Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s defiant puppet

Louis Bonaparte by Charles Howard Hodges, 1809

Louis Bonaparte by Charles Howard Hodges, 1809

Napoleon’s younger brother Louis Bonaparte failed to become the great soldier Napoleon had trained him up to be, or even the pliable puppet Napoleon would have settled for. Instead, he became an irritable hypochondriac and literary dilettante who fathered another emperor.

Napoleon’s pupil

Charles and Letizia Bonaparte had eight children (see Napoleon’s family tree), of which Louis was the fifth. Born September 2, 1778 in Ajaccio, Louis was nine years younger than Napoleon. He was still a baby when the latter left Corsica to start school in France. On his visits home, Napoleon developed a fondness for Louis, so much so that he decided to take charge of the boy’s education.

In January 1791, Napoleon took Louis to France to share his quarters in the barracks at Auxonne. Napoleon acted as the boy’s tutor and provided for him out of his small pay as an artillery lieutenant. A few months later Napoleon wrote to his older brother Joseph:

[Louis] is studying hard and learning to write French. I am teaching him mathematics and geography and he is reading history. He will be an excellent pupil. All the women round here love him. He has quite the proper French manner; when he goes into company he bows with grace and says the correct things with as much gravity and dignity as if he were thirty. I can easily see that he will be the best of the four of us, and at least none of us will have had so fine an education…. He is a charming pupil and works because he likes it rather than from self-respect. (1)

Twelve-year-old Louis was less enthusiastic about the project. Napoleon made him work hard, and Louis missed Corsica. He wrote to Joseph suggesting that he might come home.

Napoleon had decided that Louis should become a soldier. In January 1794, as a freshly promoted artillery general, Napoleon attached Louis to his staff with the rank of sub-lieutenant. He continued to provide Louis with instruction, and briefly sent him to the artillery school at Châlons. Napoleon wrote to Joseph:

I miss Louis badly; he was a great help to me… Now he is not here, I can attend only to the most important things. (2)

Napoleon obtained a commission for Louis as a lieutenant in the 4th Artillery Regiment. Louis was assigned to Napoleon’s staff as his aide-de-camp. Louis bore himself bravely in the Italian campaign of 1796-97 and was promoted to the rank of captain.

By 1796, however, Louis was starting to suffer from the bouts of illness (real and imagined) and depression that would plague him for the rest of his life. He did not want to go on the Egyptian campaign, but Napoleon told him he must forget a love affair (which Napoleon ended by marrying the girl off to someone else), stop talking about devoting himself to poetry and literature, and be a soldier.

Louis served as Napoleon’s aide-de-camp in Egypt, leaving early when Napoleon sent him back to France to deliver messages. He took no part in Napoleon’s November 1799 coup d’état in France, but shared in its benefits, receiving a promotion to Chef de Brigade of the 5th Dragoons. This was no benefit to the regiment: Louis declared he was ill, took the waters at Aix, wrote poems in Paris, and avoided the campaign against the Austrians.

Napoleon refused to admit his promising pupil had become a dreamy hypochondriac. In late 1800 he said:

There is no longer any need of our worrying our minds about looking for my successor. I have found one. It is Louis. He has none of the defects of my other brothers, and he has all their good qualities. (3)

Marriage to Hortense

Napoleon and his wife Josephine determined that Louis should marry Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais. Neither Louis nor Hortense felt any attraction for each other, but they could not resist the pressure to wed. They were married January 4, 1802 and their first son, Napoleon-Charles, was born on October 10 of that year. Louis – who had by now joined his regiment as a preferable alternative to being with Hortense – was promoted to brigadier general the following April. A second son, Napoleon-Louis, was born October 11, 1804.

When Napoleon became Emperor and it became increasingly clear that he and Josephine could not produce an heir, they proposed to adopt Napoleon-Charles as a means of securing the imperial succession. Both Louis and Hortense objected. Louis had an angry discussion with Napoleon in which he said he refused to see his son set above him, made independent of him, and taught to despise him. He threatened to leave France, taking little Napoleon with him:

[W]e shall see if even you will dare in the face of the world to tear the son away from his father. (4)

King of Holland

In 1806 Napoleon made Louis the King of Holland, intending him to be a figurehead (Holland was given the choice of being annexed outright by France, or of preserving its independence by accepting the rule of one of the imperial princes). The Dutch made the best of the situation and gave Louis a loyal welcome. Louis adopted the country as his own, used the Dutch form of his name (Lodewijk), tried to learn Dutch, and showed uncharacteristic energy in busying himself with plans for his kingdom, which did not coincide with those of his brother. To cite one small example, in response to Louis’s introduction of the rank of marshal, Napoleon wrote:

Do you think a French general of division would take orders from your Dutch marshals? You are aping French organization, though your circumstances are utterly different. Why not begin by establishing the conscription and having a real army? (5)

Hortense disliked living in Holland. Making matters worse, four-year-old Napoleon-Charles died on May 5, 1807. Hortense became ill with grief and returned to France. On April 20, 1808, she gave birth to another son, Louis-Napoleon. Louis – who was intensely jealous of his wife’s friends – did not believe the child was his.

