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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Shadow Emperor

A Biography of Napoleon III

Alan Strauss-Schom

St. Martin's Press




To rule in France one must either be born in grandeur … or else

be capable of distinguishing oneself above all others.…1


I believe in Fate. If my body has miraculously escaped danger,

if my soul has managed to overcome every obstacle, it is because

I have been called upon to achieve something of significance.2


Fine carriages bearing famous gilded imperial coats of arms and elegant phaetons drawn by sleek, well-groomed horses were not an uncommon sight between the Rue de Mont Blanc and here before the stately mansion at 8 Rue Laffitte (then Cerutti). By four o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 20, 1808, traffic was brought to a standstill, however, and even the troops in dress uniform lining the street could do nothing about it, a queue forming as these equipages passed through the large double iron gates and into the spacious cobbled courtyard, where these very unusual guests in elegant court costume descended.3

Even in terms of imperial court receptions, the new arrivals were impressive, brought here on this special occasion to witness the signing of the acte de naissance, the certificate attesting to the birth of Holland’s queen Hortense’s latest son earlier this day. What was not only peculiar but unique about today’s ceremony was the fact that on the document now presented, the space where the names of the newly born boy should have been printed was left blank. Nevertheless, the reason was simple enough, for Emperor Napoléon was not present, and no child of the imperial family could be named without his approval and blessing. If the emperor could be excused, the absence of King Louis, the child’s father, could not, nor did his ambassador today provide a reason for his remaining in Holland. But of course the rift, the official separation of Louis and Hortense, was hardly a secret in court circles.

On the second of June, Napoléon finally announced the baby’s name: Charles-Louis Napoléon, better known as Prince Louis Napoléon, the future ruler of France as Napoléon III.4

* * *

Since the fall of Napoléon’s Empire in 1815, existence for ex-queen Hortense, now known officially as the Duchess de Saint-Leu, had been far more complicated and painful, indeed a veritable nightmare. For as charming and delightful as the five Allied rulers found the lovely daughter of Joséphine, nevertheless she was an important “political” figure as the wife of Napoléon’s brother Louis, whose two surviving sons—Princes Napoléon Louis Bonaparte and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte—stood in line to the imperial succession. The new Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, banned Hortense, and all members of the Bonaparte clan, from French soil. Traveling to Aix-les-Bains (Savoy), she and her sons had fled to Switzerland and then across the German frontier to Constance in southern Bavaria, only to be ordered out of that country. In 1816, Hortense’s cousin, Stéphanie de Beauharnais, now the Grand Duchess of Baden, offered her and her sons a haven at Carlsberg, only for Hortense to find herself and her family obliged to move once more when a relentless Louis XVIII put great pressure on the Grand Duke of Baden as well. Uprooted again for at least the fifth time with young sons in tow, a by now desperate Hortense appealed to her brother, Eugène de Beauharnais, as the son-in-law of King Maximilian I of Bavaria, for help.

Overcoming the king’s anxieties, Eugene’s intervention proved successful, and by February 1817 Hortense was authorized by the five Allies to settle in the prosperous medieval city of Augsburg in western Bavaria.

In 1817 the Swiss Federated Government—through the council of the northern Canton of Thurgau—also issued permission for Hortense to settle in Switzerland. After two years of perpetual peregrinations and anxiety, she could now purchase her own house, in fact two of them (including the nearby Swiss estate of Arenenberg). At the same time, after long, difficult negotiations, a settlement was reached with Louis Bonaparte. Their eldest son, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte, would remain with his father in Italy, while his younger brother, Prince Louis Napoléon, the future emperor, would be brought up by Hortense.

The past couple of years of continuous personal upheaval and uncertainty had taken a permanent toll on both Hortense and her son Louis Napoléon. Always at the back of her mind was the anxiety that soldiers would once again appear on her doorstep with signed orders from the British Foreign Office and the other four members of the Allied coalition to expel her and her young family from yet another country. That young Prince Louis Napoléon became as cautious and wary as his mother of people and of the proffered friendship of newcomers was hardly surprising. Who in the final analysis could they really trust and rely upon? That anxiety remained with the prince the rest of his life. And this applied within the family as well, where some of their most determined enemies were to be found, including the otherwise mild Joseph Bonaparte.

