Anecdotes of Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Portrait of the King of Rome, circa 1815, by Jean-Baptiste Isabey

Portrait of the King of Rome, circa 1815, by Jean-Baptiste Isabey

Napoleon’s only legitimate son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, was born on March 20, 1811. By all accounts he was a cute, strong-willed and kind-hearted little boy. He was also greatly spoiled. Here are some anecdotes of the King of Rome as a young child.

The King of Rome destroys a soldier’s plume

This anecdote comes from Captain Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier of Napoleon’s guard. The incident probably happened within the first year of the child’s life.

The precious child was always accompanied by the governor of the palace, whenever he went out to take the air, with his handsome nurse, and a lady who carried him. One day when I was at the palace of St. Cloud, Marshal Duroc, who was with me, signalled to me to approach, and the dear child held out his little hands for my plume. I stooped, and he began to pull at my plumes. The marshal said, ‘Let him do it.’ The child laughed with delight; but my plume was sacrificed. I looked a little upset. The marshal said to me, ‘Give it to him. I will give you another.’ The maid of honour and the nurse were much amused.

The marshal said to the maid of honour, ‘Give the prince to this sergeant, and let him take him in his arms.’ Good Lord! How eagerly I stretched out my arms to receive that precious burden! Every one surrounded me. ‘Well,’ said M. Duroc to me, ‘is he heavy?’ – ‘Yes, general.’ – ‘Come, walk him about; you are strong enough to carry him.’ I walked about with him awhile on the terrace. The child pulled away at my plumes and paid no attention to me. His robes hung down very low, and I was afraid of stumbling; but I was proud to carry such a baby. I handed him back to the maid of honour, who thanked me, and the marshal said to me, ‘Come to my office an hour later.’ Accordingly, I appeared before the marshal, who gave me an order upon a merchant for a handsome plume. ‘Is this the only one you have?’ said he. – ‘Yes, general.’ – ‘I will give you an order for two.’ – ‘Thank you, general.’ – ‘You can go, my brave fellow; now you will have one for Sundays.’ (1)

The little King desires it

This anecdote was related by a palace usher to Laure Junot, the Duchess of Abrantès (not the most reliable memoirist). Madame de Montesquiou was the King of Rome’s governess.

The King of Rome one morning ran to the state apartments and reached the door of the Emperor’s cabinet alone, for Madame de Montesquiou was unable to follow him. The child raised his beautiful face to the usher and said, ‘Open the door for me; I wish to see papa.’

‘Sire,’ replied the man. ‘I cannot let your Majesty in.’

‘Why not? I am the little king.’

‘But your Majesty is alone.’

The Emperor had given orders that his son should not be allowed to enter his cabinet unless accompanied by his governess. This order was issued for the purpose of giving the young Prince, whose disposition was somewhat inclined to waywardness, a high idea of his governess’s authority. On receiving this denial from the usher the Prince’s eyes became suffused with tears, but he said not a word. He waited till Madame de Montesquiou came up, which was in less than a minute afterwards. Then he seized her hand, and looking proudly at the usher, he said, ‘Open the door; the little King desires it.’ The usher then opened the door of the cabinet and announced, ‘His Majesty the King of Rome.’ (2)

The King of Rome is wicked

This anecdote appeared in the memoirs of the Count de Las Cases, who accompanied Napoleon into exile on St. Helena.

The apartments of the young Prince were on the ground floor, and looked out on the court of the Tuileries. At almost every hour in the day, numbers of people were looking in at the windows, in the hope of seeing him. One day when he was in a violent fit of passion, and rebelling furiously against the authority of Madame de Montesquiou, she immediately ordered all the shutters to be closed. The child, surprised at the sudden darkness, asked Maman Quiou, as he used to call her, what it all meant?

‘I love you too well,’ she replied, ‘not to hide your anger from the crowd in the court-yard. You perhaps will one day be called to govern all those people, and what would they say if they saw you in such a fit of rage? Do you think they would ever obey you, if they knew you to be so wicked?’ Upon which, the child asked her pardon, and promised never again to give way to such fits of anger. (3)

The King of Rome grants a pension

Here’s another anecdote from Madame Junot.

Young Napoleon was an amiable child, and he became more so as he advanced in age. I know many affecting stories of him, which indicate the goodness of his heart. When he was at Saint Cloud he liked to be placed at the window in order that he might see the people passing by. One day he perceived at some distance a young woman in mourning, apparently in great grief, holding by the hand a little boy about his own age. The child held in his hand a paper, which he raised towards the window at which young Napoleon stood. ‘Why is he dressed in black?’ inquired the young King of his governess. ‘Because, no doubt, he has lost his father. Do you wish to know what he wants?’

The Emperor had given orders that his son should always be accessible to those in misfortune who wished to make any application to him by petition. The petitioners were immediately introduced, and they proved to be a young widow and her son. Her husband had died about three months previously of wounds received in Spain, and his widow solicited a pension. Madame de Montesquiou, thinking that this conformity of age between the little orphan and the young King might move the feelings of the latter, placed the petition in his hands. She was not deceived in her expectations. His heart was touched at the sight of the young petitioner. The Emperor was then on a hunting-party, and the petition could not be presented to him until next morning at breakfast. Young Napoleon passed the whole of the day in thoughtfulness, and when the appointed hour arrived, he left his apartment to pay his respects to his father. He took care to present the petition apart from all the rest he carried, and this of his own accord.

‘Here is a petition, papa,’ said he, ‘from a little boy. He is dressed all in black. His papa has been killed in your service, and his mamma wants a pension, because she is poor and has much to vex her.’ ‘Ah! Ah!’ said the Emperor, taking his son in his arms; ‘you already grant pensions do you? Diable! You have begun betimes. Come, let us see who this protégé of yours is.’ The widow had sufficient grounds for her claim; but in all probability they would not have been attended to for a year or two, had it not been for the King of Rome’s intercession. The brevet of the pension was made out that very day, and a years’ arrears added to the order. (4)

The King of Rome wants to stay in Paris

On January 24, 1814, the King of Rome saw his father for the last time. Napoleon left to campaign in Germany, in a failing attempt to prevent his enemies from entering France. On March 28, as the allies closed in on Paris, Napoleon wrote to insist that his wife Marie Louise and their son leave the city. Marie-Marguerite Broquet, the mother of Napoleon’s valet Louis-Joseph Marchand, was a nurse to the King of Rome. She told Marchand how the boy resisted leaving the Tuileries Palace.

The King of Rome…grabbed onto each piece of furniture so as not to go to Rambouillet, which he deemed too ugly. Made impatient by the force used on him – and force had to be used to get him into his carriage – he said in anger: ‘I don’t want to leave Paris, Papa is not here, I am the master here.’ (5)

When Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Marie Louise took the King of Rome to Vienna. He spent the rest of his life there, in the court of his grandfather, Emperor Francis I of Austria, who gave him the title of Duke of Reichstadt. That is where Napoleon wants to retrieve him from in Napoleon in America.

For more about Napoleon’s son, see:

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

The Palace of the King of Rome

The death of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

  1. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), pp. 200-201.
  2. Laure Junot, Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, Vol. 2 (London, 1836), p. 334.
  3. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné de Las Cases, The Military and Political Life, Character, and Anecdotes of Napoleon Bonaparte (Hartford, 1823), pp. 340-341.
  4. Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, Vol. 2, pp. 335-336.
  5. Louis-Joseph Marchand, 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, edited by Proctor Jones (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 81-82.

The death of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt

Napoleon’s only legitimate child, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, Napoleon II or the Duke of Reichstadt, died of tuberculosis at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna on July 22, 1832. He was only 21 years old. You can read my articles about his perilous birth and his sad life. What follows is an account of Napoleon’s son’s death.

Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on his deathbed, engraved by Franz Xavier Stöber

Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on his deathbed, engraved by Franz Xavier Stöber

A scrofulous tendency

The Duke of Reichstadt, who appears as the boy Franz in Napoleon in America, was brought up in the court of his maternal grandfather, Emperor Francis I of Austria. Although Franz had been a healthy child, when he was 16 years old those around him noted that his chest did not seem to be developing at the same rate as the rest of his body. His doctor, a celebrated Viennese physician named Staudenheim, diagnosed a “scrofulous tendency.” (1) Dr. Staudenheim said the boy should not go out in wet or windy weather, and should avoid vigorous exercise.

After Staudenheim’s death in May 1830, Dr. Johann Malfatti – who had treated Beethoven, among others – became the Duke of Reichstadt’s physician. Though Malfatti suspected consumption (tuberculosis), he thought there was less danger from the boy’s lungs than from his liver. He ordered a strengthening diet of milk and seltzer water and prescribed a course of baths. He also cautioned against extremes of heat and cold, and anything that might produce great excitement.

The Duke of Reichstadt hated these restrictions. He desperately wanted to be a soldier. In August 1828, his grandfather had made him a captain in the Imperial Light Infantry. During the summer of 1829, Franz had taken part in manoeuvres, but was not considered ready for active military service on account of his health. Now he continued to ride, despite attempts to stop him. In July 1830 he was promoted to the rank of major. In November 1830 he became a lieutenant colonel.

In June 1831, the Duke of Reichstadt was finally given command of a battalion of 200 men of the 60th Imperial Regiment of Infantry. Malfatti, visiting the barracks, often found Franz in a state of exhaustion. His voice would give out when he was shouting commands to his men. Franz resisted the doctor’s orders to rest. At the beginning of August, however, he was struck with a fever and an inflammation of the mucous membrane. Malfatti succeeded in having the patient confined. Two months of rest reestablished Franz’s strength, but the improvement in health did not last long. In January 1832 the Duke of Reichstadt came down with another fever. He was sent back to the Hofburg Palace to recover.


The Duke of Reichstadt was allowed to take the air in a carriage or on horseback, in moderation. In mid-April 1832, he went for a long morning ride in cold, damp weather, and then in the evening went to the Prater. A wheel of his carriage gave way, so he started home on foot. Unfortunately, his strength failed him and he fell in the street. The next day he came down with pneumonia. Malfatti – returning to his duties after a five-week attack of gout – was struck by the rapid decline of his patient. The sickness was primarily in the chest, although the digestive functions were also affected. Franz had also gradually lost hearing in his left ear.

Hoping to cheer his grandson, Francis I made him a colonel of the 60th Imperial Regiment of Infantry. Franz was so weak that he couldn’t write to thank his grandfather, who was away from Vienna. On May 22, the Duke of Reichstadt was moved to Schönbrunn for the fresh air. He was given the suite of rooms that Napoleon had stayed in when he occupied Vienna in 1809.

On June 3, Franz’s fever and cough grew much worse. He was lethargic, and his pulse was rapid. Malfatti prescribed an application of leeches, along with medicine for his lungs and his liver, and some Marienbad water. At Malfatti’s request, three Viennese physicians were called in to consult. They agreed with the course of treatment, but thought the Duke’s state was precarious. He was so emaciated that he looked like an old man. On June 7, Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich wrote:

The Prince’s condition is in keeping with his malady. His weakness increases in proportion as his illness progresses, and I see no possibility of saving him. (2)

By this time rumours of the Duke of Reichstadt’s illness had spread. The fact that his mother, Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, was not at his side, did not impress the people of Vienna. She finally arrived on June 24. Colonel Hartmann, the Duke’s chief of staff wrote:

The meeting, as is only too explicable, was very affecting for both of them; but her Majesty felt calmer for having seen the Prince, and his Highness himself was more cheerful, so that everything pointed to the fact that it did him good to see his mother once more. (3)

Marie Louise could see there was no hope for her son.

The nights were sleepless, and sometimes he would be seized with such a violent bout of coughing that he seemed in danger of suffocation. His voice sounded hoarse, and his legs, which were white and bloodless, swelled increasingly. Now he would no longer go into the palace garden, where, up to the present time, he had been carried twice a day; the most emphatic arguments were necessary in order to induce him to go at least once a day. Forebodings of death now possessed him; since July 13 he had spoken quite plainly of his end. (4)

Even the optimistic Malfatti was forced to admit that no progress was being made. From July 19, the Duke of Reichstadt refused all nourishment. On July 21, breathing became agony for him. “I desire death,” he exclaimed, “only death.” (5)

The Duke of Reichstadt’s final hours

Marie Louise visited Franz occasionally during the day. Baron Moll attended to all of his personal needs.

I cannot describe in words how disagreeable was the operation of removing the secretions which clung to his mouth and tongue; each time this had to be done I felt upset and the Prince thanked me with a look which showed that he realized the full unpleasantness of the task. (6)

Moll read aloud from Les Rebelles sous Charles V by Charles-Victor Prévot to distract the patient. At midnight, Moll retired to the next room for a few hours of rest. The Duke was left alone with his valet, Lambert.

At about 4 A.M. (July 22) Lambert awoke Moll with the news that the Duke was at his last gasp. The Baron hastened to the sick-bed in time to catch the words: ‘I am sinking! I am sinking!’ They then raised the Prince, and the sudden movement seemed to relieve the suffocation, which returned, however, with renewed violence. In a weary and broken voice he cried: ‘Call my mother! Call my mother! Clear the table, I want nothing more!’ (7)

Moll thought the crisis would pass, so he delayed sending for Marie Louise, who was asleep.

