You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Why the remains of Napoleon III are better off in Britain

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 15/02/2023 Anthony Peregrine
Napoleon III holding court in the Grande Salon of the Louvre in 1867 - Bettmann/Getty © Bettmann/Getty Napoleon III holding court in the Grande Salon of the Louvre in 1867 - Bettmann/Getty

It is 150 years since Napoleon III died and was buried in England – and now the French want their last emperor back. Well, some of them do. Most recently, as reported in the Telegraph, Roger Karoutchi, deputy speaker of the French senate, has spearheaded a new campaign to have what’s left of the emperor – nephew of better-known Bonaparte – plus the remains of his wife and son, repatriated to France. Marine Le Pen agrees, as do some historians. 

Returning the bodies would, Dimitri Casali has said, “be an elegant gesture of reconciliation between England and France …. a second entente cordiale”. One might have thought that, what with strikes against pension reform, inflation, rocketing energy prices, an invasive Vladimir Putin and defeat by the Irish at Lansdowne Road over the weekend, the French had enough on their plates without exhuming decades-old imperial controversies.

But no. France never has so much dissension that it cannot add a little more on top. It goes without saying that opposition to the 150th anniversary “bring-them-home” campaign is manifold. Tellingly, it is lead by the emperor’s own descendants. They don’t want their ancestor’s remains moved. As Prince Charles Bonaparte has said in the past: “London is only two hours from Paris, so nothing is easier than to come to pay respects to the Imperial family.”

In truth, France’s last monarch – he ruled from 1848 to 1870 – isn’t so much in London as in Hampshire. Initially buried in Chiselhurst’s catholic church, the exiled ex-emperor’s ashes were transferred to the Imperial Mausoleum within St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough. The abbey was founded for this very purpose by Napoleon’s grieving widow, Eugénie.

The funeral at Chiselhurst's Catholic church - Getty /De Agostini Editorial © Provided by The Telegraph The funeral at Chiselhurst's Catholic church - Getty /De Agostini Editorial

That said, the Bonaparte view demands respect for three reasons. Firstly, the French aren’t to be trusted in the handling of monarchs, dead or alive. Secondly, if the family wants them to stay put in Farnborough, they probably should and, thirdly, Napoleon III had strong links with England. He visited frequently and for long periods, often on the run from some hare-brained political fiasco in France; he was esteemed by Queen Victoria and discoursed with folk like Disraeli and Dickens.

After his uncle Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Louis-Napoleon (as the then seven-year-old Napoleon III was known) flitted around Europe in exile with his mum. They settled in Switzerland, but the young fellow was educated in Bavaria (a slight German accent lasted a life-time). In the early 1830s, he and mum Hortense were in London and Tonbridge Wells, angling to gain power back in France while also, in Louis Napoleon’s case, relentlessly skirt-chasing. In 1838, he returned to Britain following a farcical attempted coup from Strasbourg. He wintered in Leamington Spa before moving to Carlton House Terrace in London to live life large with money left by his now-dead mother. He had 17 staff, and a permanent box at the Opera.

That said, it wasn’t all parties and petticoats. He toured factories and railway yards, absorbed liberal and even socialist ideas – and explained them in a series of books, pamphlets and articles. Far from the dandified airhead of popular repute, he was an intriguing, and serious, mix of imperial aspiration, free trader, capitalist moderniser and social reformer.

He also travelled around Britain, to Bath, to Leamington Spa – and to Southport. He stayed a while in what was then a new resort. The future emperor was apparently so struck by the (main) Lord Street with its gardens, arcades and glass and iron canopies that he used it as inspiration for the creation of Parisian boulevards when he finally gained French power. Whence Lancastrian claims that “Paris is the Southport of France”. 

Southport: the inspiration for Paris - Moment RF/George W Johnson © Provided by The Telegraph Southport: the inspiration for Paris - Moment RF/George W Johnson

Back in Britain in 1840, after another ludicrous coup attempt, Louis-Napoleon settled into King’s Street, London. He now took as mistress Harriet Howard, a bootmaker’s daughter. Her previous shifts as mistress elsewhere had left her with a fortune. This money financed new-lover Louis as, following the revolutionary turmoil of 1848 in France, he returned to Paris. This time, his arrival was legitimate, even applauded. He was voted into Parliament and later, rather unexpectedly, elected president by a landslide. Four years on, he overturned the democracy which had served him well, staging the coup which transformed him from president to Emperor Napoleon III.

