Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s scandalous brother
Lucien Bonaparte was Napoleon’s most articulate brother, and the only one unwilling to subordinate himself to Napoleon. Politically ambitious, he played an indispensable role in Napoleon’s rise to power. However, he refused to give up his wife when Napoleon demanded, thus – unlike his siblings – he never sat on a throne. Lucien spent most of the imperial years in exile with his large family, nursing his literary vanity.
Quick and impulsive
Born in Ajaccio, Corsica on May 21, 1775, Lucien Bonaparte was the third of Charles and Letizia Bonaparte’s eight children (see the Bonaparte family tree). He was educated in mainland France at the College of Auton, the military school in Brienne and the seminary in Aix-en-Provence.
When Lucien arrived at Brienne in 1784, Napoleon (then age 15) described him as follows:
He is 9 years old, and 3 feet, 4 inches, and 6 lines tall. He is in the sixth class for Latin, and is going to learn all the subjects in the curriculum. He shows plenty of good disposition and has good intentions. It is to be hoped he will turn out well. He is in good health, is a big upstanding boy, quick and impulsive, and he is making a good start. He knows French well, and has forgotten all his Italian. (1)
With an appetite for politics, Lucien soon abandoned his clerical studies and became a fervent Jacobin, of which neither Napoleon nor Letizia approved. In letters of the time, Lucien wrote that he possessed “the courage to commit tyrannicide” and that he would “die with a dagger in my hand.” (2) He led a campaign against the Corsican patriot leader Pasquale Paoli, accusing him of being a tyrant, thus bringing the feud between the Bonapartists and the Paolists to a head.
Laure Junot described Lucien Bonaparte at age 22 as:
tall, ill-shaped, having limbs like the field-spider’s, and a small head, which, with his small stature, would have made him unlike the other Bonapartes, had not his physiognomy proved the relationship…. Lucien was very near-sighted, which made him half-shut his eyes and stoop his head. This defect would therefore have given him an unpleasing air, if his smile, always in harmony with his look, had not imparted something agreeable to his countenance. Thus, though he was rather plain than otherwise, he pleased generally. He had a very remarkable success with females who were themselves very remarkable, and that long before his brother arrived at power. With respect to understanding and talent, Lucien always displayed abundance of both. (3)
After being named commander of the Army of the Interior, Napoleon attempted to find a place for Lucien as a war commissary, but Lucien soon tired of this post. He preferred politics to the army. In 1798, he was elected as a French deputy, despite being below the constitutionally required minimal age.
The next year, Lucien was named president of the Council of Five Hundred. Though his election was a gesture of esteem for Napoleon, who had just returned from Egypt, Lucien regarded the appointment as an acknowledgement of his own merit. Lucien’s new position was fortunate for his brother. Lucien played a pivotal role in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), in which Napoleon came to power as First Consul. Lucien’s quick thinking saved the day for Napoleon, and his role as Council president gave the coup an appearance of legality. At one point Lucien supposedly took a sword, pointed it at Napoleon’s heart, and swore to plunge it into his brother’s chest if he ever threatened the liberty of the French. Rewarded with the position of Minister of the Interior, Lucien falsified plebiscite results in favour of Napoleon’s formal election. He also, in 1799, published a novel called The Indian Tribe, or Edouard and Stellina.
Lucien annoyed Napoleon, however, by publishing a subversive pamphlet that made too overt a comparison between Napoleon and Caesar. Lucien was hoping to be named Napoleon’s successor if Napoleon gained the right to appoint his own heir. Napoleon removed Lucien from his ministerial post and instead made him France’s ambassador to Spain. There he further vexed Napoleon in negotiations over the secret (second) Treaty of San Ildefonso and the subsequent Convention of Aranjuez, which returned the Louisiana Territory to France (Lucien later opposed Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana to the United States). Napoleon wrote to Lucien in June 1801:
I have not told you what I thought of your treaty of peace, because I dislike saying disagreeable things. Joseph [Bonaparte], who was with me when I received it, will tell you what a really painful impression it made on me. You negotiate a great deal too fast. (4)
This was nothing compared to the sparks that flew between the brothers over the issue of Lucien’s wife. On May 4, 1794, without seeking permission from his family, Lucien had married Christine Boyer, the illiterate daughter of an innkeeper. Christine and Lucien had two children: Charlotte (b. 1795) and Christine (1798). In 1800 Christine died.
Around 1799 Lucien began writing love letters – initially under the pen name of Romeo – to Juliette Récamier, a beautiful Parisian socialite. They were not literary masterpieces, as he himself admitted.
These letters are not the fruits of long labor. I do not dedicate them to immortality. They are not the offspring of either eloquence or genius, but of the truest passion. They are not written for the public, but for a beloved woman. They reveal my heart. It is a faithful glass, wherein I am fond of seeing myself incessantly. I write as I feel, and I am happy in writing. May these letters interest her for whom I write! May she with pleasure recognize herself in the portrait of Juliette, and think of Romeo with that delicious agitation which is the precursor of sensibility! (5)
Juliette showed the letters to her husband and proposed to forbid Lucien entrance to their house. He told her it would be imprudent to affront the First Consul’s brother, though she must keep him at a respectable distance. After finally accepting that his gallantries were going nowhere, Lucien asked Juliette to return the letters. She refused to give them up.
