The birth of the Roi de Rome

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
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The marriage

This timeline is part of our close-up on: the birth of the Roi de Rome.

With the marriage arranged and the party approaching Paris, Napoleon’s patience ran out. Eager to meet Marie-Louise, the French emperor rushed to Compiègne on 27 March, 1810, where the soon-to-be wedded couple spent the night together.

On 1 April, 1810, the civil marriage of Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria and Napoleon took place in a second ceremony, and on 2 April, 1810, the religious ceremony was held in the chapel at the Louvre in Paris.

The imperial pregnancy

Marie-Louise wrote to her father on 2 July, 1810, mentioning the imperial couple’s pregnancy hopes: “I am very happy, for my doctor has assured me that, since last month, I am expecting. May God will it to be true. […] I have decided to immediately forgo any dancing or horse-riding.”

Later that month, on 25 July, Napoleon wrote to Francis I, his father-in-law, in which he too mentioned the couple’s pregnancy hopes.

“I do not know if the Empress has informed you that our hopes for her pregnancy become more and more probable every day, and that we are being as careful as can be at two and a half months.” (Letter from Napoleon to Francis I, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Second Empire edition, n° 16,725)

By 15 August, 1810, Marie-Louise’s doctors were convinced that she was pregnant, although Corvisart admitted to Napoleon that there had been some confusion over the timing. August, they had decided, was probably only the second month of the pregnancy.

Nevertheless, the news was announced to Marie-Louise with a verse from Virgil: “Jam nova progenies coelo dimittitur alto” (“now a new generation is sent down from high heaven”, Eclogue 4, Virgil).

Between 11 and 15 October, 1810, and with the pregnancy by now beginning to show, Marie-Louise sat for Antonio Canova for a statue that would become “Marie-Louise en Concorde”.

On 22 October, 1810, Napoleon named Madame de Montesquiou as governess to the Enfants de France, announcing to her: “Madame, I am conferring to you France’s destinies. Make of my son a good Frenchman and a good Christian, there cannot be one without the other.”

On 4 November, 1810, a baptism ceremony for the children of Berthier (Prince de Neuchâtel), the deceased Jean Lannes (Duc de Montebello), Maret (Duc de Bassano), and Champagny (Duc de Cadore), as well as Louis-Charles Napoleon (the future Napoleon III) was celebrated by Cardinal Fesch in the Trinity Chapel at Fontainebleau.

According to Constant’s memoirs, Napoleon – full of hope for an heir of his own and rubbing his hands together in anticipation – was said to have remarked after the ceremony to a number of his close associates: “‘Before long, gentlemen, we shall have, I hope, another child to baptise.'” [Mémoires de Constant, premier valet de chambre de l’empereur, sur la vie privée de Napoléon, sa famille et sa cour, 1830]

On 12 November, 1810, Napoleon announced Marie-Louise’s pregnancy to the Senate.

On 22 November, 1810, the Baron de Mesgrigny, Napoleon’s envoy, arrived in Vienna bearing two letters – one from Napoleon to Francis and one from the Austrian emperor’s daughter. In Marie-Louise’s letter, she announced: “Dear father, this letter is to hereby announce my pregnancy. I am taking this opportunity to request your blessings for me and your grandson or granddaughter. You can imagine my joy. It should be complete were this birth to bring you to Paris.”

On 3 December, Francis replied to Napoleon: “My brother and most dear son-in-law, the letter that M. de Mesgrigny has handed me on behalf of Your Imperial Majesty has filled me with great joy.”

On 11 January, 1811, Francis wrote to his daughter again, advising her to watch her health, and to “remain active, but not too much, and above all, avoid any bad roads that might be full of holes.”

Preparations for the birth

On 13 January, 1811, Napoleon visited the montagne de Chaillot, a hill today part of Paris’ 16th arrondissement, which was to be the site for the Palais du Roi de Rome. In embryonic form since June 1810, when the idea of a grand palace erected at the summit of the hill was implanted in the emperor’s brain, the construction project, work on which began in February 1811, dragged on as Napoleon’s concerns regarding its cost and design features (“I want a little chapel, a small theatre […] and above all else, […] no stagnant water surrounding the palace”) resulted in Fontaine, the architect in charge, redrawing his plans. Intended, as the name suggests, for Napoleon’s son, the conflicts of the coming years – the Russian campaign and the War of the Sixth Coalition – were to put an end to the project.

Six weeks before the due date, Napoleon’s personal physician began the process of choosing the child’s wet-nurses. 116 women had applied for the role, with Daru informing each candidate that three would be chosen, after which they would be placed in the Maison de Retenue. The women would still have to be confirmed by the governess and would undergo occasional medical check-ups. Once the child was born, Corvisart would choose a head wet-nurse from the three candidates.

On 10 February, 1811, the wet-nurses’ apartment was signed for, the rent of which was set at 2,400 Fr. per year. The address was the third floor of a townhouse at 14 rue de Rivoli.

