Elliot Fernandez

Historian and Front-end developer

The Napoleonic era (1799-1815)

The Napoleonic era comprises a period of 15 years, in which Napoleon Bonaparte extended his Empire throughout Europe.
Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

Post on 29/05/2019 | Updated on 09/01/2023

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The Napoleonic era comprises a period of almost 15 years, in which General Napoleon Bonaparte extended his Empire and power throughout Europe. From his ascent to power as a consul in 1799, until the defeat of France in the Battle of Waterloo and his exile in St. Helena in 1815, Napoleon exported the French revolutionary ideas throughout the continent: the “Napoleonic Code” was introduced into all the new satellite states of the French Empire, with which feudalism and servitude were abolished and freedom of worship was established. Each State was conceded a constitution, granting male universal suffrage, a declaration of rights and the creation of parliaments.

Chronology of the main events:

1 – CONSULATE (November 1799 to May 1804)

2 – FIRST IMPIRE (May 1804 to April 1814)

3 – LOUIS XVIII (May 1814 to March 1815)

4 – RETURN OF NAPOLEON (March 1814 to March 1815)


European Influence of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

Between 1771 and 1815, Europe lived immersed in continuous wars, where France is fighting against mainly all European countries. Since Napoleon’s arrival in power in 1799, and until the beginning of his fall in 1812, France underwent a great territorial expansion. In 1792, revolutionary France declared war on Russia and Prussia, and from 1793 it declares war on the major European powers (Great Britain, Spain, Prussia, Russia…). At first, all are victories for France. 

France had a special interest in controlling certain borders to protect itself from external enemies. It also had an interest in obtaining new markets to supply France with raw materials. During all this period, France constitutes up to 6 coalitions to fight against other European powers. 

Britain had been the only non-vassal country of France and its number 1 enemy, because the British rejected the republican and revolutionary ideology that France had implanted and that it tried to export to other countries. Notwithstanding, the French revolutionary ideas have reached Britain: Thomas Paine had published the work “The Rights of Man”, in which he defended the first stage of the French Revolution

The struggle between France and Britain had been historic, and in the last decades there had been fought numbers of wars: the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence… Amidst the two powers, there was an enormous interest in taking control of the seas to set up the colonial and commercial hegemony of the world.

Stages of expansion of Napoleonic France

Europe 1812
Europe in 1812, year of maximum territorial expansion of the Napoleonic Empire. Source: Wikipedia.org

France’s incorporations:

Occupied Territories:

Allied or brothers territories:

Dependent states or satellites of France in 1801:

During the Consulate, France strengthens its control over the Italic peninsula, as well as over Switzerland and the Netherlands. 

During the First Empire, France incorporated the following Vassals states:

The rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte and the configuration of the Napoleonic regime

The social bases of the Napoleonic regime were formed by “notables” (both noble and non-noblemen), old elites of nobility and bourgeoisie, and new elites formed by people who had a prominent role at the local and provincial level during the Directory. The Napoleonic period, apart from wars, was also marked by very deep changes. Political and social reforms were undertaken in France and the countries that suffered its occupation. Napoleonic France disseminated the French political and social model, exporting Constitutions and a Civil Code, the legislative backbone of the new Napoleonic Europe.

Political and social changes in Napoleonic France

With the arrival to power of Napoleon, after the Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), which terminated the Directory or Directorate, the Consulate began (1799-1804). Together with Napoleon, as the First Consul, there were other two consuls: Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun.

The three consuls: Cambacérès, Bonaparte, Lebrun.
The three consuls: Cambacérès, Bonaparte, Lebrun.

Napoleon once in power tried to pacify and unite the country. He granted forgiveness to the insurrectionists, allowed immigrants to return, tried to give access to people of different beliefs, reformed the political administration, centralized everything, founded the Bank of France, created a new currency, established the French school, signed an agreement with the Pope (broken with the invasion of the papal States) and created a Civil Code. 

In December 1799, Napoleon promoted a new Constitution that legitimized the political structure with a strong executive power but with a weak and fractured legislative power. There were 3 Consuls, with Napoleon as the first Consul, equivalent to the position of Chief of State. The two other Consuls, who accompanied him, only had an advisory role.

