by Scott Mehl
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoleon III of the French
Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, was the last monarch of France, reigning from 1852 until 1870. He was born Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (but typically known as Louis-Napoléon) in Paris on April 20, 1808. His parents were Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland (younger brother of Emperor Napoleon I) and Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Emperor Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais). He had two elder siblings:
- Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte (1802) – died in childhood
- Napoléon Louis Bonaparte, King Louis II of Holland (1804) – married Charlotte Bonaparte, no issue
Following Emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the subsequent Bourbon Restoration, all members of the Bonaparte family were forced to leave France. Louis-Napoleon and his mother settled in Switzerland, where Hortense purchased Schloss Arenberg. Louis-Napoleon studied for some time in Augsburg, Bavaria, and developed a slight German accent which would remain for the rest of his life.
In 1823, the family moved to Rome, and Louis-Napoleon became involved with the Carbonari, fighting against Austria’s presence in northern Italy. Forced to flee in 1831, he soon made his way back to France, traveling incognito with his mother – using the name Hamilton – and arrived in Paris on April 31, 1831. In a secret meeting, the French King Louis-Philippe permitted them to remain in Paris, provided they remain in cognito and that their stay was brief. However, their identities were soon discovered and then were forced to leave the city just a week later, making their way back to Switzerland.
He joined the Swiss Army and began writing about his political views. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in October 1836, King Louis Philippe demanded that he be turned over to France, but the Swiss government refused as he was a Swiss citizen. He later traveled to London, Brazil and New York, and returned to Switzerland in the fall of 1837 to be at his mother’s deathbed. After Hortense’s death on October 5, 1837, Louis-Napoleon spent some time at Schloss Arenberg before returning to London the following year. He soon began plans for another attempt to take the French throne. Sailing to Boulogne in 1840, he was quickly arrested. A quick trial took place and he was sentenced to life in prison in the fortress of Ham. While imprisoned, he spent much time writing – publishing essays and articles in numerous newspapers and magazines throughout France. Still hoping to fulfill his quest to claim the French throne, he managed to escape from Ham in May 1846. While renovations were being made to his cell, he disguised himself as one of the workers and walked right out through the main gates. Following his escape, he quickly made his way back to England. The next month, his father died, leaving Louis-Napoleon as the sole heir to the Bonaparte dynasty.
The French Revolution of 1848 led to the abdication of King Louis-Philippe, and the declaration of the Second Republic. Louis-Napoleon quickly left for France, while the deposed King went into exile in England. Ignoring his advisers who urged him to cease power, Louis-Napoleon instead declared his loyalty to the Republic and returned to London where he closely watched events unfold in his homeland. In September of that year, he was elected to the French National Assembly and returned to Paris as the country prepared to elect the first President of the French Republic. He immediately threw his hat into the ring, and on December 20, 1848, was declared the winner of the election. Taking the title Prince-President, Louis-Napoleon took up residence at the Élysée Palace.
After a failed attempt to change the law which would have required he step down at the end of his 4-year term, Louis-Napoleon soon saw a chance to take power by force. In December 1851, with the support of several military generals, Louis-Napoleon’s forces took control of the national printing office and newspaper offices. Posters were quickly put up announcing the dissolution of the National Assembly, the return of universal suffrage, and new elections. Quickly overpowering his opponents, Louis-Napoleon established himself as the sole source of rule within France – supported by a referendum held in December 1851, in which the overwhelming majority of voters agreed to his claiming of power.
Not content being simply a Prince-President, he arranged for the Senate to schedule another referendum to decide if he should be declared Emperor. On December 2, 1852, following an overwhelming vote in his favor, the Second Republic ended and the Second French Empire was declared. Louis-Napoleon took the throne as Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. He quickly made the Tuileries Palace his official residence.
After being turned down by Princess Carola of Vasa (daughter of the deposed Swedish King Gustaf IV Adolf), and Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (a niece of Queen Victoria), Napoleon III found his future bride – Eugénie de Montijo, Countess of Teba and Marquise of Ardales. The two had first met in 1849 at a reception at the Eylsée Palace. Just weeks after becoming Emperor, Napoleon announced the couple’s engagement, and they were married a week later. A civil ceremony was held on January 29, 1853 at the Tuileries Palace, followed by a religious ceremony on January 30, 1853 at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. They had one son:
- Napoléon, Prince Imperial (1856) – unmarried, died in 1879 while fighting in the Anglo-Zulu war
The early years of Napoleon’s reign saw a very heavily censored press, and a Legislature which was almost unanimous in their support. By the early 1860s, the censorship had been eased and a more liberal regime emerged. The Emperor improved conditions for the poor and made sure that education was mandatory and free for all French citizens. He promoted industry and banking, developed the rail system throughout France and worked to build strong political and economic relationships with the United Kingdom and other allies throughout Europe.
In July 1870, France entered the Franco-Prussian War. Without significant allied support, and with unprepared and limited forces, the French army was quickly defeated. Emperor Napoleon was captured at the Battle of Sedan and quickly surrendered on September 1, 1870. As word reached Paris, the Third Republic was declared on September 4, 1870, ending – for the last time – the French monarchy. Emperor Napoleon was held by the Prussians in a castle in Wilhelmshöhe, near Kassel. It wasn’t until peace was established between France and Germany that he was released in March 1871, and quickly went into exile. Arriving in England on March 20, 1871, Napoleon and his family settled at Camden Place, a large country house in Chislehurst.
After falling ill in the summer of 1872, and undergoing two operations, Emperor Napoleon III died at Camden Place on January 9, 1873. He was initially buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Chislehurst, but in 1888, his remains were moved to the Imperial Crypt at St. Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, Hampshire.