Napoleon’s Children: Eugène & Hortense de Beauharnais
In addition to his legitimate son (Napoleon II, who appears in Napoleon in America), Napoleon had two stepchildren and at least two illegitimate children. 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….
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. Eugène de Beauharnais 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
Eugène’s sister Hortense was 13 when Josephine married Napoleon. Hortense was sent to Madame Campan’s school at St. Germain, near Paris. Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte was also a student there, as was Hortense’s cousin Émilie 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. There is a lovely video of soprano and pianist Paula Bär-Giese performing some of Hortense’s songs at Arenenberg.
Hortense de Beauharnais 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:
- Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile: or A Voice from St. Helena (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 116.
- Violette M. Montagu, Napoleon and his Adopted Son: Eugène de Beauharnais and His Relations with the Emperor (New York, 1914), pp. 124-126.
- Marie-Anne Adélaide Le Normand, Historical and Secret Memoirs of the Empress Josephine, translated by Jacob M. Howard, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1848), p. 309.
- Napoleon and his Adopted Son, p. 375.
- Laure Junot, Memoirs of the Duchess d’Abrantès (New York, 1832), p. 212.
- 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.
- John S.C. Abbott, Confidential Correspondence of the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine, (New York, 1857), p. 168.
- Ibid., p. 168.
- Ibid., pp. 176-177.
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.
Eugène de Beauharnais