Betsy Balcombe: Napoleon’s 13-year-old Friend

Napoleon Bonaparte’s voyage into exile ended on 15 October 1815 at half past ten when the Northumberland anchored at St. Helena. That night he slept aboard the ship and on the morning of the 17th, he traveled to Longwood House, the residence of the lieutenant-governor that was designated as Napoleon’s future residence. He seemed satisfied with Longwood but because it needed to be repaired, refurbished, and enlarged, he needed to stay somewhere else temporarily.

Napoleon looking out to sea on St. Helena. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was decided he would stay at the Briar’s homestead with William Balcombe, an English merchant and superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company. William was married to Jane Cranston and they had two daughters and two sons: Jane (1779), Lucia Elizabeth “Betsy”(1803), Thomas Tyrwhitte (1810), and Alexander Beatson (1811). Jane and Betsy had been educated in England and taught the French language.

Betsy Balcombe

Map of the Briars where Napoleon resided temporarily with Betsy Balcombe and her family. Public domain.

Betsy Balcombe was initially afraid when she learned that Napoleon was to live with them because newspaper had described him as a demon, and she imagined him to be some sort of ogre with a red eye in the middle of his forehead and protruding teeth. She also believed that he ate naughty girls who did not do their homework. Thus, she was greatly relieved when she finally laid eyes on him and found an ordinary looking man. Of this initial meeting she stated:

“I recollect feeling so dreadfully frightened, that I wished to run and hide myself until they were gone; but mamma desired me to stay, and to remember and speak French as well as I could. … The party arrived at the gate … they all dismounted, excepting the emperor, who was now fully visible. He retained his seat and rode up the avenue, his horse’s feet cutting up the turf on our pretty lawn. … How vividly I recollect my feelings of dread mingled with admiration, as I now first looked upon him whom I had learned to fear so much. His appearance on horseback was noble and imposing. The animal he rode was a superb one; his colour jet black; and as he proudly stepped up the avenue, arching his neck and champing his bit, I thought he looked worthy to be the bearer of him who was once the ruler of nearly the whole European world!”[1]

Betsy Balcombe soon became the family’s translator, and, years later, she would publish her recollections of her time on the island with Napoleon. Among the stories that she related was how fond the Emperor was of his son, the King of Rome. Napoleon regularly talked about him and showed his pictures to her and her siblings. There was an image of the boy sleeping in his cradle, a miniature on a snuff-box, and another portrait of him with two lambs, one of which he was riding. There was also a painting of his wife and son surrounded by a halo of roses.

Empress Marie-Louise and her son, the King of Rome. Courtesy of Wallace Collection.

One interesting story Betsy Balcombe related was how she once threatened Napoleon with his own sword. According to her it all began after the subject of swords came up and someone in Napoleon’s suite pulled out his sword and pointed to some blood on the blade, declaring it to be the blood of an Englishman. The Emperor told him it was not right to boast and made him sheath it and then the Emperor produced the most magnificent sword Betsy had ever seen. It had a handle of brilliant gold and was pulled from a sheath composed of tortoise-shell studded with golden bees. Betsy was fascinated by it and begged to be allowed to hold it. She stated:

“[T]hen a circumstance which had occurred in the morning, in which I had been much piqued at the emperor’s conduct, flashed across me. The temptation was irresistible, and I determined to punish him for what he had done. I drew the blade out quickly from the scabbard, and began to flourish it over his head, making passes at him, the emperor retreating, until at last I fairly pinned him up in the corner; I kept telling him all the time that he had better say his prayers, for I was going to kill him.”[2]

Jane overhead the commotion, appeared, and scolded her sister severely for threatening Napoleon. She also forced Betsy to relinquish the sword, upon which the Emperor grabbed Betsy’s ear and pinched it severely. However, he was not finished. He also grabbed her nose and pulled “heartily,” and Betsy swore that “his good humour never left him during the whole scene.”[3]

Apparently, the reason for her threatening Napoleon had to do with what had happened earlier that morning. He had wanted some translations that she had not yet finished and so he went to her father, who reprimanded her and threatened her that if they were not finished by dinner she would be severely punished. When her father rode away, she was left mortified and had to face a laughing Napoleon.

Napoleon was known for playing other somewhat unkind jokes and did so even with his own son when he was a toddler. For instance, according to one historian:

“One of his great jokes was to dip the child’s finger in gravy and smear his face with it. Another time he would place his Majesty the King of Rome in front of a looking-glass and make faces at him. If the little fellow – frightened at the sight – cried, Napoleon would pretend to scold him: ‘How sir, you are crying! What, a king, and crying! Fie, fie, how shocking!’ Once he thrust his hat on the child’s head so that it came down over his nose and buckled his sword round him. He laughed heartily when the little feet got into difficulties with the long sword and the baby tottered comically from side to side.”[4]

Another example of a rather unkind joke involved a ball dress Betsy Balcombe owned. As she had never attended a ball, she had begged Napoleon to intercede on her behalf so that she would be allowed to go and he did, which resulted in her gaining approval from her father to attend.

