When Napoleon Bonaparte first came to power in 1799, it was after ten years of the French Revolution’s political turmoil, feuding, murder and war. As we shall see, a lot went wrong with the French Revolution, but they did get a few things right. One of those was embracing the idea that picking your ruler based on the fact that his or her parents were also rulers is not ideal. From a logical point of view it’s madness, and in practical terms it had spotty a track record. Napoleon, whose entire career depended on the Revolution, did support some of its core ideals about rights and laws and merit. But as soon as he could, he embraced with open arms the bizarre practice of picking kings and queens based on breeding, not ability. That turned out to be a mistake.
Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in December, 1804, ostensibly with the authority of a plebiscite of the French people that he arranged to provide legitimacy. The following Spring he decreed his first new king, bestowing the title King of Italy on himself. In the coming years he’d make three of his brothers kings one sister a Queen, the other sisters a Princess and a Duchess. For someone who rose to power based on his own merits and machinations, he seemed to put great faith in the idea that just being related to him was all the prerequisite needed to rule.
Of course they weren’t absolute kings and queens of their domains. The reality was, Napoleon expected them to do what he said and put the interests of France above all else. He may have thought only his family could be trusted with such power, but when it came down to it, he seldom trusted them to make the right decisions. Even when they might have been trying to do a decent job, Napoleon’s hectoring interference often made things harder, not easier for them. None of them retained their thrones once their brother lost his, although one of them tried.
The Emperor adopted the entire mindset of a monarch, and was bound and determined that his heir would succeed him to the throne. This betrayal of Revolutionary principle meant that he indulged in the kind of political marrying and heir-seeking that had been the staple of medieval monarchies. Divorcing his own love-match and marrying an Austrian princess (like the Bourbon king Louis XVI before him), he finally got the legitimate son he’d wanted, and of course immediately crowned him the King of Rome. That marriage didn’t stop another war with Austria, and the infant King never issued a royal command.
But before he took over the thrones, palaces, and powers of kings, Napoleon was just a promising but awkward young immigrant soldier. He had dreams of greatness but he also had an enormous family to support. He lacked grace, charm, and connections needed to succeed in the Paris salons where true power was brokered. Then he met Josephine.
Josephine, Empress of France
The Revolution had left Marie Josephine Rose de Beauharnais a widow, her husband fed to the guillotine. She too had languished in prison, awaiting the same fate. The marriage had died long before that, and the two of them hadn’t lived together for many years. The only good to come of the match were her two beloved children, Eugene and Hortense. With the fall of Robespierre and the rise of a new government called the Directorate, France put aside the worst of its terrors for a moment in 1794. Freed from prison and connected to the new right side of the political spectrum, Josephine and her circle found themselves the literal belles of the ball, widely imitated and admired in the higher social circles of the Directorate.
Napoleon’s rise owes a lot to his own genius and ambition, but Josephine deserves some of the credit as well. When they met she was at the height of her game as social maven and saloniere, attached to the most successful and corrupt of the Directors, Paul Barras. Napoleon’s early military victories impressed Barras, especially his decisive action against a counter-revolutionary uprising in Paris in 1795. Barras introduced Josephine and Napoleon, and the young general was swept off his feet. She was older, sophisticated, and adept at the arts of love. He was young, socially awkward, and an erotic naif. They married in March, 1795 in a quiet, private ceremony that Napoleon’s family knew nothing about.
Josephine held all the emotional cards in the early years of their marriage. She made him ecstatic, while he made her a married woman. She carried on a long-term affair with another soldier, and he complained constantly of her lack of letters and her tardiness on joining him while he invaded Italy for France. Still, she pleased him mightily when they were together, and she proved an expert guide for navigating him through the social and political whirl of Directorate politics. When he finally learned of her affair, he was across the sea invading Egypt. He was heartbroken, and threw her out when he returned. But she pleaded for forgiveness, and her two children - whom Napoleon would always adore - begged for their mother’s cause.
