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Queen Victoria and the Bonapartes
'SUCH AN EXTRAORDINARY MAN'
'I must write a line to ask what you say to the wonderful proceedings at Paris, which really seem like a story in a book or a play!' wrote Queen Victoria to her uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians, on 4 December 1851. 'What is to be the result of it all?'
The 'wonderful proceedings' to which the thirty-two-year-old Queen was referring with such schoolgirlish enthusiasm was the coup d'état by which Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, President of the French Republic, had made himself dictator of France two days before.
The Prince President's seizure of power had come as a complete surprise to Queen Victoria. On the very day of his coup d'état she had been urging her Uncle Leopold to visit her at Osborne; the Belgian King's fears of some sort of upheaval in France had seemed to her exaggerated. 'I feel ashamed,' she now admitted, 'to have written so positively a few hours before that nothing would happen.'
The Queen should have known better. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had always been one for the unexpected. And if there was one thing about which he had never left anyone in doubt, it was his determination to make himself master of France. Reticent in most things, he had never been reticent about his ambitions. These Victoria understood well enough. It was simply that she was not yet accustomed to the deviousness of his methods. In fact, Queen Victoria did not really know a great deal about Prince Louis Napoleon.
They had met only once. This had been in the days of Louis Napoleon's exile in England, when the Queen had attended an official breakfast in Fulham in aid of a somewhat unromantic cause: the erection of baths and wash-houses in the East End of London. Other than on this one public occasion, she had never set eyes on him. She was aware that he had been born during the halcyon days of the Great Napoleon's Empire; that his father had been the Emperor's disgruntled brother Louis and his mother the Empress Josephine's daughter by her first marriage — the seductively mannered Hortense de Beauharnais. She knew, too, that since the death of Napoleon's only son in 1832, Louis Napoleon had been a very active pretender to the throne of France. However, thus far, his attempts to re-establish his uncle's Empire had been not only unsuccessful, but faintly comic.
The first attempt, made in the year before Victoria's own accession to the British throne, had taken place at Strasbourg. At dawn on 30 October 1836, the twenty-eight-year-old Prince, heading a handful of loyal Bonapartists, had presented himself to the somewhat startled French garrison and exhorted them to march behind him to Paris. The garrison had refused to do any such thing. Most of the soldiers had not even believed that this unheroic-looking young man was the Great Napoleon's nephew. Prince Louis Napoleon had been arrested and sent to Paris, where King Louis Philippe, the current French sovereign, had decided to play down the incident by having the impetuous pretender shipped off to New York.
Within four months the Prince was back in Europe and within four years had made yet another attempt on the throne. In August 1840 (it had been the year of Queen Victoria's marriage) he had assembled a band of fellow conspirators and set off from England in a hired steamer, bound for Boulogne. To lend the expedition the right Napoleonic touch, a tame and somewhat bedraggled-looking eagle had been bought from a boy at the Gravesend docks and chained to the mast. This second attempt had proved no less disastrous than the first. Louis Napoleon had again failed to rouse the garrison to his cause and again he had been arrested. This time Louis Philippe's government had been determined to take no chances. Prince Louis Napoleon had been sentenced to perpetual imprisonment in the fortress of Ham, in northern France.
'How long,' the pretender had remarked dryly, 'does perpetuity last in France?'
For him, it had lasted six years. He had escaped from Ham, disguised as a workman, in 1846, and had once more taken up residence in England. From here, with somewhat more circumspection but no less determination, he had continued his imperialist intrigues.
Throughout these years of Bonapartist activity, Victoria's sympathies had been with King Louis Philippe. In this she had been backed up, to the hilt, by her husband, Prince Albert. Louis Napoleon might have cut the more romantic figure, but the stolid Orleans King, besides being France's chosen sovereign, was a friend of the English Queen. The two of them had exchanged visits and the term entente cordiale, signifying an understanding between Britain and France, was first bandied about during Louis Philippe's time; not until late in his reign did a coolness develop between the two sovereigns. Then, in addition to being friends, Victoria and Louis Philippe were related through the Coburgs. Amongst other connections, Victoria's adored Uncle Leopold was married to one of King Louis Philippe's daughters. Already the fact that England was so willing to harbour a conspirator such as Louis Napoleon was a source of amazement to the Queen's Continental relatives. Was he not, besides being an irresponsible trouble-maker, the nephew of England's greatest enemy — the dreaded Napoleon? Was not his aim to revive the military glories of the Napoleonic Empire; to upset the balance of Europe, so carefully restored by the victors after Waterloo?
