Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837)

views updated

Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837)

French composer, artist, queen and regent of Holland, and mother of Napoleon III. Name variations: Hortense, Queen of Holland; Hortense Beauharnais; Hortense Bonaparte; Eugenie Hortense de Beauharnais. Born Eugénie Hortense de Beauharnais in Paris, France, on April 10, 1783; died in Arenenberg, Switzerland, on October 5, 1837; daughter of Alexander (d. 1794), vicomte de Beauharnais, and Empress Josephine (1763–1814, Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie, later Bonaparte); sister of Eugene de Beauharnais (1781–1824, a viceroy); stepdaughter and sister-in-law of Napoleon I; daughter-in-law of Letizia Bonaparte (1750–1836); married Louis Napoleon (Napoleon's brother who would become king of Holland), in 1802; children—three sons: Charles Napoleon (1802–1807); Napoleon Louis (1804–1831); Louis Napoleon (1808–1873), later Napoleon III, king of France (r. 1852–1870).

Hortense de Beauharnais was destined to play a role in history if only because Napoleon I was her stepfather. She was born in Paris, France, in 1783, the daughter of Alexander, vicomte de Beauharnais, and Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie, later Empress Josephine. When Alexander and Josephine separated, Hortense spent her early years on the island of Martinique. After her father's death by guillotine during the bloody Reign of Terror in July 1794, her mother married Napoleon I in 1796. Hortense (age 12) and her brother Eugene de Beauharnais (age 14) were much loved by their stepfather: they returned his affection and would remain loyal to him, even after his fall from power.

In 1802, Empress Josephine arranged the marriage of her 18-year-old daughter to Napoleon's brother Louis Bonaparte, in hopes that Napoleon might accept their children as his heirs. The marriage was doomed from the beginning, with Louis desperately in love with Hortense's cousin Emilie. Louis suffered from a mood disorder as well as crippling arthritis caused by syphilis. He was said to be insanely jealous, often accusing his wife of affairs. When Louis was made king of Holland after French troops conquered that country, she became queen. Hortense and Louis were accepted by the Dutch as the only alternative to being annexed to France.

Far from Paris and locked into a miserable marriage, Hortense initially amused herself with

young officers, including the comte de Flahault who had once been a staff officer of Napoleon. She gave birth to three sons: Charles Napoleon, who died at age four and a half; Napoleon Louis (1804–1831), who would die at age 27; and Louis Napoleon (1808–1873), who would later be known as Napoleon III, king of France (r. 1852–1870). She also branched out into composing and drawing. Her Partant pour la Syrie would become the national song of France when Napoleon III reigned, though the composer Drouet claimed falsely that he had written it. Franz Schubert used her Le bon chevalier as the basis for his Variations on a French Song. Hortense de Beauharnais composed many romantic songs in both French and German.

In 1809, her husband sought, but was not allowed, a divorce by his brother Napoleon and, in the following year, was driven by his domestic misery into exile, abdicating the throne of Holland in favor of his son Napoleon Louis; Hortense was made regent. Her husband spent the rest of his days in Germany and Italy. (Meanwhile, Napoleon, in desperate need of a son and heir, had divorced Josephine in 1809 and married Marie Louise of Austria in 1810.)

The fall from power of Napoleon I, following the defeat at Waterloo in 1815, further disrupted the family. With the empire's end, Hortense and her two sons were issued passports to Switzerland. While they were journeying to a new life, an agent of her husband came to claim the elder son, Napoleon Louis, whose custody he had won; French laws at that time considered only the rights of the father. And, in 1816, the Restoration government passed a law exiling all Bonapartes from France forever.

By 1817, Hortense and her other son, Louis Napoleon, were living in relative seclusion in Thurgau, Switzerland, where she had purchased the Château of Arenenberg. In 1830, Louis Napoleon completed an artillery course with the Swiss army at Thun, and in the following year he and his brother Napoleon Louis associated themselves with an anti-papal rebellion in central Italy. When Napoleon Louis died from a fatal case of measles, Hortense traced Louis Napoleon to a rebel base and transported him out of Italy in a move to protect her sole surviving son. After a brief, quasi-secret and completely illegal stop in France, the mother and son went to England for three months before they secured safe passage back to Switzerland.

Napoleon I's only son died in July 1832, nine years after his father, leaving Louis Napoleon the logical heir to the emperor's legacy. At Strasbourg in October 1836, with a band of fellow conspirators, the young Louis unsuccessfully attempted a coup d'état. He received a lenient punishment; the French authorities placed him on a New York-bound ship, but he returned to Europe the following year to care for his ailing mother. Hortense died of cancer in 1837, after a long illness.

Following her death, when France felt Louis' presence in Switzerland too threatening, he moved voluntarily to England. But Louis-Philippe, the king of France, was deposed in the February 1848 revolution, paving the way for the return of Louis Napoleon to France. He became Emperor Napoleon III in a December 1, 1852, ceremony and made his official imperial entrance to the capital the next day.


Cohen, Aaron I. International Encyclopedia of Women Composers. 2 vols. NY: Books & Music (USA), 1987.

Commire, Anne, ed. Historic World Leaders. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.

Decaux, Alain. Napoleon's Mother. London: The Cresset Press, 1962.

Jackson, Guida M. Women Who Ruled. ABC-CLIO, 1990.

Seward, Desmond. Napoleon's Family. NY: Viking, 1986.

Stirling, Monica. Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon's Mother. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1961.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

About this article

Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article