Was Napoleon Short, or Is That a Lie?

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

One of the most popular portraits of Napoleon. He is middle-aged. He stands in his study dressed in full military garb and looks straight at the observer.
Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. (Photo: National Gallery/Wikimedia/CC0)

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).

While Napoleon’s secretaries and valet write that their boss was 5 ft 6 (1.68 m). Napoleon’s death certificate agrees with them.

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.

“I’ll describe Napoleon at the time of his second marriage… He was 5 ft 2 in tall [5 ft 6 / 1.675 m in English measurements]…”

How He Did It: The Memoirs of Baron Fain.” Fain was Napoleon’s secretary and knew him well.

“Napoleon was… about five feet two inches by French measure [5 ft 6 in / 1.675 m].”

Nicolas Corvisart, who was Napoleon’s physician from 1804 to 1814.

“His height was five feet, two inches, three lines.”

Height in French measurements; in English feet that is 5 ft 6.3 or 1.684 m. “Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon” by Constant.
Constant was Napoleon’s valet for 15 years and saw him daily.

“Napoleon has been depicted so many times that I do not add anything new by saying that he was of average height (5 ft 2 in).”

That is 5 ft 6 / 1.675 m in English measurements. Meneval’s Memoirs. Meneval was Napoleon’s secretary for 11 years; they saw each other daily.

“Napoleon Buonaparte, when he came on board the Bellerophon… wanted exactly one month of completing his forty-sixth year… He was then a remarkably strong, well-built man, about five feet seven inches high [1.70 m]…”

British Captain Maitland’ book. Maitland saw Napoleon daily for 3 weeks on board the Bellerophon. They had long conversations.

Napoleon Bonaparte is about five feet, seven inches high, rather corpulent, but remarkably well made.”

Lieutenant John Bowerbeck’s Diary. Bowerbeck was another British officer that saw Napoleon on the Bellerophon.

“He [Napoleon] got me to measure his height. It was exactly five feet, two inches and a half [5 ft 6.5 / 1.69 m in English measure].”

Journal of St. Helena by French General Gourgaud. Gourgaud measured Napoleon in 1815 aboard the ship Northumberland.

“Five feet, seven inches [1.7 m].”

Andrew Darling’s Diary. Darling was a British upholsterer of St. Helena. Charged with making Napoleon’s coffin, he measured Napoleon’s dead body before the autopsy.

“The total height from head to heels is 5 feet, 2 inches, 4 lines.” [The English equivalent is 5 ft 6 / 1.686 m].

Napoleon’s height according to his autopsy. Recorded in the memoirs of Dr. Antommarchi, who performed Napoleon’s autopsy.

Quotes from people that saw Napoleon briefly or from far:

“…The man I saw was of short stature, just over five feet tall [equivalent to 5 ft 4 / 1.62 m], rather heavy although he was only 37 years old…”

Denis Davydov’s Memoirs. Russian officer Davydov saw Napoleon several times during the Treaty of Tilsit.

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.”

The Farington Diary by Joseph Farington. Farington was a British artist who saw Napoleon once, from a short distance (9 ft / 2.7 m), in 1802.

He is about five feet seven inches high [1.7 m], delicately and gracefully made .”

Letter from John Leslie Foster. Foster was an Englishman who saw Napoleon at a gala in 1802.

Note:

1 French feet = 32.48 cm
1 French inch = 2.7 cm
1 French line = 0.22 cm

Did Napoleon’s friends think he was short?

Napoleon and three other men walk inside a building. He is the shortest of the four.
Napoleon at the Palais-Royal in 1807. He is with Jean-Claude Fabre, Etienne de Beaumont, and Pierre Fontaine. Painting by MJ Blondel, 1834. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)

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.”

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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:

Napoleon in a chaotic political meeting. He is wearing his military uniform and is surrounded by angry men dressed in red. He is slightly shorter than all of them.
Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, 1799. Painted by Francois Bouchot in 1840. (Photo: Versailles/Wikimedia/CC0)

Russian officer Denis Davydov saw him several times at close range during the Treaty of Tilsit (1807). The Russian wrote:

“The man I saw was of short stature… He held himself erect without the least effort, as is common with all short people.”

