Dear Straight Dope: Everybody’s heard of Napoleon, of course, and Napoleon III was pretty famous too (mostly for being a total fool). My question is, was there a Napoleon II? Or was he Napoleon, Jr.? Sam Larson
SDStaff Dex replies:
There was indeed a Napoleon II, but he was not widely known by that title, except by devout Bonapartists. He was Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles, Duke of Reichstadt, the only son of Napoleon I (the one everybody’s heard of ) and Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Parma. He was born March 20, 1811, in the Tuileries palace in Paris, at the time that his father ruled Europe (I oversimplify here, or we’d never get to the punch line). Whoa, you say, what about the very famous Josephine, wife of Napoleon? Alas, she had grown old,he was tired of her, and–probably most critical — she had given Napoleon no heir. He was anxious to establish an enduring dynasty. He had placed his brothers and cousins on various thrones throughout Europe, he needed a son to carry on. Although it was regretted by the people, Josephine was dethroned, and Napoleon married Marie Louise, daughter of the Emperor of Austria, in 1810.
She did not disappoint, their son was born about a year later, and the infant was named King of Rome (following the analogy of the heirs of emperors of the Holy Roman Empire).
Of course, three years after that, Napoleon’s empire had crumbled (April 1814). Napoleon abdicated in favor of his son, but events prevented the reign of Napoleon II from being more than titular. Napoleon was exiled to Elba; Marie-Louise and son went to Vienna. A great congress met in Vienna with representatives from all of Europe to try to redraw the national boundaries that Napoleon had so blithely erased. They had hardly begun when news came that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was at it again.
He landed on March 1, 1815, and the famous Hundred Days saw him become master of France. Then came the Battle of Waterloo of June 18, 1815, which saw his final defeat and abdication. He was exiled to St. Helena, where he was treated as prisoner of war, and died in May 1821.
Now, back to Napoleon’s kid. In the settlements of 1814 and 1815, the European Powers opposed any title or claims on the part of the little prince. He remained at Vienna, a pawn in the complex games of European politics … of whom one mastermind was Prince Metternich of Vienna. On occasion, Metternich brought up the name of Napoleon II, but to accomplish his own ends. On other occasions, he was championed by the supporters of Italian unification (for his role as son of the Duchess of Parma); and every so often, the malcontents in France would use his name to discourage the French Bourbon monarchy (restored after the defeat of Napoleon).
In November 1816, the court of Vienna informed Marie Louise that her son could not succeed to her title as ruler of Parma; this decision was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris of 1817. The title “Duke of Reichstadt” was given to Napoleon Jr. in 1818, as sort of a consolation prize. Thus, Napoleon I, who once averred that he would prefer his son be strangled rather than be brought up as an Austrian prince, lived to see his son reduced to a rank inferior to that of the Austrian princes.
Napoleon II — well, whatever he should be called — was described as precocious, volatile, passionate, and fond of military matters. He indulged heavily in physical exercise, but was described as “weakly.”
In 1830, when there was widespead upheaval in France, the French Bonapartists thought of Napoleon II. However, Metternich had no intention of inaugurating a Napoleonic revival.
The only child of Napoleon I died on July 22, 1832, from “weakness of the chest.” Whatever the heck that means.
And so his cousin Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the headship of the Bonaparte family. Louis-Napoleon was been born on April 20, 1808, the third son of the brother of Napoleon I, Louis Bonaparte (who was King of Holland at the time). His two older brothers died, one in infancy and one in 1831. So the future Napoleon III was the nephew, not the grandson, of the first Napoleon.
The nomenclature is sticky. Even today, the British tend to refer to Napoleon I as “Bonaparte,” by his last name, not recognizing his Imperial title. Most of Europe refused to recognize the title Napoleon II, so the son of Napoleon is officially Duke of Reichstadt. Obviously, however, Louis-Napoleon (as an ardent Bonapartist) DID recognize Napoleon II, and so took the title Napoleon III when he was proclaimed Emperor of the French in 1852.
The rest is history. Well, it’s all history, for that matter, but you know what I mean.
SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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