Most people have heard about how the French populace went through a revolution against their monarchy, only for a man named Napoleon Bonaparte to use the chaos to take over the country. But would you believe that it happened twice? In the 19th century, Bonaparte’s nephew led a military coup in the wake of the 1848 French Revolution, becoming Napoleon III in the process. Obviously, there’s a lot more to Napoleon III—that’s why we present these 48 facts about this controversial emperor.
1. That’s Mister to You!
When he was the emperor, Bonaparte’s full title was “Napoleon the Third, By the Grace of God and the will of the Nation, Emperor of the French.” Other titles he held during his life included Knight of the Order of the Garter (UK), Knight of the Royal Order of the Seraphim (Sweden), and Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece (Spain).
2. Welcome to the World
Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was born on April 20, 1808, in the city of Paris. At the time, his famous uncle and namesake was still in power as the Emperor of the French.
3. Long May He Reign
Napoleon III’s reign as Emperor of the French lasted from December 2, 1852 until September 4, 1870. That’s just under 18 years total. It might not seem like that long, but it’s around seven years longer than his namesake ruled as emperor, so it’s not too bad!
4. Final Goodbyes
Bonaparte last saw his famous uncle at the grand estate known as the Chateau de Malmaison. The Bonaparte family had a reunion of sorts shortly before the Emperor went off to fight the Battle of Waterloo. We can safely assume that the family should have wished him good luck a little harder than they did!
5. The Family Bonaparte
Bonaparte was the son of Louis Bonaparte, who, by the grace of his brother, Emperor Napoleon I, was the King of Holland at the time of Napoleon III’s birth. His mother was Hortense de Beauharnais. When Bonaparte was baptized, Emperor Napoleon I stood as godfather for the child.
6. Broken Home
Bonaparte’s parents were not terribly fond of each other and only lived together for brief periods of time. Their marriage was only done through the arrangements of Emperor Napoleon I’s wife Josephine (who was the mother of Bonaparte’s mother). Out of concern that she wasn’t giving her husband any heirs, Josephine suggested that her daughter by another marriage should marry the Emperor’s brother to produce an heir for the Empire.
The marriage proved successful in this regard, at least.
7. Call it a Forced Foreign Exchange Program!
With the downfall of the French Empire and the second abdication of Emperor Napoleon I, Bonaparte and the rest of his family had to hit the old dusty trail. As a child in the company of his mother, Bonaparte traveled through Switzerland and Germany, learning to speak French with a German accent that he kept for the rest of his life.
8. Ciao, Bella!
By the time he was 15, Bonaparte and his mother moved to Rome, where many members of his family were established at a villa. He spent the rest of his teenage years living in Italy, studying history, the Italian language, and social skills geared chiefly towards romance and seduction. If only all teenagers got that kind of education!
9. Respecting the Chain of Command
You might be wondering why Bonaparte called himself Napoleon III. The reason was that there had already been, at least in theory, a ruler named Napoleon II. The son of Emperor Napoleon I, Napoleon II was touted as his heir apparent. Upon his first fall from power in 1814, Napoleon I tried to persuade his victorious enemies to allow his son to rule France instead, but this offer was dismissed, presumably through sputters of laughter. However, during the second fall of power, Napoleon II was briefly the titular ruler of France, albeit without actually getting to rule.
It was a sign of respect to the son of Napoleon I, therefore, to take the name Napoleon III.
During Bonaparte’s early youth, he joined a secret organization based in Italy. Known as the Carbonari, this network of revolutionaries operated in the name of forming a constitutional government which would unite Italy and end oppression. That was the theory, of course, but in practice, the Carbonari were splintered and lacked a real uniting political ideology. In Bonaparte’s case, the unit he was involved with was combatting the Austrians, who were spreading their influence into the north of Italy.
11. Time to Go
Ultimately, Bonaparte’s time with the Carbonari ended in disastrous defeat. In 1831, the Austrian government united with the Papacy in Italy to stamp out the Carbonari societies once and for all. Bonaparte barely escaped Italy with his life, leading to him and his mother fleeing back into France.
12. Don’t Get Involved with Revolutionaries
Ironically, while the Austrians were dealing with Bonaparte and his Carbonari allies, Bonaparte’s father was staying in Austria. After he lost his throne, wealth, and position, Louis Bonaparte was granted asylum by the Austrians. He stayed in their country for the rest of his life. While Bonaparte loyalists claimed that Louis was the heir to his brother’s legacy, Louis refused to get involved in a Bonapartist uprising. His son, however, was more receptive to that kind of movement, as we’ll go over.
