Louis Napoleon (Ajaccio, 2 September 1778 - Livorno, 25 July 1846)
King of The Netherlands (1806 - 1810)
The indomitable brother
Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Corsica on 2 September 1778 as the fifth child of the royal judge Carlo di Buonaparte and his wife Letizia. He was one of the four brothers of the future French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte.
After the early death of his father, the elder brother Napoléon -- who had in the meantime risen to the rank of captain in the infantry regiment de La Fere in Auxonne -- took responsibility for little Louis. As was to be expected under the aegis of his elder brother, Louis also began a military career. He rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to lieutenant in 1795. As Napoléon’s aide-de-camp during the Italian campaign of 1796, the young Louis demonstrated courage and bravery when, at the Battle of Arcole, he extricated his brother, who was trapped under a fallen horse, thus saving his life. Napoléon not only appointed him Commandant, but gave him command of the 5th Dragoon Regiment in 1799 as First Consul. Louis Bonaparte had thus attained the rank of divisional general at the age of just 21. His brother sent him with his regiment on various military missions to Russia, Prussia, Sweden and Denmark between 1800 and 1801. A brief military conflict forced by Napoléon, the so-called “Orange War” -- between Portugal, England’s ally, and Spain, which was allied with France -- was brought to an end by Louis Napoléon through the peace treaty of Badajoz in 1801.
After his brother Napoléon crowned himself Emperor in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 2 December 1804, Louis became “Imperial Prince of France” and “Connétable de France” (“Lord of the Crown”). Early on, Napoléon vigorously pursued the goal of establishing a hereditary dynasty. Without regard to any opposition, he used his siblings to this end. He married off his sisters to generals who were devoted to him, and the two children his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais had brought into the marriage were also included in his plans.
He summarily arranged a marriage between the young Louis and Hortense de Beauharnais; for various reasons the two partners did not like each other and the marriage, which produced three sons, ended in disaster. In the end, they lived separately. Nevertheless, Pope Pius VII categorically refused a divorce. It was only with the death of Hortense in 1837 that Louis was free again to enter into a new union with Iulia Marchesa di Strozzi, who was only sixteen years old but remained childless thereafter. In addition, Louis Bonaparte’s health was challenged at an early age: He suffered from arthritis and progressive muscular atrophy, recovered only poorly from a riding accident, and fell into depression with increasing frequency as he grew older.
Louis Bonaparte only began to play a real role on the political stage at the time when he was installed as King of The Netherlands by his brother. After the devastating defeat of the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt in the Fourth Coalition War (1806), Napoléon issued the decree on the “Continental Blockade” against England, which he wanted to defeat economically in this manner after losing his fleet in the naval battle of Trafalgar. Napoléon forced the Dutch “Batavian Republic” to accede to this treaty and installed his brother Louis as King of The Netherlands in order to have a guarantor for the enforcement of French interests. Generally, he saw the younger brother not as a monarch, but rather as a “crowned prefect”, as Hortense de Beauharnais once put it. On 18 June 1806, Louis arrived at his new residence, the Huis ten Bosch palace near The Hague. However, the new king did not behave as Napoléon’s political calculations had foreseen. From the very beginning he showed an interest in his kingdom, which is why he was not only well received by the Dutch, but became downright popular in the course of his short reign. He learned the language, reformed Dutch law, gave the country a new constitution, improved care for the poor and sick, and founded the Imperial Museum in the new capital Amsterdam. Many of the reforms he set in motion still benefit the country today. All of this displeased his imperial brother. But the fact that Louis openly undermined the trade boycott against England, on the grounds that it would have massively damaged the Dutch economy, was regarded by Napoléon as outright treason. Furious, he accused Louis: “You have made Holland a British colony and are a worse enemy of France than England herself.” On 16 March 1810 Louis was forced to sign a treaty ceding all territory south of the Rhine without compensation. For The Netherlands this meant the loss of a third of its territory. On 3 July 1810 Louis resigned as King of The Netherlands. In the Treaty of Rambouillet on 9 July 1810, the country was annexed as a French department. The Austrian Emperor Francis I, Napoléon’s father-in-law, allowed Louis to reside in Austria, where he lived in Graz as the “Count of St. Leu”. Thereafter, Louis was no longer involved in politics, but was active in the literary world and made the acquaintance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After the fall of Napoleon, Louis Bonaparte could no longer stay in Austria and went to Switzerland. When the Bonaparte family became unpopular throughout Europe after the end of the French Empire, Pope Pius VII offered them asylum in the Vatican. Louis also took up residence there, and used the time to write a noteworthy treatise on the history of the British Parliament. Following Napoléon’s death in 1821, Louis left Rome and settled in Florence, where he acquired the Palazzo Gianfigliazzi Bonaparte in 1825. On 25 July 1846, during a stay in Livorno he suffered a cerebral stroke, from which he died. He was buried at his estate Saint-Leu-la-Foret near Paris in the presence of a Dutch delegation.
© Laurens Schulman B.V. 2023