He was the eldest son of Colonel the Honourable George Napier and his second wife, Lady Sarah Lennox. Born at Whitehall and educated at Celbridge, Co Kildare, Ireland, he entered the 33rd Regiment in 1794. Subsequently became a career soldier. He married in 1827. He was posted to India in 1841.
Napier commanded the 50th (Queen's Own) Regiment of Foot during Napoleon's Campaign in the Peninsular War, terminating in the Battle of Corunna, an action for which he won an Army Gold Medal. He had been left for dead on the fields at the battle of Corunna, where he was saved by a French drummer named Guibert, and taken prisoner. He recovered from wounds received at Corunna while being held at the headquarters of Marshall Soult, but volunteered to return to the Peninsula in 1810 to fight in Portugal, notably at the Battle of the Côa, where he had two horses shot out from under him, and at Bussaco, Fuentes de Oñoro, and the Second Siege of Badajoz in Castile, where he was lieutenant-colonel of the 102nd regiment. For his actions at Bussaco and Fuentes de Oñoro he received the silver medal with two clasps.
On 4 July 1843 he was appointed a Knight Grand Commander of the military division of the Order of the Bath in recognition of the victories at Miani and Hyderabad .
He was appointed governor of the Bombay Presidency by Lord Ellenborough. His administration did not please the directors of the British East India Company, and he accordingly returned home in disgust, but was sent out again by the acclamatory voice of the nation, in the spring of 1849, to reduce the Sikhs to submission. On arriving once more in India, he found that the object of his mission had already been accomplished by Lord Gough.
A story for which Napier is famous involves a delegation of Hindu locals approaching him and complaining about prohibition of Sati, often referred to at the time as suttee, by British authorities. This was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The exact wording of his response varies somewhat in different reports, but the following version captures its essence:
He remained for a time as commander-in-chief (C-in-C); quarrelled with Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general; then, throwing up his post, he returned home for the last time. Broken down with infirmities, the result of his former wounds in the Peninsular campaign, he died about two years later at his seat of Oaklands, near Portsmouth, in August 1853, at the age of 71. His house is now part of Oaklands Catholic School, Waterlooville. He is buried in the Royal Garrison Church in Portsmouth.
He also once said that "the human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear"
The reason he felt brutality was necessary for the proper conquest of rebellions may have been his opinion that "so perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another" Whatever the reason for his views on fighting insurgencies, the fact remains that he was one of Great Britain's most effective generals at doing this in India, often facing well-armed fighters.
The city of Karachi in Sindh (Pakistan) earlier had a Napier Road (now Shahrah-e-Altaf Hussain), Napier Street (now Mir Karamali Talpur Road) and Napier Barracks (now Liaquat Barracks) on Sharah-e-Faisal. In the port area, there is also a Napier Mole.
The Sir Charles Napier pubs in Warrington and Blackburn are named after him. Also a pub and restaurant in Spriggs Alley near Chinnor, Bucks, England, is also named after him - the Sir Charles Napier Inn