Archduke Franz Karl of Austria

Archduke Franz Karl of Austria, 1827

Archduke Franz Karl of Austria, 1827

Though he merits only a sentence in Napoleon in America, Archduke Franz Karl of Austria loomed large in the brief life of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt.

A dull fellow

Born on December 17, 1802, in Vienna, Franz Karl was the 10th child of Holy Roman Emperor Francis II (Francis 1 of Austria). His mother was Francis’s second wife, Prince Maria Theresa, a member of the Naples branch of the House of Bourbon. She died when Franz Karl was four.

As his parents were first cousins on both sides, Franz Karl was not particularly favoured in the intellectual department. Neither was he physically strong. He was generally regarded as rather odd and dull.

Uncle of Napoleon II

When he was 11, Franz Karl’s oldest sister, Marie Louise, arrived in Vienna from Paris with her three-year-old son, Napoleon II. With Napoleon in exile, and Marie Louise off to become Duchess of Parma, the boy was left to be raised in his grandfather’s court. He became known as Franz and was given the title of Duke of Reichstadt.

Because Franz Karl was the youngest prince in the family (his younger brother Johann had died in 1809, and he had two younger sisters, one of whom was mentally disabled), young Franz became his habitual companion. They played together, went riding together, accompanied each other on family holidays, and sat together at the imperial table. One gathers that the boy’s governor, Maurice Dietrichstein, did not entirely approve of the distractions and penchant for exaggeration encouraged by “dear Uncle Franz.” (1)

Husband of Princess Sophie

On November 4, 1824 in Vienna, Franz Karl married Princess Sophie of Bavaria, the younger half-sister of his father’s fourth wife, Caroline Augusta. Strong-willed and intelligent, Sophie was initially disappointed with the husband chosen for her. She may have been swayed by the opinion of her mother, Queen Caroline of Bavaria:

He is a good fellow and wants to do well. He asks everyone for advice, but he’s really terrible…. He would bore me to death. Every now and then I would want to hit him. (2)

Sophie was also ambitious. She realized that her husband was not first in line to the throne. This position fell to Franz Karl’s older brother, Ferdinand. However, as Ferdinand was disabled, it was not out of the question that her husband might someday become emperor. She gradually warmed to Franz Karl, especially as he showered her with gifts of clothes and jewellery.

Sophie also became very fond of Franz, the Duke of Reichstadt, six years her junior. The two greatly enjoyed each other’s company and there were rumours, most likely untrue, that they had an affair. Sophie called Franz her “dear, good old fellow.” (3)

After five miscarriages during their first five years of marriage, Sophie and Franz Karl eventually had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood: Franz Joseph (b. 1830), Ferdinand Maximilian (1832), Karl Ludwig (1833) and Ludwig Viktor (1842).

Both Sophie and Franz Karl kept Franz company during his final illness. Franz Karl was one of the people at his bedside when Franz died. Sophie, who had just given birth to Ferdinand Maximilian, was deeply affected by Franz’s death.

Kaiserhaus by Leopold Fertbauer, 1826. From left to right: Empress Caroline Augusta; Emperor Francis I; Napoleon II of France, Duke of Reichstadt; Princess Sophie of Bavaria; Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma; Archduke Ferdinand; and Archduke Franz Karl.

Kaiserhaus by Leopold Fertbauer, 1826. From left to right: Empress Caroline Augusta; Emperor Francis I; Napoleon II of France, Duke of Reichstadt; Princess Sophie of Bavaria; Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma; Archduke Ferdinand; and Archduke Franz Karl.

Father of two emperors

After Francis I died in March 1835, Franz Karl served as a not particularly active member of the governing council that ruled the Austrian Empire on behalf of his brother Ferdinand.

In September 1835, the Duke of Nassau wrote from Silesia to Austrian Chancellor and Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich:

I can assure you in all sincerity that the Archduke Franz Karl obtained here a complete triumph; I see him often, and I really don’t believe an accomplished man of the world could better conduct himself. (4)

In December 1848, when Ferdinand resigned, Sophie urged Franz Karl to give up his claim to the throne in favour of their eldest son, Franz Joseph. This he did, somewhat reluctantly. In 1864, their second son also became an emperor: Maximilian I of Mexico, as a result of the French conquest of that country by Napoleon III, the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis. Poor Maximilian’s reign was much shorter than that of his brother, who ruled Austria until 1916. Maximilian was executed in Mexico in 1867.

Sophie died on May 28, 1872. Franz Karl died on March 8, 1878, age 75. He buried in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna. In 1914, the assassination of their grandson, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparked the outbreak of World War I.

For more about Franz Karl, see the article by Martin Mutschlechner on “The World of the Habsburgs – a virtual exhibition.”

You might also enjoy:

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

Francis I of Austria: Napoleon’s father-in-law

Caroline Augusta, Empress of Austria

Maurice Dietrichstein, governor of Napoleon’s son

Clemens von Metternich: The man who outwitted Napoleon?

Dangers of Walking in Vienna in the 1820s

  1. Jean de Bourgoing, Papiers Intimes et Journal du Duc de Reichstadt (Paris, 1927), p. 17.
  2. Gordon Brook-Shepherd, Royal Sunset: The Dynasties of Europe and the Great War (Garden City, 1987), p. 118.
  3. Edward de Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (London, 1906), p. 410.
  4. Richard Metternich, ed., Mémoires, Documents et Écrits Divers laissées par le Prince de Metternich, Vol. 6 (Paris, 1884), p. 61.

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He is a good fellow and wants to do well. He asks everyone for advice, but he’s really terrible…. He would bore me to death. Every now and then I would want to hit him.

Queen Caroline of Bavaria