Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, 1806-1810

A French King in Holland

For a short time Holland had a French king: Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1778-1846) was King of Holland from 1806 until 1810. He was the younger brother of Napoleon I, the French Emperor. Although his brother wanted him to be just a puppet over this northern part of the French Empire, Louis became a monarch in his own right, ruling over the Kingdom of Holland (a French client state roughly corresponding to the current Netherlands). During his short reign he defended Dutch interests as best he could, until his brother forced him out. His influence on law and government is still felt today.

Bust of Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, by P. Cartellier from 1806

Bust of Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, by P. Cartellier from 1806 (August 2021).

Louis was born on the island of Corsica and aspired to be a writer. But his older brother (who raised him after their father had died in 1785) had other plans for him, forcing him into a military career in campaigns in Italy and Egypt. In 1806 he appointed him King of Holland. Louis agreed reluctantly — he feared the Dutch climate and resented being treated like a subordinate by his brother, but he was determined to be as independent and responsible a ruler as possible. He managed to forge a national unity and eventually became quite popular with his new people.

What Came Before

1579-1795 – Dutch Republic (Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Neder­landen)
This confede­ration of seven Dutch provinces revolted against rule by Spain. They declared indepen­dence from Spain in 1581 (the Act of Abjuration), marking a turning point in the Eighty Years War (1568-1648).

Stadtholder William V flees to England on January 18, 1795, etching by Reinier Vinkeles

Stadtholder William V flees to England on January 18, 1795, from the beach in Scheveningen, taking with him 18 coaches full of porcelain, paintings, silver, art objects and cases filled with gold. Etching by Reinier Vinkeles (1741-1816) and Daniël Vrijdag (1765-1822), after a drawing by Jan Bulthuis (1750-1801) (Rijks­museum).

1795-1806 – Batavian Republic
Fueled by the ideas of the French Revolution (1789–1799) which replaced the absolute monarchy in France, the Batavian Republic was founded with the armed support of French revolu­tionary forces. Stadt­holder William V, Prince of Orange (1748-1806) then fled to England. Although the new Republic enjoyed popular support (many, like the Patriots group, wanted to get rid of the corrupt and rich political class), it was really just a client state of France. But it brought about many political, economic, and social reforms, including a national governement and a democratic constitution in 1798. Church and state were separated (1797), Catholics and Jews could now hold administrative positions. The guilds were gradually disbanded.

Festivities on Dam square, Amtserdam, in 1795, celebrating the alliance between France and the Batavian Republic

Festivities on Dam square on June 19 in 1795, in celebration of the alliance between France and the Batavian Republic
(Collection Atlas Splitgerber, Stads­archief Amsterdam).

Economic Woes in Holland

England saw the Dutch as supporting the American Revolution (1765-1791) with arms and funds, which started the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) — that war brought about a liquidity crisis for the VOC and almost brought down the Bank of Amsterdam. For their help in founding the Batavian Republic the French demanded a war indemnity of 100 million guilders (one-third of Dutch national income) and that Holland feed and clothe 25,000 French soldiers, who were to remain on Dutch soil.

Napoleon defaulted on the French public debt, and later on the Dutch public debt, the first such default ever for the Dutch. Half of the Dutch national wealth evaporated with the stroke of a pen. He destroyed the Dutch economy further by enforcing the Continental System (1806-1813), a blockade of Dutch exports to England and France (even during the French occupation). As a result Amsterdam lost its position in the international capital market to London.

Further erosion of Dutch power went unchecked throughout the Napoleonic period. The blockade of Dutch shipping by the British Navy had caused a devastating breakdown of Dutch military capabilities. The VOC monopoly had been broken and the deterioration of the VOC’s finances, either caused or made apparent by losses suffered during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, was complete. Some believed that VOC finances had already been in deficit well before that conflict, but had been hidden from the public by the machinations of the Company’s self-interested adminstration. Fact is that by the late 1780s the VOC had become a heavy fiscal burden on the Dutch state.

The British fleet captures the island of St. Eustatius in 1781

The British fleet captures the island of St. Eustatius in 1781, engraving by Johann Baptist Bergmüller. The island was pillaged by the troops of George Rodney (Library of Congress).

The British started to systematically occupy the Dutch colonies. Emperor Napoleon — who just wanted more money and soldiers from Holland for his wars — ended the experiment of the Batavian Republic. They were insuf­ficiently docile in his eyes and so he instated his brother as King of Holland in 1806. But Louis had his own ideas on how to rule the country.

