Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Paris in 1808 and was the nephew of Napoleon I.
Louis Napoleon, as the young Napoleon III was known, became the head of the Bonaparte family upon the death of his elder brothers. Although very French, he spoke French with a slight German accent, having been to day-school in Ausburg, Bavaria, at a formative time in his life.
Prince Louis Napoleon first came to London in 1830, aged 22. He and his mother, Hortense, took a furnished house at 30 George Street in Hanover Square, Mayfair. The young prince was regarded with some suspicion by the French Ambassador and Louis was not well during his stay. He visited London Zoo, the Coliseum, Woolwich barracks (like his famous uncle, he was interested in the artillery), the Tower of London and Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames. It was at this time that he first grew the ends of his moustache and then had them waxed and curled. However, a Miss Godfrey of Tunbridge Wells, whom he was trying to impress, objected to them and he had to cut them off.
In later years, Louis Napoleon’s extravagant moustaches and imperial beard became a mask behind which he could conceal his true emotions. He would also keep his eyelids half-closed as he spoke to people, which gave him a strange, far-away, dreamy look. This was a deliberate ploy to put people off their guard.
He was recognised in London and strangers would come up to him to shake his hand, as “Boney’s nephew.” He became involved with a Mme Lennox and began a trend of involvement with women which would come to be an integral part of his character. He would go on to father several children out of wedlock.
Louis began to form an affection for England which never left him. Curiously enough, he was a visitor to Camden Place, where much later he would live as an exile. At the time of his visit, the building was owned by Henry Rowles, chairman of Globe Insurance and the contractor who built the Drury Lane theatre. Louis met Rowles’ daughter, Emily, and was much attracted to her. Rowles committed suicide in his Mayfair home in 1840 and Emily and her mother moved to Florence. Later, Emily was to send Louis parcels when he was in Hamm prison.
Louis went on to attend the opening of Parliament and stayed for some time with a small entourage at Fenton’s hotel in St James. He became quite a celebrity and toured England, visiting Southport, Wigan, Birmingham and Manchester. He installed himself at 17 Carlton House Terrace, St James, where his drawing room became a Napoleonic museum and a place of intrigue.
BECOMING NAPOLEON III
Louis Napoleon became involved in a plot against the King of France. The coup failed and he was put into Hamm prison in Germany, where he stayed for six years before escaping (although he did sire several children during his “incarceration!”). He came back to London and at the time of the 1848 Chartist Revolutions, he enrolled as a special constable in London. Incidentally, Charles Dickens was a special constable at the same time. Later, Louis was to entertain Dickens and other literary figures in London.
At last, Louis’ intrigues paid off and he became a deputy in the French parliament and was elected the first (and only) president of the Second French Republic in 1848. But that was not enough for him and his followers. In 1852, he engineered a coup d’état and ascended the throne as Emperor of France, Napoleon III, in 1853.