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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.

Eugenie looms large in the story of the Second Empire. Biographers have a tendency to fall in love with her and romanticize her glamorous yet tragic story. Others see her as a right-wing ogre who encouraged her husband to crush the free press and to protect the Catholic Church at all costs. There is no doubt that she was a celebrity in her time in the way that only those who marry into a royal house can be. For both her contemporaries and moderns, there is always a question looming over her story: how did she end up married to the Emperor Napoleon III, scion of the Bonaparte family?

There were a series of earthquakes on the day that Eugenie was born in Granada. Appropriately, as her Bonapartist father, Don Cipriano, had been on the losing side in the Napoleonic Wars, it was the fifth anniversary of the death of Napoleon I, May fifth, 1826. After the war her father had been placed under a form of loose house arrest, but, in the way of these things, by the 1830s politics had brought him back into the mainstream of national life. Eugenie loved her father. She loved riding out into the country with him. She enjoyed visiting gypsies in the hills and spending nights by a campfire so much she wanted to be a boy and for some reason believed that she would get her wish if she threw herself down a staircase. She attempted this method of transformation with survivable injury but no success.

Familiarity with figures such as Washington Irving and Prosper Mérimée came through Eugenie’s mother, Maria Manuela, who enjoyed a good salon as much as any aristocrat of the era. Maria was the granddaughter of a Scottish immigrant and had no fear of taking her children on extended trips abroad if the occasion demanded it. In nineteenthcentury Spain those occasions abounded, as the family would soon discover. A cleric was stabbed to death by a mob in Madrid one summer’s day in 1834, and Eugenie witnessed the whole affair from her window. Maria Manuela decided now was a good time for Eugenie and her sister Paca to be bundled off to France, away from the civil strife and dynastic wars of Spain. First a convent school and then a progressive “gymnase” were Eugenie’s educational establishments in Paris, whilst her home life was run by an English governess. Eugenie even had a brief stint in an establishment near Bristol in England, where she joined a fellow pupil, a homesick Indian princess, in a failed attempt to stow away on a ship bound for India. In the manner of schoolchildren throughout history her bright red hair led inevitably to Eugenie enduring the nickname “Carrots.” Whilst she found her hair an embarrassment in childhood, in adult life it was widely acknowledged as integral to her beauty, to the extent that when she became Empress the women of Paris dyed their hair red in imitation.

The troubles of Eugenie’s youth entailed more than witnessing murder or the affliction of cruel nicknames. One rumor whispered that as a teenager she had tried to commit suicide over love by drinking milk laced with the phosphorus from match heads. The story described how Eugenie was heartbroken when her sister became engaged to the Duke of Alba, a man with whom she was very much in love. As much as we can see into affairs of the heart from the distance of two centuries, it seems that love did not come easy for Eugenie, though it was not through a want of admirers.

When Eugenie did marry, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was already the President of France. She met him at a ball in the spring of 1849. Invitations to other, more intimate social occasions soon followed. With a long string of mistresses to his name, it’s likely the President wished to add Eugenie to the notches on his bedpost. She refused, so in the time-honored tradition of the denied man, the Emperor fell in love with her. By January 1853 he was writing to Eugenie’s mother asking for the hand of her daughter in marriage.

By this point President Napoleon had become Emperor Napoleon III, a transformation legitimatized in a national referendum. The marriage would be worthy of the grandeur of this Second French Empire. Crowds thronged the streets around Notre Dame, while the great and the good filled the cathedral, its interior colored and cushioned with decoration. Theater as much as ceremony, a political act as much as an act of love, it set the scene for Eugenie’s new life. She was known the world over as the most famous woman in France. Women imitated her style, and shared the latest gossip about the Empress. She was popular amongst ordinary people abroad as well as at home, and huge crowds gathered to welcome her on her state visit to London. But behind the fashion and the celebrity she also held real power; she influenced her husband and his government till the very end of his reign.

