Napoleon II: Son of Napoleon I and Marie Louise

Napoleon II, son of Napoleon I and Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma was born at the Tuileries Palace on 20 March 1811. It was a dangerous birth that caused the attending doctor, Antoine Dubois, to fear that either the Archduchess or the child might die. Marie Louise was worried enough that she told Dubois if he had to choose between her or her child, the child must be saved. Napoleon I was also worried and wrote:

“The day the child was born the Empress had walked some time with me. Her pains were coming on, but they did not think the birth would take place for four hours. I took my bath. While I was in it, Dubois rushed to me in great excitement, pale as death. I cried out, ‘Is she dead?’… Dubois assured me no – but that the child was not coming to the birth in the usual way. That was very unfortunate. … I rushed at once to the Empress. She had to be moved onto another bed that they might use instruments. … She screamed horribly. … Dubois hardly knew what to do … When the King of Rome was born it was at least a minute before he gave a cry. When I came in he was lying on a coverlet as if dead. … At last, after much rubbing, the child came to himself. He was only a little scratched about the head. The Empress had thought herself lost. She had persuaded herself that her life was to be sacrificed to save that of the child. But I had given orders quite to the contrary.”[1]

Napoleon II birth

Birth of Napoleon II. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The child’s 9:20am birth was celebrated with booming cannon salutes. Only twenty-one cannons shots were to occur if the child was a girl, and, so after the twenty-first cannon shot, everyone breathlessly waited. The twenty-second boom rang out, and ultimately a hundred and one cannon shots celebrated the birth of Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte who was christened that same evening at Notre Dame Cathedral. In addition, the famous balloonist Sophie Blanchard, who had been the first woman to fly solo, ascended in her balloon and dropped pamphlets celebrating the baby’s birth.

Empress Marie Louise. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The child, known from birth as the King of Rome, would grow to become Napoleon II. He enjoyed his first three years with great happiness. He lived in the lap of luxury and was well loved by both parents. His mother was thoughtful and careful of his welfare. Napoleon I was sometimes rough with his son. He teased him and played tricks on him, but he also loved his son immensely. Demonstrative of this is that Napoleon I beamed with joy every time he saw his son, carried him about in his arms frequently, and every morning had him brought to his room. Napoleon I’s private secretary and close collaborator also provided the following insight into their relationship:

“[The Emperor] sitting on his favorite loveseat … busy reading an important report … had his son placed on his knees or tight against his chest … Endowed with marvelous power of attention, [the Emperor] knew … how to go about serious business and how to lend himself to the whims of a child. Sometimes … he lay down beside his beloved son, playing with him like another child, attentive to what could amuse him.”[2]

Besides the title of Napoleon II and the King of Rome, he had several other titles. They included Prince of Parma (1814-1818), Emperor of the French (March 1814-June 1815), The Duke of Reichstadt (1818-1832), His Imperial Majesty Napoleon II (1815-1832), and Prince Imperial (20 March 1815-22 June 1815), a title declared by his father as being a courtesy title for the heir apparent. Napoleon II also had a nickname. It was l’Aiglon (Eaglet), in reference to the eagle, the emblem of sovereignty that Napoleon I had decreed on 10 July 1804.

Life for Napoleon II changed forever after his father’s abdication at Fontainebleau on 11 April 1814. Napoleon I was exiled to Elba while Napoleon II and his mother left for Austria, never to return to France. A year later, in 1815, Napoleon I left Elba and reigned supreme for a hundred days until he was defeated at Waterloo. He abdicated in favor of his son, but the five-member commission that took power did not summon Napoleon II and so he and his mother were likely unaware he had been proclaimed Emperor or that he theoretically served as such from 22 June to 4 July, which was the point at which Allies restored Louis XVIII to the throne.

