Christine-Egypta Bonaparte, Lady Dudley Stuart
Christine-Egypta Bonaparte was the second child of Napoleon’s younger brother Lucien Bonaparte and his first wife, Christine Boyer. She had two rather scandalous marriages, became an unconventional figure in the London social scene, and was a godmother and namesake of the poet Christina Rossetti, who wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
Christine-Egypta’s early years
Christine-Egypta Bonaparte was born in Paris on October 19, 1798. Her full name was Christine Charlotte Alexandrine Egypta Bonaparte. The “Egypta” was added because her uncle, General Napoleon Bonaparte, was leading a military campaign in Egypt at the time. The family called her “Lili.” Her sister, Charlotte, was three and a half years older.
Shortly after Lili’s first birthday, the family’s fortune changed dramatically. In 1798, Lucien had been elected to the Council of Five Hundred, the lower house of the French legislature. In October 1799, he was appointed President of the Council. As such, he played a crucial role in helping Napoleon overthrow the French government in a coup d’état on November 9. Napoleon was installed as First Consul of France and Lucien became Minister of the Interior. Lucien and his family moved into a mansion called the Hôtel de Brissac near the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. Lucien also bought the elegant Château du Plessis-Chamant outside of Paris, where he and his wife, Christine, could relax with their daughters and friends.
On May 14, 1800, Christine, who was then about eight months pregnant, died of a pulmonary disease. Lucien’s sister Elisa stepped in to look after his two young daughters. When Lucien became the French ambassador to Madrid later that year, he took two-year-old Christine-Egypta with him. Lucien showered affection on her; she had a French nanny; and the Spanish queen was extremely fond of her. They lived in a wing of the Santa Cruz Palace. Lucien and the Marquesa de Santa Cruz became lovers.
In November 1801, Lucien and Christine-Egypta Bonaparte returned to France. Lucien was considerably wealthier thanks to “gifts” (bribes) of paintings and diamonds from the Spanish and Portuguese courts for negotiating the Treaty of Badajoz. The Marquesa came to France too, but did not stay long. She was soon supplanted in Lucien’s affections by a widow, Alexandrine de Bleschamp. Lucien commissioned a fairly explicit portrait of himself contemplating his new mistress.
Alexandrine already had a daughter, Anna, who was a year younger than Christine-Egypta. In 1803, Lucien and Alexandrine had a son together. They quickly got married. Between 1804 and 1823, they had nine more children, all but one of whom survived infancy. Thus Christine-Egypta grew up surrounded by a large family.
Her father’s break from Napoleon
Napoleon was furious that Lucien had married without his permission. He had been hoping to partner his brother with a Spanish princess. They quarreled about this and other matters. Lucien decided he wanted nothing to do with Napoleon’s new Empire. In 1805, he moved his family to Rome. When Napoleon annexed the Papal States and imprisoned the Pope, Lucien expressed his opposition. Napoleon increased his pressure on Lucien to divorce Alexandrine and return to France. Lucien tried to escape the situation by sailing with his family to America. They did not get far before being captured by the British, who transported them first to Malta, and then to the United Kingdom, where they arrived to a cheery welcome on December 17, 1810. After a brief stay near Ludlow, they settled at Thorngrove mansion in Grimley, Worcestershire. Although they were confined to the area, Lucien and his family were treated kindly. Christine-Egypta and her siblings thrived. They received an excellent education from English tutors.
After Napoleon’s 1814 defeat and exile to Elba, Lucien and his family were allowed to leave the UK. They returned to Rome. The Pope granted Lucien the hereditary title of Prince of Canino. The children were also called princes and princesses. Lucien reconciled with Napoleon and joined the latter in France during his brief return to power in 1815. When Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled to St. Helena, Lucien was allowed to return to Rome, on the condition that he remain in the Papal States.
