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Q: Napoleon ( Answered,   1 Comment )
Subject: Napoleon
Category: Reference, Education and News > Teaching and Research
Asked by: snoodshair-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 07 Nov 2003 14:41 PST
Expires: 07 Dec 2003 14:41 PST
Question ID: 273675
Was Napoleon left handed? 
Many pictures show him with his sword on his left side which indicates
otherwise, however it probably would not have been appropriate to
'paint' him left handed due to its links with 'the devil'. Some
internet sites suggest that the fact that he was left handed ensured
that his troops marched on the right hand side of the road so that he
could draw his sword and defend himself from attacks - this,
apparently, eventually went on to translate into Right Hand of Road
vehicle driving in France and then the rest of Europe etc.
Over to you ...................................
Subject: Re: Napoleon
Answered By: clouseau-ga on 07 Nov 2003 17:48 PST
Hello snoodshair,

Thank you for your question.

Interesting. Anything Left Handed states Napoleon's left handedness as
accepted fact:

"Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert
Einstein, Buzz Aldrin, Paul McCartney, and my Uncle Mike. All of these
people have something in common with me. Do you know what it is? I?ll
give you a hint.

Has anyone ever said that you were so clumsy you must have two left
feet? Have you ever been insulted with a left-handed compliment, or
maybe you had left-overs for supper last night? You see, the English
language is full of expressions that are uncomplimentary towards me
and all the other people on that list. We are all part of the 10% of
the world?s population who are left-handed. Judges, teachers and
parents, today I will speak to you about our right-handed world and
how it can sometimes leave us southpaws feeling left out..."

Other pages at the same site note:

"Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine de Beauharnais, are one of the most
famous left-handed couple in history. They married on 9th March more
than 200 years ago...

and as you mentioned:


The origin of the rule of the road dates back to how people travelled
in violent feudal societies. As most people are right handed it made
sense to carry any protective weapon in this hand. When passing a
stranger on the road, it would be safer to walk on the left, so
ensuring that your weapon was between yourself and a possible
opponent. Jousting knights would hold their lances in their right
hand, therefore passing on each others' right.

Revolutionary France was to overturn this historic practice, as part
of its social rethink. Their military general and self-proclaimed
Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte was left handed, therefore his armies had
to march on the right so he could keep his sword arm between him and
the advancing enemy. From this time any part of the world that was
colonised by the French would travel on the right, the rest would
remain travelling on the left.

There is a more detailed article with more information here:

And Wikipedia has their list of famous left handed people:

which includes the following list of rulers:

Alexander the Great 
Julius Caesar 
Napoleon Bonaparte 
King Louis XVI 
Queen Victoria of England 
George II of Great Britain 
King George VI, of England 
Prince Charles, of England 
Prince William of Wales 
Fidel Castro 

BBC News agrees on his left handedness and mentions it in an article
on Left Hander's Day:

"...We also seem to have cornered the market in military prowess -
Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte all favoured
the left paw...."

Charity Family Org in an article on Famous Left Handed people:

"Many left-handed were famous and had important place in the history, 
and here some of them:

  Commanders of the army: Alexander the big and Julius Caesar were
left-handed, and the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who in his
charge the armies attacked from the left, while Napoleon attacked from
the right to surprise his enemies..."

I could go on and on listing sites that all claim the little general
as left handed. There are hundreds and virtually every list of famous
lefties includes Napoleon. This is interesting, though I thought:

A page on left handed trivia which mentions:

"Left-hander Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, was painted by his
contemporaries astride a horse, holding a telescope to his left eye."

Might be a further indication of his left handedness, though I am not
sure that dominant eye and handedness have that strong a correlation. has a discussion on driving on the left or right that
of course voices many opinions about Napoleon and setting the European
trend for driving on the right:


I have just read of a recent dig in a Roman quarry that showed rut
marks on the old Roman road surface, suggesting that the Romans drove
on the left, just as the British and Australians do today. It is my
understanding that it was at Napoleon's instigation that driving on
the right was enforced throughout Europe. Was there a logical reason
for this at the time (or now) or is there no real benefit to either
In olden days the nobility would ride on the left so their sword
hand--usually the right hand, of course--would be on the same side as
an oncoming horseman. Conversely, with armed nobility riding around,
it made sense for peasants to walk on the right, facing the oncoming

In France after the revolution it was a bad idea to be mistaken for
nobility, so everyone started to travel on the right. Napoleon carried
this convention with him as he conquered large parts of Europe and
built the first international road system since the Romans.

