MIGHTY HISTORY

Napoleon's bastard rejected his noble blood to join Foreign Legion

Alexandre Walewski was the acknowledged son of a Polish count, but everyone suspected he was Napoleon's child. When he came of age, he rejected his Polish and French titles to join the French Foreign Legion.

Alexandre Walewski, born to a Polish countess in 1810, was the acknowledged son of a Polish count who had served the last king of Poland before it was annexed by Russia — but most people who knew the family suspected that he was the son of the countess's lover, Emperor Napoleon. Napoleon's illegitimate son later ignored his Polish roots and joined the French Foreign Legion.


Countess Marie Walewska was a beautiful woman who married a much older man, Count Athanasius Walewski, who had a burning desire to see Poland break from the Russian Empire and establish itself as a free land once more. A former chamberlain to the last Polish king, Walewski and many of his contemporaries fervently believed that Napoleon was their best chance at a free Poland.

I mean, she's pretty if you're into that "classical beauty" thing.

(Portrait by François Gérard)

So, when the count learned that Napoleon had the hots for his young wife, he encouraged her to go to him. Marie was, by many accounts, pious and initially reluctant. But she eventually became one of Napoleon's mistresses and, in 1809, became pregnant with what she suspected was an imperial child.

When young Alexandre was born, the rumor mills quickly commented on how much he looked like the French emperor, but Walewski publicly acknowledged the boy as his own, granting the boy the privileges of nobility.

Alexandre grew up with his two acknowledged fathers. At the age of 2, Napoleon gifted the boy the title of count and 69 farms with a combined revenue of 170,000 francs, though the lands were later taken after Napoleon's first abdication.

So, little Alexandre was the acknowledged son of a count, the biological son of a countess with her own family line, and a count in the Kingdom of Naples by Imperial decree.

But Alexandre shared his Polish father's desire to break Russian rule of Poland, and, at the age of 14, this got him in trouble.

The Russian Army came calling for young Alexandre and he ran away, first to London and then Paris. In France, the royal line was back on the throne but Alexandre was not punished for his father's reign. King Louis-Philippe sent him back to Poland.

The young Count Alexandre Walewski was considered handsome despite his neckbeard.

(Portrait by the school of George Hayter)

In Poland, Alexandre reached the age of 20 and quickly fell in with an attempted rebellion led primarily by Polish officers at the military academy. The uprising had some early success, and Alexandre was sent to London to be the group's envoy to England. As it would turn out, he was lucky out of the country when the Russian army crushed the uprising in 1831.

Alexandre married the daughter of an earl that December but she tragically died — not long after the deaths of their two children. In 1834, Alexandre was a widower with no living children, so he decided to go back to France.

Typical French Foreign Legion uniforms in 1830s Algeria.

Once there, he applied for French citizenship, which was granted, and a French commission. Soon, Capt. Alexandre Walewski was serving with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria.

During this period, French forces in Algeria were focused predominantly on driving back the Ottomans and ensuring French control of the country. Alexandre distinguished himself as a light cavalry officer and was eventually awarded the grand cross of the Legion of Honor.

Facing off against the Arabs in Algeria took guts, as these Frenchmen found out when they were stomped at Constantine in 1836.

(Print by Auguste Raffet)

By 1837, Alexandre was ready to return to civilian life and he took up writing. He continued to serve as a diplomat when called upon, occasionally representing his cousin, Napoleon III, a French president who would be emperor from 1848 to 1870.