Elisa (1777-1820)

Pauline (1780-1825)


Caroline (1782-1839

“I'm a very honest man;
I'm stupid enough to believe
in the virtue of family ties.”



As their names appear from time to time in our chapters of
“The Life of Napoleon”, we thought it necessary to present a
brief biography of each of the Bonaparte offspring.
We shall begin with Napoleon's three sisters.

Napoleon's father, Charles Bonaparte, died in 1785 at the age of 39 after having had thirteen children - of whom only eight survived – with his wife Letizia. We shall therefore begin our social round on the Bonaparte family by first calling on Napoleon's mother and as the most famous of her children usually mobilises this site he will for once – but only very briefly – be absent.

Her maiden name was Maria Letizia Ramolino and she was born in 1750. The mother of the future French emperor married at the age of fourteen and was left a widow by the time she was thirty-five with the eight children who had survived infancy to bring up. The children were called as follows: Joseph (1768-1844), Napoleon (1769-1821), Lucien (1775-1840), Elisa (1777-1820), Louis (1778-1846), Pauline (1780-1825), Caroline (1782-1839) and Jérôme (1784-1860).

The most famous of her sons paid her the following homage:

“It is to my mother that I owe my good fortune and all I have accomplished.”

Let us first turn our attention to the girls in the family, in order of seniority.

ELISA (1777-1820)

Maria-Anna, known as Elisa, was plain physically but intellectually she was the one who most resembled her illustrious brother.

Thanks to a scholarship, between 1784 and 1792 she was able to attend the place of her first education, the Royal Education Academy of Saint-Cyr, which Napoleon later turned into the famous French military academy.


In 1797, aged twenty, she married Félix Bacciochi, a Corsican officer who thanks to his wife who was created Princess of Lucques (75 kilometres west of Florence) and of Piombino (on the coast, 105 kilometres south-west of Florence) by Napoleon in 1805, was to see the course of his destiny change unexpectedly.

Elisa who was described as a wise and attentive ruler of her principalities was also somewhat uncharitably known as “a counterpart of the Emperor”. In 1809 Napoleon rewarded her for all her serious hard work by creating her Grand Duchess of Tuscany and he entrusted her with the government of the Tuscan provinces which had by then been united to the French Empire. She was to reveal her talent as a shrewd and able politician and Napoleon himself described her in the following terms:

“She was a most capable woman who possessed admirable qualities; she had a remarkable mind and was extremely hard working, she knew the affaires of her cabinet just as well as the most able diplomat would have done.”


Elisa with her husband Felix Bacchiochi
holding court in their principality
In 1814, Elisa, like her sister Caroline and her brother-in-law Murat, abandoned her brother and attempted to save her throne and keep herself in power by breaking off all ties with the French Empire despite the fact that she owed everything to Napoleon. But her decision was unwise and she was soon forced to flee from her principality. She attempted to reach Bologna where she was arrested by the Austrians and taken to Brünn - which is not very distant from Austerlitz ! - as a prisoner-of-war. She finally retired to Trieste where she died on 7 August 1820.

PAULINE (1780-1825)

Pauline was undoubtedly the greatest sinner in the Bonaparte family. She was as famous for her beauty which was legendary as for what we shall tactfully refer to as her generous and fickle heart.


After having first been courted by an ex-member of the French Convention – who was turned down – General Bonaparte attempted to marry his younger sister to one of his aides-de-camp, Marmont, an officer in the artillery, who was aged twenty-four at the time.

This occurred at Mombello, during the first Italian Campaign (1796-1797) and it was the oldest of the Bonaparte brothers who conducted the negotiations to arrange the marriage.

Despite all the inducements that this match had to offer and “the advantages that it promised”, Marmont courteously refused to succumb to the temptation for, as he later confessed in his memoirs:

“At the time I dreamed of married bliss, of conjugal faithfulness, of virtue so rarely found, in fact, but which often feeds the imagination of youth… In the hope of one day making this chimera which was so full of charm come true, I declined a marriage which would have had an immense influence over my career.”

But it was also true that a few lines above in the same memoirs, Marmont noted that Pauline, whose seductiveness was more than beguiling despite the fact that she was barely aged sixteen, already “revealed what she would be like later on.”

