In an odd twist on monarchical history, most people know that the Bonapartes were not royalty. Rather they were minor nobility from Corsica, a Franco-Italian island off the coast of Italy. Two Bonapartes were important in the French Revolution. The third son of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino, Lucien worked with Robespierre and was imprisoned for his radical Jacobin ideologies. He was elected president to the Council of Five Hundred. the lower house of the legislature in the time of the Directory, in the later years of the French Revolution. He used his position to aide another member of his family, his elder brother Napoleon.
Lucien intentionally undermined the government of the Directory to enable his brother to overthrow the directors. Apparently, at sword point on during the 18 Brumaire coup, Lucien told his brother to uphold the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The next Lucien arranged for Napoleon's election as First Consul of a new government called the Consulate.
Napoleon is the main topic of interest, though, for without him, none of the latter history of the Bonapartes would have been possible. Napoleon became a general in the French Republic after his successful tactics won the Siege of Toulon in Italy. In 1797 Napoleon conquered northern Italy from Austria, conquered Venice for the first time in 1,100 years, and negotiated the annexation of the Austrian Netherlands to France. Napoleon was a hero of France and exploited that fame to the utmost. Napoleon then went to Malta, which he conquered from the Knights Hospitaller, and then Egypt, where he wished to break vital links between Britain and India. The fighting in the Middle East was harsh and Napoleon lost most of his fleet to the British, but in France the French Revolutionary Wars were going worse and the Directory was extremely unpopular. Bonaparte was the perfect person to take the reins of government.
Napoleon became First Consul of the new Consulate in 1799. For the next two years Napoleon succeeded in reversing the loses it had incurred while Napoleon was away. Two years of peace from 1801-1803 did little to ease Europe or Napoleon and war broke out once again. Then, after multiple assassination attempts and uncovered plots, Napoleon decided that the return of a hereditary monarchy was essential for proper respect both within and outside of France. On 2 December 1804 at Notre Dame, the young general crowned himself Napoleon I Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. The following year he was crowned King of Italy and began to implement his grand plan for Europe: the creation of a new European dynasticism.
Europe in 1804 was still a rather vast network of states and microstates, especially in parts of German and Italy. Napoleon sought the unthinkable: to rewrite the boundaries of Europe. It was not an easy or successful process, especially since he allowed virtually all of the dispossessed monarchs to survive in exile or captivity. He did, however, take their thrones and give them to his siblings like party favors at a birthday:
- France was the first throne claimed by the Bonapartes, through coup and usurpation, despite the fact that the French had a Republic dating to 1792 and a hereditary monarchy with surviving heirs before that: Louis Stanislas, brother to the beheaded Louis XVI was alive and well, hiding in various parts of Eastern Europe.
- The Crown of Lombardy (Italy) was claimed in 1805 thereby depriving the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, of his hereditary (albeit rarely recognized) title as King of Italy.
- Perhaps explaining the strange English-language usage of the name Holland to represent the whole of the Dutch Netherlands, Napoleon took most of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and merged it with the Dutch Republic (The Netherlands) to form the Kingdom of Holland. This deprived both Francis II, as ruler of the Austrian Netherlands, and William V, Stadholder of the Dutch Republic, of their hereditary lands and titles. Instead, Napoleon installed his younger brother, Louis, as king in 1806. Most of this region had already been conquered by France in the years prior but Napoleon wished to establish firmer control of the region.
- Naples, a country that encompassed most of southern Italy, was next on the list of Bonaparte claims. The king, Ferdinand IV, made some poor choices leaving him without a throne in 1806. That year, the French armies conquered the last remnants of Naples and Napoleon installed first his bother, Joseph, and then his brother-in-law, Joachim, as kings of Naples. Meanwhile, Ferdinand had fled to Sicily where he brooded and plotted to no avail for the next five years.
- Westphalia was a country all of its own design. Napoleon wanted more control over the small principalities on the French border so in 1807 created this small kingdom to do so. He installed his eldest brother, Jerome, as king and the capital became Kassel, a part of the dissolved landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel. Many small princelings lost land in this move by Napoleon, including the king of Britain, George III, whose hereditary duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg formed the core unit of Westphalia.
- In 1808, Spain was added to the list of Napoleonic possessions. Joseph, the former king of Naples, was installed as king of Spain despite the fact that the former king, Ferdinand VII, was still alive. Spain was quite upset about becoming a French possession and fought against its rulers for the entire length of the Napoleonic Wars.
- Finally, the small Grand Duchy of Tuscany was carved out of the new Kingdom of Italy for Napoleon's sister, Elisa, in 1809. A Habsburg prince, Ferdinand III, was the legitimate ruler of the duchy. It mattered little, for of all Napoleon's creations, this lasted the shortest.
As everyone also knows, Napoleon didn't really succeed in the end. After a disastrous attack on Russia in 1813, his empire began to crumble. Portions of it fell every year for the next two years until Napoleon was forced out of France, returned triumphantly, and then forced out of the hemisphere to while away his last decade on the remote British island of St. Helena. His siblings were treated much better than he was, but many of them fled also: to relatively unaffected areas of Europe, to America, or elsewhere. To all contemporary thought, the Bonaparte upstart was a short-lived attempt at European domination that ended with a return to a rough status quo. All Bonaparte possessions returned to their proper families in 1815, with only some exceptions. The Holy Roman Empire had fallen after 1000 years of existence, but the new Austrian Empire stood strongly in its place. Italy and Germany became slightly more composed from their earlier states, but they still had many years of unification ahead of them. Europe was at peace and the Bonapartes were done. Or were they?
After a restoration of the French monarchy in 1815, a dynastic-shift in 1830's July Revolution, and a Second Republic in 1848, 1852 marked a return of an old friend. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great conqueror, succeeded in a coup against the republic and proclaimed himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French! That's right, technically Napoleon I's son, Napoleon II, was proclaimed emperor for about a week after Napoleon was exiled to Alba in 1814. Yeah, no one really noticed. Anyway, Napoleon III would actually rule longer than his famous uncle, until 1870 to be precise, but that was because he was much less inspiring and expansionist. While Napoleon I was never content until the world was French, Napoleon III just wanted to help out the little guys. Napoleon helped Britain in the Crimean War, helped the Italians achieve independence from Austria and Sicily, attempted to reintroduce a monarchy to Mexico, considered recognizing the Confederate States of America, and halted Prussia's conquest of Germany for a short while.
In the end, Napoleon III was considered a failure in relation to his uncle, but his legacy cemented the royal-status of the Bonapartes into history. Despite the fact that the first Bonapartes had no royal blood in them, at least none very recent, they went to dominate European politics for more than 30 years in the 1800s. Through marriage, the Bonapartes did eventually gain some royal blood, which helps make them seem more royal today than they ever did in 1804. The current heir, Jean-Christophe Napoleon, is indeed the son of a Bourbon mother, a member of the royal family of France, Spain and Naples. Thus the Great Pretender, Napoleon Bonaparte, managed to find ways to make his family a true European dynasty, despite their short-lived reigns. Napoleon even today seems to be an example of monarchical triumph rather than pretension and usurpation, and the Bonapartes are considered one of the foremost non-ruling dynasties in Europe today with a loyal following of people seeking their return rather than an upstart family with little to their name.
Dynasties are important, and Napoleon knew that through his marriages and even his politics, but any person with enough charisma and a large enough following can found an empire. Napoleon and the Bonapartes grasped onto the nationalist spirit of the day to rise about the norms of dynastic law to create their own law. While this may cause problems for the dynastologist, it proves that not every family follows the proper rules of conduct. Napoleon, he was the biggest cheater of them all.