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Napoléon's Forgotten Sons

The Bonaparte family is as confusing as any European royal family, which is to say, it's incredibly confusing. From the Habsburgs marrying their first cousins to the Bourbons living so long that Louis XV, who succeeded Louis XIV, was actually his great-grandson, royal families quickly become a tangled mess and the Bonapartes are no exception. Logic would have it that Napoléon III would be the grandson of Napoléon or at least a direct descendant. But Napoléon III was the son of Napoléon's younger brother and was also the grandson of Napoléon's first wife… but not Napoléon's grandson. So how did Napoléon the III become the Emperor out of 26 nieces and nephews who could also have been candidates? It really came down to having the political initiative to run for office and realizing he could be elected President of France solely on his last name (and by also having the initiative to overthrow his own government). But suffice to say, Napoléon III being emperor gets even more confusing when you realize Napoléon had direct descendants, who it would initially seem, had a better claim than Charles-Louis Napoléon (III). The titular Napoléon II died at the age of 21 without any heirs, but in dramatic Napoléonic style there were two other sons who lived well into the reign of Napoléon III.

This is where the story gets interesting, because common discussions about Napoléon usually never discuss children beyond his two marriages. Rarely mentioned are his other two sons, who had children of their own, unlike Napoléon II. In fact, those two sons have living descendants today, meaning that Napoléon has direct living descendants. This is frankly incredible, since it is not common knowledge Napoléon had children who survived. So if they were not from his two marriages, where did they come from?

After Napoléon discovered his wife Joséphine was having affairs while he was campaigning in the late 1790s, he took that as tacit approval to have affairs of his own and took a mistress while on campaign in Egypt with one Pauline Bellisle Fourès.[1]

While this affair did not produce any children, some of his later ones did. His first child, Charles Léon, was with his mistress Eléonore Denuelle de La Plaigne in 1806 and the young boy was later even acknowledged by Napoléon. Unfortunately for Empress Joséphine, this child would spell her doom. Napoléon had been trying for children for years, being on a hunt for an heir for his Empire. He took this as a sign that Joséphine was the source of infertility, not him.[2] It subsequently led to the divorce of the Imperial couple in 1810 despite Napoléon still loving her. (for example, he gave her an enormous pension out of the treasury and his last thoughts and words as he lay dying on St. Helena were “La France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine” (“France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine”).[3] Napoléon’s affairs and subsequent illegitimate offspring changed the trajectory of the Empire, eventually leading Napoléon to marry his second wife, the Austrian princess.

Napoléon's second child Alexandre Colonna-Walewski was born in 1810, a product of his affair with the Polish noblewoman Maria Walewski, while he was on campaign in what is now Poland.[4] But Napoléon would break off this affair before he married his second wife as he saw it as his duty to be faithful to his new young princess bride.

Napoléon’s third son, with his second wife, would not be born until March 1811. And while Napoléon II would die at the age of 21, Napoléon’s two first born sons, Charles Léon and Alexandre Colonna-Walewski would live to adulthood. It would have been understandable if they were never mentioned because they never did anything successful or noteworthy in their lives. But, while that is true for Charles, Alexandre had an incredibly interesting career, making his historical absence quite strange. But let us start with the less interesting son for now.

Napoléon’s first born child Charles Léon received recognition for being the first-born of the Emperor and was treated as such for several years, rather than an illegitimate child. According to Napoléon’s valet of fourteen years, “the Emperor tenderly loved [his] son. I often fetched him to him; he would caress and give him a hundred delicacies, and was much amused with his vivacity and his repartées, which were very witty for his age.” Charles was provided an income of 30,000 Francs from birth and was given an education all at the expense of the Empire. But when Napoléon’s legitimate son to Marie Louis, Napoléon II, was born, Charles Léon was mostly forgotten.[5]

