The best Napoleon books

12 authors have picked their favorite books about Napoleon Bonaparte and why they recommend each book.

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Britain Against Napoleon

By Roger Knight,

Book cover of Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815

This book is heavier going than the first two yet answers a deep and interesting question: how in a political system with dilettante politicians and tiny departments of amateur administrators, did Britain fight and eventually win a 20-year total war against a country with twice the population. The period’s politicians are here shown at work, wearing themselves down with long hours and short weekends, setting up policies and systems that could do the job. Their sheer intelligence and professionalism is remarkable; a century later Britain almost lost World War I because it had forgotten lessons about Naval convoys learned during this conflict. Of all the books here, this shows best why Pitt and Liverpool had a much tougher job and worked much harder than Disraeli or Gladstone.


Who am I?

More than 40 years ago, I first started writing a book on great ‘Tory’ leaders throughout history, several of whom were inexorably tied to this Regency period. Having never lost interest in the topic I continued to study the period and its political life and found a way to parlay experience from my career in finance and international business into a biography of the most economically proficient Prime Minister Britain has ever had. Research for that biography as well as for future Industrial Revolution-related books on which I am currently working has resulted in a broad and fruitful list of books on the period's politics.


I wrote...

Britain's Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool

By Martin Hutchinson,

Book cover of Britain's Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool

What is my book about?

Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister: Lord Liverpool unpicks two centuries of Whig history to redeem Lord Liverpool (1770-1828) from ‘arch-mediocrity’ and establish him as the greatest political leader the country has ever seen. Past biographers of Lord Liverpool have not sufficiently acknowledged the importance of his foremost skill: economic policy (including fiscal, monetary, and banking system questions). Here, Hutchinson’s experience in the finance sector provides a specialised perspective on Liverpool’s economic legacy.

From his adept handling of unparalleled economic and social difficulties, to his strategic defeat of Napoleon and unprecedented approach to the subsequent peace process, Liverpool is shown to have set Britain’s course for prosperity and effective government for the following century. In addition to picking apart his domestic and foreign policy, Hutchinson advances how a proper regard for Liverpool’s career might have changed the structure and policies of today’s government for the better.

Napoleon

By Alan Forrest,

Book cover of Napoleon

This is by far the best single-volume history on Napoleon. Forrest is one of the foremost experts on the French Revolution and its military in the world. He has written a readable and unromanticised account of the French Emperor’s life. Particularly strong on the background, ideology, and wider forces impelling that man forward. A thoroughly enjoyable and captivating read.


Who am I?

I grew up in Catholic Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s a time of rapid change just before the advent of the Celtic tiger. Experiencing such a transformative moment in the history of that island I became fascinated by revolution. With my Italian roots, I was always outward-looking and interested in just how interconnected European history can be. My work started with a book on the downward spiral of Louis XVI’s court in 1789-1792, but recently I became interested in how Napoleon exported the culture of the French Revolution wherever he went. Now I am preparing a book on Catholicism and the politics of religion during the age of revolutions 1700-1903.


I wrote...

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

By Ambrogio A. Caiani,

Book cover of To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

What is my book about?

In July 1809 Napoleon had Pope Pius VII kidnapped. For almost five years this Pontiff would remain the prisoner of the French Emperor. Napoleon had tried to heal the wounds of the French Revolution’s persecution of the Church. All seemed to be going well and in 1804 Pius even travelled to Paris to crown Napoleon Emperor of the French in Notre Dame. Soon, the French Empire started treating the Papal States like a vassal. Pius rejected alliance treaties with France and refused to appoint bishops to those territories controlled by Napoleon.

Unable to persuade the Pope through diplomatic means the Empire invaded his domain and took him prisoner. For five years Pius VII was bullied and asked to accept unconditionally the will of Napoleon. This gentle but resolute Italian Pontiff remained steadfast in his refusal to do so, thus becoming the French Empire’s most formidable opponent. 

Napoleon on Napoleon

By Somerset de Chair (editor),

Book cover of Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor

Where better to start trying to understand Napoleon than with his own words? If only it was that simple! In total, four of his companions took down Napoleon’s words but he died without editing them. Exiled on St Helena, Bonaparte was determined to counter what he saw as the gross distortions circulating in the English-speaking world. I delight in his confident vision, even after his ultimate defeat. This book gives us insights into his view on the nature of history, his assessment of generals through the ages, including a substantial section on himself, the key events in his career, and a set of final observations in which he attempts to rewrite history to his tastes. Not then a balanced piece of work but no less fascinating for all that. It taught me the importance of putting myself in a character’s shoes before I start writing.


