It was the year 1851 when the prince president of France ordered the demolition of the old – and dilapidated – parish church of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris. In its place, another church was built at his expense to house a family crypt. Among others, the mortal remains of his father, who had died in Livorno (Grand Duchy of Tuscany, now part of Italy) in 1846, were transferred there. Before that, for decades, he had used the title of Count of Saint-Leu to distance himself from his true identity, Louis Bonaparte. He was the brother of Napoleon, with whom he severed ties after being forced to abdicate the throne of Holland.

Ironically, his son, the aforementioned prince president, established the Second Empire in 1852, embracing the memory of his famous uncle and adopting his name as Napoleon III. With this, he sought to reclaim, in a more pompous manner than real, the greatness of the past, while still paying homage to his father by burying him in the capital. The sculptor Louis Petitot created the mausoleum in 1862, funded by the sixty thousand francs that the deceased had specifically designated in his will. Louis would have appreciated the result, as the artist portrayed him in ceremonial attire as the king of Holland.

In reality, his name was Luigi Buonaparte because he was born in 1778 in Ajaccio, Corsica, a Genoese island conquered by the French from the Tuscans nine years earlier. Corsica was the homeland of a family that adapted to the new times by Frenchifying their surname. He was the fourth male offspring of the marriage between Carlo Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino, with older siblings Joseph, Napoleon, Lucien, and Elisa, and younger siblings Pauline, Caroline, and Jerome (three others died prematurely).

While Joseph studied law and Lucien briefly pursued the priesthood, Napoleon and Louis chose military careers, both training as artillerymen – Napoleon at the Brienne-le-Château academy and Louis at the Châlons-en-Champagne academy. Their destinies were almost inevitably intertwined, and in 1796, when Napoleon initiated the Italian campaign as a general, he called on his brother to join his staff as an aide-de-camp. Louis, at the age of eighteen, a lieutenant of artillery, was promoted to captain and joined the 5th Regiment of Dragoons.

As a captain, he engaged in combat several times, displaying courage, although seemingly without enthusiasm for the less epic and more brutal aspects of war – those involving death, looting, and destruction. Nevertheless, he accompanied Napoleon in the Egyptian campaign and continued to rise through the ranks until he achieved the rank of general at the young age of twenty-five, a promotion that he felt was premature. However, the powerful hand of his brother was decisive, and they collaborated in the coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire of the year VIII (November 9, 1799), ending the Directory in favor of the Consulate.

During this period, when Napoleon became the first consul, he arranged for Louis to marry Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Josephine from her first marriage to Alexandre François Marie, Viscount of Beauharnais. Hortense was initially reluctant, but she ultimately had to accept the marriage, leading to an unhappy marital life. The wedding took place in 1802, and over the next six years, three children were born – Napoleon Charles, Napoleon Louis, and Charles Louis (Napoleon III), not in France but in Holland.

The former United Provinces had been occupied by the French army in 1795 during the Revolutionary Wars, becoming the Batavian Republic. Nine years later, in 1804, Napoleon, who had proclaimed himself emperor, decided to transform that territory into the Kingdom of Holland, a puppet state to be governed by someone close to him. Following his pattern in other conquests, such as Joseph in Naples and later Murat, Jerôme in Westphalia, and Bernadotte in Sweden, he chose Louis, who enjoyed a favorable position in France as the Grand Constable and a recipient of the Legion of Honor.

However, Louis did not receive the news with joy because he suffered from rheumatism, requiring frequent visits to spas for relief. Moreover, Hortense left him alone on the throne, unable to endure the cold Nordic climate. Louis was also not enthusiastic about reigning while merely obeying his brother’s orders. Still, Napoleon convinced him by urging him to follow the maxim “Do what you must, come what may.”

The Dutch delegation sent to negotiate with the emperor was not only ignored but humiliated. They had to officially recognize the new sovereign, giving the matter a veneer of legality. After all, Napoleon argued, they had a common enemy in England, and in exchange for accepting the new king, they would receive economic benefits (expected from the continental blockade against the British) and political advantages (unifying under a single crown the different factions – unitarians, federalists, and orangists). Moreover, Louis would maintain the constitutional laws and freedoms enjoyed by the republic.

