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Issue 12 – Assumption 2022

Brass Rubbings

Hints of Grandeur

On an empty tomb.


My daughter was christened in an empty tomb. Not a dank crypt or decaying vault, but a bright side chapel with beautiful stained-glass windows and a little altar set against the wall. The baptismal font stands in a narrow place between the rear wall and a large block of smooth marble embedded in the floor. The slab has carved lettering which declares to the world that a sarcophagus once stood on that very spot. You can still find an old black-and-white photograph on the internet which shows the sarcophagus still in position, its large bulk looming as though attempting to make up for the disappointing smallness of the church. Even the fencing for the chapel is impressive, with imperious golden Ns emblazoned on the railings which demark the little side chapel from the rest of the church. There are good reasons for these hints of grandeur. The sarcophagus and the chapel were built for Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. This was the burial place for one of the most powerful men of the nineteenth century. Now it is a place for the unknown and little ones, for those who are at the beginning of life.

On the opposite side of the church is a niche with another empty tomb. The sarcophagus is still there. The effigy of the former occupant rests in peaceful repose with hands clasped in prayer as on the tomb of a medieval knight. The body of Louis-Napoléon, the Prince Imperial of the Second French Empire and the only (legitimate) child of Napoleon III, once lay here. Two members of one of the most famous families in history were interred in this little English Catholic Church of Saint Mary’s in Chislehurst. Then, shortly afterwards, they were removed. The story of the burial and exhumation of those bodies is a tale of pain and loss, of a family tragedy and the fall of an empire. It is also the story of one woman, Eugenie: wife, mother, and Empress of the French.

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About the author

Neil Jopson