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Napoleon François Charles Joseph (1811-1832), Roi de Rome, French emperor, Prince de Parme, Duc de Reichstadt.

On 20 March, 1811, a salvo of one hundred cannon shots broke the news to the city of Paris: the long-awaited son of the emperor had been born at the Tuileries Palace. Named the Prince Imperial, as dictated by the constitution, he also received the title of “Roi de Rome”.

The empire has an heir

Only son of Napoleon and Marie-Louise, the Roi de Rome came into the world at 9.20am, after a long and difficult birth. Nine pounds (4 kg) in weight and twenty inches (50.8cm) in height, the infant was ondoyed (traditional French summary baptism, preliminary to the baptism proper) that same day by Cardinal Fesch, assisted by Grand-Aumônier Rohan. His full name was Napoleon François Charles Joseph.

The baptism ceremony was held on 9 June, 1811 in Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral, and used as its model the baptism of Louis XVI’s son, the dauphin of France. In his report to Metternich, Schwartzenberg (Austrian ambassador to France) wrote: “the baptism ceremony was beautiful and impressive; the scene in which the emperor took the infant from the arms of his noble mother and raised him up twice to reveal him to the public [thus breaking from traditional, as he did at his coronation] was loudly applauded; in the monarch’s manner and face could be seen the great satisfaction that he took from this solemn moment.” A week of celebrations followed and the emperor declared that a Te Deum would be sung in all the churches across the empire.

Madame de Montesquiou, descendant of Louvois and wife of the Grand Chambellan de France, was named governess of the Enfants de France and charged with the Roi de Rome’s education. Affectionate and intelligent, the governess assembled a considerable collection of books intended to give the infant a strong grounding in religion, philosophy and military matters. 

The brief reign of Napoleon II

On 4 April, 1814, after the Six Days campaign and the coalition’s capture of Paris, the French emperor abdicated in favour of his son. Aged just three, the Roi de Rome, became French emperor and ruled France for a couple of days as Napoleon II. But just two days later, on 6 April, 1814, his father drew up an act of abdication, removing himself and his descendants from power. The Fontainebleau treaty of 11 April, 1814, granted the child the title of Prince de Parme (his mother would receive the title of Duchess of Parma shortly afterwards). A year later, his father’s return to France – a period known as the Cent-Jours – saw him once again become the Prince Imperial, but the defeat at Waterloo once again compelled Napoleon to abdicate in his son’s favour. The provisional government, under Fouché’s guidance, took no notice of this attempt to preserve dynastic continuity and the lower and upper houses refused to recognise the child. His “reign” nevertheless entered the history books, lasting twenty days between 22 June and 7 July, 1815.

The exiled prince

The prince had settled in Vienna in April 1814, placed in the care of his grandfather, the Austrian emperor Francis I, who felt a great deal of affection for the child. In 1818, he was named the Duc de Reichstadt, a Bohemian territorial title. From this point on, he was treated as an Austrian prince. Growing up, the child subsequently known as Frantz was very close to his aunt, the archduchess Sophie, whose son would later become Franz Joseph I of Austria. In 1822, Francis I named the prince corporal and, six months later, captain in the Austrian army. But although the young Duc de Reichstadt continued to reside in Vienna, in Bonapartist eyes he nevertheless remained heir to the imperial throne of France, particularly after the death of his father in 1821 on the island of St Helena. After Napoleon’s death, his son became an object of both concern and fascination for the monarchies of Europe and the rulers of France, who in particular lived in fear of his return to the country of his birth.

However, in 1832 at the age of just twenty-one, the son of Napoleon I fell ill. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he died on 22 July in Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, unmarried and without issue.

After his death

In 1900, the writer Edmond Rostand paid homage to the prince by making him the principal character in a play called L’Aiglon. It is thus under this name that history has remembered this young man, whose moments on earth proved so fleeting and who himself admitted “my birth and my death, that is my story”.

Interred in the Kapuzinergruft, the Habsburg crypt in Vienna, Napoleon II also experienced a Retour des Cendres of his own, albeit in less glorious circumstances than those of his father’s. In 1940, it was Hitler who organised the return of the prince’s remains to France. Like his father, the Aiglon took his place in Les Invalides on 15 December, one hundred years after Napoleon’s reburial.

March 2011, Fondation Napoléon

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