Suddenly the Baron [Moll] felt the Duke clutch at his arm convulsively with one hand, while with the other he beat his breast and ejaculated with great effort: ‘Poultices, blisters!’ These were his last words. Hardly had he spoken them before his eyes grew fixed and glazed; the convulsive movements of his body relaxed, and he fell into a state of torpor. When the valet returned in haste with the cataplasms, Moll left the dying man to him and Nickert [a physician], while he went to announce to the mother, to the Archduke Francis Charles and the Court in general that the end had come. When he came back, the Prince was dying peacefully and without suffering; he breathed quietly but could no longer articulate. He was still perfectly conscious and recognized every one. When Marie Louise, led by Moll, entered the death chamber, she was trembling from head to foot and clung to the Baron’s arm for support. Reaching the bedside she remained standing there, incapable of uttering a word. The Prince recognised her, and made a slight motion of the head. Besides the Archduchess, Hartmann, Standeiski, Baron Marshall, Countess Scarampi and Dr. Malfatti were present. After the arrival of the Archduke Francis Charles, whose wife the Archduchess Sophia had not yet recovered from her confinement, Moll brought in the priest, who was waiting in the ante-room.… All knelt while the priest performed his office; Marie Louise leant against a chair, the Archduke Francis Charles at the foot of the bed, the others behind or at the side. After extreme unction had been administered, during which the dying man, his hands folded, followed with his eyes each ceremonial function, the priest asked the Duke if he should read or pray aloud. To the first question he shook his head, but made an affirmative sign in reply to the second. The Chaplain now began to pray half-aloud and laid his hand as though to mesmerise him, first on the forehead and then on the folded hands of the dying man. While this was taking place, Marie Louise was seized with faintness. When she recovered, she knelt down once more. At a few minutes past 5 A.M. the Prince, whose last hour was peaceful and easy, moved his head twice from side to side. Then his breathing ceased and his lips no longer moved. Malfatti and Moll then went to the bedside. Malfatti smoothed the lines from the Prince’s brow, remarking to Moll that the warmth of life was already extinguished. Marie Louise caught these half-whispered words. When she tried to rise, she slipped back again, weak and shaken, upon her knees. Hartmann and Marshall hastened to her assistance and led her from the death-chamber, in which the candles still burned in spite of the daylight, back to her own apartments. (8)

The grief-stricken members of the court, palace staff, and others crowded into the Duke of Reichstadt’s room to look at his body. They cut off almost all of his hair and carried away whatever other souvenirs they could find. During the post-mortem exam the next day, the six doctors present found that while the left lung was only slightly affected, the right one was almost completely destroyed by tuberculosis.

Metternich dispatched Moll with a letter from Marie Louise to Francis I, who was staying at Linz. Metternich wrote:

It is fortunate for your Majesty that the Duke, who could not have been saved, passed away before your return. Your Majesty has been spared a heartrending spectacle. I have recently visited him, and I do not remember ever to have seen a more terrible wreck. (9)

Francis I wept. He then replied to Metternich:

With his complaint, my grandson’s death was a blessing for himself, and perhaps also for my children and the world in general; he will be a loss to me. (10)

The funeral was held on July 24. The Duke of Reichstadt was buried in Vienna with full military honours. One of Franz’s tutors, Jean-Baptiste Foresti, wrote to Maurice Dietrechstein, the boy’s governor, a few days later.

I am quite of your opinion that it is far better for the poor Prince to have passed into a quieter world. His entire position was so artificial, so constrained, so unnatural, his character so perplexing and incomprehensible, his dangers so many, that contentment and true happiness were impossible for him in this life. On the other hand, the loss to the State is all the greater, as people are now beginning to realise. Such a guarantee against the wanton aggression of foreign Powers we are never likely to possess again. (11)

In 1940, the remains of the Duke of Reichstadt were transferred to Paris, a gift to France from Adolf Hitler. They rested for a while beside those of Napoleon in Les Invalides, before being moved to the lower church. The Duke of Reichstadt’s heart and intestines stayed in Vienna, where they reside respectively in urns at the Habsburg Heart Crypt (Hofburg Palace) and the Ducal Crypt (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

What happened to Napoleon’s body?

What were Napoleon’s last words?

Last Words of Famous People

Dangers of Walking in Vienna in the 1820s

  1. Edward de Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (London, 1906), p. “Children possessing what is called the scrofulous constitution are usually of small frame, with pale and delicate skin; the muscles imperfectly developed, the flesh being soft and flaccid. The edges of the eye lids are much disposed to become inflamed, and when the scrofulous tendency is strongly developed, the tarsi (under the edge of the eye lids) ‘are constantly red and tender.’ The digestive powers are feeble, the appetite variable, and the bowels seldom in a healthy condition. The patient is very sensitive to cold, and the temper generally irritable.” J.W. Comfort, The Practice of Medicine on Thomsonian Principles, Sixth Edition, (Philadelphia, 1859), p. 310.
  2. Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt, p. 413.
  3. Ibid., p. 415.
  4. Ibid., p. 416.
  5. Ibid., p. 417.
  6. Ibid., p. 417.
  7. Ibid., p. 419.
  8. Ibid., pp. 419-421.
  9. Ibid., p. 424.
  10. Ibid., p. 425.
  11. Ibid., p. 438.

Achille Murat, the Prince of Tallahassee

Prince Achille Murat

Prince Achille Murat

Napoleon’s nephew Achille Murat was one of the more eccentric Bonapartes. After growing up as the Crown Prince of Naples, he became a colourful Florida pioneer known as the “Prince of Tallahassee.” Achille was independent-minded, restless and adventuresome, always seeking an elusive fortune. Though he claimed to be a democrat, he remained at heart an aristocrat, pining for his family’s lost throne and inherited wealth.

Crown Prince of Naples

Charles Louis Napoleon Achille Murat was born on January 21, 1801 in Paris. He was the eldest child of Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte and her husband Joachim Murat. Murat was a charismatic cavalry officer who later became one of Napoleon’s marshals. Achille had three siblings: Letizia (born April 26, 1802), Lucien (May 16, 1803) and Louise (March 21, 1805).

Achille spent his early years in the splendour of the Elysée Palace in Paris. According to one anecdote, shortly after Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, Napoleon said to another young nephew, Napoleon Charles (the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis and Napoleon’s stepdaughter Hortense):

‘Do you know, child, that you may be king one day?’

‘And Achille?’ instantly said Murat, who was present.

‘Ah, Achille,’ replied Bonaparte, ‘he will make a good soldier.’ (1)

In 1808, Napoleon made the Murats King and Queen of Naples. Achille became Prince Murat, heir presumptive to his parents’ throne. He grew up in Naples, imbibing his father’s taste for military bravado, his mother’s sense of entitlement, and both parents’ outsized egos.

In 1814, the Murats betrayed Napoleon by allying with Austria. This enabled them to keep their kingdom when Napoleon was exiled to Elba. They lost it, however, when Murat tried to aid Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Joachim Murat was executed by a firing squad in October 1815. Caroline and the children were allowed to live in the castle of Frohsdorf, south of Vienna, under Austrian surveillance. Caroline took the name of the Countess of Lipona (an anagram of Napoli, or Naples).

A visitor to the family in November 1817 wrote:

[T]he oldest son, who is called Prince Achille, gives vent, even at the table and before his mother, who tolerates it, to a ridiculous rage against France.

This young man, scarcely sixteen, is already as tall and strong as a man of twenty-five. He says, ‘I am not French, and I will never be. I am an Italian, and I shall always be an Italian. My mother believed, if my father had died when he was with the army, that she would be queen, but as soon as the news had arrived I should have shut her up in the chateau of St. Elmo. She would have been all right there, and I would have proclaimed myself king.’

The tone of this young man is altogether coarse. He speaks without reflecting. It is said that his health is ruined by debauchery. He gets drunk in the bosom of the family. From all one can gather, he has plenty of courage. (2)

Achille nursed a huge resentment towards the reactionary monarchs of Europe. He particularly hated the Bourbons, who had taken his family’s throne and fortune. Upon becoming an adult, he petitioned for a passport to travel to the United States. This was granted, thanks to the intervention of Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich, Caroline’s former lover. Achille had to promise to never return to Europe without the allies’ permission.

Achille Murat in America

In April 1823 Achille Murat sailed from Hamburg with two boxes of books and two bags of gold withdrawn from his mother’s account. He arrived in New York the following month. Achille visited his uncle Joseph Bonaparte in Bordentown, New Jersey. This is where we meet Achille in Napoleon in America. Just as happens in the novel, the Bonapartes briefly considered Achille as a potential husband for Joseph’s daughter Charlotte.

Joseph encouraged Achille to settle into a quiet life in America. Instead, having learned that the Spaniards were in revolt against their Bourbon king, Achille sailed back across the Atlantic. Notwithstanding his lack of military experience, he thought he could lead the Spanish and Portuguese liberals, establish a glorious reputation for himself, and vindicate the Murat name. By the time Achille reached Gibraltar, it was clear that the liberals would be defeated (see my post about the 1823 French invasion of Spain). Instead he published a pamphlet in Liverpool entitled “On the Revolution of Spain in its Relation to Revolution in General.” This attacked reactionary governments and praised revolutions as necessary for the advance of human progress.

Caroline was furious with her son for violating his oath to the allies. His behavior hampered her efforts to recover funds she claimed she was owed by the Bourbons. Other members of the Bonaparte family also disapproved of what Achille had done. Chastened, Achille returned to the United States in late 1823.

After a short visit with Joseph, Achille travelled along the Atlantic coast. In 1824 he decided to establish himself in Florida, having been influenced by Florida booster Richard K. Call, whom he had met in Washington. Achille bought land near St. Augustine, where he tried growing tobacco and raising cattle. In December 1824, he wrote to his friend Count Thibaudeau:

I had the foolishness to buy land too soon, of the sort that is almost sterile although in a delicious position. I am beside the sea, 10 miles south of St. Augustine. I have called my place Parthenope [the old Greek name for Naples]…. This name recalls to me my country if I could forget it…. I have a rather bad house but it will suffice: one room for eating and sleeping, another for my books and writing, that’s all that I have. 1200 arpents of rather inferior land; a sweet climate; 10 male and female negroes that I govern militarily…. I have bread, liberty and equality, the most absolute independence under a government that one does not feel, except to participate in it. I vote, I talk politics in the societies, I make motions, etc. and I can put myself forward to be very popular not only in our territory, but in all parts of the United States where I have been. You see also that I have the time to occupy myself with literary work; that’s what I count on doing and have already done…. My decision is already taken to fix myself here and become a citizen and forever renounce Europe. (3)

The Marquis de Lafayette, on his tour of the United States, met Achille in March of 1825.

We found at Savannah a young man whose name and destiny were calculated to inspire us with a lively interest; this was Achille Murat, son of Joachim Murat, ex-king of Naples. On the earliest news of the arrival of General Lafayette in Georgia, he precipitately quitted Florida, where he has become a planter, and came to add his homage and felicitations to those of the Americans, whom he now regarded as his countrymen. Two days passed in his company, excited an esteem for his character and understanding, not to be withheld by any who may have the same opportunity of knowing him. Scarcely twenty-four years of age, he has had sufficient energy of mind to derive great advantages from an event which many others, in his place, would have regarded as an irreparable fortune. Deprived of the hope of wearing the crown promised by his birth, he transported to the United States the trifling remains of his fortune, and sufficiently wise to appreciate the benefits of the liberty here enjoyed, he has become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Far from imitating so many fallen kings, who never learn how to console themselves for the loss of their former power, Achille Murat has become a cultivator, has preserved his name without any title, and by his frank, and altogether republican manners, has rapidly conciliated the regard of all who know him. He possesses a cultivated mind, and a heart filled with the most noble and generous emotions. For the memory of his father he cherishes a profound and melancholy veneration. (4)

After an unsuccessful year at Parthenope, Achille acquired a new plantation in partnership with Colonel James Gadsden. This was located on the Wacissa River, 15 miles east of the new state capital of Tallahassee. Slaves were set to work clearing land for cotton, a crop from which Achille hoped to make a fortune. In memory of Naples, he called the plantation Lipona. He built a one-room log house in which he slept on a moss mattress, raised from the floor at the head by a pine log.

Most trying

On July 12, 1826, Achille Murat married Catherine (Kate) Daingerfield Willis Gray, a 23-year-old widow who had recently moved to Tallahassee from Virginia with her parents and siblings. Catherine was a great-granddaughter of Betty Washington Lewis, who was George Washington’s sister. Achille and Catherine had no children, though Achille may have had children with his Negro mistresses. At Parthenope he had impregnated one of his slaves, a 14-year-old mulatto named Mary. Under the influence of a malign priest, Mary strangled the baby at birth, and then died shortly afterwards herself. Achille reportedly commented, “Had she been white, I would have written a touching novel about her.” (5) In this and other respects, Achille does not sound like an easy man to live with.

