Napoleon II: Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Napoleon II, styled King of Rome, later Duke of Reichstadt, by Thomas Lawrence, 1818-1819

Napoleon II, styled King of Rome, later Duke of Reichstadt, by Thomas Lawrence, 1818-1819

Napoleon had at least two illegitimate children and two stepchildren (Josephine’s offspring Eugène and Hortense), but only one legitimate child: Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, Napoleon II, the Prince of Parma and the Duke of Reichstadt. He did not hold all those titles at the same time, and you can tell whether someone was a supporter of Napoleon based on how they referred to the boy after 1815. His nickname was l’Aiglon, or the Eaglet (one of Napoleon’s symbols was the eagle).

The son of Napoleon and his second wife, Marie Louise, Napoleon II was born at the Tuileries Palace on March 20, 1811 to all the splendour of the Imperial Court. A salvo of one hundred cannons broke the news to the city of Paris. Cheers erupted at the 22nd retort – 21 shots would have meant the baby was a girl. The balloonist Sophie Blanchard ascended to drop leaflets announcing the birth. The baby’s public baptism at Notre Dame Cathedral in June entailed the most sumptuous procession the Empire had yet produced, apparently to the grumblings of some poverty-stricken Parisians. Napoleon pronounced the boy the King of Rome, a title that had belonged to the House of Habsburg (Marie Louise’s family) until Napoleon broke up the Holy Roman Empire.

A gilded life in France

Expensive gifts were lavished upon the little king (including this cradle, from the city of Paris) and he had a large retinue of servants. Napoleon doted on the boy and enjoyed being with him, in contrast to Marie Louise, who loved her son but seemed afraid to handle him. The valet Saint-Denis recounts:

One day the Emperor took the little king in his arms after his breakfast, as was his custom, caressed him, played some little tricks on him, and said to the Empress, turning toward her, ‘Here! Kiss your son!’ I do not remember now whether the Empress kissed the prince, but she replied in a tone almost of repugnance and disgust, ‘I do not see how anybody can kiss a child.’ The father was very different; he never stopped kissing and caressing his beloved son. (1)

Baron de Méneval writes:

Whether the Emperor was sitting in his favourite love seat…reading an important report, or whether he was going to his desk…to sign a dispatch, every word of which had to be carefully weighed, his son, either seated on his knees or pressed close to his breath, never left his arms…. Sometimes, dismissing the great thoughts that occupied his mind, he would lie down on the floor beside his cherished son, playing with him like another child. (2)

Napoleon’s idea of play was not necessarily fun for Napoleon junior. As Count de Las Cases records:

[Napoleon] would sometimes take his son in his arms, and embrace him with the most ardent demonstrations of paternal love. But most frequently his affection would manifest itself by playing teasing or whimsical tricks. If he met his son in the gardens, for instance, he would throw him down or upset his toys. The child was brought to him every morning at breakfast time, and he then seldom failed to besmear him with everything within his reach on the table. (3)

A biographer of Napoleon II adds:

[Napoleon] would place his Majesty the King of Rome in front of a looking-glass and make faces at him. If the little fellow – frightened at the sight – cried, Napoleon would pretend to scold him: ‘How, sir, you are crying! What, a king, and crying! Fie, fie, how shocking!’ Once he thrust his hat on the child’s head so that it came down over his nose and also buckled his sword round him. He laughed heartily when the little feet got into difficulties with the long sword and the baby tottered comically from side to side. (4)

The child’s favourite toys were flags, trumpets, drums and a large toy horse with a red velvet saddle. Napoleon’s sister Caroline sent the boy a small caleche driven by two lambs, which he drove along the walks at the Tuileries. Napoleon had him fitted with a Mameluke costume and a uniform of the National Guard.

This golden world came crashing down in 1814. The last time little Napoleon saw his father was on January 24 of that year; he was not yet three years old. When Napoleon abdicated on April 4, he named his son the new Emperor of the French. The child in theory gained the title Napoleon II. However, the coalition partners who defeated Napoleon refused to allow junior to become his father’s successor. On April 11, Napoleon was compelled to abdicate unconditionally, renouncing his and his descendants’ rights to the French throne.

From a Frenchman to a German

Upon Napoleon’s exile to Elba, Marie Louise and her son went to her father’s court in Austria. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, they did not join him. After losing the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon again abdicated in favour of Napoleon II, who was theoretically Emperor of the French from June 22 to July 7, until the Allies entered Paris and restored Louis XVIII to the throne.

The Congress of Vienna made Marie Louise the Duchess of Parma. Her son assumed the title of Prince of Parma, though the Treaty of Paris (1817) made sure that he could never succeed her. He did not accompany her to Parma to live. He was not even allowed to visit her there, for fear that his appearance might revive hope in the adherents of Napoleon’s fallen dynasty. Marie Louise, meanwhile (unbeknownst to her son), started a family with her Austrian lover, Count von Neipperg, and rarely visited Vienna. Napoleon II saw Marie Louise only four times from the time she left for Parma through June of 1826.

Instead, he was brought up under the watchful eye of his grandfather, Francis 1 of Austria. Francis decided the boy should be called Franz, after himself, and aimed to turn him into a German. The French caregivers who had come with the child from Paris (including the mother of Napoleon’s valet Louis Marchand) were gradually dismissed; it was thought they exerted too strong a French influence on him. On leaving, Baron de Méneval asked the boy if he had any messages for his father. The four-year-old said,

You will tell him that I still love him very much. (5)

Francis had to deal with the very real threats of the boy’s abduction or assassination. It was reported that Napoleon had offered a considerable sum to anyone who would bring his son to him. The Austrians feared the child’s French attendants might disguise him as a girl (he had beautiful blond curls) and spirit him away. Meanwhile French ultra-royalists proclaimed that a rope should be kept in readiness for the child, and offered a sizeable reward to anyone who would assassinate him.

