Caroline Bonaparte Murat, Napoleon’s Treasonous Sister

Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte Murat was ambitious and enterprising. Although Caroline and her husband owed their crowns to Napoleon, when it looked like Napoleon was going to be defeated, they allied with his enemies. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand wrote that Caroline “had the head of Cromwell upon the body of a well-shaped woman. Born with much grandeur of character, strong mind, and sublime ideas; possessing a subtle and delicate wit, together with amiability and grace, seductive beyond expression; she was deficient in nothing but in the art of concealing her desire to rule.” (1)

Caroline Bonaparte Murat, circa 1810

Caroline Bonaparte Murat by Louis Ducis, circa 1810

Fresh as a Rose

Maria Annunziata Buonaparte was born on March 25, 1782 in Ajaccio, Corsica. She was the seventh of Charles and Letizia Bonaparte’s eight surviving children, and thirteen years younger than her brother Napoleon, who was away at military school in France. Known as Annunziata as a child, as a teenager she adopted the name Caroline, in an attempt to appear less Corsican (her siblings also “Frenchified” their names).

Caroline’s father died a month before she turned three. When Caroline was eleven, Napoleon fell out with the Corsican nationalists and the family had to flee to France. Caroline had a brief taste of poverty in Marseilles, but Napoleon’s rapid rise in the French army soon put an end to that. Napoleon paid for Caroline to attend an expensive girls’ school at St. Germain-en-Laye, operated by Madame Campan, a former lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Napoleon’s wife Josephine (whom the Bonapartes could not stand), was also at the school. Napoleon’s valet related the following anecdote from a family dinner held some ten years later.

[Napoleon] had just received a letter from a prefect who told him that a man named Geoffrin had saved several workmen in a coal mine which had caved in. The letter was given to [Caroline], who could hardly decipher it. The Emperor, seeing his sister’s embarrassment, said, ‘Give it to Hortense; she will read it.’ In fact, [Hortense], holding the letter, read it quite fluently. (2)

Suffice to say that Caroline Bonaparte was known more for her cunning than her book-learning. In 1797 she met a similarly unintellectual character in the form of General Joachim Murat, a theological student turned cavalry officer who was on Napoleon’s staff with the Army of Italy. Murat was dashing, charismatic and good-natured, with a huge mane of curly dark hair, which makes him easy to recognize in paintings. Caroline was charming and pretty, “fresh as a rose: not to be compared, for the regular beauty of her features, to [Pauline Bonaparte], though more pleasing perhaps by the expression of her countenance and the brilliancy of her complexion.” (3)

Joachim Murat by François Gérard, 1808

Joachim Murat by François Gérard, 1808

The two fell in love. They were married on January 20, 1800, after Napoleon – who preferred instrumental marriages to love matches – gave his reluctant permission. He did not attend the wedding. Caroline was 17 and Murat was 32.

Caroline was soon pregnant with their first child. A month before the birth, a bomb intended for Napoleon exploded in front of the carriage in which she was riding. Unlike Josephine and Hortense, who were also in the carriage, Caroline kept her cool. Her son Achille was born on January 21, 1801, followed by Letizia (April 26, 1802), Lucien (May 16, 1803) and Louise (March 21, 1805).

According to Louise, Caroline and Joachim Murat were loving parents, although Caroline was less effusive than her husband. Louise described her mother as follows:

Rather small than large, a little plump, of a dazzling whiteness to give the impression, at her toilette in the evening, that her bare shoulders were covered with white satin, my Mother did not have this regularity of features, this purity of lines which distinguished her older sister Pauline, with whom she is so often compared. The latter was a Greek statue in all her perfection; but my Mother, although much less perfect, with her natural grace, her amiability, and her elegance, pleased as much and perhaps even more than she.

Almond-shaped eyes, a velvety glance (and I have often heard it said a thousand times to explain the sweetness of this look), feet and hands of a smallness and a rare perfection were the most beautiful things about her.