During this search, Georges Poisson relates how General Bertrand, dispatched by Napoleon to find a wet-nurse for his son, spotted a woman breastfeeding her child in one of Paris’ parks. Noting this “good, large woman, round, fresh [and] heathy”, Madame Auchard was subsequently taken on at the palace, where she became known for her good health and humour, and the quality and abundance of her milk. At the end of her service, she was given a rente on the tiers consolidé (period stock options) of 4,800 Fr., an annual pension of 6,000 Fr., jewels and diamonds worth 20,000 Fr., and a new year gift – every year until the fall of the empire – of 6,000 Fr.

On 14 February, 1811, upon arrival at the boutique of the high priestess of Paris fashion, Mademoiselle Minette, at 30, rue de Miromesnil (today in Paris’ 8th arrondissement), the gentlemen charged with matters of such gravity proceeded to place an order for forty-two dozen swaddling strips, twenty dozen baby bodices, twenty-six dozen shirts, fifty dozen diapers, twelve dozen night shawls and handkerchiefs, and twelve dozen night caps. Some of the items were embroidered with a bee image and the royal crown, whilst, naturally, all of them bore the Roi de Rome’s star insignia. The total came to 40,402 Francs, a sum considered most reasonable by the delegation (as recorded in the official report for the Conseil d’Etat). The average daily wage for a pit worker in France in 1806 was 1.80 Fr.

On 15 February, Marie-Louise, who was concerned about the sex of the child (she had already risked upsetting Napoleon in professing certain desires for a girl), went to see the midwife, Madame Lachapelle. The meeting ended with the midwife irritably informing the empress that such “dubious arts were best left to Mlle Lenormand, a cartomancer”.

From 4 March, 1811, onwards, Marie-Louise took to walking in the Tuileries gardens, along the Terrasse du Bord de l’Eau. Her journey between the palace chambers and the garden attracted a great deal of public attention, and Napoleon subsequently ordered Fontaine to construct an underground tunnel connecting the palace apartments to the terrace. The tunnel would not however be finished before the arrival of the child.

On 5 March, Comte Frochot, prefect for the Seine, presented – on behalf of the city of Paris – the imperial couple with a cradle made of vermeil, decorated with mother of pearl, gold and velvet.

On 14 March, Marie-Louise was presented with a copy of the Veil of the Virgin by a delegation headed by the Bishop of Versailles. A copy of the veil, a relic supposedly given to the Church of Notre-Dame de Chartres by Charles the Bald back in the 9th century, was traditionally presented to queens and dauphines of France upon their first pregnancy.

The birth

On 19 March, Marie-Louise was visited by the Austrian ambassador, her uncle the Grand-duc de Wurtzemburg and Eugene de Beauharnais. At around 7pm, Napoleon visited her for the second time, Marie-Louise having requested his presence because of intense kidney pain. At 8pm, the grand dignitaries of the court were summoned to the palace. Madame Mère arrived at around 9pm and remained with the empress. At 10pm, Corvisart announced that the baby would be born “during the night, perhaps, [otherwise] certainly by midday tomorrow”. The grand dignitaries were dismissed after 10pm.

After a sleepless night, the Roi de Rome was born at 9.20am on 20 March, 1811. At 10.30am, Dubois examined the baby, and declared that he was healthy. The Roi de Rome was then dressed.

At 9pm, the Roi de Rome was ondoyed by Fesch (traditional French summary baptism, preliminary to the baptism proper). During the ceremony, fireworks were let off and illuminations lit across Paris.

Reaction to the birth

Also on 20 March, at 11am, the Grand conseil d’administration voted in favour of according a life pension of 10,000 Fr. per trimester, to M. Victor Berton de Sambuy, first page to Napoleon, who delivered the news of the birth to the Senate.

On 21 March, 1811, the birth was recorded in the imperial register.

On 22 March, Napoleon received a deputation from the Senate headed by Comte Garnier who, on behalf of the Senate offered his congratulations. Napoleon then received delegations from the Cour de Cassation, the Cour des comptes, the University Council and the Paris chapter, after which followed the diplomatic corps.

At 10am on 24 March, 1811, the news of the birth reached the Austrian court.

On 28 March, 1811, the Mayor of Bordeaux announced that the Place Dauphine would be renamed as the Place du Roi de Rome. True however to the city of Bordeaux’s penchant for the Ancien Régime, the place was to regain its name Dauphine three years later on the installation of Louis XVIII.

Between 13 and 18 April, Marie-Louise received visits from the ladies of the palace, grand dignitaries, ministers, the diplomatic corps, and cardinals.

Marie-Louise’s “churching” ceremony, marking her first visit to church after giving birth, took place on 19 April, 1811.

Although the ceremony was originally planned for 2 June, the Roi de Rome was officially baptised on 9 June, 1811, also Trinity Sunday that year.

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