A recent trip to the battlefield of Waterloo in Belgium reminded me of a friend who had found a Napoleon Bonaparte JASPER/JESPER (1854-1918) in her family tree. As I explored the relics of Napoleon in the Waterloo Visitor’s Centre and watched films of his defeat by the Duke of Wellington, I began to wonder why any British parents of the 19th century would wish to name their son after this great enemy of Britain and Europe. As Napoleon Jasper’s siblings had traditional English forenames like John and Mary, there seemed no obvious answer. By investigating further, I discovered that the reasons behind naming a son Napoleon were more complex than I could have imagined.
‘Napoleon Bonaparte’ Ancestors
According to the GRO indices, since 1837 there have been ten boys registered with the forenames, Napoleon Bonaparte. This does not include Napoleon Louis Charles Bonaparte NEALE (1857-1857), Napoleon Buonaparte Money (1827-1888), Napoleon Buonaparte Pugh (m. 1865, Liverpool), Napoleon Bonaparte/Buonaparte Smith (b. 1831, Hull), or Napoleon Buonaparte Soult Jones (b. 1838, London) – the last of whom appears to have been named after the Emperor and one of his leading generals. Beside Mr. Jasper (born in Dudley), the others were:
- Napoleon Bonaparte Clarke (1839-1917), who became a dock worker in his native Hull.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Farmer (1841-1889), who was later known as Napoleon Louis Bonaparte FARMER. His father worked as a farmer in Kent, but Napoleon and his brother, Beversham, became brewers.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Coldwell (1848-1904), who grew up in a weaving family in Huddersfield. The names of his brothers – Edwin, Wellington, Wallace and Albert – show clear military enthusiasm on behalf of someone in the family, but certainly not a complete lack of patriotism.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Gibb, who was born in Newcastle in 1850.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Johnson, who was born in Kent in 1853 to a Plate layer from Nottinghamshire. The family migrated to Australia a few months later.
- Napoleon Bonaparte BOTTOMLEY (1860, Keighley), who sadly died in 1869, but was clearly the child of imaginative parents. As well as Napoleon, Mr and Mrs Bottomley’s children included Inkerman, after a dubious success for the British and French in the Crimean War, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, after the American abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who lived June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896. Mr Bottomley worked as a paper maker, possibly involving the books from which he gained inspiration for his children’s names.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Beaumont (1870, Durham), who died shortly after birth.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Burrows (born 1881 in Leicestershire), who became a carman and named one of his sons Arthur.
- Napoleon Bonaparte Soloman/Solomon (1890-1975), who was the son of Napolean (sic) [Bonaparte] Soloman (b. 1859), whose brothers included Wallace William (after the Scottish hero of Braveheart fame), Arthur Wellesley, and Charles Napier, born 1856 (apparently after Sir Charles James Napier [1782-1853], the British general and Commander-in-Chief in India). The Solomon family continued the tradition with further births of Napoleons in Suffolk.
Leaving aside the Bonaparte part of the name, there were even more Napoleons. I particularly like Napoleon Nathaniel Coffee (b. 1855, Westminster), and Napoleon The Great Lambeth (b. 1853, Chichester). Although Napoleon Lambeth was born in 1853, during the reign of Napoleon III, the epithet ‘The Great’ undoubtedly refers to Napoleon I.
It is interesting that only seven years after the Battle of Waterloo, the Boulton family of East London, chose to baptise their son after the defeated Emperor. The family clearly liked the name so much they used it twice: John Napoleon Boulton (bap. 1822) and Webber Napoleon Boulton (bap. 1829). Several of the Napoleons were also named after their fathers – perhaps indicating that being named Napoleon had done them no harm. Napoleon Bonaparte Jasper named his son, Henry Napoleon (1879- 1967). And there was also Napoleon Alfred Bowler (bap. 1853, Greenwich) son of Napoleon Alfred Bowler, and Napoleon Edward Bembridge (bap. 1872, Southwark St Saviour) son of Napoleon George Bembridge. Napoleon John Atkins, son of the same, was baptised in 1890 in Hoxton; Napoleon George Anderson, son of the same, was baptised 1854 in Lambeth; and Napoleon Edward Ainger, son of Napoleon Ainger (a Gentleman and sometime mercantile clerk), was baptised at St Luke, Old Street in 1848. Napoleon Ainger senior had been born in the City of London to a gentleman, William Ainger in 1817 – just two years after Waterloo.