For the most sought-after elegance, she loved the toilette, and to occupy herself with it, but with a sort of cavalier attitude that I may never have encountered in any other pretty woman! She lost only the essential time, and was always ready at the fixed hour, probably remembering that punctuality is the politeness of royalty. (4)

This last point contradicts what Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun found when she painted Caroline’s portrait in 1807. She complained that Caroline

perpetually failed to keep the appointments she made with me, so that…I was kept in Paris nearly the whole summer, as a rule waiting for her in vain…. Moreover, the intervals between the sittings were so long that she sometimes changed her mode of doing her hair. In the beginning…she wore curls hanging over her cheeks, and I painted them accordingly; but some time after, this having gone out of fashion, she came back with her hair dressed in a totally different manner, so that I was forced to scrape off the hair I had painted on the face…. The same thing happened with her dress…. All the annoyances that Mme Murat subjected me to at last put me so much out of temper that one day, when she was in my studio, I said to M. Denon, loudly enough for her to hear, ‘I have painted real princesses who never worried me, and never made me wait.’ (5)

Caroline Bonaparte Murat with her daughter Letizia, by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1807

Caroline Bonaparte Murat with her daughter Letizia, by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1807

The Quest for a Crown

In 1803 Joachim Murat became the military governor of Paris. He bought the Elysée Palace and moved his family in. This did not satisfy Caroline’s ambition. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French and proclaimed his brothers Joseph and Louis princes of the Empire. Caroline was furious that her sisters-in-law – including Hortense, who was married to Louis – would have a higher status than she would. On the evening of the coronation:

Madame Murat was excessively angry, and during the dinner had so little control over herself, that on hearing the Emperor address Madame Louis several times as ‘Princess,’ she could not restrain her tears…. Everyone was embarrassed, and [Napoleon] smiled maliciously….

On the following day, after a family dinner, a violent quarrel took place…. Madame Murat burst into complaints, tears, and reproaches; she asked why she and her sisters were to be condemned to obscurity and contempt, while strangers were to be loaded with honours and dignity? Bonaparte answered her angrily, asserting several times that he was master, and would distribute honours as he pleased…. The discussion ended by Madame Murat’s falling on the floor in a dead faint, overcome by her excessive anger, and by the acrimony of her brother’s reproaches. (6)

Napoleon gave in and granted his sisters the courtesy titles of “Imperial Highness.” Caroline continued to try to wheedle a proper crown out of her brother. The Murats threw lavish parties for Napoleon and his entourage. They also procured mistresses for him. In 1805, they introduced him to Éléonore Denuelle de la Plagne, a beautiful eighteen-year-old in their employ, whom Murat was bedding. In December 1806 Éléonore gave birth to Napoleon’s first child, Charles Léon Denuelle. Caroline was elated. The birth demonstrated to Napoleon that he was not responsible for Josephine’s infertility and thus sealed the case for ending their marriage, which Napoleon did in January 1810.

In the meantime, Caroline’s efforts to secure more than an honorary title had born fruit. In 1806 Napoleon made the Murats the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Berg and Cleves, having carved a principality for them out of territory taken from Prussia and Bavaria. Conveniently, Caroline did not have to reside there.

The Grand Duchess of Berg…lived in great splendour at the Elysée-Bourbon Palace. Her beauty was set off by the most exquisite dress; her pretensions were great; her manners affable when she thought it prudent, and more than affable to men whom she wished to fascinate…. [S]he endeavored to make friends among the influential members of the Government who might be useful to her…. She wanted to secure her present position, and especially to elevate her husband in spite of himself. (7)

Caroline Bonaparte Murat as Queen of Naples

Caroline Bonaparte Murat and her Children, by François Gérard, 1808

Caroline Bonaparte Murat and her Children, by François Gérard, 1808

In 1808, when Napoleon moved Joseph Bonaparte from the throne of Naples to that of Spain, he made the Murats King and Queen of Naples. Caroline emptied the Elysée Palace of its French state treasures and had them brought to Naples (to be fair, Joseph had plundered Naples of its best art and later stole the royal treasures of Spain).

Murat wanted to exercise his royal power, but Caroline insisted on being consulted on all matters of importance. She tried to moderate her husband’s proud temper and soften his approach to Napoleon, with the aim of preserving their throne. Though they were often apart, frequently quarreled, and were unfaithful to one another, they remained bound by love and ambition. Caroline’s lovers included Charles de Flahaut, the illegitimate son of Talleyrand who was also Hortense’s paramour, General Jean-Andoche Junot, who had replaced Murat as governor of Paris, and Clemens von Metternich, the Austrian ambassador to France.

In March 1810, Napoleon married Princess Marie Louise of Austria. He sent Caroline to the Austrian border to escort his bride back to Paris. Although Marie Louise was cordial to her new sister-in-law, she was not particularly impressed with her. When their carriages had to be lifted over a narrow crossing of the Scheldt River, Marie Louise noted in her diary:

This affair delayed us more than an hour and put the Queen of Naples into such a bad temper that no one could speak to her for the rest of the day. I cannot understand how people when travelling can grumble and get impatient over such trifling incidents! To me they were very insignificant in comparison with all I had had to put up with in other journeys, of which I had never complained. (8)

When Caroline returned to Naples, she wrote to Murat, who was on campaign against Sicily.

