Letizia Bonaparte: Napoleon's Mother

Letizia Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre
Letizia Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre. Wikimedia Commons

Letizia Bonaparte experienced poverty and opulent wealth thanks to the actions of her children, the most famous of whom was Napoleon Bonaparte, the twice Emperor of France. But Letizia was no mere lucky mother profiting from a child's success, she was a formidable figure who guided her family through difficult, albeit often self made, situations, and saw a son rise and fall while keeping a relatively steady head.

Napoleon might have been emperor of France and Europe's most feared military leader, but Letiziawas still happy to refuse to attend his coronation when she was unhappy with him!

Marie-Letizia Bonaparte (née Ramolino), Madame Mére de Sa Majesté l'Empereur (1804 - 1815)

Born: 24th August 1750 in Ajaccio, Corsica.
Married: 2nd June 1764 in Ajaccio, Corsica
Died: 2nd February 1836 in Rome, Italy.

Childhood

Born in the middle of the eighteenth century, August 1750, Marie-Letizia was a member of the Ramolinos, a low ranking noble family of Italian descent whose elders had lived around Corsica - and in Letizia's case, Ajaccio - for several centuries. Letizia's father died when she was five and her mother Angela remarried a few years later to François Fesch, a captain from the Ajaccio garrison which Letizia's father had once commanded. Throughout this period Letizia received no education beyond the domestic.

Marriage

The next phase of Letizia's life began on June 2nd 1764 when she married Carlo Buonaparte, the son of a local family with similar social rank and Italian descent; Carlo was eighteen, Letizia fourteen. Although some myths claim otherwise, the couple certainly didn't elope on a lovesick whim and, although some of the Ramolinos objected, neither family was overtly against the marriage; indeed, most historians agree that the match was a sound, largely economic, agreement which left the couple financially secure, although far from rich.

Letizia soon bore two children, one before the end of 1765 and another under ten months later, but neither lived for long. Her next child was born on July 7th 1768, and this son survived: he was named Joseph. Overall, Letizia gave birth to thirteen children, but only eight of those made it past infancy.

On The Front Line

One source of family income was Carlo's work for Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican patriot and revolutionary leader. When French armies landed in Corsica during 1768 Paoli's forces fought an, initially successful, war against them and, in early 1769, Letizia accompanied Carlo to the front line - at her own behest - despite her fourth pregnancy. However, the Corsican forces were crushed at the battle of Ponte Novo and Letizia was forced to flee back to Ajaccio through mountains. The incident is worth noting, for shortly after her return Letizia gave birth to her second surviving son, Napoleon; his embryonic presence at the battle remains part of his legend.

Household

Letizia remained in Ajaccio for the next decade, bearing six more children who survived into adulthood - Lucien in 1775, Elisa in 1777, Louis in 1778, Pauline in 1780, Caroline in 1782 and finally Jerome in 1784.

Much of Letizia's time was spent caring for those children who remained at home - Joseph and Napoleon departed for schooling in France during 1779 - and organising the Casa Buonaparte, her home. By all accounts Letizia was a stern mother prepared to whip her offspring, but she was also caring and ran her household to the benefit of all.

Affair with Comte de Marbeuf

During the late 1770's Letizia began an affair with the Comte de Marbeuf, Corsica's French military governor and a friend of Carlos. Although there is no direct evidence, and despite the attempts of some historians to argue otherwise, the circumstances make it quite clear that Letizia and Marbeuf were lovers at some point during the period 1776 to 1784, when the latter married an eighteen year girl and began to distance himself from the, now 34 year old, Letizia.

Marbeuf may have fathered one of the Buonaparte children, but commentators who claim he was Napoleon's father are without any foundation.

Fluctuating Wealth / Flight to France

Carlo died on February 24th 1785. For the next few years Letizia managed to keep her family together, despite numerous sons and daughters scattered across France in education and training, by running a thrifty household and persuading notoriously ungenerous relatives to part with money. This was the start of a series of financial troughs and peaks for Letizia: in 1791 she inherited large sums from Archdeacon Lucien, a man who had lived on the floor above her in the Casa Buonaparte. This windfall enabled her to relax her grip on household tasks and enjoy herself, but it also enabled her son Napoleon to enjoy quick promotion and enter into the turmoil of Corsican politics. After turning against Paoli Napoleon suffered defeat, forcing his family to flee for the French mainland in 1793. By the end of that year Letizia was lodged in two small rooms at Marseilles, relying on a soup kitchen for food. This sudden income and loss would, you can speculate, colour her views when the family rose to great heights under the Napoleonic empire and fell from them with equally spectacular speed.

Rise of Napoleon

Having plunged his family into poverty, Napoleon soon saved them from it: heroic success in Paris brought him promotion to the Army of the Interior and considerable wealth, 60,000 francs of which went to Letizia, enabling her to move into one of Marseilles' best homes. From then until 1814 Letizia received ever greater riches from her son, especially after his triumphant Italian campaign of 1796-7. This lined the elder Bonaparte brothers' pockets with considerable riches and caused the Paolista's to be expelled from Corsica; Letizia was thus able to return to the Casa Buonaparte, which she renovated with a massive compensatory grant from the French government. The Wars of the 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th / 5th / 1812 / 6th Coalition

Mother of the Emperor of France

Now a woman of great wealth and considerable esteem, Letizia still attempted to control her children, remaining able to praise and chastise them even as they became kings, princes and emperors. Indeed, Letizia was keen that each should benefit equally from the Bonaparte's success, and each time he bestowed an award on one sibling Letizia urged him to restore the equilibrium with awards to the others. In an imperial story full of wealth, battles and conquest, there is something warming about the presence of the imperial mother still making sure the siblings divided things equally, even if these were regions and people had died to gain them. Letizia did more than simply organise her family, for she acted as unofficial governor of Corsica - commentators have suggested that nothing major occurred without her approval - and oversaw the Imperial Charities.

Snubbing Napoleon

However, Napoleon's fame and wealth was no guarantee of his mother's favour. Immediately after his imperial accession Napoleon granted titles to his family, including that of 'Prince of the Empire' for Joseph and Louis. However, Letizia was so chagrined at hers - 'Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l'Empereur' (or 'Madame Mère', 'Madam Mother') - that she boycotted the coronation. The title may well have been a deliberate slight from son to mother over family arguments and the Emperor tried to make amends a year later, in 1805, by giving Letizia a country home with over 200 courtiers, high-ranking servants and vast sums of money.

Madame Mère

This episode reveals another side of Letizia: she was certainly careful with her own money, but willing to spend that of her children and patrons. Unimpressed with the first property - a wing of the Grand Trianon - she had Napoleon move her into a large seventeenth century chateau, despite complaining at the opulence of it all. Letizia was exhibiting more than an innate miserlyness, or using the lessons learnt from coping with her free-spending husband, for she was preparing for the potential collapse of Napoleon's empire: '"My son has a fine position, said Letizia, 'but it may not continue for ever. Who knows whether all these kings won't some day come to me begging for bread?'" (Napoleon's Family, Seward, pg 103.)

Refuge in Rome

Circumstances did indeed change. In 1814 Napoleon's enemies seized Paris, forcing him into abdication and exile on Elba; as the Empire fell, so his siblings fell with him, losing their thrones, titles and parts of their wealth.

Nevertheless, the conditions of Napoleon's abdication guaranteed Madame Mère 300,000 francs a year; throughout the crises Letizia acted with stoicism and gentle bravery, never rushing from her enemies and marshalling her errant children as best she could. She initially traveled to Italy with her half brother Fesch, the latter gaining an audience with Pope Pius VII during which the pair were granted refuge in Rome.

Letizia also exhibited her head for sensible finances by liquidating her French property before it was taken from her. Still showing parental concern, Letizia traveled to stay with Napoleon before urging him to embark on the adventure which became the Hundred Days, a period when Napoleon regained the Imperial Crown, hurriedly re-organised France and fought the most famous battle in European History, Waterloo. Of course, he was defeated and exiled to distant St. Helena. Having traveled back to France with her son Letizia was soon thrown out; she accepted the protection of the Pope and Rome remained her home.

Post Imperial Life

Her son may have fallen from power, but Letizia and Fesch had invested considerable sums during the days of Empire, leaving them wealthy and ensconced in luxury: she brought the Palazza Rinuccini in 1818 and installed within it a large number of staff. Letizia also remained active in her family's affairs, interviewing, hiring and shipping staff out to Napoleon and writing letters to secure his release. Nevertheless, her life now became tinged with tragedy as several of her children died young: Elisa in 1820, Napoleon in 1821 and Pauline in 1825. After Elisa's death Letizia only ever wore black, and she became increasingly devout.

Having lost all her teeth earlier in life Madame Mere now lost her sight, living many of her final years blind.

Death / Conclusion

Letizia Bonaparte died, still under the protection of the Pope, in Rome on February 2nd 1836. An often dominant mother, Madame Mère was a pragmatic and careful woman who combined an ability to enjoy luxury without guilt, but to also plan ahead and live without exorbitance. She remained Corsican in thought and word, preferring to speak Italian instead of French, a language which, despite almost two decades living in the country, she spoke poorly and could not write. Despite the hatred and bitterness aimed at her son Letizia remained a surprisingly popular figure, probably because she lacked the eccentricities and ambitions of her children. In 1851 Letizia's body was returned and buried in her native Ajaccio.

That she is a footnote in the history of Napoleon is an enduring shame, as she is an interesting character in her own right, especially as, centuries later, it is often the Bonaparte's who resisted the heights of grandeur and folly who endear.

Notable Family:
Husband: Carlo Buonaparte (1746 - 1785)
Children: Joseph Bonaparte, originally Giuseppe Buonaparte (1768 - 1844)
Napoleon Bonaparte, originally Napoleone Buonaparte (1769 - 1821)
Lucien Bonaparte, originally Luciano Buonaparte (1775 - 1840)
Elisa Bacciochi, née Maria Anna Buonaparte/Bonaparte (1777 - 1820)
Louis Bonaparte, originally Luigi Buonaparte (1778 - 1846)
Pauline Borghese, née Maria Paola/Paoletta Buonaparte/Bonaparte (1780 - 1825)
Caroline Murat, née Maria Annunziata Buonaparte/Bonaparte (1782 - 1839)
Jérôme Bonaparte, originally Girolamo Buonaparte (1784 - 1860)