Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15th of 1769 into a family of minor Italian nobles, living on the island of Corsica, which had recently been taken over by the French from Genoan Republic. He was the second oldest of eight children. His father, Carlo Maria di Buonaparte was a prominent Corsican lawyer, who fought against the French occupation of the country, and later became Corsica’s representative to Louis XVI’s court.
Napoleon’s mother, Maria Letizia Ramolino, had a profound influence on his early years through strict discipline and restraint from excess. He would later remark: “The future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother.” He thus credited her with a large part of future success and greatness.
At the age of nine, Napoleon attended a religious school on the mainland of the Kingdom of France. He was quickly transferred to a military academy at Brienne-le-Chateau, where he flourished in the study of mathematics and tactics. These skills would later prove indispensable to his future reign as Emperor of France. During his schooling, he wrote two romance novels and a short history of Corsica, demonstrating his ambition and imagination at an early age.
Upon his graduation in 1784, Napoleon transferred to the École Militaire, a prestigious French military academy in Paris, to begin a career as an officer in the French military. He attained fame by being the first Corsican to graduate from the school, and he completed a two-year course in only one year. It was here that the Napoleonic Legend began.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Napoleon took leave from the military to participate in the revolutionary struggle in Corsica, fighting against Royalists for the establishment of a French Republic. His success continued to mount.
In 1793, he repulsed a British expeditionary force at the Siege of Toulon where he was given the rank of Artillery Commander of the Republican Forces. Using his brilliant intellect and unorthodox tactics, he ordered his soldiers to use pulleys and rope to lift artillery to the high hilltop overlooking the harbor. From that position he was able to fire upon the British Fleet, forcing them into retreat and routing the British Army.
Following this resounding success, Napoleon proceeded to Paris, where he arrived just in time to participate in the battle of the 13th of Vendémiaire, a date in the new French Revolutionary Calendar, corresponding to October 5th, 1795. During this battle Napoleon famously directed his Revolutionary artillery against a Royalist uprising to devastating effect, blowing them away with “A whiff of Grapeshot.”
Napoleon’s passionate defense of the Republic brought him into the public eye. The citizens of the New Republic began to regard him as a true hero of the Revolution. He quickly denounced the excesses of the Reign of Terror where nearly 30,000 citizens perished at the hands of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, either by guillotine or imprisonment. As such, Napoleon came to be known as “The Father of the Revolution.” This title was given for his victories over the royalists and their allies while saving the infant Republic from internal chaos.
Yet, imminent danger still surrounds France. All the European royal powers declared war on the New Republic. Its mere existence threatened their legitimacy as monarchs. The Divine Right of Kings could not be allowed to be challenged. Napoleon was immediately dispatched to Italy to counter Austrian aggression and to secure the frontier of the Republic. In 1797, he again vanquished his enemies, granting him prestige and authority in the ranks of the fledgling republic. Thus, Napoleon began directing his own course, taking his army to the exotic lands of Egypt.
It was in Egypt that Napoleon was supposedly initiated into Freemasonry. Many of his soldiers were members of the Lodge “Perfect Union,” a traveling Military Lodge. Carrying the Craft with them into the land of the Pharaohs, these Freemasons established “Isis” Lodge in Cairo, a very likely place for him to have been Initiated.
During his time in Egypt, there was a curious occult rumor that began to circulate, which would be later vindicated. After the Battle of The Pyramids, Napoleon was said to have gone into the Great Pyramid, desiring to enter the King’s burial chamber alone and leaving his guards behind.
He entered for a moment; when he returned, he seemed visibly shaken and refused to tell his attendants what had transpired. Instead, Napoleon ordered them to forget the incident. It was rumored that, in the King’s Chamber, he received a vision of his destiny. On his deathbed, when asked about the incident, he said “Even if I told you, you would not believe me.”
