All About History

napoleonic empire (1804 – 1814)

A model for modern laws


Napoleon really put the final nail in the coffin of the Holy Roman Empire, seeking to topple the feudal remnants of the old systems of monarchy and replace them with something equally autocratic, but with greater equality before the law. Again this was a short-lived period of a united Europe under a single, iconic leader, but it left us with a lot of big influentia­l ideas that resonate to this day. “He said himself that his great triumph was not his military victories but the Code Napoléon, his civil legal system, which swept away a lot of old-fashioned laws, which were often contradict­ory and had a lot of regional aspects,” explains Field. “It essentiall­y set forward things like equality before the law, it ended a lot of aristocrat­ic privilege. A legalised right to divorce. Freedom of religion whether it was Christians, Jews, Catholics and Protestant­s and so on. You’ve got centralise­d courts.”

And while he ultimately wanted himself as the sole ruler of the empire he was building, he still practiced the meritocrac­y he was preaching as part of the post-revolution­ary wave he was riding, as the make up of his army proves. “If you look at his marshals, a lot of them started as corporals or privates and worked their way up the army. Although, from a British perspectiv­e we could look at Napoleon sometimes quite negatively, certainly his way of ruling had a lot of modern aspects to it.”

In some ways his conflict with Britain and the embargo he tried to enforce against trading with Britain was part of what weakened the project as a whole. “In some parts of the empire this was just not going to work. Places like Portugal and Spain trade so much with Britain, it’s really bad for the economy. It was very unpopular in the Low Countries, but in places like Switzerlan­d it encourages local manufactur­ing there because they didn’t have to compete with the British. His institutio­ns weren’t strong enough to hold this embargo against British trade for very long. And again, this wasn’t a kind of thought through economic policy. This was his political and military response to his ongoing rivalry with Britain.”

Still, the legal changes he introduced made a big difference across the continent. “In terms of long-term impact the Napoleonic Code still has a lot of echoes in systems of law and civil law that are in place,” Field tells us. “Countries that were part of the Napoleonic system after the early 19th century keep much better records, because he introduces civil registrati­on.”

“i wished to found a european system, a european code of laws, a european judiciary: there would be but one people in europe.” – napoleon Bonaparte, Writing from exile in St helena, 1815-21

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