Roi de Rome

This post is about the only legitimate  son of Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, entitled Roi de Rome. Before his birth, the French senate gave him this title in which there are echo’s of the famous Roman empire but also contemporary motives concerning the diminishing influence of the pope. Already during his Italian campaign Napoleon had conquered the former papal states and forced an agreement in 1801. However tensions rose again and the pope excommunicated Napoleon who responded by invading the Vatican and took the pope as a prisoner to Paris.

Despite being the only legitimate child, it was certainly not Napoleons first or only child. Among his maîtresses Napoleon had at least two other sons. The first one is Leon, born on december 13 1806. It proved that Napoleon was fertile and that Josephine had to be infertile. The mother was a young woman, Eleonore, who served in the household of Napoleons sister Caroline. Caroline hated Josephine and arranged for Eleonore to become a mistress for Napoleon. Her beauty was also noticed by Carolines husband marshall Joachim Murat who also kept her as a mistress. The name Leon was chosen because it appeared both in the name of the father and the mother. He was given a pension and had a rather spoiled life in which he gambled and tried to use his descendance as a means to loans and funds. He died at the age of 74.

           portrait of a lady, said to be Louise Catherine Eléonore Denuelle de la Plaigne, seated, with her son, artist unknown

Another son of Napoleon was born on may 4 1810 from his Polish mistress, countess Marie Walewska. This son was named Alexandre.  Countess Walewska was pregnant when she accompanied Napoleon during a stay in Vienna. Napoleon asked her to return to Warsaw for the birth. History made a ironical turn when the later Roi de Rome was sent to the same palace in Vienna to continue his life without Napoleon. Alexandre grew up to become a diplomat and served as a ambassador for France and even became minster of State in 1860 during the reign of his uncle Napoleon III.

The marriage of Napoleon and his first wife Josephine was unstable from the beginning and the fact that Josephine proved to be infertile, was the final reason Napoleon asked for a divorce in 1810. He arranged a marriage with Mary-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Emperor. In doing so he hoped to secure his empire for his own bloodline and to be recognized by other European royal dynasties.  Josephine was devastated as shown in this painting of Laslett John Pott.

Napoleons farewell to Josephine, Laslett Johnn Pott

Napoleons new bride proved to be fertile. She was pregnant within a year but the birth of the Roi de Rome was more complicated than getting pregnant. It was managed by dr Antoine Dubois who in the early morning of  20 march 1810 discovered that the fetal position was abnormal. The Roi de Rome had taken a transverse position which would prevent a normal delivery. He speeded to Napoleon to inform him over this news. Napoleon, who took a bath, responded that in an event of a crisis, the doctor had to choose the life of the mother instead of the child. Also he tried to comfort Dubois by stating that he should forget that his wife was the empress and instead to imagine she was just the wife of an ordinary merchant. Dubois managed to turn the child in a vertical position but the face presented upwards instead of downwards. This was still a difficult position to deliver. Although the use of a forceps was increasing among obstetric doctors, this could result in maternal death in a time without antibiotics. In fact ordinary midwives who did not use instruments, had a lower maternal death rate than expensive physicians. This was a huge dilemma for the obstetrician. Only a few years later, the British obstetrician who delivered the British princess Charlotte chose not to interfere with a forceps resulting in a protracted delivery in which mother and child died and the doctor ultimately performed suicide. However, Dubois chose to use the forceps and the Roi de Rome was born but looked stillborn. For seven long minutes there was no visible breathing. After that, the child started to gasp and cry after which Napoleon broke the silence in the room and took his child to present it to attending dignitaries. Dubois was rewarded with a large sum of money and the title of Baron.

The Roi de Rome was surrounded by a huge staff. The head of the household was Madame de Montesquiou, nicknamed Madame Quiou by the little Francois. When appointed by Napoleon she was told :  “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.”