English painter Joseph Farington saw Napoleon once, in a group of people. Farington recorded in his diary:

“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?

Napoleon's wedding. He and Marie-Louise stand on the left. They are the same height. In front of them are the bishop, who is blessing them, and other priests. The group is surrounded by guests. Napoleon is slightly shorter than most of the men.
Detail of Marriage of Napoleon and Marie-Louise by Georges Rouget. Painted in 1810, the same year of the marriage. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)

Modern scholars have spent hours and hours among books and skeletal remains. And they have concluded that Napoleon’s 5 ft 6 (1,68 m) was the average height for a man in 18th century France.

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

Inside a palace. A courtroom of sorts. Napoleon and two other men stand inside a judge's bench. In front of them, four tall aristocratic men stand saluting them.
Napoleon is the one in red with brown hair. Instituting the State Council at the Petit-Luxemburg Palace, 25 December 1799 by Auguste Couder, 1856. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)

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

An outdoors scene. A shortish Napoleon sits down. Behind him, many of his tall soldiers stand with binoculars looking at the distance.
Napoleon near Borodino by Vasily Vereshchagin, 1897. (Photo: State Historical Museum/Wikimedia/CC0)

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.

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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

Napoleon and his men inside a courtyard. They all wear their military uniforms. Napoleon is the only one wearing his hat, nonetheless, all his men are taller than him.
Napoleon’s farewell to the Imperial Guard at Fontainebleau by Antoine Montfort, 1825. (Photo: Versailles/Wikimedia/CC0)

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 a big courtyard. Napoleon inspects his troops on horseback. His tall soldiers are in formation. There are hundreds of them.
Napoleon is riding the white horse. The very tall Imperial Guards with their tall bearskin hats stand in formation. Invalid Handing a Petition to Napoleon at the Parade in the Court of the Tuileries Palace by Horace Vernet, 1838. (Photo: Hermitage/Wikimedia/CC0)

In public, Napoleon was always escorted by his Consular/Imperial Guard.

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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.

Cartoon. The title is: "Maniac ravings or Little Boney in a strong fit." A short, thin Napoleon is throwing a tantrum and stomping his feet. He is surrounded by wrecked objects. The back of the drawing is full of scribbled sentences. They say things like: "Insolence of British Parliament," "Hated and betrayed by the French," "Invasion, invasion," "Revenge!,"  "London newspapers."
Published in 1803, shortly after Napoleon lost his temper in front of Europe’s diplomats. By British cartoonist James Gillray. (Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia/CC0)

Cartoon. A very tall and slim William Pitt and a petit Napoleon sit at the dinner table. They are carving a world globe eagerly like one would carve a turkey. They are using their swords to do the carving.
English minister William Pitt and Napoleon slice up the world. Cartoon by James Gillray, published in 1805. (Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia/CC0)

Cartoon. A woman and a man sitting at the table. They are tall and plump and are eating an abundant meal. Next to them, tied to a pole, is a petit Napoleon. The title of the cartoon is "Mr. and Mrs. Bull giving Buonaparte a Christmas treat."
By William Holland, published in 1803. The couple represents the British people. (Photo: British Museum/Wikimedia/CC0)

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!

Cartoon. Title: "The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver." A man dressed in red military clothes holds a tiny Napoleon in his hand. The man uses a magnifying glass to study Napoleon.
By James Gillray, published in 1803. (Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia/CC0)

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

Photo of three men standing on the deck of a ship. They all wear similar black coats and black clothes. Churchill is the one standing in the middle. He is slightly shorter than one of the men and much shorter than the other. But all three men look of regular height.
Winston Churchill (center) was the same height as Napoleon. (Photo: Wikimedia/CCBYSA2.0)

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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2022-04-18
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