Louis Napoleon's chance had come, quite suddenly, in February 1848. What he had been unable to achieve through his colourful sallies against the Orleans regime was accomplished by the French themselves: King Louis Philippe was overthrown by revolution. His flight to England was followed by the proclamation of a Republic. The news threw Victoria and Albert into a state of apprehension ('All [that] our poor relations have gone through is worthy only of a dreadful romance,' she exclaimed) and Louis Napoleon into a froth of excitement. 'The Republic is proclaimed,' he cried, 'it is for me to be its master.' However, the years of adversity had taught him patience and it was not until the new Republic had passed through some months of turbulence that he made the first moves to achieve his ambition. A President of the Republic was to be elected by universal suffrage: he put his name forward as a candidate.
At this stage Queen Victoria began to take Louis Napoleon's pretensions more seriously. That he would be elected to the Presidency seemed certain (the name he bore guaranteed this), but that this softly spoken, somewhat starry-eyed adventurer with the waxed moustaches would prove to be anything more than a flash in the French political pan seemed extremely doubtful. Victoria's Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, imagined that Louis Napoleon might play the part of Richard Cromwell: by his weakness he would pave the way for the restoration of the monarchy. This was the Queen's own wish. 'In France there really ought to be a Monarchy before long, qui que ce soit,' she told her Uncle Leopold.
'Louis Napoleon's election seems certain,' she wrote on another occasion, 'and I own I wish for it as I think it will lead to something else.' Even the dethroned and exiled King Louis Philippe was in favour of Louis Napoleon's candidature.
The result of the presidential election put something of a damper on these pleasurable royal speculations. Louis Napoleon's majority was immense: he had polled the votes of almost three-quarters of the electorate. To Frenchmen thirsting, some for glory, some for order and some for an embodiment of the continuing spirit of the Great Revolution, the name Napoleon had meant far more than all the electioneering promises of his rivals. On 20 December 1848 the forty-year-old Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed President of the French Republic.
'The success of Louis Napoleon is an extraordinary event ...' wrote the Queen to King Leopold, adding with characteristic sagacity, that 'it will, however, perhaps be more difficult to get rid of him again than one at first may imagine'.
Victoria was right. Once Louis Napoleon had been elected President he set about, at first imperceptibly and then more boldly, consolidating his position. Not until he had been President of France for three years, during which time his popularity increased enormously, did he feel ready to make the next move. On 2 December 1851 — the anniversary of Austerlitz and of the first Napoleon's coronation — he staged his coup d'état. Over-night he established himself as complete master of France.
It was this bold stroke that prompted Queen Victoria to dash off those ecstatic lines to her Uncle Leopold, asking for his opinion of the 'wonderful proceedings at Paris'.
As always, King Leopold's answer was carefully considered. 'As yet one cannot form an opinion,' he wrote, 'but I am inclined to think that Louis Bonaparte will succeed.'
One of the strengths of Queen Victoria's character was that her impulsiveness was tempered by her sound common sense. No matter how emotional her initial response, in the end her reason usually prevailed. This was true of her reaction to Louis Napoleon's coup d'état. Once the first flush of excitement had worn off, she counselled calm. She hoped that King Louis Philippe's family would neither 'move a limb nor say a word' and that her government would remain entirely passive in its dealings with France. The coup d'état was to be neither condemned nor approved of; 'a strict line of neutrality and passiveness' was to be followed by Britain. With Victoria's sound advice, the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was in complete accord.
But the Queen had reckoned without her bête noire — the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. The jaunty Palmerston, without waiting for instructions, gave the coup d'état his full approval. In private conversation and with not a word to his colleagues, he assured the French Ambassador (Count Walewski, the Great Napoleon's illegitimate son by Marie Walewska) that Louis Napoleon's assumption of power had his 'entire approbation'. Particularly galling to Victoria and Albert was the fact that they heard of Palmerston's sanctioning of the coup in a roundabout fashion. Lady Normanby, wife of the British Ambassador in Paris, who disliked Palmerston as heartily as did the royal couple, was related to one of Prince Albert's private secretaries; it was in a vehement letter from Lady Normanby to this secretary that Queen Victoria first read of Palmerston's 'reckless conduct'. She could not believe it. The French government must be pretending that Palmerston had given his approval, she protested. But they were not. When the truth of Palmerston's indiscretion was confirmed, the Queen made such a fuss that the Prime Minister was obliged to demand his resignation as Foreign Secretary. It was given on 20 December 1851.
Victoria was overjoyed. For years she and Albert had been at loggerheads with the volatile Lord Palmerston. To be rid of him now was looked upon as a considerable achievement. 'I have the greatest pleasure in announcing to you a piece of news which I know will give you as much satisfaction and relief as it does to us, and will do to the whole world,' she wrote effusively to her Uncle Leopold. 'Lord Palmerston is no longer Foreign Secretary....'
