Was Napoleon short? Napoleon Bonaparte was about 5 ft 6 (1.68 m), which means he was of average height for his times. Yet, those who knew him always described him as ‘short.’
So, what gives?
Napoleon’s actual height
At least 12 men recorded Napoleon Bonaparte’s height.
And all of them, friends and foes, give measurements between 5 ft 6 and 5 ft 7 (1.68 – 1.70 m).
Napoleon turned himself in to his enemies, the English, in 1815. And he spent three weeks on board a British ship.
Napoleon and the ship’s captain, Maitland, got along, and they had long conversations daily. According to the captain, Napoleon was about 5 ft 7 (1,70 m).
That is a good guess because, later on, Englishman Andrew Darling measured Napoleon’s dead body to make his coffin. And he gives the exact same height.
It is Napoleon’s friends who say he was about an inch shorter.
In 1815, Napoleon asked his friend, General Gourgaud, to measure him. The result? 5 ft 6.5 (1.69 m).
During the autopsy, Napoleon’s height was recorded at 5 ft 6 (1.68 m).
It is worth noting that a person’s height can vary up to an inch (2.5 cm) throughout the day so maybe everyone that recorded Napoleon’s height was right.
Did Napoleon’s friends think he was short?
Yes, they did.
Several of Napoleon’s friends and acquaintances wrote about his height.
Only one of them described him as of ‘average’ height. All the rest say he was ‘short.’
See for yourself. Here are their quotes:
The only person who writes Napoleon is of ‘average’ height is Meneval, his long-time secretary:
“He was of average height (5 ft 2 in) [in French feet].”
Another one of his secretaries, Agathon Jean Francois Fain, wrote:
“He was 5 ft 2 in tall [in French feet]; he was short but well-proportioned…”
Corvisart, the French doctor who attended Napoleon for 10 years, wrote:
“Napoleon was of short stature, about five feet two inches by French measure.”
The Countess of Remusat also calls him short. She was a lady-in-waiting to Napoleon’s wife Josephine. Therefore, she saw Napoleon in his home for years:
“Napoleon Bonaparte is of low stature, and rather ill-proportioned.”
Count Miot de Melito was a politician. He served Napoleon for years and was a close friend of his brother Joseph Bonapart. Miot talked to Napoleon many times one on one. He describes the first time he saw Napoleon:
“I was singularly impressed by his appearance. Nothing corresponded to the picture which my fancy had made of him. In the middle of a number of staff officers, I noticed a man under middle height, of extraordinary leanness.”
Betsy Balcombe was 13 years old when Napoleon landed exiled on the island of St. Helena. He lived in Betsy’s family home for a few weeks. Betsy and Napoleon became friends and saw each other frequently for the next three years. Later on, Betsy wrote about the first time she saw Napoleon:
“On horseback, Napoleon cut a noble and imposing figure; the position augmented his height and compensated everything he lacked…
From up-close, Napoleon seemed smaller, especially next to Sir George Cockburn who was tall and had an aristocratic physiognomy; so he lost that great bearing that dazzled me when I first saw him.”
The quotes above were by Napoleon’s long-time friends and acquaintances.
The impression he made on those who saw him a few times:
“The man I saw was of short stature… He held himself erect without the least effort, as is common with all short people.”
“He stood abt. 3 yards from me [9 ft / 2.7 m]… His person is below middle size. I do not think him more than 5 feet 6 [1.68 m], I rather judge him to be less than that measure. Mr. West thinks otherwise… Rogers… seemed to be disappointed in the look of his countenance and said it was that of a little Italian…”
Another Englishman, George Heath, met his then-hero Napoleon in 1810. He described him as:
“A little fat man, with what is called a pot-belly…”
The famous German intellectual Alexander von Humboldt also met Napoleon. They saw each other in Paris in the late 1790s, at a meeting in the National Institute. Humboldt’s impression was:
“He is small and lean.”
Baron Hyde de Neuville was a French royalist. He had two up-close and personal meetings with Napoleon. Of the first meeting, he wrote in his memoirs:
“The door opened. Instinctively I looked at the man who came in [Napoleon], short, thin, his hair plastered on his temples, his step hesitating; he was not in the least what I had pictured to myself. I was so wanting in perception that I took him for a servant, a mistake which was confirmed when he walked across the room without taking any notice of me. He leaned his back against the chimney piece, raised his head and looked at me with such an impressive, such a penetrating glance that I lost all my assurance under the fire of that questioning eye. To me, he had suddenly grown taller by a hundred cubits.”
Senhouse was a British captain. He dined with Napoleon on the ship Bellerophon. He described the emperor to his wife in a letter:
“Ill-proportioned, short, with a big head…”
When Napoleon was imprisoned in St. Helena, an Englishman, Lieutenant Clifford, met him. They talked for a few minutes in Napoleon’s house. Clifford wrote:
“I found Napoleon a very different man in appearance from what I had imagined he was, even shorter and more corpulent than I expected.”
