L’AIGLON IS BORN
By: Pierre Driessen
It had been the worst of nights and the best of nights. The most powerful man in Europe, victor of numerous campaigns, had never felt this powerless. He could do nothing but stand by helplessly, waiting to let fate decide the outcome. The realization of his most longed for dream hung in the balance. On 20 March 1811, after much difficulty – success. The emperor of the French, had a son and heir.
Napoléon’s anxiety had been shared by all of France. As the moment of the Empress Marie-Louise’s deliverance grew nearer, excitement built. Parisians filled the streets and crowds gathered at the Tuileries Palace to await the news. As the cannonade announcing a birth began to fire, the people began to cheer. The number of gun shots signalling a girl or boy had been published in the newspapers. Twenty-one for a girl, one hundred for a boy. As the twenty-second shot was fired, the people went wild with joy.
The heir to the French empire was christened Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte in a private ceremony on 20 March 1811, at the Tuileries Palace. His birth had been difficult. The labour had been long and the doctors, Corvisart and Dubois, had feared both mother and child would not live. Faced with this possibility, Dubois asked Napoléon what he wished done. Should the mother or child be saved?
Napoléon faced with a dilemma, for he truly loved Marie-Louise, yet desperately wanted and needed an heir, asked Dubois:
“What would you do in a similar case if you were attending the wife of a citizen?”.
Dubois answered: “I should make use of the instruments.”
Napoleon replied: “Well then do exactly as if you were in the house of a tradesman in the rue Saint-Denis. Be careful of both mother and child, and if you can not save both, preserve the mother’s life for me.”
When Dubois returned to the delivery room, instruments in hand, Marie-Louise, exclaimed: “Because I am an empress, am I to be sacrificed.”
When the baby finally came, it appeared stillborn. Having been placed on the floor, so the doctors could attend the mother, he began all of a sudden to cry. Napoleon was ecstatic, both mother and child were well. The christening ceremony took place the same day.
His godmother was Madame Mère, Napoléon’s mother, arguably the fiercest woman in Europe. She was reputed to have the power to reduce kings and emperors to mere children. His godfather was emperor Francis I of Austria, the head of one of Europe’s oldest dynasties and father of Marie-Louise.
In bronzed copper
Above medals part of the series issued to commemorate the birth, show on the reverse the portrait of the new princeling, engraved by Galle after the drawing by Prud’hon. The obverse shows the conjoined portraits of the joyous parents, engraved by Andrieu. 15 mm – reference: Bramsen 1092
To celebrate the birth, Napoleon pulled-out all the stops and spared no expense. Extensive celebrations and many forms of publicity were planned. One of the most impressive of these can be seen in the number and variety of medals issued.
Vivant Denon, director of the Paris medal mint, in anticipation of the event had made extensive plans to issue a large series of medals. To expedite the process the obverses for the dies, featuring the happy father and mother, had been cut in advance. On March 21, the day after the birth, he wrote to the prince’s governess Countess de Montesquiou, to make arrangements for the likeness of the new born to be drawn. This was executed by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758 – 1823), the foremost portrait painter of France.
34 mm Bronzed Copper
41 mm Bronzed Copper
41 mm Silver
The various sizes in which the birth medals were struck
– reverse shows Napoléon François Joseph Charles facing right after the portrait by Prud’hon
– obverse shows the conjoined portraits of Napoléon and Marie- Louise
– in this part of the series, both faces of the medals were engraved by Andrieu.
– reference: top medal: Bramsen 1100 middle and bottom medals: Bramsen 1091.
The empress Marie-Louise was also prominently featured in numerous medals celebrating her motherhood. An Austrian princess, she had initially not been popular with the people. By providing the longed for heir, her popularity soared. Even the notoriously quarrelsome Bonaparte clan had to give her their grudging respect. On the medal to the right she is depicted as a Roman matriarch properly veiled, with her son resting in her arm.
King of Rome
Napoléon created the little prince King of Rome. His official title was “His Majesty the King of Rome”, it was to be the courtesy title of the heir-apparent to the Empire of the French. The political message of this title was unmistakable.
King of Rome was a variant of the ancient title Romanorum Rex (King of the Romans) held by the Imperator futurus (Emperor to be), having been elected ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, but prior to his coronation. The office and title of Holy Roman Emperor, although technically elected, had by the late 17th century de facto become hereditary to the Hapsburgs, rulers of Austria and much of south-eastern Europe. It carried prestige and at times influence over vast territories in the heart of Europe.
Napoléon, after having created himself Emperor of the French in 1804 and whilst rearranging the political map of Europe following his victories of 1805 – 6 over the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, created the Confederation of the Rhine. This confederation reshaped the political landscape of Germany and ended the raison d’être for the Holy Roman Empire. Facing facts, the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated in 1806 and created himself Emperor Francis I of Austria.
