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The Coinage of Napoléon III:
An Imperial Dream Realised


Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of the emperor Napoléon I, was born in Paris on 20th April 1808 when his uncle's power was at its height. His father was Louis Bonaparte, brother of the emperor and king of Holland, while his mother, Hortense Beauharnais, was the daughter of the empress Joséphine by her first marriage. Known simply as Louis-Napoléon, he courted controversy throughout his life and even his paternity has been questioned by some historians. His parents' marriage had long been an unhappy one and, at the time of Louis-Napoléon's birth (he was the third child of the couple), had deteriorated to the point where they were spending more and more time apart. It should however be added that, at the time of Louis-Napoléon's conception, Louis and Hortense were in the throes of a brief reconciliation following the death of their eldest son in May 1807. Whatever the truth of the situation, when the marriage finally broke down in 1810, the emperor Napoléon unquestioningly accepted the boy as his nephew, and took a decided interest in the child's upbringing. Indeed, when Louis-Napoléon was baptised at Fontainebleau in 1810, the Emperor and his new Empress, Marie-Louise of Austria, became his godparents.

After the final fall of Napoléon I in 1815, the young Louis-Napoléon spent the next two years leading a life of nomadic exile with his mother, before finally settling down in 1817 at the castle of Arenenberg by Lake Constance in Switzerland. Throughout this period, Hortense had kept alive in him the glories of his illustrious uncle, feeding his imagination with romantic tales of the First Empire. By the time he reached adulthood, Louis-Napoléon was convinced that his destiny was to one day revive the fortunes of the Bonapartes. The death of his elder brother Napoléon-Louis in March 1831 was followed in July 1832 by that of his cousin the duc de Reichstadt ("Napoléon II" - Napoléon I's only son). These two personal tragedies reinforced Louis-Napoléon's vision of himself as sole inheritor of his uncle's legacy and his sights were now set firmly on the road to the throne of France.

After two abortive attempts to take the French throne, the second of which led to six years of imprisonment in the fortress of Ham in Picardy, Louis-Napoléon's chance to seize power finally arrived with the revolution of 1848, when the Orléanist French king Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate and the Second Republic was declared. For some time, Louis-Napoléon had been courting the working people of France with his writings on the problems of unemployment and poverty. This, allied to his republican sympathies and Bonaparte inheritance, ensured his election as President of the Second Republic. In the event, he won 5.5 million votes, 74.2% of the poll.

In spite of his landslide election victory, Louis-Napoléon was in fact little known by the French people, having spent thirty-three of his forty years in exile or prison. A pale, unhealthy-looking man with a large nose, thin moustache and pointed beard (a gift to caricaturists of the time), he stood less than 5.5 feet tall, with a torso that appeared disproportionately long for his short legs. To add to his odd appearance, he spoke French with a German accent (a result of his childhood at Arenenberg and subsequent schooling in Augsburg, Germany) and possessed a general air of indolence and lethargy. The newly-elected President must indeed have appeared a singular character when he presented himself to the governing National Assembly.

The constitution of the Second Republic only permitted Louis-Napoléon to serve as President for four years, after which time he could not stand again for re-election. Unable to secure a constitutional change to allow him to retain power, Louis Napoléon finally launched a coup d'état on 2nd December 1851. The National Assembly was dissolved and a plebiscite took place on 20th December which overwhelmingly supported his action, even though the coup d'état was clearly seen as a preliminary to the restoration of the Empire. A new constitution was promulgated on 14th January 1852 confirming "Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte" in office for a further ten years and allowing him enormous power over the military and legal machinery of France.

Now a Prince President, Louis-Napoléon insisted on being addressed as "His Imperial Highness" and, in accordance with monarchical traditions, a decree issued on 3rd January 1852 authorised the issue of a series of coins bearing the President's head. This issue consisted of fifty centimes, one franc and five francs pieces in .900 silver and a twenty francs piece in .900 gold, all featuring a bare-headed portrait of the President on the obverse surrounded by the simple legend LOUIS-NAPOLEON BONAPARTE. The reverse bears the denomination and the date 1852 within a wreath of oak and laurel (laurel only on the twenty francs), surrounded by the legend REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE. A legend on the edge of the five and twenty francs pieces reads DIEU PROTEGE LA FRANCE (God protect France) in relief - the other coins were struck with milled edges. The series was created by the great French engraver Jean-Jacques Barre (1793-1855) and, in accordance with a custom begun with Napoléon I, the "monarch's" head on the silver pieces faces in the opposite direction (in this case left) to that on the gold coins. Barre occupied the post of engraver general from 1843 until his death in 1855 and all the pieces bear his distinctive privy mark of a greyhound's head.

Meanwhile, Louis-Napoléon toured France rallying support for his cause. Following a massive public vote in favour of a restoration of the Empire, Louis-Napoléon's imperial dream finally became reality on 2nd December 1852 with the establishment of the Second Empire. A decree of the same date authorised the issue of a new series of coins all bearing the Emperor's bare head and the legend NAPOLEON III EMPEREUR. All coins in the series were again designed by Jean-Jacques Barre with the exception of the silver five francs pieces issued from 1853. Barre's design was in fact used on the five francs for the first year of issue, but a new heraldic design (described below) engraved by Louis Charles Bouvet (1802-1887) was utilised from the following year. Making full use of imperial symbolism, the lower denomination bronze pieces (one, two, five and ten centimes) bear on the reverse an imperial eagle standing on a sheath of lightning bolts with the legend EMPIRE FRANÇAIS followed by the denomination. The twenty centimes, fifty centimes, one franc, two francs and 1852 issue five francs pieces were all struck in .900 silver and feature reverses bearing the denomination and date within a laurel wreath surrounded by the legend EMPIRE FRANÇAIS. Five, ten and twenty francs pieces struck in .900 gold were added to the series in 1855, utilising the same wreath reverse as the lower denomination silver coins. It is interesting to note here that the wreath on this series, Napoléon III's first imperial coinage, has dropped the mixture of oak and laurel leaves used on the 1852 Louis-Napoléon silver coins. Oak leaves were traditionally symbolic of civic authority rather than the imperial authority now wielded by Napoléon III and presumably were no longer considered appropriate.