George Ticknor, an American author and educator, visited Lucien’s family there in 1817. He wrote of Christine-Egypta:
She has more talent than her sister, an unquestionable gaieté de coeur, sings, plays, and dances well, says a thousand witty things, and laughs without ceasing at everything and everybody. Loving admiration to a fault, she is something of a coquette, though her better qualities, her talents, her good nature and wit, keep both under some restraint. She always sits in a corner of the salon, and keeps her little court to herself, for she chooses to have an exclusive empire; but this is soon to be over, for she is to be married directly to Count Posse, a Swede. (1)
Like her cousin Charlotte (Joseph Bonaparte’s daughter, who appears in Napoleon in America), Christine-Egypta liked to draw and paint. Her subjects included landscapes in Sweden, Italy and Britain. She also did a variant of a popular painting that depicted the silhouette of Napoleon, outlined by two trees, overlooking his tomb on St. Helena, where he died in 1821.
Marriage to a Swedish count
Christine-Egypta Bonaparte and Arvid Posse, a Swedish nobleman 16 years her senior, were married in Rome on March 28, 1818. Posse had served as a chamberlain to the Swedish court, held a commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Västgötadal Regiment, and was the co-owner of ironworks at Upperud and Billingsfors in Dalsland, Sweden. The newlyweds moved to Sweden and lived at Fogelvik (Fågelvik) manor, outside Valdemarsvik, with Posse’s brother Carl and his French wife, Adine. Christine-Egypta soon became unhappy. She was far from her family and found life in rural Sweden dull. Posse was restless and may have abandoned her. Around 1820, she was back in Rome and staying with her sister, Charlotte, who in 1815 had married Mario Gabrielli, Prince of Prossedi. An American visitor wrote enthusiastically about the Bonaparte sisters:
[Their] society constituted one chief source of our enjoyment in Rome. In their saloons conversation flowed on with a pleasant ripple of freshness and good-humor, bringing to a fitting close days passed among the marvels of art and antiquity in the Eternal City. They were excellent linguists, at home in French and English as in Italian. The Princess Gabrielli [Charlotte], an excellent musician, sang with great sweetness and effect; and [Italian sculptor Raimondo] Trentanove, who had also a good voice, contributed his part to the general entertainment. An improvisatore, a variety of social amusement then in vogue, often attended. [Danish sculptor Bertel] Thorwaldsen and many other celebrities frequented the palace, as well as cardinals and other dignitaries of the Church. Cardinal Fesch, the uncle of Lucien, was still in fine health and full vigor, and, though dignified, frank and cordial in his address. …
The Countess Possi [Christine-Egypta], still very young, excelled in the waltz, a dance then recently introduced in polite society, and already in a degree superseding the quadrille. Both sisters were apparently unconscious of any especial claim to consideration, putting every one at ease in their presence. They were gay and companionable, quick at repartee, and always grateful and engaging. We were indebted to them for many pleasant acquaintances, and found they were equally disposed to devote their own moments to our entertainment. (2)
Marriage to a British lord
In Italy, Christine-Egypta fell in love with Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart. He was the youngest son of the 1st Marquess of Bute, who had died in 1814. Dudley Stuart’s paternal grandfather, Lord Bute, had been a prime minister under King George III. His maternal grandfather, Thomas Coutts, was a founder of the banking house Coutts & Co. Dudley and his mother had lived in Naples after his father’s death. Now they were travelling around Italy after Dudley’s stint at Oxford.
The liaison was problematic for both families. Christine-Egypta was still married to Posse and Dudley was engaged to his cousin, Lady Georgiana North. Christine-Egypta was Catholic and Dudley was Protestant. Despite this, on July 24, 1824, they secretly married at a Catholic church near Rome. The groom was 21 years old, the bride 25. On July 21, 1825, Christine-Egypta gave birth to their son, Paul Amadeus Francis Dudley Coutts Stuart. The baby was initially kept a secret, known only to Charlotte (Christine’s sister), Lady Bute (Dudley’s mother), and Dudley’s close friend Henry Fox.
