Ancient history

Eugénie, the beautiful Spaniard who conquered Napoleon III

Last updated:2022-07-25

Eugénie de Montijo de Guzman, Empress of the French, by Édouard-Louis Dubute. 1854. Palace Museum, Versailles • WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

At the beginning of the XX th century, it was common to see walking in the West Park, in Madrid, a small and fragile old lady, with haughty elegance. She resided in England, but when the cold of the British winter was more intense, she traveled to Spain and settled in the palace of Liria with her nephews, the Dukes of Alba. Passers-by looked at her with admiration and a certain pity. They knew she had had it all and lost it all. Her name was Eugénie de Palafox y Portocarrero and she was the last Empress of France.

Prosper Mérimée for mentor

Eugénie de Montijo, a name she took from one of her father's nobility titles, was born in Granada on May 5, 1826. Baptized by the first names of María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina, she was the daughter of Cipriano de Palafox y Portocarrero , 13 e Duke of Peñaranda, also Count of Teba and Montijo, and María Manuela Kirkpatrick de Closeburn y de Grevignée, an aristocrat of Scottish origin from whom Eugenie had inherited red hair and white skin dotted with a few freckles.

The youngest of the couple's children, she was predeceased by her sister María Francisca, nicknamed Paca, who would later become Duchess of Alba through her marriage to Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Ventimiglia.

The Count of Montijo is a recognized soldier and a man of simple morals, who finds it difficult to understand his wife's ambitions and taste for ostentation. His condition as afrance-sado – the “Frenchified” designate those who, during the Spanish War of Independence, took the side of Bonapartist France – led him to want special training for his daughters, which is why they were educated in France and England.

María Manuela Kirkpatrick shared her husband's opinion, but with other ambitions:to ensure a bright future for her daughters. For this, the Countess of Montijo calls on an old friend, the writer Prosper Mérimée, who becomes the young girls' mentor and, at the end of their studies at the Parisian school of the Sacred Heart, introduces them to high school. capital society.

An unusual beauty

In 1839, after the death of the Count of Montijo, his daughters returned to Madrid. They enter society through the front door, giving a magnificent masked ball in their palace in the Plaza del Ángel. Shortly after, in 1844, Paca fulfilled his mother's expectations by marrying the Duke of Alba. The Countess then decides to return to Paris, convinced that Eugenie will find opportunities there that will put her on an equal footing with her sister.

Endowed with an unusual beauty that deviates from the usual canons, Eugénie is refined, cultured, intelligent. According to her contemporaries, she has a strange power of seduction, which she knows how to use with ingenuity. It is therefore not difficult for her to shine in the salons she frequents with her mother, nor to attract the attention of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, then President of the Second Republic, when they are presented during a ball on April 12, 1849.

Adorned with the heroic halo surrounding his name, Louis-Napoleon has a weakness:women. He is captivated by the charm of Eugénie de Montijo.

Louis-Napoleon is the son of Louis, brother of Napoleon and short-lived King of Holland, and Hortense de Beauharnais, daughter of Empress Josephine's first marriage. He inherited the dynastic rights of the Bonapartes after the death of his older brother and Napoleon II, the only son of the former emperor. After several unsuccessful coup attempts, he was elected President of the Second Republic in 1848.

Adorned with the heroic halo surrounding his name, Louis-Napoleon has a weakness:women. He is captivated by the charm of the Countess of Teba, another title of Eugénie de Montijo. But the vagaries of political life interrupted what promised to be one of the gallant president's many love affairs:on December 2, 1851, the anniversary of the coronation of his illustrious ancestor, Louis-Napoleon staged a coup d'etat, dissolved Parliament and proclaims himself "Prince-President". A year later, with the approval of the Senate, he granted himself the title of Emperor of the French. This is the beginning of the Second Empire.

Tombeuse of a Bonaparte

However, the newly proclaimed empire needs an heir and, for that, it needs an empress. The Countess of Montijo sees the sky opening up – and no doubt this is also the case for her daughter. At that time, Eugenie de Montijo had already ruled out any idea of ​​romance, since she was scorned by the Duke of Alba, who preferred her sister Paca, and by the Marquis of Alcañices, José de Osorio, whose says he was her great love.

The libertine reputation of Napoleon's nephew and the twenty years that separate them do not seem to have posed a problem. Dazzled by the possibility of becoming Empress of the French, Eugenie knows how to use her charms wisely, and she makes the Emperor fall at her feet.

Rumor has it that, when he asked her the way to get to her room, Eugenie de Montijo replied:“By the chapel, Sire! The anecdote, which has also been attributed to the start of Anne Boleyn's relationship with the English ruler Henry VIII, is undoubtedly made up. Still, against the advice of a good part of the court and the political sphere who saw her as a foreigner, Eugenie obtained what others had tried without success:to retain a conquered Bonaparte at her side.

On January 30, 1853, the bride and groom traveled to the cathedral at Notre-Dame in the carriage used by Napoleon and Josephine on their coronation day in 1804.

The wedding was celebrated at Notre-Dame on January 30, 1853. The bride and groom traveled to the cathedral in the carriage used by Napoleon and Josephine on the day of their coronation in 1804. The disproportionate staging of the ceremony revived the splendours of Versailles and clearly foreshadows what will be the Second Empire:a historic moment in which France will regain a central place in the European political concert, while Paris becomes a model European capital through its urban redevelopment, and the court, although bourgeois in its uses, unfolds an aristocratic splendor.

