Today it is my pleasure to welcome the estimable Shannon Selin with the twisting tale of Napoleon’s treasonous sister.
Caroline Bonaparte Murat, Napoleon’s Treasonous Sister
Caroline Bonaparte Murat before the Bay of Naples by François Gérard
One tries to find redeeming features in Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte Murat, but they are hard to spot. Biographers have been quite unkind: “Caroline, with a baseness that makes her resemble some monstrous queen of antiquity, betrayed husband, brother, and country alike to slake the thirst of her unprincipled ambitions.”  French Foreign Minister Talleyrand was more generous:
Madame Murat had the head of Cromwell upon the body of a well-shaped woman. Born with much grandeur of character, strong mind, and sublime ideas; possessing a subtle and delicate wit, together with amiability and grace, seductive beyond expression; she was deficient in nothing but in the art of concealing her desire to rule; and when she failed in attaining her end, it was because she sought to reach it too quickly. 
Fresh as a Rose
Maria Annunziata Buonaparte was born on 25 March 1782 in Ajaccio, Corsica. She was the seventh of Charles and Letizia Bonaparte’s eight surviving children, and thirteen years younger than her brother Napoleon, who was away at military school in France. Known as Annunziata as a child, as a teenager she adopted the name Caroline, in an attempt to appear less Corsican (her siblings also “Frenchified” their names).
Caroline’s father died a month before she turned three. When Caroline was eleven, Napoleon fell out with the Corsican nationalists and the family had to flee to France. Caroline had a brief taste of poverty in Marseilles, but Napoleon’s rapid rise in the French army soon put an end to that. Napoleon paid for Caroline to attend an expensive girls’ school at St. Germain-en-Laye, operated by Madame Campan, a former lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Napoleon’s wife Josephine (whom the Bonapartes could not stand), was also at the school. Napoleon’s valet relates the following anecdote from a family dinner some ten years later:
[Napoleon] had just received a letter from a prefect who told him that a man named Geoffrin had saved several workmen in a coal mine which had caved in. The letter was given to [Caroline], who could hardly decipher it. The Emperor, seeing his sister’s embarrassment, said, ‘Give it to Hortense; she will read it.’ In fact, [Hortense], holding the letter, read it quite fluently. 
Suffice to say that Caroline Bonaparte was known more for her cunning than her book-learning. In 1797 she met a similarly unintellectual character in the form of General Joachim Murat, a theological student turned cavalry officer who was on Napoleon’s staff with the Army of Italy. Murat was dashing, charismatic and good-natured, with a huge mane of curly dark hair, which makes him easy to recognize in paintings. Caroline was charming and pretty – “fresh as a rose: not to be compared, for the regular beauty of her features, to [Pauline Bonaparte], though more pleasing perhaps by the expression of her countenance and the brilliancy of her complexion.” 
|Joachim Murat by François Gérard, 1808|
The two fell in love. They were married on 20 January 1800, after Napoleon gave his reluctant permission (he preferred instrumental marriages to love matches). Caroline was seventeen. Murat was thirty-two. The age difference did not prevent Caroline from trying to dominate her husband.
She was soon pregnant with their first child. A month before the birth, a bomb (the “infernal machine”) intended for Napoleon exploded in front of the carriage in which she was riding. Unlike Josephine and Hortense, who were also in the carriage, Caroline kept her cool. Her son Achille was born on 21 January 1801, followed by Letizia (26 April 1802), Lucien (16 May 1803) and Louise (21 March 1805).
Caroline Bonaparte Murat and her Children by François Gérard, 1808
The Quest for a Crown
In 1803 Murat became the military governor of Paris. He bought the Elysée Palace and moved his family in. This did not satisfy Caroline’s ambition. When, in 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French and proclaimed his brothers Joseph and Louis princes of the Empire, Caroline was livid that her sisters-in-law – including Hortense, who was married to Louis – would have a higher status than she would. The evening of the coronation:
Madame Murat was excessively angry, and during the dinner had so little control over herself, that on hearing the Emperor address Madame Louis several times as ‘Princess,’ she could not restrain her tears…. Everyone was embarrassed, and [Napoleon] smiled maliciously….
On the following day, after a family dinner, a violent quarrel took place…. Madame Murat burst into complaints, tears, and reproaches; she asked why she and her sisters were to be condemned to obscurity and contempt, while strangers were to be loaded with honours and dignity? Bonaparte answered her angrily, asserting several times that he was master, and would distribute honours as he pleased…. The discussion ended by Madame Murat’s falling on the floor in a dead faint, overcome by her excessive anger, and by the acrimony of her brother’s reproaches. 
Though Napoleon gave in and granted his sisters the courtesy titles of “Imperial Highness,” Caroline continued to try to wheedle a proper crown out of her brother. The Murats threw lavish parties for Napoleon and his entourage. They also procured mistresses for him. In 1805, they introduced him to Éléonore Denuelle de la Plagne, a beautiful eighteen-year old in their employ, whom Murat was bedding. In December 1806 Éléonore gave birth to Napoleon’s first child, Charles Léon Denuelle. Caroline was elated. The birth demonstrated to Napoleon that he was not responsible for Josephine’s infertility, and thus sealed the case for divorcing her, which Napoleon did in January 1810. When – two months later – Napoleon married Princess Marie Louise of Austria, he sent Caroline to the Austrian frontier to escort her back to Paris.
