Louis Napoleon, the political exile in England, part one: 1830-1838

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Out of his sixty-five years on this planet, Louis Napoleon, future-Napoleon III, spent only twenty-eight of them in France. The rest of his life was spent in exile, whether in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, England or (exceedingly briefly) the United States. It is his stay in, and relationship with, Britain which I propose to discuss here, a Britain whose mythical reputation was based on what at the time was called liberty – indeed, his mother Hortense in her memoirs claimed that it was clearly visible there – and a London renowned as a home for exiles. His visit to the country and his frequenting of liberal circles were to a have profound effect on his political make-up. His socialist, Saint-Simonian sentiments were forged there in the difficult years of exile when he was searching for a role to play in the world post Napoleon I.
Louis Napoleon was the product of a broken home. His parents had lived apart for most of his childhood; and he had at the same time been separated from his beloved elder brother, Napoleon Louis – the latter lived in Italy with their father, Louis, the emperor Napoleon's brother and ex-king of Holland. On Louis Napoleon's majority, he was to travel to Rome to meet his relations (grandmother, uncles, aunts and his father) and to find his feet as a conspirator and political activist. But the two brothers' plan to put a Bonaparte, namely, the King of Rome, on a throne in Rome in 1830-31 was a disaster. Subsequently pursued by Austrian troops in Italy, Louis' sons were forced to flee and in their flight would catch measles, with Napoleon Louis dying of it in Forlì. And there were rumours (even Louis their father believed them) that the elder son, Napoleon Louis, had been killed by his erstwhile co-conspirators. In short, when the young Louis Napoleon first set foot in Britain on 10 May, 1831, after having fled through Italy and France with his mother, he was twenty-two years old. He was recovering from near death by measles and, one could well imagine, in the after-shock of his brother's death. Perhaps it was as a direct result of the young man's state of mind that the three months spent in the British capital were frenzied, packed with conspiracies and the fair sex.
When mother and son arrived in the London, they took rooms in Fenton's, a fashionable hotel at 63 St James's Street. Finding this too expensive and inconvenient, they soon moved their lodgings about half a mile to the north, round the back of Bond Street, to no. 30 George Street, where they were besieged not only by well wishers and liberals but also by ‘Napoleonists' eager to start conspiracies to take advantage of the weakness of Louis-Philippe who had recently (and weakly, it was thought) acceded to the throne of France. Some active ‘Napoleonist' party members, namely, Count Lennox, the painter Innocent-Louis Goubaud and Louis Belmontet, were to obtain a monthly 25,000 francs from Hortense as funding for their (in the end, failed) plot in the spring and summer of 1831. Louis too was to indulge his passion for conspiracies, frequenting (inter alia) his cousin Achille Murat, the impecunious but ambitious son of Joachim Murat (ex-King of Naples); indeed Achille was particularly active in the lands soon to become the kingdom of Belgium. But Louis-Philippe's spies were busy in London, keeping a close eye on Hortense and her entourage in the overheated diplomatic climate surrounding the creation of the buffer territory south of the Low Countries. Some rumours even claimed (absurdly) that Hortense was preparing to place her son on the throne of the new kingdom. Mother and son were clearly a centre of attention, both for financial and political reasons. Presumably seeing that they were too closely watched, Hortense decided that it would be better to leave Britain and return to the relative low-key safety of Switzerland and Arenenberg; but not before passing via the spa town of Tunbridge Wells (Kent) to take the waters, and Louis Napoleon took advantage of the freedom of the spa to turn his attention to the ladies (and they indeed to him). One particular favourite was Miss Godfrey. Politics however were to prevent this (and his other liaisons) becoming any more than a fling. As Valérie Masuyer, Hortense's companion, recorded in her memoirs, Louis himself recognised that the nephew of Napoleon could never marry an Englishwoman…
This short period in Britain had been exceedingly lively. Visits to the theatre (and indeed the renowned dancing hall, Almacks, round the corner from Fenton's) had provided the chance to meet with young ladies, and rendezvous with ‘Napoleonists' had fanned the young man's ardour for conspiracies. And he was soon to be back in the British capital, once again for political reasons.
Slightly more than a year after his first visit, Louis Napoleon returned to London to be present at a family meeting called by Louis' uncle, Joseph, in the autumn of 1832. In December 1831, Hortense had sent two emissaries to Joseph in America, namely, the painter, fervent ‘Napoleonist' and the duke of Reichstadt's ex-drawing master, Goubaud and Joseph Orsi (son of a banker from Livorno and friend of Louis-Napoléon); both were to urge Joseph to make his move in France to overturn Louis-Philippe. This had clearly had some effect as Joseph was to do all in his power to return to Europe (in particular London) to mastermind Napoleonist party politics from close to France. Louis travelled to the meeting in the British capital with his friend and political ally, the Italian Francesco Comte Arese. We know from Joseph's correspondence with Hortense that Louis arrived in London sometime before 26 November, 1832. He was soon joined by his brother's widow (and Joseph's daughter), Charlotte. Louis Napoleon was to take Charlotte around London showing her the shops on Regent Street and the sites. He was also mentioned in the newspapers. In February, the Court Journal first noted the interest he had expressed at the opening of Parliament and in March the same paper described him as “a fine military-looking young man, bearing a considerable resemblance to Napoleon”… Also back in London was Achille Murat. And in his conspiratorial ways, Louis Napoleon was beginning to resemble him… On this first meeting with the adult Louis Napoleon, Joseph described him as “doux, docile, appliqué, plein d'honneur et de délicatesse”, but only three months later the emperor's brother considered Louis and Achille hotheads. After the publication of the (auto)biography of Joseph in London early in 1833, there was a split between Joseph's party and that of Louis's. Louis was frustrated with Joseph's eternal caution, and Joseph saw Louis as prey to the intrigues of plotters in a city he called “an immense Babylon”. Indeed Louis was soon to quit the city, leaving on 8 February, 1833, for Liverpool with Arese. They were also to visit Belgium together, much against his uncle's wishes. It was clear in Louis' mind at least that Joseph represented the past of ‘Napoleonism', and that he represented the future. Louis was back in Arenenberg (out of harm's way) in May.
