Napoleon’s trouble on the home front

Building an empire is easier than constructing a dynasty. The famous French leader was bedevilled by unintelligent and uncooperative family members.

A Portrait of Napoleon and his nieces and nephews. Credit: ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo.
A Portrait of Napoleon and his nieces and nephews. Credit: ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo.

My family did much more harm to me than the good I did for them.’ — Napoleon Bonaparte

Long-established dynasties have a form of stress resistance built, married, or bred into them over generations so that they do not shatter under the weight of disaster. Strong houses with deep roots can survive a rough battlefield or infertile king, and while politicking within the family trees will increase with its fruitfulness, so too will security. The hundred-year old oak is stronger than a sapling, and, like everything that evolves naturally, dynasties grow their own stress resistance — but man made products need it to be designed in externally, lest they crumble. Napoleon, on the cusp of imperial ascendancy, understood his family’s unique vulnerability, and dedicated much of his later life to securing a dynasty.

On the 4th January 1798, Germaine de Staël pestered the ascendent Napoleon with questions. ‘General,’ she asked, ‘which woman could you love the most?’ ‘My wife,’ came the reply. ‘But which woman, alive or dead, do you most admire?’ ‘The one who gives birth to the most children,’ he countered. His wife, Josephine Bonaparte, was noticeably anxious for the rest of the evening.

Mme Bonaparte had been married to Napoleon for two tumultuous but broadly happy, childless years. Punctuated by passionate tumult and infidelities (first hers, then his), the marriage bound the two together in a mutual obsession.

Napoleon’s close relationship with his step-children abated the prospect of divorce — as long as Eugène de Beauharnais remained the emperor’s adopted son, and Hortense de Beauharnais’s son Napoléon Charles remained his successor, there was no pressing need to divorce the now-infertile Josephine.

While Napoleon was a General, he was less concerned with his progeny or his legacy. He was step-father to the two children from Josephine’s first marriage, and seemed relaxed about having children of his own. This dynamic altered following his rise to emperor. From this moment, the future of the Bonaparte line rested upon some elusive chance that Josephine might conceive a son, the progeny of his stepchildren, and the nephews produced by some of his most feckless and unimpressive siblings.

Consequently, a distant but constant threat of divorce permeated the post-ascension marriage. The shaky security of the union was retained during the early years of his Imperial title through Josephine’s twin confidences: the first in her husband’s devotion, the second in the expectation that her son or grandson might be made the emperor’s heir. Eugène de Beauharnais, her oldest child, had been adopted by the Emperor, and Hortense, her daughter, had been semi-incestuously betrothed to the emperor’s brother Louis, to whom she had swiftly delivered a son by the name of Napoleon Charles. Less preferable, though still favourable compared to divorce, was the prospect that another one of Napoleon’s nephews, unrelated to Josephine, might take the throne. In any case, divorce remained a distant possibility. After all, while Josephine was slightly older than her husband, she had given birth to two children. Could it be that the emperor himself was infertile?

For now, at least some of the Imperial dynasty’s security also rested on Napoleon’s siblings producing good sons. His sister Pauline, at just sixteen years of age was a terror — ‘the prettiest and worst-behaved person imaginable,’ according to the poet, Antoine-Vincent Arnault. Metternich thought her to be ‘as pretty as it [was] possible to be,’ but also wrote that the girl was ‘in love with herself’ and that ‘her only occupation was pleasure.’

One night in Paris, the emperor, disturbed in his study by the sounds of vigorous activity nearby, found his seventeen year old sister in the arms of one of his young officers. Elated that she had stumbled upon a suitable enough partner to be caught with, Napoleon forced them to hurriedly marry before she could instead abscond with a much greater rogue, and the two were soon parents to a young boy named Dermide Louis-Napoleon, who would die of fever as an adolescent. Her husband, upon the orders of Napoleon, went to Saint-Domingue to suppress the independence movement led by Toussaint-Louverture. ‘How could my brother be so cruel as to send me into exile amongst savages and snakes?’ she cried. ‘Besides,’ she added, perfectly healthy, ‘I am very ill. I shall die before I get there.’ In later life, having recovered from the death of her only child, Pauline would scandalise some visitors to her court by resting her feet upon a bent lady-in-waiting being used as a footstool, and would receive others while bathing, Sybarite-like, in milk, from which she was rinsed by a male servant pouring warm water over her from above. She sold the duchy her brother bestowed on her for six million francs.

Caroline, Napoleon’s plainer and more pleasant youngest sister, had also married one of Napoleon’s men. Her brother, who had hoped that heads of state would vie for her hand, was unimpressed with the marriage. Joachim Murat was a dashing cavalry officer, but of common stock and with an unbecoming provincial accent. The teenage Caroline was swept up in the romance of the situation, but was a ‘knowing little scatterbrain, with no thought for my position,’ according to her brother. ‘In the high position to which fortune has raised me,’ Napoleon told his sister, ‘I simply cannot allow a member of my family to marry into one like that.’ He refused on principle to attend the wedding. Despite the broad happiness and fruitfulness of the marriage, neither was faithful to the other. Caroline swiftly found herself entangled in a number of affairs, including one with her husband’s aide-de-camp, another with Metternich, and another still with a man who had to be restrained from murdering his own wife when he discovered that she and Caroline alike were having affairs with the Austrian statesman at the same time.