In the meantime, Caroline’s toadyism bore fruit. In 1806 Napoleon made the Murats the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Berg and Cleves, having carved a principality for them out of territory taken from Prussia and Bavaria. Conveniently, Caroline did not have to reside there.
The Grand Duchess of Berg…lived in great splendour at the Elysée-Bourbon Palace. Her beauty was set off by the most exquisite dress; her pretensions were great; her manners affable when she thought it prudent, and more than affable to men whom she wished to fascinate…. [S]he endeavored to make friends among the influential members of the Government who might be useful to her…. She wanted to secure her present position, and especially to elevate her husband in spite of himself. 
Her lovers included General Junot, who had replaced Murat as governor of Paris, and Clemens von Metternich, the Austrian ambassador to France.
In 1808, when Napoleon moved Joseph Bonaparte from the throne of Naples to that of Spain, he made the Murats King and Queen of Naples. Caroline emptied the Elysée Palace of its French state treasures and had them brought to Naples (to be fair, Joseph had liberated Naples of its best art, and later stole the royal treasures of Spain).
Though Murat wanted to preserve his royal prerogative, Caroline insisted on being consulted on all matters of importance. They often quarreled. When, in 1812, Napoleon entrusted Murat with command of the Grand Armée’s cavalry for the Russian campaign, Caroline governed in her husband’s absence. It was her finest hour. She impressed her ministers and officials with her sound judgement. During the march back from Moscow, Napoleon hurried to Paris, leaving Murat in charge of the army’s retreat. Murat abandoned his post and fled to Naples. Napoleon was furious. He wrote to Caroline: “The King of Naples has left the army. Your husband is very brave on the field of battle, but he is weaker than a woman or a monk when he is not in the presence of the enemy. He has no moral courage.” 
|Caroline Bonaparte Murat with her daughter Letizia by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1807|
Though Murat rejoined Napoleon for the 1813 campaign in Germany, Caroline considered her brother’s defeat inevitable. She and Murat hoped to save their throne by allying with Napoleon’s enemies. On 11 January 1814, Murat signed a treaty with Austria. This guaranteed to him and his heirs the sovereignty of the territory he possessed in Italy. In return, he was bound to cooperate in the war against Napoleon.
When Napoleon learned of this treachery, he said, “I was well aware that Murat was a fool, but I thought he loved me. It is his wife who is the cause of his desertion. To think that Caroline, my own sister, should betray me!” 
On 26 February, Napoleon wrote to Joseph:
It seems that the allies have not yet ratified the treaty with the King of Naples. Despatch by a courier, with the utmost haste, a letter to the King, in which you will frankly point out to him the iniquity of his conduct, offering to mediate for him if he will return to his duties. Tell him that this is his only hope; that if he takes any other course he must be destroyed either by France or by the allies…. Write also to the Queen on her ingratitude, which revolts even the allies. 
It was no use. Napoleon lost and was exiled to Elba. The Murats remained in power in Naples. Murat, however, felt sorry about what he had done, He secretly entered into communication with Napoleon. When the latter escaped from Elba and returned to France in March 1815, he told his brother-in-law to maintain the Neapolitan forces in a defensive position. Napoleon hoped to keep the Austrians neutral. For this to happen, Italy (partly under Austrian control) had to stay neutral. Murat disregarded this advice. Thinking he could help Napoleon by starting a diversion, he foolishly led his forces into Italy. He was defeated in the Battle of Tolentino in early May. Murat retreated to Naples and said goodbye to Caroline. She was so angry with him (she still supported the allies) that he said, “If you see me alive, madam, pray believe it is that I have sought death in vain!”  She never saw him again.
Murat went to France, but Napoleon refused to see him. “Twice Murat betrayed and ruined me,” he later said.  Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo and was banished to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena.
Caroline surrendered to the commander of the English squadron that was cruising around Naples. He transported her to Trieste and handed her over to the Austrians, who kept her at the castle of Hainburg, near Vienna. Meanwhile, Murat made his way to Corsica, from where he tried to reconquer his kingdom. On 8 October 1815, Murat and a small band of followers landed at the Calabrian port of Pizzo. The locals proved hostile and Murat was arrested. On 13 October he was tried by a military tribunal, condemned to death and shot by a firing squad.
Miniature of Caroline Bonaparte Murat by Jean-Baptiste Isabey
Life after Napoleon
Caroline took the name of the Countess of Lipona (an anagram of Napoli, or Naples). Her former lover, the Austrian Chancellor Metternich, tried unsuccessfully to obtain permission for her to settle in Rome near her mother and siblings. Instead, she was allowed to live in the castle of Frohsdorf, south of Vienna (Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, the Duchess of Angoulême, was a later resident there). Letizia Bonaparte, in any case, had no desire to see her daughter. When Caroline protested that Murat’s 1814 betrayal had not been her fault, Letizia replied, “If you were unable to influence him, you should nevertheless have opposed him. But what opposition did you make? Has any blood been shed? It is only across your dead body that your husband should have smitten your brother, your benefactor, your master!” 