His want of personal neatness was most trying to the delicate sensitivities of his wife, and but for the constant attention of his faithful ‘William’ (his valet), at times his presence would scarce have been endurable. He boasted of never removing his boots from the first use until worn out, and without some such stratagem as practised upon Domine Sampson, he would never have changed his clothing. On one occasion he fell into a boiler of warm syrup, during the season of making sugar; while bystanders feared he might be badly scalded, his only thought was, as he afterwards expressed it, ‘Kate will make me wash.’ His dislike to water was such that he never drank it, unless well diluted with brandy. ‘Water (he said) was only intended for beasts of the field.’ Col. Murat was a man of singular resource. On an occasion of guests arriving unexpectedly, and finding his larder rather empty, while, to increase the difficulty, Madame was from home, he ordered all the ears and tails cut from his hogs, of which he made a most savory dish, while their swineships still roamed at large. He thought it a pity hogs could not be all heads and tails. He boasted of having tried all the birds and most of the reptiles of Florida. He said, ‘Alligator tail soup would do, but the buzzard was not good.’ He was extremely fond of experiments in cookery, often annoying and puzzling Madame Murat and the cook by the strange mingling of sauces and condiments which he furtively introduced into food for the table. (6)

Catherine remained a devoted wife. Floridians often referred to the couple as the Prince and Princess of Tallahassee.

Achille took a keen interest in American politics. At a political rally in 1826, he called one of the candidates, his neighbour David Betton Macomb, a “turncoat” for supporting Henry Clay. Macomb and Achille fought a duel. Achille wrote:

He fired first and shot off half of the little finger of my right hand. That did not keep me from shooting, and my bullet went through his shirt and scared out the lice. (7)

Achille served as a lieutenant colonel in the Florida militia during the early years of the Seminole Wars. Hoping to embark on a political career, he bought some law books from a neighbour who was quitting his practice. Through voluminous reading, he taught himself law. In 1828, Achille was admitted to the bar. He had law offices in Tallahassee and at Lipona. This brought him some remuneration and modest recognition, but it did not give him the entrance to electoral politics he had hoped for. He lost his bid for a seat in the Legislative Council of Florida.

Back to Europe

In 1830 the July Revolution in Paris ousted the Bourbons under King Charles X, ushering in the reign of King Louis Philippe. Achille Murat saw this as an opportunity to regain his family fortune and title. He also dreamed of making his own reputation in the liberal unrest that was sweeping across Europe. After a farewell ball at the Planter’s Hotel in Tallahassee, Achille and Catherine sailed across the Atlantic. Denied entry to France, they landed in England in February 1831. Achille sent a friend to Paris to liaise with the Bonapartists there. They invited Achille to put himself at the head of a Bonapartist/republican coalition. He agreed, as long as they promised to “stop all negotiations with other members of my family, if any have started.” (8)

The Murats’ next stop was Belgium, where the new liberal King Leopold I (uncle of the future Queen Victoria) named Achille a colonel and invited him to establish a foreign legion to aid in Belgium’s defence. France, Austria and Prussia expressed their displeasure at this move, which they feared was cover for Achille to raise troops to restore his family to the thrones of France and Naples. Bowing to the allies’ pressure, Leopold recalled Achille’s commission and disbanded the regiment.

Catherine returned to Florida while Achille remained in London. In 1830 he had published a book on the United States for a European audience, called Lettres sur les États-Unis. He now expanded his thoughts into a second book on American society and American government: Esquisse Morale et Politique des Etats-Unis de l’Amerique du Nord (1832). The books were popular enough to be translated into English, German, Dutch and Swedish.

In London Achille met with Joseph Bonaparte and other members of the family, including his cousin Louis-Napoléon (the future Napoleon III), to discuss how to advance the Bonapartes’ interests. There was a falling out between Joseph and his nephews, whom Joseph considered hotheads, over who should speak for the Bonaparte family and the route they should take to get back into power. Joseph’s secretary, Louis Mailliard, noted in his diary on February 2, 1833:

Annoyances with the nephews Achille and Louis[-Napoleon]. These young people have strange ideas, they are of all countries depending on the circumstances. [Joseph] is reticent with them. The princess [Charlotte] suffers from all this and dares not speak to her father or to her cousins. (9)


Achille Murat returned to Florida with neither wealth nor glory. Since he had mortgaged his plantation and slaves to finance the European trip, he and Catherine were in need of funds. In 1834, his friends ensured he was appointed to a judgeship in Jefferson County. Achille embarked on a couple of wildcat business ventures. These ended poorly. In 1835, the Murats moved to Louisiana. On the basis of charm and credit, Achille purchased a house on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans, where he practiced law. In 1837, he bought a sugar plantation near Baton Rouge. The Great Panic of that year – which ushered in a five-year economic depression – coupled with his poor business judgement, ruined him. In 1838, Achille lost his Louisiana properties and the following year he lost Lipona. He and Catherine moved to a smaller plantation they named Econchatti, in what is now Jefferson County, Florida.

The death of Caroline Bonaparte Murat on May 8, 1839, occasioned another trip to Europe. Achille and his mother had not been close – they had not bothered to see each other during his earlier trip. However, Achille hoped to inherit something. On August 1, 1839, Achille set out from New York. Fellow passenger Vincent Nolte recounts:

Murat was a good-natured, jovial fellow, who had forgotten all about his princely youth and gave promise of being enormously fat. (10)

Achille received $15,000 from his mother’s estate. This was not enough to satisfy his demands. In 1840, he and his brother Lucien visited Joseph Bonaparte’s lawyer, Joseph Hopkinson, claiming that their uncle owed them a share of the six million francs (plus interest) Napoleon had given to Joseph in 1815, as well as other family funds. They threatened to file a lawsuit, but said they preferred to settle the claim privately to avoid scandal. Hopkinson wrote to Joseph (who was in England) that he was convinced the claim had no foundation in law.

After this, Achille apparently gave himself up to drink and sloth. Prince Achille Murat died on April 15, 1847 at the age of 46. When Louis-Napoleon became the French Emperor, he gave Catherine Murat all of the claims Achille had tried in vain to recover, including the title of princess. She lived comfortably on these French funds and died on August 6, 1867. Catherine and Achille Murat are buried beside each other in the old Episcopal cemetery in Tallahassee.

You might also enjoy:

Joseph Bonaparte, From King of Spain to New Jersey

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American sister-in-law

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American nephew

  1. Joseph Turquan, The Sisters of Napoleon, translated and edited by W.R.H. Trowbridge (London, 1908), p. 228.
  2. Théodore Iung, Lucien Bonaparte et Ses Mémoires, 1775-1840, Vol. 3 (Paris, 1883), p. 394.
  3. Transcription of letter from Achille Murat to Count Thibaudeau, December 12, 1824, in the Achille Murat Letters, University of Florida Digital Collections, Accessed May 20, 2016.
  4. Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1829), pp. 63-64.
  5. Alfred Jackson Hanna, A Prince in their Midst: The Adventurous Life of Achille Murat on the American Frontier (Norman, OK, 1946), p. 90.
  6. Ellen Call Long, “Princess Achille Murat: A Biographical Sketch,” Publications of the Florida Historical Society, Vol. 2, No. 2 (July 1909), pp. 29-30.
  7. A Prince in their Midst, p. 153.
  8. Georges Weill, “Les Lettres d’Achille Murat,” Revue Historique, Vol. 92, No. 1 (1906), p. 75.
  9. Peter Hicks, “Joseph Bonaparte and the ‘Réunion de famille’ of 1832-33,”  La Revue,2/2010 (No. 8), p. 39.
  10. Vincent Nolte, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres; or, Reminiscences of a Merchant’s Life (London, 1854), p. 436.

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

Napoleon’s only legitimate child, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, Napoleon II or the Duke of Reichstadt, was born at the Tuileries Palace in Paris on March 20, 1811. You can read my post about his life here. His birth was a touch-and-go affair. The attending doctor, Antoine Dubois, feared that either Napoleon’s wife Marie Louise, or the baby, might die. Here’s how Napoleon described the King of Rome’s birth when he was in exile on St. Helena.

Napoleon on his son’s birth

Birth of Napoleon II, King of Rome. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Birth of Napoleon II, King of Rome. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

I gave Dubois a hundred thousand francs for his services as accoucheur at the birth of my son. It was on Corvisart’s recommendation that I employed him. I had better have taken the first accoucheur that came to hand. The day the child was born the Empress had walked some time with me. Her pains were coming on, but they did not think the birth would take place for four hours. I took my bath. While I was in it, Dubois rushed to me in great excitement, pale as death. I cried out, ‘Is she dead?’ – for as I have been long accustomed to hear of startling events, they do not take great effect on me when first announced to me. It is afterwards. Whatever might be told me I should feel nothing at first. An hour later I should feel the blow. Dubois assured me no – but that the child was not coming to the birth in the usual way. That was very unfortunate. It is a thing that does not happen once in two thousand cases.

I rushed at once to the Empress. She had to be moved onto another bed that they might use instruments. Madame de Montesquiou reassured the Empress, telling her that the same thing had happened twice to herself, and encouraged her to let the doctors do what they thought necessary. She screamed horribly. I am not naturally soft-hearted, yet I was much moved when I saw how she suffered. Dubois hardly knew what to do, and wanted to wait for Corvisart. The Duchesse de Montebello acted like a fool.

When the King of Rome was born it was at least a minute before he gave a cry. When I came in he was lying on a coverlet as if dead. Madame de Montebello wanted to follow out all the rules of court etiquette on the occasion. Corvisart sent her off at once. At last, after much rubbing, the child came to himself. He was only a little scratched about the head. The Empress had thought herself lost. She had persuaded herself that her life was to be sacrificed to save that of the child. But I had given orders quite to the contrary.

The chronicler of this recollection, Baron Gaspard Gourgaud, adds in a footnote:

Marie Louise, when her son was born, was convinced she was to be sacrificed to save her child. She cried: ‘I am the Empress; they do not care for me, but they want above all things to preserve the life of my son.’ The poor young girl was greatly to be pitied, separated as she was from all her family, and she thought herself lost. The emperor wanted to have the Grand Duke of Wurtzburg (a Bavarian Prince) admitted into her chamber to encourage her. She held the hands of her husband all the time. (1)

A very laborious birth

Birth of the King of Rome, precious fruit of an august union. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Birth of the King of Rome, precious fruit of an august union. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Napoleon’s private secretary, Baron Claude François de Méneval, provides a more detailed account of the King of Rome’s birth.

At last arrived the moment when the Empress was to be delivered, a moment waited for with such keen impatience by Napoleon, impatience shared, it may be said in all truth, by the whole of France…. The birth of a prince was to be saluted with one hundred and one cannon-shots, only twenty-one were to be fired if the child were a princess. One can hardly imagine with what anxiety the first cannon-shots were counted. Deep silence prevailed until the twenty-first. But when the twenty-second boomed forth an explosion of applause and of cheering burst out which was re-echoed simultaneously from every corner of Paris. The public enthusiasm was general, and no contemporary will deny this. The bearing of the child, however, on whom such great hopes were fixed, was to be a very laborious one.…

The first pains had been felt on the evening before – March 19th, 1811. They were endurable until daybreak, when they ceased altogether, and Marie Louise was able to get to sleep. Napoleon had spent the first part of the night by her bedside; then, seeing that she had gone to sleep, he went up to his rooms and took a bath. The members of the Imperial family, the grand dignitaries, the principal officers and ladies of the Court had been summoned to the place as soon as the first pains had been felt. But, towards five o’clock in the morning, the accoucheur, M. Dubois, being of opinion that the birth could not take place for another twenty-four hours, everybody had been sent away by the Emperor….

An hour after Napoleon had returned to his apartment, the Empress woke up in such pain that a speedy delivery was expected. Doctor Dubois, however, saw that the birth would be a very difficult one, and that this was one of the least frequent and most dangerous cases. The Emperor was in a state of perfect serenity when M. Dubois suddenly opened the door and, in a great state of dismay, announced that the first stages of the accouchement were giving him the greatest anxiety. Without waiting to listen to the explanations which the doctor began to give, Napoleon cried out, from the bottom of his heart: ‘Above all save the mother.’ Then springing from his bath he hastily wrapped himself in a dressing-gown and ran downstairs to the Empress’s room, followed by Dubois. He approached the bed and hiding his anxiety embraced her tenderly, and encouraged her with words of comfort….

[Dubois] had asked that some leading physicians should be called in for a consultation. The Emperor had refused, telling the doctor that he had chosen him because he trusted him, and that the Empress was to be treated just as if she were the wife of any ordinary man. Dubois commenced the painful operation with the skill and the sang-froid which he happily possessed. The labour did not proceed, the child presented itself legs foremost. The pains of the Empress increased in intensity. She was struck with terror, and cried out that they meant to sacrifice her. Dubois saw himself forced to use the forceps to free the child’s head.

