When Emperor Napoleon III came to Chislehurst in 1871, local residents were excited and interested, but there is little to suggest that they felt emotionally attached to him or his wife. The same cannot be said of their son and only child, Prince Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, known as the Prince Imperial.
The Prince was only fourteen when he arrived at Camden Place. By the time of his death in 1879, he had taken a place in the hearts of Chislehurst residents in a way his father never had.
Born in Paris in 1856, the Prince was the son of the President of France, and great-nephew of Napoleon Bonaporte. He was educated to succeed his father as Emperor, and from an early age he was closely associated with the military, being given his first uniform as a member of the 1st Imperial Guard Regiment at the age of 9 months. As a child he regularly accompanied his father in full uniform at reviews, and was an earnest and dedicated boy, fully aware of the service and duty that he should owe to his country.
The Prince Imperial was only fourteen when his father launched his ill-fated war against Prussia. On 28 June 1870, the Prince accompanied his father as they left Fontainbleu to go to the front at Metz. He was in uniform, bearing the rank of sub-lieutenant, and though never actually involved in any fighting, he accompanied his father as he oversaw the battle of Saarbrucken. The battle was a disaster, achieving none of the French objectives, and the whole army retreated to Metz. It was now clear that the French had neither the men nor the equipment to even contemplate beating the Prussians, and at the battle of Sedan, the French army was routed, and the Emperor captured.
It was clear that The Prince’s safety would be in serious jeopardy if he returned to Paris. Here crowds had already torn down all street names or signs that bore the name Napoleon. He was therefore smuggled across the Belgian border to Ostend, and across the Channel to England. His mother quickly joined him from Paris, effectively abdicating her role as Regent of France. Mother and son met at a hotel in Hastings on 8 September 1870, where they stayed for 12 days until they were taken to Camden Place in Chislehurst, which appears to have been maintained in preparation for exactly this eventuality. They were joined there by the Emperor exactly six months later. He had been kept as a prisoner of war at Wilhelmshöhe, in Prussia, but could not be safely returned to France to what was by now a new French Republic. As a result Camden Place became the centre of the French Royal Court in exile, much visited by French and British politicians, and by British royalty.
The young Prince hardly spoke any English and settled in to his new environment slowly, until in the summer of 1872 it was suggested he should apply to be admitted as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He joined the Academy in October that year, throwing himself into the daily routines, refusing any “princely” dispensations, and eventually passed out seventh overall out of a class of thirty-four.
He was still at Woolwich, when, on 9 January 1873, the Prince Imperial heard of his father’s sudden deterioration after what was hoped to be routine surgery, but too late – the doctors who had declared the Emperor dead were leaving Camden Place as the Prince arrived, having rushed from Woolwich. The Prince was now treated by his mother and the French Court in exile as Emperor-in-waiting, but though some proclaimed him Napoleon IV, it appears that the Prince never used the title himself, and never showed any interest in staking any claim to the French leadership. Nevertheless, there continued to be speculation about whether the Prince might at some stage attempt to reinstate the French Empire, and the French Government could be excused from fearing that this was his intention.
The Prince would have been able to apply for a commission in the British army, given his performance at Woolwich, but he was advised not to join the regular service of the British Government, and therefore was not commissioned as an officer.
The Prince Imperial became friends with members of the British Royal Family, especially with the Prince of Wales. During the 1870s, there was some talk of a marriage between him and Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice and there were rumours that he was romantically attached to the Spanish Infanta María de la Paz of Spain, daughter of Queen Isabella II of Spain. Known affectionately as ‘PI’ he was now a celebrity, particularly to the young women of London.
At his coming of age in 1874, the Prince was feted in Chislehurst. Tom Bushell describes the day: ‘The railway station was gaily decorated and flew the tricolour of France, whilst in the main waiting room and inscription, wreathed in laurels and violets read “Vive le Prince Imperial 16 mars, 1874” – and Chislehurst really meant it!…The Prince expressed his gratitude to all the kindness that had been shown to the family since they had taken up their abode at Camden. The ladies of Chislehurst gave him “a very substantial present”. About 6,000 Frenchmen, representing all the Departments of their country, gathered in two enormous marquees set up within the grounds of Camden Place…’
When the Zulu War was declared in 1879 the Prince was passionately keen to be with his comrades in action, and despite his mother’s objections, he obtained permission from Queen Victoria and the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the British army, to go out to South Africa with the British reinforcements as a “special observer”.
