Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who should have become Napoleon IV and rebuilt the Empire which had fallen after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, led only a short life. He is remembered, however, as a courageous but ill-fated young man.
An Imperial Childhood
The son of Napoleon III and Eugenie was a celebrity from his birth, on 16 March 1856, and was quickly nicknamed “the little prince”. His parents had married on the 29 January 1853; at the time Napoleon III was 45 years old and had only recently become Emperor and the pressure to produce an heir to the throne was growing. The much-awaited pregnancy was not easy, and the Empress Eugenie suffered a great deal. Indeed, the young Louis-Napoleon was to be their only son. Pope Pius IX was chosen as his godfather.
The parents of the Prince Impérial were extremely close to their child as was becoming increasingly common towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Empress Eugenie was so involved in her son’s upbringing that the child’s governess did not even live onsite and was only asked to be present at formal occasions. The Prince Impérial would always be seen at the Empress’s engagements, where he was dressed to look like his great-uncle Napoleon I. As for his father, Emperor Napoleon III, he became increasingly indulgent whenever his son was naughty or spoilt; indeed, the child had unlimited access to his father’s study. There would be no major repercussions when Louis broke the teacup made of Sèvres china that Napoleon I had used shortly before his death, or when he took a pair of scissors to the official dispatches sent by the King of Sardinia, then of Italy, Victor-Emmanuel II…
Destined for the Army
On 1 December 1856, nine-month-old Louis was signed up for the first regiment of the grenadiers of the Imperial guard. The baby appeared fascinated by the uniforms and weapons. His training on pony back began in the autumn of 1857 at the equestrian school of the Quai d’Orsay. His governesses told the stories of the Napoleonic epic to him, and by the age of four he was already wearing a child-size grenadier uniform. On 15 August 1858, the children of the grenadiers of the first battalion marched out in front of Louis who was dressed accordingly, and he was made a corporal of the first battalion of the first company. The boy was proud of his father’s 1859 campaign and he would often re-enact the war as he played by the ponds in the Tuileries gardens, where Napoleon III had a trench and bunker built. He received his regulation firearm on 9 May 1860, and he took part in a revue in the Cour du Carrousel. Three years later he began his apprenticeship at age seven, just as he would have during the Ancien Regime (the period before the French Revolution).
The End of the Second Empire and the Death of Napoleon III
When Louis was fourteen, he followed his father to the front during the Franco-Prussian war in the Lorraine. He had become separated from his father and was on his way north when he learnt of the defeat of Sedan. The young Prince took refuge in Belgium where he found out that his father had been imprisoned, and then he left for England to be reunited with his mother where the deposed Emperor soon joined them. Louis entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich on 17 November 1872 to begin his adult military training. After Napoleon III’s death in Chislehurst on 17 November 1872 following a recent gallstones operation, seventeen-year-old Louis became leader of the Bonapartists who hoped for the fall of the fragile Third Republic in France.
From then onwards, Louis channelled his thoughts solely on his future role as Emperor and adopted the name “Napoleon”. He immersed himself in his studies and deepened his political understanding; he even received a large group of French people on 15 August 1873 at Camden Place who had come to ask him to return to France where Rouher, the ex-president of Napoleon’s Council of State, was whipping up support amongst Bonapartists for his return. Since the Comte de Chambord, the Bourbon and legitimist heir to the throne of France, refused to give up the royal white flag for the tricolour flag thereby weakening the royalist position, the time seemed right for Napoleon to act. The leaders of the Bonapartist party organised a grand parade on 16 March to celebrate Louis’s eighteenth birthday and coming of age; 8,000 French made the journey to England cheer on the prince.
Becoming Napoleon IV
After 16 March, Louis graduated from Woolwich as an artillery officer like his great-uncle, Napoleon I. He perfected his knowledge of law and economics and consulted French intellectuals of the period to prepare for his return. “I am only a young man who has not yet done anything”, he would say in response to those who wished to see him return to France at that point. Given that the prince was a very religious man, he led a strict life and did everything he could to “make himself worthy of his title”. In February 1879, at the age of 23, he announced to his mother that he had asked to join the English units sent to Zululand, then a colony of the British Empire facing a revolt by the native inhabitants; Queen Victoria accepted, and the Prince was sent out with the troops.
A Dignified Death
A group of Zulus ambushed his patrol during a ceasefire on 1 June 1879 and killed two soldiers, driving off the rest of the unit. The prince tried to follow them but his old saddle, which his father had used at Sedan, gave way and he fell. Armed only with a pistol, he tried to defend himself but ultimately perished after he received seventeen spear wounds. Though they stripped his body and disarmed him, the Zulus left the Prince’s body and jewellery untouched, as they viewed him as a valiant warrior. The Prince Impérial, Napoleon IV, was killed during his quest to honour the memory of Napoleon I and his father Napoleon III. A wave of sympathy and respect for the Prince followed. His mortal remains were brought back to Great Britain and buried first in Chislehurst, before being moved to his father Napoleon III’s resting place at the Abbey of St Michael of Farnborough which Eugenie had commissioned as a final resting place for the bodies of both her husband and son.
Marie de Bruchard, August 2016 (translation Layly Moridi)