The snide comments and criticism could be endless. Eugenie even managed to cause outrage by her choice of holiday destination. As Empress, she continued to holiday as she had done in her single life: spending time in the small fishing village of Biarritz. Her presence created a new fashionable resort almost overnight. The Emperor clearly enjoyed his time there, and when he lingered with Eugenie her critics condemned her for keeping Napoleon from his state duties.

The couple’s only child, Louis-Napoléon, the Prince Imperial, was born in 1856. Around this time Napoleon began to take mistresses once more. It may have been due to his natural proclivity towards chasing women, or it could have been influenced by the doctors, who warned Eugenie that it would be wise to avoid becoming pregnant again. Whatever the truth, Eugenie never publicly expressed an opinion about the extra-marital affairs, though she was known to occasionally befriend her husband’s lovers.

Napoleon was a ladies’ man in private; in his public life, a dictator. He saw himself as a liberal autocrat in the mold of the first Napoleon. While his wife shared this view, they would disagree on just how liberal the regime should be, with the Empress tending to take the more authoritarian line. For Eugenie, as for her father, the ideals of the French Revolution were best controlled and channeled through the strong arm of a single authority, although aristocracy, for Eugenie, was an important counterbalance to hold centralized power to account. Part of the liberal face of imperial power included supporting public works. Napoleon III famously rebuilt Paris, whilst Eugenie visited hospitals during epidemics and supported prison reform. Eugenie also became a prominent voice for the Church. One of the attractions of monarchy for many ordinary Frenchmen was that it had been a bulwark against the excessive republicanism that had burned churches and butchered nuns. Eugenie certainly held strong views on the Roman Question, encouraging the Emperor to keep French troops in Rome for the protection of the Pope. When the Empire finally fell and French troops left, Victor Emmanuel II swiftly seized Rome, wiped the Papal States from history, and created a unified Italy.

But Eugenie did not just advise. On occasion she ruled directly as regent of France when her husband was away at war. Government legislation encoded this role: in the event of Napoleon III’s death, Eugenie would act as regent on behalf of her son until he came of age. But the Empire would be gone by the time this possibility came to pass. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 destroyed the Second French Empire, and the infamous defeat at Sedan led to the capture of Napoleon and his entire army. On hearing the news, Parisians, who always took the chance to demonstrate their republican sentiments, took to the streets and a new republic was swiftly declared. Eugenie fled to England, helped by her dentist. The Imperial family, escaping the sharpened teeth of a revolution, washed up in the unlikely Kentish village of Chislehurst.

Chislehurst in 1870 was a small place, with little to distinguish it from any other village in the Kent countryside. What it did have was a small Catholic chapel, walking distance from their new home, and a handy railway station at the bottom of the valley. The presence of the Imperial family changed the village forever. Not only are there the empty graves in the church, there is also a monument to the Prince Imperial (often mistaken for a war memorial) that graces the common and a road by the golf course that bears his name. But it was more than just monuments and nomenclature. The Imperial family made Chislehurst a fashionable place to live. Large houses for the wealthy and aspiring upper-middle classes were soon constructed in the area, and though many of them were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s, a handful still remain, converted into schools or flats. Chislehurst proudly used the family’s name to maintain its uniqueness and fight the all-consuming urban sprawl of London rolling into the countryside and absorbing hamlet after hamlet and village after village into a uniform suburbia.

Camden Place was the house chosen by Eugenie, and the exiled Emperor eventually joined her in early 1871, after peace had been agreed between the French and Prussian governments. While unhappy, they were never lonely in their exile. Queen Victoria and her son the Prince of Wales were two prominent visitors. However, nothing could disguise that to them this little, quiet country village was a symbol of their loss. Tragedy would now stalk them in Chislehurst, and of the three members of the Bonaparte family who arrived, two would soon be buried there.

