The death of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt

Napoleon’s only legitimate child, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, Napoleon II or the Duke of Reichstadt, died of tuberculosis at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna on July 22, 1832. He was only 21 years old. You can read my articles about his perilous birth and his sad life. What follows is an account of Napoleon’s son’s death.

Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on his deathbed, engraved by Franz Xavier Stöber

Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt, on his deathbed, engraved by Franz Xavier Stöber

A scrofulous tendency

The Duke of Reichstadt, who appears as the boy Franz in Napoleon in America, was brought up in the court of his maternal grandfather, Emperor Francis I of Austria. Although Franz had been a healthy child, when he was 16 years old those around him noted that his chest did not seem to be developing at the same rate as the rest of his body. His doctor, a celebrated Viennese physician named Staudenheim, diagnosed a “scrofulous tendency.” (1) Dr. Staudenheim said the boy should not go out in wet or windy weather, and should avoid vigorous exercise.

After Staudenheim’s death in May 1830, Dr. Johann Malfatti – who had treated Beethoven, among others – became the Duke of Reichstadt’s physician. Though Malfatti suspected consumption (tuberculosis), he thought there was less danger from the boy’s lungs than from his liver. He ordered a strengthening diet of milk and seltzer water and prescribed a course of baths. He also cautioned against extremes of heat and cold, and anything that might produce great excitement.

The Duke of Reichstadt hated these restrictions. He desperately wanted to be a soldier. In August 1828, his grandfather had made him a captain in the Imperial Light Infantry. During the summer of 1829, Franz had taken part in manoeuvres, but was not considered ready for active military service on account of his health. Now he continued to ride, despite attempts to stop him. In July 1830 he was promoted to the rank of major. In November 1830 he became a lieutenant colonel.

In June 1831, the Duke of Reichstadt was finally given command of a battalion of 200 men of the 60th Imperial Regiment of Infantry. Malfatti, visiting the barracks, often found Franz in a state of exhaustion. His voice would give out when he was shouting commands to his men. Franz resisted the doctor’s orders to rest. At the beginning of August, however, he was struck with a fever and an inflammation of the mucous membrane. Malfatti succeeded in having the patient confined. Two months of rest reestablished Franz’s strength, but the improvement in health did not last long. In January 1832 the Duke of Reichstadt came down with another fever. He was sent back to the Hofburg Palace to recover.

Decline

The Duke of Reichstadt was allowed to take the air in a carriage or on horseback, in moderation. In mid-April 1832, he went for a long morning ride in cold, damp weather, and then in the evening went to the Prater. A wheel of his carriage gave way, so he started home on foot. Unfortunately, his strength failed him and he fell in the street. The next day he came down with pneumonia. Malfatti – returning to his duties after a five-week attack of gout – was struck by the rapid decline of his patient. The sickness was primarily in the chest, although the digestive functions were also affected. Franz had also gradually lost hearing in his left ear.

Hoping to cheer his grandson, Francis I made him a colonel of the 60th Imperial Regiment of Infantry. Franz was so weak that he couldn’t write to thank his grandfather, who was away from Vienna. On May 22, the Duke of Reichstadt was moved to Schönbrunn for the fresh air. He was given the suite of rooms that Napoleon had stayed in when he occupied Vienna in 1809.

On June 3, Franz’s fever and cough grew much worse. He was lethargic, and his pulse was rapid. Malfatti prescribed an application of leeches, along with medicine for his lungs and his liver, and some Marienbad water. At Malfatti’s request, three Viennese physicians were called in to consult. They agreed with the course of treatment, but thought the Duke’s state was precarious. He was so emaciated that he looked like an old man. On June 7, Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich wrote:

The Prince’s condition is in keeping with his malady. His weakness increases in proportion as his illness progresses, and I see no possibility of saving him. (2)

By this time rumours of the Duke of Reichstadt’s illness had spread. The fact that his mother, Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, was not at his side, did not impress the people of Vienna. She finally arrived on June 24. Colonel Hartmann, the Duke’s chief of staff wrote:

The meeting, as is only too explicable, was very affecting for both of them; but her Majesty felt calmer for having seen the Prince, and his Highness himself was more cheerful, so that everything pointed to the fact that it did him good to see his mother once more. (3)

Marie Louise could see there was no hope for her son.

The nights were sleepless, and sometimes he would be seized with such a violent bout of coughing that he seemed in danger of suffocation. His voice sounded hoarse, and his legs, which were white and bloodless, swelled increasingly. Now he would no longer go into the palace garden, where, up to the present time, he had been carried twice a day; the most emphatic arguments were necessary in order to induce him to go at least once a day. Forebodings of death now possessed him; since July 13 he had spoken quite plainly of his end. (4)

Even the optimistic Malfatti was forced to admit that no progress was being made. From July 19, the Duke of Reichstadt refused all nourishment. On July 21, breathing became agony for him. “I desire death,” he exclaimed, “only death.” (5)

The Duke of Reichstadt’s final hours

Marie Louise visited Franz occasionally during the day. Baron Moll attended to all of his personal needs.

