Repatriated Remains

Monday, March 16, 2020
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, IT 00329, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, IT 00329, Hoover Institution Archives.

As though the negotiations over Britain’s departure from the European Union are not complicated and contentious enough, a group of French historians have now made an official request to the British Foreign Office that the remains of their last monarch, Emperor Napoleon III—and presumably also those of his consort the Empress Eugenie—be repatriated to France as part of the post-Brexit deal.

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War at the battle of Sedan on October 2, 1870, where Napoleon III was captured, the emperor was deposed and the Third French Republic established. The emperor, the son of Napoleon I’s younger brother, King Louis of Holland, went into exile in March 1871 in Chislehurst, a suburban district of southeast London, where he died and was buried in the Catholic church, St. Mary’s, in January 1873. When his son and heir the Prince Imperial (whom Bonapartists call Napoleon IV) was killed fighting the Zulus when he was attached to the British Army in 1879, Eugenie built a monastery at St. Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, in nearby Hampshire, with a special imperial crypt to house their remains, and later hers too.

In a somewhat romantic-yet-macabre incident, when the Versailles peace terms were published in a supplement in The Times of London in July 1919, which reversed the results of the Franco-Prussian War and returned the lost Alsace-Lorraine region to France, the 93-year-old Eugenie, less than a year from death, went down into the crypt to read all the clauses of the treaty to her late husband’s coffin.

Now the popular historian Dimitri Casali and other French historians want the Hampshire tomb to be opened and the remains of the family disinterred and taken to Les Invalides, Napoleon I’s magnificent tomb in Paris, where he was buried in December 1840 after originally being in a tomb on Saint Helena for nineteen years. Rather like the Greek government demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles (known by the politically correct as the Parthenon Sculptures) to Athens, they hope that the economic pressure on Britain to win a free trade agreement might force the British government to capitulate.

Yet the British Government does not own these Bonapartes’ remains; the monks of St. Michael’s do, and they have so far resolutely defended the Emperor and Emperor’s choice of resting place. If the couple had not wanted to be buried in Third Republic France in 1873, why would they prefer Emmanuel Macron’s Fifth Republic in 2020? Could Britain perhaps do a swap, as William I, Queen Matilda, Henry II, Richard the Lion Heart, and James II are all buried in France? Whatever happens, the French could not have chosen a more sensitive moment to make their demands.