Napoléon I, the Corsican General who brought Europe to her knees before his famous downfall at Waterloo in 1815, is one of history’s most notorious figures. Similarly notable is Napoléon III, whose defeat at Sedan in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war brought a definitive end to the French monarchy. Far more historically neglected, however, is Napoléon II – Le Roi de Rome – who briefly served as Emperor of the French amidst the tumult of 1815.
At the end of 1809, Napoléon I was at his apogee. After defeating the Austrian Empire at the Battle of Wagram and forcing them to sign the humiliating Treaty of Schönbrunn, all of Europe, save Britain, was subservient to France. However, despite his military success, Napoléon still had one key issue still to resolve: that of his succession. Two years previously in 1807, Napoléon I’s nephew and assumed heir, Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte, had died. His untimely death renewed Napoléon I’s urgent attempts to settle the succession by having a son.
While Napoléon I had remained devoted to his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (despite both having a number of affairs), it had become clear within a few years of their marriage that she could not bear her husband a child. Therefore, Napoléon reluctantly decided to divorce Joséphine “in the greater interests of the Empire”; their marriage was annulled in December 1809. Plagued by guilt, Napoléon allowed Joséphine to retain the title of Empress and gave her an annuity of two million francs as well as Le Château de Malmaison for her residence.
Having divorced his first wife, Napoléon now had to find another. Initially, Napoléon I considered Anna Pavlovna, the sister of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. However, Austria feared that it would become surrounded by two great powers (France and Russia) united by marriage, and thus Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, hastily proposed marriage between Napoléon I and Marie-Louise, daughter of Francis II, Emperor of Austria. By marrying into the Habsburg line – one of the great European families – Napoléon would finally have the royal legitimacy he craved. Moreover, he would cement his alliance with the Austrians, who had opposed him during the Napoleonic wars. He thus eagerly accepted Metternich’s suggestion.
Within two months of her marriage to Napoléon I in April 1810, Marie-Louise had become pregnant and, on 11 March 1811, she gave birth to Napoléon François Bonaparte. He was soon titled Le Roi de Rome and Prince Imperial. This first title, Le Roi de Rome (King of Rome) was particularly significant: heirs to the Holy Roman Empire had often been titled King of the Romans, and, in titling his son and heir as such, he was laying claim to the Holy Roman Empire’s ancestry and their dominant role in Europe.
Napoléon I was, understandably, ecstatic at the birth of his son, and the Imperial family doted over their heir. The young Napoléon was said to be highly intelligent and could reportedly read both French and German by the age of four. As may be expected, he was also obsessed with the military. Events in Europe, however, would prevent his accession to the throne.
Amidst anger at Russia’s failure to implement the Continental System (a trading embargo of Britain), Napoléon I invaded in 1812. He expected to defeat the Russian forces within a matter of weeks, yet the invasion would drag on for over five months. Napoléon did finally engage Russian forces at Borodino in September 1812, yet it was a Pyrrhic victory. Upon arriving in Moscow, Napoléon found the city deserted. That night, the city was set aflame by Russian patriots. Short of supplies and with the Russian winter fast approaching, Napoléon was forced to retreat back to France. Out of his original invading force of almost half a million, barely 10,000 soldiers returned home.
The allied powers smelled blood in the water; the Sixth Coalition was formed, with all of Europe now declaring itself against France. Even Austria, into whose royal family Napoléon had recently married, turned against France. Napoléon was forced to abdicate for the first time in April 1814. His wife and son, Le Roi de Rome, were sent to Austria, where they were placed under the protection of Emperor Francis II. Napoléon I would never see his family again.
The following year, in 1815, Napoléon I escaped from his exile on Elba and returned to France. On his return, a covert peace offering was made by both Metternich of Austria and the Russians: should Napoléon I abdicate in favour of his infant son, they would not go to war again. However, the once all-conquering general, instead of accepting the generous offer, read it as a sign of weakness. He pressed forward with his plan to retake Europe, but was decisively defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Austria and Russia had withdrawn their offer of peace, but Napoleon did then abdicate to his son. As such, Le Roi de Rome, an infant in Austria, temporarily became Emperor of the French for several weeks in the summer of 1815, although he was unable to exercise any of his power.
The allied nations, though previously happy to allow this outcome, had won the upper hand. They could choose the next ruler of France, and, fearing that Napoléon II could have been a puppet for his belligerent father, they chose to restore the Bourbon monarchy. Napoléon François Bonaparte’s title as both Emperor and Le Roi de Rome was stripped, and he was given the lesser replacement title of Duke of Reichstadt. Francis II surrounded him with German tutors, in the hope that he would forget his French heritage. Meanwhile, his mother, Marie-Louise, was sent away to Parma to rule the area as a Duchess. However, in 1816, she was informed that her son could not succeed her as Duke of Parma; there was no desire for another Napoléon to come to power in Europe.
He thus remained in Vienna with his grandfather, where he was tutored to become a military officer. He lived a highly sheltered life, rarely permitted to leave the Imperial Palace, and was used as a political pawn by Metternich. Reportedly, he expressed pro-French and pro-Bonaparte sentiments, and he asked to see action several times (although this was refused). However, he would do little of note in his life, as he fell ill with tuberculosis in 1832 and died in July of that year at the age of 21. His death was a non-event.
The story of Napoléon II was a curious one. He was not only born to greatness, but conceived for it, yet within four years of his birth the French Empire had collapsed, and his father was in exile on St Helens. Due to his Habsburg heritage, he could not simply be ‘removed’, but he served as a constant reminder of the havoc Napoléon wrought across Europe, and he represented a tangible threat to the security of the Bourbon monarchy. His death in 1832 certainly simplified the political situation in Europe, and there were few who missed him. Nonetheless, he played an interesting political role in Europe, and, as the journalist Henri Rochefort comically notes, he was arguably the greatest leader that France ever had: for during his few weeks as ‘Emperor’, he brought neither taxes nor tyranny nor war!
Zamoyski, A., 2018. Napoleon: A Life. Basic Books.