Lucien had better luck with Alexandrine de Bleschamp, wife of the banker Hippolyte Jouberthon, who died in 1802. Lucien’s and Alexandrine’s first son, Charles Lucien, was born on May 24, 1803. They married five months later, on October 26. They went on to have eight more children: Letizia (b. 1804), Jeanne (1807), Paul (1808), Louis (1813), Pierre (1815), Antoine (1816), Alexandrine (1818) and Constance (1823).
Snatched from a brilliant destiny
On learning of the marriage, Napoleon was furious. He had hoped to partner Lucien with a Bourbon Spanish princess. The brothers also quarrelled, in 1804, over the imperial succession, in which Lucien could enter the line for the throne but his children could not. Lucien moved to Rome, renouncing any further role in imperial affairs. Napoleon wrote to their brother Jérôme:
Lucien prefers a disgraced woman, who bore him a child before he had married her, and who was his mistress while her husband was at St. Domingo, to the honour of his own name and family. I can only mourn over such an amount of mental alienation, in a man on whom Nature has bestowed much talent, and who has been snatched from a brilliant destiny by his unexampled selfishness, which has carried him far from the path of honour and duty. (6)
In 1807 Napoleon said he was prepared to restore Lucien’s rights as a French prince, and to recognize his daughters as his nieces, as long as Lucien divorced his wife or annulled the marriage. If, afterwards, Lucien wished to live with “Madame Jouberthon,” Napoleon would raise no objection. Lucien did not accept this compromise.
Lucien was also not interested in Napoleon’s suggestion that his oldest daughter Charlotte, then age 12, should marry Crown Prince Ferdinand of Spain. Napoleon wrote to Joseph from Milan on December 17, 1807:
I saw Lucien at Mantua, and had with him a conversation of several hours…. His notions and his expressions are so different from mine that I can hardly make out what it is that he wants…. It appeared to me that there was in Lucien’s mind a contest between opposite feelings, and that he had not sufficient strength to decide in favour of any one of them. I exhausted all the means in my power to induce him, young as he is, to devote his talents to my service and to that of his country. If he wishes to let me have his daughter, she must set off without delay, and he must send me a declaration putting her entirely at my disposal: for there is not a moment to lose, events are hastening on, and my destiny must be accomplished….
Tell Lucien that I was touched by his grief and by the feelings which he expressed towards me; and that I regret the more that he will not be reasonable and contribute to his own comfort and to mine. (7)
When France annexed the Papal States and imprisoned Pope Pius VII (with whom Lucien was friends), Napoleon again found Lucien troublesome. In March 1808, Napoleon wrote to Joseph:
Lucien is misconducting himself at Rome, even going so far as to insult the Roman officers who take my side, and is more Roman than the Pope himself. I desire you will write for him to leave Rome, and retire to Florence or Pisa…. [I]f he refuses to take this course, I only await your answer to have him removed by force. His conduct has been scandalous; he is my open enemy, and that of France. If he persists in these opinions, America will be the only refuge left him. I thought he had some sense, but I see he is only a fool. How could he remain in Rome after the arrival of the French troops? Was it not his duty to retire into the country? And not only this, but he sets himself up in opposition to me. There is no name for his conduct. I will not permit a Frenchman, and one of my own brothers, to be the first to conspire, and act against me, with a rabble of priests. (8)
In 1810, Lucien attempted to sail with his family to the United States. They were captured by the British, who allowed them to live at Ludlow, and later at Thorngrove mansion in Grimley, Worcestershire. Lucien settled easily into the life of an English country gentleman. He turned his home into a salon and took a keen interest in astronomy, as well as in his children’s education. Hoping to make a literary reputation for himself, he composed an epic poem about Charlemagne, published in London in 1814 to an indifferent reception. He also wrote a drama and a couple of comedies, which were performed in a private theatre before 200 neighbours.
When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Lucien wrote to Pius VII requesting a papal title. He returned to Rome as the Prince of Canino, the wealthiest of Napoleon’s brothers except Joseph.
Is the Prince of Canino a Frenchman?
During Napoleon’s exile on Elba, the attitude of both brothers softened. When Napoleon returned to Paris in March 1815, Lucien decided to join him, arriving on May 9. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, with the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Peers considering whether to depose the Emperor, Lucien advised Napoleon to dissolve the Chambers. Instead Napoleon sent Lucien to address them. He hoped Lucien’s oratorical skills would help him repeat the stunt he had pulled off on 18 Brumaire.
Lucien Bonaparte took the podium of the Deputies and said, among other things:
It is not Napoleon that is attacked; it is the French people. And a proposition is now made to this people, to abandon their Emperor; to expose the French nation before the tribunal of the world, to a severe judgment on its levity and inconstancy.