Other members of the staff were a team of wet-nurses to breastfeed the child. One of them was spotted by general Bertrand because of her healthy appearance  : madame Auchard. The others were recruited from 116 applicants.  Then there were three lullaby nurses among which madame Marchand. She was also a favorite of the Roi de Rome, nicknamed Cha Cha, and she followed him after the exile of Napoleon to Vienna. Napoleon was very fond of his son and when he was not on duty, the governess Madame de Montesquiou, brought him every morning to have a moment with his father. This scene was painted by Menjaud in which both madame Quiou (center) and madame Auchard are depicted (far right).


One of the most iconic portraits of the Roi de Rome was made by Gerard. It was sent as a surprise gift to Napoleon when he was in Russia. And Gustave Bettinger also used it in his painting of Napoleon who was exiled to Elba.

           Portrait de Roi de Rome, Francois Gerard, 1811


    Napoleon displaying the portrait of his son, The King of Rome to his troops before the battle of Borodino, Hippolyte Bellangé


Napoleon Contemplating A Portrait Of The King Of Rome Before His Departure For Elba, 1814, Gustave Bettinger

Gerard also made a portrait of Mary Louise and the Roi de Rome. The little boy is surrounded by imperial symbols. Prud’Hon Pierre Paul chose a more idyllic surrounding were the young baby sleeps like a Roman mythological figure.

                                       Marie Louise Empress Of France With Her Son Napoleon II King of Rome, Francois Gerard, 1813


1811 --- by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon --- Image by © The Gallery Collection/CorbisPortrait du roi de Rome, Prud’Hon Pierre Paul, 1811

Henriette Ward depicts a special scene in which Napoleon presents his child to Josephine which must have been painful for Josephine.

First interview of the divorced empress Josephine with the king of Rome, Henriette Ward

The growing up of the young Francois was a popular theme in the post Napoleonic era. Instead of heroic war-scenes or mythological exaggerations, the human and down to earth side of Napoleon was emphasized. Francois Flameng chose a scene from the castle St Cloud, one of the places were the Roi de Rome stayed a lot. In the background a special carriage with two goats is shown, which was a gift from Napoleons sister Caroline.

Napoleon I and the King of Rome at Saint-Cloud in 1811, François Flameng, 1896

Laslett John Pott puts an old grenadier of the imperial guard in the role of baby nurse.

The King of Rome and his Nurse, Laslett John Pott, 1894  

And Jules Girardet shows the young boy parading as a soldier.

The First Parade Of Napoleon II, King Of Rome, Jules Girardet

When Napoleons empire was further weakened after his Russian failure, he finally had to fight the sixth coalition among which Russia, Prussia, the United Kingdom and Austria in 1814. He left his wife and son in Paris on January 24 to command his army. He would not see them again. Mary Louise and the Roi de Rome escaped Paris on 28 march 1814 and despite her wish to be united with Napoleon on Elba, she was sent to her fathers court in Vienna. The Roi de Rome became an Austrian prince, Francois became Franz and during the rest of his life he was raised to be an Austrian army officer. His last title became Duc de Reichstad.

Not knowing, he was declared Emperor of France by his father on his initial abdication at april 4 1814, but Napoleon was forced to  abdicate more explicit two days later and to refrain from all hereditary claims. Napoleon did the same again after his defeat in Waterloo in 1815. The temporary government did not take much notice of this claim and did not formally recognize Napoleon II but in the history books the reign of Napoleon II  lasted 20 days (between 22 June and 7 July, 1815).

Nap-receis_50 (1)Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte Roi de Rome, duc de Reichstadt,  Moritz Daffinger

Franz Duke of Reichstad, followed a military career in which he was helped by his grandfather. He became sick in 1832 with respiratory problems which turned out to be tuberculosis. He died at the age of 32 in the presence of his mother. Fully aware of the dramatic setting of his short live he spoke the words : must I end so young a life that is useless and without a name? My birth and my death – that is my whole story.


But even after his death, his story did not end. Adolph Hitler ordered in 1940 his remains to be transferred from Vienna to Paris to be united with his father after all. But his heart stayed in the heart crypt in Vienna were all the hearts of the Habsburg family were buried. So the Roi de Rome had divided his love, life and even his deceased body between his motherland Austria and his fatherland France.