Leamington's connection with Napoleon III - and the parties he enjoyed when he stayed here!

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Have you walked along Clarendon Square, seen the plaque to Napoleon III and wondered what it was all about?Local historian George Evans-Hulme wrote a series of articles for the Courier and Weekly News on our local history and, in two of them, he explored the visit of Prince LouisNapoleon (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and later Napoleon III) to Leamington - which included parties, a battle with the press, and romantic controversy.Here are some extracts from his articles.

The new arrival

At half-past three in the afternoon on Saturday 3 November 1838, a thirty-year-old man emerged from the carriage of a steam train onto the platform at Coventry station.The man, who had chestnut brown hair and a pale complexion, was not especially tall (he stood at 5 foot 6 inches); and, in the words of biographer David Baguley, he ‘was not blessed with any of the physical assets that could have made the task easy for his image makers and official portraitists’.Nevertheless, he exhibited a regal air when he swept through the station and stepped into a waiting coach, one of three, that whisked him and his entourage away on the short journey to Leamington Spa (recently affixed with the prefix ‘Royal’ by order of Queen Victoria).The gentleman in question was visiting Warwickshire for the first time. He was French in origin, born in Paris in 1808, and had recently travelled to Britain from Switzerland. His arrival had caused quite a stir.For weeks, the London newspapers had been awash with updates on the status of this distinguished visitor, whose presence generated such excitement that, earlier in the day, crowds had gathered in Euston Square to bid him bon voyage for his trip to the Midlands.The British fascination with this individual arose, in part, from his distinguished lineage. Prince Louis Napoleon, as he was then known, was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The British obsession with Napoleon

The Napoleon III house in LeamingtonThe Napoleon III house in Leamington
The Napoleon III house in Leamington

Despite the Napoleonic wars ending over twenty years before, Napoleon was still a person of immense fascination for the British people and his reputation had undergone a major transformation in the years since his demise.Indeed, the British public’s opinion had moved away from predominantly seeing Napoleon as a tyrannical despot to viewing him in a more sympathetic light.In November 1838, the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser was besotted with Napoleon, recalling the ‘striking and engaging personal qualities’ of the ‘celebrated’ man.A few weeks later, the paper went further, describing Napoleon as ‘one of the most wonderful men which Europe has ever produced’.In as much as it admired Napoleon, the paper was also critical of the British government’s decision to send him to St Helena.Twenty years after the event, many Britons felt sympathy for the man who had been sent into exile – effectively to his grave – without being put on trial.

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First experience of Leamington

The prince arrived in Britain on 25 October 1838. He initially travelled to London, and then was bound for Leamington Spa.After an hour or two in his coach from Coventry, Louis Napoleon stepped onto the Parade and into the Regent Hotel to begin his stay in the spa town.The prince occupied his time during his three month stay in Leamington, with parties, receptions, battles with the press, and a romantic controversy.

The illustrious visitor

The Napoleon III house in LeamingtonThe Napoleon III house in Leamington
The Napoleon III house in Leamington

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.‘Our illustrious visitor’, wrote the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, on 24 November, ‘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 12 November.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

The plaque on the Napoleon III house in LeamingtonThe plaque on the Napoleon III house in Leamington
The plaque on the Napoleon III house in Leamington

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.

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Our Wives and Sweethearts…

The days after the fifth winter ball (2 January 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

The Napoleon III house in LeamingtonThe Napoleon III house in Leamington
The Napoleon III house in Leamington

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.

About the authorGeorge 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.Author’s Note: Many thanks to Dr. A. A. Caiani, of the University of Kent, for his valuable comments on the contents for the article. Any and all errors are my own.