Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte
Pragmatic, stoical and domineering, Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte, saw the world from the perspective of a Corsican clan. She was devoted to her children and expected them to be devoted to her, and to each other, in return. Years of hardship left her tough and thrifty, with a keen business sense and a habit of hoarding money. She once told Napoleon, “It’s not poverty I’m afraid of, it’s the shame.” (1)
Though they had their disagreements, Letizia was the one person Napoleon always treated with respect. “[M]y mother … is worthy of every sort of admiration,” he said, and he seemed to mean it. (2)
A Corsican beauty
Maria Letizia Ramolino was born on August 24, 1750 in Ajaccio, Corsica, which was then part of the Republic of Genoa. She came from a reputable Lombard family that had been in Corsica for generations. Letizia’s father died when she was five. Her mother remarried and gave birth to two more children, including Letizia’s half-brother Joseph Fesch, whom Letizia helped raise. Letizia received no formal education.
On June 2, 1764, when she was not quite 14, Letizia married 18-year-old Carlo Maria Buonaparte (Charles Bonaparte), a law student from Corsica. He was attracted as much by Letizia’s generous dowry as by her good looks. The couple went on to have 13 children, eight of whom survived infancy: Joseph, Napoleon, Lucien, Elisa, Louis, Pauline, Caroline and Jérôme (for their birth dates, spouses and children, see Napoleon’s family tree).
In 1768, France gained possession of Corsica. Charles was a supporter of Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican patriot and revolutionary leader who fought the French attempt to take over the island. Letizia insisted on accompanying Charles and Paoli on their guerrilla campaigns, even though Joseph was still a baby and she was pregnant with Napoleon. She is said to have later recounted:
I carried my Napoleon in my womb with the same joy, the same calm happiness, the same serenity that I experienced later, when I held him in my arms, and fed him at my breast. My mind was entirely occupied by the dangers of his father and those of Corsica. To gather news of the army, I quitted the safe retreat of our steep rocks, to which the women had been consigned, and ventured on to the very fields of battle. I heard the bullets whistling about my ears, but I knew no fear, since I trusted in the protection of the Holy Virgin, to whom I had dedicated my Napoleon. (3)
Napoleon said of this time:
She faced everything – the privations and the fatigue. She endured everything. There was a man’s head on her woman’s body. (4)
The family eventually returned to Ajaccio, where Letizia gave birth (click here to read my post about the myths and facts surrounding Napoleon’s birth). Charles took a position with the new French administration. Through assiduous courtship of the French, he gained various appointments and favours. This rising income was not much help to his wife, as Charles had extravagant tastes and spent or gambled everything he earned. The burdens of looking after the house, property and children fell entirely upon Letizia. She devoted herself to the duty. “When I became the mother of a family, I consecrated myself entirely to its proper direction, and I did not leave my house except to attend Mass.” (5) She ruled her brood with a stern, but affectionate hand.
In 1784 she wrote Napoleon, who had written Charles from the military academy at Brienne complaining about never receiving any pocket money:
I received your letter, my dear boy, and if the handwriting and the signature hadn’t proved it came from you, I would never have believed that you were the author of it. You are the dearest of my children, but if I ever receive a similar epistle from you I will have nothing more to do with my Napoleon. Wherever did you get the idea that a son, no matter what a situation may be, is entitled to write to his father as you did? You can thank heaven that your father was away from home. If he had seen your letter, he would have set off for Brienne at once to punish an impudent and naughty son for such insolence…. Your loving mother, Letizia Buonaparte (6)
Charles died of stomach cancer on February 24, 1785, leaving the family in debt. With the four youngest children still at home, Letizia kept the family afloat. She managed this through a combination of thrift, charity and the small sums Napoleon sent from his meagre lieutenant’s salary. Writing to the Minister of War in 1788, trying unsuccessfully to secure Louis’s admission to a French military school, Letizia concluded:
Charged with the education of eight children, widow of a man who always served the King and the administration of the affairs of the Island of Corsica, who sacrificed considerable sums in order to further the views of the Government, deprived of resources, it is at the foot of the Throne and in your sensitive and virtuous heart that she hopes to find them. Eight children, Monseigneur, shall be the organ of the prayers which she will address to Heaven for your preservation. (7)
In 1793, when Napoleon turned against Paoli, the family was forced to flee to the French mainland. Letizia and the younger children lived in poverty in Marseilles, relying on hand-outs for food. Napoleon bombarded military and civil authorities with entreaties to come to the aid of his “unfortunate family.” Eventually Letizia benefited from a grant for Corsican refugees, as well as from Napoleon’s rising fortunes. When Napoleon was promoted to the rank of general of brigade, he installed his mother and sisters in a comfortable country-house close to Antibes. When he became commander of the Army of the Interior in 1796, he sent some of his new-found wealth to his mother, enabling her to move into one of the finest homes in Marseilles. In 1797, she was able to return to Casa Buonaparte, the family home in Ajaccio.
