Maurice Dietrichstein, governor of Napoleon’s son

Maurice Dietrichstein (Moritz von Dietrichstein) by Joseph Kriehuber, 1828

Maurice Dietrichstein (Moritz von Dietrichstein) by Joseph Kriehuber, 1828

Little did Napoleon realize, when releasing Major Maurice Dietrichstein from a French prison in 1800, that the Austrian nobleman would one day be responsible for the education of his son, Napoleon II. More a musical connoisseur than a military man, Dietrichstein became the child’s governor after Napoleon’s 1815 defeat and remained in that capacity until the boy’s death in 1832. Though Dietrichstein was a strict taskmaster with impossibly high expectations, Franz (as Napoleon II was called in Austria) was grateful for the pains his governor took with his education.

An Austrian soldier

Count Maurice Dietrichstein (Moritz Joseph von Dietrichstein) was born on February 19, 1775 in Vienna to a Bohemian noble family. His father was Prince Karl Johann von Dietrichstein-Proskau-Leslie. His mother, Princess Maria Christina, was a friend of Empress Maria Theresa.

In 1791, Dietrichstein joined the Austrian army. He took part in the campaigns of 1793-97 against Revolutionary France. In 1798 he was appointed aide-de-camp to General Karl Mack, who had been put in command of the Neapolitan army. When Mack – fleeing from his own mutinous troops – was taken prisoner by the French, Dietrichstein shared the general’s captivity in Paris. Upon Mack’s escape in April 1800, the French released Dietrichstein. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that Dietrichstein went to the Palace of Saint-Cloud to thank First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte in person. (1)

Connoisseur and composer

This marked the end of Maurice Dietrichstein’s military career, for which he was probably not suited in the first place. He returned to Vienna where, on September 22, 1800, he married Countess Thérèse von Gilleis (b. 1779). They had five children, three of whom lived past infancy: Maurice (b. 1801), Ida (1804) and Julie (1807).

The Dietrichsteins’ home became a centre for Vienna’s intelligentsia and beau monde. A cultured and well-educated man, Dietrichstein himself was an able composer. He studied with the Abbé Stadler and composed vocal music, both sacred and secular, as well as a number of dances. In 1811, he published 16 settings of Goethe’s poems to music, dedicating them to the poet, who praised their “charm” and “original character.” (2) Dietrichstein organized concerts for Beethoven, whom he revered. He was also a patron of Schubert, who dedicated his Opus 1 (D. 328), Erlkönig, to Dietrichstein.

A frustrated (and frustrating) governor

It is not surprising that this high-minded, learned gentleman was recommended by Baron von Hager, head of the Hapsburg secret police, as governor for the grandson of Emperor Francis I. When three-year-old Napoleon II, the King of Rome (later Duke of Reichstadt), arrived in Vienna with Marie Louise in 1814, he was accompanied by a suite of French caregivers. Fearing that these women exercised too much French influence on the boy, and that they might be party to a kidnapping attempt, Francis I had them dismissed. The Countess de Montesquiou (the boy’s governess) left in March 1815, Madame Soufflot (the under-governess) and her daughter Fanny in October 1815, and Madame Marchand (the boy’s nurse, and the mother of Napoleon’s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand) in 1816.

“They talked to him of nothing but Paris, of his Court, his bedroom as a child,” complained Dietrichstein, who took up his post in June 1815. (3) Maurice Dietrichstein would make no such mistake. His task was to raise the child as an Austrian prince, though he held in the back of his mind that he might also be educating a future ruler of France. Dietrichstein undertook this job with the utmost diligence. Whether his temperament was ideal for the position is questionable. One has the sense that boy and man exasperated each other. Franz was bored by the things Dietrichstein most valued, the study of Latin and literature and music. He preferred dreaming of being a soldier, as when Dietrichstein finds him doodling in Napoleon in America.

In December 1817 Dietrichstein wrote to Marie Louise, who was living in Italy as the Duchess of Parma:

Indifference, frivolity and heedlessness are his main faults. They are a hard test for our patience, which we do not lose, but they often make our efforts useless. (4)

In 1819 Dietrichstein forwarded to Marie Louise a letter young Franz had written to her, with the comment:

Thank Heaven, he has written this letter all by himself, after a great many quarrels with me, all of which, of course, end in my victories; though I would willingly forgo them if only I could observe that the prince were winning over his mistakes…but he is still too much ruled by a spirit of contradiction. (5)

Dietrichstein was assisted by tutors, primarily Jean-Baptiste Foresti, a former military officer, and Mathias de Collin, a professor of history and philosophy. Though they, too, commented on Franz’s idleness and obstinacy, they recognized the boy’s good qualities. Forestri wrote to Dietrichstein in 1823:

Your Excellency generally finds all strange children good and amiable; other people who see ours for the moment only extol him as an angel, yes an angel… So I should advise you to examine the matter more closely. (6)

Perhaps taking this advice to heart, Dietrichstein did find moments of pride. In November 1824 he wrote to Marie Louise of his then 13-year-old charge:

Everyone admires his appearance, his demeanour, in a word all his movements. His politeness is exquisite. For example, during a waltz with Princess Liechtenstein, he learned that Prince Schonberg had previously engaged her but had yielded to him. He at once begged the prince to take the second half of his dance. … After the ball I had the honour of dining with him at the table of the Queen [of Bavaria], who talked with me at length and her one topic was the prince, who delights her. In brief, it is the general opinion that he has the making of an accomplished prince. He sparkles with wit, his conversation is finesse itself, and the consideration he has for everyone…give him an ease that is far beyond his age. Just before going to bed, he threw his arms about me and said, ‘Well, were you satisfied with me?’… Precisely because he is so lovable in society everyone thinks that he must be perfect in all respects. (7)

Dietrichstein saw Franz for an hour every day. He had other tasks. In 1819 he was appointed the musical director of the imperial court. In 1821 he also became director of the court theatres. He relinquished both posts in 1826 when he was appointed director of the court library.

The frustrations associated with his primary appointment did not go away. In August 1826 Dietrichstein wrote to Franz, in reply to a letter he had received from the boy:

If you really regard me as your greatest benefactor, and this I am, in so far that for eleven years I have devoted to your education, in every respect, an attention which should have already borne splendid fruits, if you would respond to it in some degree – if you give me such an honourable title and at the same time really feel it, how is it possible that your words and actions, your conduct in and outside your household, is daily at variance with such sentiments? How can you, at fifteen!!! – for the pleasure of astonishing me, which was no doubt your object, write me a letter full of corrections and proofs of habitual carelessness, of bombastic notions, disregarding all commonly accepted forms, extending even to your signature? (8)

The two quarrelled in June 1830 when Franz expressed his desire not to be a decorative prince, but a real officer. Dietrichstein objected he was too immature and not well enough educated. They soon made up. In his diary Franz wrote:

I was in perfect agreement with the Count, and in the course of the journey [from Schönbrunn to Graz] I acquired an absolute conviction as to his affection for me and the soundness of his views as to my future. (9)

Dietrichstein did have an eye on the future of his prince, especially in light of the 1830 July Revolution in France. He wrote to Emperor Francis warning that the transfer of the Duke of Reichstadt to a provincial garrison involved a risk of “lessening his importance in the eyes of the French.” (10) In this, he was at odds with Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich, who wanted to keep the boy’s profile as low as possible.

For all his time and care with the young man, Maurice Dietrichstein was not present at Schönbrunn Palace when the Duke died on July 22, 1832, at the age of 21. He had gone to Würzburg to be present for the birth of his daughter Julie’s first child. Despite their clashes, Franz seemed to have fond feelings for his governor. In September 1831, Franz wrote to Dietrichstein:

My heart’s gratitude is as imperishable as the pains you took with my education. (11)


Maurice Dietrichstein continued as court librarian until 1845. In this capacity he succeeded in acquiring the original score of Mozart’s Requiem, among other things. He was also the director of the imperial cabinet of medals and antiquities from 1833 to 1848.

Count Maurice Dietrichstein died on August 27, 1864 in Vienna, age 89. He was predeceased by his daughter Ida in 1822, his son Maurice in 1852, and his wife Thérèse in 1860. Dietrichstein was buried in the Hietzinger cemetery in Vienna.

For a list of some of Dietrichstein’s compositions, see LiederNet.

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  1. Répertoire des Connaissances Usuelles: Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la Lecture, Vol. 36 (Paris, 1837), p. 276.
  2. Otto Biba, “Goethe’s Presence in the Vienna Music Scene of his Era,” in Lorraine Byrne, ed., Goethe: Musical Poet, Musical Catalyst (Dublin, 2004), p. 20. Dietrichstein was one of the founding members of the Gesellschaft der Muskifreunde in Vienna.
  3. Dorothy Julia Baynes [Dormer Creston], In Search of Two Characters: Some Intimate Aspects of Napoleon and His Son (London, 1945), p. 229.
  4. Jean de Bourgoing, Papiers Intimes et Journal du Duc de Reichstadt (Paris, 1927), p. 16.
  5. Ibid., p. 18.
  6. Edward de Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (London, 1906), p. 292.
  7. Papiers Intimes et Journal du Duc de Reichstadt, pp. 27-28.
  8. The Duke of Reichstadt, pp. 296-297.
  9. Papiers Intimes et Journal du Duc de Reichstadt, p. 166.
  10. Octave Aubry, Napoleon II: The King of Rome, translated by Elisabeth Abbott (London, 1933), p. 240.
  11. The Duke of Reichstadt, p. 454.

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How can you, at fifteen!!! – for the pleasure of astonishing me, which was no doubt your object, write me a letter full of corrections and proofs of habitual carelessness, of bombastic notions, disregarding all commonly accepted forms, extending even to your signature?

Maurice Dietrichstein to the Duke of Reichstadt