It did not help Charles Léon’s future that his father was, of course, eventually exiled permanently. Napoléon tried to provide for Charles Léon in his will by giving him 300,000 Francs, but it was never given to him, as the new monarchy under Louis XVIII never carried out Napoléon’s will. For Charles Léon, the search for money was not an uncommon one and would be the sad story of the rest of his life as he became a habitual gambler and was constantly in debt. He eventually ended up in debtors’ prison twice and killed a man in a duel over his gambling debts.[6] He would later petition his cousin, the newly elected President of France in 1849, for the 300,000 Francs prescribed to him in the will. He was only convincing enough to receive 10,000 per year.[7]

This is how Charles Léon was remembered by his grandchild when she was interviewed by the New York Charles Léon Times in 1921 for the centennial of Napoléon’s death.[8] It is also worth recognizing that this granddaughter of Napoléon (55 years old by this point) told the reporter her own son, at 19, the great-grandson of Napoléon, had died fighting near Reims in the First World War. Charles Léon himself would die of a form of stomach cancer at the age of 74 in 1881, remarkably similar to his father and grandfather's deaths which were also likely due to stomach cancer.[9] Whereas Charles Léon lived in debt and obscurity most of his life, squandering the opportunity of being the son of one of Europe’s greatest figures, his half-brother would not do the same.

Alexandre Colonna-Walewski lived a life of surprising and impressive accomplishment compared to his brother Charles. While his brother’s claim to fame may have just been the fact he was born to the Emperor, causing the divorce of Napoléon and Joséphine, Walewski would have his own purposeful impact on the Third Empire. Being born to a Polish noblewoman and officially claimed by her husband as his son—hence the reason for his last name—DNA tests of Walewski’s descendants have proved that he was in fact the offspring of the Emperor.[10] He did briefly meet his biological

father as he at least visited him on Elba during Napoléon's first exile in 1814.[11] But he was largely raised in Poland, then occupied by the Russians after the collapse of the Empire. He would eventually have to flee his home to Paris, as he was almost impressed into the Russian Imperial army at 14.[12] His time in France would be very good to him, as he would serve in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, become a naturalized French Citizen, serve Alexandre Colonna-Walewski in the regular army, and go on to receive the Legion of Honor. Walewski eventually rose to the rank of Grand Cross of the Legion, which is the highest and most prestigious out of the five ranks.[13][14]

It is not that far of a leap to say Walewski would have made his military-minded father proud by reaching the highest rank in the Legion of Honor, which Napoléon himself had established. Walewski resigned from his military commission at 27 in 1837 and became a writer in Paris. At this point, the connections he had made throughout the government helped him into the French Foreign Ministry and caused him to be sent on diplomatic missions as far afield as La Plata, Argentina. By this time, his cousin Louis-Napoléon had become President of the Second Republic and Walewski being a lot more diplomatic than his half brother Léon (get it, because he would become a diplomat) managed to gain the favor of the new man in charge. President Bonaparte would send him to Florence and Naples as “Envoy Extraordinare and Minister Plenipotentiary” and then to London as the French Ambassador in 1851.[15][16] Walewski would be the one to inform the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Palmerston, of President Bonaparte's overthrow of the Second Republic.[17] As a continued sign of trust between now Emperor Napoléon III and his cousin Alexandre Walewski, Walewski was named the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and would head the French delegation at the Congress of Paris, which led to the Treaty of Paris that ended the Crimean War. His time as Foreign Minister was spent trying to uphold what was left of the Congress of Vienna after 1848 and keeping the peace between all the great European powers as he saw that as the Second Empire’s best hope for survival.[18] After leaving the Foreign Office in 1860, he held various “legislative” roles in the Empire such as Minister of State, Member of the Senate, and President of the Corp Legislatif.

Towards the end of his life, Walewski was actually aware of the threat posed by the rising power of Prussia (which would soon unite Germany).[19] By 1866, he thought that war between France and Prussia was inevitable and by 1868 was seemingly brought out of retirement by Napoléon III to try to plan diplomatically for this outcome by visiting Bavaria and Württemberg and convincing them to stay neutral in a future conflict.[20] There's some doubt about what was being planned precisely by the Emperor and Walewski because Walewski suddenly died at the age of 58, leaving those diplomatic plans unfinished. Thus, the life of one of the Second Empire’s most seasoned diplomats was cut short three years before one of France’s worst ever diplomatic debacles, resulting in the collapse of the Second Empire.