Francis worked hard to try to prevent Franz from becoming the focus of Bonapartist hopes. This was expected of him by the other courts of Europe, but also reflected Francis’s personal distaste for Napoleon. Franz was not brought up to hate his father, but was taught to think of him as a soldier of fortune who had ravaged Europe and brought ruin to his country. Franz was naturally curious about Napoleon, but was not given a lot of details about his father’s career until after Napoleon’s death in 1821. Still, even at an early age, Franz managed to glean a fair amount. It is said that one day a visiting Austrian military commander named three illustrious persons as the greatest military leaders of the time. The young Franz listened attentively, then interrupted with vigour, “I know a fourth that you haven’t mentioned.” “Who is that?” asked the general. “My father,” Franz shouted, before running away. (6)

The tutor who was tasked with telling Franz that Napoleon had died wrote,

I chose the quiet hour of evening, and saw more tears wept than I should have expected from a child who had never seen or known his father. (7)

As becomes clear in Napoleon in America, Napoleon thought often about his son while in exile, and regretted that neither Marie Louise nor Francis sent any news of him. Before leaving the boy’s service, Marchand’s mother sent a lock of the child’s hair to Marchand on St. Helena, which Napoleon asked Marchand to place in his travel kit. Later, when sent a bust of the boy by a sculptor from Livorno, Napoleon said,

For me, this bust is worth more than millions. Put it on the table in the drawing room, so that I may see it every day. (8)

Though lonely, Franz was by no means deprived. He was much loved by the Austrian imperial family, including by Francis and his fourth wife, Caroline Augusta, who treated him as a son. At meals, Franz would sit next to the Emperor, and often visited him in his study. In 1818 Francis gave Franz the title of Duke of Reichstadt. He ensured that the boy received a first-rate education, under the supervision of his governor, Maurice Dietrichstein. Though not the most diligent of students, Franz was intelligent, inquisitive and lively, and by all accounts charming, when he chose to be. Dietrichstein wrote,

Nothing is more seductive than his face and his talk when he wants to be agreeable. (9)

Franz became very close to Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the wife of his uncle Franz Karl (their oldest son, Franz Joseph, became Emperor of Austria, and their second son, Maximilian, became Emperor of Mexico; the assassination of their grandson, Franz Ferdinand, led to World War I). Franz and Sophie spent hours in each other’s company, and there were rumours that they had an affair, though this is unlikely.

Franz took an interest in soldiering from a very young age and, once old enough, began a military career, as detailed by Tom Vance (author of the fascinating non-fiction book, Napoleon in America: Essays in Biography and Popular Culture) in “The Eaglet in Uniform: the Military Service of Napoleon II” on the Napoleon Series website.

An early death

This career, sadly, was cut short when Franz contracted an illness that turned out to be tuberculosis. In his last days he reportedly said,

Must I end so young a life that is useless and without a name? My birth and my death – that is my whole story. (10)

He died at Schönbrunn Palace on July 22, 1832, age 21. Marie Louise was with him. Francis was not. Prompted by the desire to secure souvenirs of their beloved Duke of Reichstadt, the Viennese crowded into his room and carried off whatever they could lay hands on, including his hair. A death mask was made after the post-mortem.

On December 15, 1940 Franz’s remains were transferred from Vienna to Les Invalides in Paris, as a gift to France from Adolf Hitler. They rested for a while beside those of Napoleon, then were moved to the lower church. His heart and intestines remained in Vienna, where they reside respectively in urns at the Habsburg Heart Crypt (Hofburg Palace) and the Ducal Crypt (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).

There is a brief biography of Napoleon II on Napoleon.org and a fuller one, with lots of pictures, on the Esoteric Curiosa blog.  For books, see any of the biographies listed in the footnotes. Much of the material in the subsequent English sources is derived from de Montbel’s original.

  1. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena; Personal Recollections of the Emperor’s Second Mamluke and Valet, Louis Etienne St. Denis (known as Ali), translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 6.
  2. Claude François de Méneval, Napoléon et Marie-Louise, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1844), pp. 446-47.
  3. Emmanuel Auguste Dieudonné de Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. 3 (New York, 1855), pp. 316-17.
  4. Edward de Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (London, 1906), p. 47.
  5. Claude François de Méneval, Napoléon et Marie-Louise, Vol. 3 (Paris, 1845), p. 205.
  6. Guillaume-Isidore de Montbel, Le Duc de Reichstadt (Paris, 1836), p. 122.
  7. Wertheimer, Ibid., p. 286.
  8. Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow: Being the First English Language Edition of the Complete Memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, Valet and Friend of the Emperor, 1811-1821 (San Francisco, 1998), p. 495.
  9. Dorothy Julia Baynes [Dormer Creston], In Search of Two Characters: Some Intimate Aspects of Napoleon and His Son (London, 1945), p. 323.
  10. Octave Aubry, Napoleon II: The King of Rome, translated by Elisabeth Abbott (London, 1933), p. 256.

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My birth and my death – that is my whole story.

Franz, Duke of Reichstadt (Napoleon II)