The two reconciled, but the dynamic had changed. She remained devoted to him, and he proceeded to take on a string of mistresses over the rest of their marriage. Josephine played a role in the coup that brought Napoleon to power in 1799. As ruler of France, the power dynamic cemented into one of him dominating her (and everyone else close to him), but he was generally kind and loving. He continued to love and support Eugene and Hortense as if they were his own children, integrating them fully into the family and taking the young soldier Eugene on campaign with him. It became clear that Josephine could no longer bear children, but the marriage seemed a success.
Josephine was always a profligate spender, and more than once Napoleon came home from a campaign to face massive bills from her creditors. But her greatest purchase was made through her own wheeling and dealing: a country chateau outside of Paris called Malmaison. Although she would live in many palaces as Napoleon’s wife, this was the home she always returned to. Today it is a museum to her and Napoleon, and offers a perfect window into their time together when Napoleon first came to power.
Malmaison was never a royal palace, and by comparison to places like Versailles or Fontainebleau, it seems small and quaint. Yet it is still luxurious and well appointed, the stately home of a rich family rather than a royal one. In Josephine’s day, it had vast grounds and gardens, only a fraction of which remain today. Napoleon enjoyed the country house a great deal, often preferring to rule from there rather than the old Royal domiciles in the middle of Paris. It was a fittingly modest but sophisticated abode for a man whose title was First Consul of France. He and Josephine had their happiest years here.
Well, it seems a success from an outsider’s point of view. For everyone in Napoleon’s family, it seemed like a disaster. The Bonaparte clan’s feelings towards Josephine had always ranged from distaste to abhorrence. Many of them had hoped the marriage would end sooner rather than later. But as Napoleon assumed complete authority, their ability to influence his private life disappeared (if it had ever existed), while he took upon himself the right to determine every little thing about their lives.
Meet the Bonapartes
Napoleon’s family was born on Corsica, which only came under French control in 1768, the year before Napoleon was born. Although the Bonapartes claimed to being part of the petty nobility, they were not rich or powerful. The father, Carlo, was of the middling bureaucratic class. The noble claim helped get young Napoleon into military school in France, which he began when he was nine. When he was sixteen, Carlo died, and the young military cadet took it upon himself to be the head of the family. Joseph, who was a year older, had no problem with this. His mother Letizia worked hard to keep the family together, and was grateful for Napoleon’s devotion. While the turmoils of the French Revolution brought chaos to Corsica as it did everywhere else in France, the family struggled, eventually having to flee to the mainland. But as Napoleon’s star rose, he always made sure to bring the family up with him, and by the time he was ruler of France, they’d risen very far indeed.
Letizia, or Madame Mere as Napoleon called her, had thirteen children, eight of whom survived infancy and thus lived long enough to benefit from Napoleon’s largess and suffer under his meddling. There were three girls and five boys, all of whom Napoleon had plans and uses for as he rose to power. In a world of revolutions, coups, wars, and betrayals, he felt that family was the one thing he could rely on. There’s both an emotional and a rational case for this conclusion. He loved and felt responsible for his family, and he was operating in the world of politics and war, where no one could be trusted. He must have felt that they would love and trust him even when no one else would. In many cases they rose to the occasion, but in many, many more he put either too much faith in their abilities or not enough faith to let them find their own path. Let’s look now at the seven Napoleonic siblings, and how they each fared under their Imperial brother’s plans for them.
Joseph, King of Spain
Joseph was only a year older than Napoleon, but he was always subordinate to his more domineering younger brother. He followed Napoleon’s lead and mostly obeyed his instructions. The two disagreed and argued, as brothers do, but he was the most loyal and capable family-member to serve the Emperor. That makes him the perfect piece of evidence in building the case against Napoleon’s ill-conceived desire to revive the concept of rule based on relatives not merit.
