Today is the birthday (1778) of Luigi Buonaparte, brother of Napoleon I. He changed his name to Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in France, then to Lodewijk Napoleon when his brother made him King of Holland in 1806. He was born on Corsica as the fifth surviving child and the fourth surviving son of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. His son was the last French Emperor, Napoleon III. His story is not well known popularly, but I find it engaging.
Louis Bonaparte’s early career was spent in the Army, and he served with Napoleon in Egypt. Thanks to his older brother, Napoleon, Louis was given a commission in the French Military, and was promoted to Lieutenant in the 4th Artillery Regiment, and from there he was made Aide de Camp on Napoleon’s staff. Napoleon, during his Italian Campaign, recommended Louis to Carnot, and Louis was consequently made a Captain. He later became a General by the age of 25, although he himself felt that he had risen too high in too short a time.
Upon his return to France, Louis was involved in Napoleon’s plot to overthrow the Directory. After becoming the First Consul, Napoleon arranged for a marriage between Louis and Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Empress Josephine, and hence Napoleon’s stepdaughter. Hortense, who was opposed to the marriage at first, was persuaded by her mother to marry Louis for the sake of the family.
Louis supposedly had some kind of noticeable mental condition at times, but it’s really unclear what this actually entailed. It’s quite likely that he suffered from depression, but its cause is anyone’s guess. Repressed homosexuality is a common speculation, but there’s no real evidence of this, or any other cause – or even that depression was the problem. There is no doubt that he was unstable.
Feeling that the Batavian Republic was too independent for his liking, Napoleon replaced it with the Kingdom of Holland on 5 June 1806, and placed Louis on the throne. Napoleon had intended for his younger brother to be little more than a French prefect of Holland. However, Louis had his own mind, and tried to be a responsible and independent ruler. In an effort to endear himself to his adopted country, he tried to learn the Dutch language; he called himself Lodewijk I (adopting the Dutch form of his name) and declared himself Dutch rather than French. Allegedly, his Dutch was initially so poor that he told the people he was the “Konijn van ‘Olland” (“Rabbit of ‘Olland”), rather than “Koning van Holland” (“King of Holland”). However, his sincere effort to learn Dutch earned him some respect from his subjects.
Having declared himself Dutch, Louis tried to make his court Dutch as well. He forced his court and ministers (mostly provided by Napoleon) to speak only Dutch, and also to renounce their French citizenship. This latter was too much for his wife Hortense who, in France at the time of his demands, refused his request. Louis and Hortense had never been compatible, and this demand further strained their relationship. She went to Holland reluctantly, and deliberately avoided Louis as much as possible. She did bear Louis three sons, Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte (10 October 1802 – 5 May 1807), Napoleon Louis Bonaparte (11 October 1804 – 17 March 1831), and Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, Emperor of the French (20 April 1808- 9 January 1873), although their paternity is occasionally called into question. Their legitimacy is not. Hortense actually got on very well with the Dutch, which annoyed Louis to no end. It was Louis himself she could not stand, and was forever petitioning to return to Paris where she had a scintillating social life until Napoleon remarried and felt it unseemly to have his step-daughter from his first marriage kicking around.
Louis could never settle on the location for his capital city while he was in Holland. He changed capitals over a dozen times, trying Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, among others. On one occasion, after visiting the home of a wealthy Dutch merchant, he liked the place so much that he had the owner evicted so he could take up residence there. Then, Louis moved again after seven weeks. His constant moving kept the court in upheaval since they had to follow him everywhere. The European diplomatic corps went so far as to petition Bonaparte to remain in one place so they could keep up with him. This restlessness was later attributed to his alleged “lunacy.” Seems to me more like he was an infantile idiot.
Two major tragedies occurred during the reign of Louis Bonaparte: the explosion of a cargo ship loaded with gunpowder in the heart of the city of Leiden in 1807, and a major flood in Holland in 1809. In both instances, Louis personally and effectively oversaw local relief efforts, which helped earn him the title of Louis the Good.
Louis Bonaparte’s reign was short-lived, however, due to two factors. First, Napoleon wanted to reduce the value of French loans from Dutch investors by two-thirds, meaning a serious economic blow to the Netherlands, angering both Louis and the Dutch. The second factor was ultimately why Napoleon forced Louis to abdicate. As Napoleon was preparing an army for his invasion of Russia, he wanted troops from the entire region under his control. This included troops from the Netherlands. Louis, confronted by his brother’s demand, refused point-blank. Napoleon then accused Louis of putting Dutch interests above those of France, and removed most of the French forces in Holland for the coming war in the east, leaving only about 9,000 garrison soldiers in the country. Unfortunately for Louis, the English landed an army of 40,000 in 1809 in an attempt to capture Antwerp and Flushing. With Louis unable to defend his realm, France sent 80,000 militiamen, commanded by future King of Sweden Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and successfully repelled the invasion. Napoleon then suggested that Louis should abdicate, citing his inability as king to protect Holland as a reason. Louis refused and declared the occupation of the Kingdom by a French army as unlawful. On 1 July 1810 Louis abdicated in favor of his second son, Napoleon Louis Bonaparte. He fled from Haarlem on 2/3 July and settled in Austria. Oudinot invaded Holland on 4 July. Napoleon annexed Holland to France by the decree of Rambouillet on 9 July.
After his abdication, Louis Bonaparte assumed the title of Count of Saint-Leu (comte de Saint-Leu), which was a reference to his property at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt near Paris. He was appointed as the Constable of France in 1808, which was a strictly honorary title. After his Dutch kingdom was taken away from him, the Austrian Emperor Francis I offered him asylum. Between 1811 and 1813, he found refuge in Graz, where he turned to writing and poetry. Louis wrote to Napoleon after the latter’s defeat in Russia to request that the Dutch throne be restored to him but Napoleon refused. His request to visit the Netherlands was denied several times by King William I of the Netherlands, but King William II allowed him a visit in 1840. Although traveling in the Netherlands under a false name, some people found out that he was their former king, which led to a cheering crowd gathering under the window of his hotel room. He is reported to have been quite moved by this demonstration of affection.
After the death of his eldest brother Joseph in 1844, Louis was seen by the Bonapartists as the rightful Emperor of the French, although Louis took little action himself to advance the claim. His son and heir, the future Emperor Napoleon III, on the other hand, was at that time being imprisoned in France for having tried to engineer a Bonapartist coup d’état.
Louis died on 25 July 1846 in Livorno, and he was buried at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, Île-de-France.
Given that Louis supposedly called himself, by mistake, the rabbit of Holland, a Dutch rabbit dish might be in order. But this French recipe for rabbit in the Corsican style is unusual and fits with the Bonaparte tradition. The chestnut polenta makes the dish. However, to make it you are going to have to find coarsely ground chestnut flour. In these days of gluten-free flours it’s not too hard to find. A “Dutch” oven might be the best cooking pot – linguistically speaking. I use a cast-iron skillet for such dishes.
Lapin à l’Istrettu
1 rabbit, cut in 8 pieces
4 oz/100 gm pancetta (optional), cut in small pieces
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp capers
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup green and black olives, pitted
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
2 tsp dried rosemary (or marjoram)
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 cups dry white wine
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
½ lb/250 g chestnut flour
2 cups milk
2 cups water
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the rabbit pieces on all sides and set them aside.
Add the pancetta (if used), and onions and sauté for about 5 minutes over medium heat until the onions are transparent, but not browned.
Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.
Pour in the vinegar and white wine and mix. Then add the tomato paste, olives, capers, herbs and stir well. Put in the pieces of rabbit and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over low heat, for 1 hour, checking occasionally to be sure the sauce is thickening, but not drying out. Add stock if needed.
Meanwhile, prepare the chestnut polenta. Making this polenta is exactly the same as making standard corn polenta, requiring just as much experience.
Pour the milk and water into a saucepan over medium heat. Start sprinkling in the chestnut flour, stirring all the time. As the flour is incorporated add more, a little at a time, stirring continually, until the mixture forms a dense mass. This takes 15 to 20 minutes.
Pour the polenta into a pie pan and let cool. When cool the polenta should be firm. Cut into wedges and brown them on both sides in oil in a skillet over medium heat.
Present the rabbit on a platter surrounded with polenta slices and serve immediately.