In addition to his many military victories in Egypt, Napoleon’s expedition was a massive benefit for the advancement of science and learning; he brought over a hundred scholars with his expeditionary force to uncover, learn, and write down everything they could about ancient Egypt. His campaign was designed to be as scientific as it was militaristic. Among their many discoveries was the Rosetta Stone, which allowed ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to be translated for the first time in history.
Was Napoleon’s adventure in Egypt the inspiration for the Rite of Memphis? The Rite of Memphis is a Masonic rite created to restore the Hermetic and esoteric symbols of Egypt. In the year 1815, the Rite of Memphis was created by many ex-soldiers who had partaken in Napoleon’s expedition. The oral history of this Masonic tradition maintains that the true purpose of the campaign was to uncover ancient wisdom that had long remained hidden.
Other historians believe that Napoleon was Initiated in “Philadelphe” Lodge. This was a military Lodge traveling in Malta sometime between 1795 – 1798, perhaps when he took the island from the Knights Hospitaller.
It may be a coincidence that Alessandro Cagliostro, the founder of the Egyptian Rite, supposedly began his occult studies on this very same island thirty years earlier. No one can agree on where Napoleon was initiated, or even if he was initiated. Evidence is sparse, both because it was a time of total war for France and because of the extreme secrecy of the Freemasons of the time.
One fact is clear, upon Napoleon’s return from Egypt and his seizure of power on November 9th of 1799, Freemasonry enjoyed a golden age in France and all the parts of Europe that came under Napoleon’s rule. Immediately upon confirming his new status as “First Consul” and later Emperor of France, Napoleon made it absolutely clear that he did not come to vanquish the Revolution, but to expand it.
The Ruler established a new code of law called the “Code Napoleon,” which revitalized many of the ideals of the Revolution and fusing them with the traditions and laws of the Roman Republic. He eliminated Atheism as the state religion, allowing people to worship freely.
Moreover, Napoleon guaranteed ownership of private property, created the metric system, encouraged open commerce and industry; he promoted solidarity among laborers, reformed the antiqued systems of education, taxation, and military organization, and loosened restrictions on Freemasonry placed upon it during the Terror. In but a few years, Napoleon forged the French Empire into a meritocracy which defied the hereditary aristocracies of Europe.
Under his rule, the number of Lodges in France grew from 300 to 1,220 and membership soared to match. The Rite of Adoption, which allowed women to be “adopted” into Freemasonry, grew as well. Napoleon’s own wife, Josephine, was a member of this Rite, giving further evidence to those who claim Napoleon was himself a Mason.
His brother Louis Bonaparte was made Grand Master of the Grand Orient of France, and countless military lodges were created and marched with Napoleon’s armies wherever they went spreading Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
Everywhere they went, they planted the flag of the Revolution. Napoleon’s armies spread the values of the Enlightenment where previously there had only been Monarchy. In a matter of years, he had swept aside centuries of superstition and fermented the seeds of revolution in the hearts of the people of Europe. Many of his soldiers and most of his Marshals were Freemasons; there is no doubt their Masonic ideals, in some part, fed their desire to unite Europe under one government, directed by reason and ruled by logic.
Unfortunately, Napoleon’s ambition ultimately got the best of him. After attempting to invade Russia, he was pushed back by the same revolutionary fire he had instilled during his conquests. A grand coalition of nations, led by the Duke of Wellington who was also a Freemason, finally defeated the Empire of France in 1815. With Napoleon banished and Louis XVIII restored to the Bourbon throne, the golden age of Freemasonry came to an abrupt end. Monarchical and Catholic suspicion would overshadow the Craft until the rise of the Second Empire in 1848.
We may never know for certain if Napoleon was a Freemason. Nevertheless, French Freemasonry played an important role in the lives of those around Napoleon – family and comrades alike. The Revolution and the dissemination of the ideals of Freemasonry each marked a change in the consciousness of Europe. It was an age of romanticism and idealism. Napoleon Bonaparte, though flawed in many ways, was the first Ruler to call for the establishment of Universal Brotherhood without distinction of creed or religion. He failed to create a united Europe, but he sowed the seeds for the European Union that would emerge almost two centuries later.