Most readers are aware that I don’t have a terribly high opinion of Ashley Cowie’s work. He is, after all, a guy who made all manner of bizarre claims about secret maps and codes in Rosslyn Chapel. This week, he published a half-assed, pseudo-conspiratorial article in Ancient Origins claiming, with more than a little absurdity, that the pretender to the Napoleonic imperial throne and a minor descendant of the Habsburg emperors married in some sort of mystical attempt to revive the power of the Bonapartist dynasty. Many European tabloids have noted the historical echoes between the union of Jean-Christophe Napoleon Bonaparte, 32, and Countess Olympia von und zu Arco-Zinnerberg, 31, and Napoleon I’s politically motivated marriage to the Archduchess Marie Louise. But to badly paraphrase what Marx once said of another Napoleon, Ashley Cowie has repeated history and made it a farce.
The article is clearly out of date since the couple married three weeks ago.
Jean-Christophe etc. is the thrice-great nephew of Napoleon I, and heir to the imperial claims of Napoleons I and III. The Countess is a great-granddaughter of Austria’s last emperor, Karl I, but has no direct claim to the imaginary thrones of Austria or Hungary. She isn’t even an archduchess, since those titles descend in the direct male line, following Salic law, and her mother is an archduchess, not her father. All the same, there is still the whiff of absurdity about the pair being styled the Prince and Princess Imperial of France, from the title Napoleon III awarded to his son (Jean-Christophe’s twice-great grandfather), through whom it descended onto these folks.
Cowie doesn’t like royalty, especially pretentious pretenders, so he devoted most of his article to complaining about the couple having an expensive ring made from Empress Eugenie’s jewels stolen when they left it in their unlocked Mercedes:
Luckily the thief was caught and the ring returned, but what cannot be returned is ‘the message’ the couple delivered to the people of France, those people who Jean-Christophe so desperately wants to represent. The message was “we are so, so elite, and above you all” that we don’t even pretend old antique rings mean something to us anymore, they just don’t even register with “us”.
Despite asking whether the faux-imperials were “conspiring” and implying heavily that they were trying to reunite the houses of Bonaparte and Habsburg in some sort of restoration drama, Cowie never actually says anything about it nor offers any facts to support the implications in the headline and headings. That’s probably because he couldn’t if he wanted to.
The truth is that the Habsburgs and the Bonapartes were longstanding enemies. Napoleon I basically forced Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire (Francis I of Austria) to give him a princess to legitimize his imperial pretensions, all while destroying the Holy Roman Empire and threatening Austria. The Habsburgs eventually joined with the Allies to defeat Napoleon, and they presided over the Congress of Vienna to undo Napoleon’s world order. They even took his son and raised him as a Habsburg prince, using him as a powerless pawn to threaten the French Republic with the specter of a Napoleonic restoration, which the Austrians never intended to actually happen. Napoleon II, known as the Duke of Reichstadt, was basically a glorified prisoner in Vienna until his death. Napoleon III, the next Bonaparte to take power, pushed Franz Joseph out of Italy and precipitated the events that destroyed Austrian power in Germany. No Habsburg tears were shed over his ouster from the French imperial throne at the hands of the Prussians. It’s hard to see how the dispossessed Habsburgs of today would have any interest in “conspiring” with another Bonaparte.
The long and short of it is that it helps to know the history you’re talking about before imagining conspiracies that you aren’t willing to actually support with arguments.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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