I saw the Emperor at the moment of my departure as he charged me…with many expressions of friendship for you. The affair of Holland having made me fear for us, I expressed my worries to him. He responded to me: ‘I love the King, I am very happy with the attachment you have proven to me during these seven months, so I will not try to hurt you. However, I want you to speak to the King frankly, and tell him what my intentions are. … If I have put a King from my family in Naples, it is not to make my commerce worse than when I had an enemy there. Above all, I want him to do what suits France. If I have conquered kingdoms, it is so that France can derive benefits from them, and if I do not get what I want, then I will be forced to reunite these kingdoms with France. … I also do not want my troops to be commanded by Neapolitan generals, because the French don’t like this. I want all French people to be treated well in your States. I also want the King to treat you well’…. I told him that I was happy and content and that you were very good to me, and that if there might have been some little things between you and me, they were only passing things that did not merit his attention, and I begged him not to occupy himself with them further…. He is very irritable right now. So I give you good advice: it is to pass over the many little things, in order to later obtain the greater ones, and to keep us in his friendship.

What is your goal? It is to maintain yourself where we are and to keep the Kingdom, we must thus do what he wants and not anger him when he asks for something, because he is the stronger one and you cannot do anything against him. Perhaps one day he will calm down and then you will be able to enter into to all your rights. You will gain more by making sacrifices than by irritating him. (9)

In 1812, Napoleon entrusted Murat with command of the Grand Armée’s cavalry for the Russian campaign. Caroline governed Naples in her husband’s absence. It was her finest hour. She impressed her ministers and officials with her sound judgement. According to the Murats’ English nanny, Caroline was “[i]ndefatigable in her attention to the affairs of the kingdom [and] so entirely engrossed by them, that often, for a fortnight together, she neither saw nor inquired for her children.” (10)

During the march back from Moscow, Napoleon hurried to Paris, leaving Murat in charge of the army’s retreat. Murat abandoned his post and fled to Naples. Napoleon was furious. He wrote to Caroline: “The King of Naples has left the army. Your husband is very brave on the field of battle, but he is weaker than a woman or a monk when he is not in the presence of the enemy. He has no moral courage.” (11)

Betrayal

Although Murat rejoined Napoleon for the 1813 campaign in Germany, Caroline considered her brother’s defeat inevitable. She and Murat hoped to save their throne by allying with Napoleon’s enemies. On January 11, 1814, Murat signed a treaty with Austria. This guaranteed to him and his heirs the sovereignty of the territory he possessed in Italy. In return, he was bound to cooperate in the war against Napoleon.

When Napoleon learned of this treachery, he reportedly said, “I was well aware that Murat was a fool, but I thought he loved me. It is his wife who is the cause of his desertion. To think that Caroline, my own sister, should betray me!” (12)

On February 26, Napoleon wrote to Joseph:

It seems that the allies have not yet ratified the treaty with the King of Naples. Despatch by a courier, with the utmost haste, a letter to the King, in which you will frankly point out to him the iniquity of his conduct, offering to mediate for him if he will return to his duties. Tell him that this is his only hope; that if he takes any other course he must be destroyed either by France or by the allies…. Write also to the Queen on her ingratitude, which revolts even the allies. (13)

It was no use. Napoleon lost and was exiled to Elba. The Murats remained in power in Naples. Murat, however, felt sorry about what he had done, He secretly entered into communication with Napoleon. When the latter escaped from Elba and returned to France in March 1815, he told his brother-in-law to maintain the Neapolitan forces in a defensive position. Napoleon hoped to keep the Austrians neutral. For this to happen, Italy (partly under Austrian control) had to stay neutral. Murat disregarded this advice. Thinking he could help Napoleon by starting a diversion, he foolishly led his forces into Italy. He was defeated in the Battle of Tolentino in early May. Murat retreated to Naples and said goodbye to Caroline. She was so angry with him (she still supported the allies) that he said, “If you see me alive, madam, pray believe it is that I have sought death in vain!” (14) She never saw him again.

Murat went to France, but Napoleon refused to see him. “Twice Murat betrayed and ruined me,” he later said. (15) Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo and was banished to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena.

Caroline surrendered to the commander of the English squadron that was cruising around Naples. He transported her to Trieste and handed her over to the Austrians, who kept her at the castle of Hainburg, near Vienna. Meanwhile, Murat made his way to Corsica. From there he tried to reconquer his kingdom. On October 8, 1815, Murat and a small band of followers landed at the Calabrian port of Pizzo. The locals proved hostile and Murat was arrested. On October 13 he was tried by a military tribunal, condemned to death, and shot by a firing squad.