Napoleon’s abdication at Fontainebleau. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After settling in Austria and during Napoleon I’s “Hundred Days,” the safety of Napoleon II became an important topic. Fears ran strong that French attendants might spirit him out of Austria dressed as a girl. It was also reported the Napoleon I’s notorious spy, Charles Schulmeister, was planning on abducting Napoleon II, although that story was all imagination and rumor, as was the story that Marie Louise was preparing to flee Austria but was caught by her father before she and her son could escape and join Napoleon I. In addition, fears about the boy’s possible murder circulated and it became was common knowledge that French ultra-royalists were offering rewards to anyone willing to assassinate the boy.

To ensure that Napoleon II remained safely in Austria, in June of 1815, a description of him was sent to Austrian authorities and police. It stated that no child fitting the following description should be permitted to leave Austria’s borders:

“He is 2 ft. in height, rather thick-set, has a very smooth, beautiful, pink and white complexion, full cheeks, blue eyes, rather deep-set, a small turned-up nose with rather wide nostrils, a small mouth with somewhat pouting lips, in the middle of which is a little cleft, large, very white teeth, long flaxen hair, parted on the forehead and falling round his face and shoulders in thick curls. The Prince usually speaks French, but also some German. He talks in a lively manner and gesticulates with his hands. His behaviour is very vivacious.”[3]

In April of 1814, the Congress of Vienna recognized Marie Louise as ruler for life of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla, and Napoleon II assumed the title of Prince of Parma. Marie needed to go to Parma, but despite the title given her son, there was great opposition to him accompanying his mother or even visiting her there. It was thought “his appearance might revive hope in the adherents of the ruined dynasty”[4] and Allies also feared that at some point, he might press his hereditary claim of Parma. Thus, on 7 March 1816, when Marie Louise departed for Parma, she did so without her son but in the company of her Austrian lover, Count Adam Albert von Neipperg, whom she would have three children with and morganatically marry after Napoleon I’s death in 1821.

With Marie Louise’s departure, Napoleon II was left in the care of his maternal grandfather, Francis I of Austria. Francis I called his grandson “Franz” and undertook to raise him as a loyal German. He also gave him the title of the Duke of Reichstadt in 1818. To help eliminate Napoleon II’s “Frenchness,” it was also decided that the caregivers who had accompanied the boy from France should be dismissed. Count Maurice Dietrichstein was then assigned as Napoleon II’s governor and with the aid of Captain Foresti and another educator named Mathew Edler von Collin, they were instructed to teach the boy all things German.

Napoleon II - Duke of Reichstadt

Duke of Reichstadt. Public domain.

The men soon found they had a difficult task. Although they considered Napoleon II an intelligent and focused young man, he disliked all his subjects and lessons. Further, he refused to stay on task, and teaching him was even more difficult once Dietrchstein decided the little Frenchman was to be taught all his subjects – history, grammar, geography, and such – in German. The only subjects that intrigued Napoleon II and held his attention were battles, soldiering, military uniforms, campaigns, and maneuvers. Thus, it was probably no surprise to his tutors that before he reached the age of seven, he decided to become a General, and “when … asked … what he thought a General had to know, he replied: ‘Oh, nothing but how to drill the soldiers, how to make them march, and a little arithmetic as well.’”[5]

On 5 May 1821, Napoleon I died. Word reached Vienna long before it reached his wife Marie Louise in Italy. She learned of her husband’s death on 14 July when she read the Piedmont Times. She did not initially believe the report, but when she realized it was true, she wrote:

“I confess … I was extremely affected by it; although I never had a very intense feeling of any kind for him, still I cannot forget that he was the father of my son, and that far from ill-treating me, as all the world supposes, he was always full of consideration for me … Therefore, I am greatly grieved.”[6]

When news of his father’s death reached Napoleon II, no one was sadder than he. Dietrichstein was in Vienna at the time, and so Foresti broke the news to the boy stating,

“I chose the quiet hour of evening … and saw more tears wept than I should have expected from a child who had never seen or known his father.”[7]

Napoleon II was extremely morose, and the following day when Collin spoke to him about the loss of his father, he cried profusely. Official news of Napoleon I’s death reached Marie Louise on 20 July, and four days later, she wrote a sympathetic and heartfelt letter to her son stating:

“I have heard … that you were profoundly moved by the trouble that has befallen us both in the loss of your father, and I feel it is my heart’s best consolation to write to you about it and talk it over with you. I am sure you feel the grief as deeply as I do, for you would be ungrateful if you could forget all his goodness to you in your tender infancy; I know you will endeavour to imitate all his virtues, while avoiding at the same time the rocks upon which he wrecked his life.”[8]

During his teenage years, Napoleon II continued to embrace everything military, which resulted in The Spectator stating: “He was born a soldier, to whom strategy was as interesting as glory was precious. He read and re-read the campaigns of Caesar, who, after his father, was the hero of all time.”[9] Napoleon II was also growing into a man, and one physical description of him at age seventeen was published in 1828:

“[Napoleon II] is, indeed, an interesting youth, beautifully formed, with the countenance and fine cut lips of his father and the blue eyes of his mother. One cannot see this blooming youth, with his inexpressible tint of melancholy and thoughtfulness, without a deep emotion. He has not that marked plain and familiar ease of the Austrian princes, who seem to be every where at home; but his demeanour is more dignified, and noble in the extreme.”[10]

As Napoleon II was interested in military life, and as his official army career began at age 12, European leaders were somewhat concerned that the young boy might entertain empire building designs like his father. The Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich was also fearful of any Bonaparte regaining power, and, thus, he squashed any ambitions that Napoleon II might entertain by giving him no political role. In addition, Napoleon II’s grandfather also refused to allow Napoleon II to join an army that was traveling to Italy to put down a rebellion.

Napoleon II

Napoleon II. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Dietrichstein reported that during Napoleon II’s youth, he achieved “extremely rapid growth … amounting to two, three, or even four inches in a year.”[11] Supposedly, these growth spurts were what caused a “prejudicial effect” and contributed to the boy’s “weakly constitution.” He had been healthy until about age 16, which is when his doctor, a German-Austrian physician named Jacob Ritter von Staudenheim, remarked on his “weakly constitution” attributing it to the growth spurts. Staudenheim also reported that Napoleon II had a tendency towards scrofulous during cold weather, and, then, in 1827, he suffered a sudden, unexplainable “indisposition” accompanied by dizziness and overall weakness.

Dietrichstein wrote of Napoleon II that “his body is long and narrow, the chest contracted, the arms and legs weak … and on account of his chest and lungs must be restrained from too violent or too prolonged exercise, as well as from sudden transitions from heat to cold.”[12] Hoping to arrest any illness, protect Napoleon II’s health, and achieve lasting well-being, Staudenheim prescribed prudence in all things, which meant Napoleon II was to avoid violent exercise, liquor, injurious foods, dancing, and fencing. However, the boy was not one to be coddled or regulated. He strongly opposed any prudent measures as he considered such measures incompatible with his future career as a hard-charging soldier.

Staudenheim died in May of 1830 and an Italian-Austrian physician Johann Malfatti, took over 19-year-old Napoleon II’s medical care. Malfatti suspected Napoleon II was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis) and like his predecessor instituted prudent measures, something Napoleon II continually refused to follow. However, despite his ongoing health problems, his career as a soldier was progressing. Napoleon II was promoted to major in the summer of 1830, several months later lieutenant colonel, and on 16 June 1831, commander of an Austrian battalion that consisted of 200 men.

After his promotion to commander, Napoleon II was visited by Malfatti. He discovered an exhausted military leader and immediately ordered Napoleon II to rest, but Napoleon II was having none of it. His lack of cooperation resulted in his health worsening: he acquired a fever and inflamed respiratory system. Malfatti confined him to two months of bed rest. The bed rest worked temporarily, but by January of 1832, Napoleon II was once again suffering from a fever, and, this time, Malfatti took drastic action and sent him to the Imperial Palace of Hofburg in Vienna to recover.

