Yesterday marked the 216th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte declaring himself Emperor of the French so for today’s blog we’re going to look at our imperial connection, and a lady who needs no introduction: Letitia Bonaparte! Beautiful, unorthodox, never predictable and in a lifelong courtship with scandal, Letitia is one of the most interesting characters you can learn about in the Bishop’s Palace, but how much do you really know about her life story? Buckle up reader, things are about to get a little bumpy.
Letitia Bonaparte was the daughter of Lucien Bonaparte, Prince Français and 1st Prince of Canino and Musignano, and his second wife, Alexandrine de Bleschamp. Much like her aunt Pauline (who famously posed nude as Venus Victorious for the sculptor Antonio Canova), Letitia showed early signs of being a young woman with precisely no intention of allowing genteel society to hold her back.
Thomas Wyse on the other hand was a studious young man from Waterford with a passion for politics and…. not much else. As a young man, Thomas went on his ‘Grand Tour’, a kind of extended holiday taken by wealthy young men during this period to help further their education and acquaint them with all of the best minds of the day (Check out our past blog on the grand tour if you’re interested!). While on this tour he met Lucien Bonaparte, the brother of Emperor Napoleon along with his charming eleven year old daughter. On his return some five years later, Thomas was introduced to her once more (By the lovely Pauline Bonaparte herself) and found Letitia grown into a beautiful young woman, and despite the fact that he was a quiet, pensive and studious young man, and she a lively, fun-loving girl of sixteen, he proposed and married her. The match was probably doomed from the start - aside from their vastly different personalities, each thought the other had money, when in reality, neither did.
The marriage between Thomas Wyse and Letitia Bonaparte was dysfunctional almost from the start. Letitia was many things, beautiful, charming and vivacious for example, but by the expectations of the day she was far from what Thomas would have considered the perfect wife. Their first child, Napoleon, was born in Rome in January 1822 and by the end of that summer Thomas had Letitia incarcerated in a convent by order of the Vatican. His reasoning, as he explained to her parents when seeking their approval was that despite the fact that they hadn’t been married long, they fought often, and in one of these marital tiffs Letitia’s temper got the best of her and she struck Thomas clean across the face. This was not behaviour befitting of a high-society wife, who was supposed to be subordinate to her husband and Thomas hoped that two years in a convent would soften her fiery personality and help to mold her into the demure and quiet young woman he wanted her to be. Eventually though, the time came to return home, so Thomas, assuming his course of treatment had worked, removed Letitia from the convent and returned to Waterford. He would soon find out that he was wrong.
In Waterford she was a sensation, a lively young Princess - niece of Emperor Napoleon. She was a hit at dances and dinners, and even got involved in local politics when she wore orange laces in her shoes and dragged them through the dirt as a direct insult to the Irish Protestant Ascendancy during the election campaign for Henry Villiers Stuart (Though rumours flew during that election that her enthusiasm for Villiers Stuart was not only political in nature…). Here Letitia gave birth to a second son, William Charles. Thomas was not present for the birth of his second son as he was on a prolonged stay in Dublin while campaigning for Catholic emancipation, a fact which is said to have hurt Letitia once again. Later on, Thomas, without his wife’s approval, had Napoleon sent to a private school and the infant William fostered out. This was done apparently to prevent their mother filling their minds with exaggerated notions about the importance of the Bonaparte family. This move it seems, was the final straw for young Letitia.
No longer interested in maintaining the facade of her marriage, Letitia left Waterford for London without informing her husband of her decision. Unfortunately, here she found it very difficult to break into genteel society or get any introductions which would allow her to do so. Henry Villiers Stuart (the Liberal MP for Waterford whose election on the Catholic Emancipation ticket Thomas had engineered) refused to meet her and friends of her parents, Lord and Lady Holland, also declined her requests on account of the fact that she was a lady in London without her husband’s permission. She slipped into a deep melancholy in London as her future began to look bleak. She could not face returning to her cold and rigid husband, but she also could not seem to forge a new life for herself abroad and gain the freedom she so desperately desired. It was here that Letitia’s story took a darker turn and one night she traveled to Green Park intending to end her life. Thankfully she was pulled from the icy waters by a gallant and dashing young soldier by the name of Captain Studholm Hodgson, and while her suicide attempt was treated as a dramatic cry for attention by gossip columnists, Letitia had finally worked out what she wanted.
Letitia and Captain Hodgson embarked on their fairy-tale together and traveled around England, France and Italy. There are rumours that Hodgson was in fact a decoy to cover up the fact that it was really the Duke of Buskingham that Letitia had fallen in love with, but unfortunately we will never know. Letitia (who, keep in mind, was still married to our friend Mr. Wyse) gave birth to three more children, including a daughter she boldly named Studholmina Bonaparte Wyse. This was problematic for Thomas because legally speaking, any children born during a marriage are legally recognised as his, it didn’t matter that the marriage produced five children and he could only have fathered two of them, he had a responsibility to all of them and so he set about ridding himself of a very Letitia-shaped financial burden by rewriting his last will and testament to better reflect their marriage.
Thomas at this time had been made the first ambassador to Greece and was living a relatively quiet life there, away from the memories and scandals of his marriage. In the end though, only his death had saved him from one last confrontation with his wife, who was planning to embark on a journey to Athens to confront him about his plans to disinherit her and all of her five children, including the two sons he had fathered, simply to avoid acknowledging the other three. Aware of her plans Thomas had ordered the British navy not to allow her land. As it happened before Letitia set sail, news arrived of his death and she immediately set about organising a memorial service for him. She then left for Waterford to contest his will. Victorious, finally, Letitia commissioned a local stone sculptor to place a sculpture of the Bonaparte imperial eagle above the main entrance door at the Manor St. John, the family home of the Wyses and beneath it emblazoned the words ‘Letitia Bonaparte Wyse’ In the end it seems, Letitia got the last laugh.
Letitia was said to be Napoleon’s favourite niece and on the death of her uncle, Letitia was given a lock of his hair and one of the twelve mourning crosses of black jet and gold which were made for the female members of the Bonaparte family. All but one of these crosses have been lost over the years so today, only Letitia’s remains intact and on display to the public at Waterford Treasures Museum. In the Bishop’s Palace you can view the mourning cross as part of an exhibition on the Wyse family which also includes Letitia’s box piano, the lock of Napoleon’s hair, a lock of her grandmother, Madam Mere’s hair, and a portrait and bust of Sir Thomas Wyse.
Read the blog here with imagery: https://waterfordtreasures.wixsite.com/wattreasuresblog/post/the-french-connection-letitia-bonaparte-wyse