Fouché d’Otrante: French Neapolitan dukes in Sweden

Some dukedoms are awarded to die-hard republicans, based on a territory not connected in any way to the grantee, the title formally removed by one country, then reclaimed by descendants living in another. Not often, it has to be admitted. But such is the story of the ancestors of one of the grandest Swedish aristocrats today, Charles-Louis Fouché, the 8th Duke of Otrante, owner of the palatial manorhouse Elghammar, on a large estate about 80 km to the southwest of Stockholm. His ancestor, the 1st Duke, was one of the most ruthless actors in the French Revolution, the Minister of Police Joseph Fouché.

Joseph Fouché, 1st Duc d’Otrante

The Fouché family were from a village near Nantes. Young Joseph (b. 1759) was educated in the church, but threw everything aside to rush to Paris in the autumn of 1792—the year things really started to get hot in the French Revolution—when he was elected as a deputy to the National Convention. An avid antimonarchist, he soon befriended Robespierre and joined the radical Jacobins and voted for the execution of Citizen Capet, the former King Louis XVI, in January 1793. His revolutionary zeal was noticed, and he was given the task that summer and the next of helping to put down the Royalist revolt in the Vendée, then bringing the city of Lyon to heel during the Terror, which he did with efficient ruthlessness: considering the Guillotine too slow, he used cannons filled with shot to mow down rows of insurrectionists. He returned to Paris in summer 1794 and shifted his allegiances just in time to help bring down his former ally Robespierre (and save his own skin) in the Coup of 9 Thermidor. Fouché survived the purges of the radicals that followed, and continued to work in the government (now known as the Directorate) thanks to the patronage of its most famous leader, Paul Barras, who appointed him to ambassadorial roles, first to the Cisalpine Republic (that is, Milan) in 1798, then Holland in 1799, both brief and fairly uneventful. But it was enough to impress those in power to appoint him Minister of Police in July 1799—with the task of shutting down the Jacobin Club and hunting down its remaining members. He established a massive spy network and was soon one of the most powerful men in France, allying himself to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fouché at Lyon, a print from the 1830s, so deliberately anti-Jacobin

After the proclamation of the First Empire of the French, in April 1804, Joseph Fouché was re-appointed Minister of the Police. He was created Count of the Empire in 1808, and briefly Minister of the Interior in 1809. That same year he was created Duke of Otrante, a ‘duchy-grand fief of the Empire’, an honour given within the Kingdom of Naples, a satellite state of the French Empire (and taking its name from the city of Otranto, in the heel of Italy). Napoleon’s new aristocratic titles were of varying degrees of authority, from sovereign principalities given to his marshals to these ‘grand fiefs’ given mostly to government ministers. It gave him no lands or authority in Italy.

Fouché in ‘grand habit’ of Minster of Police in the First Empire (by Dubufe)

But the new Duke had a difficult relationship with the Emperor, who mistrusted (rightly) his extensive spy network, and after 1810 was sent on many missions in Italy to keep him away from Paris (for example, he was nominally appointed governor of Rome but never really took up his post there). He openly plotted against Bonaparte in 1814, but then re-joined him in the Hundred Days, only to immediately conspire from within. Deemed useful by the new Royalist government in the transition from Empire back to Kingdom in the Spring of 1815, he was (surprisingly) appointed once more as Minister of Police (March to June), and even acted as nominal head of the provisional government (as ‘President of the Executive Commission’, 22 June to 7 July), which some considered was at least nominally under the reign of ‘Napoleon II’. Louis XVIII’s restoration ministry led by Talleyrand named Fouché Minister of Police for a final time (July to September)—a necessity to ensure the loyalty of the police force in this unstable period—before both he and Talleyrand were removed from power at the end of the year.

The government of Louis XVIII was in its first months dedicated to being conciliatory, not divisive, so the Duc d’Otrante was merely kept away from centres of power, by being appointed ambassador to the Kingdom of Saxony. But by 1816, he was more formally ‘proscribed’ as a regicide, his titles were declared null, and he was exiled from France. He settled in Trieste, was naturalised as a subject of the Austrian Emperor, and died in 1820. According to the lists of 19th and 20th-century French nobility, this is where the dukedom of Otrante comes to an end. But the fallen Minister of Police had several sons, and the lineage continued.