Camden Place overflowed with Bonapartist visitors in 1871 and 1872. Gossip in the village said that French spies could be seen perched in the treetops outside the grounds, sent by the new republican government to keep an eye on the exiles. They need not have worried about a repeat of the escape from Elba, as Napoleon III died in early 1873. Seventeen thousand people walked past his body as it lay in state at Camden Place, whilst less than two hundred could fit inside the tiny church of Saint Mary’s. Twenty thousand mourners crowded the surrounding grounds for the funeral. The little side chapel built to house Napoleon’s sarcophagus was built in the French style, a symbolic contrast to the little English church built without the expectation of ever hosting a royal funeral.

The Prince Imperial was now Napoleon IV, a new emperor without an empire. Bonapartist rallies could still attract thousands, though the harsh reality was that France had done with Bonapartism forever. Monarchism remained a powerful force in French politics for decades, but its advocates looked towards other royal lineages such as the Bourbons or the Orleanists. Eugenie herself was ambiguous at best about her son’s involvement in politics and feared the ever-present danger of his assassination. In the event, tragedy would not strike due to French politics, nor would his death be due to his rank. His death would come from the hands of men who knew nothing of him and cared even less about the ideas of the Bonapartists. In 1879 the Prince Imperial managed to attach himself to the British army fighting the Zulus in southern Africa. Possibly due to British neglect or possibly due to the Prince Imperial’s naïveté—probably due to a bit of both—it was not long before he was killed by Zulu warriors in a skirmish. His body was brought back to England and buried opposite his father at Saint Mary’s.

Eugenie often said that she died in 1870, the year she arrived as a refugee in Chislehurst. But it was Eugenie’s husband and son who were now buried on English soil. Chislehurst was a place with nothing but the reminders of tragedy. Hoping to escape those memories, she set up home in Farnborough Hill in 1881 and left Chislehurst to return only for the annual requiem Masses for her family. Even those visits stopped once she moved the bodies to a mausoleum she built at Farnborough Hill; after that she only ever went back to Chislehurst once. The house she left behind, Camden Place, still stands today and has been home to Chislehurst Golf Club for over a century. The driveway is relatively discreet. It leads up to a car park which covers what would have once been the front lawn. Inside you can sit in dining rooms that once hosted the Imperial family and entertained well-wishers
and monarchs.

Meanwhile, the world moved on. By the dawn of the twentieth century, most of Eugenie’s old friends had died, and she found new friendships with a younger generation. This was a generation that did not remind her of what she had lost, nor had any memory of it themselves. To her extended family she was a grand dame who represented the glory days of the past and was the source and inspiration for good stories. She even reconciled herself to republican France after victory in the First World War avenged the humiliation of Sedan. She still received recognition, as when, after offering a wing of Farnborough Hill as a hospital for wounded soldiers, she earned herself an OBE. Yet the Great War also marked a clear break with her era. The Russian Empire became the Soviet Union, Austria-Hungary was dismembered, and the German Empire was no more. Democracy and self-determination (however haltingly) became guiding principles of the liberal world. In many ways she embodied the link between autocratic monarchy, aristocracy, and liberal nineteenthcentury values. By 1918 few were left who shared her vision. Instead, new dictators would arise, who rather than, as she saw it, attempt to channel revolutionary fervour like her beloved Bonaparte, would revel in all the destructive force of the unleashed energy of rebellion. If 1920 can be considered the start of the modern era, it seems fitting that it was in that year, on a trip to Spain and surrounded by her family, the old Empress passed away. She was returned to England and buried at Farnborough with her son and husband, where they all remain to this day.

Eugenie said she died the year she came to Chislehurst. For me I can say my life truly began there. Here Eugenie had buried her loved ones, while I found mine. I married my wife and christened my daughter in that beautiful old church in that suburb of London that pretends still to be the village of the Imperial family. Chislehurst will always hold a special place in my heart, but one of joy rather than pain.

Neil Jopson is a teacher and sometime writer who likes to live and wander in the past.

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