The legislative power was formed by 4 Assemblies: the Sénat conservateur, the Tribunat, the Corps législatif and the Conseil d’État.

This new Senate had to decide whether the bills were constitutional: it had been appointed by Napoleon in 1802, and abolished in 1807. It was renewable a fifth part every year. The Tribunat had to discuss the Senate projects of bill and to give its opinion to the Corps législatif, but it had not right to vote the bills. It was elected by a complicated indirect suffrage by the senators.

The Corps législatif, composed by 300 MPs elected by masculine universal suffrage, was renewable in a fifth every year, and it had the right to vote the bill projects after the hearing of the Tribunat.

The Council of State, the successor of the King’s Council, was made up of judges, and had a mere advisory role.

1804: Coronation of Napoleon as Emperor

Between 1799-1804, all Napoleon did is a process of reaffirmation in power. In 1804, not having enough to be Consul, he was appointed Emperor. This thanks to its prestige as a soldier and his capacity as the First Consul to succeed both externally and internally: he had neutralized Realists as well as Jacobins. 

Napoleon I
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne is an 1806 portrait of Napoleon I of France in his coronation costume, painted by the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

In 1807 Napoleon suffered a failed attack. He will use it to repress the Jacobins, although later it was learned that it was not by the Jacobins, but monarchic sectors. 

Main goals and institutions that reaffirm the power of Napoleon:

The Concordat of 1801 ends the clashes between the Papacy and the French Republic, which almost lasted for a decade. In 1791 Pope Pius VI denounced the civil Constitution of the clergy. Napoleon carried out the signing of the Concordat, created an alliance between the Consulate and the Catholic Church, and also a series of recognition that favoured both parties.

The Catholic Church in France became spokesman and diffuser of the Imperial Glories. The priests accepted the Imperial Catechism that was published in 1806. The catechism is based on questions and answers. The collaboration between church and state remains until Napoleon invades the Pontifical States and imprisons the Pope. 

Constitution of the year VIII and later the French Empire
Constitution of the year VIII and later the French Empire

The Constitution of 1802 assured Napoleon his life position, and the Constitution of 1804 replaces the Republic for a hereditary Empire, in the person of Napoleon. These two Constitutions shaped the lack of effective means for orders to reach the bases. A key element of this centralization, in each Department, was the figure of the Prefect. 

The Prefect was created in 1800 and had extensive powers. It was the responsibility of the prefects for adult men to go to the army. And it was also his responsibility to collect tributes.

At the local level, the Mayors owed their appointment to the First Consul. Except municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants, these were appointed by prefects and chosen from a municipal list.

Le Code Civil des Francais
Le Code Civil des Français‘, in its first edition of 1804. National Library, Paris.

The Civil Code was published in March 1804, and it regulated social rules of the game. Napoleon gave great importance to this Code because he wanted the basic principles of the French Revolution to be established:

The Civil Code was a very effective tool for the dissemination in all municipalities of Napoleonic values. The Civil Code served as a cohesive element in the cities. In the cities, its leaders enjoyed wide public recognition. The local elites were part of the human group in which the Napoleonic regime chose its servants. The “Notable” elites were made up of the most prosperous citizens, both noble and bourgeois. 

The new elites, preferably landowners, had significant power both locally and departmentally. They were often made with land, thanks to the properties confiscated from the church. 

Finally, the army was a very important institution for the maintenance of the Empire. The army, as a prominent element of social cohesion, was the institution in which Napoleon relied most on his mandate. The Napoleonic regime entrusted the army to please accommodated elites, because they had relied on the army as an institution. Napoleon performed a series of measures to benefit the military:

These measures will contribute to enhance the military career and give it a prestigious level. The children of the notables approached the military career. The historian Jean-Paul Bertaud stated that among the officers predominated the military coming from the Notables, very different from the times of the Revolution.

Napoleonic era in Europe

With the expansionist wave of the Napoleonic Empire, France spread throughout Europe, its political and social model emerged from the Revolution. As it did? Through the implantation of constitutions and civil codes in those occupied territories. 

