A Crown for Hortense

In December 1804 Napoleon and Josephine were crowned Emperor and Empress in the Nôtre Dame de Paris cathedral. Princess Hortense was present, wearing an empire-style dress sewn with diamonds. She held her son Napoleon Charles, heir to his uncle's throne. With an unstoppable hunger for glory, Napoleon planned to bring all of Europe under Bonaparte rule. Almost all the brothers and sisters of the Emperor got a crown somewhere in Europe. His younger brother Louis Bonaparte became King of Holland in 1806, and thus Hortense became Queen of Holland. After the birth of their second son Napoleon Louis in October 1803, Hortense became desperate about this decision: "Do you really believe that he wants to send us to the Netherlands?" she wrote to her brother Eugène, "I cannot think about this without tears in my eyes. I will be unhappy, my God, so unhappy that I would die!"

Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in Notre Dame

Did she have to abandon her mother, who could live no day without her? Napoleon ignored her complaints. In June 1806 the new queen had her first view of The Hague; the city was lavishly decorated for the occasion. Her husband was next to her in the carriage with the two princes on his lap. He called himself Lodewijk Napoleon from that moment on. The newspaper De Haagsche Courant reported: "the queen wore a brownish silk robe, her hair was decorated with diamonds and pearls."

Hortense decided to make the most of being Queen. She told the pleasant Dutch Admiral VerHuell that she desired to be loved by the Dutchmen, so that they would make up for all that she had had to leave behind in France. Palace Huis ten Bosch, where the family decided to live, had been rather neglected. The interior reminded Hortense of the House of Orange, whose stadholders had lived in the palace until 1795; the wall paintings in the ballroom still told stories about acts of heroism by the stadholders of that House. The king immediately ordered  expensive redecorations to his home. He also worked with indefatigable zeal for the restoration of his kingdom. During the limited time that he ruled, he made large improvements in many areas. As a result, the people started to love their king. And Lodewijk loved Holland, which became his only love. He regarded his marriage as a disaster. With his morbidly jealous nature, he encouraged people to spy on his wife, opened her letters, and forbade her to dance during court balls. Hortense was no longer allowed to play the piano in public and lived as a virtual prisoner in her apartments. Shortly before their official visit to the city of Rotterdam, they had a fierce fight at home. In this mood they had to travel to Rotterdam together on 2 July 1806, where a festive reception had been prepared.  Hortense showed her surprise about the festive welcome she received: "it was the same everywhere," she wrote in her memoirs, "the change makes people joyful, they expect good fortune from the new."

Return to Holland

During the stormy night of 4-5 May 1807, Hortense would suffer the greatest blow of her life: her eldest son (pictured below with his mother) died from an illness at Huis ten Bosch. Hortense was in shock and left for France, where she suffered from depression and grief. In a spa in the French Pyrenees, Hortense tried to regain some of her strength. She went for exhausting mountain walks and climbed to the highest mountaintops to be closer to her child in heaven. The king made one last attempt to save his marriage. He went to France and met his wife in Toulon. There a short reconciliation took place in an inn, as a result of which Hortense became pregnant for a third time; however, Lodewijk never believed that this child was his. In Holland, where everybody was informed about the bad state of the marriage, the rumour spread that Admiral VerHuell had fathered the child. Although VerHuell had not left The Hague for a year, Lodewijk started to believe these rumours himself. He returned alone to his kingdom. The Hague no longer pleased him so he decided to settle in Utrecht, where he demolished a large number of houses to build a new royal palace. This expensive project was hardly finished when he changed his mind again and decided to make Amsterdam the capital of The Netherlands and to make the town hall on Dam Square his palace. Many people tried to discourage the King with reasonable arguments: the building from the Dutch golden age was ice-cold, due to its enormous marble halls, and totally unfit to live in. The headstrong King Lodewijk, however, refused to listen and ordered masons, carpenters, furniture makers, etc., to start working.

Meanwhile Napoleon decided that he had to separate from Josephine in the interests of France. The annulment ceremony took place in December 1809 in Paris, amid great rejoicing by Napoleon's family who disliked Josephine intensely. The Emperor quickly married the eldest daughter of the Emperor of Austria, Archduchess Marie Louise, who gave him a son. Napoleon, who still considered and treated Hortense as his daughter, ordered her to return to the Netherlands where she should reconcile with her husband. Unhappy, she travelled to Utrecht with her second son Napoleon Louis. Her youngest son Louis Napoleon was left behind with his grandmother in Paris.

In her apartments along the Drift canal in Utrecht, Hortense led an isolated life. During a military parade on the inner court of the palace, she showed herself to the public, who responded with shouts of joy (a reason for the jealous Lodewijk to keep his wife even more isolated from the public). During the Holy Mass in the court chapel with its brand-new church silver and its superb choirs, Hortense was touched deeply, and she often went there to pray for her dead son. After Easter in 1810, however, the King decided to move with his family to the new capital, Amsterdam. During the ceremonial entrance into Amsterdam, the Queen was so weak that citizens who saw her in the coach called her "Reine misérable! Nôtre pauvre reine!" Her appearance astonished everyone. People had heard that the Queen led a frivolous life in Paris, but her looks did not fit the picture of a frivolous woman. 