Who am I?

I taught about Napoleon for thirty years, having studied history at Cambridge. I’ve been fascinated by the Corsican outsider, who, thanks to the French Revolution, rose to dominate Europe, since I saw a china bust of him in his green Chasseurs uniform on my maternal grandparents’ sideboard. I always loved historical fiction and having retired into a locked-down world, I put my time on the Isle of Skye to good use and set about researching and writing the novel I had always said I would write. Re-reading old favourites and encountering new interpretations was a joy and certainly made compiling this list an enjoyable challenge!


I wrote...

Needing Napoleon

By Gareth Williams,

Book cover of Needing Napoleon

What is my book about?

Needing Napoleon is an irresistible adventure that spirits the reader from present-day Paris to the Battle of Waterloo and beyond.

Can you change what has already happened? As a history teacher, Richard knows the answer. At least, he thinks he does. On holiday in Paris, he stumbles across a curious antiques shop. The eccentric owner reveals a secret Richard dares not believe. His conviction that Bonaparte should have won the battle of Waterloo could be put to the test. Accurate historical detail collides with the paradox of time travel as an ordinary twenty-first-century man is plunged into the death throes of the French empire.

Napoleon

By Max Gallo, William Hobson (translator),

Book cover of Napoleon: The Song Of Departure

This is a fine work of fiction that forms but the first installment of a four-book masterpiece. Max Gallo was a herculean figure in French post-war life. In this volume, he tells the story of Napoleon’s life from his birth in Corsica to the moment in 1799 when he topples the ineffective Directory. I love this book because the author puts us inside Napoleon’s head. We think his thoughts and savour his words. He has put the flesh on the bones of history, conjuring a sympathetic tyro at times plagued by doubts but also willing to take daunting risks. This book made me realise Napoleon was more than an icon or an ogre, an Emperor, or a military genius; he was an outsider, he endured bullying, and he felt the same gamut of emotions as we do. I never looked at historical figures in the same way again.


Who am I?

I taught about Napoleon for thirty years, having studied history at Cambridge. I’ve been fascinated by the Corsican outsider, who, thanks to the French Revolution, rose to dominate Europe, since I saw a china bust of him in his green Chasseurs uniform on my maternal grandparents’ sideboard. I always loved historical fiction and having retired into a locked-down world, I put my time on the Isle of Skye to good use and set about researching and writing the novel I had always said I would write. Re-reading old favourites and encountering new interpretations was a joy and certainly made compiling this list an enjoyable challenge!


I wrote...

Needing Napoleon

By Gareth Williams,

Book cover of Needing Napoleon

What is my book about?

Needing Napoleon is an irresistible adventure that spirits the reader from present-day Paris to the Battle of Waterloo and beyond.

Can you change what has already happened? As a history teacher, Richard knows the answer. At least, he thinks he does. On holiday in Paris, he stumbles across a curious antiques shop. The eccentric owner reveals a secret Richard dares not believe. His conviction that Bonaparte should have won the battle of Waterloo could be put to the test. Accurate historical detail collides with the paradox of time travel as an ordinary twenty-first-century man is plunged into the death throes of the French empire.

Napoleon Surrenders

By Gilbert Martineau,

Book cover of Napoleon Surrenders

As I fingered a copy of Napoleon Surrenders in a second-hand bookshop, a passing stranger said to me, "Read anything by Martineau, it’s all good, and that one is brilliant." Encouraged, I willingly paid £2 for my copy. Well, I have never spent so well! This detailed account whisks us from the evening after Waterloo to HMS Northumberland under sail for St Helena. Until I read this book, it was too easy to see Bonaparte’s story as over once he was defeated by the Duke of Wellington. But Martineau changed my mind. He crafts the story of those agonising months in which Napoleon has to say goodbye to his family, his soldiers, his home, and his country. He relinquishes his title for a second time and throws himself at the mercy of London. Martineau conjures the historical actors as real people confronting an impossible dilemma: what to do with Napoleon?


Who am I?

I taught about Napoleon for thirty years, having studied history at Cambridge. I’ve been fascinated by the Corsican outsider, who, thanks to the French Revolution, rose to dominate Europe, since I saw a china bust of him in his green Chasseurs uniform on my maternal grandparents’ sideboard. I always loved historical fiction and having retired into a locked-down world, I put my time on the Isle of Skye to good use and set about researching and writing the novel I had always said I would write. Re-reading old favourites and encountering new interpretations was a joy and certainly made compiling this list an enjoyable challenge!


I wrote...

