Forgotten Local Histories: Napoleon III's visit to Leamington causes great excitement and press interest

This week, local historian George Evans-Hulme explores the history of Prince Louis Napoleon’s visit to Leamington, including his attendance at parties, a battle with the press, and a romantic controversy. George Evans-Hulme is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a member of the Kenilworth History and Archaeology Society. He has previously written and researched for BBC History Extra, the House of Commons, and the Illustrated London News.

Heritage sign on the façade of Louis Napoleon’s house in Leamington
Heritage sign on the façade of Louis Napoleon’s house in Leamington
Heritage sign on the façade of Louis Napoleon’s house in Leamington

The illustrious visitor

Since arriving in Leamington Spa in late-October 1838, Prince Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte (and future Napoleon III) had elicited a positive response from locals.

The prince, who had received international prominence following his (failed) coup d’etat attempt in France, and as the cause of an international incident between France and Switzerland, was staying in the spa town for the winter season.

The house occupied by Louis Napoleon during his stay in Leamington
The house occupied by Louis Napoleon during his stay in Leamington
The house occupied by Louis Napoleon during his stay in Leamington

‘Our illustrious visitor’, wrote the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, on November 24, ‘has excited great interest among all classes during his stay here and everyone has shown the greatest desire to make Leamington agreeable to him’.

By the time of this report, the prince had moved out of the Regent Hotel and was living in a property at the south end of Clarendon Square where he hosted many dinner parties (although he was invited out to even more).

A special dinner guest

One of the first major events Louis Napoleon attended was a dinner held in honour of Sir Edward Mostyn (a prominent sportsman and regular visitor to Leamington Spa) at the Regent Hotel on November 12.

Napoleon III
Napoleon III
Napoleon III

The prince was toasted by Lord Teynham, who expressed the ‘kindness and goodwill’ the people of the town felt for ‘the illustrious stranger’. Louis Napoleon, in response, praised the independence, generosity and kindness of his hosts.

In the words of historian Ivor Guest, Louis Napoleon could ‘occasionally be seen’ hunting with the Warwickshire Hunt. He had brought his own horses with him from Switzerland which were probably of interest to Sir Edward (who was a keen horseman himself).

The Leamington Winter Balls

Louis Napoleon was also a feature at the principal social fixture in the Leamington Spa winter season: the winter balls at the Upper Assembly Rooms (which were located on the corner of the Parade and Regent Street).

The balls were of such importance that, in advertisements for the events, organisers requested that Leamington residents ‘abstain from giving private entertainments on the nights of the public balls’ in order to encourage people to attend.

All in all, Louis Napoleon attended six balls, and each time threw himself into the action.

Up to 200 people attended the first ball of the season, which took place on 21 November and ‘passed off with unusual spirit and animation’. Louis Napoleon, for his part, had an enjoyable time dancing the rotary waltz.

Our Wives and Sweethearts…

The days after the fifth winter ball (January 2, 1839) were a little more controversial.

A newspaper reported, rather unkindly, that Louis Napoleon had been witnessed ‘flirting with an ugly bit of antiquity…who followed him about like a pet spaniel’.

However, the prince soon ‘speedily deserted’ the older woman for a ‘younger and prettier woman’ (who, it turned out, was married).

The real controversy arose when the two women first met, which resulted in a ‘regular skirmish’ between them for the rest of the evening.

The reaction of the ‘gallant Napoleon’, the paper says, tongue in cheek, was to ‘very manfully, in place of interfering, run off and [leave] the ladies to settle in their own way’.

Whilst entertaining, this event can probably be regarded as apocryphal or, at least, embellished.

Nevertheless, it was a moment reminiscent of the infamous ‘To our wives and sweethearts…’ Royal Navy toast. Never shall they meet indeed.

A man of the people

Of equal interest to the press was Louis Napoleon’s perceived shunning of the local aristocracy in favour of socialising with the ‘rag-tag and bobtail’ locals.

Since his arrival two months before, the prince had only once mingled with a member of the Warwickshire aristocracy (on a visit to the Chandos Leighs of Stoneleigh Abbey just before Christmas).

Louis Napoleon was an avid reader, both of books and the daily press, and it seems that this criticism did not escape his attention.

Only a few days after the article was printed, Louis Napoleon visited Warwick Castle to dine with the Earl and Countess of Warwick. The week after, he was entertained by the Earl and Countess of Craven at Coombe Abbey.

Another event that did no harm to Louis Napoleon’s reputation was his attendance at the fundraising ball for the Warneford hospital – called ‘the most brilliant of the season’ by the Coventry Herald – which was attended by a long list of Earls, Viscounts and Baronets.

It had not taken the prince long to rectify his error, a circumstance that was duly noted by the contemporary press.

Departure for London

Before his final departure from Leamington, the prince once again dined with the Earl and Countess at Warwick Castle. Also present was the Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire.

By late-January, events in London were starting to draw the ‘influential members of fashionable circles’ away from Leamington and back to the capital. Louis Napoleon soon followed and bade farewell to Leamington Spa in early-February 1839.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Dr. A. A. Caiani, of the University of Kent, for his valuable comments on the contents on both this and the previous article on Louis Napoleon’s visit to Leamington Spa.

Any and all errors are my own.

Next Week’s Article: Image Inventory