Riding on the left to present the dominant side for the sword hand
made sense at that time, and most castles have clockwise spiral
staircases to make it easier for a right-handed defender to fight off
a right-hander below. However, I have visited castles where the spiral
staircases are anticlockwise because the family that owned it were
predominantly left-handed.

Andy Lauder , Address supplied  
One explanation has it that stagecoaches, whose drivers sat on the
right so that they could keep their long whips (in their right hands)
clear of the coach, passed each other driver-to-driver so that they
could see their outside wheels and therefore get as close as possible
to allow them to pass on narrow roads.

Philip Hazel , Cambridge It seems clear that riders and carriages
originally kept to the left for the reasons given above. Below,
however, we have no fewer than three explanations for the switch to
the right in France. If anyone has more information, please write--Ed
Napoleon switched the convention in Europe from driving on the left to
driving on the right for a simple reason--he was left-handed. This
meant he mounted and dismounted his horse on the right-hand side,
which he naturally preferred to be at the road edge.

Henry Dewing , Zirndorf Germany..."

You might enjoy the rest of the article as well.

Yet another page on famous lefties mentions Napoleon with all the
usual suspects, but then goes on to ask:

"..One also must question the authenticity of such lists. How is it
known that Napoleon or Einstein was left-handed? Einstein wrote with
his right hand, but may have exhibited left-hand dominance for many
other activities. The example of Jack the Ripper deserves some
comment. Practically every list of famous lefties includes Jack the
Ripper, even though his/her identity has never been proven and there
is considerable evidence to suggest that "Jack the Ripper" was indeed
more than one person. Only one of his/her victims (Martha Turner)
exhibited a pattern of stab wounds suggesting a left-handed attacker.
Were all the "Jack the Rippers" left-handed?"

Unfortunately, they don't follow up with proof or answer their own
question! The following page, however, on What Causes Left Handedness
has fascinating information and theories.

Now, at the International Museum of Yo-Yo History we find this tidbit:

"...The next period in history that is known is the late 1700's and
early 1800's in France. Napoleon was known to carry and use a yo-yo
(probably for stress relief). I would assume that he was a left handed
yo-yo player as every picture I have seen of him depicts his right
hand deftly tucked inside of his jacket, leaving only his left hand

Left Handed Guitars has a page showing Napoleon and his sword is NOT
on his left in this painting:

And the same with this image:

The image upper left on this Google Images page appears to show his
sword on his right:

Though I agree with you, the preponderance of images DO show his sword
on his left. Many pages discussing left handedness agree this was
associated with the devil and I trust your interpretation here is

It seems it is widely accepted that Napoleon WAS left handed, though I
don't know we shall find any proof of it. In fact, I could also find
no page that disputed this or claimed he was right handed. And, we
have the following credible sources that hold this belief:

Dr. Spock!,1510,5818,00.html

Driving Test Information in Britain:


About a quarter of the world drives on the left, and the countries
that do are mostly old British colonies.
Japan also drive on the leftclick here for this explanation.

This strange quirk perplexes the rest of the world; however, there is
a perfectly good reason.

Up to the late 1700's, everybody travelled on the left side of the
road because it's the sensible option for feudal, violent societies of
mostly right-handed people.

Jousting knights with their lances under their right arm naturally
passed on each other's right, and if you passed a stranger on the road
you walked on the left to ensure that your protective sword arm was
between yourself and him.

Revolutionary France, however, overturned this practice as part of its
sweeping social rethink. A change was carried out all over continental
Europe by Napoleon.The reason it changed under Napoleon was because he
was left handed his armies had to march on the right so he could keep
his sword arm between him and any opponent.