And upon discovering the list of those upon whom she later bestowed her favours - which were keenly sought after and not very difficult to obtain – if there was one dream which Pauline could certainly not have fulfilled for Marmont, it was his dream of married bliss.

Finally, it was another one of General Bonaparte's staff officers, Charles Leclerc, then aged twenty-six, who married Pauline. The ceremony took place, exactly as it had been planned for Marmont, at Mombello, in Italy, on 14 June 1797. From this union, in which apparently only the husband was in love – one of the couple's close friends described him as being “ecstatically happy” – a child was born on 20 April 1798. But the little boy whom Pauline called her “little angel” died on 14 August 1804.

In 1802 Pauline's life underwent a major upheaval when her brother, who had become First Consul, ordered her to accompany her husband who had been appointed commander-in-chief of an expedition – which would turn out to be unsuccessful – to Santo Domingo.

Pauline's first husband, Charles Victor Leclerc,
who commanded the expedition to Santo Domingo

It was a cruel experience for her. The French expeditionary corps which aimed to put down a bloody insurrection first encountered the barbarity of the inhabitants and the rebellion was brutally put down before the French forces were decimated by illness. Yellow fever killed one thousand five hundred officers, including commander-in-chief, Leclerc, and some twelve thousand soldiers, not to mention over two thousand civilians.

Pauline was forced to leave Santo Domingo under dramatic circumstances as the French forces evacuated the island, an episode during which she showed that she possessed the same cool-headed courage as her bother. She returned to France bringing her husband's body home with her.


Pauline gave parties and entertained sumptuously at her château in Neuilly , just outside Paris . The inset shows a detail of the famous sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte by Canova, which was considered scandalous at the time as she had posed almost nude!

Pauline, who was a charming but extremely whimsical young woman, had to be remarried and a new marriage was soon arranged for her.

The chosen candidate this time was an Italian price who came from an illustrious family and possessed an immense fortune: Camille Borghèse. Unfortunately for Pauline, this marriage very rapidly cracked.

After becoming an Italian princess, she left for Rome where she was soon unhappy at the side of a husband who was indifferent and, in 1804, she returned to Paris and moved into the magnificent mansion known as the Hôtel de Charost, in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which has been the British Embassy since 1814.

In 1806, Napoleon gave Borghèse - but it was in fact for his sister - the principality of Guastalla, 35 kilometres south-west of Mantova. It was a really tiny principality, barely more than a village and this was a grave injustice compared to the principalities he had given to Elisa, and even more, to the youngest of the Bonaparte sisters, Caroline.

In the face of her husband's indifference, the neglected wife soon had a vast number of love affairs and unfortunately this aspect of her life is all that history has recorded about Pauline Bonaparte.

Yet she deserves to be remembered for much more than these wanton and spicy anecdotes for at least two reasons.

The first is the courage which she showed during the really horrific campaign of Santo Domingo, where despite the appalling conditions in the military hospitals she did not hesitate to visit the sick and wounded who were dying like flies in an attempt to alleviate their suffering at the risk of her own safety during the epidemic.

She also showed her courage during the last combats on the island when there were only 2,000 French soldiers still in fighting condition. When her husband insisted that she should embark, she is reported to have said indignantly to those who surrounded her hoping to find protection at the side of the wife of the commander-in-chief:

“You are all afraid of dying, but I'm Bonaparte's sister, and I'm not afraid of anything.”


The second reason is much more touching and reveals her true character.

When ultimately Napoleon's fortune changed and even his closest relatives - his brothers and sisters all turned their backs on him, not to mention his second wife, Marie-Louise! - Pauline went to join him in his “ridiculous” kingdom on the little island of Elba . In order to help him out financially because the new King, the good Louis XVIII “forgot” to pay him the income which the powers who had defeated France had decided upon as an indemnity in the Treaty of Fontainbleau – she gave him part of her fortune and her most beautiful and precious diamond necklace, which was later seized in the Emperor's coach on the night of Waterloo.

And when she was informed a few years later of Napoleon's desperate state of health on St. Helena where he had been deported, Pauline, despite the fact that she was ill herself, wrote this admirable letter to Lord Liverpool, the British Prime Minister at the time, which deserves to be quoted almost in extenso :

“ Rome , 11 July 1821.

My Lord,

This portrait shows her in a symbolical pose which reflects her genuine loyalty to the Emperor, her brother.

