Bonaparte Wyse Family History

The Wyses of Waterford have been intimately linked with the Reformation and Counter Reformation movements in Ireland and the struggle of the Catholic community for religious equality. Family tradition holds that the first Wyse came to Ireland with the Anglo-Normans and quickly established the family as one of the leading families in Waterford, owning land at Gaultier, Islandkane, Ballinacourty and Knockmahon, and holding office in both Waterford city and in the national administration at least as early as the 15th century. In return for Waterford's loyalty in the rebellion of Silken Thomas, Mayor William Wyse received the favour of King Henry VIII in the form of a bearing sword and cap of maintenance - the oldest in Europe and the only piece of Henry's clothing to survive. Following the king's divorce and the passing of the Act of Supremacy, he dissolved the monasteries and William Wyse used his connections at court to acquire the Benedictine priory of St. John's in the suburbs of Waterford, which became their seat, the Manor of St. John.

The Wyses continued to play a leading role in city and national politics and in the commercial and cultural life of Waterford throughout the following centuries. Waterford maintained its independent, go-it alone policy, preferring to deal directly with the monarch in London to further its trade and prosperity. For example in 1569 the city refused to send soldiers to assist the Lord Deputy. The city council blamed the refusal on three or four private persons - one was George Wyse youngest son of Sir William. George was not perturbed by the accusation, claiming that when all Ireland rose in support of the pretender to the throne of Henry VII, Waterford alone stood fast and added that the best of the citizens were abroad on their voyages and that in any case poor merchants are not for the field; it is not their profession.

The fortunes of the Wyse family ebbed and flowed. They lost their lands after the fall of Waterford to the Cromwellians but regained them after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. King James's defeat at the Boyne in 1690 saw the Catholic-dominated city council abolished and a fully Protestant one restored. Thomas Wyse was the last Catholic mayor to serve a full term under King James. A Catholic would not be a member again until 1829 when a direct descendant another Thomas Wyse was elected.

Decline for the Wyse family now began with the passing of the Penal Laws. One law demanded that land of Catholics should be divided equally among male heirs while a son converting to the Church of Ireland could claim the entire estate. However by sheer chance the lands were not divided up throughout the 18th century. Thomas "Bullocks" Wyse (1701-1770) was a formidable character who strove for repeal of the penal laws; his nickname came from his habit of using bullocks instead of horses to draw his carriage through the streets of Waterford, as a protest against the law that obliged Catholics who owned a horse to accept an offer of five pounds from any Protestant wishing to purchase it. His great-grandson was the famous Sir Thomas Wyse (1791-1862).

Sir Thomas Wyse was the scion of the family in the 19th century, inheriting the entire estates. He took a leading role in the famous 1826 election campaign. Though O'Connell was initially sceptical, activists like Thomas made a dramatic demonstration of the power of the Catholic electorate. In County Waterford he was the election agent of the Protestant pro-emancipation candidate Villiers Stuart who inflicted a dramatic defeat on Lord George Beresford. The Waterford success encouraged O'Connell to contest the County Clare by-election in 1828, becoming the first Irish Catholic to be elected to parliament since the late 17th century. As a Catholic he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance forcing parliament to finally pass the Catholic Relief Act in 1829. In 1830 Thomas was elected M.P. for County Tipperary making him the second Irish Catholic M.P. Elected to Waterford City Council in 1829, he was M.P. for the city 1835-47 when he lost his seat to a more radical Young Irelander.

Thomas like his forefathers had played a leading role in the Catholic struggle. In 1829 he wrote a history of the Catholic Association. He did not become involved with the movement for the Repeal of the Act of Union; true to his origins he remained committed to the English connection.

As a supporter of the British Whig (Liberal) government he threw his energies into educational reform and was instrumental in the setting up of the National School system and chaired the secondary education committee which recommended the setting up of inter-denominational state-financed secondary schools. He also mooted the establishment of four provincial colleges or universities again to be inter-denominational to offer a curriculum similar to that in the University of London. Wyse advocated that model because he had a keen interest in the economic and industrial development of Ireland. However religious divisions in Ireland ensured that the colleges would never be established as he envisaged.

Thomas is better remembered today for his marriage to Letitia Bonaparte, niece of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Educated at Stonyhurst in England and Trinity College Dublin he went on the Grand Tour; while in Italy he met Letitia, 'Venus of the Bonapartes', third daughter of Lucien, Napoleon's brother, who lived in exile in Italy.

