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 in London, which did nothing to reduce his longing for home. 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.
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’ connections with Camden Place were of an appropriately romantic kind. The building had been owned by Henry Rowles, a Middlesex Justice of the Peace, Chairman of Globe Insurance and the builder of Drury Lane Theatre. His wife was of Spanish origin and is said to have been one of the loveliest woman in Europe during her youth. Their daughter Emily was born at Camden Place in 1823 and inherited her mother’s beauty. Whilst still in her teens, she was assiduously courted by the then exiled Prince Louis Napoleon (later to become Emperor Napoleon lll.) The Rowles had left Camden Place in 1825 when Emily was 2 years old, so the courtship did not include visits to Chislehurst, but it does seem to have been a serious relationship. 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.
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.