Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) may have been a tyrant in life but he proved to be a surprisingly malleable figure after death. This module traces the emergence in France and Britain of Napoleon’s reputation, whether as tyrant, martial hero, saviour of the French nation or destroyer of French liberty. Napoleon was a superb publicist and we will see that during his life time – before and after the seizure of state power in 1799 and the coronation as emperor in 1804 – he carefully cultivated an image of himself as both authoritarian and a ‘man of the people’.
In reading the memoirs of Napoleonic soldiers, and in considering British caricature and other sources published during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, we will attempt to prise apart Napoleon’s self-presentation from the attitudes of others. Furthermore, through an encounter with Napoleon’s own correspondence and personal effects we will try to disentangle the private man from the public figure, and ask how defeat and exile at the hands of the British may have changed him.
Most of all, we will examine how a cult of Napoleon was created and reshaped in subsequent contexts, focusing in particular on its instrumentalization in political and historical writings. Because Napoleon could represent the populism and liberty of the revolution without the anarchy of the Terror; reconciliation with the Catholic Church without clerical reaction; and order and hierarchy without a return to the despotism of the ‘old regime’ he was an appealing figure to a whole array of monarchists, liberals and republicans in France over the entire 19th century. That is why the liberal July Monarchy (1830-1848) did so much to make the Napoleonic cult official by completing the Arc de Triomphe in his honour (1836) and by re-interring his remains in the mausoleum at Les Invalides in 1840.
In the process of tracing the Napoleonic cult through these years to the early 20th century, you will see how difficult it has been in France to disentangle the memory and status of the general from that of the revolution; and you will come to understand how Napoleon’s reputation as a ‘great man’ could survive the catastrophic defeats of 1814-15. In historicising the cult of Napoleon in this way, you will grasp the importance for historical practice of seeing the past and present in a continual dialogue where the former is mobilised in a struggle to master the latter.