I wonder why the Allies did not execute or imprison Napoleon for life after both times when he was captured. Even more, they risked by granting him an island in possession. This is quite illogical given that they portrayed him as an evil murderer and usurper.

Only two reasons come to mind in this light:

  • That they did not want to create a precedent of murdering a head of state so that they not to be murdered similarly in case of defeat.

  • That they somewhat recognized Napoleon as a legitimate leader or at least recognized something of his impact as positive.

May be there were other reasons, for example, the Catholic church did not want to revoke the title of emperor from him?

What were the actual reasons?

  • 3
    Just to add that the Bastille was demolished at that time.
    – Nikko
    Sep 20, 2012 at 10:57
  • George IV actually in many ways emulated Napoleon. He kept the cloak he surrendered in, adored Napoleon's table with images of other military leaders, fashioned his portraits and dining wares to outshine Napoleon's. In a weird way, he was grateful that he was given the opportunity to reclaim the legacy of a powerful government.
    – dwn
    Jan 30, 2015 at 15:54

6 Answers 6


Considering he escaped from an island prison and re-rallied the country, putting him in the Bastille (in the middle of France) and then leaving and demobilzing your army would quite obviously have been a Bad Idea.

As for not executing him...I don't think they could really do that either. His only real "crime" was leading armies against them and losing. If people got executed for that, then any one of them might be executed too if they had lost. Not the best of precidents to set, if you yourself happen to be a general or a monarch.

So they tried to put him somewhere out of France where he couldn't restart things. Even gave him a small kingdom there to keep him busy. He escaped and restarted things. Then they put him somewhere quite a bit further out, and kept a closer guard on him.

  • 1
    He escaped from the island because he was NOT imprisoned there There were many people under his command there and even military units. Anyway he could be imprisoned not only in France but, say, in England or elsewhere. As for the crimes, he was accused in usurping the power which is capital crime everywhere in the world.
    – Anixx
    Apr 11, 2012 at 14:17
  • 16
    @Anixx - Well, I'd argue about every point of analysis in that comment, but I doubt I'd convince you. The last sentence in particular though...how do you think every ruling dynasty in Europe got there? Taking over power in a country is historically only cause for execution when you fail and the person you tried to usurp is still around to see it carried out. See Machiavelli's The Prince.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 11, 2012 at 14:32
  • And he failed so he could be punished for that.
    – Anixx
    Apr 11, 2012 at 14:45
  • 11
    @Anixx - No, he succeeded most spectacularly at taking over France. It was his military adventures that he ended up failing at, and (as discussed above) that's a very different matter.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 11, 2012 at 16:25
  • 1
    "His only real "crime" was leading armies against them and losing." - If they wanted to, they could have painted him as a criminal monster. The anti-Napoleonic propaganda in Britain was already doing that with great success: stanford.edu/group/ww1/spring2000/Bogdan/Essay.html
    – quant_dev
    Apr 14, 2012 at 11:35

Napoleon WAS imprisoned. The first time, at Elba, was under "house arrest." Security was lax, and he escaped and started the "100 Days."

The British didn't make the same mistake the second time. The venue chosen for his exile was St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic, one of the most isolated places in the world. It is more than 1000 miles from Angola to the east, then uninhabited by "civilized" people. It is several thousand miles to Brazil, to the west.

A British garrison guarded the island, to prevent escape off the island. A British fleet patrolled the waters around the island, and would have recaptured him if he had somehow launched a boat into the South Atlantic.

As to why he was not put in a conventional prison in Europe, "out of sight, out of mind."

  • 4
    Elba was given to his possession. He became a governor of that island, not a prisoner.
    – Anixx
    Apr 17, 2012 at 13:44
  • 3
    @Anixx: But he was clearly imprisoned the second time around. Even the first time, I would call it a "gentleman's agreement," that he didn't abide by.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 17, 2012 at 13:51
  • 1
    Well, according to Wikipedia he was given a souvereignity over Elba and even retained the title of Emperor. So he was somewhat recognized as a legitimate ruler. The excile on Elbe also little resebles imprisonment rather than an excile. The British even planned to use him to institute a new empire in South America.
    – Anixx
    Apr 17, 2012 at 14:24
  • 5
    I'd also imagine that much of this effort was in large part due to the realization that if Napoleon was executed he would become a martyr and risk causing unrest in France where he was still widely respected. It makes a lot more sense to place him in comfortable isolation until he died of natural causes as his direct connection to the French people started to fade. Apr 23, 2012 at 22:57

He was probably lucky that he managed to surrender to the British (strictly speaking he claimed political asylum) rather than the Prussians.