13. Ladies’ Man
It should surprise nobody that an emperor might be a womanizer. In Bonaparte’s case, his philandering not only got in the way of his relationship with his wife, Empress Eugenie, but during his reign as Emperor of France, his love affairs often distracted him from his responsibilities. His reputation suffered, not just within France, but across Europe.
14. Oh Snap!!!
If you think it was weird how many parallels Bonaparte had with Emperor Napoleon I, you were far from the first to notice them, and many of the people who did notice were convinced that Bonaparte did not match up to his namesake. Victor Hugo famously mocked Bonaparte by referring to him as “Napoleon the Small.” It was Karl Marx, however, who truly delivered the ultimate burn at Bonaparte’s expense. In regard to the aforementioned parallels, Marx wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
15. All Aboard!
For all his flaws, people do give Bonaparte kudos for his role in the construction of a very expansive railway network across France. At the start of Bonaparte’s reign as Emperor, France had 3,500 km of railway. By the time he was finished, the railroads stretched more than 20,000 km! This massively improved transportation across the country led to a huge economic boost, thanks to the expanding coal and steel industries.
16. Secrets Revealed
In 1831, Bonaparte and his mother briefly returned to France after their flight from Italy and secretly moved into a Parisian hotel. Bonaparte reached out to Louis Philippe, the reigning French king, and asked for permission to join the French army as an ordinary soldier. When the king told him that he would have to change his name, Bonaparte refused to comply. Their stay in Paris was ended when it became public knowledge who Bonaparte and his mother were.
Feeling threatened, Louis Philippe ordered them out, and they returned to Switzerland.
17. Nice Try, Boney!
In 1836, Bonaparte left Switzerland and tried to mount a military coup beginning in Strasbourg, France. However, while he rallied the city regiment to his side, their general managed to alert other authorities, who closed in on Bonaparte before anything substantial could be organized. Bonaparte’s plan had failed, but he was able to flee before he was captured.
18. A Whole New World!
Following his failed military coup in 1836, Bonaparte spent four years traveling between England, Brazil, and the United States. He was well-received and met many of the most prestigious minds of the day. These included American writer Washington Irving and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. One downside of his banishment from France was that he was unable to attend the funeral of his mother when she was buried in Reuil.
19. Pass the Tissues…
Bonaparte had two older brothers. His eldest brother died very young in 1807, a year before Bonaparte was born. His middle brother, Napoleon-Louis, joined Bonaparte when he joined the Carbonari. When the brothers were forced to flee Italy ahead of the advancing Austrian forces in 1831, Napoleon-Louis became sick with measles. He died that same year in the arms of his little brother.
20. Film Fodder
In the first half of the 20th century, it became very fashionable to make movies which featured Napoleon III as a character. Some of these films include the 1936 historical drama Spy of Napoleon, the Hollywood romance Suez, the biopic The Song of Bernadette, and the swashbuckling action flick The Sword of Monte Cristo.
21. Someone Invent Maury to Confirm This!
It was widely rumored that Bonaparte was not the trueborn son of Louis Bonaparte and was, in fact, illegitimately produced through cuckold. Bonaparte’s enemies, including the famous French writer Victor Hugo, took great joy in spreading this rumor to discredit him. However, most historians today are convinced that the rumors were libelous, and Bonaparte really was Louis’s son.
22. A Low Point
1840 was a pretty bad year for Bonaparte all things considered. He rallied 60 followers, armed them, and sailed from Britain to France in order to mount another military coup. As you can imagine, Bonaparte didn’t get far with such a small force. In fact, he was roundly mocked by the British and French presses of the time, and he was imprisoned for life in northern France.
23. Let’s Get Out of Here!
Luckily for Bonaparte, his life sentence was able to end prematurely thanks to a daring escape plan. In 1846, with the help of supporters, Bonaparte was disguised as a common laborer and made his way out of the prison. He was smuggled out of France, and he resumed his life in Britain for the next two years.
24. It’s a Boy!
Bonaparte had just one recognized child during his life. His son and heir’s full name was Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte. He was born on March 16, 1856.
