Charles de Montholon: Napoleon’s murderer or devoted Bonapartist?
In Napoleon in America, when Sir Hudson Lowe confronts the residents of Longwood with questions about Napoleon’s disappearance, among those denying any knowledge of the Emperor’s escape is Count Charles-Jean-François-Tristan de Montholon. Often fingered as Napoleon’s potential murderer, Montholon devoted years of service to Napoleon and his nephew, Napoleon III.
Like Lowe, Charles de Montholon has a bad reputation. While Lowe’s star has risen over the years, Montholon’s has sunk. This is mainly due to the theory that Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning and that Montholon was the most likely poisoner. This accusation – first put forward by a Swedish dentist, Sten Forshufvud, in 1961 and widely promulgated by Canadian businessman Ben Weider – is summarized on the International Napoleonic Society website.
A Frenchman, René Maury, has advanced an alternative version. He argues that Montholon poisoned Napoleon not with the intent to kill him, but to make him so sick that the British would be compelled to remove Napoleon from St. Helena. The poisoning theory gained enough traction to be accepted as a reasonable hypothesis in some well-regarded biographies of Napoleon, including those by Frank McLynn and Alan Schom.
The claim that Napoleon was killed by arsenic has been convincingly refuted in a number of scientific studies. See, for example, William J. Broad in the New York Times and Ted Chamberlain on the National Geographic website. (1) Michael Sibalis, a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, provides an excellent account of why conspiracy theories about Napoleon’s death (as well as his purported escape from St. Helena) thrive.
Montholon the embellisher
Charles de Montholon’s reputation did not start out high. Montholon had a tendency to embellish his record with unsubstantiated facts. Among the British officers on St. Helena, he was known as “Liar,” a nickname Albert Benhamou traces back to a remark Napoleon made to Dr. Barry O’Meara in February 1816. Hudson Lowe said of Montholon:
[I]t was impossible for a person to express himself more clearly, or to explain himself with more correctness than Count Montholon did when he thought it was necessary to do so; but if he wished to insinuate anything – to drop any remark – to state any doubtful circumstance upon which he was desirous to evade reply, his pronunciation became rapid, indistinct, and he spoke in so muttering a tone, that it became difficult to catch his meaning, or to follow exactly what he said. (2)
Montholon, who was born on July 21, 1783 in Paris, said that he first met Napoleon in late 1792 on Corsica. Montholon’s stepfather, the French diplomat Charles-Louis Huguet de Sémonville, was temporarily stationed there. Montholon later claimed the future Emperor gave him – then age 9 – some preliminary instruction in artillery. (3)
In 1797, Montholon joined the French army. Although he wrote later of his brilliant service in the campaigns of the Empire, detailing wounds and feats of arms, he in fact – thanks to Sémonville’s influence –served as a staff officer. He moved up the ranks without having to command in combat. (4) In 1807, Montholon became an aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s Chief of Staff, Marshal Berthier. In 1809, he was promoted to the rank of colonel. Thanks to his friendship with Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais, Montholon secured a post as chamberlain in Josephine’s household. In early 1812 he was named ambassador to the Grand Duke of Würzburg, brother of the Emperor of Austria and uncle of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise. Diplomacy suited him better than military life.
In 1808 Charles de Montholon became romantically involved with Albine-Hélène de Vassal, a woman three years his senior. Albine hailed from a French family of minor nobility and was on her second marriage. She left her husband to live with Montholon. On October 3, 1810 they had a son named Tristan. Albine’s husband demanded a divorce and Montholon was eager to wed her, but Napoleon opposed the marriage on account of Albine’s matrimonial past. Montholon took advantage of Napoleon’s passage through Würzburg, on his way to Russia, to request permission to marry a niece “of President Séguier” of the Supreme Court, without spelling out that the lady in question was Albine. When Napoleon assented, Montholon hurried back to Paris and married his love. Napoleon learned of the marriage at Moscow in October 1812. He was furious and removed Montholon from his diplomatic post.
Throughout 1813, when Napoleon was short of officers because of losses in the Russian campaign, Montholon avoided service by pleading injury and illness. In March 1814, he was given command of the department of the Loire. With the regiments that had taken refuge there, he helped to fight the advancing Austrians. He also took personal possession of 5,970 francs that were intended to pay his troops.
With Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba in April 1814, Montholon solicited and received the rank of general from the government of Louis XVIII. He indicated that he would serve the king as faithfully as his forebears had served Henri II. Fortunately Napoleon returned from Elba just as the matter of the stolen payroll was derailing Montholon’s career. As soon as the Bourbons fled France, Montholon assured Napoleon of his undying devotion. He was confirmed in the rank of general, though he played no significant role during the Hundred Days.
Montholon on St. Helena
After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Charles de Montholon inserted himself in Napoleon’s retinue. He became one of the few officers allowed to accompany the Emperor to St. Helena. Albine and Tristan went with him. Initially thinking they were going just to England, Albine left their eight-month old son Charles-Frédéric (1814-1886) in the care of her sister. She also left behind 11-year-old Edouard, a son from her previous marriage.
Once on St. Helena, the pretty and vivacious Albine became Napoleon’s mistress. Napoleon was most likely not the father of Napoléone (known as Lili), conceived en route to the island and born on June 18, 1816. He probably was the father of Joséphine, born on January 26, 1818. Albine was also rumoured to have had other liaisons on the island, most notably with English Lieutenant Basil Jackson (not to be confused with Major Edward Jackson, who contributed to Engelbert Lutyens’ troubles). In July 1819, Albine left St. Helena, taking the three children with her. Napoleon’s valet, Louis Marchand, describes it thus:
Countess de Montholon was seriously ill, and Dr. Verling had declared that the climate would prevent her recovery. Her departure was decided following a consultation that was submitted to the Emperor. This departure would deprive the Emperor of a person whom he valued, and his social life was to be completely disrupted. Through her wit, to which the Emperor had become pleasantly accustomed, she provided some distraction to his work, and the time he spent with her played a large part in his daily routine. Her children, through their games, broke up the monotony of Longwood; a great void was to follow, for him and for the colony. (5)
As John Tyrrell notes on his blog, Napoleon was probably less concerned about losing Albine than about the prospect of losing Montholon. But Montholon agreed to stay on St. Helena. He told Napoleon that “Madame de Montholon does not want to add to her regrets at leaving Your Majesty that of depriving him of the services I may be able to offer him here.” (6)
Indeed, with the earlier departures of Count de Las Cases and General Gourgaud from the island, Montholon had become of great value to Napoleon. The other remaining officer, General Henri Bertrand, lived separately from Longwood and thus returned to his wife and family every evening. As Marchand put it, “Count de Montholon became entirely the Emperor’s man, and this sacrifice was even more complete when the countess’ health forced her to return to Europe.” (7) Louis Étienne St. Denis, Napoleon’s second valet, corroborates this:
Since the countess had gone away M. de Montholon had become the man necessary to the Emperor. He was always at his orders, entirely at his service, night as well as day. (8)
Montholon dearly missed his wife and children. He wrote Albine frequent long and loving letters to which she replied rather less ardently. To the great regret of both of them, young Joséphine died in Brussels in 1820. As Napoleon’s health declined, Montholon devoted himself to trying to relieve the suffering of his master. He served, in Marchand’s words, “with an abnegation and a devotion that came to an end only with His Majesty’s death.” (9) Montholon profited from this devotion. Less than three weeks before his death, Napoleon wrote a new will in the sole presence of Montholon, of which Montholon was the principal beneficiary.
Helping Napoleon III
After Napoleon’s death on May 5, 1821, Charles de Montholon returned to Europe. He rejoined Albine and the children, and embarked on a life of grandeur. He bought a hotel in Paris and joined numerous business ventures, none of them very successful. By the late 1820s, he was bankrupt, with a debt of almost 4 million francs. In 1828, Albine – who had tolerated Montholon’s affair with a chambermaid, resulting in the birth of an illegitimate son, Charles, in 1823 – left him. Compounding misfortune, their son Tristan, who joined the French cavalry in 1830, was killed on a campaign in Algeria in September 1831.
Threatened with prison for his debts, Montholon took refuge abroad. He hoped to rally Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich to the idea of placing Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on the French throne. When the Duke died in July 1832, Montholon switched his Bonaparte leanings to the cause of Louis-Napoléon (the future Napoleon III), the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis and Josephine’s daughter Hortense. Montholon appears to have had nothing to do with Louis-Napoléon’s attempted coup at Strasbourg in 1836, but he did join an attempt at Boulogne-sur-Mer in August 1840. The coup failed and both men were sentenced to imprisonment – Louis-Napoléon for life, Montholon for 20 years – in the fortress of Ham in the department of the Somme.
