The story of Empress Eugenie is a tale of scandal, betrayal, and a realm in ruin. By the time Eugenie became Empress of the Second Empire in France, she was already ruling over a kingdom of ashes—and her fall from power was more than just the end of an era. Yet somehow this royal turmoil had absolutely nothing on the tormented secrets Eugenie hid behind bedroom doors. Dust off that broken crown and read these tragic facts about Eugenie of Montijo, the Last Empress of France.
Empress Eugenie Facts
1. Her Family Were Traitors
Eugenie was born into scandal. On May 5, 1826, she entered the world as the daughter of the Spanish aristocrats Count Cipriano and Countess Maria of Montijo. But although Mom and Dad were mega rich, the people utterly despised them. You see, Eugenie’s father supported France in the Napoleonic Wars, which was not a good look for the time—and this had devastating consequences for the little girl.
2. Her Hair Was Iconic
Though Empress Eugenie often covered her tresses in various fashionable wigs at costume balls, she became famous for her flaming red hair. She took great care to show it off in elaborate curled hairstyles or underneath massive jewelled tiaras.
3. She Was a Teenage Runaway
Eugenie was a pampered child, but this didn’t save her from ridicule. Growing up, other children teased her and called her “Carrots” because of her hair—a name that the fiery young girl despised. One time, Eugenie got so upset that she even tried to run away. Most kids would go down the street and glumly return home, but not Eugenie: She snuck onto a ship bound for India before getting carted back to school. Take note: Eugenie’s determination knew no bounds.
4. She Went Through A Horrific Childhood Experience
When Eugenie was just eight years old, she witnessed an unspeakable horror. On July 17, 1834, the little girl looked outside the windows of her opulent residence to find people rioting. But it got so much worse. Right in front of her eyes, Eugenie watched as the crowds ruthlessly killed a man in the middle of the square. And there was even more heartache to come.
5. She Fled From Her Home
This bloody act of violence was the last straw for Eugenie’s mother. Distressed, she took her young children and fled from Spain the very next day. The noble family settled stylishly into Paris, France, but the damage was done. Eugenie had already been baptized into tragedy. As we’ll see, this experience haunted her for the rest of her life.
4. She Idolized Another Tragic Queen
Marie Antoinette always held a strange power over Empress Eugenie. The young empress idolized the ill-fated Queen of France, and she even once dressed up as Marie for a portrait. But when she became Empress, Eugenie lived in fear that she would meet the same tragic end as her predecessor. She didn’t—but it in some ways her life was even more tragic.
7. She Was Very Unladylike
Though Eugenie grew up in a world full of luxurious dresses and decadent ballrooms, she knew how to pull her gown hems up and get things done. As a school girl, she was incredibly athletic and physically active, and often shirked her lessons so she could spend her time playing. Most of the time, her rebellious streak only caused minor trouble, but once, Eugenie’s daring behavior got her into grave danger…
8. She Had Self-Destructive Tendencies
As an adolescent, the headstrong Eugenie loved nothing more than to test her physical boundaries. When horseback riding, swimming, or playing any other sport that caught her fancy, she always took the hardest, most challenging routes—and one day, she took it way too far. While swimming, she got herself into such a horrific bind that she nearly drowned. She only survived because of a lucky rescue.
9. Her Response to Heartbreak Was Disturbing
Clearly, Empress Eugenie was first and foremost a woman of action, but her determination had a dark side. As a teenager, she nursed a series of ardent crushes on the handsome young men around her, only for the gentlemen to turn her down. Eugenie’s response was chilling. The lovelorn girl just couldn’t handle the pain of rejection, leading Eugenie to attempt her own life—twice.