The Marquis de Lafayette rose from his seat and addressed Lucien directly:
Who shall dare to accuse the French nation of inconstancy to the Emperor Napoleon? That nation has followed his bloody footsteps through the sands of Egypt and through the wastes of Russia; over fifty fields of battle; in disaster as faithfully as victory; and it is for having thus devotedly followed him that we now mourn the blood of three millions of Frenchmen. (9)
Lucien bowed respectfully and sat down. It was Lucien to whom Napoleon dictated his abdication in favour of his son, Napoleon II.
In the Chamber of Peers, Lucien tried to save the succession for the Bonapartes, envisioning himself as regent to his nephew.
The only question before the chamber is whether France be a free and independent nation or not? Politically the emperor is dead…. The emperor has abdicated: still, live the emperor! Such is the basis on which a constitutional monarchy should repose.
One of the Peers asked:
Upon what grounds does the Prince of Canino propose a sovereign to the French people? Is the Prince of Canino a Frenchman? Who says he is? He has no avowed title beyond that of a Roman prince.
He reproaches me with not being a Frenchman. I am one in sentiments at least! We are all placed here by the constitutions of the Empire, and our oath in favour of Napoleon II ought not to be the subject of deliberation, but of a manifesto, which cannot be made too soon, if we wish to avoid civil war. (10)
The debate continued, but the Peers did not accept Lucien’s proposal.
With Napoleon destined for St. Helena, the allies allowed Lucien to return to Rome, on the condition that he remain in the Papal States. Lucien said,
I cannot conceive why they treat me as a prisoner; I, who have always opposed the ambitious designs of my brother, and who in this last instance was only induced to revisit France for the purpose of bringing him back to more moderate views. (11)
In 1816, Lucien applied for passports to go to the United States, but the request was rejected by the Allies. He resigned himself to life in Italy, where we find him in Napoleon in America. His situation was comfortable, though his revenue tended to lag behind his expenses. Besides Alexandrine and the children, he had the company of his mother, his brother Louis, his sister Pauline and uncle Joseph Fesch, who were also in Rome. He owned considerable property, and the grounds around Canino were particularly rich in Etruscan remains, which he devoted himself to excavating. He maintained a museum and a gallery, which included some valuable finds. In 1819 he published another long poem, Cyrneide, or Corsica Saved. Nearing death on St. Helena, Napoleon expressed the desire for Lucien “to cease writing poetry and to busy himself with writing a history of the Revolution and of the Emperor’s reign. As he was a worker he could easily write some fifteen or twenty volumes on the subject.” (12) In 1824, Pope Leo XII made Lucien Bonaparte Prince of Musignano.
Lucien’s political aspirations were not entirely extinguished. In 1833, he travelled to London to meet with his brother Joseph, who had arrived there in the summer of 1832. Joseph had hoped to help his nephew, Napoleon II, gain the French throne, but was unable to proceed with the plan because his nephew died while Joseph was enroute from the United States. During the meeting Lucien expressed his desire for the Bonapartes to return to France whatever the cost, a position Joseph did not share. Joseph’s secretary Louis Mailliard wrote of the meeting that “everything Lucien says about France is not very brilliant,” and “he’s a man who speaks well but who is of no use.” (13) The initiative slipped from the older Bonapartes to Louis’s son, Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III).
Lucien Bonaparte died of stomach cancer at Viterbo, Italy on June 29, 1840. Alexandrine died in 1855.
You might also enjoy:
- M. Thompson, ed., Letters of Napoleon (Oxford, 1934), p. 1.
- Steven Englund, Napoleon: A Political Life (New York, 2004), p. 51.
- Laure Junot, Memoirs of the Duchess d’Abrantès (New York, 1832), p. 167.
- Léon Lecestre, ed., New Letters of Napoleon I, translated by Mary Lloyd (New York, 1898), p. 13.
- Isaphine M. Luyster, ed., Memoirs and Correspondence of Madame Récamier (Boston, 1867), p. 16.
- New Letters of Napoleon I, p. 25.
- The Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with His Brother Joseph, Sometime King of Spain, Vol. 1 (London, 1855), pp. 279-280.
- New Letters of Napoleon I, p. 73.
- Life of Lafayette (Boston, 1835), pp. 113-114.
- Memoirs of the Private and Political Life of Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Canino II (London, 1818), pp. 114-116.
- Ibid., p. 121.
- Henri Bertrand, Napoleon at St. Helena: The Journals of General Bertrand, January-May 1821, deciphered and annotated by Paul Fleuriot de Langle, translated by Francis Hume (Garden City, 1952), p. 203.
- Peter Hicks, “Joseph Bonaparte and the ‘Réunion de famille’ of 1832-33,” La Revue, 2010/2, No. 8, p. 40.
Lucien prefers a disgraced woman, who bore him a child before he had married her, and who was his mistress while her husband was at St. Domingo, to the honour of his own name and family. I can only mourn over such an amount of mental alienation, in a man on whom Nature has bestowed much talent.