I cannot describe in words how disagreeable was the operation of removing the secretions which clung to his mouth and tongue; each time this had to be done I felt upset and the Prince thanked me with a look which showed that he realized the full unpleasantness of the task. (6)

Moll read aloud from Les Rebelles sous Charles V by Charles-Victor Prévot to distract the patient. At midnight, Moll retired to the next room for a few hours of rest. The Duke was left alone with his valet, Lambert.

At about 4 A.M. (July 22) Lambert awoke Moll with the news that the Duke was at his last gasp. The Baron hastened to the sick-bed in time to catch the words: ‘I am sinking! I am sinking!’ They then raised the Prince, and the sudden movement seemed to relieve the suffocation, which returned, however, with renewed violence. In a weary and broken voice he cried: ‘Call my mother! Call my mother! Clear the table, I want nothing more!’ (7)

Moll thought the crisis would pass, so he delayed sending for Marie Louise, who was asleep.

Suddenly the Baron [Moll] felt the Duke clutch at his arm convulsively with one hand, while with the other he beat his breast and ejaculated with great effort: ‘Poultices, blisters!’ These were his last words. Hardly had he spoken them before his eyes grew fixed and glazed; the convulsive movements of his body relaxed, and he fell into a state of torpor. When the valet returned in haste with the cataplasms, Moll left the dying man to him and Nickert [a physician], while he went to announce to the mother, to the Archduke Francis Charles and the Court in general that the end had come. When he came back, the Prince was dying peacefully and without suffering; he breathed quietly but could no longer articulate. He was still perfectly conscious and recognized every one. When Marie Louise, led by Moll, entered the death chamber, she was trembling from head to foot and clung to the Baron’s arm for support. Reaching the bedside she remained standing there, incapable of uttering a word. The Prince recognised her, and made a slight motion of the head. Besides the Archduchess, Hartmann, Standeiski, Baron Marshall, Countess Scarampi and Dr. Malfatti were present. After the arrival of the Archduke Francis Charles, whose wife the Archduchess Sophia had not yet recovered from her confinement, Moll brought in the priest, who was waiting in the ante-room.… All knelt while the priest performed his office; Marie Louise leant against a chair, the Archduke Francis Charles at the foot of the bed, the others behind or at the side. After extreme unction had been administered, during which the dying man, his hands folded, followed with his eyes each ceremonial function, the priest asked the Duke if he should read or pray aloud. To the first question he shook his head, but made an affirmative sign in reply to the second. The Chaplain now began to pray half-aloud and laid his hand as though to mesmerise him, first on the forehead and then on the folded hands of the dying man. While this was taking place, Marie Louise was seized with faintness. When she recovered, she knelt down once more. At a few minutes past 5 A.M. the Prince, whose last hour was peaceful and easy, moved his head twice from side to side. Then his breathing ceased and his lips no longer moved. Malfatti and Moll then went to the bedside. Malfatti smoothed the lines from the Prince’s brow, remarking to Moll that the warmth of life was already extinguished. Marie Louise caught these half-whispered words. When she tried to rise, she slipped back again, weak and shaken, upon her knees. Hartmann and Marshall hastened to her assistance and led her from the death-chamber, in which the candles still burned in spite of the daylight, back to her own apartments. (8)

The grief-stricken members of the court, palace staff, and others crowded into the Duke of Reichstadt’s room to look at his body. They cut off almost all of his hair and carried away whatever other souvenirs they could find. During the post-mortem exam the next day, the six doctors present found that while the left lung was only slightly affected, the right one was almost completely destroyed by tuberculosis.

Metternich dispatched Moll with a letter from Marie Louise to Francis I, who was staying at Linz. Metternich wrote:

It is fortunate for your Majesty that the Duke, who could not have been saved, passed away before your return. Your Majesty has been spared a heartrending spectacle. I have recently visited him, and I do not remember ever to have seen a more terrible wreck. (9)

Francis I wept. He then replied to Metternich:

With his complaint, my grandson’s death was a blessing for himself, and perhaps also for my children and the world in general; he will be a loss to me. (10)

The funeral was held on July 24. The Duke of Reichstadt was buried in Vienna with full military honours. One of Franz’s tutors, Jean-Baptiste Foresti, wrote to Maurice Dietrechstein, the boy’s governor, a few days later.

I am quite of your opinion that it is far better for the poor Prince to have passed into a quieter world. His entire position was so artificial, so constrained, so unnatural, his character so perplexing and incomprehensible, his dangers so many, that contentment and true happiness were impossible for him in this life. On the other hand, the loss to the State is all the greater, as people are now beginning to realise. Such a guarantee against the wanton aggression of foreign Powers we are never likely to possess again. (11)

In 1940, the remains of the Duke of Reichstadt were transferred to Paris, a gift to France from Adolf Hitler. They rested for a while beside those of Napoleon in Les Invalides, before being moved to the lower church. The Duke of Reichstadt’s heart and intestines stayed in Vienna, where they reside respectively in urns at the Habsburg Heart Crypt (Hofburg Palace) and the Ducal Crypt (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).

