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The House of Bonaparte: How Napoleon used his family to build an empire

How Napoleon used his family to build an empire

Almost every facet of Napoleon Bonaparte’s existence – from his heated love affairs to his ingenious military strategies to the thorny ethical controversies of his reign – have sparked obsessive interest across the centuries. But equally interesting is the story of the Bonaparte dynasty, and how the various branches evolved over the centuries. Charting the twists and turns of his descendants is even more fascinating and inspiring in the Internet age, when – thanks to Ancestry – you don’t have to be a major historical figure to access and tease out the most intricate details of your own family tree.

Born in Corsica to minor members of Italian nobility, Napoleon rose up to radically re-shape Europe in his own image by installing members of the Bonaparte clan in seats of power across the continent. Their offspring would play their own part in the history of Europe, with descendants still attracting media attention today. But what about the Emperor’s own, direct progeny?

Despite the much-mythologised passion that flowed between Napoleon and his first wife Josephine, the couple had no children together. She already had two children from an earlier marriage, and was unable to conceive any more with Napoleon. Desperate for the political security an heir would bring, he reluctantly divorced Josephine and went on to marry a much younger woman, Archduchess Marie Louise. This was a literal case of politics creating strange bedfellows because her father, Francis I of Austria, had been one of Napoleon’s fiercest opponents. In fact, several years prior to the marriage, Francis’ forces had been crushed by Napoleon’s in the Battle of Austerlitz, one of the most titanic confrontations of the Napoleonic Wars.

Raised with anti-French fervour, Marie Louise was fully prepared to despise this marriage that had been engineered, in her father’s words, to secure ‘some years of political peace’. Napoleon wasn’t even present at their wedding, being represented instead by the bride’s uncle. Yet, despite the ominous beginning, Marie Louise was pleasantly surprised when she finally met her husband for the first time, saying ‘You are much better looking than your portrait’.

She would later write to her cynical father, ‘People have done great injustice to the Emperor. The better one knows him, the better one appreciates and loves him.’ Napoleon was equally smitten, doting excitedly on his new wife. As one onlooker wrote, ‘He is so evidently in love with her that all his habits are subordinated to her wishes.’

He also lavished love upon their eventual son, the much-longed-for heir to his empire.

Named Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, he would be Napoleon’s only legitimate child, and provided the great general with a refreshing escape from the burdens of power. ‘Sometimes,’ one eyewitness wrote, ‘dismissing the great thoughts that occupied his mind, he would lie down on the floor beside his cherished son, playing with him like another child.’

However, a few years after his son was born, Napoleon was toppled from power and sent into exile to the island of Elba, never to see his family again. Although Napoleon François would technically assume the title Napoleon II, he was ultimately deposed following his father’s final defeat at Waterloo, and was never to rule. Instead, he was raised in Austria under the wing of Francis I and would die aged just 21 of tuberculosis. He seemed poignantly aware of his fate as a historical footnote, reportedly musing in his final days, ‘Must I end so young a life that is useless and without a name? My birth and my death – that is my whole story.’

But what about the more well-known Napoleon III? This Napoleon, who ruled France in the mid-19th Century first as President and then as Emperor, was not a direct descendant of the original Napoleon. Born Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, he was in fact the son of Napoleon’s younger brother Louis, who’d been installed as King of Holland in the early 19th Century. Napoleon III’s mother, Hortense de Beauharnais, was actually Josephine’s daughter from her husband before Napoleon. (So, by marrying Louis, Hortense had become her own step-father’s sister-in-law.)

Despite his historical significance as the last monarch of France, Napoleon III was widely mocked by the likes of Karl Marx, who thought him farcical, and writer Victor Hugo, who dubbed him ‘Napoleon the Small’. He was eventually deposed and died in exile in England. His son, Louis-Napoleon, trained as a British soldier and would be stabbed to death by Zulu warriors in Africa – an unlikely end which made headlines around the world.

Other notable Bonapartes included Napoleon’s older brother Joseph, who was made King of Naples and Sicily and then King of Spain, and Napoleon’s younger sister Caroline, who became Queen Consort of Naples. One of Caroline’s distant descendants was stage and screen star Rene Auberjonois, best known as Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Arguably the most notable member of the House of Bonaparte alive today is Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoleon. He is a direct descendant of Napoleon’s younger brother Jérôme, who had been installed as King of Westphalia in the early 19th Century. (Another, earlier descendant of Jérôme was Charles Bonaparte, the prominent American lawyer who founded the FBI in 1908.)

Adding to the intrigue of Napoleon’s family tree is the fact he also had illegitimate children. One, Charles Leon, had a striking resemblance to his father, with an acquaintance noting ‘his origin was stamped upon his face, he was physically the living portrait of the great captain’. Both he and another illegitimate son, Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, are known to have living descendants, and it’s impossible to know just how widespread Napoleon’s genetic code is in society today. Who knows – perhaps Ancestry will reveal your own unexpected connection to the House of Bonaparte?