But it was not to be Louis' last visit to Britain; he was to come again in 1837. Following the failed coup attempt in Strasbourg in October 1836 (Louis was now 28), he was exiled to America. Three months after arriving on American soil he received urgent injunctions to return – his mother Hortense was dying. So booking a passage on the steam packet George Washington on 12 June, he landed at Liverpool on 9 July, hoping to be able to progress to Arenenberg via Prussia. But he was unable to get a passport from the Prussian legation in London. And contact with his uncle Joseph (who was still living in London) showed that there a complete rupture between them. Indeed, Joseph deliberately left the city in order to avoid Louis and wrote him a letter leaving him in no doubts as to the poor state of their relationship. Louis stayed at Fenton's Hotel again, impatiently waiting for passports so as to be able to travel to the bedside of his ailing mother, considering himself (in a rather self-pitying way) to be the ‘Pariah of Europe and of my family' (as he wrote to his father at the time). A passport request to the Austrian embassy was similarly rejected (and details of the request were communicated to Louis Philippe's ambassador in London). In the end, Louis broke the stalemate by getting himself an American passport, under the name of Robinson, which was signed by the Swiss minister in London without hesitation. And in true apprentice-conspirator style, he shook off his British police surveillance with a neatly executed switch: he travelled in a brand-new carriage with all his luggage out of London to Richmond; the following day, he took a swift carriage (post chaise) back to London (without luggage), alighted at the first toll gate, took a public omnibus and disappeared into the crowd, leaving the 'Peelers' flatfooted. He was next spotted boarding the steamer Batavier on 31 July, heading for Rotterdam. He reached Arenenberg on 4th August and spent the following three months at his mother's bedside. She died early on the morning of 5th October, 1837.
He was to return to Britain a mere 15 months later (25 October, 1838), this time in in completely different circumstances, with the full media spotlight on him, as “Napoleon III – a new pretender”, to quote the newspaper L'Europe Industrielle. Now as sole heir to his mother's fortune, he took his role seriously. His suite numbered seven persons, including a doctor and two personal retainers. After wintering in Leamington Spa (where he was the talk of the town) he returned to London early in February 1839 to take up residence in a splendid new Nash house in Carlton House Terrace (over looking the Mall, and still less than a mile from Fenton's or 30 George Street). Here the style was exceedingly grand, and he gave the impression that he was going to stay for a while. He unpacked his Napoleonic memorabilia and created a sort of museum. As Jerrold his early biographer noted: “His establishment consisted of seventeen persons. He had a pair of carriage horses, a horse for his cab, and two saddle horses. He rode and drove out daily; and … the Prince's little tiger behind his cabriolet afforded infinite amusement to his French household.” His cook was the envy of London society. And most importantly for his prospects, he went about in a carriage bearing an Imperial eagle on the door panels. He furthermore sponsored two political clubs and two Bonapartist newspapers in Paris, Le Commerce (soon sold) and La Capitole (founded by Louis himself with a partner, the Marquis de Crouy-Chanel). Louis moved in the spotlight of liberal society and was frequently seen at events organised by Lady Blessington. He became friends with the radical MP for Lincoln, Edward Bulwer. Disraeli was said to admire him and the latter modelled the character of Lord Beaconsfield on him in his novel Endymion. Louis partied frequently, notably at Almack's, and had his own prominent box at the Opera. He also published the first version of his work, Des idées napoloniennes, and in August participated in the famous Eglinton Tournament, a sumptuous mediaeval jousting re-enactment organised in Scotland by the very wealth Scottish nobleman Archibald William, 13th Earl of Eglinton. This fascination for Medievalia was to re-surface when he was emperor in France with the construction of the mock Mediaeval castle of Pierrefonds close to Compiègne. The remaining months of 1839 and the beginning of 1840 were spent organising the Boulogne coup d'état, designed to coincide with the return of Napoleon I's body to France – the Belle-Poule left France for St Helena early in July 1840. The steamer Edinburgh Castle left Gravesend bearing Louis and his mercenaries towards the attempted coup on 5th August 1840. Forty-eight hours later in the France, however, the coup had failed, and Louis was once again in police custody, soon to be sent to Ham. Little did he know that he several years he would return to Britain, this time for one final, triumphal time.
To be continued…

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