Anecdotes of Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome

Portrait of the King of Rome, circa 1815, by Jean-Baptiste Isabey

Portrait of the King of Rome, circa 1815, by Jean-Baptiste Isabey

Napoleon’s only legitimate son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, also known as the King of Rome, was born on March 20, 1811. By all accounts he was a cute, strong-willed and kind-hearted little boy. He was also greatly spoiled. Here are some anecdotes of the King of Rome as a young child.

The King of Rome destroys a soldier’s plume

This anecdote comes from Captain Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier of Napoleon’s guard. The incident probably happened within the first year of the child’s life.

The precious child was always accompanied by the governor of the palace, whenever he went out to take the air, with his handsome nurse, and a lady who carried him. One day when I was at the palace of St. Cloud, Marshal Duroc, who was with me, signalled to me to approach, and the dear child held out his little hands for my plume. I stooped, and he began to pull at my plumes. The marshal said, ‘Let him do it.’ The child laughed with delight; but my plume was sacrificed. I looked a little upset. The marshal said to me, ‘Give it to him. I will give you another.’ The maid of honour and the nurse were much amused.

The marshal said to the maid of honour, ‘Give the prince to this sergeant, and let him take him in his arms.’ Good Lord! How eagerly I stretched out my arms to receive that precious burden! Every one surrounded me. ‘Well,’ said M. Duroc to me, ‘is he heavy?’ – ‘Yes, general.’ – ‘Come, walk him about; you are strong enough to carry him.’ I walked about with him awhile on the terrace. The child pulled away at my plumes and paid no attention to me. His robes hung down very low, and I was afraid of stumbling; but I was proud to carry such a baby. I handed him back to the maid of honour, who thanked me, and the marshal said to me, ‘Come to my office an hour later.’ Accordingly, I appeared before the marshal, who gave me an order upon a merchant for a handsome plume. ‘Is this the only one you have?’ said he. – ‘Yes, general.’ – ‘I will give you an order for two.’ – ‘Thank you, general.’ – ‘You can go, my brave fellow; now you will have one for Sundays.’ (1)

The little King desires it

This anecdote was related by a palace usher to Laure Junot, the Duchess of Abrantès (not the most reliable memoirist). Madame de Montesquiou was the King of Rome’s governess.

The King of Rome one morning ran to the state apartments and reached the door of the Emperor’s cabinet alone, for Madame de Montesquiou was unable to follow him. The child raised his beautiful face to the usher and said, ‘Open the door for me; I wish to see papa.’

‘Sire,’ replied the man. ‘I cannot let your Majesty in.’

‘Why not? I am the little king.’

‘But your Majesty is alone.’

The Emperor had given orders that his son should not be allowed to enter his cabinet unless accompanied by his governess. This order was issued for the purpose of giving the young Prince, whose disposition was somewhat inclined to waywardness, a high idea of his governess’s authority. On receiving this denial from the usher the Prince’s eyes became suffused with tears, but he said not a word. He waited till Madame de Montesquiou came up, which was in less than a minute afterwards. Then he seized her hand, and looking proudly at the usher, he said, ‘Open the door; the little King desires it.’ The usher then opened the door of the cabinet and announced, ‘His Majesty the King of Rome.’ (2)

The King of Rome is wicked

This anecdote appeared in the memoirs of the Count de Las Cases, who accompanied Napoleon into exile on St. Helena.

The apartments of the young Prince were on the ground floor, and looked out on the court of the Tuileries. At almost every hour in the day, numbers of people were looking in at the windows, in the hope of seeing him. One day when he was in a violent fit of passion, and rebelling furiously against the authority of Madame de Montesquiou, she immediately ordered all the shutters to be closed. The child, surprised at the sudden darkness, asked Maman Quiou, as he used to call her, what it all meant?

‘I love you too well,’ she replied, ‘not to hide your anger from the crowd in the court-yard. You perhaps will one day be called to govern all those people, and what would they say if they saw you in such a fit of rage? Do you think they would ever obey you, if they knew you to be so wicked?’ Upon which, the child asked her pardon, and promised never again to give way to such fits of anger. (3)

The King of Rome grants a pension

Here’s another anecdote from Madame Junot.