Needing Napoleon

By Gareth Williams,

Book cover of Needing Napoleon

What is my book about?

Needing Napoleon is an irresistible adventure that spirits the reader from present-day Paris to the Battle of Waterloo and beyond.

Can you change what has already happened? As a history teacher, Richard knows the answer. At least, he thinks he does. On holiday in Paris, he stumbles across a curious antiques shop. The eccentric owner reveals a secret Richard dares not believe. His conviction that Bonaparte should have won the battle of Waterloo could be put to the test. Accurate historical detail collides with the paradox of time travel as an ordinary twenty-first-century man is plunged into the death throes of the French empire.

Désirée

By Annemarie Selinko,

Book cover of Désirée: The Bestselling Story of Napoleon's First Love

Sometimes you want to know what happens after. What happens after King Gustav is assassinated, his son is deemed unfit and abdicates, and the next King — Gustav’s brother Karl — dies without an heir? Eventually, Sweden ends up with a King brought in from France. Huh?! This book is a bit old-fashioned but a fun, easy read that weaves together French and Swedish history with the story of Désirée Clary, the daughter of a silk merchant who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s first love and later became Queen of Sweden as the wife of General Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. (The Bernadottes are Sweden’s royal family to this day.) 


Who am I?

Stockholm was the first city that I traveled to outside of the U.S. Landing there at Midsommar and visiting the Old Town made an indelible impression. I lived and worked in Sweden for almost 10 years, and had little time for history then, but later found Stockholm in the Gustavian age irresistible as the basis for my first novel. It was a period of cultural flowering, of occult fascinations, social change, and great drama. Readers tend to look further south, in France and Great Britain, for their historical fiction, histories, and biographies, but there are great stories further north as well. 


I wrote...

The Stockholm Octavo

By Karen Engelmann,

Book cover of The Stockholm Octavo

What is my book about?

The Stockholm Octavo is the story of Emil Larsson, a self-satisfied customs agent and devoted card shark living in Sweden’s capitol city in 1791. His gambling partner, gaming house owner Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, insists on reading Emil’s Octavo, a form of fortunetelling with playing cards revealing eight people surrounding a significant event in his life. Emil believes the Octavo will lead him to comfort and ease via a convenient marriage, but instead it involves him in an assassination plot against King Gustav III — and a chance to change history. Personal ambition, politics, assassination plots, love, fortunetelling, and folding fans combine in a heady fantasy with a historical core.

Moscow 1812

By Adam Zamoyski,

Book cover of Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March

Adam Zamoyski writes with rare lucidity and grace. In this book, my favorite in his distinguished oeuvre, he takes on an epic subject and triumphs—unlike Napoleon in 1812. We understand the unfolding tragedynot only of the Grande Armée, but of the people in its pathjust as we are scorched by the sun, drenched by the rain, and frozen by the early onset of winter.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by Central and Eastern Europe all of my adult life. Many cruises along the Danube and around the Baltic Sea have allowed me to see the stunning best of the region. Since the early 1990s, I’ve taught the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Russian Empire to a generation of students. Professor of Polish-Lithuanian History at University College London since 2013, my next challenge is to promote the history of Poland to allcomers via the Polish History Museum in Warsaw, the wonderful city which is my home.


I wrote...

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame

By Richard Butterwick-Pawlikowski,

Book cover of The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1733-1795: Light and Flame

What is my book about?

I tell the compelling story of the last decades of one of Europe’s largest and least understood polities: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Drawing on the latest research, I explain its turbulent path to destruction by the neighbouring powers: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. But far from seeing the Commonwealth as a failed state, I show the ways in which it reformed itself, drawing on its own civic values and the ideas of the Enlightenment. All too briefly, the Commonwealth threw off the stranglehold of Russia and regained its sovereignty, and on May 3, 1791 it gave itself a modern Constitution, fit for the nineteenth century.

Fashion in the French Revolution

By Aileen Ribeiro,

Book cover of Fashion in the French Revolution

Ribeiro is the author of numerous books on beauty and fashion, but this is the one I always come back to. Here, she explicitly connects social and political trends to changes in dress, beginning in the 1780s to the rise of Napoleon. The analysis is straightforward and compelling, although she also acknowledges the nuance. It’s a terrific introduction to the political importance of fashion during a period when fashion could not have been more politically salient.


Who am I?

