27 September 1868: The death of the great diplomat, Count Alexandre Walewski, as reported by the press of the period

Author(s) : MARTIN GAY, Bruno
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An article by Bruno Martin-Gay, PhD in History of Law and institutions (Centre de recherche Droit et sociétés religieuses, Paris-Sud), Professor of history and geography at the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot (St-Maur-des-Fossés)

(English translation, Rebecca Young, September 2018)

27 September 1868: The death of the great diplomat, Count Alexandre Walewski, as reported by the press of the period
Alexandre Walewski, photographed in 1856 by Pierre-Louis Pierson © BnF / Gallica
Unless otherwise indicated, the source from which the press titles emanate is the Fonds d’Archives Walewski with the following reference: Archives Colonna Walewski. Chronologie d’une vie. Revue de Presse..[1]

Sometimes it happens that a day that was always going to shake up the diplomatic world finally ends with a dramatic curtain fall. Sunday 27 September 1868 is perhaps an example. On that day, Count Alexandre Florian Joseph Colonna de Walewski, who had retired from active public life, went to Strasbourg. Walewski was born on 4 May 1810 in Walewice Castle, Poland, the illegitimate son of Napoleon I but recognised by Count Athanase Walewski, the husband of his mother Marie.[2] At the age of 58, he still led an active life and travelled a lot. The count appeared to be in excellent health,[3] but he was carrying a weakness: he had become overweight over the previous year and was still subject to nose bleeds that had already tired him during his presidency of the Legislature, between 1865 and 1867.[4] His journey to Strasbourg had been a last-minute decision, probably on the same day of his arrival judging from the hotel reservation – made earlier in the day via dispatch from Ulm – requesting apartments for his family and his suite at the Hôtel de la Ville de Paris, rue Mésange, Strasbourg.[5] He was accompanied by his wife Countess Walewski, née Marie-Anne de Ricci, their daughter Elise, two servants and the Countess’s mother, the Marquise Piccolellis,[6] who joined the travelling party at Oos station in Baden-Baden.[7]

This journey is however mysterious. It seems that the Count, who left his house on Lake Geneva, the Villa d’Amphion,[8] was in fact heading for Paris as his final destination. The Emperor was expecting him for a meeting of the utmost importance. Most newspapers reported that the former foreign minister had to report to him on his confidential mission to Germany.[9] Other papers suggested that Walewski was about to go to Munich.[10] Whether he was returning from the Bavarian capital or preparing to go there, the reality of the mission is in no doubt. The Prussian question was undoubtedly the count’s principal preoccupation. Indeed, two years earlier, in a communication from Sadowa, he had alerted the head of State of his conviction that a confrontation with Prussia would become inevitable.[11] In preparation for this, it was the diplomat’s responsibility to approach Bavaria and, according to other publications, Württemberg, i.e., the main states of southern Germany, with a view to obtaining their neutrality,[12] if necessary, through territorial concessions.[13] Some newspapers even predicted his return to public life and a role at the Quai d’Orsay.[14]

Strasbourg was a stopover on this crucial journey. The party entered the station of the Alsatian capital at 5.15pm.[15] A carriage took them to their hotel. Walewski looked in perfect health, unlike his wife who showed signs of fatigue. He gave some instructions and helped the Countess up to their apartment. He had been in Strasbourg for less than ten minutes and at the hotel for less than five minutes. He settled his wife on a divan then crossed another room in order to read a dispatch and two letters that he had just received. The next second, he gave a desperate cry: “a glass of water, for me, a doctor, quickly!”. His daughter came running, but to no avail. Walewski, who had looked so stable a few minutes before, had collapsed on the sofa: he was dead. The doctors arrived in haste. They tried everything they could, even bleeding him. But it was too late.[16] The Count had died in an instant from a brain haemorrhage. The autopsy report, drawn up by the Dr Stahl, the pharmacist, Mr Baer, and the deceased Count’s valet, Michel Spada, indicate that death had occurred suddenly between 5.15pm and 5.30 pm, just after arrival at the hotel.[17] The official Empire newspaper, Le Moniteur, having received “government orders”[18], announced the news soberly, in four lines: “We have just received the distressing news of the death of Count Walewski, who succumbed this evening in Strasbourg to a massive stroke”.[19]