The Napoleonic Empire, and its area of ​influence, constituted a space in which an economic policy oriented to the promotion of the French interests and the economic asphyxia of Great Britain was implanted, with the Continental Blockade in November 1806. 

It was an unequal integration of the states in Napoleonic France (imperial departments, allied vassals…). Europe was a set of “overlapping states”. Among these states within the Empire, there were several economic developments and an uneven integration, depending on the ties that the states maintained with the Empire, the duration of these ties and the greater or lesser similarity of the society of these states with France itself. 
It was a very unstable scenario. 

Napoleon tried to implement institutions according to the French model: constitutions and civil codes. In the Confederation of the Rhine, Napoleon introduced changes to government, introducing a new Constitution and removing privileges of the nobility and the clergy. In some states, serfdom was abolished, as in Bavaria in 1808. 

Not in all the states did he succeed in applying these new constitutions: there were many differences between the constitutions of the different states. Despite the limitations, the constitutions were one of the key pieces in the Napoleonic reformist project

The constitutions and the establishment of the new rules of political game established the following basic principles:

These principles were to develop all post-occupation legislation. The constitutions were applied, not without resistance of the local ruling classes. 

The new civil codes were also implanted in the occupied territories and satellites states, copying the French original. The Civil Code specified the laws by which the new social relations were to be governed. The degree of application of the civil codes was very unequal. The introduction of the civil code meant the unification of the laws: the laws are now the same for everyone. It is going to be carried out with resistance from the privileged sectors (nobility, church government). 

The civil codes included:

In the territories occupied by the Empire, what were the social bases that supported the regime?

The regime sought the necessary social base to achieve the implementation of reforms it proposed among the elites. The elites’ majority ended up accepting the new regime, except for Spain, where the support of the Empire was minimal. But the popular uprisings of anti-Napoleonic occupation were majority in Europe. This type of active resistance had, in 1809, an example in the Tyrol, which rebelled against the Napoleonic occupation.

The fall from grace of Napoleon

The Empire sank in two phases: in May 1814 and in June 1815. But the effects of reforms during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire survived at these dates. The Europe of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age was affected by a decisive turn in customs: it changed the way people act and think. 

Battle of Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

New approaches to the individual, people and the state were put into practice. These changes continued to divide Europe after the fall of Napoleon. 

In 1815 there was a reinforcement of the immobilism and conservative forces. But it was impossible to return to the situation before 1789. The influence of the French Revolution could not be eliminated. 

At the fall of Napoleon, the victorious powers (October 1814 and June 1815) gathered at the Vienna Congress for territorial restoration, could not restore the Old Regime. They had to implement reforms carried out during the Revolution. 

The traces of these 25 years laid the foundations of the new society of the 19th century. Some noble and bourgeois elites, whose differences were disappearing based on their common interests, will lead to the disappearance of the Estates society. Noble and bourgeois converge their interests as a proprietary class. This will make possible in Europe the ideal framework for economic initiative and the free market. The industrialization process begins.

All articles of the course:

  • Link Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th century
  • Link The Napoleonic era (1799-1815)
  • Link The Congress of Vienna and the Restoration of the European order
  • Link Social and economic changes in the 19th century
  • Link Liberalism and nationalism in the 19th century
  • Link Liberal Revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848
  • Link The expansion of the great industrial capitalism
  • Link Bismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-state
  • Link Imperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th century
  • Link World War I (1914-1918)
  • Link Consequences of the First World War
  • Link The new territorial map of interwar Europe
  • Link The Revolution of Russia of February and October 1917
  • Link Interwar Europe in the United Kingdom, France and Germany
  • Link Fascism’s rise to power in Italy
  • Link World War II (1939-1945)
  • Link The revision of the Treaty of Versailles and the reopening of the war
  • Link Stalinism in the inter-war USSR
  • Link The November Revolution of 1918 in Germany
  • Link The Nazi Rise to Power
  • Link Imperial system: the Middle East, India, Japan and China
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