Could this naming, so close to the date of Wellington’s victory, indicate a lack of patriotism? Perhaps not, when you consider the number of Napoleons who are also named after feted British military heroes, like Nelson and Wellington: viz Napoleon Horatio Robert Wortley (b. 1854, Salisbury). Arthur was a common name in the 19th century, but one of the main reasons for this was the popularity of long-lived war hero, Sir Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), the 1st Duke of Wellington, who later became both Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister.
I found five Napoleon Arthurs in the GRO index:
Births Dec 1859 – Napoleon Arthur Jones, Salford
Births Mar 1862 – Napoleon Arthur Murrell, Steyning
Births Dec 1869 – Napoleon Arthur Dubois, Holborn
Births Sep 1876 – Napoleon Arthur Good, Pancras
Births Dec 1902 – Napoleon Arthur B Shepperd, Southampton
And this does not include the many Napoleons with brothers named Arthur, including Napoleon Reybord of Lambeth (who also had a sister named Josephine), and the aforementioned Napoleon Bonaparte Soloman. Unsurprisingly, looking at English and Welsh birth registrations overall, there were many more Arthur Wellesleys than Napoleon Bonapartes.
War heroes in general were popular, with a number appearing to be named after the ancient Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great – Napoleon Alexander Spicer, born to a Paper Manufacturer in Buckinghamshire in 1841 who went onto be a Naval Officer; there was also Napoleon Alexander Matley of Ashton (1842-1845) and Napoleon Alexander Cravino, who was born in the Lambeth area in 1842. Napoleon Cravino’s name can probably be explained by his father’s former career of Captain in the French Army. The Alexander theme was also clear in the 1840 naming of Arthur Wellington Alexander Nelson Hood of London. Not all Napoleons were influenced by military heroes, however. Some parents showed a sense of humour when naming their children, such as the artist who, in 1839, named his son Napoleon Tristram Shandy Inskipp, after the bawdy comic novel of 1760.
Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?
The great Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was born Napoleone Buonaparte on French-owned Corsica in 1769. Although a Corsican Nationalist and consequent hater of the French, Napoleon became an officer for the French Army at 16. Aged 20 at the time of the French Revolution, Napoleon witnessed the scenes first hand. He was also present when France became a Republic on 10 August 1792. Ascending swiftly through the French military ranks, Napoleon made his name repelling the British-supported Royalist invasion of Toulon in 1793. He later defeated Italy in 1796 (he became its King in 1805) and Austria in 1797. By 1799, he had overthrown the French Directory, become First Consul of France, and styled himself Napoleon I. In 1804, France became an empire and Napoleon its first emperor.
By 1812, Napoleon had conquered most of Europe and his strategic skill was evident to the world. Within the next two years, however, his power was to slip away amidst attacks by other European nations (notably, Russia, Britain, and Prussia), and he was forced to abdicate on the 6th April 1814. Despite being exiled on the tiny island of Elba, Napoleon managed to escape to France, gather supporters en route and march to Paris. Meanwhile, the Prussians and the Allies (the British Army, the King’s German Legion, plus several thousand troops from the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick, and Nassau), led by the Duke of Wellington, were marching to meet him. This ‘Hundred Days’ period culminated in Napoleon’s final defeat on the 18th June 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. After this, Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, where he died almost seven years later – possibly as a result of breathing arsenic from green wallpaper. Eventually, his body was returned to France, where he was reburied in glory at Les Invalides, Paris.
So, why would anyone in Britain choose to name a child after him? European migrants made up some of the families of Napoleons, such as the 1838 Napoleon Joseph De Veaux born into cosmopolitan Holborn, or Napoleon Eugene Deshormes [De Cloislin], who was born in Shropshire in 1840 to a Professor of Languages from Paris. The defiantly named Napoleon Victor Renieuville was born in East London in 1856 to a Carpenter and Joiner from Normandy, France.