From the day of his marriage to Joséphine, Napoléon himself had had to contend with the open jealousy and hostility of his mother, Letizia, uncle Fesch, brothers Joseph, Louis, Lucien, and, sporadically, Jérôme, not to mention his sisters. This enmity was only intensified following the imperial coronation in December 1804.

Now, more than a dozen years later, with Napoléon thousands of miles away on St. Helena and the family dispersed to the four winds, this Corsican animosity toward Hortense and her sons remained undiminished. During the empire they had squabbled regarding the Napoleonic succession. That Napoléon subsequently changed the order of that succession only intensified bitter familial rivalry that continued to this day, but was now aimed at Hortense and her two Bonaparte sons, who were high up on the list to succeed to the throne.

Napoléon I had left his imprint on France. He had created a whole new post-revolutionary society and world in his own image and with it a whole new national mystique. Millions of Frenchmen had served in his armies and his state government. Millions of families, indeed every French man, woman, and child, had been affected by this dazzling if destructive genius who had altered their lives, while at the same time rampaged across the face of Europe like a rogue boar, suppressing kingdoms, monarchs, national frontiers, and political and legal systems, filling millions of graves in the process. Hundreds of cities, towns, and villages had been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of war refugees were forced to flee their ruined homes, and many tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, all because a madman wanted to satisfy his ego and conquer the world. There had been nothing like him and his bewildering legacy in two thousand years of European history.

* * *

After the fall of Napoléon in 1815 and the dispersal of the Bonaparte clan, the question remained: How were the following generations going to deal with this ill-defined and unresolved heritage? How real and lasting was it? Would it reemerge, and if so how, in what guise? And if this imperial ghost of the past should rematerialize, who would be its heir, and what legacy would he offer? As Napoléon had rightly predicted on distant St. Helena, “It will be difficult to make me completely disappear from the public memory.”

A Bonaparte heir was indeed to emerge, but it is of course quite impossible to replicate, to resurrect the past, as a France of the future under a new Napoleonic empire was to prove yet again.

* * *

For the first time in his life the nine-year-old Prince Louis Napoléon had a permanent roof over his head in 1817, his first home, in Augsburg, where he soon attended regular classes at the gymnasium, or high school, with other members of the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie, and he was cautiously happy. Gradually, the anxiety of the volcanic events of the past three years following the fall of Napoléon I now eased with his new daily route. His classes were in German, of course, and he quickly became fluent in that language, gradually coming to the point where he spoke French at home with a German accent, which remained with him the rest of his life.

Most of the next ten years he spent at Augsburg, with occasional sojourns across Lake Constance to their estate at Arenenberg, where Hortense was supervising the reconstruction and extensions to the main house and laying out a new garden to resemble that of the Malmaison of her youth.5 They would also spend several weeks each winter and summer in Milan, Florence, and especially in Rome, where Louis Napoléon made a few new friends, including Francesco Arese, and became fluent in Italian, a language, like the country, he loved.

Although never more than an average student, he always looked forward to the resumption of his studies in Augsburg each autumn. He was an unusually curious student and enjoyed classical history, geography and languages, mathematics, physics, and, later, chemistry. Although he had no ear for music and did not like classical concerts, he excelled in dancing and drawing. In addition, he took riding and fencing lessons, becoming adept in both. If he attended frequent hunts at the estates of the local aristocracy and of his uncle Eugène de Beauharnais, it was more for the social gatherings and the ladies in particular. Unlike the landed gentry, the Bonapartes were never renowned as sportsmen.

The center of the boy’s daily existence, however, was with Hortense, especially after the removal of his brother, Napoléon Louis (1804-1831), to Florence to live with his father. The two surviving brothers remained very close, and despite the tedious necessity of having to pass all their correspondence through the police, they wrote regularly and were able to visit each other for a few weeks each year.

