Abbey and shrine are legacy of France’s Second Empire

June 13, 2013


St Michael's Abbey

HISTORIC BUILDING: The front of St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, that was founded by the Empress Eugenia in 1881 as a mausoleum to house the remains of her husband, Emperor Napoleon III and son, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. It is a Grade One Listed Building and is architecturally Anglo-French.



HOLY GROUND: The graves of all the monks of Farnborough Abbey, which lie next to the Abbey Church.


Poll Wiltshire sheep

SMALL HOLDING: Some of the 30-strong herd of Poll Wiltshire sheep that are looked after on the grounds by the monks. They also keep 30 colonies of honey bees.

THE last members of French royalty are resting in the crypt of a Benedictine monastery in Surrey.

The monastic community at St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, is known for the it’s liturgy; the singing of the Benedictine monks in Latin and Gregorian chant and its pipe organ. The abbey is named after St Michael, who is the patron saint of France.

The two-manual organ was installed by Aristide Cavaille-Coll and Company in 1905. The church contains the thigh bone of St Alban, the largest relic of its kind.

The church was restored between 2000 and 2002 with the aid of English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The shrine of St Joseph in the abbey is the only one of its kind in the UK and it is looked after by the monks. It receives a steady flow of pilgrims throughout the year.

The Empress Eugenia (1826-1920) founded the Abbey in 1881 as a mausoleum for the remains of her husband, Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) and their son Louis (1856-79) in the crypt below the imperious church of the abbey.

The Prince Imperial was the godson of Queen Victoria and after being exiled with his parents from France in the 1870/71 Franco/Prussian War, they settled in Chislehurst, Kent.

Educated in London, he then went onto the Woolwich Military Academy and volunteered to join the British Army in the Zulu War of 1879.

His commanding officer allowed to be part of a Scouting party into Zulu territory on 1 June 1979 that was subsequently ambushed and in the ensuing melee, the young man was stabbed 18 times. His remains were brought back to Chislehurst and then put into the abbey’s crypt.

His father, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, was the first President of the French Republic and was the nephew and heir of Napoleon I. Elected by popular vote in 1848, he instigated a coup three years later.

Napoleon was crowned emperor on 11 December 1852. This was on the 48th anniversary of Napoleon I’s coronation. Napoleon III holds the distinction of being the titular president and the last monarch of France.

Under his stewardship, the Emperor helped to modernise Paris by improving its’ sewerage system; creating three green parks and replacing old winding streets with large thoroughfares and large avenues.

A number of prominent French medieval buildings were also saved including Mont-St-Michel, Notre Dame Cathedral, Vezelay Abbey, Carcassonne and Roquetuillade Castle and he also played a part in the development of the rail network, which helped to build the coal and steel industries.

He was exiled to Chislehurst after leading the French to defeat in the Franco-Prussian War at the Battle of Sedan, which led to the proclamation of the Third French Republic.

Napoleon III spent the last three years of his life at Camden Place, Chislehurst, and died after being operated on for a bladder stone in January 1873. An autopsy found he had a fatal kidney disease.

After the church and monastery were founded, they were initially administered by Premonstratensian Canons. In 1895, the Empress replaced them with French Benedictine monks from St Peter’s Abbey, Solesmes.

The monk and scholar Fernand Cabrol became prior and then abbot in 1903 and he was joined by Henri Leclercq and a group of French monks at the same time. The community eventually reduced in  number in 1947 and had to be supplemented with a group of English monks from Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire.

The last French monk Dom Zerr died in 1956 and the first English abbot, the Rt Rev Dom Cuthbert Brogan was elected in 2006 and who was on hand to greet our visiting party.

The monks are a thriving community with a 30-strong flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep and 30 colonies of honey bees and have a small book bindery where historical and liturgical books are restored.

A number of tomes were bound and tooled in white leather and presented to Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to England in September 2010.

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