Although Napoleon was clearly a hero to the French, many British people also respected his achievements. Even Wellington described him as ‘the greatest general in the modern world’. Napoleon’s military prowess and qualities as a statesman were undoubtedly impressive – particularly as his success came from talent rather than privilege. His men admired him for guiding them to victory despite a lack of supplies, and for ensuring that they were paid fairly. Napoleon was also hailed in France for the end of revolutionary discord, and his introduction of a fair tax system, and an education system based on social equality. Across Europe, he was celebrated for his legal reforms: the Code Napoleon extended across Europe and is the basis of legal systems in many European countries today. Magnanimously, he also showed great personal qualities by forgiving those who betrayed him.
The Other Napoleon Bonaparte: Napoleon III
Confusingly we cannot be certain whether all the above Napoleons were named after the same person. Although Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821) is the most famous today, there were other Napoleons in his family. Napoleon I’s son, Napoleon II (1811-1832), became titular Emperor of the French on his father’s abdication in 1815. However, he never returned to France after his exile in Austria, and died soon afterwards of tuberculosis.
More significantly for the births in the 1830-1870 period, there was Napoleon III (1808-1873) – son of Napoleon’s brother, Louis (1778-1846), who had been born in Corsica as Luigi Buonaparte. Luigi later changed his name to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, and became a French Prince and King of Holland. In the 1840s and 1850s, contemporary newspaper reports reveal how French and European politics was dominated by the figure of Napoleon III, also known as Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, but originally born Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The clue to his influence on the names can be seen with Napoleon Louis Charles Bonaparte Neale. It appears that Master Neale was named after this man in 1857. There was also the 1871 birth in Londons St Pancras area that included the names of both the recently deposed Napoleon III and the Prussian architect of his downfall – Napoleon Bismarck Du Cann.
After an early career in the Swiss Army and a brief exile in England, Louis-Napoleon took advantage of the family reputation and won a popular vote in 1848, becoming President of France’s Second Republic. In 1851, demonstrating the ambition of his uncle, he then overthrew the state, and seized the French throne. He finally became Emperor Napoleon III on the 2nd December 1852 (ruling until 4 September 1870). He is remembered as the last monarch of France.
Britains Armies had fought hard to prevent Napoleon I from seizing power across Europe, but in the 1850s, Britain united with France (and Turkey and Sardinia) against the Russians for the infamous battles of the Crimean War. Thus, in this period, the name Napoleon represented a friend of Britain, and a support in a notorious conflict. The Crimea is known today for the Charge of the Light Brigade (quickly immortalized in 1854 by the then Poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson), the balaclava, and the innovatory nursing of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Napoleon III, showing the military zeal of his uncle, participated in several other wars, including the Second Opium War, the Second Italian War of Independence, the Franco-Mexican War, the Taiping Rebellion, the 1866 campaign against Korea, the Boshin War, and the Franco-Prussian War. However, the 1870 Battle of Sedan was a battle too far, and proved the end of Napoleon IIIs reign. In the aftermath of defeat, the territory of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded to the newly-formed German Empire reinforcing an enmity between France and Germany that was to continue into the 20th century.
Births of Napoleons continued to be registered in Britain throughout the twentieth century. The name has recently acquired a new audience through the cult film, Napoleon Dynamite. I spoke to a Mr Napoleon Russell Hill about why he was called Napoleon. He told me that his mother liked unusual names – his sisters having grand names also. When his younger brother was born, however, his father said ‘enough of the silly names’, and insisted the baby be called George. Mr Hill has no real problem with the name – other than its being so distinctive that everyone always knows who he is. Within the family, however, he is known as Leon.
Naming Napoleons in the past seems to have been inspired by a variety of motivations. Clearly, Napoleon Bonaparte III had some influence on the Napoleons born in the 1830s through to 1873 (when he died – in England). Many Napoleons were named during the period of the Crimean War (1853-1856), when Napoleon III’s name regularly appeared in British newspapers. And the French participation in that war is probably also significant; especially when we consider the Bottomley family with their sons, Napoleon and Inkerman. On the other hand, regarding that same family’s admiration for the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, they may also have respected Napoleon I’s civil policies of social equality. Furthermore, some parents may have been inspired by tales they had heard when themselves children some twenty, thirty or forty years previously. Recruitment propaganda for the Armed Forces, and history lessons of military conquests by the likes of Alexander, Wellington and Napoleon, may also have contributed towards the names. Victorian society and culture held military heroes and reforming statesmen in high esteem. This regard is evident in the names the British Victorians chose to bestow upon their children.