Young Napoleon was an amiable child, and he became more so as he advanced in age. I know many affecting stories of him, which indicate the goodness of his heart. When he was at Saint Cloud he liked to be placed at the window in order that he might see the people passing by. One day he perceived at some distance a young woman in mourning, apparently in great grief, holding by the hand a little boy about his own age. The child held in his hand a paper, which he raised towards the window at which young Napoleon stood. ‘Why is he dressed in black?’ inquired the young King of his governess. ‘Because, no doubt, he has lost his father. Do you wish to know what he wants?’

The Emperor had given orders that his son should always be accessible to those in misfortune who wished to make any application to him by petition. The petitioners were immediately introduced, and they proved to be a young widow and her son. Her husband had died about three months previously of wounds received in Spain, and his widow solicited a pension. Madame de Montesquiou, thinking that this conformity of age between the little orphan and the young King might move the feelings of the latter, placed the petition in his hands. She was not deceived in her expectations. His heart was touched at the sight of the young petitioner. The Emperor was then on a hunting-party, and the petition could not be presented to him until next morning at breakfast. Young Napoleon passed the whole of the day in thoughtfulness, and when the appointed hour arrived, he left his apartment to pay his respects to his father. He took care to present the petition apart from all the rest he carried, and this of his own accord.

‘Here is a petition, papa,’ said he, ‘from a little boy. He is dressed all in black. His papa has been killed in your service, and his mamma wants a pension, because she is poor and has much to vex her.’ ‘Ah! Ah!’ said the Emperor, taking his son in his arms; ‘you already grant pensions do you? Diable! You have begun betimes. Come, let us see who this protégé of yours is.’ The widow had sufficient grounds for her claim; but in all probability they would not have been attended to for a year or two, had it not been for the King of Rome’s intercession. The brevet of the pension was made out that very day, and a years’ arrears added to the order. (4)

The King of Rome wants to stay in Paris

On January 24, 1814, the King of Rome saw his father for the last time. Napoleon left to campaign in Germany, in a failing attempt to prevent his enemies from entering France. On March 28, as the allies closed in on Paris, Napoleon wrote to insist that his wife Marie Louise and their son leave the city. Marie-Marguerite Broquet, the mother of Napoleon’s valet Louis-Joseph Marchand, was a nurse to the King of Rome. She told Marchand how the boy resisted leaving the Tuileries Palace.

The King of Rome…grabbed onto each piece of furniture so as not to go to Rambouillet, which he deemed too ugly. Made impatient by the force used on him – and force had to be used to get him into his carriage – he said in anger: ‘I don’t want to leave Paris, Papa is not here, I am the master here.’ (5)

When Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Marie Louise took the King of Rome to Vienna. He spent the rest of his life there, in the court of his grandfather, Emperor Francis I of Austria, who gave him the title of Duke of Reichstadt. That is where Napoleon wants to retrieve him from in Napoleon in America.

For more about Napoleon’s son, see:

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

The perilous birth of the King of Rome

The Palace of the King of Rome

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

A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada

  1. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), pp. 200-201.
  2. Laure Junot, Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, Vol. 2 (London, 1836), p. 334.
  3. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné de Las Cases, The Military and Political Life, Character, and Anecdotes of Napoleon Bonaparte (Hartford, 1823), pp. 340-341.
  4. Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, Vol. 2, pp. 335-336.
  5. Louis-Joseph Marchand, 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, edited by Proctor Jones (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 81-82.

6 commments on “Anecdotes of Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome”

  • Hels says:

    I felt sorry for the little chap. Born in 1811, by 1814 he was already kissing his father goodbye for the last time. No wonder he didn’t want to leave Tuileries Palace – it was all he knew.

    Hopefully Emperor Francis treated them well in the Austrian Empire. The emperor loved his daughter, but probably not his son in law.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I feel sorry for him too, Hels. He became much less spoiled in the austere court of Vienna. Francis I loved his grandson, but regarded him (and all of his family) as a pawn of state.

  • Christoph Fischer says:

    Excellent article, as always 🙂

  • Addison says:

    According to the theory of genetics, there was only a slight probability that N II would inherit the great qualities of N I, and of course he did not.

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The King of Rome…grabbed onto each piece of furniture so as not to go to Rambouillet, which he deemed too ugly. Made impatient by the force used on him – and force had to be used to get him into his carriage – he said in anger: ‘I don’t want to leave Paris, Papa is not here, I am the master here.’

Louis-Joseph Marchand