Joseph wore two crowns, both gifts from his brother. First he was made King of Naples, where he had to oversee a harsh war of repression against bandits and rebels who had no interest in serving some French king. Just as he was (with the help of Napoleon’s army) getting things under control he got a promotion. You don’t normally think of kings getting promoted, but Joseph got bumped up from Naples to all of Spain. It was a big jump, and a terrible idea, because even though his title said King, all of Spain was even less interested in having a French King than Naples had been.
Napoleon’s decision to take Spain (more on this in a later chapter) was a big blunder. Even more than invading Russia, which made more sense in the moment, it was the poorest decision of his reign. Joseph was put in charge of country he had no connection to and ordered to rule over an entire nation who wanted him dead and gone. He relied on Napoleon’s army commanders to secure his position, and had to give them free reign. The Emperor constantly second guessed him, even while he failed to pay enough attention to or send enough troops to have a chance to subjugate the peninsula and fight of the British under Wellington.
Spain had a huge role in Napoleon’s fall, and you can’t really blame Joseph for it. The conflict there against the British and Spanish armies as well as the local guerrillas (a term coined at this time) drained France of lives and money for years, all to no benefit. I’m not sure who would’ve done a better job. Napoleon himself certainly should have taken a more hands-on approach. He had a sense of how to rule and the drive to do it. Joseph did not. He had done good service early in Napoleon’s career as a diplomat, and the Emperor would’ve been much better served letting Joseph work as a negotiator and just left Spain to the Spanish.
Napoleon’s Imperial ambitions could only have been fueled by the places he was living now. He knew better than to try living at Versailles - that palace was full of two many negative associations. He had taken a liking to the vast chateau at Fontainebleau, south of Paris. Unlike Malmaison, this place is huge and had been built by kings. Surrounded by art, furniture, and relics of France’s previous monarchs, Napoleon couldn’t help but see himself as following in their lead. But he seemed determined to out perform them all.
Lucien, The Rebel
Lucien was the rebel brother, and when Napoleon was rising during the French Revolution that rebel spirit was sometimes an asset. He was instrumental in the 1799 coup that brought Napoleon to power. Indeed, were it not for some quick thinking by Lucien, the whole thing might’ve come undone. But even though he helped his big brother take over France, Lucien had no interest in giving Napoleon authority over him. He married who he wanted, no matter how much Napoleon raged. He made plans behind his brother’s back, speculating on land deals in the new world that came undone when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States. He was given important government positions, but ultimately there was no reconciling the two, and Lucien left.
Napoleon never gave Lucien a crown. Instead the middle brother went into exile in the Papal States, and Madame Mere decided to go with him. In many ways Lucien was lucky. He got out before Napoleon could ruin things for him. Lucien had a good relationship with Pope Pius VII, while Napoleon’s relationship with the Pope was always fraught. It got so bad that the when eventually he annexed all of Rome and even put the Pope under house arrest in France, eventually installing him at Fontainebleau. Lucien decided to put a whole ocean between him and his bossy brother, taking ship to the United States. He was captured by the British on the way there.
Lucien went from one of Napoleon’s antagonists, the Pope, to his greatest enemy, England. There he spent the rest of the war under a kind of house arrest, although he was granted more and more freedom at his English country estate. He continued to pursue his two passions: studying antiquities and having children (thirteen in all). He returned to France after his brother’s first fall from power. Surprisingly he actually supported Napoleon during the 100 days. Those Bonapartes may have schemed and fought, but they always seemed to forgive one another.
In Fontainebleau they have preserved the pope’s chambers, where Napoleon held him hostage for several years. Lucien’s closeness to the pope must have galled the Emperor. It was the papacy that ended up giving Lucien honorary titles, a reward for his loyalty to the pope over all those years.
