Little is now remembered of Napoleon IV, but his premature death rocked Victorian England and led to a remarkable outpouring of public sympathy. The Illustrated London News felt it important enough to merit a special edition.
Prince Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial came to live in England in 1870 after his father Napoleon III was overthrown following defeat and capture by Prussia at the battle of Sedan. The young Prince's mother Princess Eugenie had to flee from the Paris Commune, and joined him in a hotel in Hastings. They then settled in Chislehurst where Napoleon III joined them six months later when he was freed by the Prussians.
In the summer of 1872 the young prince was admitted to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. After the death of his father in January 1873 he technically became Napoleon IV, although he never used the title himself. In 1879 he went out with the British Army to South Africa to act as an observer in the Zulu War. Despite the efforts of the British military, under strict orders to shield him from danger, a reconnaissance party he had joined was ambushed by a group of Zulu warriors and he was killed.
The Prince Imperial's death was both tragic and highly embarrassing, particularly to Queen Victoria, by origin a German princess whose sympathies with the newly unified and triumphant Germany were well known, and who against the wishes of the young man's mother and against the advice of her Prime Minister had given the young prince permission to go to South Africa.
The Prince's body was transported back to England, and his funeral took place in a small Catholic church in Chislehurst in July 1879. The procession was witnessed by some 40,000 people. It must have been one of the largest seen in Victorian England.
This was an extraordinary event, or at least so it seems to modern eyes: the funeral of a 23 year old prince from a parvenu and twice ousted French dynasty, attended by royalty, representatives of the Cabinet, foreign dignitaries, members of the Catholic hierarchy and British military top brass.
The Catholic journal, The Tablet, waxed lyrical:
When it is said that seven batteries of the Royal Horse and Royal Artillery, with both their bands, mounted and unmounted, and that the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, all took part in the procession, it may easily be imagined that for one hour it slowly defiled along. The boom of the minute guns and the tolling of the church bells were all, save the mournful music, that broke the silence of the scene. Sorrow sat on the faces of all the crowd, who, grieving for the dead, mourned still more for his Imperial mother, for they recalled "that he was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow."(1)
Queen Victoria herself was in attendance, having previously made the tearful journey to Chislehurst to comfort Princess Eugenie. Victoria was fascinated by death, but royal protocol prevented her from attending the funerals of mere commoners, but this was different.
What is more the Prince Imperial was apparently her godson, although she had not actually attended the christening at Notre Dame in 1856, but had been represented by Josephine, Queen Consort of Sweden and Norway. The granddaughter of the Empress Josephine, a Catholic monarch in a Lutheran country, representing the Protestant grandmother of the future Kaiser Wilhelm II at a Catholic funeral in France: what a strange cosmopolitan world nineteenth century Royalty inhabited!
The Tablet emphasized the Royal connections:
The Prince of Wales wears the uniform of the Norfolk Artillery Militia, the Duke of Edinburgh that of the Scottish capital from which he takes his title, the Duke of Connaught of the Isle of Wight Artillery. The Duke of Cambridge wears the uniform of a Field Marshal; Prince Leopold that of an Elder Brother of the Trinity House, and the Crown Prince of Sweden, the great grandson of Bernadotte, the white tunic and quaint brass helmet of the cavalry of the Swedish Guards. In front of the carriage two artillerymen support an enormous wreath of violets, the offering of the City of Paris; on the Union Jack which totally covers the coffin lies a gilt laurel wreath placed there by the kindly hand of the Queen herself, and a violet cross formed of porcelain, the tribute of the Princess Beatrice. (1)
In the funeral procession was an unidentified old man who apparently had been present at the funeral of Napoleon I on St. Helena and more recently at the funeral of Napoleon III. Among the members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who attended was a Catholic Bishop, Monseigneur Las Cases, formerly Bishop of Constantine in Algeria, and a relative of the author of the Memorial de Ste. Helene.
There was of course a full turnout of the Bonaparte family and their supporters, including actress Sarah Bernhardt, the slight figure in deep mourning, amongst a group of brother and sister artistes of the Comedie Francaise. Among all the floral tributes was an enormous wreath of bay leaves, carried with difficulty by five men. This came from Ajaccio, in Corsica, from the cradle of the first to lie at the tomb of the last of the Napoleons (2).
There were two memorials to the Prince Imperial in Chislehurst, where he was apparently much loved. The main memorial bears words taken from his will:
I shall die with a sentiment of profound gratitude to Her Majesty the Queen of England and all the Royal Family, and for the country where I have received for eight years such cordial hospitalityThere is more surprisingly another in the chapel at Windsor.
This was initially suggested by the Dean of Westminster, but the British establishment felt that a memorial to a member of an exiled French dynasty ought not to appear in Westminster Abbey, and that it should more appropriately be located at Windsor to show the personal and private affection of the Royal Family towards the Prince Imperial. (3)
1. The Tablet
2. The Tablet, op. cit.
3. Chapel Archives and Chapter Library, Windsor