Napoleon, a prey to silent agitation, watched this painful scene, encouraging all present by his brave attitude. At last, after many efforts, and in the midst of so much anguish, the so-impatiently-desired child came to light. It was a son, pale, motionless, and to all appearances lifeless. In spite of all the measures taken in such cases, the child remained seven minutes without giving any signs of life. The Emperor standing in front of him was following in silence and with an air of profound attention, every movement of the accoucheur, when at last he saw the child’s breast rise, the mouth open and a breath exhaled. He feared lest it might be the first and last, but a cry escaping from the child’s lungs tells him that his son has taken possession of life. All anxiety then ceases. In the effusion of his joy Napoleon bent over the child, seized it in his arms, with a spontaneous movement, carried it to the door of the drawing-room in which all the grandees of his Empire were assembled and presenting it to them said: ‘Here is the King of Rome.’ He then returned and placed the child back in M. Dubois’s hands saying: ‘I give you back your child.’ …

The Emperor, after he had recognized the congratulations of those present, insisted on going in person to announce the news of the birth of his son to the whole household. He was still under the influence of the painful sight of the Empress’s delivery, and said that he would have preferred being present at a battle. The news of this happy event had spread over Paris as by magic. When the big bell of Notre Dame, and the cannon made it public, a large crowd had already assembled in the garden under the windows of the palace. To restrain the crowd, and to prevent it from disturbing the repose of the august patient, a cord had been stretched along the whole length of this terrace…from the railing at the Pont Royal to the Pavillon de l’Horloge. This feeble barrier impressed the crowd more than a wall would have done. The spectators, whose number increased every minute, even kept themselves at a respectful distance from the cord. General silence, a proof of popular sympathy and interest, was observed. From the interior of his apartments, Napoleon contemplated with visible emotion this sight, so pleasant for him…. On the same evening the new-born child was baptized in the Tuileries chapel by the Cardinal Grand Almoner, with all the ceremonies in use at the old court of France. (2)

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Napoleon’s children, Part 1 (about Napoleon’s stepchildren, Eugène and Hortense de Beauharnais)

Napoleon’s children, Part 2 (about Napoleon’s illegitimate children, Charles Léon Denuelle and Alexandre Colonna Walewski)

The marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

The Palace of the King of Rome

  1. Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, translated by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1904), pp. 152-153.
  2. Claude François de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I From 1802 to 1815, Vol. 2, (New York, 1894), pp. 382-386.

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

Empress Josephine in coronation costume by François Gérard, 1807-08

Empress Josephine in coronation costume by François Gérard, 1807-08

Napoleon Bonaparte had two wives: Josephine (Rose de Beauharnais) and Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. What did they think of each other?

Josephine’s view of Marie Louise

Josephine was born in Martinique on June 23, 1763 as Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie. Her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Josephine married Napoleon on March 9, 1796, when she was 32 and he was 26. Though Josephine already had two children (Eugène and Hortense) from her first marriage, she was unable to produce an heir for Napoleon, a matter that troubled him once he became Emperor of France. On December 16, 1809, Napoleon had the marriage dissolved, much to Josephine’s regret.

Napoleon had already been casting about the royal houses of Europe for a new, fertile wife. He settled on Marie Louise, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I of Austria, head of the House of Habsburg. They were married in Vienna on March 11, 1810. Napoleon – who had never seen Marie Louise – was in Paris at the time, so the bride’s uncle, Archduke Charles, stood in as Napoleon’s proxy.

Marie Louise was conducted in triumph to France, where civil and religious marriage ceremonies were held on April 1 and 2. Since Josephine’s home at Malmaison was very near Paris, Napoleon gave his ex-wife the Château de Navarre near Évreux, some 50 miles away, with the understanding she would stay there and avoid the marriage celebrations.

Napoleon continued to write to Josephine occasionally, addressing her as “my love.” In September 1810, he advised her that the new Empress was pregnant. It was suggested to Josephine that she leave Paris during Marie Louise’s confinement. Josephine was thus at Navarre on March 20, 1811, when the ringing of bells and booming of cannons announced the birth of Napoleon’s and Marie Louise’s son, the King of Rome. She wrote to Napoleon:

Amid the numerous felicitations you receive from every corner of Europe…can the feeble voice of a woman reach your ear, and will you deign to listen to her who so often consoled your sorrows and sweetened your pains, now that she speaks to you only of that happiness in which all your wishes are fulfilled! … I can conceive every emotion you must experience, as you divine all that I feel at this moment; and though separated, we are united by that sympathy which survives all events.

I should have desired to learn of the birth of the King of Rome from yourself, and not from the sound of the cannon of Evreux, or the courier of the prefect. I know, however, that in preference to all, your first attentions are due to the public authorities of the State, to the foreign ministers, to your family, and especially to the fortunate Princess who has realized your dearest hopes. She cannot be more tenderly devoted to you than I; but she has been enabled to contribute more toward your happiness by securing that of France. She has then a right to your first feelings, to all your cares; and I, who was but your companion in times of difficulty – I cannot ask more than a place in your affection far removed from that occupied by the Empress Maria Louisa. Not till you shall have ceased to watch by her bed, not till you are weary of embracing your son, will you take the pen to converse with your best friend – I will wait. (1)

Josephine also wrote to Marie Louise from Navarre.

While you were only the second spouse of the Emperor, I deemed it becoming to maintain silence toward your Majesty. That reserve, I think, may be laid aside, now that you are become the mother of an heir to the Empire. You might have had some difficulty in crediting the sincerity of her whom perhaps you regarded as a rival; you will give faith to the felicitations of a Frenchwoman, for you have bestowed a son upon France. Your amiableness and sweetness of disposition have gained you the heart of the Emperor – your benevolence merits the blessings of the unfortunate – the birth of a son claims the benedictions of all France. (2)

Marie Louise’s view of Josephine

Empress Marie Louise by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Empress Marie Louise by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

While Josephine was willing to cultivate cordial relations with Marie Louise, the latter was not about to reciprocate. Marie Louise (b. December 12, 1791) was only 18 when she married Napoleon (he was then 40), and she was jealous of her predecessor. Though Napoleon hoped he could introduce his two wives, it was not to be.

‘I wished one day to take [Marie Louise] to Malmaison,’ said the Emperor, ‘but she burst into tears when I made the proposal. She said she did not object to my visiting Josephine, only she did not wish to know it. But whenever she suspected my intention of going to Malmaison, there was no stratagem which she did not employ for the sake of annoying me. She never left me; and as these visits seemed to vex her exceedingly, I did violence to my own feelings and scarcely ever went to Malmaison. Still, however, when I did happen to go, I was sure to encounter a flood of tears and a multitude of contrivances of every kind.’ (3)

Marie Louise’s anxiety made it hard for Napoleon to accede to Josephine’s wish to see his son. The meeting took place in secret, at the Château de Bagatelle, a small royal palace in the Bois de Boulogne near Paris. Madame de Montesquiou, the King of Rome’s governess, brought the young prince.

This was unknown to Empress Marie Louise, who was animated by a feeling of jealousy based on fear of the influence that a woman he had greatly loved could have on the mind of her husband. The excellent princess [Josephine] could not restrain her tears at the sight of a child who reminded her of painful memories and the deprivation of a happiness Heaven had refused her; she kissed him with emotion; she seemed to revel in the illusion produced by the thought that she lavished her caresses on her own child; she never ceased to admire his strength and his grace, and could not detach herself from him. The times during which she held him on her lap seemed to her very short. (4)

Josephine died on May 29, 1814, at the age of 50, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba. Marie Louise outlived both Napoleon, who died in 1821, and their son, who died in 1832. She died on December 17, 1847, at the age of 56.

You might also enjoy:

The marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Adam Albert von Neipperg, Lover of Napoleon’s wife

Francis I of Austria: Napoleon’s father-in-law

When Princess Caroline met Empress Marie Louise

When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon

What were Napoleon’s last words?

  1. John S.C. Abbott, Confidential Correspondence of the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine (New York, 1856), pp. 306-307.
  2. Ibid., pp. 309-310.
  3. Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memoriale de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. II, Part 3 (London, 1823), pp. 303-304.
  4. Claude-François de Méneval, Napoléon et Marie-Louise: Souvenirs Historiques de M. Le Baron Méneval (Paris, 1843), Vol. I, p. 323.

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on his deathbed, engraved by Franz Xavier Stöber

Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on his deathbed, engraved by Franz Xavier Stöber

Did you know that a tomb originally intended for Napoleon’s son is sitting in a Canadian cemetery? Napoleon’s son, otherwise known as Napoleon II, the King of Rome or Duke of Reichstadt, died of tuberculosis in Vienna on July 22, 1832, at the age of 21 (see my article about his death). Since his mother, Marie Louise, was the Duchess of Parma, a burial monument for the young man was constructed in Italy. When the Duke of Reichstadt was interred in the Habsburg family crypt at the Capuchin Church in Vienna, the Italian monument was left unused.

Over 20 years later, William Venner, a prosperous merchant from the city of Quebec, came across the magnificently sculpted monument on a business trip to Europe. Venner had been born in Quebec on September 12, 1813. His father, also named William Venner (1785-1872), was a native of Devonshire who served on garrison duty in Lower Canada with Britain’s 10th Royal Veteran Battalion during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812, William Venner senior married Ursule Boutin, from Saint-Gervais, at the Anglican cathedral in Quebec City. After William junior, Ursule gave birth to seven more boys and then a girl. William senior converted to Catholicism in 1825. Ten years later, William Venner junior married Mary LeVallée, with whom he had 14 children. Venner became a Catholic in 1842. (1)

Venner thought the tomb for Napoleon’s son would make a lovely mausoleum for his family. He bought it for a sum approaching $50,000 and had it transported to Canada in pieces. It arrived in Quebec City in 1858.

The Italian monument, in white Carrara marble, consisted of a sarcophagus topped with a statue of a grieving Greek goddess and a draped urn. Venner hired local architect and engineer Charles Bailliargé to design and build an even grander monument, incorporating the Italian tomb. Venner wanted it installed at the recently-opened Catholic cemetery of Saint-Charles, which had also been laid out by Bailliargé.

The Venner monument at Saint-Charles cemetery in Quebec City

The Venner monument at Saint-Charles cemetery in Quebec City

Built with Montreal stone, the monument resembles a small Corinthian temple. It is composed of six columns covered by three stacked pedestals decorated with carved laurel crowns, surmounted by the Italian urn. The whole thing rests on a thick, high pedestal decorated with bas-relief motifs. Bailliargé engaged skilled craftsmen to carve wooden models to guide the stone cutters. The Italian statue was placed in the centre of the temple. A crypt was constructed underneath, large enough to hold 30 lead coffins. A stone and iron fence was erected around the perimeter, precisely matching the fence Baillairgé was putting in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Québec. (2) The iron gate is ornamented with spirals and circles.

The Venner mausoleum was inaugurated in 1861, the year of Ursule’s death. It was the most sumptuous cemetery monument in Quebec at the time. An 1875 guidebook noted:

St. Charles Cemetery, on the Lorette road, is beautifully situated on the banks of the river St. Charles, near Scott’s bridge…. The great pines which adorn it impart to that cemetery a gloomy appearance which becomes very well the place and its object…. There are some fine and costly monuments to be seen in this cemetery, and the visitor shall not fail to notice that erected for the family of W. Venner, esquire. The statue is a splendid piece of sculpture. (3)

Sadly, the Mediterranean goddess succumbed to the Quebec winters. In the early 20th century, the original marble statue was replaced by a bronze Sacred Heart of Mary statue, made in France.

In 1876, William Venner married his second wife, Philomène Langevin (b. 1843). Venner died on October 27, 1890, at the age of 77. He and many other members of his family are buried in the crypt. One of Venner’s sons, also named William (1836-1905), was suspected of being involved in the assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868, though he was never accused of the crime. (4) One of Venner’s granddaughters, Irma LeVasseur (1878-1864), was the first female French Canadian doctor. The tomb remains the property of Venner’s descendants. If you would like to see it, the old part of Saint-Charles cemetery is at 1120, Saint-Vallier Ouest in Quebec City. There are more photos of the Venner monument on the Culture et Communications Québec website .

The tomb of Napoleon’s son in Les Invalides. Photo credit: Didier Grau,

The tomb of Napoleon’s son in Les Invalides. Photo credit: Didier Grau,

As for Napoleon’s son, his remains were transferred to Paris in 1940, a gift to France from Adolf Hitler. They rested for a while beside those of Napoleon in Les Invalides, before being moved to the lower church. The Duke of Reichstadt’s heart and intestines remained in Vienna, where they reside respectively in urns at the Habsburg Heart Crypt (Hofburg Palace) and the Ducal Crypt (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

The death of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt

The Palace of the King of Rome

Napoleon in French Canada

Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?

