History Scrapbook: Sir Francis Drake and the Chatham Chest

PUBLISHED: 12:56 16 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:56 16 January 2017

Napoleon's tomb, Chislehurst

Napoleon's tomb, Chislehurst

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From Chislehurst the choice of royalty to Sir Francis Drake and the Chatham Chest and Kent’s first tourist, Kent Life’s history sleuth delves back into Januarys past in Kent. Words by: Rachael Hale

The 'Chatham Chest'. Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, photo credit Raymond FothergillThe 'Chatham Chest'. Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, photo credit Raymond Fothergill

Falling out with your neighbours is not uncommon but when you have the power of an army at your disposal, heated discussions can quickly get out of hand and wars are started.

And so it was that in 1870 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) declared war on the German Kingdom of Prussia. The battle didn’t go the Frenchman’s way, however, and he soon found himself needing a place of safety. With that in mind and the entire world to choose from, the deposed Emperor of France decided to relocate his family to… Chislehurst.

It wasn’t the first-time Louis-Napoleon had fled to safety. Following the defeat of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, the entire family had been exiled and young Louis-Napoleon subsequently spent a lot of time in England, particularly Chislehurst. He’d formed an attachment to a young lady named Emily Rowles whose father owned Camden Place, now the home of Chislehurst Golf Club.

Louis-Napoleon became a frequent visitor and became as attached to Camden Place as he was to Emily as, when it later changed hands, he became friends with its next owner. A man named Nathaniel Strode who just happened to spend a lot of, perhaps French, money transforming it into a French château.

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So when, in 1871, the now-deposed French Emperor arrived in England with Princess Eugenie and the young Prince Imperial in tow they found, certainly to Princess Eugenie’s’ surprise, their newly rented home at Camden Place perfectly suited for their purposes.

Sadly, Louis Napoleon wasn’t to enjoy the areas charms for long and he died on 9 January 1873 following several operations to remove kidney stones. Chislehurst was flooded with thousands of visitors wanting to pay their respects. Behind the scenes, however, a diplomatic drama was unfolding, as how exactly do you treat a deposed Roman Catholic emperor living on foreign soil?

Especially one waiting absolution from the Pope for leaving Rome undefended, despite promising to do otherwise. The predicament must have caused Princess Eugenie and Bishop Danell, who had been asked to officiate the funeral, several sleepless nights.

Ultimately, the Pope granted permission for the service to go ahead and on 15 January 1873, Louis Napoleon was laid to rest in the nave of St Mary’s, Chislehurst. Enormous piles of wreaths, violets and immortelles surrounded the church and one witness described ‘the sweet voices of the children chanting the Agnus Dei and the rolling strophes of the Miserere as ‘deeply thrilling’.

Wanting her husband’s achievements and not his constant womanising to be remembered, Princess Eugenie immediately began planning an extension to the church to act as his permanent burial chamber.

The new chapel was completed by the end of the year and Louis Napoleon was re-laid to rest inside the Scottish granite sarcophagus received as a gift from Queen Victoria.

Just like its incumbent, the tomb wasn’t to stay in Chislehurst long, however. Just six years later, the Prince Imperial died while acting as an observer in Zululand and Princess Eugenie expressed her wishes to build a much larger mausoleum within the church grounds.

However, the Edlmann family who owned the land on which the church stood were Protestant and didn’t want a Roman Catholic structure of this nature on their land. So Princess Eugenie, bought 257 acres of land in Farnborough and moved her loved ones to the purpose-built St Michael’s Abbey instead.

The chapel at St Mary’s Church in Chislehurst where Louis-Napoleon once lay remains open to the public and the position his tomb originally stood is marked by a stone.

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