Ancient history

Bonaparte, Louis

King of Holland (Ajaccio, September 2, 1778 - Livorno, July 25, 1846).

Louis Bonaparte (Lodewijk Napoleon in Dutch) (Ajaccio, September 2, 1778 - Livorno, July 25, 1846) was one of the brothers of Napoleon Bonaparte, son of Charles-Marie Bonaparte and Maria-Létizia Ramolino. He was King of Holland from 1806 to 1810.

A new king

From the age of 16 he was aide-de-camp to his brother in the army of Italy; followed him to Egypt, was married in 1802, almost in spite of himself to the daughter of Joséphine de Beauharnais:Hortense de Beauharnais. He received at the creation of the Empire, the title of Grand Constable; occupied in 1805 at the head of the army of the North, the territory of the Batavian Republic; he loyally left the country at the first news of peace, which won him the esteem of the Dutch.

In 1806, Napoleon decided to put an end to the Batavian Republic:Holland being a strategic point, it had to be placed under a strong authority. This is why he put his youngest brother Louis on the throne:he believed that by appointing a member of his family he could exert more influence.

Louis, however, expressed reservations against his brother's plans. For years, his poor health (he had rheumatism) forced him to regularly go to spas, and he could not see himself settling in a cold country. He also resented being forced to obey the Emperor's orders without question. But in the face of Napoleon's obstinacy, Louis had to give in.

By order of the emperor, a delegation from the Batavian government left for Paris to discuss the change of power. Napoleon however refused to receive it himself, and to their great humiliation the members of the delegation had to ask Louis on behalf of the Dutch people to be their sovereign. A facade of legality could not hide the fact that a king was being imposed on the Dutch. On June 5, 1806, the official ceremony took place in Paris. In the presence of the Batavian delegation, Louis became sovereign of the Kingdom of Holland.

How to impose your authority

When he arrived in Holland, Louis therefore encountered a problem of authority, because the Dutch found themselves before a king who had been imposed on them. Behold, a secular republic had been brutally transformed into a monarchy, while the patriots had precisely opposed with energy the ambitions of the stadhouder to become king. It is true that Holland until the arrival of Louis had been a republic only in name since the Stadtholder had held power in his hands and had, moreover, with the approval of the Council of State, been able to appoint his son as successor; in the eyes of the patriots, a king on the throne of Holland nevertheless represented a provocation, which upset the purest republican tradition and the principles of the Batavian Revolution.

Of resistance, there was little question. The entry of Louis into The Hague left the public with more curiosity than enthusiasm. Only a few leaflets incited protest and revolt. The Dutch waited apathetically for what the new master would bring.

Historians have always wondered why the resistance was delayed. There are several reasons. At first Holland was not incorporated into France. Of course, through his brother, it was Napoleon who pulled the strings, but the country remained nominally independent and kept its own laws and religion, in particular it was exempt from conscription. All in all, subjection to France was not total. Second, the political transition was not abrupt:Stadtholder William V effectively ruled as a monarch, and power in the Batavian Republic was held by a small number of individuals. And then many citizens cherished the hope that after all these revolutions, we would enjoy a little peace with a strong man.

The administration of the new king

Faced with this opposition to a foreign sovereign, Louis was not satisfied that the country resigned itself to his presence, he tried to win his affection and justify his authority. From his reception speech he hastened to reassure the Dutch:even if he was born in France, he swore to look after the interests of his subjects.

Mastering the language

Louis took his task seriously, taking language lessons from Willem Bilderdijk, writer and court poet, with the idea of ​​mastering Dutch. All the same, it was not the easiest:during a speech in Amsterdam he would have one day claimed to be a Dutch rabbit (konijn) instead of saying king (koning). But this story is disputed. Moreover Louis promised to keep Dutch as the official language of the administration, and although this decision was mainly intended to hinder the French spies in their task, it won him the sympathy of the people.

His inspection tours in the kingdom

King Louis did not lock himself in his palace in The Hague, but regularly visited his kingdom, even where Stadtholder William V had rarely if ever shown himself. These rounds weren't just for deception:he kept abreast of the problems he encountered and tried to solve them. Thus in Brabant, where a mysterious illness was raging, he did not hesitate to visit the sick at the risk of damaging his own health. Shocked by the suffering, he immediately ordered the necessary medicines, distributed money to cover the first necessities, and summoned a doctor from Boxmeer. In a few weeks the epidemic was contained. Having come to the front of those who needed his help, always finding the necessary solution, he quickly acquired the respect of the nation.

