At Last, Napoleon Gets an Heir: March 20, 1811

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


There was another obstacle to Napoleon’s imperial dream—should he die, he had no heir to succeed him. An heir was necessary if his empire and all its reforms were to survive him. His marriage to Josephine had been childless and, as the years passed, Napoleon realized this would not change. In 1809, Josephine was 46 years old and probably beyond her time of childbearing.


Divorce of the Empress Josephine, by Henri Frédéric Schopin

So it was that, as the years passed, Napoleon thought more and more about divorcing Josephine and marrying a woman who could bear him children. One problem was that the pope had blessed their marriage—and, as several priests and bishops told Napoleon, a sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved. Napoleon, however, thought that such rules did not apply to him, because he was the emperor, and the good of the empire depended on his having an heir. Yet, even when he had convinced himself that he could obtain a divorce, Napoleon hesitated. He was still deeply attached to Josephine and did not want to part from her.


Prince Klemens von Metternich

After the signing of the Treaty of Vienna, Napoleon returned to Paris determined to carry out his plan of divorcing Josephine. He had decided that he would marry a Habsburg princess—the daughter of Emperor Franz I, the 17-year-old Archduchess Maria Louisa. The Austrian court welcomed such a marriage, for it went along with the schemes of the clever Austrian minister of foreign affairs, Prince Klemens von Metternich. Metternich wanted to break France’s friendship with Russia and bring Austria into an alliance with Napoleon. In doing so, Metternich hoped that eventually Austria would regain her power and influence at the expense of France.


Maria Louisa

So it was that, in December 1809, Napoleon divorced Josephine and began to prepare for the new marriage. According to French law, he and Maria Louisa would first be married in a civil ceremony, after which a Church ceremony would follow. Napoleon wanted the religious ceremony to be a grand affair. His uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, would preside; and, the emperor expected, the 29 cardinals now living in Paris would be present. The Church, he insisted, should do what she could to give glory to her emperor.


Napoleon was quite pleased with his wife-to-be, who entered Paris in state in late March, 1810. The young Maria Louisa was attractive, modest, well bred, and innocent. The couple were married civilly on April 1 and then in a religious ceremony on April 2. The religious ceremony was splendid, though one thing marred it for Napoleon. Only 11 out of the 29 cardinals had taken their places by the altar.


Even before the wedding, Napoleon had known that Cardinal Consalvi and 12 other cardinals had refused to attend either the church or civil ceremony. These churchmen thought Napoleon was indeed married to Josephine, and so the union with Maria Louisa could be no real marriage. Napoleon’s vengeance on these prelates was swift. He said they no longer were allowed to wear their red robes in public or receive the pensions he had granted them (money that Cardinal Consalvi, for his part, had never accepted). In June Napoleon banished Consalvi and the 12 cardinals from Paris. They were to live in different places throughout France, under house arrest. Thus Napoleon’s marriage ended in driving another wedge between him and the Church.


Maria Louisa and the infant "King of Rome," Napoleon II, an 1811 painting by Joseph Franque

In the year and a half that followed his wedding, the emperor thought he could ignore old churchmen, for he was happy. Though Maria Louisa had at first loathed Napoleon as the enemy of her homeland and family, she grew to be fond of him. For his part, Napoleon was an attentive husband and happy in his consort. And on March 20, 1811, came the event that sent all of France into rejoicing—the birth of a son, Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, whom his proud father named the King of Rome, a title that had been given to the heirs of the medieval Roman emperors. Napoleon finally had his heir. When grown to manhood, the King of Rome, Napoleon II, could continue his father’s work of building a Europe of justice and peace united under a restored Roman Empire. Or so his father hoped, in those days of his brightest glory.


Music for an Empress' Uncle


In 1811, Ludwig Van Beethoven composed the Piano Trio, Op 97, which he dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria -- hence the trio's nickname, "The Archduke." Rudolph was the youngest son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II (1790-1792), and thus Emperor Franz I's brother and Maria Louisa's uncle. This recording of the trio, performed by Leonid Kogan (violin), Mstislav Rostropovich ('cello), and Emil Gilels (piano), was recorded in Moscow in 1956.




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