Portrait of Eugenie, Empress of the French, by Winterhalter (1855)
Daughter of a pro-Napoleon Spanish family
Eugenie was born on 5 May 1826 in Granada, Spain. Her father, Don Cipriano, was a fervent admirer of Napoleon: he supported the reign of Joseph Bonaparte, who had been placed on the Spanish throne by his brother Napoleon. This earned Don Cipriano some enemies when the French Empire collapsed, including the new King of Spain, Ferdinand VII. And so, as soon as it had the necessary funds, Eugenie's family, which loved all things French and had admired Napoleon, moved to France in 1835.
A rebellious teenager
When she was 9 years old, Eugenie began attending classes at the Couvent du Sacré-Coeur (Convent of the Sacred Heart) in Paris, where she was not a very good student. She picked up knowledge and culture instead from the prestigious guests that her mother invited to their home, such as the writers Mérimée and Stendhal. When her father died in Madrid on 15 March 1839, Eugénie was only 13 years old: her mother had to help her improve on her rather patchy education in order to help her make a “good marriage”. But the young Eugenie was a romantic and high-spirited and did not want to obey her mother. She fell in love with her cousin, the Duke of Alba, and wrote him passionate letters, but he was engaged to Eugenie's elder sister, Paca. After this disappointment in love, Eugenie's only passion was for the theatre and for dancing, and she rejected several marriage proposals. In 1847, she was given the title Countess of Teba and became lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain. But, after she became depressed again in the autumn of 1848, her mother made her return to France.
At that time, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte has just been elected President.
Her marriage to Napoleon III
At the beginning of 1849, after her return to France, Eugenie got to know Princess Mathilde, and through her she met Mathilde's cousin, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. From the first moment they met, the future Emperor fell under Eugenie's charm and invited the young Spanish girl to St Cloud. However, Eugenie initially behaved quite coldly towards her illustrious suitor. After a long trip to Europe, Eugenie saw Louis Napoleon Prince again. He was now the Prince-President as a result of his “coup d'état” of 2 December 1851 (see Napoleon III). Over the next few months, Eugenie softened to him, to the extent that Louis-Napoleon, who by this time had become Emperor Napoleon III on 2 December 1852, quickly asked Eugenie's mother for her daughter's hand in marriage, on 15 January 1853.
On 22 January, the engagement was announced officially to the organs of government (that is, all the state bodies, including the Chambre Législative (High Court), and the Conseil d'État (Consultative chamber of government)). Their civil marriage was held at the Tuileries Palace on 29 January 1853, and this was followed the next day by a religious ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral.
Eugenie, Empress of the French
Eugenie was qualified as "an ornament of the throne" in the speech that Napoleon III gave to the organs of government. He expected his wife to be "Catholic and pious" and "graceful and good, [thereby restoring] the virtues of the Empress Josephine." In this way, the Emperor emphasized the social role he wanted his wife to play.
A Royal protector of the poor, women and artists
Eugenie was deeply involved with the poor: she gave a new lease of life to the Société maternelle (Maternal Society), a charitable institution created by Marie-Antoinette; she visited cholera patients during the epidemics of 1865 and 1866; and she was concerned about the fate of children held in prison. She also supported the cause of women: she was a patron of the sculptor Camille Claudel; she supported the nomination (ultimately rejected) of the writer George Sand as a member of the Académie française (the prestigious French Academy); she intervened to allow Julie Victoire Daubié to apply for her Baccalauréat (until that time no woman had ever been allowed to sit the exam which was effectively necessary in order to go on to higher education). Importantly, she supported the work of the Minister of Education Victor Duruy in favour of education for girls. She sometimes even took a stand in defence of controversial artists, for example in the 1857 censorship case of Charles Baudelaire's collection of poems “Les Fleurs du mal” (The Flowers of Evil), though in vain.