Canada and the Louisiana Purchase

Canada Day in 1867

  1. Pierre Prévost, “Tombeau royal pour un fils de Saint-Gervais,” Au fil des ans: Bulletin de la Société historique de Bellechasse, Vol. 21, No. 4, Automne 2009, p. 20.
  2. Christina Cameron, Charles Baillairgé: Architect and Engineer (Montreal and Kingston, 1989), p. 109.
  3. Jean Langelier, The Quebec and Lower St. Lawrence Tourist’s Guide (Quebec, 1875), p. 130.
  4. Jean-Marie Lebel, “Dans un cimetière de Québec, le tombeau de l’Aiglon,” Cap-aux-Diamants: La revue d’histoire du Québec, No. 81, 2005, p. 43.

Napoleon’s Children, Part 2

Napoleon's illegitimate son, Charles Léon Denuelle

Napoleon’s illegitimate son, Charles Léon Denuelle

In addition to his legitimate son (Napoleon II, who appears in Napoleon in America), Napoleon had two stepchildren and at least two illegitimate children: the wastrel Charles Léon Denuelle and the accomplished Alexandre Colonna Walewski.

Charles Léon Denuelle

Though Napoleon claimed he had only seven mistresses, he probably had at least 21. One of these was Eléonore Denuelle de La Plaigne. Napoleon met her in 1805, when she was a beautiful eighteen-year old in the employ of Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Bonaparte Murat (Eléonore was also the mistress of Caroline’s husband Joachim). In April 1806 Eléonore obtained a divorce from her husband, who was in prison for forgery. Napoleon set her up in a house on Rue de la Victoire in Paris. On December 13, 1806, she gave birth to Napoleon’s first child, a boy. Napoleon was delighted, as this proved he was not responsible for his wife Josephine’s infertility. When Eléonore asked for permission to name the boy Napoleon, he agreed to half the name. So the baby was christened Léon, and the birth certificate read:

Son of Demoiselle Eléonore Denuel, aged twenty years, of independent means; father absent. (1)

Eléonore’s liaison with Napoleon ended shortly after Léon’s birth. In 1808 Napoleon arranged for her to marry an infantry lieutenant. He was killed during the Russian campaign in 1812. In 1814, she married Charles de Luxbourg, a Bavarian diplomat.

Meanwhile, young Léon was taken from his mother’s care and entrusted to a series of nurses, paid for by Napoleon. Léon was brought up under the last name of Mâcon, a recently deceased general of whom Napoleon thought highly. According to Napoleon’s valet Constant,

the Emperor tenderly loved [his] son. I often fetched him to him; he would caress and give him a hundred delicacies, and was much amused with his vivacity and his repartees, which were very witty for his age. (2)

Once the King of Rome was born, Léon received much less attention, though Napoleon continued to provide for the boy and remained fond of him. In March 1812, the Baron des Mauvières – the father-in-law of Napoleon’s private secretary, Baron de Méneval – was appointed Léon’s guardian. This provided a discreet way for Napoleon to manage the funds he was settling on the boy. In June 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and subsequent abdication, eight-year-old Léon (with Méneval) joined Napoleon at Malmaison before the latter’s departure for Rochefort and exile to St. Helena.

Léon attended a succession of Parisian boarding schools, with the expectation that he might have a legal career. In his instructions to the executors of his will, Napoleon wrote, “I should not be sorry were little Léon to enter the magistracy, if that is to his liking.” (3) Napoleon also bequeathed 300,000 francs to Léon, for purchase of an estate. This legacy did not immediately happen, as the amount was to be taken from money Napoleon claimed was due to him from the “gratitude and sense of honour” of Eugène de Beauharnais and Marie Louise. Neither of them came up with the funds, despite a lawsuit by Napoleon’s executor Charles de Montholon.

In 1821, Méneval assumed Léon’s guardianship. This soon became a headache for him, as it had been for his father-in-law, not least because Léon’s taste for luxury and pleasure far exceeded his pocket money of 12,000 francs a year. Méneval hired a tutor, whom Léon disliked. In January 1823, Léon escaped from his tutor while at the theatre and fled to Mannheim, in Baden, where Eléonore and her husband were living. By 1826, Léon was back in Paris and living on his own.

Contemporaries commented on how much Léon looked like Napoleon. According to a British observer, Léon was

tall, five feet six at least, an upright, handsome figure of a man … His origin was stamped upon his face, he was physically the living portrait of the great captain. (4)

Léon told his uncle Joseph Bonaparte that he possessed

a trifling popularity which I owe to a glorious resemblance. (5)

With his imperial visage, his large income, and his taste for pleasure, Léon cut a conspicuous figure.

He was the prey of parasites and gamblers, an intrepid plunger himself, though sometimes a bad player. (6)

In February 1832, after losing 16,000 francs in a card game and failing to pay up, Léon fought a duel in the Bois de Vincennes against Charles Hesse, a Prussian-born British officer. Though Hesse fired first, Léon’s shot struck Hesse in the chest and killed him. Léon was charged with deliberate manslaughter. A jury acquitted him.

This experience did not deter Léon from gambling. After a brief, undistinguished stint in the National Guard, by 1838 he had wound up (twice) in the debtors’ prison of Clichy. A police report of January 1840 described his living arrangements.

The Comte Léon lives at the Hôtel de Bruxelles, Rue du Mail. He has for mistress a woman of vicious life, living and cohabiting with a married man named Lesieur, a clerk at the War Office, who has deserted his lawful wife for this concubine, who treats him in the most indecent fashion. This self-styled Mme Lesieur follows the practice of magnetism, the proceeds of which business is devoured, as likewise Lesieur’s allowance, by the Comte Léon. … All the tenants of the house are indignant at the scandalous behaviour of the Comte Léon and the woman. (7)

Around this time Léon resolved to visit his uncle Joseph to ask him for money. Méneval warned Joseph:

Léon is going to London, and asks me to give him a letter for you. … He has known reverses of fortune, the details of which I only know imperfectly; if you deign to hear what he has to say, he will tell you the facts himself. They have been caused by the independent attitude he has chosen to assume towards the advice of those who wish him well, and from his own inexperience. He appears to have many schemes in hand and to overestimate his resources, as also the value of a supposed protection exercised on his behalf by the late Archbishop of Paris with Cardinal Fesch. He is a man of enterprising temper, whom prudence and a spirit of rectitude do not always govern. (8)

Joseph decided not to receive Léon based, among other things, on a rumour that Léon was a spy in the pay of King Louis Philippe’s government. Léon’s cousin, Louis Napoleon (son of Napoleon’s brother Louis) also refused to see him. Léon provoked Louis Napoleon into fighting a duel on Wimbledon Common, which was called off only when the police arrived. Léon returned to France, where he survived by begging, borrowing and pursuing lawsuits, including two against his mother.

Something of Léon’s way of life can be gleaned from a February 1848 letter he wrote to General Gourgaud, who had briefly been with Napoleon on St. Helena:

M. Caillieux has insisted on my paying or leaving his house immediately; I was forced to quit my lodgings a few minutes after, with the only garment I had to my back. He has ruthlessly detained my trunk, in which I had packed all my worldly goods, and my papers, as well as a picture of value representing the Emperor at Waterloo. … I am sleeping for the time being in a miserable furnished room at 20 sous a day, where I am very uncomfortable. I am going to beg you, my dear General, to be so kind as to lend me a little money to buy a bed, and I will pay you back as soon as ever I can. I shall be very grateful to you for the loan. (9)

In 1849, Léon founded the Société Pacifique, the object of which was “to organize a series of productive works that may provide the French People with the means of living by the labour of their hands.” (10) He unsuccessfully petitioned the National Assembly for one million francs to support the scheme, which proposed such things as the installation of economical kitchens.

When Louis Napoleon became Napoleon III of France, he refused to see Léon. He did, however, in 1854 decree that the dispositions in Napoleon’s will should be carried out. Léon was given a yearly income of 10,000 francs. Among other things, Léon opened an ink manufactory. He also milked his half-brother Alexandre Walewski (see below) for funds.

On June 2, 1862, Léon, at the age of 55, married 31-year-old Françoise Fanny Jonet, the daughter of his former gardener. Four of their children lived past infancy: Charles (born Oct. 24, 1855), Gaston (June 1, 1857), Fernand (Nov. 26, 1861) and Charlotte (Jan. 17, 1867).

The family settled at Pontoise, northwest of Paris. Léon died there on April 14, 1881, at the age of 74, of stomach or bowel cancer. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in the local cemetery, marked with a black wooden cross. His remains were later dug up to make room for others. Léon Denuelle has living descendants.

Alexandre Colonna Walewski

Alexandre Walewski in 1832, school of George Hayter

Alexandre Walewski in 1832, school of George Hayter

Alexandre Florian Joseph Colonna Walewksi was born in Walewice, near Warsaw, on May 4, 1810 to Napoleon’s Polish mistress, Countess Marie Walewska. Marie became pregnant when she was living near Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, where Napoleon was temporarily residing. When Marie asked to go to Paris to have the baby, Napoleon told her to return to her husband and give birth in his house. Constant writes:

She was delivered of a son who bore a striking resemblance to His Majesty. This was a great joy for the Emperor. Hastening to her as soon as it was possible for him to get away from the château, he took the child in his arms, and embracing it as he had just embraced the mother, he said to him: ‘I will make thee a count.’ (12)

In 1810, Marie and the baby moved to Paris. Napoleon installed them in a house and provided for them, though he ended his affair with Marie in view of his impending marriage to Marie Louise.

In September 1814, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba, Marie (by now divorced) visited him there with then four-year old Alexandre. Napoleon played hide-and-seek with the boy and rolled around with him in the grass. Napoleon reportedly said to Alexandre, “I hear you don’t mention my name in your prayers.” Alexandre admitted he didn’t mention Napoleon, but he did remember to say “Papa Empereur.” Napoleon said to Marie, “He’ll be a great social success, this boy: he’s got wit.” (13)

Along with Méneval and Léon, Marie and Alexandre joined Napoleon for a final farewell at Malmaison in June 1815. In 1816, Marie married her lover, the Count d’Ornano. The following year, when Alexandre was seven, she died. The boy’s uncle ensured that he received a good education.

Shortly before his death in 1821, Napoleon wrote,

I wish Alexandre Walewski to be drawn to the service of France in the army. (14)

This proved prophetic, as when Alexandre was fourteen, he refused to join the Russian army (Poland was then under Russian rule). He instead fled to London, and then to Paris. When Louis-Philippe ascended the French throne in 1830, he sent Alexandre to Poland. The leaders of the 1830-31 Polish uprising dispatched Alexandre to London as their envoy. According to Charles Greville, Alexandre

was wonderfully handsome and agreeable, and soon became popular in London society. (15)

On December 1, 1831, Alexandre married Lady Catherine Montagu, the daughter of the 6th Earl of Sandwich. They had two children: Louise-Marie (born Dec. 14, 1832) and Georges-Edouard (Mar. 7, 1834), both of whom died in infancy. Catherine died shortly after her son’s birth, in April 1834.

Back in France, Alexandre became a naturalized French citizen and joined the French army. He fought in Algeria as a captain in the French Foreign Legion, resigning his commission in 1837 to become a journalist, playwright and diplomat. On November 3, 1840, Alexandre had a son, Alexandre-Antoine, with French actress Elisabeth Rachel Félix, who also had a son with Arthur Bertrand.

On June 4, 1846, Alexandre married Maria Anna di Ricci, the daughter of an Italian count. They had four children: Isabel (b. May 12, 1847, died in infancy), Charles (June 4, 1848), Elise (Dec. 15, 1849) and Eugénie (Mar. 30, 1856).

After his cousin Louis Napoleon came to power, Alexandre served as a French diplomat in Italy, and then as French ambassador to London. He arranged for Napoleon III to visit London in 1855, and for Queen Victoria to make a return visit to France.

In 1855, Alexandre became France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and, in 1860, the French Minister of State. He also served as a senator and, later, as president of the Corps Législatif. In 1866, he was named a Duke of the Empire. Alexandre Walewski died of a stroke or a heart attack at Strasbourg on September 27, 1868, at the age of 58. He is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Alexandre has numerous living descendants. You can read more about Alexandre and his family on the Colonna Walewksi family website.

Napoleon’s other illegitimate children?

According to Constant,

This child [Léon] and that of the beautiful Pole [Alexandre]…are with the King of Rome, the only children the Emperor had. He never had any daughters, and I think he would not have liked to have any. (16)

This has not stopped speculation that Napoleon had other illegitimate children. Émilie de Pallapra claimed that she was Napoleon’s daughter, resulting from a brief liaison in Lyon between her mother Françoise Marie de Pellapra and the Emperor. However, the alleged timing of their tryst is incompatible with Émilie’s birth date in November 1805.

As noted in my post about Charles de Montholon, Napoleon was probably the father of Albine de Montholon’s daughter Joséphine Napoléone, born on St. Helena on January 26, 1818. Little Joséphine died in Brussels on September 30, 1819.