Taken by surprise, the Empire reacted without delay. A funeral service was held the next morning at nine o’clock in the Church of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune,[20] prior to a funeral in Paris. Charles, the Count’s youngest son,[21] hearing of the affair from his sister, took a special train to Strasbourg, whilst the Count’s other daughter and Alexandre,[22] the child of a previous and notorious liaison dating from the period 1842-1846 with the actress/tragedian Rachel,[23] stayed in Paris.[24] Two of the deceased diplomat’s friends – the Marquis de Banneville, French Ambassador in Rome, and Mr de Billing, Director of Foreign Affairs – also made the journey to Alsace in order to accompany the Count’s mortal remains to the capital. Meanwhile, the seals were affixed at the deceased’s home, at 32 Avenue Montaigne, by the Ministers of State and of the Imperial Household (Maison de l’Empereur).[25] On 28 September, the body was officially handed over to the Count of Mosbourg for transfer to Paris,[26] the prefecture of Bas-Rhin having authorised its transport by rail.[27]

Though the decision to organise the funeral in Paris was an easy one, many of the other details were yet to be decided. The costs for the ceremony were to be of no obstacle since they were borne by the minister of the Imperial Household, Walewski dying as a member of the Privy Council.[28] The Emperor’s instructions however were as yet unknown. Napoleon III was at that time in Biarritz with Eugenie,[29] as had been his custom every September since 1854.[30] He immediately expressed his sorrow and compassion for the widow, formerly his mistress,[31] by sending her a hand-written letter of condolence,[32] telegraphed by Rouher.[33] The funeral, to be paid for out of the Civil List,[34] was fixed for Saturday 3 October at noon as indicated on the announcement, at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris.[35]

At the ceremony some very high ranking figures were notably absent, though to be sure for legitimate reasons: Napoleon III and Eugenie were represented by General Fleury, the Emperor’s aide-de-camp, Grand Ecuyer, and by the Count of Rayneval, Chamberlain; Prince Napoleon sent Colonel Ferry Pisani, one of his aides-de-camp and Captain Villot, one of his ordonnance officers; Princess Mathilde was represented by General Chauchard, her Knight of Honour; instead of the Archbishop it was the parish priest, Abbé Deguerray, who led the service, whilst the absolution was given by Monseigneur Surat, the Apostolic Protonotary; Royer, the Vice-President of the Senate, represented President Troplong. As for ministers, Magne, Minister of Finance, was absent from Paris but had himself represented by his Head of Cabinet.[36] These absences notwithstanding, the deceased’s family was present as well as the great dignitaries of the regime, the foreign diplomatic personnel posted in the capital and indeed almost all the staff of the two ministries which had been under Walewski’s orders. The deceased’s two sons, Charles and Alexandre Walewski, led the mourners.[37] For Alexandre, this moment, indescribable by nature, represented a kind of symbolic fulfilment of his recognition by his father in 1844 and his adoption two years after Rachel’s death; indeed, the press evoked this filiation without embarrassment.[38]

The ceremony was marked by great solemnity. Artillery fire on the Quai d’Orsay announced its beginning as well as its end. The church was shrouded in black and decorated with draperies bearing Count Walewski’s arms and cypher. In the middle of the nave, a magnificent catafalque hung over the body, beneath the gaze and the meditation of the distinguished personalities, all placed according to a strict order.[39] Singers from the Paris Opera performed certain pieces and some church music such as the De Profondis.[40] Then, a great procession of all the dignitaries of the Empire and civilians accompanied the body from the Church of the Madeleine to Père Lachaise cemetery, where the burial took place in the family tomb. In addition to the officials and troops surrounding the hearse, a huge crowd, estimated at 300,000 people, gathered on both sides of the boulevards to pay homage to the Count’s memory.[41]

After the last prayers of the Church, two funeral orations were pronounced, one by the Marquis de Moustier, Minister of Foreign Affairs,[42] and the other by Monsieur Lehmann, president of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.[43] The first was the bearer of “the Emperor’s and the Country’s last farewell to the eminent man” now deceased.[44] He retraced the Count’s career, emphasising in particular his diplomatic role. The Polish period was highlighted as well as the first mission to Algeria during which Walewski dissuaded Emir Abd-el-Kader from attacking a French province. Quite naturally, the Marquis de Moustier singled out Walewski’s work at the Quai d’Orsay, with special emphasis being placed on the relationship with Britain, which the Count had defended with constancy and conviction from his embassy in London from 1851 onwards: “England has not been forgotten, and I am pleased to recall the dignity, the tact, the firmness, the apropos he showed in preparing and constituting the intimate rapprochement of the two nations, to replace finally the rivalries of the past with a generous emulation to walk together in the ways of civilization and progress”.[45] Moustier could have dated the Count’s position in this matter earlier, since already in 1834, Walewski had published his pro-British reflections in a brochure entitled L’Alliance anglaise[46] [The English Alliance].