Bouvet's design for the silver, crown-sized five francs pieces issued from 1853, has a beautifully detailed heraldic reverse similar in design to a tapestry originally commissioned by Napoléon I and which once hung in his study at the old royal palace of the Tuileries (it can now be seen at Malmaison, Joséphine's country house west of Paris). Full of imperial and Napoleonic symbolism, its use on the five francs coin (with a diameter of 37 mm. the largest in the series) is clearly intended to celebrate Napoléon III's re-establishment of the Bonaparte dynasty. The design consists of a draped central medallion bearing an imperial eagle perched on a thunderbolt and surrounded by the chain of the Légion d'Honneur - a reproduction of the medal itself hangs below (the Légion d'Honneur was founded on 19th May 1802 by Napoléon I, and was awarded for courage, honour and heroic services). The crowned drape is lined with heraldic ermine and decorated on the outside with bees - the emblem of the Bonapartes. Behind the medallion are two crossed royal sceptres, one bearing the Hand of Justice, the other a statuette of an enthroned monarch.

The heraldic reverse clearly proved popular and in 1855, when it was decided for the first time to issue fifty francs and one hundred francs pieces in gold, a reworked heraldic reverse was commissioned from Jean-Jacques Barre to adorn them. The main difference in Barre's design was the placing of the central imperial eagle on a rectangular hanging rather than on a medallion.

If one of Napoléon III's first jobs was to introduce the imperial coinage, his next was to ensure his family's inheritance. On 6th February 1853, he married Eugénie de Montijo, a beautiful Spanish noblewoman and on 16th March 1856, she bore him an heir, Eugène-Louis, the Prince Imperial.

The bare-headed imperial series was not struck for long. In 1861, Napoléon III's victory at the Battle of Magenta during the Austro-French Piedmontese War was commemorated by commissioning a new obverse design featuring the Emperor's laureate head. Though some of the silver pieces continued being struck with the old bare-headed design until 1863, the laureate head was soon featured on all French coins. Jean-Jacques Barre had however died in 1855 and the job of engraving the new coinage (as well as the post of engraver general) fell to his son, Albert-Désiré Barre (1818-1878), who adopted an anchor as his privy mark. Jean-Jacques's previous reverse designs however continued to be used on the bronze lower denomination coins as well as the gold five, ten, fifty and one hundred francs pieces, while his heraldic reverse was now also adopted by the gold twenty francs piece. Perhaps not wishing to allow his father to completely dominate the reverse designs of the new coinage, Albert-Désiré Barre again reworked the heraldic reverse bringing it closer to Bouvet's original version. This final reworking was used on the silver one, two and five francs coins of the laureate head series.

Albert-Désiré Barre's reworking of Bouvet's heraldic reverse on a silver, crown-sized five francs piece struck at the Paris mint in 1867 (from the author's collection).

It must have afforded Napoléon III considerable satisfaction to know that he had followed in his illustrious uncle's footsteps by appearing on his country's coinage first as a leader of the Republic, next as an emperor and finally as a laurel-bearing victor. If his meteoric rise to the imperial throne mirrored that of his uncle, it is perhaps not surprising that his fall from grace was just as dramatic. Encouraged by the empress Eugénie, Napoléon allowed himself to be manoeuvred into a war against the militarily superior Prussia by the machinations of the Prussian minister-president Otto von Bismark. The disastrous Franco-Prussian War began on 19th July 1870 and, after several French defeats in quick succession during August of that year, the Prussian forces cornered the remains of the French army under the command of Napoléon III himself on 1st September at the fortress town of Sedan on the north-eastern border of France. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the French fought bravely but to no avail. The emperor was by now an ill man suffering severe pain from bladder stones. Nevertheless, with his face rouged to hide his sickly pallor from his troops, realising that defeat was inevitable, he rode out to where the battle was at its fiercest in the vain hope of dying honourably with his men. The carnage was horrific and Napoléon finally had no choice but surrender. Made a prisoner of war, he was taken to the German palace of Wilhelshöhe where he remained for six an a half months. Meanwhile, back in France, the Third Republic was declared on 4th September 1870 making that year the last in which coins were struck bearing the emperor's head. France capitulated to Prussia on 29th January 1871, after enduring the dreadful suffering of the siege of Paris. A new era in French history had begun which signalled once and for all the end of monarchy in France.

On his release from imprisonment in March 1871, Napoléon, now an exile, travelled to England with his wife and son, setting up home at Camden Place in Chiselhurst. His bladder condition worsened and, after a series of operations, he died there on 9th January 1873. His last words whispered to the attendant doctor were, "Étiez-vous à Sedan?" (Were you at Sedan?). His only son, Eugène-Louis, the Prince Imperial, was immediately proclaimed Napoléon IV in exile, by Bonapartists. In an attempt to win military prestige, he was persuaded to volunteer for the British expedition to Zululand in February 1879. He fell to a Zulu assegai at Ulundi four months later on 1st June. The empress Eugénie died in 1920 at the grand old age of 94 years. The Bonaparte legend that had dominated the French political imagination for much of the 19th century was finally consigned to history.



This article by Mish Webster, originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Coin News.