Updated: Oct 28, 2020
[Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769. This post is my way of marking it, so Happy Birthday, Napoleon!]
When Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France he had many enemies, but did those enemies include a horde of unruly rabbits? That is what one enduring story proposes. In the almost two-hundred years since Napoleon’s death, the tale of his interesting encounter with a group of rabbits who didn’t respect his authority has morphed into something of an urban legend, with each version being more fantastic than the last.
In 1810, when Napoleon was squarely in possession of the French throne, Lewis Goldsmith’s anti-Bonapartist book The Secret History of the Cabinet of Bonaparte, (which cited the Journal des Hommes Libres as its source) recounted the story. According to Goldsmith, the Journal used coded names for the individuals involved but it was clearly understood to be about Napoleon. In this humorous version Napoleon, fresh after becoming Consul (the position he held prior to his coronation as France’s Emperor in 1804), took up an interest in hunting. He asked Talleyrand, a fellow politician, if he had any good game for hunting near his estate. Hoping to oblige Napoleon, Talleyrand had his estate filled with ducks and rabbits, only instead of wild rabbits, he used tame ones. The result was not what Talleyrand intended. When Napoleon arrived, he was greeted not by an exciting hunting adventure, but by a collection of docile, happy rabbits that had no desire to run from his guns and allow him the pleasure of a kill. Instead, they approached Napoleon and had the audacity to lick his boots! The incident is said to have infuriated him.
A far more dramatic spin on Napoleon’s thwarted attempt at hunting rabbits was published in the 1890s, some seventy years after his death. It came courtesy of The Memoirs of Baron Thiébault, the author of which, it should be noted, was also dead before the manuscript bearing his name was put to press by his family.
Here, Napoleon is already Emperor and it is Louis-Alexandre Berthier- for many years Napoleon’s right-hand man- throwing him a hunt. He decided that it would revolve around rabbit shooting, though the place where he wanted to hold it contained no rabbits. Not seeing this as an unconquerable problem, Berthier arranged for a thousand rabbits to be deposited in the hunting park.
When the moment came, it was quickly clear that the rabbits were not afraid of the hunters. Instead of the expected fleeing of the rabbits, much to the shock of those present, they began to collect into a large group. Then, as one, they threw themselves at an understandably shocked Napoleon. The melee that ensued involved Berthier calling for coachmen to help him free Napoleon from the fearsome furry bunnies.
Once Napoleon was saved and the men were certain of victory, the rabbits returned! The Memoirs' colorful description says that they attacked Napoleon again, this time from the rear. The rabbits so surrounded him that he was made to stagger due to the sheer number of them around his legs. This onslaught was so relentless that he had to abandon the hunt, leaving the rabbits alone. When retreating in his carriage, Napoleon was just relieved that none of the rabbits followed him.
The Memoirs offers its readers a more developed explanation than Goldsmith’s version, though in both cases it came down to using the wrong rabbits. In this second version, Berthier’s rabbits were taken from a hutch. These domestic rabbits, being very different from their wild counterparts, did not run because they were used to humans and hungry. Their attack on Napoleon was not out of malevolence but due to a desire for him to feed them.
Even modern historians continue to relay this story, though not necessarily to confirm it as truth. To name but two, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon and Wellington mentions Goldsmith's book (and this anecdote) as being in circulation, while Owen Connelly’s Blundering to Glory uses a version closer to that of the Memoirs. Naming Berthier as the procurer of the rabbits, he dates the event to 1807 (therefore after Goldsmith’s), and then goes one step farther, saying that much to Napoleon’s dismay, some of the rabbits actually did make it into his carriage.
While the validity of any version of this bizarre tale must be approached with a high degree of skepticism, it is easy to understand why it has withstood the test of time: who would not smile at the thought of the great Napoleon Bonaparte, victor of many battles, being defeated by a cluster of cuddly rabbits?
Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns. 3rd edition. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Goldsmith, Lewis. The Secret History of the Cabinet of Bonaparte. 3rd edition. London: J. M. Richardson and J. Hatchard, 1810.
Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon and Wellington: The Battle of Waterloo and the Great Commanders Who Fought It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Thiébault, Baron. The Memoirs of Baron Thiébault. Translated by Arthur John Butler. Vol. 2. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1896.
"NAPOLEON AND RABBITS." The Carcoar Chronicle (NSW : 1878 - 1943) 12 April 1901: 2 (Supplement to The Carcoar Chronicle). <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article102638788>.