Elisa, Grand Duchess of Tuscany
Elisa is a bright spot in the record of Bonaparte pop-up sovereigns. The oldest sister certainly engaged in as much familial sniping and plotting as any of the others, but she also managed to make the most of her time on the throne that Napoleon gave her. With big brother’s approval, she’d married a Corsican officer named Felix Baciocchi Levoy, with whom she never got on well. Napoleon gave them control over Piombino, a little principality in Italy. Despite the modest size of her kingdom, she worked hard at ruling and did a good job.
She developed her territory’s arts, culture, infrastructure, and laws, firmly embracing the Napoleonic Code, according to her brother’s wishes. Years later, as Napoleon was shuffling around the territories in his own Kingdom of Italy, Elisa asked for an upgrade. In 1809 she was made Grand Duchess of Tuscany, adding the crown jewel of Florence to her holdings. Naturally, since she was trying to do a good job she had plenty of clashes with Napoleon, who expected her to put France’s interests (meaning his interests) above those of her people. In the end, she lost her Duchy when Napoleon fell from power. She died of an illness relatively young, just 43, the first of the adult siblings to pass away.
Elisa’s success story mirrors Napoleon’s best experience at building a foreign empire. Italy hadn’t been unified since the Roman Emperor, but under Napoleon’s conquering hand it got a taste of what a single Italy might look like. That enforced togetherness didn’t survive once French soldiers weren’t around to enforce it, but it did plant the seeds for the Risorgimento that would begin a decade or so later.
Louis, King of Holland
When he was young, Louis was Napoleon’s favorite. He treated the young Louis more like a son than a little brother, taking him on campaign with him as an aide and training him in the arts of war. But Louis was no Napoleon, and was not cut out for military life. He went home ill from the Egyptian campaign, missing the worst of it, and was generally a mopey fellow for most of his life. Unfortunately for just about everyone but the future Napoleon III, the melancholy and misogynist Louis became a pawn in Napoleon and Josephine’s greatest matchmaking scheme.
Josephine’s lovely daughter Hortense was in need of a husband and Louis a wife. Their marriage would seal Napoleon and Josephine even closer, and their children would provide heirs to Napoleon’s throne. All of that worked pretty much as planned, except Louis and Hortense hated each other and had a miserable marriage. Their youngest son, Louis-Napoleon did eventually become emperor in 1852, although via a coup rather than direct succession. Napoleon divorced Josephine to marry the Austrian princess Marie-Louise, and they had a son who became Napoleon II, at least in name.
Napoleon, still relying on the flawed idea that his family should rule other countries, decided that Louis could help the French cause best by ruling Holland as King. Already under French sway, turning the Dutch into Louis’ subjects was meant to get them more in line with Napoleon’s policies. Louis tried his best, and threw himself fully into being a king, even trying to learn Dutch. For a time Hortense actually enjoyed married life, now that she was a queen. But Louis was never as independent or effective as he wanted to be. He needed France’s armies to beat off a British invasion and in the wake of this disaster Napoleon decided he wasn’t up to the task. He asked Louis to abdicate, but the King of Holland refused.
All this refusal did was cause a break between the brothers - Louis still had to give up his crown in the face of Napoleon’s might and now the Emperor wanted nothing more to do with him during his years in exile. Hortense was already spending as much time as possible in France instead of wherever Louis was, and his exile marked a complete separation.
She much preferred the company of her mother at Malmaison and remained in Napoleon’s good graces. She had her own lover and bore him an illegitimate child, Joseph, who went on to be a good friend of and minister to his half-brother, Napoleon III. When her youngest son became emperor, he also spent a lot of time at Fontainebleau. Like Paris itself, it owes a lot of its current splendor to his building and preservation projects.
Pauline, Duchess of Guastalla
Pauline is mostly remembered as the beautiful and erotic temptress, the Bonaparte who posed nude for statues and had a famous string of lovers. She was also very loyal to and supportive of Napoleon. Even after his fall she would visit him, living on Elba for a time. He loved her, but never trusted her with any true power. She did not have Elisa’s head for ruling or Caroline’s ambition. She did however get to personally witness one of Napoleon’s early international disasters.