10. She Knew the Most Powerful People
Eugenie’s mother Maria was the consummate society hostess, and she slowly moulded her young, wild daughter into a perfect debutante. Under her mother’s tutelage, Eugenie met luminaries like Queen Isabel II of Spain as well as the Spanish Prime Minister Ramon Narvaez. With such powerful people surrounding her, it’s no surprise that soon enough, Eugenie started feeling ambitious…
11. She Suffered a Devastating Loss
In March 1839, just a few scant years after Eugenie’s family fled Spain, another devastating tragedy occurred. Back in her home country, Eugenie’s father Cipriano passed away. Because her mother had taken Eugenie away from Spain, she had barely known him, and now she would never be able to. The family relocated back to Spain—only it was far from the last Eugenie would see of France.
12. She Liked Bad Boys
In 1849, Eugenie was attending yet another glamorous ball with her mother, this time at the palace of Princess Mathilde. It turned out to be a date with destiny. While there, Eugenie met Prince Louis Napoleon, the future Emperor Napoleon III of France, who was the rakish playboy of his day. But their encounter wasn’t exactly love at first sight…
13. She Shut Down a Prince
As one of the most notorious lovers in France, Napoleon immediately set about seducing Eugenie. He must have thought he’d found yet another naïve girl to bed—but he was so, so wrong. Instead of falling into his arms, Eugenie took a different route entirely.
14. She Won the Emperor in an Ingenious Way
One day, the amorous Napoleon flirted with Eugenie by asking, “What is the way to your heart?” Eugenie’s response was so incredible, it’s impossible to forget. Without batting an eyelash, the whip-smart Eugenie responded, “Through the chapel, sire.” She made it perfectly clear he could only have her at the exact moment that he put a ring on it.
15. She Married for Love
Remember: Whatever Eugenie wants, Eugenie gets. Still, January 22, 1853 was beyond even her wildest imaginings. By then, not only had Prince Louis Napoleon become Emperor, he also officially announced to the world that they were engaged, saying, “I have preferred a woman whom I love and respect to a woman unknown to me.” Yet that love and respect soon turned very sour…
16. Her Beau Was Horrible to Her
It’s hard to overstate the circus Eugenie walked into when she courted Napoleon. His affairs were legendary, turning him from the “Empereur” to the amorous “Ampleur.” The public accused Eugenie’s beau of being too distracted by his mistresses to run a country. Considering that this is the man Eugenie had to deal with—it’s no wonder that she reacted the way she did.
17. She Wasn’t Good Enough for Napoleon
Napoleon and Eugenie married just a week after their engagement announcement on January 29 at the iconic Tuileries in Paris…and their troubles started almost immediately after they made it down the aisle. Despite Eugenie’s highborn pedigree, many people around Europe thought that Napoleon was marrying down, with The Times lightly characterizing it as “an amazing humiliation.” But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
18. Her Wedding Night Was a Nightmare
For a supposed love match, the royal wedding night was a total disaster. Napoleon found out very quickly why Eugenie had been so difficult to seduce: She didn’t like intimacy. The morning after the couple said “I do,” someone overheard the Empress spitting out, and I quote: Intimacy? “what filth!” A Don Juan and a Vestal virgin? Not the best combination.
19. Her Husband Committed the Ultimate Betrayal
Eugenie soon realized that she and Napoleon were a match made in hell. Although her hubby graciously kept it in his pants for a gruelling six months, Napoleon III eventually did what he did best: strayed from his marriage. Eugenie was no dummy, so she found out about Napoleon’s tryst almost immediately—and she proved she was not a woman to be messed with.
20. She Inspired a Lasting Trend
The empress was the epitome of chic, so it’s no wonder she had the eternally elegant “Eugenie hat” named after her. Popularized by Old Hollywood icon Greta Garbo, the hat sweeps across the face, tilts up at the sides, and usually has a long ostrich feather perched on the top. It was all the rage in the 1930s.
