Was Napoleon Bonaparte Really So Short?

Because of numerous paintings, movies and cartoons. We often imagine Napoleon Bonaparte as an unusually short man, even when compared to his contemporaries. However, the myth that Napoleon was short stems primarily from the fact that he was measured 5 feet 2 inches a few years before his death. However, this was his height in  French feet and french inches, which were a little bit larger than imperial units.

Napoleon Bonaparte

In modern units, Napoleon was actually 5 feet 7 inches tall. When compared to the average height in today’s France. It really isn’t much, however, in the 19th century, the average male height was less than 5 feet 5 inches. That means Napoleon Bonaparte was actually quite tall for his time.

Although Napoleon was sometimes considered short even during his lifetime. This stems solely from the fact that he was always accompanied by bodyguards, who had to be taller than the average. When compared to his guards, he logically looked smaller, thus earning him the nickname ”The Little Corporal”.

Napoleon’s character

When we talk about Napoleon’s character today, the first thing that comes to mind is undoubtedly the adjective “small”, the man of Saint Helena being considered a ruler of modest stature. However, contrary to popular belief, the “little corporal” was not stunted.

Napoleon was the subject of several measures, from his accession to power until he died in 1821. Thus, according to the memoirs of Louis Joseph Narcisse Marchand, valet de chambre of the Emperor, the Corsican measured five feet, two inches and four lines (i.e. 1 meter 686). General Gaspard Gourgaud, measuring Napoleon in 1815 during their trip to Saint Helena, reported in his diary a height of five feet, two and a half inches (that is, 1 meter 692).

Napoleon was the subject of several measures

An English upholsterer in charge of taking measurements at Longwood noted that the captive general was five feet, seven inches (or 1.70 meters). Finally, the doctor François Antommarchi, carrying out Bonaparte’s autopsy in 1821, noted a height similar to that of Marchand, that is to say, 1 meter 686.

Thus, in light of the results indicated by Napoleon’s various contemporaries. We can retain a height of around 1 meter 69. If today, this measurement seems to make the Emperor a sovereign of average size. We must note that the French grew enormously between 1810 and 2010.
Indeed, France’s average height in 2009 was 1.75 meters for men and 1.63 meters for women. But in 1900, the average size was only six feet for men and four feet for women.

Why do we have in mind the image of a tiny Napoleon, anxious to assert himself to ignore his handicap?

However, we do not have a precise measure for the year 1800. So let’s take a look at the minimum height required for military service at the end of the 18th century. In 1776, five feet, one inch (i.e. 1 meter 651). In 1792, five feet (i.e. 1 meter 625). These measurements lead us to believe that the average height at the dawn of the 19th century was around six feet, which made Napoleon neither a dwarf nor a giant, but a taller-than-average citizen.

But why do we have in mind the image of a tiny Napoleon, anxious to assert himself to ignore his handicap? At first glance, we see that the Emperor, on the battlefield, was constantly surrounded by the Imperial Guard. It was an elite corps, made up of soldiers with at least ten years of experience, and measuring at least 1.83 meters. (Twenty centimetres more than the average height of the time!).

The pomegranate trees also wore the teddy bear at all times

The pomegranate trees also wore the teddy bear at all times, a furry cap measuring over thirty centimetres. Indeed, this unit’s objective was to impress and demoralize the enemy, forced to fight “colossi”. (Especially as the Imperial Guard, an elite unit, was only used as a last resort. ).

Another explanation would come from the difference in measurements between the French foot and the English foot. Indeed, while in France, five feet and two inches (Napoleon’s height) is equivalent to 1.69 meters. In England, five feet and two inches are only equal to 1.58 meters.

The difference in measurements between the French foot and the English foot

In the end, it would seem that the black legend concerning the small size of Bonaparte was conveyed by the English press. Following the rupture of the peace of Amiens. Thus, based on an erroneous height (the famous French five feet and two inches). The British did not hesitate to caricature “the Corsican ogre” in Lilliputian, facing the imposing John Bull.

Thus, following Napoleon’s abdication in 1815. The monarchists and then the republicans did not hesitate to take up this erroneous image. which has survived to this day. This significant problem also struck Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Saint Helena’s exile, nicknamed Napoleon the Little by Victor Hugo. But this is another story.

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