Caroline learned of Murat’s fate from a newspaper. Upon reading the account of her husband’s death, she was reportedly “attacked with violent fits which lasted till morning.” (16)

Caroline Murat, 1814

Caroline Murat, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814

Life after Napoleon

Caroline Bonaparte Murat took the name of the Countess of Lipona (an anagram of Napoli, or Naples). Her former lover, the Austrian Chancellor Metternich, tried unsuccessfully to obtain permission for her to settle in Rome near her mother and siblings. Instead, she was allowed to live in the castle of Frohsdorf, south of Vienna (Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, the Duchess of Angoulême, was a later resident there). In any case, Letizia Bonaparte had no desire to see her daughter. When Caroline protested that Murat’s 1814 betrayal had not been her fault, Letizia replied, “If you were unable to influence him, you should nevertheless have opposed him. But what opposition did you make? Has any blood been shed? It is only across your dead body that your husband should have smitten your brother, your benefactor, your master!” (17)

Caroline’s companion in exile was General Francesco Macdonald, who, despite his name, was of Italian origin. He had been an aide-de-camp to Murat and was the former Minister of War of Naples. Caroline married Macdonald morganatically, probably in 1817, although 1830 has also been suggested. Napoleon, in exile on St. Helena, read a newspaper notice that they had been married.

Upon this Napoleon remarked that after the recent assassination of her husband, he did not think it possible that his sister would marry; especially in so public a manner, unless she were made, or had been forced to it with a pistol at her throat; ‘especially,’ said he, ‘when I consider that my sister is a woman arrived at an age when her passions are no longer brulantes; that she has four children, and is possessed of a strong, masculine understanding, and talents superior to the generality of her sex. However,’ continued Napoleon, ‘there is no accounting for the actions of a woman.’ (18)

In 1824, Caroline settled in Trieste. Visiting her there in 1825, Madame Récamier noted:

The queen, whose skin was as fair as a lily, was still singularly pretty, almost retaining the brilliancy of her youth. She had grown stout; and, as she was not tall, her figure had not gained in elegance. She was animated in conversation; and, from her caressing manners, it was easy to see that, when she wished to please, she could exercise great powers of fascination.

Her intercourse with her daughter [Louise] was full of the most confiding tenderness. Her bearing to General Macdonald was affectionate, with a shade of authority. To her guests … she manifested a warmth and gratitude that proved, alas! how few disinterested marks of sympathy she had received since her misfortunes. (19)

Caroline’s sons moved to the United States, from where they pestered her for money. Her daughters married Italian noblemen. The American actor René Auberjonois, who played Father Mulcahy in the film version of M*A*S*H, was Caroline Bonaparte Murat’s great-great-great-grandson (see “Living Descendants of Napoleon and the Bonapartes”).

Caroline Murat’s Final Years

In 1831, Caroline was allowed to move to Florence. When Letizia Bonaparte died in 1836, Caroline fought with her brothers over her mother’s estate. To keep the dispute out of the newspapers, Joseph turned his share over to Caroline. General Macdonald died in 1837.

Caroline spent a good part of her later years trying to recover the money she claimed was owed to her by France. Although the French authorities found the claims bogus, King Louis Philippe – who, in his struggle against the legitimists, wished to flatter the enemies of the Bourbons – allowed Caroline to visit Paris to pursue her case. The American scholar George Ticknor encountered her there in January 1838.

I spent the early part of the evening at the Countess Lipona’s, the name under which Madame Murat passes here. She is a very good-looking, stout person, nearly sixty years old, I suppose, and with ladylike and rather benevolent manners. She lives in good style, but without splendour; and, like the rest of her family, allows those about her to call her Reine. Prince Musignano [Caroline’s nephew] was there, and perhaps in the course of an hour twenty people came in, for it was her reception evening; but the whole, I suppose, was Bonapartists, for I happen to know that those who wish to stand well with Louis Philippe avoid her doors; a weakness on his part as great as that which, on hers, permits her to be called Queen. (20)

At last Caroline was granted a pension of 100,000 francs. She had little time to enjoy it. On May 18, 1839 she died of stomach cancer in Florence at the age of 57. She was buried in the Chiesa di Ognissanti in Florence. There is a cenotaph honouring Caroline Bonaparte Murat and her husband, Joachim, at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The final word regarding Caroline should go to Napoleon. On St. Helena, he reflected on her thus:

The Queen of Naples had chiefly formed herself amidst great events. She had solid sense, strength of character, and boundless ambition…. She must naturally suffer severely from her reverses, more particularly as she may said to have been born a Queen. She had not, like the rest of us, moved in the sphere of private life. Caroline, Pauline and Jerome were still in their childhood when I had attained supreme rank in France; thus they never knew any other state than that which they enjoyed during the period of my power. (21)

In his will (he died in 1821), Napoleon thanked Caroline, along with the rest of his family, “for the interest they continue to feel for me.” (22)

You might also enjoy:

Achille Murat, the Prince of Tallahassee

How Pauline Bonaparte Lived for Pleasure

Elisa Bonaparte Bachiochi, Napoleon’s Capable Sister

Napoleon’s Mother, Letizia Bonaparte

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

What did Napoleon think of women?

  1. Catherine Hyde Govion Broglio Solari, Private Anecdotes of Foreign Courts, Vol. 1 (London, 1827), p. 456.
  2. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 11.
  3. Laure Junot, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès, Vol. I (New York, 1832), p. 256.
  4. Louise Murat, Souvenirs d’enfance d’une fille de Joachim Murat (Paris, 1929), excerpted and translated on the Project Murat blog: https://projectmurat.blog/2019/12/31/a-very-exact-physical-portrait/. Accessed March 3, 2021.
  5. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, translated by Lionel Strachey (New York, 1903), p. 203.
  6. Paul de Rémusat, ed., Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, 1802-1808, translated by Cashel Hoey and John Lillie, Vol. 1 (London, 1880), pp. 254-56. Madame de Rémusat’s account is undoubtedly coloured by her attachment to Josephine, who related part of this anecdote to her and who “could not but enjoy the vexation of a person who so thoroughly disliked her.”
  7. Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, p. 488.
  8. Frédéric Masson, The Private Diaries of the Empress Marie-Louise (London, 1922) p. 74.
  9. Joachim Murat and Paul Le Brethon, Lettres et documents pour servir à l’histoire de Joachim Murat, Vol. VIII (Paris, 1914), pp. 490-491.
  10. Catherine Davies, Eleven Year’s Residence in the Family of Murat, King of Naples (London, 1841), p.18.
  11. Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès, Vol. VII (London, 1835) p. 391.
  12. Joseph Turquan, The Sisters of Napoleon, translated and edited by W.R.H. Trowbridge (London, 1908), p. 291.
  13. The Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with His Brother Joseph, Vol. II (London, 1855), p. 327.
  14. Caroline Murat, My Memoirs (London, 1910), p. 21. These are the memoirs of Caroline Bonaparte Murat’s granddaughter.
  15. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (London, 1822), p. 134.
  16. Eleven Year’s Residence in the Family of Murat, King of Naples, p. 68.
  17. The Sisters of Napoleon, p. 293.
  18. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 180-181.
  19. Isaphene M. Luyster, ed. and trans., Memoirs and Correspondence of Madame Récamier (Boston, 1867), pp. 240-241.
  20. George Stillman Hillard, Life, Letters and Journals of George Ticknor, Vol. II (London, 1876), p. 127.
  21. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part III (Boston, 1823), p. 157.
  22. Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. III, p. 427.

8 commments on “Caroline Bonaparte Murat, Napoleon’s Treasonous Sister”

  • John Adan says:

    Notice the reference to Pauline’s Greek features. The Buonapartes may be the descendants of the Troupakos/Mani (cave dwellers/little bulldogs) who fought the Turks for 500 years in Sparta, Peloponese. Some of them emigrated because of overpopulation and fighting among themselves. Michael Paleologos in Los Angeles claimed the inheritance of Byzantine empire and sold aristocratic titles, with imperial ceremonies in Saint Petersburg.

  • James Fisher says:

    Another fine mini-biography and excellent read Shannon, thank you. They were a couple of characters with individual brilliance (in some respects), but great flaws, weren’t they? Not that Napoleon was without flaws, of course, but his brilliance stretched further and across a greater range of attributes!
    I have Hubert Cole’s “The Betrayers” amongst my books yet to be read. I must get to it one day soon!
    Regards, James

  • Addison says:

    Thank you for a good read. Obsession with rank, pomp, and power, leaving behind honor and humanity. A human failing.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, James. The Betrayers is on my to-read list as well! It’s supposed to be an excellent book.

  • T. R. says:

    Fascinating article. One always thinks of Pauline as “the sister.” There was so much more.

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Madame Murat had the head of Cromwell upon the body of a well-shaped woman.

Talleyrand