25. Change in the Air
In 1848, the French had another grand revolution which led to the overthrow of their government. King Louis-Philippe abdicated, and a provisional government was set up to pave the way for a Second Republic. Seeing an opportunity, Bonaparte returned to France, but he waited until after the rampant violence of the June Days Uprising, which threatened to bring down the Second Republic before it barely began.
26. Mix & Match
During Bonaparte’s reign, there emerged a distinctive style in French architecture and art. Combining qualities from several previous fashions and eras, there was also an element of modern (for the time) technological advances. As a result, buildings constructed in this style could make use of iron frameworks and glass skylights while also containing designs inspired by Gothic, Renaissance, or even eclecticism. This style has come to be known as Napoleon III style ever since.
27. Democratic Dictator
While we’ve already stated that Bonaparte mounted a successful military coup and became Emperor of the French in the wake of the 1848 French Revolution, he didn’t actually do so immediately. You might be surprised to know that Bonaparte first vied for power by running for President of the Second Republic—and he won by a landslide! He served as President for about three years before his military coup in 1851.
28. A City-Wide Makeover
One of the most signature characterizations of Bonaparte’s reign was the fact that Paris was a never-ending construction site for the 18 years that he was in power. Determined to modernize and improve the living conditions of the capital city, Bonaparte forcefully ordered massive public works projects to be completed over the course of his reign. Hundreds of old buildings were replaced, and Bonaparte ordered the establishment of many parks across the city, in imitation of London’s Hyde Park.
29. Sweet Reputation?
In the late spring of 1863, Bonaparte first met Justine Lebœuf, better known as Marguerite Bellanger. She wouldn’t just become his mistress, but reportedly his favorite mistress. On the flip side, the French public hated her more than any of her peers, and Bellanger was caricatured frequently in the press. Interestingly, one of her most lasting legacies is that a candy was named after her!
30. And Neither of Them Were French!
Two different actors hold the distinction of having portrayed Bonaparte in two different films. Walter Kingsford played Bonaparte in both The Story of Louis Pasteur and A Dispatch from Reuter’s. Meanwhile, Bonaparte was also played by Guy Bates Post in Maytime and The Mad Empress.
31. Blood of the Battlefield
After spending part of his exile in Britain, Bonaparte spent his reign as Emperor of the French pursuing an alliance with the British. Fortunately for him, the French and British found a common cause in opposing Russia’s ambition to seize land from the Ottoman Empire around the Black Sea. This led to the Crimean War, a devastating conflict for all involved, but which nevertheless resulted in a victory for France, Britain, and their allies.
32. Nobody Picks on Mexico But Us!
During the 1860s, Bonaparte sought to extend the French Empire into Mexico. However, the Mexicans fought furiously against the encroaching French forces. Things were decided when the United States let Bonaparte know that they weren’t going to stand by and allow France to act all colonial on the North American continent. They sent 50,000 troops south to re-supply and fortify the Mexican army, effectively ending Bonaparte’s Mexican dreams.
33. Napoleon the Wordsmith
In the middle of everything else, Bonaparte found time to become a part-time writer. Before he became an emperor, he wrote a treatise titled Les Idees Napoleoniennes, where he went over the direction that France should go in the future. Later, during his reign, Bonaparte wrote History of Julius Caesar, in which he not only detailed the life of that famous dictator, but also the many parallels between Caesar, Emperor Napoleon I, and himself.
He also wrote many articles covering military, scientific, and historical subjects.
34. Our Doom Approaches
During the 1860s, the nation of Prussia emerged as a great threat to the French Empire. Its highly charismatic leader, Otto von Bismarck, was leading the Prussians in a unification of the German kingdoms, and their army greatly outnumbered any forces that the French could muster. In response, Bonaparte desperately tried to bring allies to his side, such as the Austrians and the Russians, but France would ultimately end up standing alone against Prussia during what became known as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
35. A French Failure
Without detailing the entire history of the Franco-Prussian War, we’ll take a moment to mention just when everything went disastrously wrong for the French, particularly Bonaparte himself. The Battle of Sedan in 1870 witnessed Bonaparte leading 130,000 French soldiers against 200,000 Prussians. The battle was a disaster, with 20,000 French dead or wounded and more than 100,000—including Bonaparte himself—taken prisoner.
Bonaparte’s capture resulted in the collapse of his government back in Paris, and the emergence of a Government of National Defense. France would lose the Franco-Prussian War just five months later.