Napoleon bled Holland to finance his military campaigns and stripped it of troops for his planned invasion of Russia. When England attempted to capture Antwerp and Flushing in the Walcheren Campaign of 1809, Louis was in no position to defend his kingdom. Napoleon choked Dutch trade in an attempt to prevent British goods from entering the continent. Struggling hopelessly to preserve a show of independence, Louis drifted into a position of open hostility against Napoleon.

In late 1809 Napoleon told Louis he planned to annex Holland. If he agreed, Louis could either return to live in France as a Prince and Constable of the Empire, or Napoleon would find him another throne in Germany. If he resisted, there would be war and no compensation for his dethronement. Napoleon said:

Holland is nothing but an English colony, more hostile to France than England herself. I mean to eat up Holland! (6)

Louis attempted to negotiate a compromise that would leave him the Dutch crown, but Napoleon was already moving French troops into Holland. Louis did not want to preside over the ruin of the country. On July 1, 1810, he abdicated in favour of five-year-old Napoleon-Louis, who in theory reigned for eight days as Louis II before Napoleon annexed Holland to France.

Self-imposed exile

Louis fled to the baths of Töplitz in Bohemia and wrote to Francis I asking for permission to reside in the Austrian empire. Louis assumed from his French property the title of Count of St. Leu, the name by which he henceforth wished to be known. Though Napoleon insisted that he return to France, Louis settled at Graz, the capital of Styria, south of Vienna. There he became something of a hermit, seeing few people except his doctors, whom he changed from time to time, and with whom he quarreled.

In 1812, as Napoleon was brought to ruin in Russia, Louis printed for circulation among his friends a volume of original poems and translations from Horace, as well as a long-winded romance entitled Marie ou les peines de l’amour (Maria, or the Torments of Love). The heroine was a Dutch girl. His health continued to be poor. For most of that year he suffered from a partial paralysis of his right hand. To write he wore a glove to which a pen was attached. His mother urged him to make peace with Napoleon and return to France, but Louis had no interest in being near his brother or his wife. Though Napoleon would not permit them to divorce, by that time Hortense and Louis had definitely split, and she had taken a lover, the Count de Flahaut (generally thought to be Talleyrand’s illegitimate son), with whom she had illegitimate child, the future Duke of Morny.

In early 1813, in correspondence with Napoleon, Louis commiserated over the disasters of the Grand Armée and suggested he be restored to his kingdom, where he could give loyal support to the Empire. Napoleon wrote back:

Your sons are growing up and have need of their father’s presence. Come back, then, without any further delay, and I shall receive you, not as the brother you offended, but as the brother who educated you. As to your ideas of my affairs, they are incorrect. I have a million men under arms, and two hundred million francs in my treasury to uphold the integrity of the territory of the Confederation of the Rhine and of my allies, and to win success for the plans I have formed for the happiness of my people. Holland is French forever. It is the outcome of our territory, the delta of our rivers; it can be prosperous only with France, and it knows this well. If you remain in France, you are not separated from Holland, but if by separating yourself from Holland you mean renouncing all claim to govern it, you have already by your own act abandoned it when you abdicated. (7)

Louis clung to the hope of restoring his fallen throne and insisted he was still king, whose rights both Napoleon and the coalition against France ought to recognize. When it became clear Austria was going to join the coalition against Napoleon, Louis left Graz for Switzerland. When the allies approached Switzerland, Louis went to France, arriving in Paris on January 1, 1814. When Napoleon left to fight the invaders, Louis bid him goodbye and wished him good fortune in the coming campaign. Napoleon spoke to him kindly and told him he could help Joseph in Paris.

Invalid in Italy

After Napoleon’s abdication, Louis went to Italy. Louis asked Hortense – who remained in Paris with their sons – to send Napoleon-Louis to him, but she refused. Louis began an action in the Paris courts to compel her to give him custody of the boy. In March 1815, the tribunal ruled in his favour, but Hortense took no notice. In 1817, she moved to the estate of Arenenberg in Switzerland. (Click here to watch a lovely video of soprano and pianist Paula Bär-Giese performing some of Hortense’s compositions at the chateau.) Louis did eventually obtain custody of Napoleon-Louis and devoted much time and thought to his education.