Lehmann, on the other hand, paid homage to the Count’s personality; Walewski had been his predecessor at the head of the Academy. He described him as an affable and simple man, despite the high positions he held, who charmed and endeared “all those who approached him”,[47] the authenticity of these virtues emanating more from the heart than from the Count’s lofty origins.[48] Walewski was then praised for his liberalism, not in political matters which were known, but in artistic ones. The speaker expressed his gratitude to him for all he had done in his capacity as Minister of State to promote the arts and artists. Among other examples, he cited the following: the establishment of a consultative commission on fine arts – which would later be abandoned by his successors -, the creation of the “Bibliothèque de l’École’, the acquisitions from the Campana museum for the Louvre Museum and of the Louis Clapisson collection for the Conservatoire de Musique, the competition for the construction of the new Opera, as a result of which he was to lay the foundation stone,[49] and indeed various exhibitions.[50] Lehmann finally underlined the fundamental role played by Walewski as President of the Corps Legislatif, in the introduction of laws on literary and artistic authorship copyright.[51]

Walewski’s sudden and dramatic death therefore provoked a sincere emotion in the country. It also very likely had a political dimension, though this is difficult to assess. No follow-up to the Count’s mission is known. And barely two years later, on 2 September 1870, Prussia, with Bavaria and Württemberg as its allies, was to defeat France in battle and bring an end to the Empire[52].



[1] Unless otherwise indicated, the source from which the press titles emanate is the Fonds d’Archives Walewski with the following reference: Archives Colonna Walewski. Chronologie d’une vie. Revue de Presse. All these titles were obviously published in 1868. Only the day and the month will therefore be the subject of precision. Other elements of the archive are sometimes used; when this is the case, the reference is specified. A Walewski archive in the Diplomatic Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is currently being examined, will also be used on an ad hoc basis.

[2] Éric Anceau, «Colonna Walewski», in Dictionnaire des députés sous le Second Empire, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1999.

[3] Le Mémorial de la Loire de St-Étienne, 29 September; La Presse, 29 September; Le roi de Bruxelles, 30 September.

[4]  L’Évènement, 30 September.

[5] Le Courrier du Bas-Rhin, 30 September relates the details of the Count’s last moments, and these were republished elsewhere, including in: La Patrie, 30 September; Le Monde, 30 September; Journal de Paris, 30 September; Le Temps, 30 September; Journal des Débats, 30 September, etc.

[6] Le Gaulois, 2 October; Françoise de Bernardy, Walewski Le Fils polonais de Napoléon, Paris: Perrin, 1976, p. 353.

[7] L’Époque, 30 September; La Gazette des étrangers, 30 September.

[8] L’Union libérale de Tours, 29 September.

[9] Among the numerous examples, Le Courrier de la Vienne de Poitiers, 29 September; Le Figaro, 29 September, L’Union libérale de Tours, 29 September; Mémorial d’Amiens, 29 September; Journal d’Ille-et-Vilaine de Rennes, 29 September, etc.

[10] Le Mémorial de St-Étienne, 29 September; Le Moniteur du Calvados, 29 September; Le Courrier de la Vienne de Poitiers, 29 September; L’Union de l’Ouest d’Angers, 30 September.

[11] Éric Anceau, «Napoléon III, l’Allemagne et l’Europe en 1866», in Jean-Noël Grandhomme (ed.), 1866, une querelle d’Allemands ? Perceptions croisées et mémoire(s) d’un moment de l’histoire européenne, Brussels: Peter Lang, 2018, p. 311.

[12] “(…) it was a question of attaching Bavaria to France in the event of European events, and of securing against Prussia the assistance of the main State of Southern Germany; but time will have been lacking for the negotiator to come and report on his mission”. La France centrale de Blois, 30 September.

[13] “(…) to offer either Bavaria or Württemberg an increase in the kingdom in exchange for a gentle and complacent neutrality towards France”. L’Avenir d’Auch, 1st October.

[14] Le Figaro, of 30 September: “According to rumours, Mr. Walewski was rushing back to Paris to take the foreign affairs portfolio”.

[15] V. account of the last hours, La Liberté, 30 September.

[16] Le Courrier du Bas-Rhin, de Strasbourg, 30 September. The journalist Donna writing in La Presse, 29 September: “His death surprised all who knew his robust health and life’s activity”.

[17] Fonds d’Archives Walewski ACW/BIO/32/3. A brief autopsy of the breast revealed that the pericardium was considerably distended and its cavity completely filled by a blood clot. The search for the cause of the bleeding shows that, towards the base of the left atrium, slightly backwards, a 6-to-8-mm tear through which the blood had spilled into the pericardium. The autopsy was originally scheduled to be performed in Paris due to the transfer on Monday. Finally, the transfer was delayed until Tuesday 29 September, forcing the autopsy to be carried out in Strasbourg at 3 pm a few hours before departure.

