King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Byron & politics: ‘born for opposition’

Introduction to: Napoleon: Emperor, expectation & exile

‘It is impossible not to be dazzled and overwhelmed by his character and career.’
Letter from Byron to Thomas Moore, 27 March 1815

Photograph of exhibition case 4 showing Waterloo spoils, books and manuscripts.Case 4Napoleon Bonaparte dominated Europe at the turn of the 19th century. As a military, political and philosophical figure he was seen to embody the greatness of human potential, ambition and reform, and his remarkable successes and dramatic failures fascinated Byron throughout his life.

The two men’s lives produced many parallels and coincidences, including a youthful rise to greatness, great fame and a subsequent ‘fall’ and exile. Byron’s early enthusiasm led him to defend his bust of Napoleon against his Harrow schoolmates, and in the House of Lords he voted against renewing war with the French.

Byron’s letters and journals reveal the anguish and exhilaration with which he followed Napoleon’s life, and this is particularly evident between 1814 and 1816: the period of Napoleon’s abdication, return, defeat at Waterloo and second exile. Byron was deeply shocked by Napoleon’s abdication, and railed against his fallen hero in a number of poems including ‘Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte’, ‘Napoleon’s Farewell (From the French)’, ‘On the Star of the “Legion of Honour”’, ‘Ode (From the French)’ and the Waterloo stanzas of Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron was further devastated by the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo by the Allies under the Duke of Wellington, whom he described in Don Juan as a ‘cut-throat.’

Byron amassed many Napoleonic items. When leaving England in 1816 he commissioned an expensive (though unpaid-for) replica of Napoleon’s coach to travel in, and that summer he visited the field of Waterloo and collected relics of the battle, which were later given to John Murray. Murray in turn gave Byron an expensive Napoleonic snuff box featuring miniature portraits of the Emperor, his wife and son. In 1822 when Byron’s mother-in-law died and his terms of inheritance required him to adopt the surname Noel, he was delighted to sign himself NB in imitation of Napoleon.

Photograph of exhibition case 5 showing books and manuscripts.Case 5Both Emperor and poet possessed extraordinary energy, egoism and the power to fascinate. Byron scoffed to Murray about the comparisons and associations being made between them, but with what one can perhaps detect as secret delight; and in stanza 55 of Don Juan Canto XI he described himself as ‘the grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme’.

Napoleon’s defeat enabled Byron to travel across continental Europe in 1816, and it also precipitated nationalistic and patriotic uprisings throughout Europe, including in Italy and Greece, where Byron was to become politically involved.

In this exhibition

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