From French Nobility To Queen of Naples

Jan 29, 2023 | Aristocracy, France, Kingdoms, Noble Titles, Queens, Royal Titles

There have long been strong connections between the royals of history’s monarchies and the circles of nobility and aristocracy that have customarily surrounded the kings and queens of the ages. 

For centuries, it has been the tradition for the families of eminent monarchs to select a marriage partner from the high-ranking nobles within their court, or those of neighbouring nations with sufficient credentials and pedigree. 

So it has not been uncommon for those of aristocratic rank to rise within the social ranks, often attaining royal status as king or queen of the domain, obtaining their role and position purely as a function of an advantageous marriage. 

Yet there are some stories of Europe’s royal families that include unusual characters, those who were not destined for greatness and yet nevertheless rose to some of the highest positions of royal governance. 

Life As A French Noblewoman

One such unlikely tale is that of Julie Clary, who was born into a degree of wealthy yet relatively obscure social rank in the French seaside town of Marseille. 

As the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant, Julie Clary would have lived the life akin to a lower-ranking French noblewoman – similar to what might be termed the landed gentry. Although not official members of the social elite known as the aristocracy, Julie and her family enjoyed enough privilege to have lived in fear of reprisals during the dark days of the French Revolution

These concerns were to be short-lived, however, as Julie obtained an advantageous marriage at a young age. Hers was not the typical union that afforded a new social rank by marrying above her status into a higher-ranking position of nobility or even royalty. Rather Julie Clary’s security came from her choice of husband, or more accurately, her husband’s brother who would go on to become a legend of French history and change the world forever. 

The brother-in-law that would be the driving force behind Julie’s change in fortunes and stature was Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who would become the iconic Emperor of France and ruler of the vast French Empire

An Imperial Princess

As one of the characters close to Napoleon during his rise to fame and fortune, it’s not surprising that Julie Clary’s status and rank rose alongside her brother-in-law’s spectacular journey to power. 

Portrait of Marie-Julie Clary (1777-1845) Queen of Naples

Portrait of Marie-Julie Clary (1777-1845) Queen of Naples – Robert Lefèvre, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon was an unknown and unremarkable soldier in the French Army when Julie first met him and his brother Joseph – the man who would become her husband. Yet within a short time, Napoleon had proved himself in both military and political circles to such a degree that he was crowned as Emperor of France. 

From this position of unprecedented power, he declared his brother Joseph an Imperial Prince, which by default granted the title of Imperial Princess to Julie Clary. This role was the social equivalent of many of the great royals of Europe, a position that enjoyed vast wealth and splendour akin to some of France’s most famous kings and queens

Queen Of Naples

As part of Napoleon’s military endeavours, he was renowned for expanding the French Empire and claiming foreign territories and their monarchies. One such expansion resulted in the crown of Naples being claimed for the French people, and presented to Napoleon’s brother Joseph, who had previously served as the Ambassador of Naples. 

As a result of this new royal title, Julie Clary had risen from the relative obscurity of a French coastal town to become the Queen of Naples, with all the accordant luxury, esteem and palatial living to be expected of such a rank. 

Despite her new royal status, Julie was believed to have retained the quiet nature and humble character that her origins would have implied. It’s also thought that her role as an imperial princess and then a queen was not her preferred lifestyle, being happier with the more traditional roles of the mistress of a comfortable home and mother to her young children. 

Queen Of Spain

Regardless of her preference for a quiet life, Julie Clary’s days of royal living and courtly lifestyles were far from over when she acquired a new title after that of Queen of Naples. 

The ambitions of her brother-in-law Napoleon soon secured another royal title that he once again chose to gift his brother Joseph. This time the accolade was King of Spain and The Indies. 

Once again, Julie acquired another queenly title and rank – Queen Consort of Spain and The Indies. Much like her rise to fame and glory, her role as a Spanish Queen was an unusual one. 

Julie was the first to hold the title without a history or royal lineage. She was also not a resident of Spain, even after her husband took up residence there in respect of his new royal role. In the Spanish history books, Julie Clary was regarded as The Absent Queen, preferring to carry out her ambassadorial duties in the imperial courts in Paris, rather than in the royal courts of Spain. 

A Return To A Quiet Life

The story of Julie Clary’s surprising rise through the royal and social ranks of Europe would be something of a fairy-tale, were it not for the tumultuous political landscape, and the fact that she preferred the quieter life of the landed gentry to the grand pomp and ceremony of royal duties. 

Despite the rollercoaster ride to the highest echelons of European royalty, Julie’s story was ultimately destined to come full circle, albeit surrounded by more wealth and splendour than her humble origins would have indicated. 

As Napoleon Bonapart embarked on the last days of his imperial rule – a reign that ended in military failure and political exile – the prominence of Joseph Bonaparte and his wife began to wane. After the abdications of royal ranks that followed, Julie would begin the last phase of her extraordinary life, one that returned to a quieter role away from the limelight of royal living. 

While her husband spent some time after the downfall of Napoleon in America, Julie opted to remain in Europe, living estranged from her husband variously in Germany, Belgium and Italy.

After the glamour and fame of life in Napoleon’s orbit, Julie Clary’s later years could be described as a quiet nobility. Neither a return to her roots as a Marseille merchant’s daughter, nor the spectacle of Imperial court, but perhaps a happy medium that may well have been her preferred choice all along.

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