While his father was one of the greatest warriors of all time, Walewski was almost the inverse, an accomplished diplomat. And when compared to his half-brother, there is almost no comparison at all. It shows the two different paths two brothers of an extremely intelligent father can take.

Besides their stories being interesting in their own right, what makes these two men especially intriguing is they currently have living descendants. I was only able to find a significant amount about the Walewskis but I have seen repeated references to Charles Léon also having living relatives. Just as an example, some of Alexandre Walewski’s descendants still run a company founded by Imperial decree in 1853 which has been in family hands ever since. The shipping company, Touax, is currently run by the two brothers Fabrice and Raphaël Walewski.[21] So there is a 168-year-old multi-billion dollar French industrial shipping company run by the descendants of Napoléon Bonaparte… do with that information what you will.

The other interesting thing these two sons leave us is photographs. Their father Napoléon is infamous for being recognizable in portraits, but each portrait is different enough so that it is hard to get a sense of what Napoléon really looked like. In addition, he also had artists tamper with his image for propagandistic effects, leaving us an even less accurate image of the famous general. But his sons left us photographs. The photos of Alexandre Walewski are very clear and you can actually kind of see the resemblance to the portraits we do have of Napoléon. It's not that far of a leap to say you could see him being the son of the Emperor. (I think he has his dad’s nose.)


Note about spelling: To keep things consistent between all of the Bonapartes names I used the French version of Napoléon I name instead of the anglicized Napoleon because every source I used had the French version of Charles Léon and the Polish version of Alexandre. The goal was to keep everything fairly consistent. It was also to help the reader make the connection between Charles Léon’s name being derived from Napoléon.

[1] Geoffrey Ellis, Napoléon (London: Longman, 1997), 31. [2] ibid, 118. [3] Andrew Roberts, Napoléon A Life (London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2014), 799–801. [4] Robert McNair Wilson, Napoléon's Love Story (London: Peter Davies, 1933). [5] Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant, trans. Elizabeth Gilbert Martin (New York, New York: The Century Company, 1907), 157-158. [6] Hector Fleischmann, An Unknown Son of Napoléon (New York, 1914), p. 160-161 [7] ibid. [8] “Finds Granddaughter of Napoléon in Paris,” New York Times, April 23, 1921. [9] Geoffrey Ellis, Napoléon (London: Longman, 1997), 17. [10] Gérard Lucotte, Jacques Macé, and Peter Hrechdakian, “Reconstruction of the Lineage Y Chromosome Haplotype of Napoléon the First,” International Journal of Sciences 2 (September 2, 2013). [11] Walewski, Alexandre. “Memories of Count Colonna Walewski from His Youth.” Accessed March 7, 2021. [12] “WALEWSKI, ALEXANDRE FLORIAN JOSEPH COLONNA.” In Encyclopædia Britannica 28. Vol. 28. Cambridge University, 1911. [13] “Dates Principales De La Vie D'Alexandre Colonna Walewski 1810 /1868.” Archives Colonna Walewski. Accessed March 7, 2021. [14] ibid. [15] ibid. [16] “Walewski, Alexandre” in Encyclopædia Britannica (Cambridge University, 1911). [17] ibid. [18] Alexandre Walewski, “Notes on Count Colonna Walewski,” Archives Colonna Walewski, accessed March 7, 2021, (written by a descendent of the same name) [19] ibid. [20] Martin-Gay, Bruno. “27 SEPTEMBER 1868: THE DEATH OF THE GREAT DIPLOMAT, COUNT ALEXANDRE WALEWSKI, AS REPORTED BY THE PRESS OF THE PERIOD.” Translated by Rebecca Young. Foundation Napoléon, September 2018. https://www.Napolé [21] “Company History.” Touax. Accessed March 7, 2021.


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