Few towns can claim as a resident someone whose portrait would later appear on postage stamps and on his country’s coinage. There can be little doubt that Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the Pretender to the throne of France was the most illustrious of Leamington’s erstwhile residents. Louis, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, had, like all members of the Bonaparte family been forced into exile after his uncle’s enforced abdication in 1815. Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was born on 20 April 1808. He was the third son of Louis Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoléon I. His grandmother was Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoléon 1’s first wife. Prince Louis arrived in Leamington on 3 November 1838 accompanied by his aide-de-camp Viscount Persigny and a retinue. They had travelled by the newly-opened London to Birmingham Railway and arrived at the Regent Hotel in three carriages. After a few days at the Regent a suitably furnished house for the hunting season was found at 6 Clarendon Square. A blue plaque is displayed on this house. The Leamington Chronicle reported that ‘Some of his horses are expected from Switzerland; he has lately made some purchases of others and intends shortly to take the field in the style of an English sportsman’.
Needless to say, the presence in town of such a distinguished person promoted a great flurry of social activities of every sort among the local nobility and gentry. There were receptions and dinner parties and a number of glittering balls. A ball in aid of the Warneford Hospital was attended by five hundred people including ‘most of the distinguished and fashionable persons either visiting or resident in Leamington’. The Prince played billiards at the Upper Assembly Rooms; attended divine service at the catholic church in George Street with his entourage and hunted with the Warwickshire Hounds. He spoke good English with a slight German accent, and reportedly made something of a gaffe proposing a toast at a dinner when he made a reference to ‘the ladies of the town’ when he clearly meant to say ‘the ladies of Leamington’. Louis was a bachelor and there was much speculation in the local newspapers in late 1838 that he was to marry the Grand Duchess Olga, daughter of Nicholas 1 of Russia but such rumours were unfounded. The following year he left Leamington to actively pursue his efforts to restore the Bonapartists to power in France. Louis Napoleon was elected President of France before assuming the title of Emperor Napoleon III but his aims for France were undone by his engagement in a war with Prussia which ended in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Sedan in September 1870.
Louis-Napoléon spent his last few years in exile at Chislehurst in Kent and is buried in the crypt of Saint Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough along with the remains of his wife the Empress Eugenie and their only son the Prince Imperial. His great legacy lies in the rebuilding of Paris, replacing the narrow, cobbled medieval alleys of the old city with wide, well-paved, tree-lined avenues lit by gas. Baron Georges Haussman was charged with ensuring that Napoleon’s grandiose plans for the French capital were carried out, with the result that the whole of the central area of Paris was re-designed, town planning on a scale not seen in France since Roman times.
Alan Griffin 2013