He arrived in Cape Town on 26 March 1879, and sailed on to Durban where he disembarked on 31 March 1879. He was attached to the staff of Lord Chelmsford, Commander of the British Forces in South Africa, as an extra aide-de-camp and while stayed in Durban for 19 days and then went to Pietermaritzburg where he spent 6 days, he was keen to see action. Full of enthusiasm, he was warned by Lieutenant Arthur Brigge, a close friend, “…to avoid running unnecessary risks. I reminded him of the Empress at home and his political party in France.” Chelmsford, mindful of his duty, attached the Prince to staff of Colonel Richard Harrison of the Royal Engineers, where it was felt he could be active but safe. Harrison was responsible for the column’s transport and for reconnaissance of the forward route on the way to Ulundi, the Zulu capital. While he welcomed the presence of Louis, he was told by Chelmsford that the Prince must be accompanied at all times by a strong escort. Lieutenant Carey, a French speaker and British subject from Guernsey, was given particular charge of Louis.
The Prince took part in several reconnaissance missions, though his eagerness for action almost led him into an early ambush, when he exceeded orders in a party led by Colonel Redvers Buller. Despite this on the evening of May 31, 1879, Harrison agreed to allow Louis to scout in a forward party scheduled to leave in the morning, in the mistaken belief that the path ahead was free of Zulu skirmishers.
On the morning of June 1, the troop set out, earlier than intended, and without the full escort, largely owing to Louis’s impatience. Led by Carey, the scouts rode deep into Zululand. At noon the troop was halted at a temporarily deserted kraal while Louis and Carey made some sketches of the terrain, and used part of the thatch to make a fire.
As they were preparing to leave, about 40 Zulus fired upon them and rushed toward them screaming. The Prince’s horse dashed off before he could mount, the Prince clinging to a holster on the saddle – after about a hundred yards a strap broke, and the Prince fell beneath his horse and his right arm was trampled. He leapt up, drawing his revolver with his left hand, and started to run – but he could not escape. The Prince was speared in the thigh and then in his left shoulder. The Prince tried to fight on, using the assegai he had pulled from his leg, but, weakened by his wounds, he sank to the ground and was overwhelmed. The Prince’s body was recovered the following day and brought down from Zululand to the coast, and hence back to England on board the British troopship HMS Orontes for burial in Chislehurst.
A detail from Death of the Prince Impérial by Paul Jamin.
The Prince’s death caused an international sensation. A report of his death in the Illustrated London News, dated 28 June 1879, can be found here… His funeral took place on 12 July 1879. Queen Victoria arrived at Chislehurst on the morning of the funeral with the Princesses Beatrice and Alice. They were to stay to comfort the Empress Eugenie, while the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh were among the pall-bearers. The Prince Imperial’s body was placed on the gun-carriage, accompanied by the crash of guns positioned on Chislehurst Commons. A great procession of troops and mourners started its slow way from Camden Place towards St Mary’s Church. At its head was the Royal Artillery Band with muffled drums, followed by Cadets with sabres reversed, and with the Prince’s favourite horse, Stag, in long funeral draperies. As the procession moved slowly into Chislehurst, along Royal Parade and to the small church of St Mary’s, it continued to grow as local people and visitors from London and Paris joined it. The list of mourners shows, with representatives of governments, heads of state and royal families across Europe and beyond, how important the Bonaparte succession was still seen at the time. With his death, it was now effectively gone.
The Prince’s body rested temporarily at St Mary’s Church while his mother looked for a suitable resting place for her husband and son, which the church could not provide. It was not possible to extend the church, and land adjacent was owned by Joseph Edlmann, who was not prepared to sell his land for a Roman Catholic Abbey. The Empress therefore looked elsewhere, and, on 9 January 1888, the two bodies were removed from St Mary’s and taken by train from Chislehurst to the newly built St Michael’s Abbey at Farnborough, Hampshire, where they still lie. The Empress died on 11 July 1920.
Two memorials to the Prince Imperial were erected in Chislehurst. The Prince Imperial Monument, on the Common by Prince Imperial Road was erected in 1881, to a design by Edward Robson. It is a large Celtic cross inscribed on one side ‘in memory of the Prince Imperial and in sorrow at his death, this cross is erected by the dwellers of Chislehurst 1880‘ and on the other, using words from his last will and testament ‘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 hospitality – Napoleon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Prince Imperial killed in Zululand 1st June 1879‘
The second memorial lies in the Roman Catholic church of St Mary, Crown Lane, an effigy of the Prince in military uniform, with violet emblems and the golden Bonaparte bees.
Who knows what the course of French, and European, history would have been had the Prince not died so tragically in 1879. He would have been 58 years old in 1914, and 84 in 1940 when the Vichy Government was formed. Who knows whether the French people would have turned to another Napoleon at these times of crisis, or even before, as France struggled with the development of its fragile democracy under the Third Republic.
Note: The information here has been taken from journals from the time (including the Illustrated London News and the Graphic, from E.E.P. Tisdall’s book, The Prince Imperial, and from T.A. Bushell’s book, Imperial Chislehurst.
There are many references to the Prince Imperial on the internet. Here is an interesting one.