Fouché d’Otrante coat-of-arms. The stars on red at the top indicate a duke of the Empire

Joseph-Liberté, born in the midst of the Revolution (as the second name suggests) in 1797, remained in France after the Restoration, married the daughter of another former Napoleonic minister (Jean-Baptiste, Comte de Sussy, Minister of Commerce) in 1824, but soon separated from her and lived a quiet life in Paris for the next decades. As far as I can see he didn’t call himself 2nd Duc d’Otrante, but used the lesser Napoleonic title ‘Comte Fouché’. He was known for his strange personality, but also as a learned man, generous and kind—seemingly weighed down by his father’s legacy of state terror. He specifically kept himself apart from the affairs of the Second Empire (proclaimed in January 1852) and died quietly in 1862. His one legacy was a box of letters, kept by his father for ‘insurance’ that were apparently damning messages between Talleyrand and Bonaparte.

The ephemeral 2nd Duke (as he is now reckoned) left behind two brothers—but these were both far from France. Both Armand and Paul-Athanase, who used the title ‘Comte Fouché’, travelled to Sweden in 1822 and obtained posts in the service of the new king of Sweden, also a Frenchman by birth, Carl XIV Johan, the former Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of the French Empire. Count Armand became an officer in the King’s Life Guard, cavalry, while Count Paul-Athanase became a Chamber Gentleman in the royal household. Though this title may have been purely honorific (it’s not certain he was active in service), he was noted as being presented at court in these early days, as not taking ceremonies seriously and offending more conservative Swedish courtiers. He was also appointed as an aide-de-camp and gentleman in the service of the King’s young son, Prince Oscar—a close bond was formed that would allow the Fouché family to embed itself within the Swedish court and its aristocracy for the next century.

Armand, 3rd Duke of Otrante

Armand left Sweden in 1843 and travelled to America where he became an explorer on the upper Missouri River and a collector of ethnographic objects. In 1862 he became head of the family, and probably began to use the title Duke of Otrante, though legally it meant nothing in Sweden. Once he was back in Sweden, Duke Armand bought Stjärnholms Castle in 1870, near the town of Oxelösund, in Södermanland County, on the coast a short distance southwest of Stockholm. He died unmarried in 1878. The Castle, built in the 1730s, was sold by the family in the 1920s and today is home to a sculpture park.

Stjärnholms Castle

The youngest of the three sons of Joseph Fouché, Paul-Athanase, thus became the 4th Duke of Otrante in 1878—and we know he did use the ducal title as it appears in his obituary in 1886. He went mostly by his second name of Athanase—the name of a 4th century bishop of Alexandria and saint, perhaps (?) given as a nod to Napoleon’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church in 1801, given that this was also the year of Athanase’s birth. As we’ve seen, by 1822, he had relocated to the new court of the formerly French Marshal Bernadotte, and by1824 was a Chamber Gentleman of the Swedish King. Also in 1824 he married a local noblewoman, Baroness Christina Palmstierna, though she died only two years later. A decade later he married another Swedish aristocrat, Baroness Adelaide (or Amélie) von Stedingk, with whom he had several children. Although he was recognised as noble (as ‘Comte Fouché d’Otrante’) by the King (Oscar I from 1844), he was not formally ‘introduced’ into the Swedish House of Nobles (the upper house of Parliament until the reforms of the mid-19th century). The ‘unintroduced nobility’ of Sweden had social recognition, but not legal rights or privileges. This did not stop Count Athanase from being appointed to the highest court offices, notably the King’s First Master of the Court Hunt, in 1858, and a promotion to Grand Chamber Gentleman in 1875. He was most known, however, as a patron of the music world, and a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music, to whom he donated a huge collection of opera scores in 1858. Late in life, as head of the family, he travelled to Paris where he married for the third time, a woman nearly 50 years his junior, though the validity of this marriage seems to be in doubt, and their son Paul, born more than a decade before in Ostende in Belgium, is not listed on all of the genealogy sites—he migrated to Buenos Aires in Argentina where he died in the 1930s. The 4th Duke also died in Paris, so perhaps he was not welcome back in conservative Swedish court society.