She had special dress for the ball and the night before the big event, she, Jane, Napoleon, and Las Cases (Napoleon’s secretary) sat down to play cards. Napoleon and Jane were partners and Las Cases and Betsy were vying against them. Although previously they had played for sugar plums, that night it was suggested a Napoleon coin be the winning side’s prize. According to Betsy, Napoleon was determined to win and throughout the night he cheated, distracted her, and showed his cards slyly to Jane.

Napoleon coin from 1803. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Betsy finally called him out and accused him of cheating. He was in good humor and laughed until he cried, but then he claimed she was the cheat, suddenly grabbed her ball dress, and dashed to his pavilion. She chased after him, and then with him safe inside, she begged, remonstrated, and cried that he return her dress. Her pleas were all in vain as she could hear him laughing and she noted that despite her most heart wrenching appeals, he refused to return her dress. Dejected she finally left and spent a restless night crying herself to sleep.

She hoped the next morning that Napoleon would appear with her dress, but he did not. So, throughout the day she sent several entreaties asking that she might retrieve her ball dress. The answer was always the same, he was sleeping and could not be disturbed.

“At last the hour arrived for departure for the valley. The horses were brought round, and I saw the little black boys ready to start with our tin case, without alas! my beautiful dress being in them. I was in despair, and hesitated whether I should not go in my plain frock … when, to my great joy, I saw the emperor running down the lawn to the gate with my dress. ‘Here, Miss Betsse, I have brought your dress; I hope you are a good girl now and that you will like the ball.’ … I was all delight at getting back my dress, and still more pleased to find my roses were not spoiled. He said he had ordered them to be arranged and pulled out, in case any might have been crushed.”[5]

An Anglo-Irish soldier and colonial administrator began to serve as the Governor of St. Helena in April of 1816. His name was Sir Hudson Lowe and he acted as Napoleon’s gaoler. Lowe and Napoleon did not get along because Lowe created petty rules for Napoleon to follow, lacked tact when dealing with him, and was constantly suspicious about what Napoleon was doing. Moreover, Lowe loved rules and created a slew of restrictions for Napoleon, chief among them was that he was required to have an escort wherever he went. Betsy once related how Napoleon viewed his relationship with Lowe:

“Napoleon, wishing to learn English, procured some English books; amongst them the fables of a sick lion, who after submitting with fortitude to the insults of the many animals came to exult over his fallen greatness, at last received a kick in the face from the ass. ‘I could have borne everything but this,’ the lion said. Napoleon showed the wood-cut, and added, ‘It is me and your governor.’”[6]

Sir Hudson Lowe. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

One of the men on the island owned a Newfoundland named Tom Pipes. The dog was a favorite of everyone because he was beautiful and docile. He also enjoyed the water immensely and liked to cool himself swimming under a tropical sun. One day, Napoleon was busy writing notes in the garden close to a pond filled with goldfish. Betsy Balcombe decided it would be a good thing for the dog to refresh himself, knowing full well that he liked to shake himself after swimming. Tom Pipes jumped into the pond and enjoyed his bath immensely. When he was done he scrambled out and as predicted began shaking the excess water off besprinkling everything around him, including Napoleon’s papers and Napoleon himself. Furthermore, because Tom Pipes was familiar with the Emperor he would not go away and was so glad to see him he began jumping on him with his wet paws, adding mud and dust to the mix.

Betsy Balcombe once noted Napoleon’s skilled horsemanship and told him how struck she was when she first saw him on horseback. She thought no one ever looked more striking or better atop a horse than Napoleon. He was so pleased by her compliment, he immediately jumped on his horse and proceeded to wheel it around the lawn in a ‘very narrow circle.’

“Napoleon crossing the Alps,” painting of Napoleon on horseback by Jacques-Louis David in 1801. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another day she remarked on a horse that Napoleon’s groom was attempting to break. It was a beautiful young Arab, but the colt was behaving frightfully, plunging and rearing whenever the groom attempted to get the colt to pass a white cloth he had purposely placed on the lawn. According to Betsy, she told Napoleon the colt was vicious and would never be ridden. He took her comment as a challenge and immediately mounted the beast. She wrote:

“To my great terror, he himself got on the animal, and soon succeeded in making him not only pass the cloth, but put his feet upon it; and then rode him over and over it several times. [The groom] … hardly knew whether to laugh or cry. He was delighted with his emperor’s prowess, but mortified at his managing a horse so easily which he had been trying in vain to subdue.”[7]

Another story that Betsy Balcombe related involved one of the officers, a Captain Poppleton, ordered to watch Napoleon and not lose sight of him during his daily horseback rides. One day when the Emperor was out riding, he suddenly turned his horse and spurred the steed up such a steep precipice that dust kicked up and rocks went flying. The danger was too much for Poppleton and he dared not follow. Instead, he immediately rode back to the Briar’s and reported that he had lost Napoleon. He was advised by his commander to return to Longwood as that was mostly likely where he would find the man he was supposed to watch. Betsy reported:

“This, as he prognosticated, was the case, and Napoleon often afterwards laughed at the consternation he had created. On Captain Poppleton’s arriving at Longwood he found the emperor seated at dinner, and was unmercifully quizzed by him for the want of nerve he displayed in not daring to ride after him.”[8]

Betsy Balcombe - Longwood House

Longwood House. Author’s collection.