That particular battle won, the Queen could turn her attention to its cause. In truth, it had been the hated Palmerston's championing of the coup, more than the coup itself, which Victoria had minded. While it had appalled some of her subjects, others had — like the Queen — accepted it more philosophically. What else could one expect from the French? After all, in a nationwide plebiscite held three weeks after the coup, some seven and a half out of eight million voters gave their approval to Louis Napoleon's seizure of power. It was not, of course, the sort of thing that one would like to see happening in England, but for fickle France, which had undergone six changes of regime in as many decades, it was not nearly so outrageous.
The great thing, claimed Queen Victoria, was to keep cool and not provoke Louis Napoleon. When her Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, assured Count Walewski that what England desired was 'the happiness and welfare of France', she expressed wholehearted approval. In a private letter to King Leopold (who tended to be more fidgety about the matter) she was more explicit.
'We shall try and keep on the best of terms with the President,' she wrote, 'who is extremely sensitive and susceptible, but for whom, I must say, I have never had any personal hostility.'
Yet, for all this, the Queen remained on her guard. She was, after all, dealing with a Napoleon. One of Louis Napoleon's first acts after the coup came as a sharp reminder of this. He forced the sale of all the property belonging to the Orleans family in France and confiscated King Louis Philippe's private fortune, thus robbing the King's sons of their inheritance. Although the proceeds were used for the most praiseworthy purpose — the erection of amenities for the poor — the dictatorial act earned him widespread condemnation. His political enemies referred to it, by an untranslatable pun, as le premier vol de l'aigle. Victoria called the move 'too dreadful and monstrous' and Albert, always more ready than his wife to think the worst of Louis Napoleon, labelled it 'a crime that cries to Heaven'.
Such scares set Britain looking to her defences. There was even some wild talk of a French plan to invade England and carry off the Queen from Osborne by a coup de main. What precisely Louis Napoleon planned to do with her, having captured her, was never explained.
Victoria refused to be panicked. On the whole, she believed in the President's peaceful intentions; yet, she admitted to King Leopold, 'with such an extraordinary man as Louis Napoleon, one can never be for one instant safe'.
Exactly how extraordinary a man he was, she was beginning to find out. A few weeks after the coup d'état, the worldly Lord Cowley replaced Lord Normanby as British Ambassador in Paris, and from Cowley's reports Victoria was able to learn something of Louis Napoleon's personality. He seemed a complete enigma. Lord Cowley professed himself utterly baffled. 'To fathom the thoughts or divine the intentions of that one individual, the Prince President of France, would sorely try the powers of the most clear-sighted,' he complained to the Queen's close associate, the Dean of Windsor.
In a dispatch to the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Malmesbury, Cowley embroidered on this theme. The President's personality seemed to be 'a strange mixture of good and evil', he wrote. 'Few approach him who are not charmed by his manners. The patience with which he listens to those who differ from him is remarkable. I am told that an angry word never escapes him....'
That the Queen should be intrigued by this sphinx-like figure is understandable. Before long she was dropping hints to Lord Malmesbury that she found Lord Cowley's reports from Paris a little too dry, too lacking in intimate information about the Prince President and his circle. The Ambassador duly enlivened his dispatches, even to the extent of reporting on Louis Napoleon's private life. Thus the Queen was no doubt informed when the bachelor President — an accomplished philanderer — finally rid himself of his English mistress, Miss Howard. 'Miss H. is, I believe,' wrote Cowley to Malmesbury, 'at last congédiée.'
As the year following the coup d'état unfolded and it became increasingly obvious that Louis Napoleon was planning to restore the Empire, Victoria came to accept the inevitable. To England's Queen, any monarchy would be better than no monarchy at all. She might titter, in private, at some of the stories that were circulating about his ambitions (one concerned an imperial crown, suspended from a triumphal arch and surmounted by the inscription 'Il l'a bien mérité'; the crown had been removed, leaving only the inscription and the dangling rope), but her official reactions were always sensible.
The question of Louis Napoleon's future title was a case in point. He planned to style himself Napoleon III, in recognition of the Great Napoleon's only son who had died in exile in 1832. This infuriated Europe's more legitimate sovereigns. How dare this adventurer, elected to power, regard the Bonapartes as an established royal dynasty? They would refuse to recognize him. But Queen Victoria would have no truck with such pigheadedness. She impressed Lord Malmesbury with the importance of Britain's not giving her Continental allies an undertaking that she would join them in refusing to acknowledge Napoleon III. 'Objectionable as this appellation no doubt is,' she wrote, 'it may hardly be worth offending France and her Ruler by refusing to recognize it....' The rest of them had no means, she added practically, of forcing Louis Napoleon to do anything that he did not want to do, 'nor would any diplomatic form of obtaining an assurance from him give us any guarantee of his not doing after all exactly what he pleases'.