The couple sought an annulment of Christine-Egypta’s first marriage on the grounds that it had never been consummated. The stress was high. Fox wrote in June 1828:
After dinner Dudley came; he looks pale and low. I drove with him by the Ponte Molle to the P. Gabrielli, where I waited while he dressed for a visit to Madame Mère (Christine-Egypta’s grandmother), she being particular as to breeches and silk stockings. He is sadly worried by the whole [Bonaparte] family, who want a second marriage for conscience sake. If they yield to this it will ruin the first and prevent the child from being legitimated. He has given Count Possé £5,000 to submit to the examination of the doctors [to prove his impotence]. None of his family or of hers have the least assisted him, beyond £600 which his mother gave him. The law proceedings, etc., etc., have sadly pinched him. (3)
A few months later, Fox visited Christine-Egypta in Florence.
She was extremely amiable to me and showed me her child, to which she feels more and more attached as she perceives the want of kindness Dudley’s family betray towards it. Such was their unfeeling conduct that they once proposed to her to leave it at Rome, fix a sum of money on it, but abstain from seeing it or from superintending its education. These are the sort of generous, conscientious projects the strictly moral people are often capable of supporting. The child is healthy and strong but not handsome. (4)
There was also unkindness on the Bonaparte side. Christine-Egypta’s uncle Louis Bonaparte refused to receive her or to call upon her.
In September 1828, the Posse marriage was finally dissolved, although there were still problems with the in-laws. Fox noted in October:
Lady Dudley is puzzled whether to stay at Rome or return to England. The relations of both families tease her extremely, especially on religious subjects. In England they wish to make her turn Protestant, and here want her Catholicism to be more active and to see her convert Dudley to their own tenets. The persecution she has even already undergone on this subject is so tormenting as to render her less disinclined to the idea of living with Lady Bute for some months. (5)
Moreover, a subset of British society in Rome continued to regard the Dudley Stuarts as unrespectable. The Marquess of Buckingham wrote in his diary in December 1828:
All Rome divided upon the question [of] whether Lord and Lady Dudley Stuart are to be received or not. He is Lady Bute’s son; she the niece of Jerome Bonaparte, who was married to an Italian [actually the Swede Posse], whom she divorced for impotency – intriguing with Lord Dudley all the while, whom she afterwards married. Somehow or another she gets received everywhere, except by Lady Shrewsbury, my sister, and one or two proper persons. The wrath of the Bonapartes very great. (6)
He followed that up on January 1, 1829 by noting:
Hortense Beauharnais, ex-Queen of Holland, is the only one of the Buonaparte family here that opens her house and makes it pleasant. That worthy family are very wroth against Lady Shrewsbury for refusing to receive Lady Dudley Stuart, &c.; and threatens to give balls and parties on every night on which Lady Shrewsbury gives them, in order to spoil them. In this rivalry the public-dancing interests must benefit. (7)
Life in London
In 1830, Lord Dudley Stuart was elected to the British House of Commons as a member of the Whig Party. He and his family moved to London. Christina-Egypta held regular soirées at their home at 16 Wilton Crescent. These attracted a Bohemian circle, including Italians and other foreigners, artists, actors, opera singers, refugee nobles, and “adventurers.” It was said that she kept two pet goats, “which play about her drawing-room, as familiarly as dogs.” (8)
Among her many visitors were future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who in 1835 heard the Italian tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini and soprano Giulia Grisi sing at her house, and the Prince of Orange, who gave a toast “[à] nos grandeurs passées!” (9) A number of Bonapartes called on her in London, including her cousin Louis-Napoléon, the future Napoleon III of France.
American poet Nathaniel Parker Willis described Christine-Egypta as “a lady of remarkably small person, with the fairest foot ever seen, under whose bonnet burn the most lambent and spiritual eyes that night and sleep ever hid from the world.” (10)
In contrast, Harriot Mundy, the niece of British diarist Mary Frampton, sniffed that Lady Dudley Stuart was “plain, and odd-looking, ill-dressed, and with nothing distinguée about her,” “not at all interesting looking [or] handsome, but as she is a Bonapartist, I am glad to have seen her.” (11)
Lady Morgan, at a party in 1833, found Christine-Egypta “in the most extravagant of dresses; but très amiable.” (12) That same year, politician John Hobhouse wrote that she was “a very pleasing woman, but now very plain.” (13)
In October 1835, George Ticknor had dinner with his old family friend.
