn’t turn out that its earliest appearance was through [Elizabeth Sellars’] lips in 55 Days at Peking. The screenwriters could have seen it on the cover of Time in December 1958.

The earliest use that […] Google found in English was in 1911, but there must be earlier ones:
• “Napoleon is reported to have said: ‘There sleeps China! God pity us if she wakes. Let her sleep!’ The commonest figure of speech concerning the Empire has been that of a sleeping giant: ‘the awakening of China’ is a stereotyped phrase.” William T. Ellis, “China in Revolution,” The Outlook (28 October 1911): 458″

[1] The word “Napoleon” or “Bonaparte” received 44 entries in the 45-volume French translation of the works of Lenin, Oeuvres de Lénine, (Editions Sociales, 1976), vols. 1, 9, 10, 13, 14, 24, 25, 27, 28, 31, 33, 38, 39. At no point does Lenin mention this Napoleon quotation.

[2] B. E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile or A Voice from St Helena, London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1822, vol. 1, 26 March, 1817, p. 472.

[3] O’Meara, op. cit., vol. 2, 27 May, 1817, p. 68ff.

[4] O’Meara, op. cit., vol. 2, 22 September 1817, p. 234.

[5] The Nineteenth Century, vol. I, March July 1877, p. 306. For a modern discussion of the birth (at any rate, in English- (and not French-) speaking lands), see Rudolph Wagner, “China ‘Asleep’ and ‘Awakening’: A Study in Conceptualizing Asymmetry and Coping with It,” Transcultural Studies (2011): https://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/transcultural/article/view/7315/2920, esp. pp. 58 ff. Thanks to Charles W. Hayford for this reference [added in June 2020].

[6] In Peterson’s Magazine, Volume 92, C.J. Peterson, 1887, p. 92.

[7] In Public Opinion, Volume 9, 1890, p. 138.

[8] In The Gospel in All Lands, Methodist Episcopal Church. Missionary Society, 1895, p. 237.

[9] In Le Correspondant, vol. 217 (ed. Charles Douniol), 1904 p. 329: « Peut-elle [La Chine, ed.] sortir de ce marasme, se réveiller sous des chefs plus énergiques et plus capables. Si ce grand corps, aujourd’hui si inerte, n’est pas mort, que le monde tremble, le péril jaune est immense et la vision des Huns, se précipitant en conquérants sur l’Europe, avec leurs millions d’hommes, n’a rien d’agréable à envisager. C’était une des prédictions de Napoléon à Sainte Hélène. »

[10] Bernard Gordon, Hollywood Exile or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999, p.138.

1799: How did Napoleon actually Come to Power?

Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France on this day in 1799. It was 18 Brumaire according to the French revolutionary calendar. Specifically, the Gregorian calendar was abolished during the Revolution, and a new one was introduced, in which all months had exactly 30 days and carried the names of natural phenomena. Thus, the month Brumaire was named after fog (French “brume”), which is typical for this time of year.

Earlier during that year, Napoleon was in distant Egypt as the commander of the French revolutionary military expedition. He had the rank of general despite being only 29 years old. At the beginning of the year he led his army from Egypt to Palestine, to the birthplace of Christ in Galilee. The French army occupied even Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. They defeated the Turkish army on the famous Mount Tabor, but failed to take the fortified city of Akon, and eventually returned to Egypt.

In late summer of that year, Napoleon sailed from Egypt back to France. The country was then ruled by the so-called Directory, which was becoming increasingly hated by the people. Namely, the Directory was a specific government of five directors. The five of them shared executive power. However, as the state treasury became impoverished, the directors became unpopular and their power was waning.

At that moment, Napoleon came to France. He was popular there because of his military victories in Egypt. Napoleon decided to bring down the Directory and take the power himself. The coup was planned in advance by one of the five directors – Abbé Sieyès – who wanted to put himself at the head of government. However, when Sieyès saw how popular and powerful Napoleon was, he decided to join him. Another director – Ducos – also sided with them.

On this day, Sieyès and Ducos made it possible for Napoleon to be entrusted with the command of the army, which allowed Napoleon to perform the coup. Then they resigned to their positions of directors, and the cunning Talleyrand (later Napoleon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs) persuaded the third director, Barras, to resign as well, threatening him with military force.

Since three of five directors had resigned, the Directory government practically ceased to exist. The remaining two directors were Jacobins who frantically held their positions. However, Napoleon’s ally – General Moreau – had them arrested. Napoleon then only had to deal with the parliament. This was easy because Napoleon’s younger brother – Lucien Bonaparte – was at that time the chairman of parliament (called the “Council of Five Hundred”). Lucien ordered the army to expel from the hall all the MPs who opposed Napoleon.

The new executive power was entrusted to three Consuls (the Consulate). The First Consul was, of course, Napoleon, and the other two were former directors Sieyès and Ducos. In fact, Napoleon had all the real power, while the other two remained in his shadow and only served to give the illusion that he didn’t have absolute power.