The only son of Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, Prince Louis Napoleon (1856-1879) was born to rule. The Emperor, nephew of Napoleon I, had risen to power in a military coup partially financed by his London tailor Henry Poole declaring himself first President of France then Emperor of the regime known as the Second Empire.
The Prince Imperial as Louis Napoleon was titled was schooled as a military cadet with a keen sense of duty and service to France instilled in the boy. Unlike England’s heir the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), the Prince Imperial did not disappoint. He was a skilled equestrian, a master fencer and a model cadet. Aged fourteen the Prince was appointed sub-lieutenant in the French army and accompanied his father to the front to serve in the Franco-Prussian War.
After Napoleon IIIs troops were defeated at the Battle of Sedan, the Prince Imperial was spirited away over the Belgian border and on to the English seaside town of Hastings where he awaited his mother the Empress Eugénie who had fled the Tuilleries Palace in Paris in disguise. The Prussians interned the Emperor as a prisoner of war for six months before his release to join the imperial family in exile. The family settled in Camden Place in Kent financed partially by the Empress’s jewels and an annuity from Queen Victoria.
Though the Prince Imperial spoke poor English, he became a darling of London society who admired his good looks, military bearing and aura of tragedy that his inheritance had been lost. He was mooted as a husband for Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice and was for a time attached to the Spanish Infanta Maria de la Paz, daughter of Queen Isabella II of Spain.
In 1879, the twenty-five year old Prince asked Queen Victoria’s permission to join British troops as an special observer in South Africa who were fighting the Zulu Wars. He arrived in Cape Town in March 1879 and was attached to the staff of Lord Chelmsford in Durban. From Durban, the Prince rode to Zululand in April. He was a gifted reconnaissance scout and on the 1st of June he and a detachment set out to scout for a camp from which the British troops would march on Ulundi to engage with Zulu King Cetshwayo.
The patrol was surprised by a horde of Zulu warriors who slaughtered two soldiers and the guide. The rest of the detachment escaped on horseback but the Prince Imperial couldn’t mount his horse fast enough because it was bucking. Though the Prince managed to grasp the horse’s harness, it snapped, he fell and the horse crushed his right arm. The Prince’s sword fell from his belt and a Zulu assegai (spear) hit its mark on his left leg. According to witnesses, the Prince fought like a tiger using the assegai torn from his wounded leg. The Zulus could not go in for the kill until loss of blood made the Prince sink to his knees.
The Prince Imperial’s body was recovered and shipped back to England where it was interred in St Mary’s Church in Chiselhurst next to his dead father the Emperor. Queen Victoria attended the funeral and the Prince of Wales served as pallbearer. In 1880 the Empress Eugénie made a pilgrimage to Zululand where she held an overnight vigil on the spot where her only son fell. In 1888 the bodies of the Emperor and Prince Imperial were reinterred in St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough. When the Empress died in 1920 she was buried in the Imperial crypt where they remain. Queen Victoria commissioned an alabaster effigy of the Prince Imperial that stands in the knave of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.