[18] The expression is from Louis Combes, in an article from Le Nain jaune, 24 October, 1867. V. Roger Bellet, Presse et journalisme sous le Second Empire, Paris, Armand Colin, 1967, p. 46, note 14.

[19] Le Moniteur universel, 28 September. L’Évènement, 30 September.

[20] L’Évènement, of 30 September.

[21] Charles-Zanobi-Rodolphe born 4 June 1848 in Florence, legitimate son of the Count and Countess Walewski.

[22] Alexandre-Antoine-Jean was born on 3 November, 1844 in Marly-le-Roi. From his first marriage to Lady Catherine Montagu, Walewski had had a son, George, but he died aged 14 months (7 March 1834-9 May 1835).

[23] At the time of his father’s death, Alexandre-Antoine-Jean was French consul in Beirut. Le Nouvelliste de Rouen, 30 September; Le Mémorial d’Amiens, 30 September; Le Salut Public de Lyon, 30 September; La Franche Comté de Besançon, Le Journal de Genève, L’Union bretonne de Nantes, Le Courrier des Ardennes de Mézières, Le Courrier de l’Eure d’Evreux, L’Union bourguignonne de Dijon, 30 September.

[24] La France centrale de Blois, 30 September.

[25] Le courrier du Bas-Rhin de Strasbourg, 29 September.

[26] Fonds d’Archives Walewski 1/ACW/BIO/321.

[27] L’Évènement, of September 30. Walewski Archives fonds 1/ACW/BIO/32/2. “In the present case, the Prefect, Baron Pron, being prevented from attending, it is the Secretary General, Mr Bessières, in his capacity as acting Prefect, who signs the authorisation to transfer the remains of His Excellency the Count of Walewski, Senator, Member of the Privy Council.”

[28] Le Courrier du Bas-Rhin de Strasbourg, of 29 September.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Éric Anceau, Napoléon III, Paris, Taillandier, 2008, p. 322. The author indicates that the imperial couple visited Biarritz every year since 1854, except in 1860 and 1869.

[31] Ibid, p. 331.

[32] According to the newspapers, this letter was sent immediately after the drama. “It would appear that the noble widow of Count Walewski received an autograph letter from the Emperor, a missive that has come today to soften the immense pain that afflicts her”. Mémorial d’Amiens, 29 September; Nouvelliste de Rouen, 29 September; La France, 29 September; Le Salut Public de Lyon, 30 September. Françoise de Bernardy implies a more delayed reaction, by dating the Emperor’s letter to 7 October, see Françoise de Bernardy, Walewski Le Fils polonais de Napoléon, Paris: Perrin, 1976, p. 355.

[33] Le Pays, 30 September.

[34] É. Anceau, « Colonna Walewski », in Dictionnaire des députés…

[35] Archives diplomatiques. Personnel 1ère Série 4158 Carton 323, feuillets 16 à 22.

[36] Archives diplomatiques. Personnel 1ère Série 4158 Carton 323, feuillet 48.

[37] Ibid.

[38] He was at that time French Consul in Beirut. Fonds d’Archives Walewski. Le Nouvelliste de Rouen, 30 September, Le Mémorial d’Amiens, 30 September, Le Salut Public de Lyon, 30 September., La Franche Comté de Besançon, Le Journal de Genève, L’Union bretonne de Nantes, Le Courrier des Ardennes de Mézières, Le Courrier de l’Eure d’Evreux, L’Union bourguignonne de Dijon, 30 September.

[39] Archives diplomatiques. Personnel 1ère Série 4158 Carton 323, feuillet 48.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] He died 2 months later. F. de Bernardy, Walewski…, p. 355.

[43] Archives diplomatiques. Personnel 1ère Série 4158 Carton 323, feuillet 48.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Archives diplomatiques. Personnel 1ère Série 4158 Carton 323, feuillet 48.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid: “Even though the role of our free colleagues would be limited to forming a natural and necessary link between the Academy and the elite of society, no choice could have been happier (…) Neither the worries nor the brilliance of the functions which raised him to the top of the political hierarchy had altered in him the affable simplicity which charmed and attached all those who approached him”.

[48] Ibid  “His birth and his tastes had placed Count Walewski in a high milieu, but his high distinction came from a more intimate and secure source: in his perfect urbanity, he had a heart”.

[49] Raphael Lahlou, «Walewski, un ˝Aiglon˝ grand commis», in Napoléon III Magazine, n° 9/2010.

[50] Archives diplomatiques. Personnel 1ère Série 4158 Carton 323, feuillet 48.

[51] Ibid.

[52]  «Mystère et résignation ! Les évènements et le temps nous apprendront si M. Walewski a perdu sa peine en Allemagne». L’Avenir d’Auch, 1 October.

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