During his recovery, Napoleon II was occasionally allowed moderate exercise, which included going out for fresh air in a carriage or taking a horseback ride. Never caring to listen to his doctor’s orders, one April morning, he took an extremely long ride in a large public park called the Prater. Later, that same evening, he again went out in his carriage, which unfortunately broke down. He then found himself on foot attempting to walk home but was so exhausted and weak, he fell in the street.

The next day, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, and from that point forward, his health continued to worsen. There was talk that he should move to a warmer climate like Italy, but the ever cautious Metternich refused to allow him to move. By 3 June, Napoleon II looked emaciated and his fever and cough had grown much worse. No medical treatments instituted by Malfatti or the three Viennese physicians Malfatti had consulted with were helping. It quickly became obvious there was little they could do to stop the progression of Napoleon II’s disease. Thus, their patient continued to grower weaker over the next few weeks, which was reported by and newspapers.

Napoleon II - death

Napoleon II’s death. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Napoleon II and his mother had become estranged over the years, but on 24 June, she arrived, took him in her arms, and quickly discovered there was no hope for her son. A month later, on 22 July, around 4am, while the household was sleeping, news came that Napoleon II was taking his last gasps. The news was first delivered to Baron von Moll who had been taking care of all Napoleon’s needs but had been so exhausted, he had left a valet in charge. When Moll arrived at Napoleon II’s bedside, the young man cried out for his mother.

“Suddenly the Baron [von 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 … went to announce to the mother … 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.”[13]

Napoleon II -

Napoleon II. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

At the age of twenty-one, Napoleon II was dead. A few days, after his death, the Augsburg Gazette ran the following announcement referring to 22 July:

“This morning, at five o’clock, an easy death put an end to the painful existence of the Duke de Reichstadt, at the Palace of Schoenbrunn. Already on the 19th the symptoms of the last stage of consumption manifested themselves, and the physicians gave up all hope of saving him. … The corpse is to be interred in the imperial family vault on the 24th instant. Preparations were made immediately for the departure of his disconsolate mother for her Duchy.”[14]

Francis I wept bitterly at the death of his precious grandson and inscribed the following epitaph to his loving memory:

“To the eternal memory of Joseph Charles Francis, Duke of Reichstadt, son of Napoleon Emperor of the French and Maria Louisa, Archduchess of Austria, born at Paris March 20, 1811. In his cradle he was saluted by the name of King of Rome. He was endowed with all the facilities of mind and advantages of body: his stature was tall, and his countenance adorned with the charms of youth; his language was full of affability; he had shown extraordinary talents for the study and exercise of the military art. Being attacked by a disorder in the lungs, he was carried off by a most deplorable death at Schoenbrunn, near Vienna, the 22nd July, 1832.”[15]


  • [1] Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud: Together with the Journal Kept by Gourgaud on Their Journey from Waterloo to St. Helena (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1904), p. 152–53.
  • [2] C. F. de Méneval, Napoléon et Marie-Louise: Souvenirs historiques v. 1 (Amyot, 1844), p. 446–47.
  • [3] E. von Wertheimer, The Duke of Reichstadt (Napoleon the Second): A Biography Compiled from New Sources of Information (London: Bodley Head, 1905), p. 164.
  • [4] ibid., p. 206.
  • [5] ibid., p. 278.
  • [6] ibid., p. 287.
  • [7] The Spectator v. 95 (London: F.C. Westley, 1905), p. 870.
  • [8] E. von Wertheimer, p. 288–89.
  • [9] The Spectator v. 95 (London: F.C. Westley, 1905), p. 870.
  • [10] C. Sealsfield, Austria As It Is (London: Hurst, Chance, and Co., 1828), p. 142.
  • [11] E. von Wertheimer, p. 376.
  • [12] ibid.
  • [13] ibid., p. 419–20.
  • [14] Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, “Death of Young Napoleon, Duke of Reichstadt,” August 5, 1832, p. 14.
  • [15] Bristol Times and Mirror, “The Duke of Reichstadt,” September 23, 1867, p. 4.

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