200 years ago today, in the morning of 20 March 1811, Paris reverberated with 101 gunshots announcing the birth of the longed-for heir to the imperial throne. In 1809 Emperor Napoléon I had divorced Empress Joséphine as she was unable to give him the heir he felt the Empire needed in order to survive him and in her place he had taken as his wife Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. The birth of their first child nearly a year after the wedding was however complicated and the infant remained their only child.
Born at 8.20 a.m. at the Tuileries Palace, the Prince Imperial was given the names Napoléon François Joseph Charles and the title King of Rome. He was christened in Notre-Dame on 9 June 1811.
The birth of the heir might in hindsight be considered the high point of the First Empire. The decline began already the following year with the disastrous Russian campaign and in April 1814 Napoléon I was forced to abdicate and go into exile. Empress Marie-Louise fled to Vienna, taking her son with her, and the former Emperor never saw his wife or his son again.
At the end of his second reign, the so-called Hundred Days, Napoléon I abdicated on 22 June 1815 in favour of his son, who then became Emperor Napoléon II. But he remained in Vienna and his short reign came to an end on 7 July, when the fugitive Louis XVIII was again proclaimed King of France.
The former Napoléon II was renamed Franz and given the title Duke of Reichstadt by his maternal grandfather, Emperor Franz I of Austria. He lived out the remainder of his life at the Austrian court, where he was kept under surveillance and generally encouraged to forget everything about his French past, which he refused to do.
The Duke of Reichstadt died from tuberculosis at Schönbrunn Palace on 22 July 1832, aged only 21. In December 1940 his mortal remains were, on the orders of Adolf Hitler, brought to Paris and interred in the crypt where his father had been laid to rest after his remains were brought back from St Helena a hundred years earlier.
The portrait of the King of Rome wearing the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour was commissioned in 1812 from François Gérard by Empress Marie-Louise, who had it sent to her husband in Russia. It arrived on the eve of the Battle of Moskowa and the Emperor had it put on display outside his tent to inspire his troops. Today it is to be found in the Musée Napoléon Ier at Fontainebleau Palace.