Napoleon’s bitterness at the unsuitable matches of his siblings grew as each spurned sovereigns and statesmen in favour of attractive young demi-monde. Jérôme had disappointed him greatly by marrying a merchant’s daughter, and was rapidly persuaded to abandon his bride when promised a kingdom to do so. Instructed to never use the name Bonaparte again, his abandoned wife soon gave birth to a son by the name of Jérôme-Napoleon Bonaparte. Caroline had married an innkeeper’s son, and his brother Lucien had married the shy, illiterate sister of another. Upon the death of Lucien’s wife, the emperor endeavoured to marry his brother to the Spanish Infanta. Instead, Lucien had taken the attractive and promiscuous daughter of a tax inspector as a wife. Napoleon’s fury at the marriage inspired Lucien to write to the emperor that, while his own wife was no saint, unlike Josephine she was not ‘old and smelly’ and that at least he had had the sense to ‘marry [his] own mistress rather than someone else’s.’

There had been no talk of sovereigns for Elisa, the oldest, plainest and most alienating of the Bonaparte sisters, who had instead been married off to an insignificant dullard by the name of Felice Bacciochi. Her grating personality frequently meant her status as the most capable of the other Bonapartes was overlooked. Elisa was widely disparaged as a masculine, abrupt individual with little care for niceties, but her effective and competent nature made her a crucial counter to the incompetence of other Bonaparte siblings. Elisa’s many resulting promotions (first made a minor sovereign princess, then the Grand Duchess of Tuscany) left her siblings aghast with jealousy, and her only surviving child, Elisa Napoléone, would dedicate much of her adult life to restoring the Bonaparte dynasty to the imperial throne.

Napoleon’s siblings — for too long resentful towards Josephine and smarting at the emperor’s hypocrisy in marrying an unsuitable woman out of love while insisting they marry for the dynasty — conspired to introduce him to young women in the hopes that he might impregnate one and be forced to acknowledge his wife’s infertility. When one such honeypot later bore a child that would come to develop a remarkable resemblance to the emperor, Napoleon (at the time half-convinced that it could not be his) only allowed the child’s mother to give her son ‘half the name’. And so a boy by the name of Charles Léon Denuelle was born. Napoleon would never wholly believe himself to be the father, and died before he could witness the striking similarity the boy bore to him.

In 1807, Napoleon’s most viable heir died. Hortense de Beauharnais’ son had passed away at the age of four. The emperor, who had rolled about on the floor with the boy and allowed him to ride him like a horse, mourned for only a short period of time. For a while, he was sympathetic to his stepdaughter, but sympathy for the boy’s mother waned in the face of her continuing grief. ‘I wish you’d be reasonable,’ read one letter to her. ‘Grief has its limits.’ The emperor’s attention had been drawn towards the necessity of divorcing Josephine, in order to secure an heir, and his temper (ever short with women) grew crueller.

For a while, an alluring and comforting mixture of uxorious obsession and uneasiness about his own potency convinced Napoleon to remain within his childless marriage to Josephine. But the death of multiple potential heirs and the dawning realisation of his sibling’s deficiencies had changed this; siblings he had rewarded handsomely now lacked heirs, lacked understanding, lacked nous, lacked any sense of destiny. To cement his legacy, to capture his ‘star’, Napoleon needed an heir. He could no longer rely on the children of others. Divorce loomed.

In 1810, Napoleon’s most devoted mistress gave birth to the first child he felt confident of, a boy by the name of Alexandre. There was no longer any doubt of Napoleon’s potency, and the need for divorce was crystallised. The Empress Josephine was histrionic.

After an unsuccessful attempt to marry the youngest of Tsar Alexander I’s sisters, Napoleon sought to secure and legitimise his dynasty through a Habsburg union. His marriage to Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, resulted in the swift birth of Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, an obvious delight to the father who could often be caught by servants bouncing the boy on his knee or kissing his head with adoration.

The son that had engendered such joy in the emperor was given the title King of Rome. He would be separated at the age of two from his father and three months later would leave France for exile in the homeland of his mother. Napoleon’s reign had collapsed, and in October 1815 he arrived at the distant outpost of St Helena, wherein he would spend the remaining years of his life. In consequence, Napoleon’s son Franz, as the boy was thereafter known, was afforded limited prospects and no political role in the state, instead existing as a bargaining chip to be used by Metternich against France. Terrified that the boy, like his father, might attempt to capture his ‘star’, his grandfather stunted his travels and education for fear of him recognising the destiny set out for him by his father. Increasingly frustrated at the repression he faced in the gilded cage of the Austrian court, he grew bitter towards the meek and politically incapable Marie Louise. ‘If Josephine had been my mother,’ he told a friend, ‘my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena, and I should not be at Vienna. My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.’ Franz- Napoleon II — would die at the age of 21 in the same manner in which he had lived: alone.

Today, the grand, sunny exterior of the Schönbrunn Palace glimmers in the autumnal sun, though some of the rooms inside are permeated with melancholy. Elegantly decorated suites serve as tributes from Franz Joseph I to a wife who never seemed to want him, and stark desks and toilettes reveal decades of militaristic paternal priorities at the expense of familial relations. Somewhere near the end of the tour, a small bedroom belonging to a young man has little in it but a case holding a stuffed little bird. A placard nearby explains that this was his only friend.


Katherine Bayford