Fact or Fiction:   Boney’s Feline Phobia

Was Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, and the man who, for a time, controlled nearly all of Europe, really afraid of cats? There are several sites on the web which will tell you that he was terrified of them. There are even a few books of so-called trivia "facts" which also repeat the various tales of Napoleon’s ailurophobia.

But was it true?

In a word, no. It seems that this misinformation was perpetrated decades after the Regency, when there actually was a Napoleon who was indeed terrified of cats. However, the Napoleon who suffered from ailurophobia was not the French Emperor, but his nephew, who became Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, Napoleon III had such a severe and irrational fear of cats that he would jump onto a piece of furniture if he saw a cat when he entered a room and would not come down until the cat was removed. Over time, of course, the first Napoleon was the one everyone remembered and his nephew’s phobia was eventually ascribed to him. This may also be due, at least in part, to the fact that both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, both personal heros of Napoleon I, where believed to have ailurophobia. There are many who are of the opinion that all men hungry for power have a fear of felines, so it was a natural progression to consider the first Napoleon an ailurophobe.

In addition to the fact that it was the third Napoleon who was afraid of cats, there are no trustworthy, reputable sources on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte which suggest that he had any phobias, including that for cats. Yet there are a number of articles posted across the web which tell the most extraordinary tales involving Napoleon Bonaparte and his supposed fear of felines. Despite the fact that they are fiction, Regency authors will want to be aware of these stories to ensure they do no allow them to creep into their own writing. But first, it is necessary to understand Napoleon’s actual view of cats.

Though Napoleon Bonaparte was not afraid of cats, it does appear that he did not like or respect them. He liked dogs, because he appreciated their slavish loyalty to their masters. Unlike dogs, cats are noted for their independence, not their loyalty. When Bonaparte returned to France after he escaped from the island of Elba, he is reported to have said to those courtiers and followers who had not accompanied him into exile:   "There are two kinds of fidelity, that of dogs and that of cats; you, gentleman, have the fidelity of cats who never leave the house." Bonaparte also liked that dogs typically followed any commands given them, while there have been very few cats throughout history who have performed on command. But his mis-trust was not solely focused on felines. Napoleon did not like liberal, independent human thinkers, known as humanists at the time, because he thought they were trouble-makers who could not be easily bent to his will. Is it any surprise he was indifferent to cats, those remarkably self-assured and independent creatures who would were equally indifferent to his military and political power?

Napoleon did have some experience being around cats, since his first wife, the Empress Joséphine, kept a number of cats, along with the rest of her menagerie, at their country home, the Château de Malmaison. She considered her cats " … good and faithful creatures that purr." But her husband seldom saw these cats do more than lay in the sun, groom themselves and seek affection from his wife. Bonaparte was a workaholic and despised idleness. He was usually busy doing something and had no interest in leisure. He saw that same sense of urgency and focus on a task in dogs, whereas cats always seemed languorous and disinterested to him, behavior for which he had no use. There may have also been at least a touch of male superiority in his attitude as well. The cat is associated with the feminine in many cultures. Bonaparte, like most powerful men of his day, had little use for women, beyond one specific purpose. He once said:   "Women are nothing but machines for producing children." With such an attitude toward women, is it any wonder the French Emperor saw no value in the "feminine" cat?

The most usual reason given for Napoleon’s fear of cats is that he was attacked by a wildcat when he was an infant. This supposedly happened on the island of Corsica when his nurse took him out for a morning airing in the garden of the family home. The nurse had returned to the house because she forgot something and thought the six-month old child would be safe left alone for a few minutes. According to the story, during the nurse’s brief absence, baby Napoleon was pounced upon by a wildcat. The nurse arrived on the scene in time to frighten the wildcat away before it could inflict any injury on the little boy. Though there were wildcats on Corsica in the eighteenth century, they were truly wild creatures and avoided human habitation. Like most cats, wildcats typically hunt at dawn and dusk. They take their time in stalking their prey, to ensure their success and their own safety during the hunt. It is highly unlikely that a wildcat would be on the hunt during full daylight, in the garden of a home, especially where an adult human was present. It is even less likely that it would pounce on its prey within moments of the larger human leaving the area. There is no mention of this event in any credible biography of Bonaparte and it is certainly a fiction invented to explain his purported ailurophobia.