In June 1806 Louis was briefed on the sorry state of the Dutch East Indies. He  was in favor of the reformist view for free trade and free cultivation, while much of the Dutch establishment had vested interests in the old closed system. Successive regime changes disrupted efforts at reform — French and Dutch initiatives got nowhere because of the British commercial and naval dominance.

An Unhappy Arranged Marriage

Emperor Napoleon did not have children with his wife Joséphine de Beau­harnais, but she had a daughter from an earlier marriage, Hortense, who became Napoleon’s step­daughter. Hortense was addicted to social life in the Parisian courts and in love with someone else. Louis Napoleon was in love with his friend’s sister. Never­theless, both Napoleon and Joséphine pushed the marriage between the two youngsters for their own reasons. In 1802 Louis (aged 23) married his stepniece Hortense (aged 19). Louis wrote: “Never was there a sadder wedding ceremony, never did the spouses so vividly feel the sensation of the icyness of a forced and ill-conceived marriage”.

The marriage was a match made in hell. The two were completely incompatible and had frequent rows. He was an serious introvert, she was a fun-loving extrovert. Hortense had a penchant for amorous affairs, Louis was extremely jealous and controlling. Hortense loved Paris, but hated Holland and her husband, whom she called “an impotent poof”. He called her “a frivolous wench, only interested in card games”. She described Holland as “a kingdom in the fog, without sun or poetry, with fat and overly serious mayors”. She complained that the Palace on Dam square was “an inquisition palace”, that the canals were dirty and smelly (she had a point). They lived in separate parts of the palace and ate together in complete silence. She spent most days in her room, he brooded and reigned.

Louis Napoleon, painting by Charles Howard Hodges and Hortense de Beauharnais, painting by Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson

Left: Louis Napoleon, King of Holland, painting by Charles Howard Hodges from 1809 (Rijks­museum).
Right: Hortense de Beauharnais, painting by Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson from 1805-1809 (Rijks­museum).

Both of them had affairs. After arriving in The Hague in 1806 with their two young sons, they soon left for thermal springs in Germany. She stayed there with her mother while Louis went back to The Hague — she only returned to Louis in January 1807. Their marriage went downhill — they lived separated as much as possible. When in May 1807 their son, Napoleon-Charles (1802-1807), died at the age of four and a half of croup, Hortense was in shock. Thus she was sent to Paris to recover, together with their youngest son, Napoleon-Louis (1804-1831).

Later in 1807 Hortense and Louis met again at a spa in the Pyrenees where she got pregnant again. Back in Paris, after new fights between them, she refused to return to Holland. Hortense stayed in Paris for three years and although both regarded the marriage finished, the Emperor denied their many requests for a divorce.

After Emperor Napoleon had remarried in 1810 to Austrian Marie-Louise of Habsburg, he forced Hortense to leave Paris and return to Louis in Holland. Here they spent as little time together as possible. She left for France shortly before her husband abdicated in favor of his oldest son Napoleon-Louis. This briefly made her regent for 12 days, until Napoleon decided to annex Holland. After Napoleon had returned from Elba in 1815, Hortense was banished from France and went to live in Switzerland, where she died at age 54.

Hortense de Beauharnais with her son Napoléon-Louis in 1807, painting by François Gérard

Hortense, wife of Louis Bonaparte and Queen of Holland, with her son Napoléon-Louis in 1807, painting by François Gérard.

An Initial Bad Rap & Health Problems

Initially Louis was seen as a simple puppet king, appointed to do his brother’s will — he was mainly tasked by Napoleon to maintain the trade boycot with England, which the Dutch circumvented. Ridiculed and not taken seriously at first, he actually did his best to be a good king for his people, refusing to slavishly follow the French dictates.

Louis had various health problems: his right hand was half lame and he dragged his left leg when walking (a fall from horseback had damaged his spine and another fall had dislocated his knee). He also suffered from gout in both feet. He had periods of depression and mental instability (possibly because of gonorrhea incurred during a military campaign in Italy), which would haunt him during his life. For his rheumatism he needed regular long thermal bath treatments. He had a deep scar next to his left eye. PR aware, he made sure the scar and the cane he used for walking were never shown in paintings and drawings.