Several years before he seized power, Napoleon arranged Pauline’s marriage to a fellow French officer, Charles Leclerc, despite the fact that she loved another man. A few years later, when Napoleon was in charge, he gave Leclerc command of an expedition to fix one of the problems that had been facing the revolutionary government before him: Saint-Domingue. What we know today as Haiti had been mounting a revolution against French rule for a decade at this point. An incredibly profitable colony when not in revolt, Napoleon wanted it forced back into line.
Leclerc went with his troops and brought Pauline with him. It proved a miserable time for all involved, especially the revolutionaries on Saint-Domingue and the soldiers fighting them. The biggest killer was not enemy gunfire but disease, with tens of thousands of French troops dying from yellow fever. Leclerc scored some victories, including arranging the capture of the revolution’s leader, Toussaint Louverture. Leclerc soon after met the same fate as many of his men and of Louverture, dying of disease. The expedition to Saint-Domingue was a disaster, and three years later Haitian independence was fully realized. It took until the 1990s for France to honor the so-called “Black Napoleon” for his fight against slavery, inscribing his name in the Pantheon.
Pauline eventually recovered from the strains and remarried, this time to an Italian prince, Camillo Borghese. She split her time between France and Italy, and her home in Paris now houses the British Embassy. Although she remained loyal and loving to Napoleon, he never did make her queen of anything. Perhaps some part of him realized she’d had enough trauma trying to extend his domain in Haiti.
Caroline Queen of Naples
Caroline has the reputation of a schemer, She famously went along with her husband and betrayed Napoleon when things were most dire. Although none of the Bonapartes had much love for Josephine, Caroline in particular worked hard against her, and was most welcoming when Napoleon divorced her to marry Marie-Louise of Austria.
The youngest Bonaparte daughter was very firm about her desire to get her crown too, and Napoleon obliged. For him it was a double-reward, since Caroline was married to one of Napoleon’s best and most loyal generals, Joachim Murat. The dashing cavalry commander had served in the French Revolutionary army and been at Napoleon’s side during many of his most important campaigns. Caroline’s marriage was a love match, but one that happened to align with her brother’s standards.
Napoleon’s decision to move Joseph from King of Naples to King of Spain left the southern Italian country in need of a head of state. Murat got to be King and Caroline Queen, taking over after much of the hard fighting to pacify the kingdom had already been done under Joseph’s reign. She remained loyal to her brother and second sister-in-law right up until she and her husband decided that their own necks were at risk. As Napoleon’s fall seemed certain, Caroline and Murat agreed that they’d rather keep their kingdom than go down fighting, and so signed a separate peace with France’s enemies.
Madame Mere and the rest of the loyal Bonapartes did not approve. Even pariah Lucien had never actively betrayed Napoleon. Apparently Murat felt some guilt over the decision, because a year later, when Napoleon escaped from Elba, Murat rallied to his old Emperor and foolishly sent Naples to war against Austria, losing his kingdom in the process. He died at the hands of Corsicans while fleeing reprisal from the victorious Allies. Caroline lived on and remarried. She remains yet another stunning example of the foolishness of Napoleon’s desire to put crowns on every sibling’s head. Even family can betray you when times get tough.
Jerome, King of Westphalia
Jerome was the total screw up of the family. The baby of the bunch, he grew up without any memories of tough times that the others had. His big brother was already famous by the time he was eight or nine and ruler of France when he was fifteen. Jerome thus played the role of the spoiled nobleman’s son in Napoleon’s attempt to reinvent the Bonapartes as an imperial dynasty. Shipped off to the Navy after getting shot in a duel, he was mouthy to his admiral and dismissive of authority. Basically abandoning his post to tool around the Caribbean, he took the long way home when Napoleon recalled him and went to the United States.
