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European Royals

The first royal Letizia: mother of Napoleon

Queen Letizia has made her mark on the royal scene over the past two decades and her name counts as one of the more unusual among royalty. But the Queen of Spain isn’t the first Letizia on the regal scene. Two hundred years ago, the man who dominated Europe and made himself Emperor of France gave an important royal title to his mother. And as he made that declaration, Letizia Ramolino became Madame, Mother of His Majesty the Emperor and Europe’s first royal Letizia.

Just like the 21st century’s famous Letizia, the first had no royal ancestors. Maria Letizia Ramolino was born in Corsica in 1750 to a Genoese army officer, Giovanni Geronimo Ramolino, and his wife, Angela Maria Piestrata. Giovanni and Angela were both related to minor aristrocratic families but had no real titles of their own.  Letizia’s father died when she was five and her mother married a Swiss naval officer, who also came from a minor aristocratic background.  At the age of thirteen, Letizia Ramolino married eighteen year old Carlo Buonaparte, whose family had a similar background to her own.  The young couple lived in Ajaccio where Carlo worked as an assistant to a local politician.  

The couple experienced at first hand the political turmoil which affected Corsica after Genoa ceded the island to France and it was during this time that their fourth and most famous child arrived – Napoleone Buonaparte was born in Ajaccio in August 1769.  Over the next fifteen years, Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte remained at home raising her growing family – by 1784, she had given birth to thirteen children.  She was known as a strict mother and raised eyebrows with her insistence on washing her children every day if possible.  

The first Letizia to enter European royalty experienced some tough times before her great moment of glory.  There were rumours of an affair with the French military governor of Corsica in the 1770s before Letizia was widowed in 1785.  Her husband left her some money and Letizia gained a reputation for thrift before some inheritances enriched her family only for Napoleon to jeapordise their position as he tried to build a political career.  

But his rise to power and to the role of Emperor made his mother a very wealthy woman as well as a very important one.  Not only did Napoleon name her ‘Madame, Mother of His Majesty the Emperor’, he also showered titles on some of her other children.  Napoleon ensured three of his brothers became kings – Joseph ruled Spain, Louis reigned in Holland while the youngest Bonaparte brother, Jerome, became ruler of Westphalia.  His sister, Pauline, became Princess and Duchess of Guastalla while another sister, Elisa, became Grand Duchess of Tuscany.  And the youngest of Letizia’s daughters, Caroline, was Queen of Naples.

Letizia remained a devoted mother and when her son was exiled to Elba, she spent time there with him.  She eventually moved to Rome where she died in 1836 at the age of 85 having outlived her most famous child by almost 15 years.  

Her name was never picked up in royal circles. However, the Queen of Spain has ensured that Letizia is once more a leading lady in European royalty.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.