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
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
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.