Their captivity was not particularly onerous. Montholon was authorized to receive, and then to live with, Caroline Jane O’Hara (1802-1886). She was an Irishwoman he had met and lived with in London and who passed as his wife. In April 1843, they had a son, Charles-Jean-Tristan. It was at Ham that Montholon wrote his memoirs of St. Helena, drawing from the writings of his predecessors (Las Cases, O’Meara, Antommarchi) and aided by the literary flourishes of Alexandre Dumas. Meanwhile, Louis-Napoléon had two sons with O’Hara’s laundress, Alexandrine Vergeot.
In May 1846 Louis-Napoléon escaped by disguising himself in the clothes of a mason named Badinguet, who was working at the fortress. Montholon claimed to know nothing about the plot. As there no longer seemed to be any reason to confine him, he was released. He and his new family retired to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In 1849, Montholon married Caroline, enabled by Albine’s death in March 1848.
After the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in the French revolution of February 1848, Montholon offered his service to the new French Republic. He proclaimed his democratic principles and supported Louis-Napoléon’s election to the presidency that December. In 1849, Montholon was elected to the legislative assembly as a deputy of the Charante-Inférieure. He continued to be short of funds and did not hesitate to ask Louis-Napoléon for assistance. The latter – who seized dictatorial powers in December 1851 – finally gave him a gift of 50,000 francs in 1852. Charles de Montholon died in Paris on August 21, 1853 at the age of 70. Although his children requested his interment at the Invalides (an honour paid to General Bertrand), the request was denied. Montholon was buried in the family cemetery at Bouray-sur-Juine in northern France.
Albine’s memoirs of St. Helena were published in 1901, under the auspices of her grandson, as Souvenirs de Sainte-Hélène par la Comtesse de Montholon, 1815-1816.
Montholon’s and Albine’s daughter Napoléone lived until 1907. In the late 19th century she decided to honour her mother by having Albine’s embalmed corpse exhumed and displayed in a glass-covered sarcophagus in the crypt of the Chapelle des Pénitents Bleus in Montpellier.
Though Charles de Montholon certainly had his faults, and his initial adherence to Napoleon was probably motivated by the prospect of fame and fortune, he served the Emperor devotedly on St. Helena and remained faithful to the Bonaparte cause for the remainder of his life. Jacques Macé has tried to restore Montholon’s reputation in L’honneur retrouvé du général de Montholon (Paris, 2000). There is no English-language biography of Charles de Montholon.
You might also enjoy:
- For the full study described on the National Geographic site, see Alessandro Lugli et al., “Napoleon Bonaparte’s gastric cancer: a clinicopathologic approach to staging, pathogenesis, and etiology,” Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Vol. 4 (2007), pp. 52-57. See also J. Thomas Hindmarsh and John Savory, “The Death of Napoleon, Cancer or Arsenic?” Clinical Chemistry, Vol. 54, No. 12 (December 2008), pp. 2092-2093. For an older study of Napoleon’s case presented as a modern clinicopathologic conference, see Robert E. Gosselin, “Exhuming Bonaparte,” Dartmouth Medicine, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring 2003), pp. 38-47, 61.
- William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena (London, 1853), Vol. 3, p. 224.
- Charles de Montholon, Récits de la captivité de l’Empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène (Paris, 1847), Vol. 1, pp. lxxxii-lxxxiii. His wife’s version of the story says Napoleon gave him some math lessons – see Albine de Montholon, Maurice Fleury, Souvenirs de Sainte-Hélène par la Comtesse de Montholon, 1815-1816 (Paris, 1901), pp. 11-12.
- Jacques Macé, “Le General Montholon, Un fidèle bonapartiste, de Sainte-Hélène au fort de Ham,” Conférence prononcée le 22 septembre 2001 au Musée de l’Armée à Paris devant la Délégation Paris-Île de France du Souvenir Napoléonien, http://napoleon1er.perso.neuf.fr/Montholon.html, accessed November 14, 2013.
- Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow: Being the First English Language Edition of the Complete Memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, Valet and Friend of the Emperor, 1811-1821 (San Francisco, 1998), p. 564.
- Ibid., p. 565.
- Ibid., p. 520.
- Louis Étienne St. Denis, Napoleon: From the Tuileries to St. Helena (New York and London, 1922), p. 249.
- Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 581.
[I]t was impossible for a person to express himself more clearly, or to explain himself with more correctness than Count Montholon did . . . but if he wished . . . to state any doubtful circumstance upon which he was desirous to evade reply, his pronunciation became rapid, indistinct, and he spoke in so muttering a tone, that it became difficult to catch his meaning, or to follow exactly what he said.