Louis tried to learn the Dutch language and made Dutch the formal language at the court and in politics. This was mostly to thwart his brother’s spies, but it earned him Dutch sympathy. He called himself Lodewijk (the Dutch form of Louis) and declared himself Dutch instead of French. His initial effort to speak Dutch haunted him for a while, when during a speech he declared himself Rabbit of Holland, pronouncing king (koning) as rabbit (konijn). He forced his staff to speak Dutch and urged them to forfeit their French citizenship. His wife Hortense, already not on speaking terms with her husband, declined.

Coat of arms of King Louis Napoleon, King of Holland

Coat of arms of King Louis Napoleon, King of Holland (Rijks­museum).

Defending Dutch Interests

Louis was devoted to the Dutch people and took his duties very seriously. Although his brother gave him little latitude during his reign, Louis defended Dutch trade interests and cut back on military spending, which caused multiple rows between the brothers. When Napoleon blocked all trade with England (the Continental Blockade, 1806-1814), Louis pretended to comply but turned a blind eye to smuggling on the coast.

Napoleon demanded Holland give him 40,000 troops, 20 war ships and the harbor of Vlissingen. He also wanted to introduce conscription and to forfeit on two-thirds of the Dutch national debt. Louis replied that his new nation was in bad financial shape (many Dutch private investors would have been ruined and the already ailing economy weakened) and he did not have enough troops to comply — he flatly refused to introduce conscription in Holland. When Louis suspected that his brother spied on him through French staff, he replaced them with Dutch personnel.

Louis wanted to be close to his people and visited many regions of the country, while trying to solve local issues. He wanted to be Dutch with the Dutch and to improve national unity (always a weak point in the Netherlands with the powerful provinces and cities). He had the French law books revised to respect the Dutch situation and also made sure that all religions (including Jews & Catholics) had equal rights by law.

Louis the Good

On January 12, 1807, a ship loaded with 17,760 kg (39,154 lb) of gunpowder exploded in the center of the city of Leiden, leaving around 150 dead and 2,000 wounded, with more than 220 homes destroyed and damages throughout the city. Louis rushed to the spot, organized rescue teams with thousands of French soldiers, arranged for Delft bakers to provide food. He set up a national rescue fund to which he donated from his own money and exempted the city from taxation for the next 10 years. He appointed his private doctor to help and opened his palace Huis ten Bosch as a hospital. In 1807 he issued the Gun Powder Law, which prohibited transport of gun powder through populated areas.

Rapenburg, Leiden, in 1807 after the gun powder ship explosion, painting by Carel Lodewijk Hansen

Rapenburg in Leiden in 1807 after the gun powder ship explosion, painting by Carel Lodewijk Hansen (Rijks­museum).

During an epidemic of English sweating sickness in the province of Brabant in 1809 he visited patients, had doctors and medicine delivered and raised money for the needs. During this trip he ate lots of pancakes and even instated a national pancake day. In Tiel he adopted a stray dog which jumped into his carriage and became his loyal companion.

When the Betuwe region had suffered a serious flooding in 1809 he oversaw the relief effort, traveling through the region for two days to help and to encourage the people. He even helped carrying sandbags, despite his rheumatism. His genuine concern and his personal involvement during these calamaties made him quite popular, eventually earning him the nickname “Louis the Good”.

King Louis Napoleon crosses from Dalem to Gorinchem in the flooded Betuwe region in January 1809

Lodewijk Napoleon crosses from Dalem to Gorinchem (on the left) in the flooded Betuwe region in January 1809. Etching by Reinier Vinkeles after a drawing by Cornelis van Hardenbergh (Rijks­museum).

Overspending on Palaces

Not all of the king’s endeavors were received well. His need for luxurious dwellings and the costly restruc­turing and furnishing of various palaces was frowned upon in the ailing economy of the time. Louis was impulsive and quite restless, changing residence more than 12 times, which tired his staff. After starting the restructuring of Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, he then worried about his health close to the seaside. So in 1807 he decided to stay in Utrecht, where he had houses demolished and started to build another palace.

After a few months he decided to make Amsterdam the capital and to live in the former city hall, although many advised against it (it was all marble, drafty and icy cold). But he persisted and transformed it into his palace. He also bought country home Welgelegen in Haarlem in 1808 from banker John Williams Hope (adopted son of Henry Hope) and renamed it Pavilion Welgelegen. He had country homes in Soestdijk and Amelisweerd as well and restored Palace Het Loo near Apeldoorn (ransacked earlier by French soldiers).

