The Death of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest generals in the history of the Western world, died on 5 May 1821 in exile on the Island of Saint Helena, after his ambition exceeded even the limits of his military genius.  The last word he ever spoke was the name of his first wife and true love, “Joséphine“.


This was, of course, a profound relief to most people in the United Kingdom and Europe. There was now no chance Napoleon could come roaring back into France and send the continent (and nearby islands) into the sucking vortex of multinational war. However, it was also a treated as a tragedy. The world suffered no small loss when Napoleon left it. As historian Andrew Roberts has explained:

“The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire”.

My heroine in Mansfield Parsonage, Mary Crawford was (like most liberal minded Brits) torn as to her feelings on Napoleon.


On one hand he was a purveyor of freedom and a rectifier of sociocultural and economic injustice:

Napoleon instituted various reforms, such as higher education, a tax code, road and sewer systems, and established the Banque de France, the first central bank in French history. He negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with the Catholic Church, which sought to reconcile the mostly Catholic population to his regime … Napoleon directly overthrew feudal remains in much of western Continental Europe. He liberalised property laws, ended seigneurial dues, abolished the guild of merchants and craftsmen to facilitate entrepreneurship, legalised divorce, closed the Jewish ghettos and made Jews equal to everyone else. The Inquisition ended as did the Holy Roman Empire. The power of church courts and religious authority was sharply reduced and equality under the law was proclaimed for all men … Napoleon’s educational reforms laid the foundation of a modern system of education in France and throughout much of Europe …

On the other hand he was a despotic and expansionist conqueror who came within a cat’s whisker of invading Jolly Old England. Mary Crawford loves the ideals of liberty and equality, but not more than she loves her homeland. She’s as jingoistic and wed to the class system as any other member of the Ton. Mary has never claimed to be a paragon … or has ever tried to be one if it meant she would have to truncate her enjoyment of life.

She nonetheless grieved for Napoleon, that overreaching and brilliant fool.


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