One of the most common stories about Napoleon and his supposed cat phobia is that he was found in his bedroom one evening, half dressed, in a cold sweat of fear, thrusting his sword into the tapestries. The target of this furious sword-play was a tiny kitten who had found its way into the French General’s bedroom. However, there are multiple venues for this fanciful tale. One has it in Boney’s field tent, the night after the battle of Wagram, another in his bedchamber in a Viennese townhouse the night after he conquered the city, while still another has it that the hapless kitten wandered into his quarters in the Tuileries Palace. Yet no version of this story has ever been included in a single reputable biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, for the simple reason that it never actually occurred.

Though Napoleon did not fear or hate cats, he was superstitious. Therefore, he, like many Europeans, believed that black cats were bad luck if he should catch sight of one. From the little information available on this aspect of Bonaparte’s life, it would appear that on those few occasions when he did see a black cat, he assumed any bad luck would be to him, personally. He never seems to have had any concern that if he saw a black cat, that the sighting would have any effect on any of his military or political plans. He prosecuted all such plans with vigor and determination, regardless of any encounter with felines, black, or any other color. However, it is interesting to note that during the Regency, in most European countries, black cats were considered unlucky, while in England, they were considered to be a sign of good fortune.

Without doubt, the most outrageous and fantastical story told about Napoleon’s unreasoning fear of cats supposedly takes place on the battlefield of Waterloo. According to the teller of this tale, the Allied Commander-in-Chief ordered that seventy cats be brought to the front lines of the allied forces. There, the commander ordered the cats released, and at the sight of them, Napoleon Bonaparte froze with terror, unable to move or think, and suffered a complete nervous breakdown. His generals had to have him carried away from the front. Thus, according to the author of this story, the Battle of Waterloo was won. Not only is there no evidence of such a tale anywhere, in print or online, until just a couple of years ago, but it is riddled with numerous factual errors. Perhaps most glaring is that the Allied Commander at Waterloo in this story is said to be Lord Nelson. Not only had Nelson been dead for nearly ten years before the Battle of Waterloo, in June of 1815, Nelson was a British Naval Commander. Even if he had been alive at the time, Admiral Nelson would most certainly not have been in command at Waterloo. Another glaring factual error is that Napoleon was directing the fighting that day from his headquarters, relying on the many messages sent to him by his generals to manage the French attack. Therefore, he was never at the front line of the French army, and would never have seen any of those seventy cats which Admiral Nelson had supposedly released to terrorize him.

It is certainly true that Napoleon was not himself on the day of the Battle of Waterloo, but it had nothing to do with cats. He had been very ill and in great pain the night before, and for that reason, he had not slept well. Based on his symptoms, some medical historians believe he was suffering from either gall or kidney stones, which can be extremely painful. If Napoleon made any mistakes during the battle, it was much more likely to be due to his illness, his lack of sleep and his overweening and arrogant belief in his own power. There is also the fact that Wellington, who was the actual Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces that day, was an astute and able military commander. And, he was fighting a defensive action against the French, which had become his forte during his long years in command on the Peninsula. Even if Bonaparte had been in top form that day, it would have been no guarantee of his success, regardless of the presence of even a single cat.

Still another curious tale is told which includes Napoleon and cats, while he was in exile on the island of St. Helena. There are two versions of this story. According to one version, shortly before, or after, Bonaparte’s arrival on the island, someone posted an anonymous notice around the town. This notice stated that the island was overrun with rats and a bounty was to be offered for each cat which was delivered to a specific location on the date stated in the notice. The location was Longwood, the estate which was to be occupied by Napoleon and his entourage, none of whom were willing to pay a bounty for a single cat, while Napoleon cowered inside the house. The cats were all released and made their way home. Another version of this story claims the rat infestation on St. Helena became known in England, where broadsides were posted, offering sixpence per stray cat, for delivery to Napoleon Bonaparte. Hundreds of cats were collected and shipped to St. Helena for the protection of the erstwhile French Emperor. As with most stories about Napoleon and cats, neither version of this preposterous tale is true.