As a child (and budding feminist), I inhaled historical fiction about queens and other formidable women. This led to my scholarly interest in female power and authority. Aristocratic women had meaningful political influence in Old Regime France through family networks and proximity to power. However, with the French Revolution of 1789, women’s exclusion from political power (and the vote) was made explicit. This led me to examine the tools women had to accumulate political and social capital, including beauty and the control of fashion. We need to take the intersection of beauty, fashion, and politics seriously to understand the operation of power in both history and the modern world. The books I chose privilege my own interest in eighteenth-century France, but have a broader significance. And they are all really fun to read!


I wrote...

The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame Du Barry

By Tracy Adams, Christine Adams,

Book cover of The Creation of the French Royal Mistress: From Agnès Sorel to Madame Du Barry

What is my book about?

This study explores the emergence and development of the position of the French royal mistress through detailed portraits of nine of its most significant incumbents. While kings have always had extraconjugal sexual partners, only in France did the royal mistress become a quasi-institutionalized political position.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, key structures converged to create a space at court for the royal mistress. The first was an idea of gender already in place: that while women were legally inferior to men, they were men’s equals in competence. For example, because of their legal subordinacy, queens were considered the safest regents for their husbands; in a similar fashion, the royal mistress was the surest counterpoint to the royal favorite. Second, the Renaissance was a period during which people began to experience space as theatrical. This shift to a theatrical world opened up new ways of imagining political guile, which came to be positively associated with the royal mistress.

The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon

By Jeremy Black,

Book cover of The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon

While the Napoleonic Wars affected all aspects of life in Britain, the complete marginalization of the War of 1812 in British history is more a reflection of British historians’ interests than the experiences of people at the time. Jeremy Black, the most prolific British historian of his generation, does much to correct that oversight in his War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. 


Who am I?

I am a Professor of History at Texas A&M University and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I find the War of 1812 fascinating because throughout history one would struggle mightily to find a war so small with so many great consequences. Conflict between the U.S. and British Empire could have been averted (and it nearly was) in 1812 just as it had for years, and it ended with neither side recognizing a victor and an agreement to return to a pre-war state of affairs. The bicentennial of the War of 1812 brought fresh perspectives from a wide variety of historians, who as a group asserted the importance of the war to world history and global affairs to our understanding of the war.  Below are some of my favorites.


I wrote...

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812

By Troy Bickham,

Book cover of The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812

What is my book about?

The Weight of Vengeance provides a provocative new account of America's forgotten war, underscoring its significance for multiple sides by placing it in a global context. The Napoleonic Wars profoundly disrupted the global order, from India to Haiti to New Orleans. Spain's power slipped, allowing the United States to target the Floridas; the Haitian slave revolt contributed to the Louisiana Purchase; fears that Britain would ally with Tecumseh and disrupt the American northwest led to a pre-emptive strike on his people in 1811. This shifting balance of power provided the United States with the opportunity to challenge Britain's dominance of the Atlantic world. And it was an important conflict for Britain as well.

Napoleon

By Michael Broers,

Book cover of Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny

Hailed by most reviewers as the definitive biography on Napoleon. It is written by the doyen of Napoleonic studies at Oxford. Based on the meticulous research and the recently completed new & expanded edition of Napoleon’s letters. Despite this Broers wears his erudition lightly and has written a gripping and page-turning life story of the man who changed Europe beyond recognition. It is by far the most European biography ever written on the French Emperor. We all await volume 3 with great anticipation!


Who am I?

I grew up in Catholic Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s a time of rapid change just before the advent of the Celtic tiger. Experiencing such a transformative moment in the history of that island I became fascinated by revolution. With my Italian roots, I was always outward-looking and interested in just how interconnected European history can be. My work started with a book on the downward spiral of Louis XVI’s court in 1789-1792, but recently I became interested in how Napoleon exported the culture of the French Revolution wherever he went. Now I am preparing a book on Catholicism and the politics of religion during the age of revolutions 1700-1903.


I wrote...

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

By Ambrogio A. Caiani,

Book cover of To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

What is my book about?

In July 1809 Napoleon had Pope Pius VII kidnapped. For almost five years this Pontiff would remain the prisoner of the French Emperor. Napoleon had tried to heal the wounds of the French Revolution’s persecution of the Church. All seemed to be going well and in 1804 Pius even travelled to Paris to crown Napoleon Emperor of the French in Notre Dame. Soon, the French Empire started treating the Papal States like a vassal. Pius rejected alliance treaties with France and refused to appoint bishops to those territories controlled by Napoleon.

Unable to persuade the Pope through diplomatic means the Empire invaded his domain and took him prisoner. For five years Pius VII was bullied and asked to accept unconditionally the will of Napoleon. This gentle but resolute Italian Pontiff remained steadfast in his refusal to do so, thus becoming the French Empire’s most formidable opponent. 

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