Though Letizia Bonaparte did not often intercede in political affairs, she took a meddling interest in her children’s lives, particularly their choice of spouses. She was angered by Napoleon’s marriage, in 1796, to the widow Josephine de Beauharnais, on which she was not consulted. Letizia regarded Josephine as a woman of easy morals, expensive tastes and indifferent character. She also thought Josephine was too old to bear Napoleon children (a matter on which she proved correct). The tension between his mother and his wife dogged Napoleon throughout his marriage to Josephine. Though Letizia did not object to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, she did not particularly like her, and later blamed her for denying the Bonaparte family access to Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome.
Letizia tried to mediate the many disputes between Napoleon and his siblings. Though she entreated her other children to display loyalty towards Napoleon, she often took his siblings’ side when she felt Napoleon had been too harsh. She believed all her children should benefit from Napoleon’s success. She did not hesitate to let Napoleon know when she disapproved of something he had done.
Letizia was affronted when Napoleon, on assuming the title of Emperor in 1804, did not grant her a title equal to or above that of those he granted to his brothers and sisters, who became princes and princesses. Joseph Fesch wrote on her behalf to Napoleon in July 1804:
Your mother has started for the waters of Lucca. Her health is undermined by moral affections, rather than any physical disposition… She was greatly distressed to learn, from the gazettes, the advent of the Empire…. She is under the impression that your Imperial Majesty prefers all the family to her. (8)
Letizia was given the title “Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l’Empereur” (Madam Mother of His Majesty, the Emperor), an official place at Napoleon’s right hand (ahead of all the princes), and an increased allowance. Still, she boycotted Napoleon’s coronation in protest at his failure to include Lucien in the imperial succession (Napoleon objected to Lucien’s marriage). Napoleon ordered Jacques-Louis David to include Letizia in his well-known painting of the coronation nonetheless.
Napoleon allowed his mother and uncle to exercise some supervision over the affairs of Corsica. The prefect of the island received orders not to make any appointment without consulting Letizia or Fesch.
It is to be feared that this system can scarcely have conduced to efficiency, since the prejudice which Letizia and, in a less degree, her brother always cherished against those who had taken part against the Bonapartes in 1793 must have excluded from the administration many persons whose character and abilities would have ordinarily ensured their promotion; while, at the same time, others with nothing to recommend them save some distant relationship to the Imperial Family found themselves selected for lucrative and important posts. (9)
Letizia amassed a large fortune by letting her children and patrons spend money on her, while she saved her own. She was always aware of the precariousness of Napoleon’s position. She reportedly said:
Rings adorn fingers but they may fall off and the fingers remain. (10)
Exile in Rome
When the end came, in 1814, Letizia travelled to Italy with Fesch, where Pope Pius VII granted them refuge in Rome. The terms of Napoleon’s abdication guaranteed her 300,000 francs a year, and she wisely liquidated her French property before it was taken from her. She joined Napoleon on Elba, and helped to finance his retinue.
Napoleon’s valet Louis Étienne Saint-Denis had this to say about Letizia on Elba:
Madame Mère must have been a beauty of the first rank in her youth. Her face was well modeled, with regular features. Her mouth was neither too large nor too small, her lips were thin, her nose almost straight, her eyes brown, large, brilliant, and very expressive. There was always some haughtiness and severity in her look. But the beauty of her features lost part of its effect because of the thick layer of paint which she put on her cheeks. This did not harmonize with her age, which required great naturalness in the color of her skin. Too much rouge does not go well with wrinkles. On ordinary weekdays her dress was simple, though rich. She ordinarily wore a little bonnet ornamented with flowers. On Sundays and holidays, when she was in full dress to come to the palace, she had on a toque with feathers. On these occasions she wore very fine diamonds. I knew nothing about her household arrangements; I know that she was very religious and was said to be very miserly. When she spoke French she had a very marked Italian accent. She said very little. (11)
The night before his escape from Elba, Napoleon allegedly asked his mother for her advice. She reportedly told him:
Go my son, fulfil your destiny, you were not made to die on this island. (12)
Letizia returned to France during the Hundred Days. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and second abdication, she returned to Rome. She still had considerable wealth, enabling her to buy the Palazzo Rinuccini (Rinuccini Palace) in 1818. She wanted to join Napoleon on St. Helena, or otherwise alleviate the hardship and isolation of his imprisonment. At General Bertrand’s request, and after getting permission from the British, she sent two priests, a doctor and a cook to join Napoleon’s entourage.