Indeed, the treaty signed in May 1806 recognized the fundamental principles of the Batavian Revolution (the Enlightenment movement that led to the fall of the Old Regime of William V). It allowed the preservation of the Dutch language, religion, and currency under a federal system of republican tradition. The reality turned out to be the opposite, but for the time being, Louis managed to win the favor of the Dutch by showing a willingness to learn the language, adopting the name Lodewijk I. This linguistic error endeared him to the people (he introduced himself as Konijn van ‘Olland, or “rabbit from ‘Olland”, instead of Koning van Holland, “king of Holland”).

On the language matter, he hired a private tutor, the poet Willem Bilderdijk, a fervent monarchist. As agreed in the treaty, he kept Dutch as the official language, possibly to hinder the work of French supervisors. He also showed great interest in understanding the situation of his new kingdom in various aspects, from art and science to agriculture and trade. In this regard, he promoted many administrative, cultural, and commercial projects.

Consequently, he engaged in extensive legislative work, implementing a series of reforms. One of the main reforms was the standardization of the country’s multiple legal codes, adapting them to the Napoleonic system. He abolished torture and forced labor in the penal system, although local jurists prevented him from doing the same for the death penalty. To compensate, he frequently resorted to pardons and commutations. The laws also put an end to the practical dominance of Calvinism over Catholicism and Judaism, despite the proclaimed religious freedom of the republic.

The death of his eldest son in 1807 prompted him to improve healthcare and hygiene by introducing specific regulations, vaccines, and programs to enhance water channels, drain swamps, expand squares and thoroughfares, install fountains, provide cities with public parks, and relocate slaughterhouses and cemeteries from urban areas. To support these efforts, he standardized the education system, separating it from religious influence and modernizing all levels of education. Thanks to these initiatives, there were numerous cultural endeavors: the establishment of the Royal Museum of Amsterdam (the precursor of the current Rijksmuseum) and the Royal Institute of Sciences, Letters, and Fine Arts; the creation of a royal library; promotion of the restoration and/or reconstruction of palaces and churches; and sponsorship of artists to study in Rome.

Economically, he simplified the tax system, developed an annual budget, and reduced state debt. These measures aimed to facilitate economic recovery to fund administrative, military, naval, and territorial reforms. Similar to the French prefectures, he centralized the country into ten departments, each headed by a landdrost (governor), with the king appointing mayors.

For this ambitious plan, Louis needed the support of the people, which he achieved by demonstrating goodwill upon arrival. He continued touring the country instead of isolating himself in the palace, as his predecessor William V had done. For instance, in 1807, he personally faced the accidental explosion of a gunpowder-loaded ship in Leiden, coordinating the intervention of the Royal Guard in relief efforts, opening a palace to accommodate the injured, donating thirty thousand florins, and exempting the population from taxes for a decade. He carried out a similar initiative two years later during severe floods.

Collaboration with the elites was also necessary, convincing them to join the new constitutional regime, as seen in England. This was only partially successful, more due to the imposition of reality than anything else, as they understood that participation could help maintain some autonomy and keep Napoleon at bay. A key factor was a promise outlined in the treaty: the Kingdom of Holland would be exempt from military service in the territories controlled by France to bolster its Grande Armée. However, the Dutch ended up being conscripted, as we will see.

Not everything was smooth sailing for Louis. In 1809, Hortense returned to France, partly due to the climate and partly because her husband insisted that she renounce her French nationality, as he had compelled his ministers to do – most of them being imposed by his brother and of Gallic origin. Additionally, she left taking their children with her and refusing to allow them to visit Holland, fearing that Louis might detain them. It marked the definitive rupture, to the extent that she began a relationship with Charles de Flahaut, the illegitimate son of Talleyrand. Nevertheless, Napoleon sided with her and adopted their eldest son as his heir (he had not yet had a child of his own).

In fact, the emperor was dissatisfied with Louis’s performance and would soon make it evident. He said of him:

He has talent; he is not a bad man. But with these qualities, anyone can commit many follies and cause much harm. Louis’s character is naturally inclined to eccentricities and extravagance. The reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau has ruined him. Chasing a reputation for sensitivity and benevolence, incapable of grand designs on his own, sensitive to the smallest local details. Louis has shown himself to be nothing more than a perfect king…

Since being left alone, the monarch lost some of his enthusiasm and adopted less applauded habits. Until then, he had maintained an itinerant court without a fixed capital. After that, he spent significant sums on palace luxuries, moving from Utrecht to Amsterdam and then to Haarlem, among other places (he excluded The Hague because it was too close to the sea, which was detrimental to his rheumatism). These expenses did not sit well with a people with a strong savings mentality that he himself had reinforced with his policies. Nevertheless, he continued to be called Louis the Good since the Leiden catastrophe. Napoleon mocked this nickname, saying, Brother, when they say a king is good, it means he has failed in his government.

