The Roi de Rome (King of Rome), Napoleon-François-Charles-Joseph Bonaparte, was the first legitimate son of Napoleon Ist, emperor of the French and son of a Corsican noble. His mother was Napoleon’s second wife, the young Marie-Louise of Habsburg-Lorraine, daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Napoleon François was in fact Napoleon’s first legitimate child since his father’s previous marriage to Josephine had been childless, Josephine’s children coming from her first marriage. On 20 March, 1811, twelve days short of a year since his parent’s civil marriage, a 101-gun salute announced that the imperial couple had had a son (22 blasts would have meant a girl).
For precise family details, see the our Bonaparte family tree
Napoleon François Joseph Charles was born at 9-20am on 20 March, 1811, at the Tuileries Palace. He weighed 4kg and measured 50.8cm. The dynastic title given to him was the «Roi de Rome» or King of Rome. The cradle he slept in at his birth was a sumptuous affair given by the city of Paris and created by some of the greatest artists of the period.
On the day of his birth, the child was ‘ondoyed’, in other words given a traditional, French summary baptism, by his paternal great uncle, Cardinal Fesch, the imperial Grand Chaplain. The formal baptism ceremony took place a few months later (9 June) at the metropolitan cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. His godmothers were Madame Mère (his grandmother (father’s mother)) and Caroline Murat (his aunt (father’s younger sister)) and his godfathers were Francis I, Emperor of Austria (his grandfather (mother’s father)) and Joseph Bonaparte (his uncle (father’s elder brother)).
Bringing up the imperial baby
Just as for the kings of France, Napoleon I’s heir had his own personal entourage; indeed his entire life was organised by the «Maison des Enfants de France» (The House of the Children of France). And it was not his mother, Empress Marie-Louise but rather his governess, Mme de Montesquiou, who looked after the child on a daily basis and saw to his education. «Maman Quiou» (Mummy Quiou) (whose appointment as imperial governess was for life) was a strong minded woman who took her educational duties seriously; she was nevertheless much loved by her young charge.
As head of the Maison des Enfants de France, she was assisted by several wet nurses (for the breastfeeding of the child), two under-governesses and a doctor for daily visits, Docteur Bourdois. In cases of serious illness, the emperor’s own doctor Corvisart would be consulted.
On days when Napoleon was not absent, Madame de Montesquiou would bring the child to the emperor every morning, who would hug him and dandle him on his knee.
On campaign, the doting father would take with him a large portrait of his beloved son – such a painting was supposedly shown to the soldiers before the Battle of Borodino to galvanise the troops. On being exiled to St Helena, Napoleon also famously took many objects and memorabilia related to the son which had not seen since January/February 1814 and which he was destined never to see again.
The little king’s residences
The little King’s apartments in the Tuileries Palace in Paris were furnished specially and decorated in imperial green. However, Napoleon François more frequently lodged at the Château de Saint-Cloud, in the countryside to the west of Paris, in apartments with his mother on the ground floor. He also resided occasionally in the Château de Meudon, a country house given to him by his father.
Naturally, all these houses had large parks in which the young lad would be taken out in a special carriage (a gift from his aunt and godmother, Caroline Murat) drawn (somewhat incredibly) by two goats or two sheep.
Education and free time
The child took his first steps late at 18 months, and as befits an heir to the imperial throne he had a great number of toys, running from rattles and building blocks to skittles, play dining sets, musical instruments (drums and trumpets), figurines and pull-along toys, all, naturally, of the finest quality.
When he was a little older, the child would like to dress in military uniforms and do ‘just like daddy’.
As for education, his governess gave the little king instruction in religion and reading and writing. She also had many picture books and a magic lantern (coloured images back-lit by candles). Apparently the child was curious and intelligent, able to memorise fables at three years old and to read in French and German at the age of four!
A troubled existence
Napoleon I’s son was to spend only the very beginning of his life in France. After the defeat of French forces in 1814 during the Campaign of France against his Austrian mother and grandfather’s armies, his father was exiled to the island of Elba and Napoleon François was to be taken to Austria. Though Napoleon was to leave Elba and return to France in the spring of 1815, the French emperor was to remain there only for a brief period (known as the Hundred Days) before losing the battle of Waterloo and being exiled to St Helena. The child was never to see his father again, kept as he was in Austria with his mother and grandfather in the Palace of Schönbrunn in Vienna. Napoleon François was to remain there for the rest of his short life. He died of a lung infection (tuberculosis) at the age of 21 on 22 July, 1832. He was first buried in Vienna, but more than a century later his mortal remains were transferred to Paris by the German Army during the occupation of Paris (Second World War) in 1944, to be laid alongside the father whom he had almost never known.
The Roi de Rome is sometimes referred to as Napoleon II because some members of the French parliament timidly proclaimed his reign after Waterloo. However since there was no political will to support the claim, Napoleon François never in fact reigned. On the other hand, this was the basis for his cousin, the later ruler of France during the Second Empire, Louis Napoléon, taking the title of Napoleon III in 1852. Remembrance of the Roi de Rome was largely preserved by a famous French play, entitled The Aiglon, written by the great playwright Edmund Rostand – Rostand is best known in the English-speaking world for his play Cyrano de Bergerac.
Emmanuelle Papot (April 2011) tr. and ed. P.H.
Ch. Beyeler et V. Cochet, Enfance impériale. Le Roi de Rome, fils de Napoléon, Ed. Faton: Château de Fontainebleau, 2011
For further details, visit our Focus on the birth of the Roi de Rome (grown-up level material)