The death and funeral of Louis-Napoleon, exiled Emperor of France

The account here and most of the images are taken from the edition of The Graphic published on 25 January 1873. The Graphic was a weekly newspaper of the time.

Napoleon's death bedEven among the humblest a death is almost invariably succeeded by a sort of gloomy bustle in the house, so that a period of rigid seclusion is not so easily attained by those who mourn for the dead as may be imagined by people who have never undergone the painful ordeal. But when a personage of historical celebrity quits this mortal scene, especially under such remarkable conditions as the late Exile of Chislehurst, all this bustle is increased a thousand-fold. The Emperor died on Thursday the 9th inst., and by Saturday the little village of Chislehurst was filled to overflowing with an influx of persons drawn thither by motive either of curiosity, of sympathy or of respect. The inns and other places of accommodation were speedily filled, and many, who had intended to stay at Chislehurst till after the funeral, were obliged to return to London to sleep. The bulk of these immigrants were naturally Frenchmen. There were the kinsfolk and relatives of the dead Bonaparte, and there were numbers of the chief supporters of the Imperial principle. The attendance of these multitudes of Frenchmen, braving the discomforts of the Straits of Dover in mid-winter (no small ordeal for a Gaul) proves two facts – first that Louis Napoleon was personally beloved by many of his followers; secondly that Imperialism is still a living creed. Kings of France have died in full possession of their sceptres, whose corpses, directly the breath had quitted them, were treated with contumely and neglect; whereas this man, though dethroned, in exile, and regarded by many as the author of innumerable woes to France, was certainly followed to the grave by a large multitude of sincere mourners. At the same time, the sincerity of their devotion to the dead was doubtless strengthened by their firm belief that the Empire is destined to be revived in the person of his son. “Tout se peut retablir” they say, repeating the historical phrase of their late master; and who is bold enough to prophesy that their desires will never be realised? The elder Napoleon won many glorious battles, but he mercilessly robbed France of her children. Five and thirty years later she was ready to forgive all these injuries, and to welcome as her chief ruler an obscure adventurer, whose chief passport to her affections was that he bore the magical name of the hero of Austerlitz. Certainly, explain the fact as we may, crowds of Frenchmen came to Chislehurst to do homage to the dead Emperor, and the quiet Kentish village was temporarily metamorphosed into an appendage of France. There were not wanting either a considerable contingent of our own countrymen, among whom were a large number of the nobility and gentry, who called at the lodge, and inscribed their names in the book kept there. One of our sketches represents the ceremony, which is one dear to the heart of Britons, who are always pleased to leave their autographs in public places, and, moreover, feel a sort of melancholy complacency in thus connecting their own patronymics with the name of one who a few years ago was among the most potent rulers of mankind.

Signing the Book of CondolenceOn the Sunday, some privileged visitors were admitted to the bedroom where lay the Emperor’s mortal remains. The room was very dark, the coffin stood on trestles in the middle of the floor, and the body, clothed in the uniform last worn at Sedan, lay unshrouded in the coffin. Some who have viewed the dead man have remarked on the wearied aspects of his features, others held that death had removed the careworn aspect, and removed many of the lines of anxiety and sorrow. Little, however, can be learnt by gazing on the face of the dead, because the man, whose vitality once gave expression to those features, is no longer there, and this senseless Thing, to which we do honour, is a mere waxen effigy of the original.

The Lying in State, to which the public were admitted, took place on Tuesday, the 14th inst. For this ceremony the body was removed from the bedroom in which the Emperor died to the picture-gallery, or grand hall of Camden Place, a lofty, spacious apartment. Part of the roof is of glass, but the excess of light was subdued by canvas coverings, while the walls were draped with black velvet, thus converting the apartment into a Chapelle Ardente. The Lying in State was ushered in by a significant ceremony. Early in the morning the whole of the Imperial suite, in evening dress, were at their posts. Six members of the household stood near the Emperor’s coffin, the wax tapers were lighted, and two clergymen knelt in prayer by the body. About eleven o’clock Prince Napoleon and other members of the Bonaparte family proceeded to Count Clary’s house, for the purpose of conducting the Prince Imperial, who was staying there, to view his father’s body. On arrival at Camden Place they repaired to the great hall, where they had assembled upwards of 150 personages of distinction, a larger number than had been seen together at any time during the last five years of the Emperor’s power. Soon afterwards the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived, and after a private interview with the Prince Imperial and other members of the Bonaparte family they proceeded to view the body of the deceased Emperor, concluding their stay with a brief visit to the Empress. They had scarcely gone when the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Christian arrived on a similar errand, and after their departure the Prince Imperial himself visited the catafalque, and, kneeling in front of the body, remained for some minutes in prayer.

The procession in Hawkwood LaneThe public part of the Lying in State had yet to begin. Thousands of visitors had arrived from London and elsewhere, and there was necessarily much crowding and confusion at a railway station ordinarily intended merely for the convenience of a quiet village. Numbers of Frenchmen were present, distinguished by their decorations of red ribbon and their bunches of violets, and a great many artillerymen and other soldiers from Woolwich. The crushing outside the gates was tremendous, and although the public were only admitted by batches of two hundred at a time, there was a great deal of unseemly pushing and struggling inside the Park, in order to reach the window which gave admittance to the house. The imperfect police arrangements were blamed, but the real blame is due to the unmannerly impatience which characterises the bulk of our countrymen, and which refuses to adopt the admirable French expedient of standing en queue

As soon, however, as the visitor had found his way inside, the contrast was as great as if another world had been reached. The broad glare of daylight was exchanged for a dimly-lit passage; the walls were hung in sombre draperies; while a string of ghost-like figures clad in black was seen passing up and down. At length the Chapelle Ardente is reached. They eye turns first to the outwards trappings. Rich black velvet hangings surround the chamber; a blaze of gaslight glitters down on the bier; on either side two priests in full vestments kneel in prayer; and on either side of the coffin stand six gentlemen of the household, whose duty it is to watch by the body of the dead Emperor. With the tranquil look of a child asleep he lay, dressed in the uniform of a French General of Division, with the Grand Cordon of Legion of Honour and two other military decorations crossing his breast. Above his head, the N of the Napoleons was wrought in the tapestry. A plain black crucifix rested at the foot of the coffin, half buried in a mound of garlands, immortelles, and winter flowers.

