Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Princes Caroline Murat: A Bonaparte in Suffolk

Memorial to Princess Caroline Laetitia Murat (1833-1902), Grand Niece of Napoleon, Ringsfield Church, Suffolk

This remarkable memorial was erected to commemorate Caroline Laetitia Murat, granddaughter of Joachim Murat and Caroline Bonaparte, sister of the Emperor Napoleon. After the fall of the Second Empire and the death of her first husband, Princess Caroline married a wealthy Englishman, John Lewis Garden, and spent her last years in a grand house in a tiny village in Suffolk.

Italianate Angels on the Memorial at Ringsfield Church

She was born to an American mother in the United States, where her father Lucien Charles Joseph Napoleon, Prince Murat, had been exiled along with other members of the Bonaparte family. After the 1848 Revolution she and her family returned to France and became part of the inner circle of the Second Empire. Her sister, the Duchess of Mouchie was close to the Empress Eugenie, her younger brother Achille accompanied Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian war and was imprisoned with him after the defeat at Sedan. Caroline herself had apparently in 1849 been considered a suitable wife for the much older Louis Napoleon, by his English mistress Miss Howard.(1)

Princess Caroline Murat

In 1850 she married the diplomat Charles de Chassiron (1818-1871) and they had one son, Guy de Chassiron (1863-1932). In 1870 following the defeat by Prussia, Caroline's mother and other members of her family fled to England in the company of Mr Garden, a wealthy English friend of her brother Achille. Mr Garden also obtained a passport for her and her young son, and she soon joined them. The mysterious Mr Garden meanwhile went to Prussia to visit the imprisoned Emperor Napoleon and his companion Achille Murat, and in 1872, a year after her first husband's death, Caroline and he were married. They quickly had two daughters, Eugenie Caroline (1873-1951) and Frances Harriet Doucha (1874-1970). (2)

Redisham Hall in Suffolk, the family home of John Lewis Garden (1833-1892) and his wife Caroline Murat.

Caroline Murat's memoirs reveal little about her private life, but give an insight into the highly privileged, titled and perhaps entitled world in which the Bonapartes moved in France and in England. They are of course the reflections of a woman nearing the end of her life and looking back with sadness and maybe some regret on what she regarded as a golden period for her and probably France:

days of glory, of luxury, of love, of folly; with no looking back, with no looking forward - the retreat from Moscow - the life and death of the King of Rome - the battle of Waterloo - the sad drama of St. Helena - all, but forgotten, disappeared in one round of triumphal glory and pleasure (3)

At the centre of the English connections in the early years was the aforementioned Miss Howard, Louis Napoleon's mistress whom he had met at the home of Lady Blessington in 1846. Her circle included a number of Dukes and Earls as well as Count d'Orsay.(4)

As the Empire drew to its close we learn that the Empress Eugenie and Princess Caroline's sister sent their jewels for safekeeping to Mr Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Then after the Empress's flight from France the Duke of Hamilton went in his own yacht to France to retrieve some of the her possesions from the Tuileries. Then we find the Princess writing to her cousin, Leopold, Prince of Hohenzollern, whose candidature for the throne of Spain was the ostensible reason for the fatal war between France and Prussia, to get him to intercede to prevent Prussian soldiers vandalising her property in occupied France. (5)

What comes over very clearly is that Princess Caroline had little respect for the Empress Eugenie, the wife and widow of Napoleon III, "an influence always so sinister for France", whom she appeared at least partially to blame for the fall of the second Empire. (6) Neverthess she named her first daughter after her, and asked her to become godmother. This was refused because her daughter was not being baptised into the Catholic faith.

She also criticised the Spanish born Empress for the Prince Imperial's funeral which was attended by Queen Victoria:

if she had one drop of our blood in her veins no English flag would have covered his coffin, no English princes would have carried him to his grave. (7)

Memoirs of Caroline Murat, published posthumously in 1910

Neither did Caroline have much love for England. She loved her home, but after the glitter of Paris she was unsurprisingly unimpressed with Suffolk and its people, "perhaps the most stupid of English counties." (8) She loved her English daughters, but couldn't forgive the country for the ills the Bonaparte family and France had suffered at its hands. Her last few words though were reserved for the former Empress Eugenie, who once had rebuffed a criticism from Princess Caroline's mother with,

Ah! ma cousine, vous etes Louis Seize - n'oubliez pas que je suis Louis Quatorze

"In those few words", she commented, "we may read the history of the Second Empire and its reverses."(9)
1. Whether Caroline was informed of this at time is unclear. She was only 16 and says she would not have entertained the idea. Princess Caroline Murat, My Memoirs, New York 1910, pp 211-212
2. John Lewis Garden(1833-1892) was born at Redisham Hall. It was originally an Elizabethan mansion which his grandfather, John Garden, a wealthy Londoner purchased in 1808, demolished and then rebuilt in the classical style then fashionable amongst England's upper classes. It was completed in 1823, after his death, when the house passed to John Garden (1796-1854), who was depicted as a child in a Hoppner painting. See also the description of the painting now in the New York Metropolitan Museum. J.L. Garden had the house re-fronted in 1880.

He was educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, but didn't graduate. He is listed as serving with the East Indian Company. He is sometimes mentioned as a big game hunter, and during his marriage to Princess Caroline he spent over a year away on a game hunt with his younger brother. My Memoirs p. 286-7.
3. My Memoirs p. 48.
4. My Memoirs pp. 211-212.
5. The Duke of Hamilton was married to Louis Napoleon's cousin, Princess Marie Amelie of Baden. My Memoirs pp. 235, 215-7,214, 358.
6. My Memoirs pp. 179, 183-4, 305.
7. My Memoirs p. 334
8. My Memoirs p. 256
9. My Memoirs p. 340