For more fanciful speculation about Napoleon’s illegitimate children, see Chapter 13 of The Bonapartes in America, by Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Children, Part 1 (about Napoleon’s stepchildren, Eugène and Hortense de Beauharnais)

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

  1. Joseph Turquan, The Love Affairs of Napoleon (New York, 1909), p. 249.
  2. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin, Vol. II (New York, 1907), pp. 157-158.
  3. Hector Fleischmann, An Unknown Son of Napoleon (New York, 1914), p. 88.
  4. Ibid., pp. 156-157.
  5. Ibid., p. 157.
  6. Ibid., p. 158.
  7. Ibid., p. 178.
  8. Ibid., pp. 182-183.
  9. Ibid., pp. 212-213.
  10. Ibid., p. 216.
  11. The Love Affairs of Napoleon, p. 249.
  12. Memoirs of Constant, Vol. II, p. 183.
  13. Christopher Hibbert, Napoleon: His Wives and Women (London, 2002), p. 222.
  14. An Unknown Son of Napoleon, p. 88.
  15. Charles C.F. Greville, The Greville Memoirs, Vol. II (London, 1874), p. 104.
  16. Memoirs of Constant, Vol. II, p. 158.

Napoleon’s Children, Part 1

Eugène de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani, 1809

Eugène de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani, 1809

In addition to his legitimate son (Napoleon II, who appears in Napoleon in America), Napoleon had two stepchildren and at least two illegitimate children. Who were they and what happened to them? In the first of a two-part post about Napoleon’s children, I focus on his stepchildren: Eugène and Hortense de Beauharnais.

Napoleon’s stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais

When Napoleon married Josephine in 1796, she already had two children: Eugène, born on September 3, 1781; and Hortense, born on April 10, 1783. Their father, Alexandre de Beauharnais, was executed in 1794 during France’s Reign of Terror.

Napoleon described his first meeting with Eugène as follows:

A boy of twelve or thirteen years old presented himself to me and entreated that his father’s sword [confiscated when the citizens of Paris were disarmed following the riots of 13 Vendémiare (Oct. 5, 1795)]…should be returned. I was so touched by this affectionate request, that I ordered it to be given to him. This boy was Eugene Beauharnois [sic]. On seeing the sword, he burst into tears. I felt so much affected by his conduct, that I noticed and praised him much. A few days afterwards, his mother came to return me a visit of thanks. I was much struck with her appearance, and still more with her esprit. This first impression was daily strengthened, and marriage was not long in following. (1)

Like his father and his stepfather, Eugène became a soldier. He served as an aide-de-camp to Napoleon during the Italian campaign and in Egypt, where he was in the uncomfortable position of having to witness Napoleon’s affair with Pauline Fourès. In 1802 Eugène was promoted to general, and, in 1804, he became a Prince of the Empire. In 1805, when Napoleon was crowned King of Italy, he appointed Eugène as his viceroy. Though Napoleon was genuinely fond of Eugène and considered him the most capable and reliable member of his family, he did not spare him from the micromanagement to which he subjected all of his appointees. Something of the flavour of their relationship can be gleaned from this exchange in August 1805.

Napoleon wrote to Eugène from Boulogne:

I cannot find words to tell you how displeased I am at your behaviour in expressing an opinion concerning my conduct; this is the third time in the space of one month. You had no right to mangle my laws concerning the finances of Italy (they bore my signature) and to make others. … What is the good of my writing you advice if you have already made up your mind to act before you get my reply? If you value my esteem and my affection you must never, under no pretext whatever (no! not even if the moon threatens to fall upon Milan), do anything which lies outside your province…. Do not be afraid that this little incident will prevent me doing justice to your fine qualities; I want to keep my good opinion of you….

Eugène replied:

Your Majesty’s birthday was kept yesterday throughout your kingdom. I was delighted to see the genuine enthusiasm displayed by the Milanese. … However, I could not forget that Your Majesty was displeased with me; and I was certainly, although I entered heart and soul into their rejoicings, the saddest of all those who kept the fête of Saint Napoleon.

Napoleon added to his next communication with Eugène:

PS – I am convinced that you are genuinely fond of me; rest assured that I love you. (2)

Searching for a suitable wife for Eugène, Napoleon settled on Princess Augusta Amelia of Bavaria, who was already engaged to Crown Prince Charles of Baden. To persuade Augusta’s father of the wisdom of breaking that engagement, Napoleon made Bavaria a kingdom. He also offered Eugène’s second cousin Stéphanie de Beauharnais as a wife for Charles of Baden. To sweeten the deal for the latter, Napoleon officially adopted Stéphanie on March 3, 1806, named her a French princess, and provided her with a rich dowry and trousseau.

On January 12, 1806, Napoleon officially adopted Eugène de Beauharnais. Eugène renounced any rights to inherit the crown of France, but was added to the line of succession to the Italian throne. Two days later, Eugène and Augusta were married. They had a happy marriage and produced seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. Eugène’s children married into the royal families of Portugal, Sweden, Brazil and Russia.

Eugène, along with Hortense, more than once played the role of intermediary between Napoleon and Josephine, helping to keep that marriage together until December of 1809. When compelled to announce to the French Senate that his parents had finally separated, Eugène said:

My mother, my sister and myself owe everything to the Emperor. To us he has been a true father. In us shall he at all times find devoted children, submissive subjects. (3)

Eugène administered Italy well and distinguished himself commanding the Italian forces during the 1809 campaign. He also served admirably during the retreat from Moscow, when he had to replace Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat as overall commander. Despite entreaties from his father-in-law to join the coalition against France, Eugène remained faithful to Napoleon and fought to keep the Austrians out of Italy in 1813-1814.

After Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, Eugène renounced all political activity. He moved to Bavaria to join his wife’s family. Keeping a promise to his father-in-law, he did not join Napoleon during the Hundred Days, something that Napoleon did not hold against him. He reportedly said,

Eugène has never caused me a moment’s sorrow. (4)

Eugène became the Duke of Leuchtenberg and the Prince of Eichstädt. He lived as a Bavarian prince, managing his fortune and his estates. He died on February 21, 1824 in Munich, at the age of 42, from a series of brain hemorrhages. He is buried in St. Michael’s Church, Munich.

Napoleon’s stepdaughter, Hortense de Beauharnais

Hortense de Beauharnais by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, 1808

Hortense de Beauharnais by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, 1808

Eugène’s sister Hortense was 13 when Josephine married Napoleon. Hortense was sent to Madame Campan’s school at St. Germain, near Paris, where Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte was also a student, as was Hortense’s cousin Stéphanie de Beauharnais and James Monroe’s daughter Eliza.

Describing how Hortense helped to reconcile Napoleon to an unfaithful Josephine on his return from Egypt in 1799, Laure Junot wrote,

Bonaparte was, at this period, much attached to Eugène Beauharnais, who, to do him justice, was a charming youth. He knew less of Hortense; but her youth and sweetness of temper, and the protection of which, as his adopted daughter, she besought him not to deprive her, proved powerful advocates and overcame his resistance. (5)

Napoleon and Josephine decided that Hortense should marry Napoleon’s brother Louis, even though the two didn’t particularly like each other. As discussed in my post about Louis, the marriage, which took place on January 4, 1802, was miserable. Reflecting on it during his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon said:

There were faults on both sides. On the one hand, Louis was too teasing in his temper, and, on the other, Hortense was too volatile. … Hortense, the virtuous, the generous, the devoted Hortense, was not entirely faultless in her conduct towards her husband. This I must acknowledge in spite of all the affection I bore her, and the sincere attachment which I am sure she entertained for me. Though Louis’s whimsical humours were in all probability sufficiently teasing, yet he loved Hortense; and in such a case a woman should learn to subdue her own temper, and endeavour to return her husband’s attachment. Had she acted in the way most conducive to her interest, she might have avoided her late lawsuit, secured happiness to herself and followed her husband to Holland. Louis would not then have fled from Amsterdam, and I should not have been compelled to unite his kingdom to mine—a measure which contributed to ruin my credit in Europe. Many other events might also have taken a different turn. (6)

Hortense and Louis had three children: Napoleon Charles (b. Oct. 10, 1802), Napoleon Louis (Oct. 11, 1804) and Louis Napoleon (the future Napoleon III, born April 20, 1808). When four-year-old Napoleon Charles died on May 5, 1807, Napoleon thought Hortense – who was by then Queen of Holland – was spending too much time grieving. He wrote to her on May 20:

My daughter – Every thing which reaches me from the Hague informs me that you are unreasonable. However legitimate may be your grief it should have its bounds. Do not impair your health. Seek consolation. Know that life is strewed with so many dangers, and may be the source of so many calamities, that death is by no means the greatest of evils. Your affectionate father. Napoleon. (7)

In a letter to Josephine on May 24, he added:

I see with pain that your grief is still unabated, and that Hortense has not yet arrived. She is unreasonable, and does not merit that one should love her, since she loves only her children. (8)

On June 2, he followed up with another letter to Hortense:

My daughter – You have not written me a word in your well-founded and great affliction. You have forgotten every thing, as if you had no other loss to endure. I am informed that you no longer love – that you are indifferent to every thing. I perceive it by your silence. This is not right, Hortense. It is not what you promised me. Your child was every thing to you! Your mother and I, are we nothing then? Had I been at Malmaison, I should have shared your anguish, but I should have also wished that you would restore yourself to your best friends. Adieu, my daughter! Be cheerful. We must learn resignation. Cherish your health, that you may be able to fulfill all your duties. My wife is very sad, in view of your condition. Do not add to her anguish. (9)

By 1810 Hortense and Louis were largely living apart. She began a relationship with Charles de Flahaut, who was rumoured to be Talleyrand’s illegitimate son. In September 1811, Hortense secretly gave birth to Flahaut’s son, Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, the future Duke of Morny, in Switzerland. Only Eugène, de Flahaut’s mother (who raised the child) and Hortense’s closest companions were aware of the pregnancy.

Like Eugène, Hortense remained part of the Imperial court even after her parents’ separation and Josephine’s death in 1814. After his final abdication in June 1815, Napoleon stayed at Malmaison with Hortense while he arranged for safe conduct to Rochefort. It was there that Hortense gave Napoleon the diamond necklace that Louis Marchand pulls out in Napoleon in America.

With the return of Louis XVIII to France, Hortense was compelled to go into exile. In 1817, she moved to the estate of Arenenberg in Switzerland,  where she devoted herself to the education of her sons and entertained in her Parisian-style salon. Hortense was a talented singer, pianist and composer. Here is a lovely video of soprano and pianist Paula Bär-Giese performing some of Hortense’s songs at Arenenberg.

Hortense died at Arenenburg on October 5, 1837, at the age of 54. She is buried next to her mother in the Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul church in Rueil-Malmaison.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Children, Part 2 (Napoleon’s illegitimate children)

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

  1. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile: or A Voice from St. Helena (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 116.
  2. Violette M. Montagu, Napoleon and his Adopted Son: Eugène de Beauharnais and His Relations with the Emperor (New York, 1914), pp. 124-126.
  3. Marie-Anne Adélaide Le Normand, Historical and Secret Memoirs of the Empress Josephine, translated by Jacob M. Howard, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1848), p. 309.
  4. Napoleon and his Adopted Son, p. 375.
  5. Laure Junot, Memoirs of the Duchess d’Abrantès (New York, 1832), p. 212.
  6. Emmanuel- Auguste-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. II (London, 1823), pp. 306-307.
  7. John S.C. Abbott, Confidential Correspondence of the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine, (New York, 1857), p. 168.
  8. Ibid., p. 168.
  9. Ibid., pp. 176-177.

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American nephew

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was the son of Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme and Baltimore socialite Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, the subject of last week’s post. As Napoleon had broken up his parents’ marriage before Jerome was even born, Napoleon never acknowledged the boy as a Bonaparte. Despite Betsy’s best efforts to raise her son as a European of rank and fortune, Jerome was not convinced that Europe was the place for him. He preferred life in the United States. Though Jerome ultimately married well, he lacked ambition and was content to be an American gentleman farmer.

Raising a potential prince

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte was born on July 7, 1805 in Camberwell, which was then a separate town south of London in the United Kingdom. His mother brought him to the United States a few months after his birth. Jerome spent his childhood under the care of Betsy and her father, the wealthy Baltimore merchant William Patterson. Betsy nicknamed Jerome “Bo.” She also called him “Cricket.” Though the Pattersons were Protestants, Betsy had Jerome baptized as a Catholic, hoping that the Bonapartes might one day acknowledge him in the imperial line of succession.

Betsy believed that Jerome should receive an education suitable to a person of high status. He took his early schooling at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. When Jerome was 14, Betsy moved to Geneva and placed him in a school there. One gets a sense of the boy’s life from a letter Betsy wrote to her father in April 1820:

The French Chargé at Amsterdam refused me a passport for [Bo] to travel through France.… [H]e said his resemblance to the emperor was so striking that it would expose me to great inconvenience in that country….

