Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica in 1769. His family had received French nobility status when France made Corsica a province in that year, and Napoleon was sent to France in 1777 to study at the Royal Military School in Brienne. In 1784, Napoleon spent a year studying at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, graduating as a Second Lieutenant of artillery. Sent to Valence on a peacetime mission, Napoleon whiled away the hours there educating himself in history and geography.
During the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, Napoleon fought well for the Republic, helping to defeat the British at Toulon. For his services there, he was made a Brigadier General. After the Directory came to power, Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais and gained command of the French army in Italy, where, after defeating the Austrians in 1797, he negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio. This victory boosted Napoleon to widespread popularity when he returned to France. Eager to get rid of this potential challenger, the Directory agreed to let Napoleon take an army on an Egyptian campaign to capture Egypt and hamper British shipping to India. Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt did not go as planned, and when he heard that the Directory was losing power, he abandoned his army and rapidly returned to Paris to take advantage of the situation, becoming the first of three consuls in the new government proclaimed in 1799.
As First Consul, Napoleon began a program to consolidate his power. He ended the current rift between France and the Church by instituting the Concordat of 1801. France was then involved in several wars. In 1802, Napoleon signed the Peace of Amiens, a temporary peace with the British. In order to be able to concentrate solely on his European affairs, he sold France’s Louisiana territory to the U.S. in 1803. And in 1804, he set the foundation for much of Europe’s legal system by establishing the Napoleonic Code. In 1804, Napoleon did away with the Consulate and crowned himself Emperor in an extravagant coronation ceremony.
In 1805, Napoleon was planning an invasion of England when the Russian and Austrian armies began marching towards France. Napoleon’s forces defeated them at Austerlitz, but not before the British fleet had destroyed Napoleon’s navy at Trafalgar. At this time, Napoleon expanded his Empire by creating the Confederation of the Rhine in Germany and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in Poland. By now, Napoleon controlled almost all of Western Europe with the exception of Spain. He decided to try and destroy the economy of his major enemy, Britain, by instituting the Continental System, under which all European ports would refuse to accept British shipments. He failed in this task, and in trying to force Spain to comply touched off the Peninsular War. Russia and Prussia, however, did cooperate with Napoleon for a few years under the Treaty of Tilsit (1807).
In 1810, Josephine, although the mother of two children by her previous husband, had not yet provided Napoleon with any heirs; distressed by this, he had his marriage to her annulled and married the 18-year-old Austrian archduchess Marie Louise. She gave birth to a son in 1811. Around this time, Czar Alexander I withdrew Russia from the Continental System. In 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Army entered Russia in order to punish Alexander, but the ravages of the deadly Russian winter decimated his army. Meanwhile, affairs in France began to look unstable. Napoleon rushed back to Paris and raised a new army, only to be defeated by a coalition of European forces at Leipzig in 1814.
Napoleon was then exiled to the isle of Elba, where he plotted his return. With the great powers of Europe deep in negotiations over how to redivide the continent, Napoleon escaped from Elba, sneaked into France, and raised a new army in the period known as the Hundred Days. In June 1815, the armies of Wellington and Blucher defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Napoleon was again exiled, this time to distant Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821.