From the day of her wedding, Eugenie knows that she will not be satisfied with a decorative role with her imperial husband. To begin with, she only accepted the 600,000 francs offered to her by the town hall of Paris as a wedding gift on the condition that they would be used to found the first of the many charitable institutions that would be born under her reign. When, on March 16, 1856, her son Louis Napoléon was born, after two aborted pregnancies, she considered that she had now accomplished her mission by giving an heir to the throne and became fully involved in imperial politics.

The regent takes power

Eugenie enjoys her husband's approval for this. The latter will also appoint her regent the three times when circumstances force her to step away from the throne:during the Italian campaign in 1859, when the emperor goes to Algeria in 1865, and when he participates in the Franco-Prussian war, which brought about the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. His political activity did not stop there. A devout Catholic, she does not hesitate to support the most conservative parties, which earns her the hostility of part of the political class.

Despite her militant Bonapartism, Eugénie de Montijo did not hide her admiration for Marie-Antoinette. During her honeymoon at the Château de Saint-Cloud, near Paris, she insisted on occupying the apartments where the last queen of the Ancien Régime stayed. And, as had been the case for the latter, Eugenie acquired a reputation for frivolity and arrogance.

It is certain, however, that the Empress became a fashion icon. Not out of vanity, because she simply considers her wardrobe as one of the obligations linked to her function. To this end, she reaches an agreement with her husband to promote, through her clothing and jewelry, the industrial sectors that need it most, be it jewelry, trade or textiles.

Despite her militant Bonapartism, Eugénie de Montijo did not hide her admiration for Marie-Antoinette, from whom she acquired the same reputation for frivolity and arrogance.

This behavior will contribute to energize certain economic sectors, such as silk factories in Lyon, and its alliance with the couturier Charles Frederick Worth as well as its passion for jewelery and accessories will be decisive in making Paris the engine of international fashion, which which will greatly benefit the national economy.

Unfortunately, most of his contemporaries do not see things from this angle. The Empress is aware of this. In exile, she wrote to her friend and biographer Lucien Daudet:"I have been reproached for being frivolous and for having loved the toilet too much, but it is absurd, it is not realizing the role that a sovereign has to play, like an actress, but it's more difficult! The toilet is part of this role. »

Her discredit increases when she defends the French intervention in the Mexican adventure of Maximilien de Habsbourg in 1867, which will end with the execution of the latter and important losses among the French troops.

This aspect of her reign makes us forget her social work as the founder of asylums, orphanages and hospitals, her protection of the research work of Louis Pasteur, her involvement in the construction of the Suez Canal or her intervention in the many of the pardons granted by the Emperor, which saved the lives of many of his political enemies.

The people and the politicians blamed the decline of the empire on what they called “the Spaniard”, a nickname reminiscent of the contemptuous “Austrian” given to Marie-Antoinette.

Exile and mourning

In 1870, the French defeat at Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War was the final straw. With Napoleon III imprisoned after the battle and the proclamation of the Third Republic, the Empress and her son had to flee to England. They settled in the Camden Place estate in Chislehurst, where the deposed Emperor joined them in 1871 after his release.

Despite everything, during her first years of exile, and particularly after the death of Napoleon III in 1873, Eugénie continued to conspire so that her son regained the throne. It will be impossible. The republic is already well established in France, and Eugénie's projects come to an end with the death of the young man on the 1 st June 1879:enlisted as a volunteer with British troops fighting the Zulus in southern Africa, he was ambushed while on a reconnaissance mission.

Eugénie de Montijo survived her son for forty years, but she was no longer the same. She abandoned all political involvement and devoted herself to her pious works. After settling in Farnborough, she had a mausoleum built near her residence for father and son, Saint-Michel Abbey, which she entrusted to the care of Benedictine brothers.

Little by little, the beauty and elegance that had been celebrated by Winterhalter, favorite portraitist of the crowned heads of Europe, and Worth, his favorite fashion designer, the predecessor of the great French couturiers of the XX th century, were falling into oblivion. century. Withdrawn to her property, she leaves behind her ambition, her talent for political intrigue, her husband's multiple infidelities and the disaffection of her people.

In her last years, she divided her time between England and Spain, where she took refuge, alone, with her nephews, the Dukes of Alba. This is where she found herself on July 11, 1920, when she succumbed to a kidney problem. Her body is repatriated to England to be buried with her husband and son. Dead, Empress Eugénie de Montijo entered into legend.

Find out more
Empress Eugenie. The obsession with honor, by Raphaël Dargent, Belin, 2017.

Birth, in Granada, of María Eugenia de Palafox y Portocarrero, daughter of the Count of Montijo and María Manuela Kirkpatrick.
Eugenie marries Napoleon III, Emperor of the French and Napoleon's nephew, in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
After the defeat at Sedan, Eugénie and her son went into exile in Great Britain. The emperor, deposed, joined his family there in 1871.
While Eugenie conspires to get her son back to the throne, he dies during the Anglo-Zulu War.
Eugénie de Montijo dies while spending a few days in Spain with her nephews, the Dukes of Alba.

A strange and personal charm
Madame Carette, reader of Eugénie de Montijo, describes her as follows:“Her features were regular, and the extremely delicate line of her profile had the perfection of an antique medal, with […] a very personal charm , a little strange even, which made it impossible to compare her to any other woman. The forehead, high and straight, was drawn in at the temples. The eyebrows, long and slender, had a little slant. The eyelids […] followed the line of the eyebrows, veiling the fairly close eyes […]:two beautiful eyes, of a deep, vivid blue, shrouded in shadow, full of soul, energy and gentleness. »