A Visit to Napoleon III

The last few years have seen a flourishing of interest in Napoleon III and the Second Empire. But while nearly one and a half million people a year visit the Hôtel des Invalides, where Napoleon I’s remains are located, only a handful visit the tomb of his nephew.

To reach the final resting place of the man who ruled France from 1848 to 1870, one must go to the town of Farnborough, England, 35 miles south-west of London. There, in a crypt below a neo-Gothic cathedral on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery, lie Napoleon III, his wife, and their son.

How the leader of the Second Empire came to rest in the middle of the English countryside is a story that involves religious belief, international politics and the tragic death of the Prince-Impérial.

Saint Michael's Abbey, Farnsborough
Napoleon III at Sedan by Wilhelm Camphausen

Napoleon III, a sick man at the head of a crumbling Empire, was captured by Prussian forces on the battlefield of Sedan on September 2, 1870. Within a few days, he was taken to Wilhelmshöhe Palace in Kassel, where he would be held captive.

Back in Paris, Empress Eugénie, who had been acting as Regent, fled Paris to the Channel coast on September 4th and was able to secure passage to the Isle of Wight. There she learned that her fourteen-year-old son, who had been on the front with Napoleon III, was safe in Hastings, on the south coast of England, where she joined him.

The two soon moved to London and found a home in Chislehurst, now in the borough of Bromley in south-east London. In March 1871, they were joined by Napoleon III, released by the Germans. The Prince-Impérial attended King’s College, London and then, in his father’s tradition of military studies, attended the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. Napoleon III died at Chislehurst in January 1873 during an attempt to remove a bladder stone that had reached the size of a pigeon egg. He was buried in the nearby Saint Mary’s Church.

The Prince-Impérial in Royal Artillery Mess Dress in Aldershot in 1875

After his father’s death, the  Prince-Impérial joined an artillery regiment, stationed at Aldershot. When the British, in January 1879, invaded Zululand, kicking off the Anglo-Zulu War, the Prince-Impérial begged to be sent to fight. It took the personal intervention of Queen Victoria on his behalf for him to be sent to Zululand, on the understanding that he was to be kept safe. The “plucky young man” however did everything he could to see action. On June 1, 1879, he was with a small party, imprudently deep in Zulu territory. The men were ambushed. As he tried to flee, the Prince-Impérial was killed by the assegai of his assailants.

The death of her son was a tragedy from which Empress Eugénie never recovered. In March, 1880 she made the trip to Itelezi Hill, in South Africa, to the place where her son was killed. On her return, she resolved to move out of the Chislehurst home and soon found a suitable house sale at Farnborough Hill, a place that was attractive to her because of its proximity to Camp Aldershot, of which her son had fond memories. She bought an adjoining property on which to build a suitable final resting place for her husband, her son, and herself. She decided to use that land to establish a religious community charged with the spiritual duties of looking after the tombs.

Eugénie’s first idea was to ask Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who among other things had restored the Château de Pierrefonds for her, to build the church at Farnsborough. But Viollet-le-Duc, who had resolutely taken cause for the Republic, demurred. So she selected Hippolyte Destailleur, an architect very popular with the French elite who was already building the sumptuous Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.

The church designed by Destailleur is dedicated to Saint Michael, protector of France, and appropriately in the Gothic style, with ribbed vaults, arched windows with tracery, and a rose. The dome, however, is more of a French Renaissance, no doubt in reference to the dome of the Hôtel des Invalides.

Church of Saint Michael's Abbey, Farnborough
Church of Saint Michael's Abbey, Farnborough

A side entrance on the lower level, to which Eugénie had the key, leads directly into a crypt. There, on the right, lies Napoleon III. Across from him is the tomb of the Prince-Impérial. Eugénie’s tomb was put between them after she died in 1920.

The Crypt at Saint Michael's Abbey, Farnborough
The tomb of Napoleon III

My thanks to Dom Anselm, the Abbot, and the community of Saint Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough.

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