This was a declaration of intent because, although Louis had reluctantly followed Napoleon’s orders, there were certain points on which he was unwilling to compromise. First, he refused to provide the forty thousand soldiers requested for the Russian campaign, as the Dutch population numbered only two million. Second, he did not want to reduce the value of public debt by two-thirds, fearing it would ruin Dutch investors who had received French loans. Third, his collaboration with the continental blockade against England was only verbal, as he turned a blind eye to smuggling to prevent the degradation of the economy.

The spark that led to the fraternal rupture was the landing of a British contingent on the island of Walcheren. They conquered the fortress of Bath in Zeeland, putting Antwerp and Vlissingen in a precarious position without the Dutch army being able to stop them. It was Marshal Bernadotte, the future king of Sweden, who expelled them with a militia, making it clear that the Kingdom of Holland could not defend itself alone. Napoleon did not miss the opportunity and summoned his brother to Paris, stating that the situation would not have arisen if Louis had accepted incorporating the Dutch into the Grande Armée.

The two brothers argued bitterly for three months, at the end of which Louis had no choice but to cede the southern part of his kingdom to France. Later, in 1810, he returned to find that the French army was occupying city after city, not limited to the southern region but extending to others. Then he realized the true situation and, rejecting Napoleon’s offer to give him the throne of Spain – where their other brother, Joseph, still reigned, also facing interference from the emperor – he chose to abdicate in favor of his son Napoleon Louis, who would reign for only thirteen days. The Kingdom of Holland was invaded by the army of Marshal Oudinot, and its annexation to France was formalized through the Rambouillet Decree.

Meanwhile, the former king settled in Vienna, welcomed by the Austrian Emperor Francis I. He ignored Napoleon’s requests to live in Paris and refused to use his name in favor of the aforementioned Count of Saint-Leu (referring to the property he owned in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, where he would ultimately be buried). He did not stay in the Austrian capital but moved to Graz, where he met Goethe and dedicated himself to writing essays and poetry until 1813. After the Napoleonic disaster in Russia, he moved to Lausanne and offered himself – unsuccessfully – as a mediator between France and its enemies.

He had also requested his brother’s return to the throne of Holland, but Napoleon refused. With the changing course of the war, the Dutch gained their independence, restoring the Orange family to power with William I. The possibility of Louis returning as monarch could not materialize because anti-French sentiment had taken hold, and his health did not permit adventurous endeavors. Hence, he rejected the help offered by Joseph I and Jerome to stage a coup. As anti-French sentiment grew in Switzerland as well, he had to accept the invitation of Pope Pius VII to reside in Rome, where other Bonapartes were already residing.

He never saw his brother again nor contacted him when Napoleon escaped from Elba for the Hundred Days’ Empire. After his death, Louis moved to Florence and later returned to Livorno. He witnessed several denials of his request to visit the Netherlands, which he could only fulfill when authorized by William II in 1840. He was well-received by the people, which moved him emotionally. Four years later, upon Joseph’s death, Bonapartists proclaimed him the legitimate pretender, although he showed no interest, and the claim passed to his son, the future Napoleon III, who was at that time imprisoned for participating in a conspiracy.

The said offspring secured this status on July 25, 1846 (Napoleon Louis had died in 1831), when an attempt on his life ended his father’s life. It is not known that this one had more descendants, except for a natural son with his lover Jeanne-Félicité Roland (born in 1826), although from 1838, already widower of Hortensia, he entered into a sentimental relationship – it is not clear if with marriage or without it – with the Marquise Julia Livia di Strozzi, who was then sixteen years old.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 29, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Luis Bonaparte, el hermano de Napoleón que fue rey de Holanda y se enfrentó a él tras la invasión del país por los franceses


Napoleón Bonaparte, Juicios de Napoleón sobre sus contemporáneos y sobre él mismo | Thomas Colley Grattan, Holland.The history of the Netherlands | Michael Broers, Napoleon. The spirit of the age | William H. C. Smith, The Bonapartes. The history of a dynasty | Annie Jourdan, Louis Bonaparte, roi de Hollande, 1806-1810 | Fernand Beaucour, Hortense de Beauharnais (en | Archives du cabinet de Louis Bonaparte, roi de Hollande. Inventaire des articles AF IV (1806-1810) (en Archives Nationales) | Wikipedia

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