Historical story

King Louis Napoleon

More than 200 years ago, on June 5, 1806, the Kingdom of Holland was proclaimed. For the first time since Philip II, the Netherlands again had a hereditary head of state:Lodewijk Napoleon, younger brother of the French emperor. In the four years of his reign, Lodewijk developed numerous administrative and cultural initiatives that made the country a more (administrative) unit. Yet he did not go down in history as the founder of the monarchy in the Netherlands. Wrongly.

Although it had never been a preconceived plan, the Northern Netherlands had not had a sovereign monarch since 1588. There was a stadtholder, the Prince of Orange, but he did not have absolute power, like the princes in neighboring countries.

When the French Emperor Napoleon decided to make his brother Louis King of Holland on June 5, 1806, it came as a shock to the Dutch, who still considered themselves free republicans. This radical change raises questions about the difference between republic and kingdom, about the royal institutions and, last but not least, about the person of the king and the reactions of 'his' people.

The Bonaparte family

Lodewijk Napoleon, or Louis Bonaparte, was a younger brother of Napoleon. The family, originating from Corsica, was of simple impoverished nobility. One of the few privileges they had was to study at the king's expense. For example, Napoleon and his eldest brother Joseph received a scholarship to attend a French military school. When the Bonapartes were forced to leave Corsica and settle in Marseille in 1793, Louis was fourteen years old and barely educated. Napoleon decided to take up the education of little Louis himself and to summon him to Châlons sur Marne.

Although this first attempt failed, he rejoined his big brother some time later. He then became a sub-lieutenant and took part in the battles at Oneglia in Italy. Although his brother taught him French, mathematics and geography and Louis studied the philosopher Rousseau, among other things, his military training was still incomplete. He made a last attempt in the course of 1795, but this failed because he had to go to Italy on Napoleon's orders. During this second military campaign, Louis discovered that he had no feelings for the military company.

What he really dreamed of was a career as a writer. Like Napoleon, who had written numerous texts in his youth, Louis thought he was a born author. But while Napoleon was able to combine his military career well with his literary penchant, the dreamer Louis wanted to exchange weapons for pen and paper for good. Nevertheless, Napoleon intended to make Louis a soldier.

Meanwhile, Louis had fallen in love with a friend of his sister's, much to the chagrin of Napoleon, who took him on his Egyptian campaign in 1798 in the hope that Louis would forget his crush. In 1802, at the age of 24, he was forced by Napoleon to marry Hortense de Beauharnais, whom he had no feelings for. In short, until 1806 Louis has always succumbed to the demands of his big brother.

Meanwhile, Napoleon became increasingly powerful but also more demanding towards his family. After becoming Emperor of France in 1804 and defeating his enemies' combined forces at Austerlitz a year later, he had the bright idea of ​​turning his relatives into kings and princes in support of his imperialist aspirations. By joining forces, France and its vassal states could finally deal with England.

For that reason Louis became king of Holland against his will. Louis himself had preferred an Italian principality, Genoa or Piemonte for example. The cold and wet Netherlands would be disastrous for his poor health. He also wondered whether the Dutch were really waiting for a king. And indeed, soon after his appointment as king, disturbances broke out here and there and were crushed with a heavy hand. So there was no easy task for Louis. 'The new plant had to acclimatise', a Patriot wrote to the Minister of Finance Izaak Gogel, and vice versa, the Dutch people had to get used to a king.

The discovery of an identity

Once he arrived in his kingdom, Louis took the name Lodewijk and, surprisingly, he acquired his own identity. Freed from his brother's constant supervision, he was now truly growing up. Despite his initial aversion to Holland, Lodewijk turned out to be a prince who did his best to please his new subjects. Where Napoleon believed that he had appointed a 'king-prefect' to defend France's interests, Lodewijk considered himself a national king. This led to multiple conflicts between the brothers.

The main problem was the blockade proclaimed in 1806 (the Continental System). Trade practically came to a standstill, adding to the already significant unemployment. In addition, Napoleon demanded from his brother 50,000 men, twenty warships, the port of Vlissingen, the introduction of conscription and the tiering (payment of one third) of the Dutch national debt.

This last demand was unthinkable for the Dutch, who made it a matter of honour. After all, the Netherlands was a country where everything was based on trust. Lodewijk therefore refused to implement these unpopular measures. He tried unsuccessfully to convince Napoleon of the disadvantages. He only managed to limit the number of French troops, thus achieving a slight cutback. But Napoleon continued to complain about the sacrifices France was making for a country that proved to be a nuisance. Lodewijk spoke a different language:his new homeland was exhausted, there was no money left, nor were there enough soldiers. And as for the fleet, Napoleon had to wait patiently, the Dutch were busy with that.