Pavilion Welgelegen, Haarlem, around 1810

Pavilion Welgelegen, Haarlem, around 1810, attributed to J. de Greef (Noord-Hollands Archief).

Centralisation & Reforms

Above all Louis wanted to forge Holland into one nation, from the splintered interests of provinces, water boards, trade groups and cities. He brought about many reforms, centralizing and modernizing the government. Local authorities (which were largely independent) were replaced with a centralized system.

  • A completely revised constitution detailed the reorganizations.
  • Mayors in the larger cities were to be appointed by the king. But he kept the right to fire judges if they did not comply with his views.
  • In 1806 a country-wide system of taxes was introduced, ending widespread corruption. Higher French import taxes replaced the previous system. The so-called Admiralties were reformed to become a national customs service.
  • He introduced a Civil Registry, Land Registry and a Guarantee Act (for gold and silver). He made every person choose a last name for registration and ordained that surnames would be passed from father to child, which led in 1811 to the Civil Registry in the cities.
  • In 1809 he had a revised Penal Code and Civil Code made, based on the French versions, but which respected Dutch customs and law. It was a national penal law which was clear and precise, abolished torture and forced labor. He also wanted to abolish the death penalty and unjust fines for the poor, but lawyers and the Minister of Justice worked against him. He made liberal use of his right to grant pardon, which irritated his brother no end. After Louis had left, Napoleon re-introduced the French Code Pénal. After Napoleons defeat, the Penal Law prepared by Louis returned in 1814 — many of his changes proved to be improvements and stayed in use even after the House of Orange was back on the Dutch throne.
  • He introduced changes to healthcare an hygiene, created a national exam for doctors, to get rid of the high number of quacks. Hospitals got strict hygiene rules. He founded a Royal Apothecary, with free medicine for the poor.
  • Louis introduced a standardized national school system available to all, with regular inspections.
  • The Postal Services were reorganized after the French model.
  • He created rules for the growth of cities and the maintenance of dikes.
  • In 1809 he issued a preparatory law which became the introduction of the metric system in 1816. That Dutch version was replaced in 1870 with a version which used the international names.

Cultural Advancement

Louis promoted arts and sciences in many ways and founded and reformed several cultural institutions: the Musée Royale in Amsterdam, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science, renamed the National Library (from 1798) in The Hague to Royal Library. He also organized several art expositions, and instated the Prix de Rome in Holland in 1807, which allowed young architects and artists to study in Paris and Rome.

The keys of the city of Amsterdam are presented to King Louis Napoleon in April 1808

King Louis receives the keys to the city (April 20, 1808) at the Rechthuis (Middenweg 4-6) (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

Louis & Amsterdam

Amsterdam Capital
Without Louis’ decree in 1808, Amsterdam would not have been the Dutch capital (Dutch government resides in The Hague since 1584). Amsterdam is first mentioned in the constitution of 1814 as capital and location for inauguration of monarch and government. But in 1815 Belgium became part of the United Netherlands, so the decree was scrapped to not offend Belgium. It remained scrapped even after Belgium became a sovereign state in 1830. The clause that Amsterdam is the capital was only put back into the Dutch constitution in 1983.

Louis wanted to be crowned in Amsterdam, but Napoleon did not allow that. In Amsterdam Louis had big ambitions to have parks and fountains constructed, in an effort to improve its air quality, but Napoleon’s intervention impeded him from executing this ambitious plan.

Arrival of King Louis Napoleon in Amsterdam in April 1808, drawing by Jan Anthonie Langendijk

Arrival of King Louis Napoleon in Amsterdam in April 1808 at Nieuwe Amstelstraat. On the left the Portuguese Synagogue, front right the High-German Synagogue. Drawing by Jan Anthonie Langendijk (Rijks­museum).

Herengracht 520
An (unconfirmed) story told by many Amsterdam guides is that Louis stayed at Herengracht 520 for a while, before taking up residence in the Palace on Dam square.

Palace on Dam Square
The cost of the transformation of the city hall to royal palace was 1 million guilders (around $ 8 million today). Louis was not very happy in the Palace, the air was bad and moist and Amsterdam’s elite were civilian merchants who did not aspire to be entourage for the king’s royal court. After taking up residence in the Palace, Louis had the old weigh house on Dam square (from 1565) demolished, because it ruined his view from his new balcony. His Empire furniture is still in the Palace today.

