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Queen Victoria is not amused in Cherbourg

Armand Le Véel's Napoléon I, in Cherbourg
Armand Le Véel’s Napoléon I, in Cherbourg

By 1858 the redoubtable Victoria had been queen for more than 20 years, was mother to 9 children, had survived at least two serious assassination attempts, was on to her 7th Prime Minister (the mediocre Derby, more of him later), had graciously accepted the title Empress of India and was monarch to an empire of millions. 

Not yet a widow (Albert died in 1861) nothing had happened in Victoria’s life to dim her courage and her strength. Victoria was confident of her own and Britain’s superiority and elevated position in the world.  She like it that way, would Normandy prove her undoing?

The other Napoléon

In the middle of her century Victoria was taking a keen interest in the improvement of relations with France, Britain’s confirmed allies since the Crimean War.

Effusive invitations to England for Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoléon III of France, and his Empress Eugenie, were accepted in 1855.  Later that year Victoria and Albert toured Paris, the Expositio Universelle and were guests of honour at the Palais of Versailles.  They even visited the tomb of an old adversary, Napoléon I.

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1856
Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1856

However royal duty is not all dinners on gold plated palaces.  Victoria and Albert then received in 1858 an invitation to the opening of a new port  at Cherbourg.  Napoléon III was keen to reassure Britain that his improvements to the naval base were not a threat to his friends.

A diplomatic visit by Victoria and Albert

It would be August and meltingly hot on the peninsular for the rather stout queen but they could travel on the yacht Victoria and Albert, which was always fun.

The visit would also signal the end of some bad feeling. Early in the year an Italian refugee from Britain (called Orsini) attempted to blow up Napoleon III with a bomb made in England earlier in the year.  The French had not taken it well at all.

The royal couple sailed into Cherbourg harbour on Thursday 5 August 1858. A tour of the new harbour was followed by a celebratory explosion of fireworks.

An impressive statue

As part of the celebrations on Sunday morning 8 August 1858 the crowds gathered for the inauguration of a remarkable sculpture to Napoleon I, without whom the gigantic port would not have been possible.

Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie
Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie

Proud Manche born Paris trained sculptor Armand Véel had cast Napoleon I astride a frisky horse facing the sea, pointing his right arm at the military port (no not at England, that’s just a coincidence).  The 5m high statue stands on a pedestal by Dominique Geufroy who was aiming he said for ‘power and simplicity’ 4.7m of simplicity.  It was, and is, an impressive sight.

Not one seen by Victorian and Albert.  By Sunday 8 August the royal couple were speeding away from Cherbourg and Napoleon III to have a very strong word with Prime Minister Derby.

A royal huff

No amount of reassurances could pull the French wool over Queen Victoria’s eyes.  She had just seen the biggest military port in the world, bigger than anything Britain could claim, and she was not happy.

Victoria was certainly not going hang around to celebrate an old military foe, however nicely cast in bronze.  Had she possibly had a preview and spotted the unfortunate finger pointing to England?

Great expectations, dashed

Back in France a very confused M. Véel watched his sculpture, the result of years of hard work and genius, revealed to Cherbourg without any of the pomp and ceremony he was accustomed to on these occasions.

The royal yacht 'Victoria and Albert' in 1855
The royal yacht ‘Victoria and Albert’ in 1855

This should have been pinnacle of his brilliant career, a day he fully expected to end with membership to the Legion of Honour.  But it was a personal disaster.  Ashamed of what, he did not know, M. Véel blamed his old reputation as a revolutionary for his failure.

In England Victoria explained clearly to Prime Minister Derby the error of his ways.  Britain must maintain her naval superiority.  A considerable amount of ship building quickly ensued but within the year Derby was replaced.

All’s well that ends well, for Victoria

It wasn’t many years later that the French lost interest in having an Emperor, even one called Napoleon, so in 1870 formed the Third French Republic.  Louis-Napoléon was asked to leave and died three years later in Chislehurst, England.  Despite an incredible career and many achievements he is forever remembered as the other, less successful Napoléon.

Happily Armand Véel did receive the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur in 1863.

And Victoria was Queen and Empress until her very last breath aged 81 in 1901.

Napoleon III Receiving Queen Victoria 5 August 1858 on board the French flagship, 'Bretagne', at Cherbourg. He stands at the top of the gangway, waiting to receive his guests, who have arrived by royal barge and are waiting at the bottom of the gangway.
Napoleon III Receiving Queen Victoria 5 August 1858 on board the French flagship, ‘Bretagne’, at Cherbourg, by Jules Achille Noël.




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