Jérôme – The Bigamist

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Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, After Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Gift of Mrs. Charles J. Bonaparte, XX.5.67

By Heather Haggstrom, Exhibitions Manager

Back in Baltimore at her father’s house, Elizabeth awaited word from Jérôme. Although he dictated to her to live as if he was returning at any moment, his brother Napoléon was making grand plans for Jérôme. Now that his brother’s marriage had been annulled by the French ecclesiastical court, Napoléon wasted no time arranging an “appropriate” union for Jérôme that would suit his political needs. In July of 1807, the emperor created Westphalia, a new nation consisting of Prussian territories and declared Jérôme “King of Westphalia.”

Along with the title came a new bride: Princess Frederika Catherine Sophia Dorthea of Württemberg. At first Catherine appeared to be cold and haughty, but it became apparent after her first meeting with Jérôme that her off-putting demeanor was more fear than personality. Princess Catherine was young and had left everything familiar to her in preparation for the marriage. Napoléon sent away her attendants and replaced them with French attendants of his choosing.

Their first meeting lacked the spark of Jérôme’s courtship with Elizabeth and he showed no signs of happiness about his marriage. At the end of their meeting he declared “My brother [Napoléon] is waiting for us; I will no longer deprive him of the pleasure of making acquaintance with the new sister I am about to give him.” It was obvious to everyone, and probably also to his new bride that Jérôme was still madly in love with Elizabeth. In a letter to his brother Lucien shortly after the second wedding Jérôme wrote, “You know the feelings of my heart and you know the well-being and benefit of my family alone forced me to make other ties.” Others who met Jérôme after the marriage remarked that he still spoke of Elizabeth with fondness.

Despite Jérôme’s proclamations that he still loved Elizabeth, she remained “abandoned.” Elizabeth was left to read about his European marriage in the newspapers. In July of 1808, Jérôme asked Elizabeth to send Jerome Napoleon (“Bo”), his son, to him. After Elizabeth turned down his first proposed arrangement, he wrote to her that he wanted to take care of her and Bo. He offered Elizabeth a small kingdom near Kassel where he lived, the titles of “Prince” and “Princess” for her and Bo, a beautiful home, and a yearly income of F 200,000. In return he asked to see his son twice a year until he turned twelve at which time Bo would go to live with him. After Jérôme’s abandonment of her and his quick marriage to Princess Catherine just ten months after the annulment, the choice for Elizabeth was quite clear: she would not, and could not, depend on Jérôme for her happiness and well-being. She accepted Napoléon’s offer of F 60,000 a year, a future with her son and independence. Elizabeth knew that Napoléon, despite all that had happened, was a man of his word and that the money he offered would help her reestablish her place in society and secure legitimacy and a future for her son.

With everything that had transpired over the years between Elizabeth and Jérôme it is easy to see why she became angry and bitter towards him. Throughout her life-long writings she often referred to Jérôme as “The Bigamist” and was quite harsh towards him. One cannot really blame her after all she had endured. To be fair to Jérôme, however, he did truly love Elizabeth and his son. He wanted to make things right but because of his brother’s political schemes and the social rules of the 1800s, it wasn’t solely Jérôme’s decision. The story of Elizabeth and Jérôme reads almost like a Shakespearian tragedy: a chance happening, a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, internal and external conflicts, and perhaps a bit of revenge.


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