Among the crowds of visitors who besieged Camden House during the Lying in State were many who inscribed their names in the visitors’ book; while hundreds of telegrams and letters of condolence arrived from all parts of Europe, especially from Italy.

St Marys ChurchThe entrance to the Roman Catholic Chapel of St, Mary, Chislehurst, is by a little gothic porch on the southern side. The exterior of the building is modest and unpretending, but the interior is not devoid of claims to architectural effect.The roof is high-pitched and sharp, of stained timber on plaster work, and the rafters, which rest on uncarved brackets, are of open wood-work. Near the altar is a finely-painted rose window. The rest of the glass is plain. The interior of the little church forms an oblong area, usually neatly fitted with chairs. These were removed for in preparation for the funeral, the church was hung with black, and a catafalque was placed in the centre. It may be here mentioned that on the altar dais, on the right hand side of the chancel as one stands with his back to the altar, are three fauteuils, with a prie-Dieu between them – both fauteuils and prie-Dieu covered with crimson velvet. These were the Imperial seats, and on the Sunday morning after the Emperor’s death, just before the service began, the priest came in and draped them with black velvet trimmed with white.

The funeral took place on Wednesday, the 15th inst., and again, thousands of visitors assembled at Chislehurst. The deputation of workmen, with the French tricolor at their head, led the way, then the seven priests bareheaded, and chanting as they went, then the hearse with its nodding plumes. The Prince Imperial, as chief mourner, walked alone, immediately behind. The followed the Princes Lucien and Joseph Bonaparte, Princes Murat, and the younger scions of the house of Bonaparte, and then a motley throng of senators, nobles, ambassadors, and deputies, and other personages, amounting altogether to some two thousand people. Of these only a privileged few were allowed to enter the church, which is calculated to hold only about two hundred persons. The funeral service lasted an hour and twenty minutes, and was mainly choral. The sweet voices of the children chanting the “Agnus Dei” and the rolling strophes of the “Miserere” were deeply thrilling, and when the bells rang for the Elevation and Remonstrance, and the whole assemblage sank on their knees, the scene was very striking. Finally, after the officiating prelate, wearing his mourning mitre of white silk, had pronounced absolution, the coffin was raised from the bier, and carried into the sepulchre. The grave had been constructed a few feet down the nave, in a small dark recess. Over it the Empress intends to erect a mortuary chapel, though it is said that, if the French Government give permission, the remains of the Emperor will be ultimately deposited in the burial-place of the Bonapartes at Napoleon St. Leu.

Buying immortellesWreaths, immortelles, &c., were placed at the gate of the tomb. Floral devices were suspended from or attached to the gate, so as to make it somewhat more of a veil than of itself it would have been; nevertheless, the coffin, with its rich violet pall and gold embroidered cross, could be seen without difficulty through the open spaces, though half buried in flowers and wreaths of amaranth. Each of these tokens had its tale of private sympathy and sorrow. The Queen sent a white amaranthine wreath. Near it lay one that bore the name of Prince Leopold, and to a wreath of lilies of the valley, bedded in moss, was a card attached, bearing the words – “De la part de la Princess Beatrice”.

The ceremony which is pictured below took place on Thursday, the 16th, the day following the Emperor’s funeral, in the Chapelle Ardente at Camden Place, which had been quickly divested of every attribute of the Lying in State, and restored to its usual aspect, that of a picture gallery. On this occasion, the Empress undertook to receive individually all the friends of the Emperor of every rank, and to take formal leave of those about to return to France. Nearly all of the dearest friends of the family, and those who had held high office under the Empire were there, and many of the noblest names and families in France were represented, but the prominent feature of the reception was the presence of the deputation of working-men of Paris. These poor men, numbering about fifteen, who had been so conspicuous in the funeral procession on the preceding day, stood in line round the upper end of the room. One of them, dressed in blue canvas blouse, held a black banner ornamented in silver with the cipher N, an imperial crown, and the words ouvriers de Paris, at the top of the staff an imperial crown muffled in crape. These men were dressed in ordinary dress, and were, our artist assures us, palpably real Parisian workmen, and not, as some scoffers say, dummies recruited from the neighbourhood of Leicester Square. The side and lower portion of the room, the adjoining corridor, and even the entrance hall, were crowded with the visitors in double and triple ranks. The scene was painfully impressive in the extreme, and can never be forgotten by those whose duty called them here. In most of the countenances uncontrollable emotion betrayed itself, and many were in tears, particularly one poor ouvrier, who retired weeping bitterly. The Empress, although wholly unequal to the task she had set for herself, maintained her dignity and composure for some time. As she passed round, followed by the Prince and only lady attendant, she extended her hands to each of the kneeling and weeping persons, before whom she stopped, and received their sad salutations in voiceless emotion, but she could not long support the agonising ceremony, and retired, we believe, only in time to faint away in privacy. The manly and courageous bearing of the Prince was remarked and praised by everyone.

Empress Eugenie receiving condolencies

This double-page sketch by Durand shows the Empress receiving guests after her husband’s funeral.

Frances Foster has published an interesting dissertation into Louis Napoleon which can be viewed here.