The Prince That Got Away


While this prince’s imperial father, Napoleon lll, fancied himself a romantic hero, all the while being a diaper wearing, debauched, misshapen near dwarf and political hustler whose myriad illnesses suffered throughout his lifetime hastened his early death, and whose lackluster performance in the bedroom, according to the Marquise Taisey-Chatenoy, left much to be desired, his only son and namesake, Napoleon, Prince Imperial, could genuinely lay claim to a degree of romantic heroism, albeit of the tragic variety. He was 14 when his father was overthrown, forcing the imperial family to escape to England; 17 when his ailing pater died; and 23 when his own life was cut short in a hale of spear thrusts from Zulu soldiers during an ambush while serving in the British army during the Anglo-Zulu War. As his portrait attests, he wasn’t bad on the eyes, either. Queen Victoria’s youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Beatrice, certainly thought so. Their brief courtship has long entered the annals of esoteric legend. While Felix Markham asserts in his 1975 biography, The Bonapartes, that there was talk of marriage between them, not only insinuating that Queen Victoria, who was a close friend of Empress Eugenie’s, was in favor of the match but that she also believed a restoration of the imperial throne in France would help forge a lasting peace in Europe, there’s one Bonaparte insider, who was very much alive at the time this romantic intrigue played itself out, who seriously begs to differ with Markham’s account. She was Anna Bicknell, who’d served as nanny to the children of cousins of Napoleon lll throughout the duration of his rule over France, forged close friendships with various members of the Emperor’s family and court, and wrote about her experiences in her memoir, Life in the Tuileries under the Second Empire. Bicknell states that far from approving the prospective marriage, despite her personal feelings toward the Bonapartes, Queen Victoria and her eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, so disapproved of Princess Beatrice entering holy wedlock with the Prince Imperial that their actions behind the scenes inadvertently led to his early death.

By his early 20’s, despite being a pretender to the only recently abolished French throne and his burgeoning romance with the favorite daughter of the world’s most illustrious monarch, Prince Napoleon’s prospects seemed bleak. His father had died before he could leave provision for his only legitimate son in his will, thus rendering the Prince Imperial completely dependent on a financially tight fisted mother determined to keep her son on a morally upright path by allowing him as little pocket money as possible. Adding to this frustration was the fact that, because of the unusual nature of his nationality and despite having recently graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwitch, he wasn’t allowed to pursue a potentially fulfilling military career.

According to Anna Bicknell, no two people were more aware of Prince Napoleon’s predicament than his prospective mother-in-law and her heir apparent. Queen Victoria had no desire to watch her daughter get tied down to a cause as seemingly hopeless as a second Bonaparte restoration; neither she nor the Prince of Wales wished to antagonize the Fourth Republic by becoming in-laws to its most illustrious enemy, and the Queen had no wish for her youngest daughter to change her religion in order to marry her Catholic suitor. Bicknell goes on to explain that it was because of her religious objection that compelled Victoria to personally prevent the marriage, some years earlier, of her niece, Princess Adelaide of Hohenloe, with Napoleon lll when he first became emperor.

And then, of course, there was the little matter of Queen Victoria preferring that Princess Beatrice didn’t marry under any circumstances. With Victoria’s all too beloved husband, Prince Albert, having died when their youngest daughter was barely 4, the Queen had ever since designated Beatrice as her lifelong companion and platonic husband substitute. Though she eventually relieved her maternal chokehold over her favorite child and allowed her to wed, she only did so after being assured Beatrice, her new husband, and their children would never leave Victoria’s side for as long as she lived.

Because of these circumstances, the Queen Empress must’ve viewed Prince Napoleon’s eagerness to see active combat in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, initiated by the crushing defeat of British soldiers by their Zulu counterparts at the Battle of Isandlwana, as a true blessing in disguise. The Prince Imperial was eager to prove his mettle as the rightful heir to the Napoleonic legacy, and Victoria was obviously hoping his prolonged absence would make his beloved’s heart freeze over and forget all about him. Both she and Prince Albert Edward proceeded to do everything within their power behind the scenes to ensure Princess Beatrice’s beloved was commissioned to fight for queen and empire in the Zulu kingdom. The Prince was duly deployed to southern Africa, and the Queen and Prince of Wales crossed their fingers.

The subsequent events would grant their wish in an all too finite manner. On the morning of June 1 Prince Napoleon and his fellow troops were ambushed by 40 Zulu soldiers at while setting up camp at what they thought was an abandoned kraal. While trying to escape, Napoleon was speared in his leg. Despite his efforts at fighting them single handedly, which included pulling the spear out of his leg and hurling it back at his attackers as well as pulling out his revolver and firing at them, he soon fell to their volley of spear thrusts. When what remained of his company caught up with him, they observed he’d been stabbed at least 18 times, including once in the eye, which had made it burst.

Matthew Dennison writes in The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter that Princess Beatrice received the telegram informing her of her beloved’s death later that day. Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that neither Beatrice nor herself could overcome their grief and shock that day. Anna Bicknell adds that guilt additionally played no small part in the Queen’s bereavement.

Nonetheless, Victoria and her Prince of Wales soon got over their shock and sorrow. For they were far from done meddling in Beatrice’s romantic life. In fact, by Prince Napoleon conveniently getting himself killed while fighting for the British empire in the Zulu Kingdom, he removed what they’d presumed to be the final obstacle to their plan of marrying Beatrice off to her recently departed older sister’s, Princess Alice’s, widower, Grand Duke Louis lV of Hesse. The story of their cynical attempt at making the Grand Duke Queen Victoria’s two time son-in-law shall be the subject of the author’s next post.