In the early years of this Second Empire, modernising activity was furious. The new emperor had seen how far France lagged behind Britain in almost everything. He went turbo, ordering huge expansion of railways, mines and the merchant navy, plus an upgrading of the banking system to pay for it. He struck a free trade agreement with Britain – oh happy day – both to favour French exports and keep French producers on their toes via competition. Medieval Paris was cleared to make way for the broad Haussmannian boulevards (à la Southport) for better public hygiene and easier shooting of rioters. Water and sewerage systems were overhauled. Paris was a building site for years. Department stores sprouted. 

Meanwhile, the emperor ushered in universal male suffrage and the right to strike. He established libraries, a form of legal aid, clinics for sick workers and some 800 schools for girls. He launched a competition to find a cheap substitute for butter, which lead to the invention of margarine. Illiteracy tumbled, industrial output and exports boomed.

In 1853, Napoleon III married the beautiful Eugénie, noble daughter of a Spanish dad and mum with Spanish and Scottish roots. Eugénie favoured jewels, fine frocks and conservative Catholicism. “The great adventurer has become the prey of an adventuress,” wrote Lord Cowley, British ambassador to France. On producing an heir, Eugénie refused maternity gifts, urging that the money be spent instead on founding an orphanage. She also lost all enthusiasm for sex. Thus, the emperor rekindled his interest in Harriet Howard – she had followed him to France – and almost any other woman within reach. Eugénie remained, though, a lively hostess, as the imperial court moved from Paris to Vichy for the waters, and Biarritz for the summer. (The resort’s great Hotel du Palais was originally built for her… in the shape of a monumental “E”, for she was an exacting woman.) 

Things were going well abroad too: Crimean war won (with us, of course), Suez canal built, Italy united, French colonies greatly expanded, Victoria and Albert hosted in Paris, cementing rocky cross-Channel relations. Then, for reasons too complex to go into, the emperor declared war on Prussia. Big mistake. The Prussians pulled all the other German states in behind them to pummel the French into submission. Napoleon himself was captured. 

Biarritz's Hotel du Palais - Getty/Glow Images © Provided by The Telegraph Biarritz's Hotel du Palais - Getty/Glow Images

Back in Paris, the mob bayed their fury at the imperial disaster. Eugénie fled to England with the help of her American dentist. Released from German captivity, Napoleon joined her at Camden Place, Chiselhurst. As Paris went through the Commune – essentially, Parisian civil war – to emerge into the Third Republic, so the imperial couple were selling off Eugénie’s astounding collection of jewels to fund their final exile. These included a huge pearl called (I should have known this before) La Peregrina. Generations later, La Peregrina, set in a necklace, was bought by Richard Burton to adorn Liz Taylor.

Meanwhile, the now ex-emperor fruitlessly plotted a return to power, received Queen Victoria – who thought him “extraordinary” - chain-smoked and became more and more ill before dying on January 9, 1873. 

His son lived only another six years. He’d joined the British army and was killed, aged 23, in a Zulu ambush at Ulundi. Queen Victoria stumped up the cash for the Farnborough sarcophagi.  Eugénie survived for 40 years, moving to Farnborough – where she had St Michael’s Abbey built  – but also spending time in London (at Brown’s Hotel) and on the continent, often with her empress friend, Sissi of Austria. Both had villas at Cap Martin on the French Riviera. It’s likely they ran into Victoria when the queen was holidaying down there. She and Eugénie apparently got on handsomely.

And then, at 94, Eugénie died, in Madrid. She was brought back to Farnborough to join her menfolk in what Ronald Knox called “a little corner of England which is forever France, irreclaimably French.” Granted, St Michael’s monks have been English Benedictines since the 1950s, but the point remains. Why disturb things? Give or take colonial incidents, British and French have been on the same side on all major issues pretty constantly since Napoleon III’s time. The Imperial Mausoleum may be seen as a physical manifestation of that.

It is, anyway, highly unlikely that the 2023 campaign will be heeded by the French government, any more than preceding campaigns have been. The actual day of the 150th anniversary was commemorated last month by the monks with a ceremony at St Michael’s. According to Abbot Cuthbert Brogan, the event was attended by a small delegation from France “and the usual deafening silence from the French government.” It seems probable that Napoleon III and his immediate family will be in Farnborough for a while yet. 

Guided visits of St Michael’s Abbey and the Imperial Crypt run every Saturday at 3pm (; minimum donation £5). 

Sign up to the Front Page newsletter for free: Your essential guide to the day's agenda from The Telegraph - direct to your inbox seven days a week.


More from The Telegraph

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon