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Was Napoleon Short? A small - geddit? - Guide

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Just look at that hat! It's so big it would keep him dry in the rain. Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in the 2023 film, 'Napoleon'. Image courtesy Sony Pictures.

Napoleon Bonaparte looms large in history. Napoleon was a French Military leader who was really good at winning battles. For a while, he was the Manchester United of 19th Century warfare – nearly unbeatable. And then, just like Manchester United, it all went a bit wrong (sorry Man U supporters) and he was eventually defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.

Still, before that, he had a right good time. He became Emperor of France, he travelled to Egypt, he conquered a whole load of Europe, and he had a fantastically big hat.

Despite his larger-than-life accomplishments, however, one rumour about Napoleon persists, that he was really short. But was this true?

How Napoleon liked to think of himself. Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) by Jacques-Louis David

About Average

Historians reckon that Napoleon was around 5′2” in height. Which, when compared to the average fella today (roughly 5′9”) is kind of small.

The average man today would definitely beat Napoleon in a ‘who can touch a Gorilla’s ear first’ competition – not that we would ever advise doing that.

The thing is, for his era of history, 5′2” was the average height of a person.

Thanks to having less food, fewer medicines, and fewer 5-inch stilettos, men born in the 18th century were not as tall as men born today.

Sure, Napoleon’s men may have dubbed the future French Emperor as ‘The Little Corporal’ but that was just an affectionate nickname, and had nothing to do with body length.

Napoleon was standard height.

So why the whole short thing?

That was really down to one man, British cartoonist James Gillray. At the time, Britain was rather concerned about Napoleon’s supreme European conquering skills. He was simply too good at expanding the French Empire. Rather reasonably, Britain worried that they might be next. So, in typical British fashion, what better way to distract yourself from worry than to joke around and mock your enemy?

Gillray’s teasing joke just happened to be to paint Napoleon as a small man. One who, perhaps because of being insecure about his stature, was loud, boastful, and obnoxious. His paintings of Napoleon were a hit and soon everyone in Britain was painting the Frenchman as a teeny tiny terror.

And how the British saw him! The Plumb-pudding in danger (1805) by James Gillray

Napoleon did not like being mocked like this but what could he do about it? The British painters kept on painting despite his protestations. Heck, they probably enjoyed their work all the more knowing that it was annoying Napoleon so much!

Perhaps if Napoleon had defeated the British at the Battle of Waterloo and carried on being the Emperor of France, maybe even adding Britain to his rule, it would have been a different story. He could have used his power to order everyone to paint him as a muscle-bound mega-giant. But it was not to be, Napoleon lost his final showdown and was forced into exile. He had sealed his fate, to be thought of as a short bum forever.


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