By naming his heir King of Rome, Napoléon proclaimed that he, his dynasty and empire were the legitimate successors to the legacy of Charlemagne, the mediaeval Holy Roman Empire and even further back in history that of ancient Roman. In fact, he placed himself and his dynasty above all other European rulers.
This upset the balance which had existed in European politics for centuries. It was also a bitter pill for these proud dynasties to swallow. They viewed Napoleon as an upstart, not part of their inner circle. For the time being they had to accept the situation; Napoleon held the trump card, the Grande Armée.
On a more intimate level and especially popular with the troops, the little prince was nicknamed l’Aiglon, French for ‘little eagle’. This was an allusion to the imperial eagle, symbol of the French empire.
41 mm bronzed copper engraved by Jouanin
reference: Bramsen 1099
An adorable little silver medal – obverse showing the new born King of Rome facing right. On the reverse are the personifications of the cities of Paris and Rome, capitals of the Empire of the French and the Kingdom of Italy respectively, both states created by Napoléon. The medal proclaims Napoléon’s son as heir to both. – 18 mm, reference: Bramsen 1102
The baptism was celebrated with pomp and ceremony, heavily laden with religious overtones, in Notre-Dame Cathedral on 9 June 1811. Dignitaries from all over the empire, its client states, allies and dependencies were present. It would prove to be the last grand festivity of Napoléon’s reign. Although personally he set no store in religion, Napoléon realized its power and usefulness. In 1801 via the Concordat with the Papacy, reversing Revolutionary policies against religion, he had rehabilitated religion and the Catholic Church back into French society. Bending it to his ends, he made it subservient to the interests of his regime. The ceremony at Notre-Dame provided his dynasty with the sanction of the Church – the aura and magic of religion. It provided further affirmation of his regime’s legitimacy.
Grande medal celebrating the baptism of Napoleon I’s son at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on 9 June 1811.
obverse: Napoleon I facing left, clothed in the imperial robes with the sword of state at his side. He is crowned as a Roman imperator with the laurel wreath. Behind him can be seen an ornate throne with an ‘ N ‘ encircled in a wreath. To the left is the baptismal fond, a laurel branch rests on a vessel. Against the foot of the fond’s pedestal rests a bible.
The main action depicted is Napoleon holding his son aloft. The scene serves four propaganda purposes:
– Napoleon’s legal acknowledgement of his son (like Roman custom and legal practice – a child was not considered acknowledged until the father took him into his arms, held him aloft before witnesses. This medal is a public declaration and makes all of France witness.
– to commemorate the baptism of the King of Rome
– to demonstrate, as symbolized by the laurel branch, the peace and prosperity to come, now that the succession had been secured
– to demonstrate the virility and permanence of the dynasty.
reverse: Two circles with a total of 49 ‘citadels’ representing the important or “bonnes villes” of the French empire. The largest ‘citadel’ is Paris, with Rome and Amsterdam directly below. The others are arranged alphabetically. As the legend states, this medal was given by these cities, at their expenses, to the emperor. It was presented by their mayors during their audience with Napoleon, following the parade celebrating the baptism. It symbolizes the unity and joy of the peoples of the empire at the birth and baptism of the heir.
section of reverse magnified to show the names on the ‘citadels’.
Medal particulars: dia: 68 mm, weight: 150 g, composition: bronzed copper, engraver: Andrieu, designer: Lafitte
This is one of the largest and heaviest contemporary Napoleonic medals struck. It was designed to impress by its shear size. Napoleon was presented with a striking in gold.
references: Bramsen 1125, d’Essling 1360, Julius 2462, Bank Leu 350.
The ruler of the French had long wanted a family life, a refuge from the political and military realities. He had tried to build this, unsuccessfully, with his first wife Josephine and her children, whom he loved. His grasping and never satisfied siblings were no help to this end either.
With his new wife, Marie-Louise, whom he seems to have genuinely loved, and now his son, it appeared he had what he wanted. Napoléon took to being a family man well. Some historians have argued that it made him soft and ultimately contributed to his downfall. This may be so, but it shows his human side.
Napoleon’s relationship with his son was a tender one. He genuinely adored him. Unlike most other European rulers, whose domestic lives can at best be described as dysfunctional, Napoléon tried to create a real family life. He took an active part in his son’s upbringing. The ruler of Europe, master of the battlefield, rolled on the floor with his son, played tricks on him and teased him about not eating his spinach. The little prince was allowed to play in his father’s study, while matters of state were discussed and campaigns planned. He met and perhaps sat on the knees of the battle hardened marshals of France, whom had built the empire.
The succession was secured. The dynasty appeared firmly entrenched. He had married into the most illustrious European royal family. The future looked bright. This would prove to be illusory. The domestic bliss was not to last. Events would soon overtake and alter everything. All was to be taken away.
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-57 Issue-02