[T]his child has more conversation and better manners, a more graceful presentation than other children of his age…and I am constantly tormented with the fear of seeing him spoiled by the compliments paid him in society. … He has grown taller and much better looking; he is thought very handsome, but I do not myself think him by any means a beauty, and regret that others tell him so, as it is a kind of praise which never made any one better or happier. …

Bo has written to you for money to buy a horse, which I beg you not to send him. He pretends it will be more economical for him to keep a horse than for me to pay nine francs per week for riding lessons; but I prefer paying twice that sum rather than allow him to ride about the country. …

Bo has lessons of every kind. His hours of recreation are filled by dancing, fencing and riding…. He speaks French very fluently, as he takes all his lessons in this language, the knowledge of which I always considered highly important in his circumstances. (1)

Meanwhile, Bo was keen to get back to the United States. He wrote to his grandfather: “Since I have been in Europe I have dined with princes and princesses and all the great people in Europe, but I have not found a dish as much to my taste as the roast beef and beef-steaks I ate in South Street” (at his grandfather’s house). In another letter he added,

I never had any idea of spending my life on the continent; on the contrary as soon as my education is finished, which will not take me more than two years longer, I shall hasten over to America, which I have regretted ever since I left it. (2)

Marriage hopes

Betsy pinned her hopes for Bo’s future on his education and a good marriage, and on the Bonaparte connection. After Napoleon’s death, it became her project to get him recognized by the Bonaparte family and to thereby secure some funds for him. To this end she took Jerome to Rome for the winter of 1821-22, where he charmed his grandmother, Letizia Bonaparte, and his aunt Pauline Borghese. In December 1821 Jerome wrote to his grandfather:

I have been received in the kindest manner possible by my grandmother, my uncles, and aunts, and cousins, and all my nearest and most distant relations, who are in Rome. We mean to stay here during the winter.… I have been so much occupied in looking for apartments for mamma, making tight bargains, and seeing my relations that I have not had time to see anything of Rome, except St. Peter’s celebrated church, which I have seen but superficially. (3)

While Jerome was in Rome, the Bonapartes conceived the idea of marrying him to Joseph Bonaparte’s youngest daughter Charlotte. Here is Betsy’s take on the proposition, from a letter to her father in January 1822:

As I plainly see, it is the only sure way of relieving myself of the expense he occasions me and I can ill afford. … I do, indeed, regret that there is no one of the whole [Bonaparte] connection rich enough to allow me twelve hundred dollars a year for Bo’s maintenance. … He has resumed his family name, which piece of vanity may give me some trouble about his passports. … I can only say I have spent my time and money on this boy. (4)

Jerome wrote to his grandfather at the same time:

My grandmother and my aunt and uncle talk of marrying me to my uncle’s, the Count of Survilliers’ daughter, who is in the United States. I hope it may take place, for then I would return immediately to America to pass the rest of my life among my relations and friends. Mamma is very anxious for the match. My father is also, and all of my father’s family, so that I hope you will also approve of it. (5)

Just as he does in Napoleon in America, Jerome arrived in April 1822 at Joseph Bonaparte’s estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, with instructions to charm Charlotte and her father. Though Joseph liked the boy, whom he had met once before, he preferred to marry Charlotte to a cousin formally recognized as a Bonaparte.

With a Bonaparte marriage off the cards, Betsy’s next plan for Bo’s advancement was to get him enrolled at Harvard. After eight months’ preparation under a tutor in Lancaster, Mass., Jerome was admitted to Harvard in February 1823. He requested and received an exemption from having to attend Protestant services in the college chapel.

I would appear very inconsistent, if, after having stayed away from their church for upwards of a year, I were to go there now; and as I have been brought up a Catholic, I would not wish to change my religion; and moreover, my grandmother and several of my father’s family being great devotees, they would think it a crime were I to enter a heretical church. (6)

Jerome was suspended for three months in 1824 for an incident involving drinking with members of his college club. He took advantage of the break in his studies to visit the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then visiting Boston.

Jerome graduated from Harvard in 1826 with a law degree. Encouraged by his mother, he went back to Italy for another visit with the Bonapartes. This time he finally got to meet his father, with whom he had been in correspondence. Jérôme senior was not keen on the visit, fearing it that it might be construed by the royal courts of Württemberg and Russia as an attempt to invalidate Jérôme’s marriage to Princess Catharina of Württemberg. Despite this, the visit went well. Bo wrote to his grandfather in December 1826: “From my father I have received the most cordial reception, and am treated with all possible kindness and affection.” (7) Still, he pined for home. A month later he wrote:

I have now been three months with my father: two in the country, and one month at Rome. He continues always very kind to me; but I see no prospect of his doing anything for me. … My father is very anxious for me to remain with him altogether, but I cannot think for a moment of settling myself out of America, to whose government, manners, and customs I am too much attached and accustomed, to find pleasure in those of Europe, which are so different from my early education. … [W]ith my father I am living in a style which I cannot afford, and to which, if I once became accustomed, I should find it very difficult to give up; moreover, I am now of an age in which I must think of doing something for myself, and America is the only country where I can have an opportunity of getting forward. (8)

In 1827 Jerome returned to the United States. In November 1829, to his grandfather’s satisfaction and his mother’s chagrin, he married a wealthy Baltimore girl, Susan May Williams (b. 1812). Her father was one of the founders of the first intercity railroad company in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Susan came with a $200,000 dowry. William Patterson gave the newlyweds Montrose Mansion.

Jerome’s father and the Bonaparte relatives congratulated Jerome on the marriage. Betsy reconciled herself to it:

I tried to give him the ideas suitable to his rank in life; having failed in that, there remains only to let him choose his own course. … When I first heard that my son could condescend to marry any one in Baltimore, I nearly went mad. Every one told me that it was quite impossible for me to make him like myself, and that, if he could endure the mode of life and the people in America, it was better to let him follow his own course than to break off a marriage where there was some money to be got, and leave him to marry a person of less fortune. I have no dislike to the woman he has married. … I must try and content myself by the reflection that I did all I could to disgust him with America. (9)

The American farmer

With his fortune now assured, Jerome devoted himself to the management of his large estate and the cultivation of his farm. An 1842 newspaper article noting Jerome’s chairmanship of a committee of a Maryland Agricultural Society (“to award premiums for the best show of horses”), dubbed him “the American farmer.” (10) He was, by all accounts, an amiable and polished man.

Jerome and Susan had two sons, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, born on November 5, 1830, and Charles Joseph Bonaparte, born on June 9, 1851.

During the reign of King Louis Philippe, Jerome and Susan were allowed to visit Paris, but only under the name of Patterson. This they did in 1839.

When Jerome’s cousin Louis Napoleon (the son of Louis Bonaparte) ascended the French throne as Napoleon III, he invited Jerome and his eldest son to visit France. They arrived in Paris in June 1854 and dined with the Emperor at the Palace of Saint Cloud. Napoleon III restored the right of Jerome and his descendants to use the Bonaparte name; however, they were denied any rights of affiliation and continued to be excluded from the line of succession. Recognizing Jerome as a true prince of the family would have made Jérôme senior’s children with Catharina of Württemberg illegitimate.

Napoleon III also invited Jerome’s son, Jerome Napoleon II, who had studied at the US Military Academy at West Point and served in Texas with the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, to join the French army. Jerome Napoleon II resigned from the US Army and proceeded to Crimea as a French lieutenant of dragoons. He also fought in Algeria, in Italy and in the Franco-Prussian War before returning to the United States. He was highly decorated for his services.

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte died of throat cancer on June 17, 1870, at the age of 64. One obituarist noted:

Efforts have been made to induce him to assert his claims to the family honors; but being of a modest and unambitious nature, he preferred to cultivate corn and cabbages to entering the arena of French politics. (11)

A later journalist observed:

Mr. Bonaparte was a gentleman of refined taste and culture. His late residence in Baltimore is probably the most interesting in the South, and in Napoleonic portraits, curiosities and relics, it is, perhaps, the most interesting in America. One room in the house is entirely devoted to Bonaparte. (12)

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore. His father had died in 1860, without making any provision for him in his will. His mother and his wife outlived him. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II married the granddaughter of Daniel Webster, had two children, and died in 1893. His younger brother Charles graduated from Harvard and served in President Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet as US Secretary of the Navy and, later, as US Attorney General. He helped create the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI. Charles died childless in 1921.

You might also enjoy:

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American sister-in-law

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

How Pauline Bonaparte lived for pleasure

Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte

  1. Eugène Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York, 1879), pp. 63-64.
  2. Ibid., p. 74.
  3. Ibid., p. 84.
  4. Ibid., pp. 87-88.
  5. Ibid., p. 87.
  6. Ibid., p. 117.
  7. Ibid., p. 195.
  8. Ibid., p. 198.
  9. Ibid., p. 221.
  10. The North American And Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), Nov. 2, 1842.
  11. Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), June 18, 1870, p. 2.
  12. “The Baltimore Bonapartes,” Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. X, No. 1 (May 1875), p. 8.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American sister-in-law

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart, 1804

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart, 1804

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte wrote in 1815 that “nature never intended me for obscurity.” (1) A belle of Baltimore, Elizabeth became an international celebrity when she married Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme. When Napoleon convinced Jérôme to abandon her, Betsy (as she was known) became America’s most famous single mother. A hustler with a high opinion of herself, Betsy had a brilliant social career and a very long life, though her letters do not leave the impression of a kind or a happy person. As an early biographer wrote,

This Baltimore girl, married at eighteen and deserted at twenty, seems to have possessed the savoir vivre of Chesterfield, the cold cynicism of Rochefoucauld, and the practical economy of Franklin. (2)

From Mademoiselle Patterson to Madame Bonaparte

Elizabeth Patterson was born on February 6, 1785, the eldest daughter of wealthy Baltimore merchant William Patterson and his wife Dorcas Spear, who ultimately had 13 children. In the fall of 1803 Betsy met Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme Bonaparte at the home of Samuel Chase, one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. Jérôme, a feckless 19-year-old lieutenant in the French navy, had left his warship in Martinique to visit the United States, though Napoleon had denied him permission to do so. Betsy was beautiful, witty and ambitious, and spoke fluent French. Jérôme was smitten. He proposed soon after they met. Elizabeth’s father gave his reluctant consent only when Elizabeth threatened to elope. She reportedly declared that she would “rather be the wife of Jérôme Bonaparte for an hour, than the wife of any other man for life.” (3) They were married on December 24, 1803 by John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States.

The couple were the toast of Baltimore society. Betsy courted publicity, not least through her fondness for wearing thin, low-cut gowns – then the fashion in France but considered revealing by American standards. An observer at her wedding reported: “all the clothes worn by the bride might have been put in my pocket.” (4) The couple toured Washington and the northeastern states, meeting “one continual round of hospitality and brilliant entertainment” in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Albany and elsewhere.

When Napoleon learned of the marriage he was furious. He had in mind a dynastic alliance for his brother, not a union with a commoner. He cut off Jérôme’s allowance and ordered him to return to France alone. Arguing that Jérôme was a minor who could not marry without the consent of his guardians, Napoleon prohibited recognition of the marriage in France and insisted that it be annulled. Thinking that if Napoleon could meet Betsy in person, he would change his mind, Jérôme and his now pregnant wife sailed for Europe in early 1805 (an attempt to leave in fall 1804 was thwarted when their ship was wrecked by a storm near Philadelphia). When they reached Lisbon, a French guard refused to allow Betsy to land. Napoleon had forbidden “Mademoiselle Patterson” to set foot on French soil. Betsy told Napoleon’s emissary,

Tell your master that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious, and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family. (5)

The couple agreed that Jérôme would go to Milan to try to placate Napoleon. Napoleon refused to see Jérôme. He wrote to him on May 6, 1805:

Your union with Mademoiselle Patterson is null, alike in the eyes of religion and of the law. Write Mademoiselle Patterson to return to America. I will grant her a pension of 60,000 francs during her lifetime, on condition that she will under no circumstances bear my name, – she has no right to do so owing to the non-existence of her marriage. You must give her to understand that you are powerless to change the nature of things. Your marriage being thus annulled by your own consent, I will restore to you my friendship and continue to feel for you as I have done since your infancy, hoping that you will prove yourself worthy by the efforts you make to acquire my gratitude and to distinguish yourself in my armies. (6)

Excluded from the ports of continental Europe, Betsy sailed to England to have the baby. She arrived at Dover on May 19, 1805. Prime Minister Pitt had to send a military escort to keep back the crowd. On July 7, Betsy gave birth to Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte at Camberwell, near London.

Napoleon threatened to remove Jérôme senior from the line of succession, to refuse to pay his large debts, and to ban him from France and all its territories. Lacking the backbone of his brother Lucien, of whose marriage Napoleon also disapproved, Jérôme caved. Though Jérôme sent Betsy letters saying he was as attached to her as ever, after leaving him at Lisbon Betsy never saw her husband again, except for a chance encounter in 1822. In 1807, Napoleon rewarded Jérôme by making him King of Westphalia and – the marriage to Betsy having been declared invalid in the French courts (Pope Pius VII refused to annul it) – married him off to Princess Catharina of Württemberg.

In search of rank and fortune

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the baby (whom she nicknamed “Bo”) returned to Baltimore, where Betsy continued to call herself Madame Bonaparte. Refusing to melt quietly into the background, she adopted French manners, was active in society, and made clear to others that she considered the United States inferior to Europe. Desiring financial and legal independence, she filed for divorce from Jérôme in the United States. This was granted by a special act of the Maryland legislature. The pension promised by Napoleon was paid to her until his first abdication in 1814.

