The French Turmoil- Vive La France! Part 10: The Reign of Napoleon

After so long in turmoil, France finally had a strongman to rule her, in the form of Napoleon. How did a short general who was appointed First Council become an Emperor of France, with even more absolute power than the Bourbon monarchs had? We’ll look into that in this edition of The French Turmoil, along with how Napoleon frightened all the other powers of Europe and how he finally got kicked out in the end.

In the last post, we ended off with Napoleon having launched his coup d’état and ousting the Directory from power. Today in a nice juicy long post, we’ll cover Napoleon’s entire reign. Before we go into what he did during his reign, let’s look at Napoleon’s transition from First Consul to Emperor. As First Council for Life, he was pretty much an absolute monarch; this was the time when he won stunning victories in Italy and maintained huge popularity in France. Being a king in all but


name wasn’t good enough for him. After a royalist rebellion was caught and quickly snuffed out, he decided to crown himself Emperor of the French. There, he’d made sure that unlike traditional monarchs, he would take the crown out of the hands of the Pope and place it on his head himself; a clear symbol that Napoleon would have power above all, not excluding the Church. Napoleon embarked on many domestic policies, the most important of which was the creation of a Civil Code that confirmed some revolutionary policies that were moderate but took away the radical.

The rise of an ambitious, powerful general like Napoleon had been a source of alarm for France’s neighbors, and after his coronation the British. Prussians and Austrians and declared war on France- rightly so because Napoleon himself was preparing for an invasion of Britain. “That island of shopkeepers”, he called the British- but the shopkeepers under the leadership of Horatio Nelson managed to defeat the France’s navy. Napoleon would never again have a real attempt at an invasion of Britain. To the east, however, Napoleon managed to defeat both Austria and Prussia; there, he dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, a creation from the days of Otto the Great that Napoleon replaced with a new ‘Confederation of the Rhine’: a French puppet. Napoleon also moved in to Poland and quickly defeated Tsar Alexander who agreed to become allies of France. Napoleon was the undisputed master of Europe.

Napoleon’s Empire
Horatio Nelson

Or not quite yet. Britain was still free. Napoleon, who wasn’t exactly the sort of person who would let his enemies run away without at least some bite back, instated a ‘Continental System’ in Europe: now that he was the master of Europe, he commanded that the Europeans basically stop trading with Britain. If she could not be defeated in a war, then perhaps the shopkeepers wouldn’t be able to stand such an economic chokeoff? In the end, this policy probably hurt France more than it did Britain. Her new allies who weren’t exactly loyal to her were pissed that they couldn’t get any goods from Britain: Spain went into revolt with British troops going in to support the Spanish.

More wars followed for Napoleon, while the Continental System failed to severely damage Britain. The Europeans didn’t really want to be ruled by this short Corsican, but they had a problem: Napoleon’s army was still the greatest in the field and none were able to defeat him. In the end, the Russian tsar Alexander I decided enough was enough and tried his luck. He withdrew Russia from the Continental System.

Russia, as most of us know, has a famous and ever-victorious general: General Winter. What Russia had that the other European powers lacked was geography and climate so hostile towards enemy invaders. Napoleon, who decided to take in 600,000 troops (a massive army) to punish the Russians, expected that he would quickly confront the Tsar in a major

Napoleon in Russia

battle and win it (he liked his campaigns this way). The Tsar was too clever to fall for that however. Instead, the Russians adopted a scorched-earth policy: torch the farmlands and retreat further and further. Napoleon had few supplies. His army couldn’t live on the land like he expected, and the campaign dragged on much longer than anticipated. The Tsar simply had to keep retreating into Russia’s huge expanse of territory.

In the end, when winter set in, Napoleon’s army was doomed (Russia is crazy cold in winter). The undersupplied troops were ordered to retreat, but less than 100,000 of the grand army that Napoleon had brought into Russia made it out.

This would be Napoleon’s downfall.

Nearly every European nation would join the uprising against Napoleon. His army was in ruins, his allies all gone; he wasn’t going to be able to stand against his enemies. When his Foreign Minister began to plan for a Bourbon restoration, Napoleon decided to surrender and was exiled by the British to Elba, an isle with a population of 12,000 that Napoleon was still allowed to rule as ‘Emperor’. Under the watch of guards, he began to work to improve the isle. Perhaps Napoleon would be content to live a life in retirement?

It turned out that he was not. Napoleon managed to escape and returned to France to rally back the people and troops, and there he would rule for a hundred days. Imagine, then, the amount of shock that the other European rulers would have because at that moment they were at Vienna, discussing how to rearrange Europe. Napoleon went on the offensive and attacked the British army camped at Waterloo in Belgium, where the Duke of Wellington defeated him after a hard fight. Napoleon’s short second reign had come to an end.

Exiled to a small island called Saint Helena, increasingly depressed, Napoleon died. His will wished for his ashes to be thrown in a French river, “in the midst of the French people which I have loved so much.” 

It was like France had run a complete circle. A Bourbon, another Louis, was back ruling France. From kingdom, to republic, to empire, and back to kingdom.

The French turmoil was, perhaps, finally over with the death of Napoleon.

And that was the reign of Napoleon, who gloriously rose to become Emperor of France and died an exiled captive on a remote island. Next week, we’ll wrap up this post with a few interesting questions about the French revolution that we’ve covered so far in this series.

Vive la France!


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