Charles, Count Léon 1806–1881 age 75
He was another illegitimate son of Emperor Napoleon I of France and Louise Catherine Eléonore Denuelle de la Plaigne (1787–1868). He was the half brother of Alexandre Colonna-Walewski and Napoleon’s legitimate son, Napoleon II, Duke of Reichstadt.
Though Napoleon claimed he had only seven mistresses, he probably had at least 21. One of these was Eléonore Denuelle de La Plaigne. Napoleon met her in 1805 when she was a beautiful eighteen-year-old in the employ of Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Bonaparte Murat. Eléonore was also the mistress of Caroline’s husband Joachim. In April 1806 Eléonore obtained a divorce from her husband, who was in prison for forgery.
Napoleon set her up in a house on Rue de la Victoire in Paris. On December 13, 1806, she gave birth to Napoleon’s first child, a boy. Napoleon was delighted, as this proved he was not responsible for his wife Josephine’s infertility. When Eléonore asked for permission to name the boy Napoleon, he agreed to half the name. So the baby was christened Léon, and the birth certificate read the son of Demoiselle Eléonore Denuel, aged twenty years, of independent means; father absent. Eléonore’s liaison with Napoleon ended shortly after Léon’s birth.
In 1808 Napoleon arranged for her to marry an infantry lieutenant. He was killed during the Russian campaign in 1812. In 1814, she married Charles de Luxembourg, a Bavarian diplomat.
Meanwhile, young Léon was taken from his mother’s care and entrusted to a series of nurses, paid for by Napoleon. Léon was brought up under the last name of Mâcon, a recently deceased general of whom Napoleon thought highly. According to Napoleon’s valet Constant. Emperor tenderly loved his son. I often fetched him and he would caress and give him a hundred delicacies and was much amused with his vivacity and his repartees, which were very witty for his age.
Napoleon’s legitimate son, the King of Rome, was born, Léon received much less attention, though Napoleon continued to provide for the boy and remained fond of him. In March 1812, the Baron des Mauvières – the father-in-law of Napoleon’s private secretary, Baron de Méneval – was appointed Léon’s guardian. This provided a discreet way for Napoleon to manage the funds he was settling on the boy. In June 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequent abdication, eight-year-old Léon (with Méneval) joined Napoleon at Malmaison before the latter’s departure for Rochefort and exile to St. Helena.
Léon attended a succession of Parisian boarding schools, with the expectation that he might have a legal career. In his instructions to the executors of his will, Napoleon wrote, “I should not be sorry were little Léon to enter the magistracy, if that is to his liking.” Napoleon also bequeathed 300,000 francs to Léon, for purchase of an estate. This legacy did not immediately happen, as the amount was to be taken from money Napoleon claimed was due to him from the “gratitude and sense of honor” of his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais and his widow Marie Louise. Neither of them came up with the funds, despite a lawsuit by Napoleon’s executor Charles de Montholon.
In 1821, Méneval assumed Léon’s guardianship. This soon became a headache for him, as it had been for his father-in-law, not least because Léon’s taste for luxury and pleasure far exceeded his pocket money of 12,000 francs a year. Méneval hired a tutor, whom Léon disliked. In January 1823, Léon escaped from his tutor while at the theatre and fled to Mannheim, Baden, where Eléonore and her husband were living.
By 1826, Léon was back in Paris and living on his own.
Contemporaries commented on how much Léon looked like Napoleon. According to a British observer, Léon was five feet six at least, an upright, handsome figure of a man … His origin was stamped upon his face, he was physically the living portrait of the great captain.
Léon told his uncle Joseph Bonaparte that he possessed trifling popularity which I owe to a glorious resemblance. With his imperial visage, his large income, and his taste for pleasure, Léon cut a conspicuous figure. With his imperial visage (Face French), his large income, and his taste for pleasure, Léon cut a conspicuous figure.
He was the prey of parasites and gamblers, an intrepid plunger himself, though sometimes a bad player In February 1832, after losing 16,000 francs in a card game and failing to pay up, Léon fought a duel in the Bois de Vincennes against Charles Hesse, a Prussian-born British officer. Though Hesse fired first, Léon’s shot struck Hesse in the chest and killed him. Léon was charged with deliberate manslaughter. A jury acquitted him.
This experience did not deter Léon from gambling. After a brief, undistinguished stint in the National Guard, by 1838 he had wound up (twice) in the debtors’ prison of Clichy. A police report of January 1840 described his living arrangements.
The Comte Léon lives at the Hôtel de Bruxelles, Rue du Mail. He had a for mistress a woman of vicious life, living and cohabiting with a married man named Lesieur, a clerk at the War Office, who has deserted his lawful wife for this concubine, who treats him in the most indecent fashion.
This self-styled Mme Lesieur follows the practice of magnetism, the proceeds of which business is devoured, as likewise Lesieur’s allowance, by the Comte Léon. … All the tenants of the house are indignant at the scandalous behavior of the Comte Léon and the woman.
Around this time Léon resolved to visit his uncle Joseph to ask him for money. Méneval warned Joseph and Joseph decided not to receive Léon based, among other things, on a rumor that Léon was a spy in the pay of King Louis Philippe’s government. Léon’s cousin, Louis Napoleon (son of Napoleon’s brother Louis) also refused to see him.
Léon provoked Louis Napoleon into fighting a duel on Wimbledon Common, which was called off only when the police arrived. Léon returned to France, where he survived by begging, borrowing and pursuing lawsuits, including two against his mother.
Something of Léon’s way of life can be gleaned from a February 1848 letter he wrote to General Gourgaud, who had briefly been with Napoleon on St. Helena.
When Louis Napoleon became Napoleon III of France, he refused to see Léon. He did, however, in 1854 decree that the dispositions in Napoleon’s will should be carried out. Léon was given a yearly income of 10,000 francs. Among other things, Léon opened an ink manufactory. He also milked his half-brother Alexandre Walewski for funds.
On June 2, 1862, Léon, at the age of 55, married 31-year-old Françoise Fanny Jonet, the daughter of his former gardener. Four of their children lived past infancy: Charles (born Oct. 24, 1855), Gaston (June 1, 1857), Fernand (Nov. 26, 1861) and Charlotte (Jan. 17, 1867).
The family settled at Pontoise, northwest of Paris. Léon died there on April 14, 1881, at the age of 74, of stomach or bowel cancer. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in the local cemetery, marked with a black wooden cross. His remains were later dug up to make room for others. Charles Léon Denuelle has living descendants.