One funny story that Betsy Balcombe related involved a woman that she introduced to Napoleon. She said the Emperor always had a “peculiar horror” of ugly women and based on that she decided to a play a prank on him. She introduced him to the “plainest” women she could find, the wife of a high official serving in India. The woman was of course excited and pleased that she would be introduced to Napoleon and she arrayed herself in crimson, pearls, and “all the finery an Indian wardrobe could afford.”[9]

When Betsy introduced them, Napoleon was gracious and questioned her about her family and children all the time scrutinizing the woman over and over hoping to find something about her that he could compliment. Finally, he settled on her fuzzy, coarse, pitch black hair declaring it to be “luxuriant.” She was thrilled, and when she arrived in England she went straight to the newspapers and they carried the story of their meeting declaring that “Napoleon had lost his heart to her beauty.”[10] Of course, Napoleon never had Betsy Balcombe introduce him to another lady again.

In March of 1818 the Balcombe family returned to England. Part of the reason was that Betsy’s mother was ill and the climate on St. Helena was declared to be too warm for her. Lowe was also jealous of the Balcombe family’s relationship with Napoleon and suspicious that the Emperor might be passing communications through the family, and so he had forced William out. Napoleon was sad to see the family leave, and their absence would leave a great void in his life. He found the children a great comfort and relished their boisterous companionship. He also enjoyed their directness and once said of them, “There is nothing devious about them … they say right out whatever comes into their heads.”[11]

A couple of days before the family left the island, William took Betsy and Jane to visit Napoleon one last time. Betsy Balcombe recorded their sad goodbye:

“When we had sat with him some time, he walked with us in his garden, and with a sickly smile pointed to the ocean spread out before us … and said, ‘Soon you will be sailing away towards England, leaving me to die on this miserable rock. Look at those dreadful mountains – they are my prison walls. You will soon hear that the Emperor Napoleon is dead.’ I burst into tears, and sobbed, as though my heart would break. He seemed much moved at the sorrow manifested by us. I had left my handkerchief in the pocket of my side-saddle, and seeing the tears run fast down my cheeks, Napoleon took his own from his pocket and wiped them away, telling me to keep the handkerchief in remembrance of that sad day.

We afterwards returned and dined with him. My heart was too full of grief to swallow; and when pressed by Napoleon to eat some of my favourite bon-bons and creams, I told him my throat had a great swelling in it, and I could take nothing.

The hour of bidding adieu came at last. He affectionately embraced my sister and myself, and bade us not forget him; adding that he should ever remember our friendship and kindness to him and thanked us again and again for all the happy hours … He asked me what I should like to have in remembrance of him. I replied, I should value a lock of his hair … He then sent for Monsieur Marchand, and desired him to bring in a pair of scissors and cut off four locks of hair for my father and mother, my sister, and myself … I still possess that lock of hair; it is all left me of the many tokens of remembrance of the Great Emperor.”[12]

Several years later, on 28 May 1821, Betsy Balcombe married Edward Abell and had a daughter. He was a womanizer and a scoundrel and deserted her and their daughter Bessie (Elizabeth Jane Balcombe Abell). Betsy and Bessie eventually went to live in New South Wales with Betsy’s family, but they returned in 1831 to London. Betsy then taught music and wrote her recollections of Napoleon while on St. Helena to help support herself and her daughter.

Betsy Balcombe Abell

Betsy Balcombe Abell. Public domain.

Betsy Balcombe Abell also remained in contact with the Bonaparte family throughout her life. In 1832, Joseph Bonaparte visited her in London, and, later, Emperor Napoleon III granted her 500 hectares of land in Algeria in memory of the comfort she provided to his uncle, but she never took possession. Betsy died on 29 June 1871 in London at the age of 69 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.


  • [1] L.E.B. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon: During the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena: Including the Time of His Residence at Her Father’s House, “The Briars,” (London: John Murray, 1844), p. 19–20.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 43.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 44.
  • [4] E. von Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (Napoleon the Second): A Biography Compiled from New Sources of Information (London: Bodley Head, 1905), p. 47.
  • [5] L.E.B. Abell, p. 51.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 242–43.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 64.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 62–63.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 135.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 136.
  • [11] O. Aubry and A. Livingston, St. Helena (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1936), p. 435.
  • [12] L.E.B. Abell, p. 229–31.

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  1. Bruce G Bradley on February 25, 2022 at 7:29 am

    Dear Geri,

    Thank you for this post about the relationship between Betsy and Bonaparte.

    I am currently writing a play about their time together and have leaned heavily on Betsy’s own memoir, as well as a multitude of contemporaneous sources in both English and French. During the course of my research, I found documentation of Betsy’s christening. The date on the document is October, 1802, a year earlier than what you have in your article. (Jane, apparently, was born in 1800, not 1799, at least according to what I’ve been able to uncover.)

    I know dates from that period were often inaccurate or sometimes simply never recorded until later estimates were assigned to them, but since my Betsy information is based on an original document, I wonder if you have any thoughts about this?

    Wishing you all the best,


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