In early 1819, Letizia and Fesch became convinced by an Austrian clairvoyant, Madame Kleinsmuller – who said the Virgin Mary appeared to her every night to bring news of the Emperor – that Napoleon had been removed from St. Helena and was doing well. On July 31, 1819 Fesch wrote to Count de Las Cases:
You must have gathered from all our letters how certain we are of the deliverance and the time it occurred; although the gazettes and the English still insinuate he is at St. Helena, we have reason to believe he is no longer there and, though we do not know where he is or when he will give signs of life, we have enough proof for persisting in our beliefs and even for hoping that, before long, we shall learn and be humanly certain of it all. There can be no doubt that the gaoler of St. Helena is making Count Bertrand write to you as though he still held Napoleon in his clutches. (13)
As alluded to in Napoleon in America, Pauline and Louis attempted to persuade their mother and uncle of the falseness of these beliefs. Pauline wrote on July 11, 1821:
I’ve had much to put with these last two years, through my uncle, mother and Colonna, letting themselves be guided by a scheming woman, a German and a spy for the Austrian Court, who says the Madonna appears to her and told her the Emperor was no longer there. It’s all the wildest nonsense! The Cardinal [Fesch] has almost gone mad, for he openly says the Emperor is no longer at St. Helena, that he has had revelations as to where he is. Louis and I have done all we could during the past two years to eradicate the effects of this sorceress, but all to no purpose. My uncle hid from us the letters and news he received from St. Helena and told us that this silence ought to be enough to convince us. Mama is very devout and gives a lot to this woman, who is in league with her confessor, who is himself the instrument of yet other priests. It’s all a horrible intrigue. (14)
Pauline finally managed to convince Letizia of the error of her ways. It was too late. When, on July 22, 1821, Letizia learned that Napoleon had died on St. Helena on May 5, she apparently let out a sharp cry, fell to the floor unconscious, and then refused to see anyone for days. She wrote to British Foreign Minister Castlereagh asking for Napoleon’s remains to be sent to her, but received no reply.
Letizia Bonaparte spent her remaining years quietly in Rome, rarely going out, except to attend Mass. She always wore black, in mourning both for Napoleon and for Elisa, who died in August 1820. She experienced more sorrow with Pauline’s death in 1825. The death of Napoleon’s son in 1832 was a further blow. By this time Letizia was an invalid (she fell and fractured her thigh in 1830, leaving her unable to walk) and totally blind. When, after the July 1830 revolution in France, a French Deputy proposed putting forward a motion to lift the ban on her residing in France, Letizia thanked him but refused. She did not want an exemption to be made for her and not her children. Letizia Bonaparte died in Rome on February 2, 1836, age 85. In 1851 her body was taken to Corsica and buried in her native Ajaccio.
You might also enjoy:
- Alain Decaux, Napoleon’s Mother, translated by Len Ortzen (London, 1962), p. 68.
- Dormer Creston (Dorothy Julia Baynes), In Search of Two Characters: Some Intimate Aspects of Napoleon and His Son (London, 1945), p. 4.
- H. Noel Williams, The Women Bonapartes, Vol. 1 (New York, 1909), pp. 19-20.
- Decaux, Napoleon’s Mother, p. 19.
- Williams, The Women Bonapartes, Vol. 1, p. 33.
- Decaux, Napoleon’s Mother, p. 45.
- Williams, The Women Bonapartes, Vol. 1, pp. 66-67.
- Ibid., p. 373.
- Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 251.
- Clara Tschudi, The Great Napoleon’s Mother (New York, 1900), p. 245.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon: From the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 80.
- Monica Stirling, Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother (New York, 1961), p. 210.
- Decaux, Napoleon’s Mother, p. 249.
- Gilbert Martineau, Madame Mère, Napoleon’s Mother (John Murray, 1978), p. 159.
She faced everything – the privations and the fatigue. She endured everything. There was a man’s head on her woman’s body.