36. Life Choices Matter!
By the time he entered his forties, Bonaparte suffered from a wide variety of ailments and conditions. Bonaparte’s health concerns were partly due to his years in prison, but also likely because of his lifestyle and diet. These maladies included gout, obesity, bladder stones, kidney disease, and erectile dysfunction brought about by “nervous exhaustion.” We can imagine which of the above ailments were the most distressing to a man like Bonaparte!
37. Let the Good Times Roll!
Speaking of the economic boost during Bonaparte’s reign, his reign witnessed the founding of the Société Générale and Crédit Lyonnais. For our non-French readers, these are two of the largest banks in French history and they’re both still going strong to this day.
38. Emperor Lothario
Allegedly, Bonaparte began to stray from his marriage soon after it began, as his wife found having sex with him to be “disgusting.” Among his mistresses were a wealthy banker, a prison laundress, a spy, a famous actress, and his cousin.
39. Can I Put This on My Resume?
Such was the extent of Bonaparte’s love affairs that he needed someone to act as a manager! Aside from his regular duties, Count Felix Bacciochi’s tasks as a social secretary to the Emperor included finding willing women and arranging for secret trysts to take place.
40. Let Them Study (while Eating Cake)
In a somewhat ironic twist for such a womanizer, Bonaparte played a crucial role in pushing for French women’s access to education. Along with his wife, the Empress Eugenie, Bonaparte oversaw the opening of the first professional school for women in 1862. Moreover, the University of Paris’s Faculty of Medicine welcomed their first female student, Madeleine Bres.
41. She Wears Her Heart (and Your Hubby) on Her Sleeve
Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione, was perhaps Bonaparte’s most famous mistress. She famously flaunted her relationship with the Emperor. She once scandalously entered a royal ball, dressed in a Queen of Hearts gown, on Bonaparte’s arm, right in front of his wife. At least the empress got one snipe in.
The spurned wife reportedly gave Oldoini’s sexy outfit a once-over and told her, “The heart is a bit low, Madame.”
42. If I Can’t See Me, You Can’t Either
Oldoini became known as one of the first every fashion models, but this vanity was a double-edged sword—she did not cope well with aging. Unwilling to confront her fading looks, she spent her final years in black-colored rooms with closed blinds and no mirrors. Not even she was entitled look at the waning beauty of the Countess of Castiglione.
43. The Dark Ages
Despite her self-exile later in life, the Countess still found time to do the occasional photoshoot. She and her longtime photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson took up the camera work again—but critics did note how these projects were smaller, shorter, and even “more morbid, more disturbed, more deranged” than before.
44. Putting the “Snap” in Snapchat
The Countess’s fashion shoots doubled as warning shots to her enemies. When her estranged husband tried to claim custody of their son, she sent him a photo herself in loose hair…and a knife in her hand. Naturally, the photo was titled “La Vengeance.”
45. The Prodigal Son Doesn’t Return
The Countess of Castiglione’s self-seclusion might have been rooted in more than vanity. In 1879, her beloved and only son Giorgio passed away from smallpox, predeceasing his mother by 20 years. Suddenly, her regime of funeral black rooms, veils, and never leaving the house makes tragic sense…
46. Short-lived Son
When Bonaparte was dethroned in 1870, his son fled from France into exile, just like Bonaparte himself had done with the downfall of his uncle. Napoleon IV, as he was known to Bonapartists, settled in England. Training as a soldier, Napoleon IV received permission to fight for England abroad. In 1879, the 23-year old son of Bonaparte died in a skirmish during the Anglo-Zulu War.
This death shocked the world, as it effectively ended the hope that the House of Bonaparte would ever again return to power.
47. Good Riddance, We Say!
Following his capture by Prussian forces at the Battle of Sedan, Bonaparte remained a comfortable prisoner of war even as the French overthrew his regime and blamed him for their disastrous defeat against Prussia. As he had done so many years before, Bonaparte went to Britain in exile once his rule as emperor was ended. He would spend his remaining years in England.
48. The Emperor is Dead
Bonaparte died on January 9, 1873, in the London district of Chislehurst. He was 64 years old.
49. Any Regrets?
Bonaparte never got over his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War. Reportedly, his last words before he died was the simple question, “Isn’t it true we weren’t cowards at Sedan?”