Caroline’s companion in exile was General Francesco Macdonald, who, despite his name, was of Italian origin. He had been an aide-de-camp to Murat and was the former Minister of War of Naples. They may have married as early as 1817, though 1830 has also been suggested. Visiting them in Trieste in 1825, Madame Récamier noted:
The queen, whose skin was as fair as a lily, was still singularly pretty, almost retaining the brilliancy of her youth. She had grown stout; and, as she was not tall, her figure had not gained in elegance. She was animated in conversation; and, from her caressing manners, it was easy to see that, when she wished to please, she could exercise great powers of fascination.
Her intercourse with her daughter [Louise] was full of the most confiding tenderness. Her bearing to General Macdonald was affectionate, with a shade of authority. To her guests … she manifested a warmth and gratitude that proved, alas! how few disinterested marks of sympathy she had received since her misfortunes. 
Caroline’s sons moved to the United States, from where they pestered her for money. Her daughters married Italian noblemen. The American actor René Auberjonois, who played Father Mulcahy in the film version of M*A*S*H, is Caroline Bonaparte Murat’s great-great-great-grandson.
In 1831, Caroline was allowed to move to Florence. When Letizia Bonaparte died in 1836, Caroline fought with her brothers over her mother’s estate. To keep the dispute out of the newspapers, Joseph turned his share over to Caroline. General Macdonald died the next year.
Caroline spent a good part of her later years trying to recover the money she claimed was owed to her by France. Although the French authorities found the claims bogus, King Louis Philippe – who, in his struggle against the legitimists, wished to flatter the enemies of the Bourbons – allowed Caroline to visit Paris to pursue her case. The American scholar George Ticknor encountered her there in January 1838.
I spent the early part of the evening at the Countess Lipona’s, the name under which Madame Murat passes here. She is a very good-looking, stout person, nearly sixty years old, I suppose, and with ladylike and rather benevolent manners. She lives in good style, but without splendour; and, like the rest of her family, allows those about her to call her Reine. Prince Musignano [Caroline’s nephew] was there, and perhaps in the course of an hour twenty people came in, for it was her reception evening; but the whole, I suppose, was Bonapartists, for I happen to know that those who wish to stand well with Louis Philippe avoid her doors; a weakness on his part as great as that which, on hers, permits her to be called Queen. 
|Caroline Bonaparte Murat by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814|
At last Caroline was granted a pension of 100,000 francs. She had little time to enjoy it. On 18 May 1839 she died of stomach cancer in Florence at the age of 57. She was buried in the Chiesa di Ognissanti in Florence. There is a cenotaph to her and Murat in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The final word regarding Caroline must go to Napoleon. On St. Helena, he reflected on her thus:
The Queen of Naples had chiefly formed herself amidst great events. She had solid sense, strength of character, and boundless ambition…. She must naturally suffer severely from her reverses, more particularly as she may said to have been born a Queen. She had not, like the rest of us, moved in the sphere of private life. Caroline, Pauline and Jerome were still in their childhood when I had attained supreme rank in France; thus they never knew any other state than that which they enjoyed during the period of my power. 
And Napoleon had the decency, in his will (he died in 1821), to thank Caroline, along with the rest of his family, “for the interest they continue to feel for me.” 
- “Prefatory Note” by W.R.H. Trowbridge in Joseph Turquan, The Sisters of Napoleon, translated and edited by W.R.H. Trowbridge (London, 1908), p. ix.
- Catherine Hyde Govion Broglio Solari, Private Anecdotes of Foreign Courts, Vol. 1 (London, 1827), p. 456.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 11.
- Laure Junot, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès, Vol. I (New York, 1832), p. 256.
- Paul de Rémusat, ed., Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, 1802-1808, translated by Cashel Hoey and John Lillie, Vol. 1 (London, 1880), pp. 254-56. Madame de Rémusat’s account is undoubtedly coloured by her attachment to Josephine, who related part of this anecdote to her and who “could not but enjoy the vexation of a person who so thoroughly disliked her.”
- Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, p. 488.
- Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès, Vol. VII (London, 1835) p. 391.
- The Sisters of Napoleon, p. 291.
- The Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with His Brother Joseph, Vol. II (London, 1855), p. 327.
- Caroline Murat, My Memoirs (London, 1910), p. 21. These are the memoirs of Caroline Bonaparte Murat’s granddaughter.
- Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 134.
- The Sisters of Napoleon, p. 293.
- Isaphene M. Luyster, ed. and trans., Memoirs and Correspondence of Madame Récamier (Boston, 1867), pp. 240-241.
- George Stillman Hillard, Life, Letters and Journals of George Ticknor, Vol. II (London, 1876), p. 127.
- Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part III (Boston, 1823), p. 157.
- Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. III, p. 427.
About the Author
Shannon Selin is the author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon had escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com.
Written content of this post copyright © Shannon Selin, 2014
You can find out more about Napoleon's remarkable family in Life in the Georgian Court, now available to order worldwide!