You might also enjoy:

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

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

What happened to Napoleon’s body?

What were Napoleon’s last words?

Last Words of Famous People

Dangers of Walking in Vienna in the 1820s

  1. Edward de Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (London, 1906), p. “Children possessing what is called the scrofulous constitution are usually of small frame, with pale and delicate skin; the muscles imperfectly developed, the flesh being soft and flaccid. The edges of the eye lids are much disposed to become inflamed, and when the scrofulous tendency is strongly developed, the tarsi (under the edge of the eye lids) ‘are constantly red and tender.’ The digestive powers are feeble, the appetite variable, and the bowels seldom in a healthy condition. The patient is very sensitive to cold, and the temper generally irritable.” J.W. Comfort, The Practice of Medicine on Thomsonian Principles, Sixth Edition, (Philadelphia, 1859), p. 310.
  2. Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt, p. 413.
  3. Ibid., p. 415.
  4. Ibid., p. 416.
  5. Ibid., p. 417.
  6. Ibid., p. 417.
  7. Ibid., p. 419.
  8. Ibid., pp. 419-421.
  9. Ibid., p. 424.
  10. Ibid., p. 425.
  11. Ibid., p. 438.

16 commments on “The death of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt”

  • Hels says:

    I am preparing all my Napoleonic notes for this semester’s lectures. But somehow the King of Rome’s short life and miserable death rarely gets much of a look in. I assumed that was because Napoleon Bonaparte had disappeared out of his son’s life 20 years earlier.

    How wrong was I. You have found a ton of information. Thanks.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Hels. I’m glad you’re finding these posts useful. Though Napoleon’s son is one of history’s minor footnotes, his sad story continues to fascinate people.

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    I would like to state that there is a huge amount of documentation on Napoleon’s son, mainly in French and German. Obviously, he is well remembered in Austria and France, the two countries in which he lived. Primary sources are kept in the state archives in Vienna and are accessible to researchers. A very famous book was written by the French journalist-Historian Andre Castelot on the occasion of the 150th birthday of Napoleon’s son and was also translated into English. A lot has also been written in English about his tragic life, some of it being translations from French originals. And a lot of French books on the subject were translations from German originals.

  • franco chiesa says:

    Interesting and poignant. Thank you! I am curious whether there were any letters (or communication through a third party) between Napoleon and his son in the 1815-1821 period. What was said to the boy about his father … by his mother? .. by his maternal grandparents? Are there historical documents about it? or indirect indications?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Franco. There was no correspondence between Napoleon and his son between 1815 (when Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena) and 1821 (when Napoleon died). Napoleon knew his correspondence would be opened and censored. The King of Rome’s French nurse was the mother of Napoleon’s valet Marchand. Before she was dismissed in 1816, she managed to smuggle out some locks of the boy’s hair and send them to St. Helena for Napoleon. As for what Marie Louise and her family said to the boy — he was brought up not to hate his father, but to think of Napoleon as a soldier of fortune who had ravaged Europe and brought ruin to his country.

  • Joseph says:

    What about Napoleon’s son with Maria Waleska? Was he also somewhat fragile? Is there any hint of a conspiracy against Napoleon II?
    Thanks for a sad but interesting piece.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Joseph. I wrote a separate article about Napoleon’s illegitimate children, including Alexandre Colonna Walewski, who lived to age 58: http://shannonselin.com/2015/03/napoleons-children-part-2/. There is some evidence of plots against Napoleon II. Francis I was worried that his grandson would either be kidnapped by Bonapartists, or assassinated by French Royalists. For this reason, he had the boy closely guarded and did not allow him much independence. On a few occasions people were arrested on the suspicion that they were planning to abduct the Duke of Reichstadt.

  • Jean says:

    Thanks Shannon. Your posts always inspire me to continue on.

  • Hunter S. Jones says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I love learning new things when it comes to history.

  • Christoph Fischer says:

    Thanks for this. I didn’t know about this. Fascinating!

  • Glenn Flanagan says:

    Thank you, this is fascinating reading. I was lucky enough to see the exhibition dedicated to the two princes – the Duke of Reichstadt and the Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, in Compiegne some years back. Please see http://www.princeimperial.co.za which is résumé – not quite up to date – of our actions here in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa for a cultural tourism research development project for communities’ benefits.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That must have been a wonderful exhibition, Glenn. I found this article about it. Thanks for the link to La Route du Prince Impérial project. What a great idea!

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The Prince’s condition is in keeping with his malady. His weakness increases in proportion as his illness progresses, and I see no possibility of saving him.

Clemens von Metternich