Eugénie de Montijo was born on 5 May 1826 as the daughter of Cipriano de Palafox y Portocarrero and María Manuela Enriqueta Kirkpatrick de Closbourn y de Grevigné. The future Empress of the French was born as her mother took refuge in the garden during an earthquake. Her elder sister was María Francisca de Sales, who would inherit most of the families’ titles and honours. The two girls were sent to the most fashionable school in Paris, but their education was limited to learning the manners of a lady. By 1835, the girls and their mother crossed the channel and were sent to boarding school to learn English. Eugénie was miserable, and they did not stay there long, returning to Paris a few months later.
In 1839, their mother hurried back to Spain as their father lay dying. It took her ten days to reach Madrid, and Cipriano died on 15 March at the age of 54. The girls were summoned to Spain two days later, though they were not informed that their father had died. Upon arrival, they were informed of his death. Eugénie shut herself in her room for two days, while her sister collapsed in hysterics. Luckily, their father’s death had left their mother a very rich woman. Her sister succeeded their father as 12th Duchess of Peñaranda de Duero, 10th marchioness of Valderrábano, 17th marchioness of Villanueva del Fresno and Barcarrota, 13th marchioness of la Algaba, 15th marchioness of la Bañeza, 15th marchioness of Mirallo, 14th marchioness of Valdunquillo, 9th countess of Montijo, 17th countess of Miranda del Castañar, 18th countess of Fuentidueña, 13th countess of Casarrubios del Monte, 20th countess of San Esteban de Gormaz and 18th viscountess of Palacios de la Valduerna.
In 1844, Eugénie’s sister married a distant cousin, the 15th Duke of Alba. Their great-granddaughter Cayetana would eventually become the most titled aristocrat in the world. Eugénie too had been in love with the Duke, and she even attempted to commit suicide when he married her sister. “Perhaps you’ll say I’m romantic and silly, but I know you’re generous enough to forgive a poor girl who has lost all those she loved and who is being treated so cruelly by everyone, even by her mother and sister and, dare I say it, by the man she loved best, for whom she would have begged, whom she would even have allowed to dishonour her.”1 She was 17 years old.
The following year, she became a regular in the gossip columns. She was rumoured to smoke cigars, wore outrageous clothes, such as bullfighter’s clothes and she visited gipsies to have her fortune told. Stories of her beauty were soon told throughout Spain and suitors came from far. In 1846, she was one of the bridesmaids for Queen Isabella II of Spain when she married Francis, Duke of Cádiz. Her mother became Isabella’s mistress of the robes while her sister became a lady-in-waiting. Her mother also obtained permission from the Queen for Eugénie to use her father’s old title of Count(ess) of Teba. Then two months later, her mother lost her position and Eugénie, and her mother began to travel. Their first stop was Paris, where they attended a party thrown by Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, a daughter of Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte and his second wife, Catharina of Württemberg.
In 1848, the reign of King Louis-Philippe came to an end by the Revolution of Contempt and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, a son of Napoleon’s brother Louis Bonaparte and Hortense de Beauharnais was elected as Prince-President. In April 1849, Eugénie and her mother were presented to him, and a few weeks later they were invited to dinner. By November, they returned to Madrid. In May 1851, mother and daughter were again on the move and they went to see the Great Exhibition in London. Her mother was anxious to find a husband for her daughter but so far, they had no such luck.
The Second Empire was proclaimed on 2 December 1852 and the Prince-President became Napoleon III, Emperor of the French and he had not forgotten the now 26-year-old Eugénie. She was, however, not his first choice. He reportedly asked Eugénie if she would bed him and she responded, “Yes, when I am Empress!”2 Another story goes that he asked her, “How can I come up to you?” and she responded, “Only by way of the altar!”3 On 15 January 1853, he finally asked her mother for Eugénie’s hand in marriage. Despite her father’s many titles, she was no royal and ambassadors were alarmed and nervous that anything might weaken the new regime. Eugénie too was unsure of what lay ahead. “Soon I shall be alone here, without any friends. Everyone’s fate has a sad side: for example, I who used to be so obsessed with my liberty am in chains for the rest of my life: never by myself, never free, amid all that court etiquette, of which I’m going to be the principal victim.”4
The civil marriage took place on 29 January 1853 and Eugénie wore a dress of rose-colour satin trimmed with lace. Her gold and diamond tiara was set by a wreath of jasmine. On 10 February, the religious ceremony followed, but no foreign royals were present. She wore a white velvet dress with diamonds and lace. She also wore a pearl necklace and an old Spanish saying goes, “The pearls women wear on their wedding day symbolise the tears that they are going to shed.”5
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.14
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.33
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.34
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.39
- Seward, Desmond (2004). Eugénie: The Empress and her Empire p.41