In Baltimore, living it up on money borrowed from a French diplomat, he met and married a beautiful young Baltimore society girl, Elizabeth Patterson. Napoleon was beyond outraged. His siblings needed his permission to marry. They were meant for royalty, not American nobodies. Even though Jerome and Elizabeth had a child, Napoleon refused to let her set foot on the continent of Europe. They made it to Lisbon together, but she went on to England and a life without him while he came crawling back to big brother and did what he was told.
Obedience had its rewards. Napoleon arranged for a marriage with a German princess, Catharina, and created a new country for him to be king of. Slamming together several smaller German principalities, Jerome became King of Westphalia. His primary duty was to provide soldiers and money for Napoleon’s armies, and this he did. He and his wife, who got on quite well, spent the rest of their days the spending what money they didn’t give the Emperor on parties and luxuries.
When war with Russia came, Napoleon put the King of Westphalia in charge of one of the army’s corps. Jerome was soon at odds with Marshal Davout, one of Napoleon’s best commanders and a man who’d never lost a battle. Ever the brat, Jerome complained bitterly and gave up his command, unwittingly sparing himself the horrors of the Russian campaign. Three years later, he had his last chance for military glory on the field of Waterloo. As we saw, he over-committed to taking Hougoumont and helped undo Napoleon’s battle plan.
The great irony of the Bonaparte legacy is that it is Jerome’s descendants that carry on the family line to this day. I have no knowledge or opinion about the modern family, except that they do not currently and have not recently ruled France. Napoleon’s dream of leaving behind a dynasty to match the Bourbons he displaced never came true. The one successor, his nephew Napoleon III changed Paris tremendously, even more than his uncle did. And like his uncle he put a nascent republic to death and delayed French democracy for another two decades.
Napoleon II, King of Rome
In 1809, Napoleon divorced Josephine so he could marry Marie Louise daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Josephine of course could do nothing, but she did keep Malmaison for herself and lived out the rest of her short remaining time there. She retained a deep love for Napoleon, and even after the divorce she kept adding tributes to him and her former title of Empress to the decor at Malmaison, including the striking crowned bed set shown below, completed in 1812. She died from illness in 1814 while Napoleon was in exile on Elba.
Napoleon and Marie-Louise’s marriage in 1810 was an old regime kind of arrangement, meant to cement a peace between two great powers and provide an heir to the French throne. It was the most counterrevolutionary thing imaginable. It didn’t secure the peace, but it did produce an heir in 1811. Napoleon adored and doted on his first true heir, and those few years together at Fontainebleau are thought to be some of his happiest. The palace today has amble displays of the child king’s toys, outfits, and cribs. Young Napoleon II was made and referred to as the King of Rome, a bit of a slap in the face to Rome’s traditional ruler, the Pope, who was at the time Napoleon’s prisoner.
It must of been strange for the him to see the ostensible king of his home city toddle about Fontainebleau where they both lived. As it was, the patient, prisoner Pope must have taken some pleasure in watching Napoleon’s empire collapse around him in 1814. The Emperor tried to use the Pope’s release as a bargaining chip with his foes, but to no avail. He finally had to release the him into Austrian hands. Not long after, Napoleon abdicated his throne while at Fontainebleau. The abdication room, with its distinctive red chairs is preserved at the chateau. It’s a small chamber he used to meet with advisors, just a couple doors down from his throne room. Standing there, it’s easy to imagine the thick and somber atmosphere of despair. It was here that he gave it all up, at least until the following year.
It’s impossible to know what kind of Emperor Napoleon II would have been. He died as a young man of 21 and had never really lived outside his father’s fallen shadow. Had Napoleon successfully held onto power but still died of the same stomach ailment that killed him in 1821, the boy would have been only ten years old when he became Emperor. Who would’ve been the power behind the throne then? The Empress? One of the siblings? An ambitious Marshal? It could well have been yet another disaster we could attribute to Napoleon’s playing kingmaker. As the Revolution should have taught him, family ties is no way to pick a ruler.