From then on, any part of the world which was at some time part of the
British Empire was thus left hand and any part colonised by the French
was right hand..."

So I think we shall have to trust the general consensus. If the belief
is good enough for the British driving test and Dr. Spock, it must be
true :)

Search Strategy:

napoleon +"left handed" 
napoleon +"left handed" +proof
napoleon +"right handed"

I trust my research has provided you with support for this assumption.
If a link above should fail to work or anything require further
explanation or research, please do post a Request for Clarification
prior to rating the answer and closing the question and I will be
pleased to assist further.


Subject: Re: Napoleon
From: amalik-ga on 07 Nov 2003 17:58 PST
Was Napoleon left or right handed?  I can locate no contemporaneous
document which states this one way or the other.  All web sites just
claim this as a "fact" without citing any historical document.  Just
as many people think he was short - (see below where the French
measurement of the inch at the time differed from the British).

The only eyewitness account I have located states he held his bridle
in either hand while reviewing troops and he was known for holding the
reins in his right hand while in motion.

In addition,  the last citation claims to explain the origin of
driving on the right (and it has nothing to do with Napoleon being
left handed).  Often colorful stories win out over prosaic


In the Spring of 1802, Madame d'Arblay (Fanny Burney) . . . 
Later on she witnessed the review, of which she writes: "It was far
more superb than anything I have ever beheld. Bonaparte, mounting a
beautiful and spirited white horse, accompanied by his generals rode
round the ranks, holding his bridle indifferently in either hand.
Bad rider as he was, he delighted in spurring over fences and chasms,
where his boldest riders had gone down; but even when sweeping over a
field on a tearing gallop, he could not be quiet, but constantly
jerked the reins, which he always held in his right hand.

Search method

For an authoratative answer on whether Napoleon was left or right
handed, I decided to first find out who was his physician.  Then I
would go to the napoleonic literature web site and see if I could
locate any information/texts/letters/documents written by that
O'Meara, Barry Edward, Napoleon's physician in St. Helena, and author
of A Voice from St. Helena; or, Napoleon in Exile.
Dominique-Jean Larrey: Napoleon's Surgeon from Egypt to Waterloo

Now on to the Napoleonic Literature site:

**** Total washout.  

Perhaps some other Google commentator or researcher will be able to
answer your question.

Other interesting information

Was he short (er) than average?
This is a very good point that most people, to include most authors,
are not aware of. Historians have presented Napoleon to us as being
well below average height because they have failed to take into
account that his diminutive height of 5 feet 2 inches is in French
measure of the Paris foot, which is equivalent to 12.789 inches in
English or US measurement. For that period, Napoleon was average
height. As stated by the editor of Louis Marchand's memoirs, when a
person of average height stands among men of superior height, he looks
small. One must keep in mind that most of the soldiers close to the
Emperor were of superior height because they were, for the most part,
soldiers of the Imperial Guard. To qualify for the Imperial Guard, a
soldier needed to be at least 5 feet 10 inches in height (French
measure), which is slightly more than 6 feet 2 inches in US
measurement. Napoleon, standing among a group of Imperial Guardsmen,
with the additional height of their bearskin busbies, would look
Source: Louis-Joseph Marchand, Produced by Proctor Jones, In
Napoleon's Shadow, pp. 692 and 693. If you have not read In Napoleon's
Shadow, I highly recommend it. - John Schneider


What killed him?
Science Progress (2002), 85 (4), 359?367 
Gastrointestinal Diseases of  Napoleon in Saint Helena: causes of death 

Why we drive on the right hand side of the road.
Straight Dope
The papal system prevailed until the late 1700s, when teamsters in the
United States and France began hauling farm products in big wagons
pulled by several pairs of horses.

These wagons had no driver's seat. Instead the driver sat on the left
rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team.

Since you were sitting on the left, naturally you wanted everybody to
pass on the left so you could look down and make sure you kept clear
of the other guy's wheels. Ergo, you kept to the right side of the

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