Posted by: frenchinspiredliving | January 16, 2009

Special places to visit

NAPOLEON III, THE LAST EMPEROR OF THE FRENCH (Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) 20 April 1808 – 9 January 1873.

If you would like to read a very potted version of French history from 1789, the year of the ‘Great’ Revolution, to 1870 when this story begins, please go into and click on ‘Mirror History’

The Second Empire fell on 14 September 1870.  Napoleon III, already suffering from an illness was forced by the diplomacy of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck into what is now known as the Franco-Prussian War.  This war proved disastrous for France, and was instrumental in giving birth to the German Empire, which took France’s place as the major land power on the continent of Europe.

The Emperor was captured at the Battle of Sedan and was deposed by the forces of the Third Republic in Paris two days later.

Louis, The Prince Imperial, then 14 years old and the Empress escaped to England. 

Napoleon III, Louis his only legitimate son and Empress Eugenie were eventually united in exile at Chislehurst in Kent.  The Emperor died there in 1873 and was buried in Chislehurst in the small Catholic Church of St Mary.

At the time of his father’s death Prince Louis, a student at the Royal Military College at Woolwich, was preparing to take up a commission in the British army in the hope that the pursuit of a military career by a Napoleon would facilitate a possible return to France.  He managed to persuade both his mother and Queen Victoria to allow him to join the expedition against the Zulu’s in 1879.  On 1 June, while on reconnaissance, Zulu warriors ambushed the Prince’s party and he was surrounded and killed.  He was 23 years old.  Seventeen wounds from Zulu assegais, all to the front of his body, proved that he had died a brave death. 

To Queen Victoria and the British it was an enormous shock but to Eugenie, his mother, it was the crowning tragedy.  “I died in 1879”, she would say.

With the death of the Prince Imperial, Eugenie realised that the dynasty was unlikely ever to rule France again so she decided to build a mausoleum in England in their honour.

Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie and their son Louis.

Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie and their son Louis.

The site of St Michael’s in Farnborough was chosen after the landowners refused to allow the Empress to enlarge the mortuary chapel at St Mary’s Church in Chislehurst, which was far too small to house both Imperial tombs.

Having considered various sites the Empress finally decided on the purchase of an extensive property at Farnborough Hill.  In the early autumn of 1881 she moved to her new home and during the years 1883 to 1888 watched the ‘basilique imperiale’ and the adjoining monastery rise on the crown of the opposite hill. 

Designed by Gabriel Destailleur in the French Gothic and Romanesque styles, the beautiful Grade-One listed Abbey Church is one of the finest, but least known, Catholic churches in England.  The building combines the splendour one might expect of a royal foundation with the austerity of a monastic church.  Simple, lofty arches and an Italian marble pavement draw the eye to the high altar under a richly decorated corona with the French inscription on it’s beams ‘St Michael our glorious patron, pray for France and England’.

St Michael's Abbey Church

St Michael's Abbey Church

Under the marble pavement of the sanctuary of the upper church lies the Imperial family, entombed in the crypt designed for that purpose.  The Emperor and Prince lie in granite sarcophagi in the transepts and the Empress on the shelf high above the altar.

Oak linenfold door to the Crypt.

Oak linenfold door to the Crypt.

The tombs, the gift of Queen Victoria, are an obvious echo of the tomb of Napoleon I at Les Invalides in Paris. 

Napoleon III 's Sarcophagi.

Napoleon III 's Sarcophagi.

Empress Eugenie's sarcophagi.

Empress Eugenie's sarcophagi.

Prince Louis's sarcophagi.

Prince Louis's sarcophagi.

“You have built this church in stone, not in order to pass onto distant generations the memory of the glories of France, but because you understand that there is something greater than man’s glory, more lasting than stone – the daily sacrifice of Christian prayer…. This sanctuary raised on English soil will not only speak continually of the memory of the Empress Eugenie to all who come after; it will be an eloquent witness to her faith and piety”
Spoken by Abbot Cabrol at the funeral of the Empress Eugenie, 20 July 1920.

