It was to England that the Imperial family fled after the fall of the Second Empire, their first residence being at Camden Place in Chislehurst. Following the death in 1873 of her husband, Napoleon III, and that of her son, the Prince Imperial, in 1879, the Empress Eugenie was eventually to settle in a new house (a cottage built in 1860 and today a school) in the Hampshire village of Farnborough. Whilst the house was refurbished in the Victorian Gothic style, she considered that the small parish church in Chislehurst was not sufficiently august to provide noble resting places for the remains of her husband and son, and so her building of St Michael’s Abbey in 1881 was on a much more significant scale.
Designed by Gabriel Destailleur, this Victorian Gothic abbey built close to the Empress’s residence takes after Hautecombe Abbey, the monastic establishment dedicated to Saint Michael not far from Lac du Bourget where the Princes of Savoy are buried. Eugenie would regularly go to pray beside the sarcophaguses of Scottish granite donated by Queen Victoria. In accordance with Eugenie’s last wishes, on her death in 1920 she was buried above the main altar of the chapel in the crypt, flanked by the catafalcs of her husband and son in two side chapels.
St Michael’s Abbey is still used as a monastery by Benedictine monks, and they look after the imperial tombs in the crypt with great care.