Administrative reforms

The guideline of Louis as long as he was king was to create national unity in a country deeply marked by the feeling of the region. The king reinforced the powers of the central administration over the local administrations. In his eyes, Holland was in pieces and had to constitute an organic unity:it was because the cities and regions most of the time conducted their own policy and felt little concerned by the decisions taken far away, in The Hague. Louis divided the country into ten departments, placing at the head of each a governor (landdrost) who, like the French prefects, supervised local politics at his level. The mayors of large cities were now appointed by the sovereign.


Louis was also concerned with unraveling the legal maquis, as the lack of uniform legislation meant that penalties varied widely within the country. In one village, for example, theft could be punished by death, while the same offense incurs only a fine in another village. The sovereign, for this reason, adopted the French Civil Code and in addition had a national code of criminal law drawn up which was completed in 1808. The liberal ideas of Louis were reflected in the new code with the abolition of torture and forced labor. and, although the death penalty had been maintained, the king could still pardon.

Religious minorities gained more rights. Admittedly, the Batavian revolution had granted civil equality to Jews and Catholics, but in practice discrimination had by no means disappeared. This is why in 1808 he officially proclaimed religious equality, knowingly brought Jews into the administration and was irritated by the lack of interest of Catholics who continued to keep themselves on the sidelines. By order of the king, the Protestants even returned some places of worship to the Catholics, such as the Saint-Jean cathedral in 's-Hertogenbosch.

The resistance to this king who disturbed secular customs was long in coming. Louis had enough common sense not to attack the local leaders, both the rural nobility and the urban patriciate, insofar as they promised him to comply with his policies. And then they hoped that a strong central power could arrest the decline of the once mighty Republic. They were certainly overwhelmed by a deluge of prescriptions that came to them from The Hague, but at least Louis was the one who protected them from a more direct dependence. And they understood that their king would lose his throne without recourse if his reforms failed. If he was dissatisfied, Napoleon would annex the country; it would then be necessary to support the conscription and contribute to fill the coffers of the State, desperately empty. Better a king than an emperor:that was it.


Louis was very interested in culture and science. For this reason he founded various institutes which still exist in unchanged form, such as the Royal Institute of Sciences, the Royal Library and the Royal Museum. He himself often went to visit the Teylers Museum in Haarlem and he did not forget to also encourage the liberal arts by organizing various public art exhibitions.

National disasters

Two national disasters unexpectedly gave Louis the opportunity to behave like a king who cares about his people. On a freezing January afternoon in 1807, a ship loaded with gunpowder exploded in the center of Leiden. The detonation was heard as far as The Hague; of the freighter only the anchor was found, in a meadow outside the city. Louis went the same day to the scene of the disaster, and the devastation caused affected him deeply. Hundreds of homes had been wiped off the map, an entire school class was buried in the rubble, and among the fire-blackened ruins were the remains of the victims.

The king intervened effectively. He employed the royal guard to clear the rubble, coordinated rescue activities, had bakers in Delft bake bread for the victims, brought his personal surgeon to Leiden, and had the Bosch Palace converted into a hospital to treat the wounded. It was only the next day that he returned to The Hague. Louis also took care of the future:he forbade the transport of gunpowder in densely populated places, created a fund for disasters into which he himself paid 30,000 florins and he exempted the city of Leiden from taxes for the following ten years.

The people immediately appreciated their sovereign. Everywhere people spoke only of Louis le Bon, the father of the unfortunate. The court poet Willem Bilderdijk sang his praises, while drawings, engravings and paintings multiplied to glorify the king's compassion for his people.

The floods of 1809 gave him another opportunity to act. Entire villages had been submerged by the flooding rivers, the Betuwe had become an immense inland sea. Without showing the slightest fear, Louis himself helped to reinforce the dykes with sandbags, he coordinated the relief actions and went to the most isolated villages of the territory to restore courage to the population. Once again, Louis gave illustrators the opportunity to represent his acts of benevolence:a famous engraving shows him standing on a narrow dike, his feet in the water, comforting distraught villagers with his words.

This charm offensive and his energy in action had the greatest success because, during a trip to North Holland, the people of Edam forgave him his French origin. He hoped at that time that the Dutch would one day forget that he was not born in their country, hearing an old man say:"Since Leiden we have already forgotten all that".