Dam square, Amsterdam, with the old weigh house, painting by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde from 1668

Dam square with the old weigh house from 1656, painting by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde from 1668 (Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp).

Royal Museum
He moved the National Art Gallery from The Hague in 1808 to the top floors of the Palace and called it Royal Museum, with free entrance for all, three days a week. The paintings (mostly from the palaces of the Orange family stadtholders) were shown in the Royal Palace (including Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Staalmeesters) until a better location was found. In the years that followed Louis bought several important collections for the museum. After Louis had left, some important paintings were moved to the part of the Trippenhuis owned by art dealer Cornelis Sebille Roos. The city council was afraid they would otherwise be stolen as souvenirs by French dignitaries.

Louis started the Institute for Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts in a part of the Trippenhuis, which he bought from art dealer Cornelis Sebille Roos. He ordered a dictionary of the Dutch language made. Louis had big plans for a huge Palace of Arts and Sciences, where all institutes and museums would find their place, but the end of his reign prevented that. In 1814 the northern half of the building became the National Museum until 1885, when the Rijksmuseum opened.

The story goes that, when Emperor Napoleon visited in 1811, some important paintings (including the Night Watch) were taken from their frames and hidden under the carpet. The Roos family (owners of the art gallery) would hide in the garden house and the maid would receive the Emperor while holding a crying baby. The Emperor and his company eventually left without taking anything. The story was published in a newspaper in June 1897, told by the daughter of the maid who had received Napoleon, Anna Catharina Muller.

Felix Meritis
The society Felix Meritis had been founded in 1777 by well-to-do Amsterdam citizens, to promote science and arts. King Louis Napoleon wanted to be their patron, but he was only allowed to become an honorary member in exchange for his donation of casts.

Hortus Botanicus
One of the king’s impulsive acquisitions was that of a complete circus with all animals. He expanded the Hortus Botanicus, where he housed his animal collection in the Orangery for a while before he sold them.

In 1807 Louis decreed that the hated dam with overland boat ramp was to be replaced with a proper lock.

End of the Reign

Louis Napoleons reign in Holland was short, so he never got to realize all his ambitious plans. Despite all drawbacks he remained loyal to Holland, even refusing the Spanish throne, which Napoleon offered him in 1808. Louis had prevented an English invasion in the province of Zeeland in 1809, but Napoleon used it as an excuse to get rid of his brother and summoned him to Paris. After month of discussions, Napoleon annexed the southern part of the Netherlands into the Empire. When Louis returned to Holland, Napoleon sent more troops, which reached Amsterdam in 1810.

Part of the Act of Abdication of King Louis Napoleon of Holland, July 1st, 1810

Part of the Act of Abdication of King Louis Napoleon of Holland, July 1st, 1810 (Rijks­museum).

Louis then decided to abdicate (from his Pavilion Welgelegen) in favor of his son Napoleon-Louis, in an effort to keep Holland independent. But the Emperor ordered the child back to Paris after 12 days and annexed Holland into the French Empire. Louis himself fled to Graz in Austria in the night on the 2nd of July 1810. An additional tragedy was that the stray dog he adopted in 1809 (which he had called Tiel) died under the coach wheels after the coach toppled. Louis eventually lived in Rome, Florence and Livorno, regularly visited by friends from his old kingdom, which he greatly idealized in his memoirs.

Holland remained part of the French Empire until Napoleon’s defeat in 1813, after which it became a kingdom again, under William I of Orange, who found himself a country well-prepared for a monarch by Louis Napoleon. William had been invited by the old Orangist elites and had secured the support of the British governement.

Louis returned to Holland once in 1820 (by invitation of William I) and was moved by the fact that Dutch people cheered for him on the balcony of his hotel. He even tried to regain ownership of his beloved Pavilion Welgelegen (which had been confiscated by the Dutch government) in court, but that was denied. Louis died at age 67 in Livorno in 1846, leaving a part of his possessions to the poor in Holland.

Ex-king of Holland Louis Bonaparte during his exile in Rome in 1815

Ex-king Louis Bonaparte, wearing a colonel’s uniform of the Dutch Foot Guards, during his exile in Rome in 1815. Detail of a painting by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (Châteaux de Versailles).