Meanwhile, Louis began to shape his kingdom. First the constitution had to be adapted to the new regime. The king realized that he had to harmonize the new monarchy with the prevailing republicanism. Lodewijk regarded the constitutional monarchy as the form of government ideally suited to cope with the political difficulties that plagued the country for decades.

Not only did the king want to protect his new homeland, he also developed all kinds of initiatives that were not exactly suited to a trading state, according to Napoleon. Like his imperial brother, he wanted his own coronation, palaces, marshals, peerage and knighthood. All this much to the anger of the French emperor. Had Holland suddenly become a military state? What profit did a nation of "capitalists" and merchants of their own nobility gain? Napoleon also refused, after an initial promise, that Lodewijk would be officially crowned in Amsterdam. An own Dutch throne, that was just allowed. Due to this constant criticism, Lodewijk's uncertainty about the future of the Kingdom of Holland grew.

All in all, the relationship between the two brothers was ambiguous. On the one hand, Lodewijk refused for the first time in his life to follow the orders of Napoleon blindly. On the other hand, he pursued a policy largely based on what the Emperor had achieved in France. The fact that Louis imitated him on many points was partly the result of years of obedience to Napoleon. Moreover, Lodewijk could have witnessed up close how the very authoritarian and enterprising emperor had forged his empire into a unity.

A national king

Louis regularly expressed the desire that he wanted to be a national king. His words testify to the emerging nation consciousness that became increasingly stronger in European thinking. Lodewijk was aware of this phenomenon and attached great importance to it. A king was incapable of ruling if he did not take into account the interests of the nation. What exactly a national king was, Napoleon had already shown when he promoted reconciliation between all the French. Lodewijk was not insensitive to this ambition and when he arrived in Holland, he had a list made of all good patriots:Orangists, Patriots, Federalists, moderates… everyone was welcome.

Brotherly old political enemies worked together to build up the Kingdom of Holland. Revolutionaries such as Gogel and Van Maanen, the Minister of Justice, now sat next to orangists such as Gerard Brantsen, Cornelis Six or Carel van Bijlandt. The poet Willem Bilderdijk, who went into exile as an orangist because he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new regime in 1795, returned and was recruited to teach Lodewijk the Dutch language. The fact that this was not entirely successful is not so much due to Lodewijk as to Bilderdijk, whose teaching method was not easy to say the least.

Loyal supporters of the Prince of Orange also hoped to be part of Lodewijk's royal entourage. In the meantime, hadn't the stadtholder been given a new German principality (little Fulda) and officially renounced the stadholder's title? In 1806 a restoration of the Orange dynasty was therefore unthinkable. National reconciliation was a first step towards the 'national monarchy' that Lodewijk championed. Much more was needed for that. Together with old Patriots, such as Gogel and Van Maanen, but also with moderates such as Mollerus, Appelius and Lemmers, Lodewijk undertook all kinds of reforms of the Dutch institutions.

Between 1798 and 1801, the radical revolutionaries had already made efforts to modernize and centralize the country. They had also started to introduce a uniform primary school system and to promote cultural life. The Batavians owed a fairly successful national museum in Huis ten Bosch to Gogel. There had also been a national library and one national university. Finally, consideration was given to standardizing weights and measures according to the French example, as well as drawing up a Civil and Criminal Code. It appears that the radicals were no less 'nationalising' than Lodewijk, but they faced strong opposition from the various provinces.

As king, Lodewijk could proceed more easily than his predecessors. Although he looked at France with a slanted eye in all his initiatives, he still wanted to give all institutions a Dutch character. The Civil Code, for example, had to be adapted to Dutch customs. Above all, the corporal code had to become more humane than the old laws. Religions really had to become equal. Lodewijk even wanted to abolish the death penalty, much to Napoleon's dismay, and did his best to improve the lot of the Jews. Through his art policy he tried to cultivate patriotism. And in order not to further penalize the ailing economy, smuggling into England was turned a blind eye.

Perfect king?

Seen in this way, Louis Napoleon appears to be an almost perfect king. This was indeed his aim. He is known to have a strong sense of duty. To be truly accepted by a population renowned for its love of freedom and its aversion to one-man rule, Louis had to pose as an excellent monarch. Therefore, he seized every opportunity that could increase his popularity. When a gunpowder ship exploded in Leiden in January 1807, killing more than 150 people, he immediately rushed to the scene of the accident and offered help and food to the victims. He supported the city's reconstruction and set up the first national disaster fund. Two years later, during the major floods in the Betuwe, he was present again to offer comfort to those affected.