After Napoleon’s final abdication in 1815, Betsy went to England and settled in Cheltenham, leaving Bo at school in Maryland. In addition to believing that there was an accumulation of bile on her liver, which required a change of climate, she considered England more congenial to her beauty and talents. Shortly after arriving she wrote to her father that she was happy to be in a country where she was “cherished, visited, respected and admired.”

I am in the first society in Europe, and that, too, for my personal merits; for, without vanity I may say so, since I have neither rank, fortune, nor friends of my own, willing to assist or protect me. I acknowledge that the standing I possess in this country is highly flattering, and that it is not surprising I should prefer people of rank and distinction who are willing to notice me. Their attentions are very gratuitous, for I am a very poor stranger, and a very unfortunate one on many accounts. (7)

Betsy also fancied that she might find a husband in Europe. She scolded her father for suggesting to an acquaintance that she had gone to England against the wishes of her friends.

In Europe a handsome woman who is likely to have a fortune may marry well; but if it gets about that her parents are dissatisfied with her, they will think she will get nothing by them, and if she had the beauty of Venus and the talents of Minerva, no one will marry her…. The reputation of your fortune would be a great advantage to me abroad… I beg that, whatever you may think, you will say nothing and especially write nothing about me, unless it be something likely to advance me. (8)

After a visit to Paris, Betsy returned to Baltimore in the summer of 1816. In May 1819, she again sailed for Europe, this time with Bo, whom she placed at a school in Geneva. According to Bo, they lived modestly.

Mamma lives now in town, in the cheapest way possible, on account of the troubles in Baltimore. She has no man-servant, but one single woman, who does the business of waiter and femme de chamber. (9)

At the same time, Betsy kept up her social life. Bo wrote to his grandfather in November 1820:

Mamma goes out nearly every night to a party or a ball. She says she looks full ten years younger than she is, and if she had not so large a son she could pass for five and twenty years old. She has a dancing-master and takes regularly three lessons a week, and has done so for the last six months; is every day astonished at the progress she makes and is fully determined to dance next winter. She constantly regrets that she had not danced at Paris. (10)

While they were in Geneva, Betsy learned that Pauline Bonaparte desired to see her and Bo in Rome. It was suggested that Pauline, who had no living children of her own, might even make a financial provision for Bo. Though Betsy’s obsession with rank and fortune extended to her son, and she was determined to secure for him the status to which she believed he was entitled, she was under no illusion about the Bonapartes. She was concerned that taking Bo to see Pauline had the danger of

exposing him to the danger of contracting habits of expense entirely unsuitable to my means of expenditure, at the same time losing the most valuable part of his life in idleness; the consequence would be that, after having spoiled him, he would be left to me to support. I cannot say that I have least reliance upon that family….

My resolution is uninfluenced by personal feelings, never having felt the least resentment toward any individual of that family, who certainly injured me, but not from motives which could offend me; I was sacrificed to political considerations, not to the gratification of bad feelings, and under the pressure of insupportable disappointment became not unjust. (11)

Despite her misgivings, Betsy finally did decide to spend the winter of 1821-22 in Rome. She took Bo with her. In letters to her father, she was frank about her motives.

I am desirous to profit by every remote chance of wealth for him, and at the same time conscious that a good education is the only certain advantage I can command for him. I wish to make him acquainted with the old lady [Bo’s grandmother, Letizia Bonaparte]….”

My desire was to defer this experiment until he was two years older, but as the old lady and the princess may not live so long, it has been urged to me that I was allowing an occasion to escape which might be irrecoverable hereafter.… I can only add that I am grateful to the kind Providence which withheld from me the care of a larger family and amidst all the trials and disappointments which have fallen to my share I take comfort to myself that I have only one child. (12)

Betsy was probably also swayed by a letter she had received in the spring of 1821 from Jérôme, which made clear that he had no intention of providing for Bo.

I have had a letter from [Bo’s] father, in which he informs me that his fortune is not sufficient to provide for his present family [his children with Catharina], who will be taken care of by their mother; that I might have known his character too well to suppose he ever thought of laying by a fortune; and that the little he did save he has been cheated out of by the persons he trusted. I believe he is not as bad-hearted as many people think and that many of his faults and much of his bad conduct proceed from extravagance and folly, which are indeed, the source of evil, both to their possessors and to those about them. (13)

The visit appeared initially to be a success. Letizia and Pauline were quite taken with Bo and conceived the idea of providing for him by having him marry Joseph Bonaparte’s youngest daughter, Charlotte. Pauline even promised to throw some capital into the deal. Having visited Joseph in the United States and knowing him to be wealthy, Betsy gladly consented. There was just the slight matter of convincing Joseph. To this end, the Rome Bonapartes advised Betsy to send Bo to America to plead his own cause with his uncle and to impress his handsome person and attractive manners upon Charlotte. Betsy was specific in her instructions to her father in Baltimore:

I do not think it absolutely necessary for me to go out, as I should think you might do everything I could do. The principal and only thing is to see [Bo] will not be left without any provision if [Charlotte] dies before him, or that he will not be entirely dependent on her as long as she lives. They tell me here Joseph means to give a hundred thousand dollars on the marriage. If he does not secure the whole or any part to her, there is nothing to be said, as the money becomes her husband’s. But if he means to tie it up, I wish at least fifty thousand to be settled on my son. There is no knowing how marriages may turn out – women may treat husbands ill, leave them, die before them, but if a good provision be made for the husband, there is nothing lost by risking a marriage. I shall, if absolutely necessary, go out, when I receive Joseph’s letters, although it will be horridly inconvenient to me; and if he tells me his project is to give them a hundred thousand dollars without restriction, there is only for you to see it is so. … His daughters are the best matches in Europe – in point of both money and connection…. I will never consent to [Bo] marrying any one but a person of great wealth. He knows I can only recognize a marriage of ambition and interest, and that his name and rank require it….

If the marriage takes place, he must live with his uncle in America. My health, and the taste I have for European society, render it quite impossible for me to live near them, as probably they will continue in Philadelphia. I hope and trust, my dear sir, that you will have the goodness to attend to the security of a maintenance for the boy…. Do not talk of the fifty until you find how they mean to arrange the hundred thousand. (14)

Here is where fact meets fiction, as Bo arrived at Joseph’s estate of Point Breeze in April 1822, just as he does in Napoleon in America. And although it’s Napoleon who nixes the match in the novel, in real life Joseph did the same, provoking a stoical reaction from disappointed Betsy.

I am sorry to find there is little chance of what I destined for [Bo’s] advancement, but nothing is surprising on the part of those people. The only thing left is for me to put this by with the rest of my earthly trials and to console myself by the consciousness of having lost nothing by my own folly. (15)

Before returning to Geneva in the spring of 1822, Betsy visited Florence, where she by chance encountered Jérôme and Catharina in the gallery of the Pitti Palace. They did not say a word to each other.

Putting her hopes for Bo’s future on his education, Betsy enrolled Bo at Harvard, though she continued to hope that her son would come in for a share of his grandmother’s money when she died. She even employed an agent to ferret out the details of Letizia’s will. When Pauline died in 1825, Betsy was delighted to learn that she had left 20,000 francs to Bo.

In 1826, Betsy encouraged Bo to go to Rome to see his Bonaparte relatives again, and to meet his father for the first time. She wrote to her father:

I confess that I am not at all of the opinion that expectations of future wealth are worth running after, but it is certain that they have it in their power to leave legacies, and that I shall be much blamed if I do not put the boy in the way of getting mentioned in their wills. (16)

Betsy was bitterly disappointed when she learned in 1829 that Bo was going to be married to Susan May Williams, a well-to-do American from Baltimore. She wrote (ironically, in light of her own marriage):

I had endeavored to instil into him, from the hour of his birth, the opinion that he was much too high in birth and connection ever to marry an American woman. … I would rather die than marry any one in Baltimore, but if my son does not feel as I do upon this subject, of course he is quite at liberty to act as he likes best. As the woman has money…I shall not forbid a marriage which I never would have advised. … I hope most ardently that she will have no children; but, as nothing happens which I desire, I do not flatter myself with an accomplishment of my wish on this subject. (17)

Bo and Susan had two sons, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II (born in 1830) and Charles Joseph Bonaparte (born in 1851).

Grumpy old age

Betsy continued to move between Europe and the United States, preferring the former. She grew in bitterness as she aged, confessing in her correspondence her boredom, depression and disappointment, though she kept up her social engagements and continued to move in the highest circles. She was preoccupied with money, with position and with her appearance.

When William Patterson died in 1835 he left Betsy a relatively small portion of his estate:

The conduct of my daughter Betsey has through life been so disobedient that in no instance has she every consulted my opinions or feelings; indeed, she has caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together, and her folly and misconduct have occasioned me a train of expense that first and last has cost me much money. (18)

Betsy was heartened by the French revolution of 1848 and the prospect of a Bonaparte return to power. She wrote to a friend in March 1849:

The emperor hurled me back on what I most hated on earth – my Baltimore obscurity; even that shock could not divest me of the admiration I felt for his genius and glory. I have ever been an imperial Bonaparte quand même, and I do feel enchanted at the homage paid by six millions of voices to his memory, in voting an imperial president. (19)

When Bo’s cousin Napoleon III ascended the French throne, he formally acknowledged that Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s descendants were legitimate Bonapartes, but denied them any claim to imperial rank. Upon Jérôme’s death in 1860, Betsy made a fruitless appeal to the French court for a share in his estate.

She spent the last 18 years of her life in a Baltimore boarding house. By then she had accumulated a fortune of about 1.5 million dollars, of which she spent only a few thousand per year. She reportedly said, “Once I had everything but money; now I have nothing but money.” (20) She outlived Bo, who died on June 17, 1870. In 1875, a journalist wrote:

Madame Bonaparte is still living in Baltimore, at the age of ninety years. She says she has no intention of dying until she is a hundred. She has been to Europe sixteen times, and contemplates another trip this summer. This old lady has more vivacity and certainly more intelligence than many of the leading women of fashion of the present day. She expresses her opinion upon all subjects with great freedom, and sometimes with bitterness. She has little or no confidence in men; and a very poor opinion of women: the young ladies of the present day, she says, all have the ‘homo mania.’ All sentiment she thinks a weakness. She professes that her ambition has always been – not the throne, but near the throne. (21)

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte died on April 4, 1879, at the age of 94. Her funeral was held at her daughter-in-law’s house and was attended only by the immediate family and a few friends. She was buried in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery, under the epitaph “After life’s fitful fever she sleeps well.” Her will divided her estate between her grandsons.

In the realm of strange but true, in 1825 Betsy’s sister-in-law Marianne – widow of her brother Robert – married Richard Wellesley, elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, thus connecting the Bonaparte and Wellesley families in a roundabout way.

Betsy’s story has long captured American imaginations. It was the basis for a 1908 play by Rida Johnson Young called Glorious Betsy, which became a silent film in 1928 and was remade as a musical called “Hearts Divided” in 1936. Novels about Betsy include The Golden Bees: The Story of Betsy Patterson and the Bonapartes by Daniel Henderson (1928), The Purple Trail by Elizabeth Scott McNeil (1930), No Hearts to Break by Susan Ertz (1937), Tide of Empire by Bates Baldwin (1952), The Amazing Mrs. Bonaparte by Harnett T. Kane (1963), and The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien (2013). Biographies include Bewitching Betsy Bonaparte by Alice Curtis Desmond (1958), Betsy Bonaparte: The Belle of Baltimore by Claude Bourguignon-Frasseto (2002), Betsy Bonaparte by Helen Jean Burn (2010), Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic by Charlene Boyer Lewis (2012), and Wondrous Beauty: the Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin (2014). For an entertaining free read it is hard to beat Betsy’s letters in The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte by Eugène Lemoine Didier (1879). The Maryland Historical Society has an excellent website based on its exhibit, “Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: Woman of Two Worlds.”

You might also enjoy:

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American nephew

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

How Pauline Bonaparte lived for pleasure

Fanny Fern on marriage in the 19th century

  1. Eugène Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York, 1879), p. 45.
  2. Ibid., p. viii.
  3. Ibid., p. 8.
  4. Ibid., p. 8.
  5. Ibid., p. 25.
  6. Ida M. Tarbell, ed., Napoleon’s Addresses: Selections from the Proclamations, Speeches and Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte (Boston, 1896), p. 83.
  7. The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte, p. 43.
  8. Ibid., pp. 43-44.
  9. Ibid., pp. 67-68.
  10. Ibid., p. 74.
  11. Ibid., pp. 57-58.
  12. Ibid., pp. 63, 79.
  13. Ibid., p. 75.
  14. Ibid., pp. 90-93.
  15. Ibid., p. 104.
  16. Ibid., p. 174.
  17. Ibid., pp. 218-220.
  18. Ibid., pp. 244-245.
  19. Ibid., p. 253.
  20. Ibid., p. 262.
  21. “The Baltimore Bonapartes,” Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. X, No. 1 (May 1875), p. 8.