When Prince Louis Napoléon settled in at Augsburg, in addition to servants, he acquired several tutors, and these individuals had to be carefully vetted. Teachers, after all, introduce ideas, a dangerous commodity. The prince’s education was of special interest to the Allies, and the background checks on his private tutors were rigorous. These teachers incuded Abbé Bertrand, Dr. Hase, Colonel Armandi, Messrs. Gastard and Vieillard, General Dufour, and the prince’s favorite, Philippe Lebas.6 But in the case of Louis Napoléon, who was in line to succeed to the Bonaparte crown, that approval did not suffice so far as surveillance was concerned, and when Lebas went to visit his family in Paris each year, French police followed him to assure the Paris prefect of police (and Louis XVIII’s minister of the interior) that he was not on an errand for Prince Louis Napoléon, plotting against the French government. His mail was intercepted and his private papers regularly rifled when traveling. After Hortense let one of her maids go, that woman was interrogated by the French police. Refusing to cooperate and disclose anything to the police, she instead praised her former employer “who does so much good in that country, for which she is much loved.”7 Hortense’s faithful lady-in-waiting, Mlle. Cochelet, was likewise questioned when she visited Paris, and she and her son were also under constant surveillance by French agents, both in Augsburg and at Arenenberg.

This police work in Switzerland was directed through the French foreign office and by the French minister accredited to Bern, Auguste de Talleyrand.8 All these police reports were eventually dispatched to the French foreign minister, who, in serious cases, discussed them in turn with the heads of state or foreign ministers of England, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, as signatories of the Congress of Vienna. They continued to use spies in and with contacts to Arenenberg. Bribes did work occasionally. “A tailor by the name of Joseph Gruber works for the son of Mme. Hortense,” read one police report. “This tailor has few qualms when it comes to money which he is very fond of, and he turns out to be a regular gossip.” Returning to Switzerland year after year, he proved a reliable source.9 Even behind the secure doors of the chateau of Arenenberg, Louis Napoléon and the Duchess of Saint-Leu could trust no one, and the prince never came to consider it anything but a temporary abode until he could return to France permanently.

A very tight lead was kept on Hortense and her two surviving sons. When each year Prince Louis Napoléon was sent to visit his father in Florence, his brother, Napoléon Louis, went on an exchange visit to Arenenberg to stay with his mother, the two brothers passing as they traveled. But each foreign journey required weeks of prior police work to ensure that the Bonaparte clan had no secret agenda. Indeed, every member of the family was subject to rigorous control. Louis Napoléon’s father personally rebuked him, however, when the Allies delayed authorization for his visit. The French police even interfered with the burial ceremony the Bonapartes had arranged for their mother, Letizia, in 1836. Napoléon’s little Elban escapade in 1815 had taught them a very bitter and costly lesson indeed.10

* * *

From his earliest youth Prince Louis Napoléon lived in visceral fear and trepidation of his father, ex-king Louis Bonaparte, not a fear of physical abuse, but of his father’s unrelenting criticism of everything the boy did. This anxiety, the constant necessity of seeking his father’s approval, continued right into Louis Napoléon’s late thirties and up to the time of his father’s death in 1846. No one can begin to understand Napoléon III without fully comprehending the significance of that negative father-son relationship, leaving a much battered ego and sense of self-esteem helplessly suppressed and humiliated by a twisted, unstable father.

The death of their eldest son, Napoléon-Louis-Charles, at the age of five in 1807 had brought a fleeting reconciliation between a grieving Hortense and Louis. Louis Bonaparte’s remaining paternal affection was then transferred to his second eldest, Napoléon Louis. As for the third son, Prince Louis Napoléon, there was to be no affection whatsoever. Thereafter there was the recurrent, if false, rumor that Louis Napoléon, living with Hortense, was illegitimate. The final proof of the ex-king’s belief that he was the father came at the time of his death in 1846 when he left his entire estate to him. But from the start the relationship between father and son was most difficult, indeed painful, and to prove the greatest and most persistent source of anguish of Louis Napoléon’s life.

Copyright © 2018 by Alan Strauss-Schom