However, there is one story of Napoleon’s life on St. Helena which suggests he may have mellowed in his old age, or was simply in need of companionship on the remote and desolate island to which he had been exiled. He began to make pets of some of the animals on the Longwood estate, including some orphaned lambs, a couple of horses, (creatures he was also said to fear), and eventually a cat, whom he named Ben. Bonaparte must have felt some admiration, or at least respect, for this cat, since he named him after an American general whom he deeply admired. According to the members of Napoleon’s entourage who had gone into exile with him on St. Helena, Ben and Boney enjoyed each other’s company and often spent time together.

And so, Dear Regency Authors, no matter how tempting it might be to include Napoleon Bonaparte’s fear of felines in one of your stories, be aware that if you do so, it will be part of the fiction you are writing, not a snippet of historical fact. However, if your story is set in the Victorian era, and one of your historical characters is Boney’s nephew, Napoleon III, it will be quite historically accurate to allow him to be paralyzed with fear in the presence of even the smallest feline. However, both admiration and dread of cats has existed for millennia, and either extreme attitude might be just the thing to help develop an eccentric character for a Regency story.

R.I.P   Jingles

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to Fact or Fiction:   Boney’s Feline Phobia

  1. chasbaz says:

    What a super post, Kat! I think you have emphatically laid this one to rest.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked it, but I am not sure those canards will ever die out. So many people continue to repeat them over and over without even checking their sources. But at least I have done my small part to try to set the record straight.

      Regards.

      Kat

  2. helenajust says:

    I’m very much in favour of setting the record straight. Excellent post!

  3. Funny, I had never heard of this legend until today… What are your sources for Napoleon III?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Regrettably, though I checked out more than a dozen books on Napoleon III and the French Second Empire, I have already returned them to the library. I did not make a list of them, since that is not my main period of interest and I had no expectation of ever referring to them again. However, if I do remember the source for Napoleon III’s fear of cats, I will post it here.

      Regards,
      Kat

  4. Nice details about Napoleon I., and nicely done. I am currently in France, and had the chance to visit the Chateau de Compiègne (which he had restored and where he brought his other wife, Marie-Louise, to in 1810) on Monday. No signs of cats – but no signs of cat phobia either 😉 . There certainly are too many myths about Napoleon, and I am glad there is one less now. Thanks, Kathryn!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Belatedly, thanks for you comments. I get the feeling that there was not very much which really frightened Napoleon I. Even his supposed fear of horses is more myth than truth. He was not a very good horseman, probably because he had so much on his mind that he did not really concentrate on managing the horse while riding. It seems he much preferred traveling by carriage rather than by horseback, because he could give his attention to other things during the journey.

      I hope you enjoy your visit to France. What a lovely time of the year to be there.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Bud Savoie says:

        Very much enjoyed this article. I haven’t read that Napoleon was an indifferent horseman or afraid of equines. Any soldier of that era, especially a leader, must have been able to control his mount in the heat, noise, terror, and confusion of battle while effectively swinging a sword both offensively and defensively or he would have found himself on the ground flat on his back. As far as the carriage transportation is concerned, George Washington, as commander-in-chief, also traveled in a coach, although he was a first-class equestrian. Wonder whether George liked cats?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Actually, nearly every biography of Napoleon which I have read says he was not much of a horseman. He was never in the cavalry, but worked his way up in the artillery corps, so he spent most of his time in battle as a young man with his feet on the ground, not in the saddle. Once he became a general, he did often ride a horse into battle, but he never did any fighting from horseback. He simply used the height he gained to better oversee and direct operations on the battlefield.

          At that time, horses were not considered suitable for war horses until they were at least five years old, and had the courage to ignore the sights and sounds of a battlefield. War horses were trained, rather like police horses are today, to be calm and steady in the face of the unexpected. Napoleon did not train his own war horses, he left that to others who knew what they were doing and would insure he had reliable mounts, regardless of his own skill as a rider.

          As to George Washington’s view of cats, I have never come across any information on his opinion, either way. However, Washington seems to have been a logical and practical man who did not hold with superstition. Therefore, I suspect, if he thought about them at all, he valued them as mousers on his Mount Vernon plantation.

          Regards,

          Kat

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