Caroline Bonaparte was born on 25 March 1782 as the daughter of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino and as such was Emperor Napoleon I’s younger sister. She hardly knew her father as he would die two years after her birth of cancer of the stomach. She grew up rather poor and did not receive new clothes until her brother sent the family money after he had been made general. She was considered to be intelligent but barely received an education and could hardly read or write. Her brother later wrote of her, “She was the ugly one of the family. But she has made up for it since.”
In 1798, Caroline was sent as a boarder to Madame Campan’s pension in St Germain-en-Laye, where she would finally receive something of an education. Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of her sister-in-law Josephine, was also there and Napoleon told her to emulate Hortense, who was a model pupil. Caroline immediately disliked her despite the fact that Hortense did her best to help Caroline settle in. Caroline eventually confessed to her that she wanted to do badly at school so that Madame Campan would send her away so that she could be with General Murat, with whom she was madly in love. She briefly met Murat at the end of 1799 after he was wounded and they probably came to an understanding. By November, she was ordered back to Madame Campan’s. It wasn’t until Napoleon was confirmed as First Consul that Caroline and Hortense were allowed back to Paris.
Now that Napoleon was firmly in power, Caroline hoped to win his approval to marry Murat. He delayed for two months, hoping for a better match that would help his position. He eventually gave in, and the marriage contract was signed on 18 January 1800. She was given a dowry of 40,000 francs and 12,000 francs worth of diamonds, jewels, and trousseau. They had a civil ceremony two days later. Murat wrote to his brother, “I hasten to tell you, my dear brother, that I am leaving for a country seat of the Consul Bonaparte where I am marrying his sister tomorrow. The contract was passed and signed yesterday evening… Tomorrow I shall be the happiest of men, tomorrow I shall possess the most lovable of women.”
After their marriage, Caroline and Murat moved into the Hôtel de Brionne behind the north wing of the Tuileries Palace. By the end of May, she believed herself to be pregnant, and Murat was on his way to Italy with the army. On 21 January 1801, Caroline gave birth to a son named Achille. On 1 March, Murat wrote to his brother-in-law, “Mon général, you would have a very bad opinion of me if I did not speak of the desire I have to be beside my sweet Caroline and my little Achille. You would have to be a father to know how much this is essential to my happiness.” Yet, he was not allowed to return home. Finally, on 24 April, Napoleon gave Caroline permission to travel to Florence, and they were finally reunited on 6 May. Murat wrote to his mother, “I am the happiest of men. I have with me my Caroline and my beautiful Achille.”
Caroline was soon pregnant again, and she went back to Paris in October. Murat begged his brother-in-law to accompany her, but he was only allowed to go as far as Mount Cenis. On 24 April 1802, Caroline gave birth to a daughter named Marie Laetitia Josephine Annunziade. Murat was able to see his daughter at the end of May when he returned to Paris for five months. A third child, a son named Napoleon Lucien Charles Francoise, was born on 16 May 1803.
When Napoleon became Emperor, his brothers became Princes and their wives Princesses. But by old French law, a woman social position was determined by that of her husband, and so Caroline did not become a Princess. Caroline was not amused, to say the least. One of Josephine’s ladies wrote, “As for Madame Murat she was a prey to the most violent mortification and during dinner was so little mistress of her feelings that, on hearing the Emperor address Madame Louis several times as “Princess” that she could not restrain her tears.” Eventually, Napoleon changed his mind, and Caroline became an Imperial Highness and a Princess. In February 1805, Murat was a made Grand Admiral of France and a Serene Highness. On 22 March 1805, Caroline gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter named Louise Julie Caroline. Murat wrote to his mother, “I am hurrying to let you know that my Caroline has just given me a very beautiful little girl, she resembles you greatly, may she have your admirable qualities and virtues.”
In March 1806, Murat was created Duke of Berg and Cleves, but his joy was shattered by the death of his mother. He was enthusiastically received in Dūsseldorf, and he spent six weeks touring the Duchies before returning to Paris. They remained Grand Duke and Duchess until they exchanged the titles for those of King and Queen – of Naples. They had paid for it dearly, with most of their properties in France. Murat immediately set about putting his new Kingdom in order with the meagre resources he had. Caroline threw herself into her new role and was receiving people every night in her apartments but was disappointed when Murat would not let her participate in state matters. With a naval battle looming, Caroline refused to leave and was commended for her bravery. In 1810, she found herself pregnant once more, but she was uneasy about it. She wrote to her husband, “I continue to feel as well as I can expect in my condition, I am nevertheless disturbed to feel no movements and blood always make me uneasy.” In early September, she suffered a miscarriage from which she only slowly recovered. In October she wrote to Hortense, “The terrible weather here for the last three months has made me quite ill. I have been almost blind for three weeks, and I suffer horribly… Goodbye, my dear Hortense, I can hardly see, I don’t know if you will be able to read this. Kiss your children for me and be sure that the end or the beginning of the year will find me equally occupied in wish you the happiness which is difficult to achieve, or so it seems, in this world.”1