Apart from his perpetually troublesome health and his son, Louis focused on his writing. In 1820 he published Historical Documents and Reflections on the Government of Holland, in three volumes, containing a detailed defence of his administration. The title page features the motto: “Do what you ought. Happen what may.” Writing in the third person about himself, Louis observes:

The fulfilment of his duty was the constant rule of his conduct; his endeavour was to injure no one: and to this first impulse of his heart he sacrificed prosperity, repose, and even reputation…. [H]e always deserved their esteem and the esteem of all good men, and that nothing is more unmerited or unjust than the sort of distrust with which a man is surrounded and watched, who has grown old before his time, who has been sufficiently tried by a life full of difficulties and troubles, whom rank and fortune have only served to render more susceptible, and in whose sentiments, no fears, no vicissitudes, no interests could effect the slightest change. But in troublous times, moderate men are sure to suffer; seeking to avoid excess, they are necessarily exposed to the attacks of all parties; and it may almost be said that there are periods when our country is nothing more than a name, the ties of blood are only prejudices, and duties the portion of dupes! (8)

Not surprisingly, the work angered Napoleon, who was then in exile on St. Helena. In his will, Napoleon wrote:

I pardon Louis for the libel he published in 1820; it is full of false assertions and falsified documents. (9)

In 1821 – the year in which Napoleon in America finds him grumbling up the stairs to his mother’s salon – Louis was living in Rome, where his mother, his sister Pauline and his Uncle Joseph Fesch also lived. Louis had the Palazzo Mancini and a villa at Albano. His brother Lucien lived north of Rome at Canino.

In 1826 Louis left Rome for Florence, where he spent the rest of his life as an invalid. He and Joseph arranged the marriage of Napoleon-Louis to Joseph’s daughter Charlotte. Napoleon-Louis and Louis-Napoleon became involved in plots to drive the Austrians out of Italy and establish a republican government in Rome. On March 17, 1831, while the brothers were fleeing Italy due to a crackdown on revolutionary activity, Napoleon-Louis died, age 26. The official cause was listed as measles, but he may have suffered a bullet wound at Forli.

In 1836 Louis-Napoleon tried to orchestrate a coup against King Louis Philippe of France, but was captured in his initial uprising at Strasbourg. He took refuge in Switzerland, then travelled to London, Brazil and New York before hurrying back to Switzerland to be with Hortense when she died on October 5, 1837. Louis-Napoleon attempted a second coup at Boulogne in 1840. This time he was imprisoned in the fortress of Ham with Charles de Montholon.

Louis had nothing to do with his son’s insurrections. He spent his final, crippled years on a couch or a wheelchair in the garden of his villa at Florence, or at Leghorn, where he was taken for the sea air. In 1840 he was allowed to visit the Netherlands, where he travelled incognito. Some of the Dutch found out he was their former king, which led to a cheering crowd under his hotel window. Louis was quite moved.

Louis-Napoleon’s imprisonment came as a severe blow to his father. Louis sent letters to France asking for an amnesty for his son, or at least for his temporary release on parole so he could see him. In 1846 a pathetic letter from Louis reporting a marked increase in his infirmities spurred Louis-Napoleon to devise a means of escape from Ham. In May 1846, he slipped out wearing a disguise and fled to London, but found it impossible to obtain a passport for Florence. Louis died on July 25, 1846, age 68, without seeing his son. He was buried at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, Île-de-France. Louis-Napoleon became the heir to the Bonaparte dynasty and later ruled France as Napoleon III.

  1. April 4, 1791. John Eldred Howard, ed., Letters and Documents of Napoleon, Vol. 1 (New York, 1961), pp. 25-26.
  2. Sept. 6, 1795. Ibid., p. 60.
  3. A. Hilliard Atteridge, Napoleon’s Brothers (London, 1909), p. 72.
  4. Ibid., p. 105.
  5. Jan. 2, 1807. Ibid., p. 178.
  6. Ibid., p. 234.
  7. Jan. 17, 1813. Ibid., p. 314.
  8. Louis Bonaparte, Historical Documents and Reflections on the Government of Holland, Vol. I (London, 1820), pp. 8-9.
  9. D. A. Bingham, ed., A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. 3 (London, 1884), p. 427.

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In troublous times, moderate men are sure to suffer; seeking to avoid excess, they are necessarily exposed to the attacks of all parties; and it may almost be said that there are periods when our country is nothing more than a name, the ties of blood are only prejudices, and duties the portion of dupes!

Louis Bonaparte