The long and winding story of Napoléon's son, French dreams and a Romantic embroidery.
Very occasionally we come across French antique pieces where the backstory is so entwined with European history we feel we have to share the research!
Everyone knows about Napoleon- Corsica, Emperor, Moscow, Waterloo...I'm of that era where boys were still raised on tales of Nelson's heroism and Wellington's guile. Most people will know Napoleon's first wife Josephine. However only a few outside the Francophonie may know of his second wife, Marie Louise, daughter of the Emperor of Austria and the son she bore Napoléon in 1811. As the only legitimate son of Napoléon I, he was constitutionally the Prince Imperial and heir apparent to the greatest Empire in Europe.
Only three years after his birth, the First French Empire collapsed. On 4 April 1814, Napoléon I abdicated in favour of his three-year-old son. After the failed resurgence in 1815 Napoléon abdicated again. This time Napoléon II became titular Emperor from 22nd June to 7th July 1815 when Louis XVIII was installed as king restoring the Bourbon dynasty. Young Napoleon II was exiled and there followed a revolving door period of French history for many decades, where the nation kept a low international profile while it rebuilt itself. Napoléon II grew up in Austria, calling himself Franz (his full name being Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte) though his official title was Duke of Reichstadt. By 1820, Franz had completed his elementary studies and begun his military training, learning German, Italian and mathematics as well as receiving advanced physical training. His official army career began at age 12, in 1823, when he was made a cadet in the Austrian Army.
Portrait by Leopold Bucher
His budding military career was a source of some fascination to those concerned over his possible return to France. However, he was allowed to play no political role and instead was used by Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich in bargaining with France to gain advantage for Austria (Metternich himself is one of the most fascinating men of a fascinating epoch, but that's another story). After much consternation and delay, young Napoléon was finally given command of a battalion in 1831. In 1832, he caught pneumonia and was bedridden for several months. His poor health eventually overtook him and on 22 July 1832 Franz died of tuberculosis at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna aged only 21.
Without children, the the Napoleonic claim to the throne of France passed to his cousin, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who would later successfully restore the empire as Napoléon III in 1848. In the interim, parts of France hankered for a return of the Emperor's son. Often referred to as King of Rome, one of his given titles, his legitimate authority through bloodline was undisputed amongst followers of his father. Franz's death at the age of 21 was almost a Romantic one. Raised an orphan in a foreign land, used as a political pawn in a gilded prison, never able to assume the power he could have inherited, his short life must have been an unhappy one. Even in death, he was a tool. One of Franz’s tutors, Jean-Baptiste Foresti, wrote to the boy’s governor, a few days later.
"I am quite of your opinion that it is far better for the poor Prince to have passed into a quieter world. His entire position was so artificial, so constrained, so unnatural, his character so perplexing and incomprehensible, his dangers so many, that contentment and true happiness were impossible for him in this life. On the other hand, the loss to the State is all the greater, as people are now beginning to realise. Such a guarantee against the wanton aggression of foreign Powers we are never likely to possess again."
In his last days Franz himself said: "Must I end so young a life that is useless and without a name? My birth and my death – that is my whole story."
Many of his French followers were Bonapartists, lovers of an ideal of strong revolutionary leadership by someone above party, class or faith allegiance and who lives (by the sword) for the people. It was a minority tendency amongst peasants and the lower middle classes who had done well from the Revolution but even so it was an idea that much later would obsess Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. This all leads up to this antique embroidery piece:
It's a quite detailed French antique embroidery of our tragic hero on his deathbed. He is depicted as beautiful and serene in death, attended to by angels receiving him to heaven with a floral crown. On the back a previous owner has hand written a short biography in pencil under the title "Roy de Rome" the old French for "King of Rome", which may give a clue to the author's political inclination. While he lived, Napoleon II possessed what some saw as legitimate claims to sovereignty over various territories, so much so that both his name and his claims were never far from the minds of European leaders as they vied to promote their own interests over and against others'. As long as he lived, his claims could not be ignored and in this sense he helped forge Europe.By historical standards Napoléon II was a marginal figure, a footnote in history. Almost forgotten... save for our antique embroidery.