Napoleon’s Illegitimate Children: Léon Denuelle & Alexandre Walewski
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. Here’s a look at Napoleon’s illegitimate children.
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 Napoleon’s legitimate son, 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 the Battle of 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 his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais and his widow 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. Charles Léon Denuelle has living descendants.
Alexandre Colonna Walewski
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 Colonna Walewksi 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)
- Joseph Turquan, The Love Affairs of Napoleon (New York, 1909), p. 249.
- Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin, Vol. II (New York, 1907), pp. 157-158.
- Hector Fleischmann, An Unknown Son of Napoleon (New York, 1914), p. 88.
- Ibid., pp. 156-157.
- Ibid., p. 157.
- Ibid., p. 158.
- Ibid., p. 178.
- Ibid., pp. 182-183.
- Ibid., pp. 212-213.
- Ibid., p. 216.
- The Love Affairs of Napoleon, p. 249.
- Memoirs of Constant, Vol. II, p. 183.
- Christopher Hibbert, Napoleon: His Wives and Women (London, 2002), p. 222.
- An Unknown Son of Napoleon, p. 88.
- Charles C.F. Greville, The Greville Memoirs, Vol. II (London, 1874), p. 104.
- Memoirs of Constant, Vol. II, p. 158.
This child [Léon Denuelle] and that of the beautiful Pole [Alexandre Walewski]…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.
Louis Constant Wairy