Even then he had a number of political supporters in Britain that thought imprisonment was a bit severe!

"To consign to distant exile and imprisonment a foreign and captive Chief, who, after the abdication of his authority, relying on British generosity, had surrendered himself to us, in preference to his other enemies, is unworthy the magnanimity of a great country; " Lady Holland

  • 1
    Thinks. So he probably was not in hands on the French royal dynasty nor in the hands of the Germans. The British simply wanted to use him for their purposes. And his well-being was probably a condition of surrender.
    – Anixx
    Apr 11, 2012 at 15:45
  • 2
    @Anixx - although there probably was a political element of not making a martyr I think there really was still a feeling that it would be dishonourable to execute the loser. Or at least a loser from a proper civilized country that fought by the rules with a proper army. Even at the end of WWI the same attitude applied
    – none
    Apr 12, 2012 at 2:44
  • Interestingly Wikipedia claims that the British were against the Treaty of Fontainebleau because they did not want to recognize him as an emperor of France which was inscribed in the treaty's terms. So it was some other party that was responsible for the mild terms.
    – Anixx
    Apr 17, 2012 at 14:32
  • 1
    @Anixx, their position that recognising him as Emperor and installing him on an easily accesble island close by might be a mistake was shown to be pretty accurate in 1815! So dumping him on an island in the middle of the ocean with no rank or pirvilige to be forgotten about seems like a smart solution
    – none
    Apr 17, 2012 at 15:38
Stone walls do not a prison make,   
Nor iron bars a cage;    
Minds innocent and quiet take    
That for an hermitage;

To Althea, from Prison

Napoleon was imprisoned. He could not travel beyond the confines of the island, nor could anyone visit him. "Prison" isn't defined by the quality of the cell, but by the restrictions on liberties and the possession of civil rights. Napoleon's world was bounded by the coastline of the island, and he had effectively no civil rights. Had the guards decided to abridge his privileges, Napoleon could not have appealed to anyone.

As far as granting him title to the island, the title of Emperor and the "possession" of the island are utterly meaningless. "Emperor" is meaningless if you are your only subject (the British guards on the island remained subjects of the English crown). Titles are only meaningful when they are in the context of an effective, powerful state, and supported by some governance. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that the title was more of an insult than a consolation.

  • 2
    Also, while he was promised an annual income from the French treasury while on Elba, Louis XVIII reneged on this.
    – JTM
    May 26, 2018 at 18:30

One of the main reasons that executing Napoleon was never even considered by the British was that he was widely, if begrudgingly admired by their top brass and the British elite, as the probably the greatest military leader the world has ever seen. It pays to remember that he very nearly won at Waterloo, out manoeuvring and out fighting the British as the French had on almost every other occasion they clashed under his command. Such is the nature of wars that momentous victories often hinge on fractionally small acts of chance. Like the British, Napoleon idealised and romantacised war. His inspired leadership and zealous mission to permanently fortify France against countries (most notable England and Austria-Germany) which had previously regarded the invasion of France as a divine right, together with his enlightened dictatorship in conquest, were all greatly admired. He represented in many ways the quintessential militaristic British conqueror. Although, according to his post-Revolution principles he loathed monarchies he promptly established his own nepotistic version thereof, thus re-validating them and possibly restoring hopes that France might one day return to the European Royal's club (most of whom were related to or directly descendant from the French monarchy, and were terrified that the French proletariat's sudden taste for beheading indolent, retarded royals might just catch on at home)

  • 2
    This answer would be improved by sources.
    – MCW
    Jan 2, 2014 at 13:32

You have to read between the lines to get closer to the truth. It was simply that execution of the aristocracy was widely frowned upon and he was, after all, a minor noble married to minor french royalty and then into the house of Hapsburg. 3 million died as a result of Napoleon's actions, most of which were directly attributable to his orders or actions. In the Caribbean and Syria, to name but a few, he was absolutely responsible for the most heinous torture and human rights abuses. Many executions were performed under his instructions for the most insignificant infractions. By today's standards, he would be more closely alligned with the likes of Hitler and other despots. Essentially, as ever, it came down to the double standards of the time.

  • I very much doubt that "execution of aristocracy" was somehow prohibited at the time especially given the grave crimes.
    – Anixx
    Jan 30, 2015 at 8:38
  • 2
    It seems standards for Hitler-likeness has really fallen.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 30, 2015 at 8:57

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