His son Gustaf, however, was by then fully integrated within Swedish high society, and now had a palatial estate in which to more firmly ground the family on Swedish soil. Born in 1840, he held a post within the Royal Stables from 1867, and by 1890 rose to the position of First Court Stable Master (second in command of the Royal Stables, behind the Chief Court Stable Master—roughly equivalent to the Master of the Horse in other countries). In 1865 he married Baroness Augusta Bonde, whose father was a Swedish nobleman but whose mother was Lady Augusta FitzClarence, a grand-daughter of King William IV of Great Britain. A few years later, he married one of his mother’s cousins, Baroness Theresa von Stedingk, who in 1875, inherited her family’s estate at Elghammar.

Gustaf, 5th Duke of Otrante

Elghammar was a manorhouse near Gnesta in Södermanland (southwest of Stockholm). Built picturesquely at the end of a promontory on a lake (Lockvattnet) in the 18th century by the local noble Kruse family, it was sold to the Von Stedingk family, in 1807, and rebuilt in the French Empire style. The barons von Stedingk (the eldest of whom bore the title Count from 1809) were originally from Swedish Pomerania, and rose to their greatest prominence under the Marshal Curt von Stedingk, whose career included a stint at Versailles where he befriended Marie-Antoinette, and service in the French forces aiding the Americans in their war against Great Britain. He was later ambassador to Saint Petersburg and Commander-in-Chief of the Swedish province of Finland. The Duchess of Otrante was the Marshal’s grand-daughter and co-heir. Today’s estate at Elghammar is still vast, over 2,000 hectares.

Marshal von Stedingk
Elghammar
Elghammar and Lockvattnet

The 5th Duke was succeeded in 1910 by his son, Charles-Louis, already serving at court as a Chamber Gentleman in the Household of the Queen. From 1929, he took over his father’s old post of First Court Stable Master, and was a close companion to the King (Gustav V) for the rest of the reign (both men dying in 1950). As an interesting further connection, Gustav’s queen, Victoria, was a descendent of Sweden’s former ruling house, the Vasas, through the grand dukes of Baden, while the Duke of Otrante’s wife, Countess Madeleine Douglas was also descended from the House of Baden (though not directly from the Vasas). The counts of Douglas, as their name suggests, were Scottish in origin, but had been part of the Swedish nobility since the mid-17th century.

Charles-Louis, 6th Duke of Otrante

The 20th-century family of Fouché d’Otrante continued to marry into the Swedish nobility, including another Stedingk, for Countess Victoria, and Countess Christina von Rosen for her brother the 7th Duke, another Gustaf. But the most prominent member of this generation, was Countess Margareta (1909-2005) whose marriage in 1934 to the 5th Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (whose family I’ve written about elsewhere on this site) made her a princess. The Prince went missing ten years later as a German officer in the invasion of Russia, but was not formally declared deceased until 1969. A year before, Princess Margareta’s eldest son, Richard, married the second daughter of King Frederick IX of Denmark, Princess Benedikte. A year after that, in 1970, a Fouché cousin Countess Marie (from a junior line) also married a German prince, Philipp Reinhard zu Solms-Hohensolms-Lich. For a family whose ducal title isn’t officially recognised anywhere, they were doing pretty well.

Wedding photo of Margareta and the Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein
Princess Margareta in later life, wearing the sash of the Danish royal order

As cousin to the current Danish Crown Prince, therefore, the current Duke of Otrante, Charles-Louis (b. 1986, duke from 1995), is considered a member of the wider circle of the Danish royal family, and works to promote the image of his family on the scale of the truly grand—appearing for example in Le Figaro Magazine in August 2015. He certainly has the house for it (with the grand words above the entranceway, More Parentum, ‘according to the traditions of our ancestors’), which includes a ‘Chambre Fouché’, with the bed, uniform and decorations of the founder of the House, Napoleon’s spymaster, Joseph Fouché.

Charles-Louis, 8th Duke of Otrante

(images from Wikimedia and other online sources)

My thanks to Dr Fabian Persson for looking over this article and providing useful details about the modern Swedish court.

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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