An expert in fashion and high society
Eugenie's role was also to charm the wealthier classes and win them over. She was very gifted in the art of conversation, and she was particularly renowned as an excellent hostess at the Palace of Compiègne, where the court spent every summer. Émile Ollivier, Napoleon III's Chief of Staff (today we would call him Prime Minister), however, observed that the Empress had not completely abandoned her youthful impetuousness: she had the spirit of "a heroine of Cervantès”: spontaneous, excessive, even thoughtless. She herself admitted that she regularly wished she could take back what she had said too impetuously! That being said, she had a gift for creating fashion trends with her lavish dressing (her enemies called her “Fée Chiffon” ("Chintzy Fairy") and also for energising the court with her ostentatious receptions. Without Eugenie, the term “Fête impériale” ("Imperial Feast") would not have existed, a phrase which describes the atmosphere of luxurious excess that she created around the Emperor for two decades.
A woman absent from politics
The role of the Empress was very limited. Her primary role was to provide an heir to the throne and, after a first miscarriage, she gave birth to the Prince Imperial, on 16 March 1856. He would be the Imperial couple's only child.
Napoleon sometimes made his wife the messenger of his decisions, though she had had no influence on them. For example, Eugenie conducted an extensive correspondence with Britain's Queen Victoria, passively setting out her husband's positions in her letters. Queen Victoria explained to the King of Belgium, in May 1859, that Eugenie had been hit hard by the current conflict between Austria and France over Italy: "It is not true that the Empress was so warlike; Lord Cowley [Wellington's nephew and British ambassador to France from 1852 to 1867] says, on the contrary, she is very unhappy about it”.
Her role in the Mexican expedition (1862-1837) was just as minimal. Eugenie was indeed surrounded by a small Mexican court favourable to the French intervention, but the main influence on Napoleon III was the financial perspectives offered by this expedition.
The French sovereign summarized her approach to politics thus: "I have never been and probably never will be a politician", adding that in any case Napoleon III does not tolerate anyone trying to influence him.
The black legend of Eugenie
Yet her contemporaries and today some historians now claim that the Empress influenced the decisions of Napoleon III. Eugenie was probably the victim of rumours about her from her marriage onwards. Prince Napoleon, the Emperor's cousin, and the Bonaparte family as a whole believed the Emperor had married below himself and stubbornly disliked the young woman. On the same night as the birth of the Prince Imperial, Prince Napoleon wrote of his grief to see Eugenie strengthened by her new status as mother of the heir: "I'm going home, I kiss my father [Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon], still very sick, who is making an effort to hide his pain and kisses me warmly and with agitation. What we both think and feel does not need to be expressed and we are not going to talk about it." These difficult relations combined with the Republicans' hatred of Napoleon III and, therefore, of his wife, contributed to the black legend of Eugenie, even after her death: Some even held her responsible for the fall of the Empir, or the death of the Prince Imperial!
Exile and mourning: a time of withdrawal
After the fall of the Second Empire, after the defeat during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the royal family fled to Camden Place in Chislehurst, in south-east London, in Britain. After the death of Napoleon III in 1873, Eugenie set herself the sole task of taking care of the Prince Imperial, the only heir of the dynasty. After he had finished his studies, Eugenie sent him off on a tour of Europe to defend his right to the throne ... But the Prince Imperial thought his legitimacy had to be won through military glory: despite the pleas of his mother he joined the British troops who were going to South Africa, and died there on 1 June 1879 during the war between the Zulus and the British.
Eugenie never recovered from the loss of her only son. She made a journey to Zululand in the footsteps of her late son the following year and, upon her return to England, had an abbey built at Farnborough, her new home, which would be the resting place of her husband and son. From then on, she shut herself away in silence and seemed to flee her pain by travelling. Ever since her childhood, spent between Spain and France, and throughout her many stays by the sea in the Southwest of France in Biarritz, Eugenie had always had a taste for travel, but this failed to soothe her grief. Eugenie died at the age of 94, in Madrid in 11 July 1920. She was laid to rest with her husband and son in Farnborough.
Marie de Bruchard, February 2016
(Translation: R. Young)