Lodewijk was the first of a long line of kings and heads of state who went among the people in times of disaster and adversity. Moreover, he wanted to be seen to measure his popularity and to legitimize his sovereignty. To get to know his kingdom better, he undertook several journeys. Each time he was delighted with the good disposition of the inhabitants and full of admiration for the national virtues he thought he discovered everywhere.

There was, of course, a downside. Lodewijk Napoleon, the first king of Holland, had an enormous penchant for pomp and circumstance. As far as his 'representation' is concerned, he was certainly not frugal. His expenses also skyrocketed because he never stayed in the same place for long. Initially Lodewijk lived with his family in The Hague, to move to Utrecht after the death of his son (a death that Lodewijk and Hortense know from the bad air in The Hague) with all his ministers and officials in the hope that the climate would be better there, only to end up in Amsterdam's city hall on Dam Square, which he claimed as his palace. These relocations were associated with high costs. Regardless of the bad economic situation, cutting back on royal spending was out of the question. Lodewijk therefore ordered all kinds of specially designed furniture, crockery, carpets and portraits for his palaces. Although this promoted activity in the applied and visual arts, it was detrimental to Dutch finances.

Another flaw was that Lodewijk was extremely capricious in nature. Ministers were fired and appointed one after the other. One of his other idiosyncrasies was undoubtedly his distrust:especially towards the French civil servants who stayed in the Netherlands. Lodewijk's paranoia spoiled the atmosphere at court and was certainly not favorable for the unfolding of his fine plans. Furthermore, Napoleon's orders often drove him to despair, as did the discord between him and Hortense, further deteriorating his health.

Not infrequently he left his kingdom to visit a spa. This was disastrous for the decision-making process, because formally nothing could be decided without the express approval of the king. Despite the setbacks, Lodewijk remained loyal to Holland. When Napoleon offered him the throne of Spain in 1808, Louis firmly refused. He felt more than ever attached to the Kingdom of Holland and flattered himself that he had become a real Dutchman.

Unfortunately, Napoleon was increasingly dissatisfied with Louis's politics. In particular, the smuggling to England and the lack of Dutch soldiers were a thorn in his side. The last straw for the emperor was the fact that English troops invaded Walcheren in 1809 and Lodewijk was unable to resist. In a speech to the French Senate, he claimed that the Kingdom of Holland was actually part of France because all "French" rivers flowed into the Netherlands. The smear campaign of the French newspapers against Lodewijk and the 'Dutch canaille' also betrayed the true intentions of the emperor.

Enough signals from which Lodewijk could conclude that his days as king were numbered. And yet he continued to struggle to appease Napoleon:for example, he gave up his idea of ​​a constitutional nobility and of Dutch marshals, hoping to calm the enraged emperor. Nothing helped. When French troops entered Amsterdam on 24 June 1810, Lodewijk abdicated on 1 July in favor of his eldest son. Desperate, he left for Germany incognito the next night. A few days later, the Kingdom of Holland was incorporated into the French Empire.


Between 1810 and 1846 Lodewijk lived in exile, first in Austria and later in Italy. At last he had the opportunity to devote himself to writing, as he had always desired. As early as 1812, under the pseudonym L. de St. Leu, he published the sentimental romance novel Marie ou les peines de l'amour. In it he showed his state of mind after the forced flight from Holland, which he described as a virtuous, almost paradise country. In the revised version of the three-part novel, published in 1814 under the title Marie ou les Hollandaises, this positive image of the Dutch remained intact. Five years after his resignation, Lodewijk was still obsessed with his lost 'homeland', which he strongly idealized.

Also from his Documents historiques, an autobiography he published in 1820 expresses a longing for his time as king of Holland. In it he tells how special the Dutch were:tenacious, determined and virtuous. This work exudes a great nostalgia for the Kingdom of Holland and a restrained anger at Napoleon, whom he did not forgive the incorporation. Louis's praise for "his" people had been enough to restore its self-esteem to the long-battered nation. But meanwhile, the revolt of 1813 had reconciled the Dutch to themselves and to each other. They were liberated and soon had a real Dutchman as king:the Prince of Orange.

The irony is that this Prince William could very well accommodate himself to the model of the authoritarian monarch designed by Louis Napoleon. He played his piece so superbly that his mother suspected that he was imitating "little Buonaparte". In exile, Lodewijk could do nothing but watch jealously as the 'invader' stole the kingdom he had designed with love and attention.

In historiography, Louis Napoleon did not become the great monarch he wanted to be. He became the "rabbit of Holland" (his own mispronunciation of the word king), a good guy who so desperately wanted to be successful but didn't have the capabilities. His short reign was reduced in national history to a curious interregnum and the king of Holland to a puppet of Napoleon. That it was more complicated is apparent from his lightning career in the Netherlands.

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