Walter Henry, an Irish doctor, saw Napoleon several times on the island of St. Helena where they both lived. He was not Napoleon’s physician, but he was present during his autopsy. Henry wrote:
“Napoleon was short.”
Technically, Napoleon was of average height… or was he?
But. That was the national average for a male.
That average was calculated considering the size of millions of poor, underfed French men.
And that is not the crowd Napoleon usually hanged out with.
The French upper class was taller than average
Napoleon mostly interacted with the upper classes.
His classmates at school; the intellectuals, politicians, and diplomats he spoke to; and most of the people he mingled with at parties were from the upper classes.
And the French upper class “was 7 cm [2.75 in] above the average,” according to a study from the University of Munich.
Across Europe, the elites were taller. Perhaps because they were well-fed.
So in Napoleon’s France, the average height for upper-class men was 5 ft 9 (1,75 m). That is well above Napoleon’s 5 ft 6 (1,68 m).
Small wonder his acquaintances and foreign dignitaries described him as ‘short.’
The troops, too, were used to having tall-ish commanders that hailed from the upper classes. Fun fact: even today, CEOs and other people in positions of power- tend to be tall.
That might explain the nicknames his troops fondly gave him, such as ‘The Little Corporal’ and ‘Little Baldy.’
The height of some of Napoleon’s friends
We can thank Captain Maitland for registering the height of some of Napoleon’s friends.
Napoleon surrendered to the British in 1815. And he and his friends spent the following three weeks aboard Maitland’s ship.
Maitland wrote down his impressions of Napoleon’s entourage.
He says Napoleon’s friend, Count Bertrand, was about 5 ft 10 in [1,78 m]; his wife, Countess Bertrand, was tall; Duke de Rovigo was a tall and handsome man; and Count Las Cases was ’of small stature, being little more than five feet high [1.52 m].”
Another Englishman, Clifford, saw this group in St. Helena. And he also describes Countess Bertrand as a tall woman.
And Betsy, Napoleon’s 13-year-old friend in St. Helena, says the first time she saw Napoleon he was standing next to a very tall Sir George Cockburn, an English baronet.
So these few descriptions seem to confirm that Napoleon moved in a sea of tall people.
Optics: looking shorter
So Napoleon was shorter than his aristocratic peers. Yet, he was still a man of average height compared to the rest of the French.
So why the widespread idea that Napoleon was tiny?
There might be a few reasons:
His tall, fancy guard
In public, Napoleon was always escorted by his Consular/Imperial Guard.
The men of the guard were very tall. The squadrons that usually escorted Napoleon, the Chasseurs a Cheval, were required to be at least 5 ft 9 (1,76 m) tall.
And other units of the guard only accepted men taller than 5 ft 10 (1,78 cm).
These units were meant to look intimidating. The men wore tall, black hats that made them look even taller, and they rode on huge, black horses. It apparently worked. The tallest of these regiments was nicknamed ‘The Giants” and “The Gods” by the civil population.
And each time ‘the people’ saw Napoleon, at parades or in the street, he was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of these “Giants” or by the Chasseurs.
These men with their tall bearskin hats must have looked at least 16 inches (40 cm) taller than Napoleon.
So it is not difficult to imagine how the emperor got the reputation for being tiny.
The stinging British press
The British press can be relentless, just ask any British politician.
And they had heard that Napoleon, Britain’s enemy, was short. So they ridiculed him by exaggerating that trait in their cartoons.
Many of these cartoons/British propaganda circulated throughout Europe.
And they might have helped create the idea that Napoleon was ultra short.
Feet and inches: you must translate!
Napoleon’s measurements can be misunderstood.
The autopsy report stated he was 5 feet and 2 inches tall. A lot of Englishmen that read that probably thought Napoleon had been ‘short.’
The thing is, his measurements were written in French feet by his Corsican doctor, not in English feet.
Translated to the English system, Napoleon’s height at death was 5 ft 6 in (1,68 m).
But even today you can find a few websites written in English that mistakenly state that Napoleon was 5 ft 2 (1,57 m).
Celebrities that are the same height as Napoleon
If you are wondering what 5 ft 6 (1,68 – 1,69 m), Napoleon’s height, looks like, here is are some celebrities that measure just that: Elijah Wood, Phil Collins, George RR Martin, Roberto Benigni, Aziz Ansari, Frankie Muniz, Ralph Lauren, Bono, Winston Churchill, Marc Anthony, and Jason Priestley.
Now that you know Napoleon’s height and have some context, what do you think? Was Napoleon ‘short’?
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