The first monks at Farnborough came from the Abbey of Solesmes in France in 1895, a monastery noted for liturgical and Gregorian Chant.  Many of the monks returned to France at the beginning of First World War to fight for their country; a number of the men lost their lives at the front line.

To day, all the eight monks at the monastery are English; they lead a strict Benedictine life in its classic contemplative form, which is founded, on the sacred liturgy, study and manual work.  The Office is sung in Latin Gregorian Chant.  The farm and apiary supply the Abbey and it’s shop with eggs, meat, honey and wax; the Abbey Press produces books and cards employing traditional craft methods.

There are guided tours of the church and crypt most Saturdays, there are services open to the public and the Abbey shop is open every morning from 10am till noon.

However, it may still be wise to go into the Abbey’s web site to check the current situation with services and times of allowed visits:

St Michael’s Abbey
Hampshire GU14 7NQ
Tel: 01252 546105

I met The Abbott of St Michael’s Abbey, Dom Cuthbert Brogan, a while ago and he kindly gave me a personal tour of the Abbey and Crypt.  It was a wonderful morning spent with an eloquent witty man.
He has quite regular contact with the extended Bonaparte family particularly on anniversary dates, 9 January, 5 May, 1 June and 11 July.
The French Napoleon III Fan Club has periodic contact with the Monastery over the return to France of the remains of their most honoured late Emperor and his family; the French Government also jumps up and down on this same subject every 15 years or so!  The idea is an attractive one to the French but the reality of shipping the three granite sarcophagi back to France and finding somewhere to put them, is a much bigger problem!

As Dom Cuthbert said, “ We are a Benedictine monastic order and we are here at the Abbey to follow the rules of St Benedict.  We are merely custodians of the tombs of the last Imperial family. We have no desire to deprive France of their remains but you can’t help wondering where the French would put these three huge granite sarcophagi were they to be returned to France.   There is simply no room in any of the obvious places.

Any-way, there are many Royal and Imperial remains dotted around the world; can you imagine if the decree went out that all remains must be repatriated to the country of origin what chaos there would be at the Gare du Nord; hundreds of badly labelled boxes passing each other in the night…….. They would never make it back!”

Leave well alone, I say!

It is a rare privilege indeed to have the opportunity of visiting such a wonderful place.  So if you do make the journey to St Michael’s Abbey please be aware that this is a Benedictine Order and the monks have no income; a donation to the Abbey’s funds would be gratefully received.

Bridget de Breanski, The Old French Mirror Company.


Le Petit Trianon….Marie-Antoinette’s neo-classical chateau at Versailles.

Marie-Antoinette was 19 and had just become queen when her king, Louis XVI, slipped into her hand a key ring adorned with 531 diamonds.  “Madame, do you like flowers?” he asked.  “I have a bouquet for you….”  It was the Petit Trianon.

The Petit Trianon is the hidden, most subtle face of Versailles, a symbol of the relaxed rhythm of life in 18th century France. Displaying every kind of excess, it illustrates a new idea of happiness associated with the return to nature, inherited from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  It is a place of Fragonard-style pleasure and libertinism, its atmosphere light-hearted, cheerful, natural and carefree to the point of self-destruction….Just a few years later, those most closely involved with the Petit Trianon lost their heads!  This text by Marie-France Boyer.  

The Petit Trianon can be visited at the Chateau de Versailles, 78000 Versailles, France. (00 33 1 30837620)

The Music Pavilion...Wedded life was far from harmonious for the Comtesse de Provence, eventually the last titular queen of France.  Neglected by her husband – the king’s brother – mocked by Marie-Antoinette and dismissed by the French court, she found solace in her estate on the outskirts of Versailles.

Today, all that remains of her domain is the Music Pavilion – a Palladian villa whose floral frescoes and smart Louis XVI style still hit the high notes. Text by Philippe Seulliet.

On the outskirts of Versailles this restored Pavilion is worth a visit although it may be by appointment only.


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