… It is in the name of all the members of the Emperor's family that I appeal to the English government for a change of climate. If a request which is as wholly justified as this were refused, it would be tantamount to pronouncing his sentence of death and in that case, I request your permission to leave for St. Helena so as to be present when he breathes his last…

I know that the moments in the life of the Emperor are counted and I would reproach myself eternally if I had not endeavoured to use all the means which are in my power to ease the last moments of his life and to give him proof of my entire devotion to his person…

I beg you, My Lord, to inform Lady Holland who has constantly given every proof of the great interest that she takes in the Emperor of my letter and I am yours very truly.”

Liverpool did not even have the elementary decency of replying to her. But her generous letter was of no use anyway. The “death sentence” had already been executed on the 5 May 1821.

However great her faults may have been, it is impossible to judge Pauline fairly without first reading these lines, which in 1814, she addressed to her brother-in-law, Bacchiochi, who offered to take her with him as he fled, together his wife Elisa, from their kingdom of Tuscany :

“I did not love the Emperor as a sovereign; I loved him as my brother, and I shall remain faithful to him until death.”

Pauline kept her word and for this alone she must rank well above her sisters and occupy a place of honour.

CAROLINE (1782-1839)

Caroline, who was registered on her birth certificate as Maria-Annunziata was, of Napoleon's three sisters, the one who did him the most harm.

The youngest of the Bonaparte sisters, she was much prettier than Elisa, who was intelligent and able but plain physically, but she was certainly not as beautiful or as bewitching as Pauline. On the other hand, with regards to virtue she was on equal footing with her two older sisters. If all agree that she had several lovers, she only had one husband – Joachim Murat – whom she genuinely loved. Of Napoleon's three sisters, Caroline was the only one who married (20 January 1800) for love, but this never stopped her from manipulating her husband throughout her marriage.

Caroline's husband,
Joachim Murat


If for Elisa and Pauline their husbands were little more than conventions, Caroline's marriage was different and she was inseparable from her husband as he was the indispensable instrument for achieving her end. And she was successful at this subtle game of manoeuvring her husband as, unlike Pauline and to a certain degree like Elisa, Caroline's ambitions were fulfilled. In 1806, thanks to her husband she became Grand Duchess of Berg and Cleves and two years later thanks to Murat's new “promotion”, she became Queen of Naples.

But the social ascension of the youngest of the Bonaparte sisters was also largely due to her innumerable fits of crying and jealous tantrums which her imperial brother had had to put up with in the past. Such had been the case when her oldest sister, Elisa, had been created Princess of Lucques and Piombino and worse still when Louis Bonaparte and his wife Hortense were made King and Queen of Holland.

Napoleon was in the habit of saying that, “The Queen [of Naples] has more energy in her little finger than the King in all his body.”

If it cannot be denied that Caroline was an intelligent and skilful woman, she was also capable of shrewd and selfish reckoning and according to Napoleon, her “ambition was inordinate”. And all these grave faults would ultimately be detrimental to the Emperor and consequently to the Empire.


First created Grand-Duchess of Berg and Cleves, Caroline Murat shown here with her four children, became Queen of Naples. But her wild ambition ultimately made her urge her husband to betray Napoleon.

Thus, in 1813 it was all these faults which drove her to influence her husband again by urging him to defect and make contact with the enemy - Austria among others - in the hope of saving her throne of Naples for despite the fact that she was undeniably intelligent, she refused to see that her throne could not survive without her brother to whom she owed everything. And by her action she struck a blow which was to prove fatal to Napoleon and consequently to the French Empire.

With regards to her private life, Caroline like her two sisters had a great many lovers, all of whom she utilized to satisfy her insatiable ambition. But on one occasion at least she definitely overstepped the mark when she gave herself to one of Napoleon's worst enemies, the Austrian statesman, Metternich.

On the 13 October 1815, at the Pizzo in Calabria, Marshal Murat, who had for a time been King of Naples, was executed by a firing squad as he attempted to reconquer his throne. It is not an exaggeration to put forward that it was Caroline's wild ambition which had led him there.

After she was banned from France in 1815, like all the other members of the Bonaparte family, Caroline became countess of Lipona - this easy anagram of Napoli was undoubtedly a reminder of her past splendour. She outlived her husband for twenty-four years and died in Florence on 18 May 1839.



To be continued (Napoleon's brothers)