She is a good deal altered in person, and has feeble health, but her essential character is the same that I knew eighteen years ago. Lord Dudley Stuart was at Lord Brougham’s on a visit. The company consisted of the Duke de Regina, the Count del Medico – who owns the Carrara quarries – and two or three other persons. It was pleasant, the conversation being entirely in French, and much of the amusement of the evening being music. An English composer, who is just bringing out an opera which he dedicates to Lady D. Stuart, came in and played and sang; and a Polish prince – among those who are indebted to Lord Dudley Stuart for carrying the bill in favour of the Poles through Parliament – was there a little while, and improvisated with great talent. There was nothing English about it, any more than if we had all been in Italy. (14)
Christina Rossetti’s godmother
Among Christine-Egypta’s friends in England were the Rossetti family. Gabriele Rossetti was a poet from southern Italy, whose support for revolutionary nationalism had forced him into exile. His wife, Frances, was the daughter of another Italian exile. They had four children, the youngest of whom was born on December 5, 1830. Christine-Egypta became one of the baby’s two godmothers and the child was named Christina in honour of her. Christina Rossetti became a popular poet. After her death, two of her poems were set to music and became well-known Christmas carols: “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Love Came Down at Christmas.” Her brother was the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In spite of their early devotion to each other, by the end of the 1830s Christine-Egypta and her husband had separated. She returned to Italy. In January 1840, Dudley Stuart stopped sending her an allowance. Christine-Egypta Bonaparte died in Rome on May 19, 1847, at the age of 48. On November 17, 1854, Lord Dudley Stuart died in Stockholm, where he had gone to win support for Polish independence, a cause that was dear to his heart. Their son, Paul, who had sustained brain damage in a riding accident, died on August 1, 1889 at the age of 63. He had no children, so he left 750,000 francs to his mother’s half-brother, Louis Lucien Bonaparte (the only surviving son of Lucien Bonaparte), who was then living in London and receiving a pension of £250 per annum from the civil list. Paul was buried in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church, Petersham.
As for Arvid Posse, he went to Brazil (where there were false reports of his death in 1826), returned to Europe, and then, around 1829, sailed for the United States. In the summer of 1831, he appeared in Texas, low on money and depressed. He spent his remaining funds in Brazoria, and then moved on to San Antonio where he committed suicide.
The Dalslands Konstmuseum contains several objects that Christine-Egypta Bonaparte left behind in Sweden, including a dress, a portrait, and her wedding service, decorated with rabbits. The museum’s café is called “Bonaparte” in her honour.
You might also enjoy:
- George S. Hillard, ed., Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor, Vol. I, Second Edition (London, 1876), p. 151.
- “Ups and Downs of the Bonapartes and Bourbons,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXVII (1871), pp. 289-290.
- Giles Fox-Strangways, ed., The Journal of the Hon. Henry Edward Fox (London, 1923), p. 302.
- Ibid., pp. 314-315.
- Ibid., p. 326.
- Richard P. Grenville, The Private Diary of Richard, Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Vol. III (London, 1862), p. 37.
- Ibid., p. 55.
- Wilfred S. Dowden, The Journal of Thomas Moore, Vol. 4, 1831-1835 (Cranbury, NJ, 1987), p. 1391.
- Algernon Bourke, ed., Correspondence of Mr. Joseph Jekyll with his sister-in-law Lady Gertrude Sloane Stanlely, 1818-1838 (London, 1894), p. 267.
- Henry A. Beers, Nathaniel Parker Willis (Boston, 1885), p. 159.
- Harriot Georgiana Mundy, The Journal of Mary Frampton (London, 1885), pp. 240, 374.
- Sydney Morgan, Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, Diaries and Correspondence, Vol. II, Second Edition (London, 1863), p. 365.
- John Cam Hobhouse, Recollections of a Long Life, Vol. IV (New York, 1910), p. 317.
- Life, Letters, and Journals of George Ticknor, Vol. I, p. 369.
She sings, plays, and dances well, says a thousand witty things, and laughs without ceasing at everything and everybody.