A marriage was arranged with a promised dowry of £10,000 that Thomas hoped would help to alleviate the debts of the family estates in Waterford. The marriage that took place in 1821 in Viterbo, Italy, was already doomed by the time of the birth of the first child, Napoleon Alfred. Thomas's father-in-law the Prince of Canino had, at Thomas's request, his wayward daughter committed to a convent, with Vatican approval. When Thomas indicated that he was returning to Waterford, the Bonapartes were anxious that he bring Letitia. En route to Waterford their second son William Charles was conceived.

Back in Waterford, Thomas, one of the Commissioners for the building of the new Houses of Parliament in London, engaged the architect there, Augustus Welby Pugin, to carry out the work on the new Manor of St. John's at Roanmore. The ancient manor had been demolished by Thomas's father's land agent.

While Thomas devoted himself to the 1826 election campaign, speaking in Irish to the 'mountainy men', Letitia enjoyed the company of Villiers Stuart, wearing slippers with orange ribbons which were ground into the dust as she danced. As Thomas's political star rose, his marriage finally collapsed, Letitia fled Waterford, the weather seeming to have been the last straw. The volatile, beautiful and extravagant Princess Letitia was until her death, an embarrassment to Thomas, having three further children by other men. Marriage to the serious-minded, politically-ambitious but impoverished Thomas was hardly conducive to the happiness and expectations of a French princess brought up in Italy's sunnier climes.

Thomas had never been a popular local figure and his glacial personality could not appeal to an electorate bound up in the miseries of famine and mass emigration. Thomas lost his parliamentary seat in 1847. The offer of the post of Ambassador to the new kingdom of Greece by the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston saved him from falling into obscurity. The offer may have been engineered by Letitia who had influence with Palmerston, at a particularly opportune time for France. Two years later Palmerston instantly recognized Letitia's cousin Louis Napoleon as Emperor of France, causing a serious crisis between Palmerston and the Queen and Prince Albert.

Thomas's efforts in securing Greek neutrality during the Crimean War 1854-56 saw him honoured with a knighthood in 1856. On his death in 1862 he was given a state funeral by the King and Queen of Greece.

Of Letitia's five children Thomas disclaimed paternity of all but the first two, even arranging a meeting with Emperor Louis Napoleon to try to prevent Letitia from citing Thomas as father. The Emperor declared that he found it easier to rule France than his family. He paid £15,000 debts for Letitia and continued her pension only on condition that she had no further claims on her husband's family. Neither Emperor nor Thomas could afford to have the family scandals aired in public.

Napoleon Alfred, the eldest son known as 'Nappo', largely brought up in Waterford by his Wyse aunt, undoubtedly suffered from the friction between his parents and in fact showed mental instability from an early age. Disinherited along with his brother by their father, to prevent any Bonaparte claim whatsoever, he later bought the Manor when it was being sold under the Encumbered Estates Act, became a Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of County Waterford like his ancestor in 1539. In 1862 following the death of Thomas, the Waterford News reported that Mr. N. B. Wyse, J.P. & his mother (Letitia) have taken up residence in the family mansion of Roanmore. Over the entrance door the Imperial Eagle has been very elegantly cut in stone by Mr. M. Carew sculptor of this city. The improvements to the Manor were extravagant, Napoleon Alfred sold up and died in Paris.

The second son William Charles made a reputation for himself as a Provencal poet and as leader of the revival of the Provencal language, married and had four sons. He bought the Manor from his brother rather than see it leave the Wyse family. His Unionist sympathies at a time of unrest and Land League activity quickly involved him in broils with the Church and with Nationalists. He died in Cannes and is buried there.

A son of William Charles, Andrew (1870-1940) lived in Dublin and was one of the last commissioners of Education in Ireland under British rule. He was headhunted in 1922 to lead the Education Department in the new Northern Ireland government. His descendant has so generously loaned the collection of family artefacts, including the 'Green Book' containing the muniments of the family 1199-1867, the jet mourning cross of Napoleon Bonaparte's mother, commissioned for the female members of the Bonaparte family on the Emperor's death and 7 portraits, which have been on public display in Waterford Museum of Treasures since 2002.

previousPrevious - Selection of Collection Content
Next - Bonaparte Wyse Collectionnext

Upload to this page

Upload to this page

Add your photos, text, videos, etc. to this page.

Map Search

Related Libraries

Waterford City Library
Contact this library »


History & Heritage

Popular Sections