How tall (short) was Napoleon Bonaparte?

BBC Chart- height_world_leadersRecently, a friend of mine said, “The one thing we all know about Napoleon Bonaparte is that he was short.” Thus two-hundred-year-old British propaganda still overrules established fact. 

British cartoon from Napoleon's eraThe truth? Napoleon Bonaparte was between 168 and 170 centimeters, or 5’6” – 5’7” in height. While that’s not imposing—all but five US presidents have been taller—it was above the 5’ 5’’ average for a French male in Napoleon’s era. Coincidently, James Madison, at 5’4″ our shortest president, was in office during six years of Napoleon’s reign. Yet we revere him as a founding father and never mention his height.

So how did Napoleon become characterized as a pint-sized guy in a huge hat?

Convenient circumstances help justify the myth. First, in his time, the French standard for a “foot” was larger than that of the British, so Napoleon’s 5’2” in French feet equated to 5’7” under the British (and American) system. Next, Napoleon surrounded himself with the tall, imposing figures of his Imperial Guard who dwarfed his average stature. Then there was his nickname, “the Little Corporal,” earned while he was a young general who could not resist micromanaging artillery positions during battle. His troops bestowed that title out of fondness for the officer who so intimately shared their danger under fire.

All that fed into the British narrative of a pipsqueak upstart who threatened the aristocratic status quo. What better way to diminish his figurative stature than to mock his physical one? For more than a decade, the British papers were full of cartoons like the two shown here. With no photography or television to correct the impression, the British, and by extension the American public, took it as fact.

British cartoon from Napoleon EraIn the late 19th century, Leo Tolstoy added to the myth. In War and Peace, Tolstoy, who had fought in Crimea against Napoleon III and despised Napoleon I as an enemy of Russia, depicted the Emperor as “the undersized Napoleon,” and “the little man with white hands.” He called him “child-like” and “spoiled.”

Finally, in the early 20th century, psychotherapist Dr. Alfred Adler dealt a crucial blow to Napoleon’s image. An Austrian contemporary of Freud, Dr. Adler proposed the Napoleonic Complex as a part of his Theory of Personality. In it, he attributed excessive aggressive behavior to short men due to their inferiority complex. To this day, research goes on to debunk this widely-held, non-scientifically-based view.

But perhaps, I’m overly sensitive to this particular Napoleonic myth. Full disclosure: I’m 5’2” (almost).


  • October 24, 2013 - 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi Margaret,

    An excellent article. Winston Churchill was around 5′ 6″, rather short for a man of his class in the UK at the time, but we never hear anything about it. Lord Nelson was 5′ 6″, and the Duke of Wellington was very little taller than Napoleon.

    best wishes


  • mrodenberg
    October 26, 2013 - 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, John. It is ironic that the one thing everyone agrees upon regarding Napoleon is untrue. But then, Napoleon himself was a master of propaganda so he should understand being its target.

  • Susan
    November 21, 2013 - 7:03 am | Permalink

    But you are much taller in real life! Just like your writing. Love this post Margaret.

  • mrodenberg
    November 26, 2013 - 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Susan! Love your comment!

  • C James
    November 8, 2014 - 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I cannot attest to the height of Napoleon but perhaps can to that of Wellington.An extract from the 1815 diary kept by my literate ancestor who fought at Waterloo in Picton’s Division may well define it. Our family still has the diary. It seems he was on picket duty and observed the Duke performing ablutions while dismounted. He wrote, “Old Hookey was on the far side of a trooper’s mount but his face was over the withers. He stared me straight in the face for some reason unknown to me.”
    A trooper would have been mounted on a 16 hand plus heavy charger. To the highest point of the withers is 5.4 feet for 16 hands even. If the Duke’s head was above it, add a theoretical 6 inches or so, making him around 5.10 inches tall. Slightly fuzzy math but probably acceptable. Wellington’s infantry had an accurate eye for distance or height as their muskets were not the most accurate of weapons.

  • mrodenberg
    November 20, 2014 - 7:47 pm | Permalink

    That math makes sense to me, although I had thought that Wellington was somewhat shorter. You should consider going on the Facebook page for the Napoleonic Historical Society and putting up this info to see what reaction you get. I’d love to see it there. Thanks for visiting my website.


  • nadeem
    May 7, 2015 - 10:44 pm | Permalink

    ‘What’s interesting about Napoleon’ really got me interested in your book. Hope it gets published soon and best of luck 🙂

  • mrodenberg
    June 7, 2015 - 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! I’m working to make that happen.

  • Tim
    September 25, 2015 - 1:12 am | Permalink

    Short or not Napoleon conquered most of Europe. He was a strategic genious. If he wasn’t something special we wouldn’t be talking about him now. I am 6’4″ he was short. Lol!

  • mrodenberg
    October 31, 2015 - 6:33 pm | Permalink

    How right you are!

  • karl
    May 26, 2016 - 9:26 pm | Permalink

    What was the average height of the nobility in Napoleon’s time. Diet makes a difference (look at the Dutch over the last 100 years).

  • mrodenberg
    May 29, 2016 - 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Interesting question. I have no idea if the answer is available, but when I get a chance I’ll try to find out. Of course, Napoleon didn’t grow up in France, and minor Corsican nobility might have been different. That said, there’s no indication that he was malnourished as a child. I’m pretty short myself (and never malnourished) and when I was in the Netherlands, the young people all seemed to be giants! Same in Iceland.

  • Christi
    March 24, 2017 - 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! Fun post to read. I think word is getting out. My fifth grader just corrected my husband and me when we said he ( Napoleon) was short. That’s what led me to your post.

  • mrodenberg
    March 31, 2017 - 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Glad to have been of service. Congratulations to your fifth grader on his extraordinary knowledge! I hope he continues to learn the facts about Napoleon. Wishing the best to your family,

  • Shawn Gilliland
    July 14, 2017 - 8:06 pm | Permalink

    A superb post, Madame Rodenberg.
    I commend you for writing it and for the accessible manner in which you have written it.

  • mrodenberg
    July 31, 2017 - 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!

  • Pingback: 10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte - Shannon Selin

  • October 17, 2017 - 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Short or tall that man fought and won so much fight like brave , enemies may call him propaganda but tell me one king or empire you do not try to wrote their own history. And for his height I think average height of British man at that time was 5.7 or less I think , I think Europe afraid of bonaparte that why they still spreading their old propaganda.

  • mrodenberg
    November 1, 2017 - 11:28 am | Permalink

    I agree! Thanks for your comment.

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