 Hortense with her eldest son, Napoleon Charles "The palace in Amsterdam is a former town hall and had a very beautiful interior,"  Hortense wrote in her memoirs, "The king had done everything possible to beautify it but still, one could not imagine a sadder place to live (...) my Dutch ladies in waiting seemed very nice but I hardly knew them; most of them were new. Therefore I spent my days reading alone in my apartments. One usually warned me late in the afternoon that the king expected me at his table; I went. During the meal he didn't speak a word to me. After the meal the king let his fingers wander over the piano. He put his son on his lap, cuddled him, took him along on the balcony which looked out on the square. Whenever the people saw them, cheers would arise. Then the king came back in, and seated himself behind the piano where he recited some French songs or hummed a melody. I was seated on a chair, only looking at the things that happened in the room, without saying a word. I withdrew myself at 9 o'clock after I had wished him a good night. Those were the only words we exchanged." After some weeks Hortense became so ill that people feared for her life. In summer 1810 she asked the king for permission to visit Palace Het Loo in Apeldoorn. He agreed reluctantly but kept his son in Amsterdam. After a short stay at Het Loo, Hortense left to take the waters in Plombières. She would never see The Netherlands again. Under pressure from Napoleon, her husband abdicated a month later at Pavilion Welgelegen in Haarlem and appointed his eldest surviving son to be the next king: Lodewijk Napoleon II. The five-year-old boy ruled for two weeks. His uncle Emperor Napoleon brought him to Paris and annexed Holland into the French Empire. 


Napoleon now experienced his first defeats. The battles in Russia in 1812 ended in a humanitarian catastrophe, and during a battle near Leipzig his troops suffered a devastating defeat. As a result of these defeats, the Emperor was exiled to the island of Elba. The Bourbons were restored to power, while the Bonapartes disappeared. Hortense and her mother retreated to Malmaison, where they received Tsar Alexander I several times. The Tsar befriended the two women and Hortense's brother Eugène and made sure that they were treated well by the new regime. Josephine was allowed to keep Malmaison, and Hortense received the title Duchess of Saint-Leu from King Louis XVIII. During this period Hortense was finally able to leave her husband. The couple separated and underwent a humiliating public court trial about the custody of their two sons. During this period Hortense started her relationship with the officer Charles de Flahaut, an illegitimate son of the French statesman Talleyrand.
After 10 months Napoleon escaped from Elba and reclaimed his imperial throne. On his return to Paris nothing was the same any more: Empress Marie Louise had left France with their son, the King of Rome. Josephine had died at Château Malmaison. During the hundred days of his return, Hortense assisted her stepfather as an "empress". She was one of the very few who continued to support him until the last moment. When Napoleon wanted to escape to America after the Battle of Waterloo, he was captured by the English and sent into exile on the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. Hortense had to leave Paris within two hours after the fall of Napoleon, as her loyalty to the him was not tolerated any longer, even by Tsar Alexander I who had been so supportive of her in the past.

Exile and Final Years

Hortense had been treated kindly after Napoleon's first defeat; she was in the good graces of Emperor Alexander I of Russia, and even the new Bourbon King seemed to like her. However, they could not forgive her for sticking by her stepfather upon his return from Elba, and consequently she had to leave France. She escaped with both her sons to Switzerland and eventually ended up near the Bodensee close to Konstanz. There she bought a small castle on a cliff overlooking the lake: Schloss Arenenberg. To complicate matters further, by the time of her exile she was pregnant. As she had not seen her husband for some years, this pregnancy would cause a scandal.The father of her illegitimate child was Charles de Flahaut; their child was born in Switzerland and was named Charles after his father. He was taken to France, where he was raised by his father and paternal grandmother. This last son of hers, Charles de Morny, would later be created a duke by his half-brother Napoleon III and would become one of France's most important statesmen during the Second Empire.

In exile Hortense started to write her extensive memoirs. She composed music and published her romances; she created drawings and paintings. Her house became a center of French culture. Established artists were fascinated by her and paid visits to the exiled Queen in Switzerland. Franz Liszt played on her piano, the young writer Alexandre Dumas listened when she sang his favourite romance, and the poet Lord Byron came and stayed with her.  From her base in Switzerland she travelled extensively, often to Italy where her second son, Napoleon-Louis, lived with his father. Hortense doted on her two sons, and she was very worried when they took part in the Italian revolt against Austrian rule in 1831. During this episode Napoleon-Louis died and Louis Napoleon had to flee. His mother helped him to escape to Paris. She would continue to be worried about her son's political activities, especially when he tried to stage a coup in France in 1836, which failed. A year later, in 1837, the legendary "Reine de Hollande" died from cancer; she was 54 years old. The Dutch newspapers dedicated only three sentences to her death and funeral. According to her last wishes, her remains were transported from Arenenberg to the church of Rueil near Malmaison, where she was burried beside her beloved mother, Josephine. Her youngest legitimate son inherited the ambition and strength of the Bonapartes and returned to Paris after the rule of the Bourbons (Orleans), where he became Emperor Napoleon III. As a national hymn he chose of the most popular romances composed by his mother Hortense de Beauharnais: "Partir pour la Syrie."  

de Beauharnais, Hortense. Mémoires de la reine Hortense, 2 volumes (Paris 1832, 1835).
Coppens, Thera, Hortense, de vergeten koningin van Holland (Amsterdam 2006).
Taylor, Ida A. Queen Hortense and her friends, 1783-1837, 2 volumes (London 1907).
Wagener, Françoise. La Reine Hortense (Paris 1992).
Wright, Constance. Daughter to Napoleon. A biography of Hortense, Queen of Holland (London 1962).