Mary James recalls the building works of France's exiled Empress in Hampshire
ONE hundred years ago the tricolour of France fluttered in the breeze for the last time over the trees of Chislehurst Common, Kent. There an Emperor, his wife and son, had strolled along its paths and lanes. On Sundays they would have attended Mass at the Catholic Church of St Mary's.
France had lost the Franco-Prussian war, and a republic had been declared. The Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial had
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Strode, a well known francophile, owned a mansion in Kent called Camden Place. It was secluded, close to a Catholic church, and not far from London. He offered it to the Royal family, who accepted.
On September 20, 1870, the Empress, a noted Spanish beauty and her son aged 14, arrived at Chislehurst. Released by the Prussians, the Emperor joined them six months later. The Imperial family seemed well content and lived a quiet country life.
A frequent visitor to Camden Place was Queen Victoria, an old friend of the Empress. Hospitality at Windsor was often returned.
Napoleon III was the son of Louis Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I. He was a kindly man, stout of figure, with a grey pointed moustache and beard. Not surprisingly intrigues were taking place for the Emperor's return to France. A constant worry was his poor health. He faced an operation on January 9, 1873. Tragedy struck when he did not survive.
His funeral cortege was spectacular, his body being laid to rest temporarily in St Mary's beside the altar. Later Eugenie built a Memorial Chapel on the side of the church, and the remains were placed in a granite sarcophagus given by Queen Victoria.
At that time the Prince Imperial, who had chosen the army as a career, was at the Royal Military College, Woolwich. He was a handsome and popular young man, a favourite of Queen Victoria.
Amongst the followers of Bonaparte, hopes were again raised and there was talk of another emperor. All hopes crashed with the news that the Prince, in the role of observer, had been killed in the Zulu War. He was just 22. The embalmed body was brought back to Camden Place.
The funeral was magnificent. The Prince of Wales, and three Royal Dukes were pallbearers, countless foreign royalty and dignatories attended. 150,000 people gathered along the route. The body was also temporarily laid to rest in St Mary's Church.
The stricken Empress looked for a site for a suitable permanent resting place. She wished to build a mausoleum of significance and beauty for her husband and son, and finally herself.
She was unable to enlarge St Mary's as she wished, or to buy other land in Chislehurst. She acquired Farnborough Hill in Hampshire. The house was set in a park of 68 acres. It looked across to pine clad hills. Eugenie purchased these as well, giving her in total 275 acres. Here she planned the Memorial to her loved ones.
She left Chislehurst for her new abode in March 1881. A French architect, M Destailleur was engaged to build the Memorial Church and Mausoleum, also a Priory to house a small community of monks. These were built during the years 1883-1888.
Destailleur created a beautiful church in the late French Gothic style. Fifty gargoyles were a prominent feature, the cupola reminiscent of Les Invalides in Paris, where the first Napoleon is buried. The four corners of the dome bore the heraldic arms of Napoleon III, the chancel arch, those of the Empress. The Imperial emblems, the eagles and bees were much in evidence.
Underneath the dome, he placed the crypt. The north transcept awaited the body of Napoleon III. Opposite, in the south transcept was to lie the Prince Imperial. French canons arrived to occupy the monastery, and serve the church. All was now ready for the final transferral. The Church was called St Michael's.
On January 9, 1888, the bodies of Napoleon III and the Prince Imperial were removed from St Mary's with full military honours to Farnborough. They were interred in the crypt in the two sarcophogii of Aberdeen granite, the gift of Queen Victoria. A marble slab commemorating the Emperor's resting place can be seen in the Memorial Chapel of St Mary's. In Chislehurst the people erected a large granite cross to the Prince. St Mary's also has a recumbent effigy of the Prince in the south-east wall, embellished with golden bees.
The tasks of wife and mother over, the Empress lived on for many years at Farnborough Hill. The French priests were replaced in 1895 by Benedictine monks from Solesmes, who some 50 years later, in turn handed on the care of the Monastery to the English Benedictines.
In 1920, at the age of 94, the Empress Eugenie died. A place had been made for her in one of the side chapels of the crypt. As the Foundress, however, respect and reverence decided her place. It was in a semi-circular niche above the altar. Hers is the dominant position in the crypt.
St Michael's was elevated to an abbey by Pope Leo XIII in 1903. It can be visited on any Saturday at 3.30pm by guided tour. It has also taken over the local Catholic parish,and is therefore used as a parish church.
St Mary's is still a village church, set in greenery and common land, with an attractive churchyard surrounding it. Amongst those buried there are Dr West who founded the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, and the illegitimate daughter of Charles Parnell and Kitty O'Shea. She was just two months old. Memories of the part played by St Mary's in the Bonaparte story can also be seen, as many of the tombstones have French names.
But there is another story, the story of a rural community's return to Catholicism after the Reformation. There were few Catholics in the area at that time, but a rekindling of the Faith was underway. Today there are 15 flourishing parishes in the immediate vicinity, which owe much to St Mary's and its history.