Criticisms against the sovereign

Louis's subjects did not, however, lavish all praise on him. His penchant for luxury and monarchical pomp did not go down well with the Dutch accustomed to economy and who took a dim view of this king who traveled at great expense from one palace to another after having had them luxuriously fitted out. Deeming the climate of The Hague to be bad for his health, too close to the sea, he decided to move to Utrecht in 1807, and he spent enormous sums there on the construction of a royal palace in the city center. Besides, he did not live there long, because barely a few months later he moved to the Amsterdam Palace on the dam, where he had everything demolished to have a better view. But in Amsterdam he could not feel comfortable either, so he spent his time preferably outside the city in shady places like Haarlem, Soestdijk or Amelisweerd.

The conflict with Napoleon

The problem was that Napoleon did not appreciate the policy of his brother, whom he reproached for putting the interests of Holland before those of France. Indeed, even if he had mostly carried out his brother's orders, for example by closing the Dutch ports to British ships, he was mostly looking for the advantage of his country.

What displeased the Emperor from the start was Louis's refusal to introduce conscription into his kingdom, when Napoleon always demanded more soldiers. His brother felt unable to respond to his demands since, out of a population of two million souls, a military contribution of 40,000 soldiers could not be provided. He also refused to authoritatively reduce the public debt by two-thirds, as Napoleon demanded of him:such a measure would have ruined many individuals who had claims on the State and the economy, already weakened, would have received a new blow. /P>

This is why Louis opposed Napoleon's demand to strictly respect the Continental Blockade. To force the United Kingdom, his declared enemy, to come to terms, Napoleon had banned all trade with her, which angered Louis because such a measure could only deal the deathblow to an already faltering economy. The system was in principle inflexible and the ports were closed, but the king tried to turn a blind eye to smugglers who took advantage of the length of the coast.

When in 1809 a British army landed on the island of Walcheren and conquered the strategic fortress of Bath, thus opening the way to Antwerp, Napoleon unleashed a new wave of criticism against his brother. Although Louis had managed to stop the march of the British in time, who were decimated by fevers, and having hastily gathered troops he had retaken the fortress, Napoleon judged that his brother was incapable. According to him, it was Louis's refusal to introduce conscription in Holland, on the pretext that it was unpopular, which had enabled the United Kingdom to succeed in its invasion.

Napoleon first tried to seduce his brother by offering him the throne of Spain, but Louis refused. The emperor then decided to take command himself. In the summer of 1809 Louis had to go to Paris on his brother's orders, albeit dragging his feet, and there, after months of quarreling, he was obliged to sign a treaty ceding to France the south of The Netherlands. In 1810 Louis returned to his subjects, but soon after the "French surveillance troops" extended their control over the cities of western Holland still further. Louis realized that the case was lost; without consulting his brother he abdicated in favor of his young son Napoleon Louis Bonaparte and fled to Vienna. Holland was then annexed to the French Empire.


This philosopher prince lived since in retirement under the name of Comte de Saint-Leu, and remained a foreigner when Napoleon returned in 1815.

He published Historical Documents on the Government of Holland (3 volumes in-8, Paris, 1820), an essential work for the history of the Kingdom of Holland.

Like his brothers Lucien and Joseph, he cultivated letters.

He had in 1814 in an Essay on Versification, proposed to substitute rhythm for rhyme by chanting French verses following the prosodic accent:he even wanted to apply this system and composed some poems in rhythmic verse (Lucrèce,tragedy, Ruth and Noémie, comic opera); but this attempt had no success.

We still have him :

* Odes (Vienna, 1813)
* Diverse Poems (Florence, 1828), where one finds, with a gentle philosophy, noble feelings expressed in beautiful verses
* a novel Marie ou les sorrows de l'amour (published in 1800, reprinted in 1814 under the title of Marie ou les Hollandaises), a novel which seems to be its own story.

Marriage and children

In 1802, Napoleon had married his brother Louis to his daughter-in-law Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1837), from Joséphine's first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais, but this union was not happy. Hortense did not want to stay long with her husband in Holland, whom she found too cold, and she returned to France. Then the couple separated. They did, however, have three sons:

* Napoleon Louis Charles Bonaparte (1802-1807)
* Napoleon Louis Bonaparte (1804-1831), Grand Duke of Mons, and short-lived King of Holland under the name of Louis II.
* Charles Louis Napoleon (1808-1873), who became Emperor of the French Napoleon III.

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