Death of the Imperial Prince

Death of the Imperial Prince

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The death of the Imperial Prince.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - J. Hutin

Publication date: May 2005

Historical context

Since 1874, the date of his accession to majority, the Prince Imperial was the legitimate contender for the succession of Napoleon III. From then on, the Prince Imperial became certain that the restoration of the empire through parliamentary channels was in jeopardy.

In his English exile, he was chomping at the bit and inaction weighed on him. It was during one of these missions that he was killed on June 1, 1879, in an ambush by the Zulus.

Image Analysis

On June 1, 1879, at around four o'clock in the afternoon, the Prince Imperial and his English escort were surprised during a stopover by some forty Zulus. Two English soldiers were killed and the others fled, while the prince tried in vain to mount his horse in a frenzied race. The saddle which he kept for sentimental reasons - it had belonged to his father Napoleon III - was worn: the strap broke, the rider fell, and his mount continued its mad ride. The Prince Imperial then found himself alone against a horde of threatening Zulus.

It is this precise moment that the painter chose to immortalize on his canvas. In the distance you can see the English fleeing and the galloping horse. The Prince Imperial defends himself courageously. He has lost his saber and is pointing his revolver in the direction of four Zulus, whose depictions are characteristic of the image of the "native" circulated in these times of resumed colonial expansion. He will fire three times but will eventually collapse, pierced by seventeen blows of the spear, all received from the front. When the prince is dead, the Zulus will strip his body of his clothes, leaving him only the gold medallion he wore around his neck and which contained the portrait of Empress Eugenie.


On July 11, 1879, the mortal remains of the Prince Imperial were brought back to England. A massive funeral was celebrated at Chislehurst, in the presence of Queen Victoria and the British Royal Family.

The prince is buried today at Farnborough Abbey, with his parents, Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, who died in Madrid in 1920. It was the Empress herself who had her funeral monument built. , realized by the architect Gabriel Destailleur from 1883 to 1888. This burial is only partially in conformity with the last wishes of the imperial prince, expressed in the will that he wrote on February 26, 1879, before embarking for Africa from the South: "I want my body to be placed with that of my father, while waiting for them both to be transported to where the founder of our House lies, in the midst of these French people whom we have, like him, love. Even today, the transfer of the ashes of the imperial family under the dome of the Invalides is still not on the agenda.

The death of the Prince Imperial was heroic, but in vain: it sounded the death knell for a possible restoration of the empire. In his will, Louis had appointed his cousin Prince Victor, grandson of Jerome, King of Westphalia and brother of Napoleon I, to succeed him in the role of pretender to the imperial throne, but Bonapartism was not to rise as that political power. For Republicans, the Prince Imperial was exceedingly inconvenient. His providential death eliminated the Bonapartist peril. Rid of the Count of Chambord, rid of the last of the Bonaparte, the Republic now had free rein and remained sole mistress of France.

  • imperial dynasty
  • Imperial prince


André CASTELOT, Alain DECAUX and General KOENIG, The Imperial Family Book - The history of the Bonaparte family through the collections of Prince Napoleon, Paris, Perrin Academic Bookstore, 1969 Exhibition catalog The Imperial Prince, 1856-1879, Paris, Museum of the Legion of Honor, 1979-1980.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The death of the Imperial Prince"

Video: The Death Of The Prince Imperial in Zululand. 1879