Who was Letizia Bonaparte, the mother of Napoleon?
The Corsican general who rose to become emperor of France often claimed that he ‘owed everything’ to his mother, Letizia. Dr Laura O’Brien considers the truth of this complicated relationship…
Napoleon’s mother was born Letizia Ramolino on the island of Corsica in either 1749 or 1750, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful family.
She was only 14 or 15 when she married Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, in 1764. At the time of her marriage, Letizia was widely recognised as one of the great beauties of Corsican high society, but her 18-year-old husband was not marrying her for her looks – and would later claim that he had been in love with another girl.
Rather, the marriage forged a useful alliance for the Buonaparte clan, tying them to a family higher up the social pecking order and securing recognition for Carlo from the social elites. The fact that Letizia brought the biggest dowry in Corsica to the marriage undoubtedly helped make her an even more attractive prospect.
Eight of Letizia’s 13 children survived into adulthood. Napoleon (or Napoleone, as he was baptised, named after an uncle who had died the previous year) was Letizia and Carlo’s second surviving child, born in August 1769.
Even before he was born, Napoleon’s life was eventful. While heavily pregnant with the future emperor, his 19-year-old mother, accompanied by her husband and young son, was forced to cross the Corsican mountains to reach the safety of Ajaccio. This was following the defeat of the Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli, to whom Carlo had been loyal. The success of the journey is testament to the young woman’s determination and strength.
More like this
How did Letizia help Napoleon’s rise in status?
Both Carlo and Letizia were quick to secure their family’s fortunes by cultivating cordial relationships with the French authorities now ruling Corsica, especially its military governor, Marbeuf. It is often speculated that Letizia had an affair with Marbeuf, which is impossible to prove or disprove.
What is clear, however, is that they were close. Letizia’s charm helped win favours and protection for her family – above all, the recognition of the Buonapartes as minor nobility under French law, which in turn opened up places in French military academies to the young Napoleone.
What was Napoleon’s relationship like with his mother?
Though Napoleon would later claim on Saint Helena that he owed everything to his mother, the truth is rather more complicated. He said that she gave him his fierté, a term often translated as ‘pride’ or ‘determination’, but might just as well be read as ‘fierceness’.
Letizia’s ‘fierceness’ was a defining characteristic of her relationship with her second son. Though his early childhood on Corsica was happy, his bad behaviour and liberties with the truth incurred his mother’s wrath. On one occasion, having watched him behave badly while serving Mass at the local church, Letizia held her counsel until the next day, when she surprised the boy with a spanking. She also used Napoleone to spy on her husband, sending him to the local cafés to see if Carlo was gambling.
That said, there is no doubt that Letizia was deeply proud of Napoleon throughout his life. She even made the effort to see her son at the military academy of Brienne, at a time when pupils were not usually permitted to leave the school for the six years of their study and when parental visits were strongly discouraged.
His rise to power, however, did not mean that he was safe from criticism from her. Like the rest of Napoleon’s family, Letizia disapproved strongly of his choice of wife and made this plain from the outset – so much so that Napoleon only broke the news of his marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais after the event, and spent two days with his mother trying to win her over.
When Napoleon later disapproved of his brother Lucien’s marriage, Letizia sided with Lucien and decamped to Rome, refusing to attend Napoleon’s coronation in December 1804. Even so, the new emperor insisted that the artist Jacques-Louis David include Madame Mère – ‘Madame Mother’ – as Letizia was now officially known, in his vast painting of the coronation scene.
In the latest in our series charting the contested reputations of key historical figures, Laura O’Brien and David Andress discuss French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte, and explore why his story still proves divisive two centuries later
What happened to Letizia after Napoleon’s fall from power?
Letizia spent some time on Elba with Napoleon after his first exile there in 1814, later following him to Paris when he returned to France in 1815. The final meeting between mother and son occurred in late June 1815, at the Chateau of Malmaison just outside Paris.
Letizia spent the rest of her life in Rome until her death in 1836, outliving Napoleon by 15 years. At one stage, she became convinced that her son had escaped the island after a fortune teller told her that angels had taken Napoleon away.
Her reaction to the news of his death, on 5 May 1821, is said to have been one of extreme distress: crying out loudly in her Roman home, before taking to her bed for two weeks.
Even after his passing, she continued to advocate for Napoleon, writing to the British government to request that his body be returned to France. It was only in 1840, four years after her death in 1836, that Letizia’s wish was posthumously granted, with the repatriation of Napoleon’s remains to Paris.
Laura O’Brien is associate professor at Northumbria University