Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873) was the nephew and heir of the first Emperor Napoleon who fulfilled his dynastic ambitions in 1852 by ascending the French throne as Emperor Napoleon III on the 48th anniversary of his Uncle’s coronation. He holds the unique position as the first titular President of France and the nation’s last absolute monarch. Prince Louis Napoleon’s pedigree as Bonapartist heir was impeccable. His father was Emperor Napoleon’s brother Louis Bonaparte. His mother Hortense de Beauharnais was the only daughter of Emperor Napoleon’s first consort the Empress Josephine from a previous marriage.
When Napoleon fell in 1815 and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to the French throne, all members of the Bonaparte family were exiled. Prince Louis Napoleon rather rashly returned to France as a young man where he was immediately arrested and deported to England. From London and a house in Royal Leamington Spa, the Prince observed the political musical chairs in France that saw the Bourbon dynasty falter again and an Orleans king Louis-Philippe take the throne in 1830.
As pretender to the throne, Prince Louis-Napoleon repeatedly instigated uprisings and coup attempts but was unsuccessful largely through lack of funds and a disinclination by the French people to accept another dictator in lieu of a Republic. In 1840, the prince was incarcerated in a fortress in the Somme ostensibly to serve a life sentence. He escaped in 1846 using the time honoured trick of exchanging clothes with a peasant and returned to London.
It was in 1846 that the Prince first patronized Henry Poole & Co and made friends with its affable eponymous owner. Billeted at the Brunswick Hotel in Mayfair, Prince Louis Napoleon was to become Henry Poole’s first royal customer and would give Poole the first of the firm’s 40 Royal Warrants in 1858. According to company lore, Henry Poole contributed to a war chest that would finance Prince Louis Napoleon’s successful coup d’etat that saw him proclaimed Emperor in 1852.
A more likely story was that Prince Louis Napoleon met Baron Meyer de Rothschild at Poole’s Savile Row showroom and it was he who financed the coup with additional funds raised by the Prince’s mistress Harriet Howard. Not coincidentally, Miss Howard was previously mistress of celebrated jockey Jem Mason who was one of Henry Poole’s closest friends and most dashing models.
The Second Empire under Napoleon III was a golden era for Paris. The Medieval city was practically raised to the ground and rebuilt as a series of grand boulevards and elegant aristocratic townhouses in the Rococo revival style designed by Baron Haussmann. The Emperor married Spanish aristocrat Countess Eugenie de Montijo, who in 1856 gave him a son and heir styled the Prince Imperial. The Empress was a woman of exquisite taste and redecorated Queen Marie Antoinette’s apartments in the Tuileries Palace in Paris and the chateaux of Fontainbleu, Compeigne and St Cloud. She also reset jewels that belonged to Marie Antoinette and the first Emperor Napoleon’s wives the Empresses Josephine and Marie Louise.
Perhaps Napoleon III indulged Eugenie because he was an infamous philanderer, dandy and cad. In the early years of Napoleon III’s reign he stabilized the French economy, tempered colonial ambitions and refused to engage in costly foreign wars. ‘The Empire means peace’, he declared. By forming an alliance with England against the Russians in the Crimean War, Napoleon scored a diplomatic success not achieved by his pugnacious uncle. The Emperor and Empress were particularly close to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with each monarch visiting the other’s capital city in 1855 to celebrate Anglo-French victory against Russia in the Crimean War.
In 1858 the Emperor and Empress narrowly survived an assassination attempt outside Paris’s Opera Garnier when an Italian anarchist threw three bombs at their carriage. In the same year Napoleon III led the French army into Italy to support the Count of Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont and Sardinia, in battle against Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. Austria was defeated and territories including Milan returned to Italian rule. Emperor Napoleon demanded the return of Savoy and Nice as payment for his intervention.
In the latter half of Napoleon III’s reign, France became increasingly pugnacious and acquisitive. New Caledonia and Senegal became French territories and troops were sent to China, Korea, Japan, Indochina, Lebanon, Algeria and Mexico with varying degrees of success. In China, French and British troops infamously burnt the Chinese Emperor’s Old Summer Palace to the ground and looted the priceless contents. In Mexico, Napoleon III abandoned puppet Emperor Maximilian I (an Austrian Grand Duke) who was assassinated by firing squad.
The Second Empire collapsed when the Emperor failed in his attempt to defend the Austrian Empire against Prussia. The Emperor was captured at the Battle of Sedan in 1870 and deposed by the newly elected Third Republic of France. Napoleon and the Empress Eugenie fled Paris separately and reunited in England to live out their days in exile. The ex-Emperor died in 1873. His heir the Prince Imperial was slain by spear-wielding natives in the Zulu Wars. The Empress Eugenie lived in mourning until 1920.