French history myths: Napoleon Bonaparte was short

Think of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and you'll likely picture a short man with his hand tucked into his jacket - but only one of these things is true.

French history myths: Napoleon Bonaparte was short
A memorial to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is pictured at the Casone Square in his birth city of Ajaccio, Corsica, on March 15, 2021. (Photo by PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

Myth: Napoleon Bonaparte was unusually small in stature

You are probably accustomed to seeing Napoleon represented in a specific way: always wearing military garb with his hand tucked inside his jacket.

Napoleon was quite concerned with portraying himself as a gentleman – which is also why he is frequently shown in paintings or statues with his hand inside his coat – the gesture is meant to demonstrate “gentlemanly restraint” and was associated with nobility

But probably the first thing that really likely comes to mind is that Napoleon was very small.

Legend has it that Napoleon was irritable and power-hungry, plagued from having been bullied as a child for his lacklustre French, Corsican origins, and of course small stature.

This theory is so widely accepted in in popular culture that we even use his name to describe short man syndrome: the ‘Napoleon complex,’ which involves a person over-compensating for their physical or social shortcomings by seeking power.

But the nickname the General would go on to earn: Le Petit Caporal, translated as “The Little Corporal,” did not have anything to do with the man’s height. 

In reality, Napoleon was likely of average height for the time period. The nickname actually was simply intended as a term of affection by his soldiers.

Napoleon was reportedly 5 foot 2 inches, but it is important to consider that the inch at the time was equivalent to roughly 2.7 centimetres. Thus, Napoleon was likely around 1.69 metres in height (a bit above 5 foot 5 inches nowadays).

This would have made him around an average adult male’s height at the time. 

But we know of Napoleon as short because of English cartoonists who spread the trope of a “Little Boney” – a small, childish version of the Emperor of the French.

The below image was published in 1803 when the two countries were at war, so essentially what we’re seeing here is one country’s wartime propaganda.

The English cartoonist James Gillray’s caricature shows: “The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper.” It shows the tall, British Prime Minister at the time eating half of a carved Earth, while a young looking Napoleon, sporting oversized boots and clothing takes a bite out of Europe.

Napoleon eventually even complained about the cartoons, asking for them to be censored, but to no avail. 

Before his death, Napoleon reportedly said that Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.” 

Much of the world went on to remember him as the petty, short man depicted by the British press – which just goes to show that history is written – or at least drawn – by the victors.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions about French history.

Member comments

  1. I’m 168cm tall, so I’m partly relieved to discover that used to be average, I always claim it is 5’6″ though 😹

    At Fontainebleau, they have one of Napoleon’s dress tunics, and while it wasn’t tiny it looked too small for me – surprisingly they didn’t let me try it on though!

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French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

The storming of the Bastille has become the iconic moment that symbolises the French revolution - but how did the event actually play out?

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

Myth: The storming of the Bastille was done to free the hundreds of political prisoners held captive there

This myth is as old as the French revolution itself and the subject of numerous pieces of art.

The story goes that huge Parisian crowds came together at the Bastille prison on July 14th in 1789,  well armed and prepared to fight their way past the guards and military to free the hundreds of prisoners wrongfully convicted by the crown.

It’s true that the Bastille was stormed by a crowd, but at the time it was only housing seven prisoners, and none of them were known to have been rebelled against the crown in any notable way. According to records, the seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time were four counterfeiters, two ‘madmen’ and a nobleman accused of sexual perversion.

It is true that during previous centuries the giant prison was used to lock up those accused by the monarchy of sedition.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV imprisoned over 2,320 people in the Bastille prison over the course of his reign, many of whom were protestants. 

The prison had also been known for incarcerating seditious writers, and eventually it built up a very reputation amongst the French public in the 18th century. By the mid-1700s, the prison was less frequently used, and during the reign of Louis XVI, only 306 people were imprisoned in the building. 

However, the structure still represented a symbol of the monarchy in the middle of the capital city, and once it was stormed, it helped demonstrate to the King – and the rest of the world – the seriousness of the revolutionaries’ demands.

Another reason the storming of the Bastille was a key victory for revolutionaries was what was being stored there: gunpowder. The Parisians succeeded in seizing both gunpowder they needed for their weapons, as well as the cannons housed there.

Ultimately, storming the Bastille marked a symbolic victory and, by many historians’ accounts, a clear start to the Revolution – which is why France’s Fête nationale is celebrated on July 14th.

In the years following, several authors, such as Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, immortalised the Bastille prison as a place of torture for political dissidents and every day people alike. 

Now, the Place de la Bastille stands on most the former location of the famed prison. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.