21. Her Husband Disgusted Her
Following the discovery of her husband’s infidelities, Eugenie banned him from even visiting her bed. Never that into hanky-panky, the empress now proclaimed that she found any intimacy with Napoleon to be “disgusting.” She could barely even stand to be in his presence fully clothed and corseted up, never mind undressed. But this couldn’t last forever…
22. She Forced Herself Into Bedroom Acts
Despite her distaste for doing the dirty with the lecherous Napoleon, Eugenie knew she needed to provide the emperor with an heir, so she eventually set about her bedroom duties—even if she did them like she was going to a dentist appointment for a root canal. For anyone else, it would probably take years to conceive. Except this is Eugenie, so is it any surprise she got immediate results?
23. She Was Incredibly Fertile
Shortly after their royal wedding, Empress Eugenie was overjoyed to find herself pregnant, especially since this meant she didn’t have to keep inviting Napoleon into her bed anymore. Nonetheless, the empress looked forward to having a child of her own. Her anticipation had a terrible dark side, though: It only made the upcoming tragedy all the more devastating.
24. Her First Pregnancy Was Excruciating
After three months of carrying the royal baby inside her womb, Eugenie suffered a miscarriage. Aside from the psychological damage, it was incredibly difficult on her body, and she reportedly could never look at pregnancy the same way again. And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, there was the fact she had to re-open her bedroom door to Napoleon….
25. Her Standards Were Viciously High
Once she settled into her role as empress, Eugenie became infamous around the palace and throughout the Second Empire for her high standards and persnickety tastes. Apparently, if she was strolling around her mansion and saw that there was even a pillow out of place, she would make a huge fuss about the change in décor.
26. She Punished Napoleon The Only Way She Knew How
Eugenie wasn’t about to let anyone say she didn’t do her job as a royal wife, and in 1855, she was pregnant again. Unsurprisingly, this would be her final pregnancy. As punishment for Napoleon’s betrayal, most historians believe Eugenie never let her husband touch her again. She left him to his many mistresses and debauched court antics while she remained chaste.
27. Childbirth Nearly Destroyed Her
On March 16, 1856, Empress Eugenie birthed her only son and heir, Napoleon Eugene. What should have been a happy time turned into a terror. Eugenie had an incredibly difficult labor. It was so brutal that it went on for two horrific days and nearly cost both her and her son their lives. When Eugenie made it out of the other side, she was a changed woman.
28. She Invented Modern Paris
It was under the fastidious Empress Eugenie’s reign that Paris became the glorious city we know it as today. The royal couple famously hired George-Eugene Haussmann, a now legendary city planner, to transform the capital, installing its iconic wide boulevards and perfectly cultivated green spaces. What can I say? She could be harsh, but she had taste.
29. She Shared Secrets With Queen Victoria
Empress Eugenie may not have been too popular in Napoleon’s bedroom or in the more Republican-minded parts of France, but the rest of Europe absolutely adored her and admired her conduct. No less than Queen Victoria herself was impressed with the woman, and the two boss ladies were close friends throughout their iconic lives and rules.
30. She Turned Herself Into an Emperor
In 1870, Eugenie’s whole world came crashing down around her. The Franco-Prussian conflict broke out, and Napoleon III and their son rushed to the front lines to secure the empire, leaving Eugenie back at home. But this was not a woman to wait around. Instead of moping, Eugenie made herself Regent in her husband’s place—and one of her first acts was brutal.
31. She Wore the Pants in the Marriage
Soon after arriving at the front, Napoleon realized that he was fighting a losing battle, and even worse, he was no real use to his men. He wrote back to Eugenie to ask permission to return to Paris and take up his old royal duties again…because yes, the Emperor of France still had to get the go-ahead from his wife. Her response was equal parts swift and heartless.
32. She Brutally Controlled Her Husband
Empress Eugenie responded to her husband almost immediately via telegram, and she did not mince her words. She sniped, “Don’t think of coming back, unless you want to unleash a terrible revolution.” After this smackdown, Napoleon reportedly went back to his men and sighed that he’d “been dismissed.” But there were even worse things in store for him.
33. She Lost Her Throne
On September 3, 1870, fate came calling for the Second Empire of France. Napoleon and his generals finally admitted defeat, all but crumbling his reign. When Eugenie heard the news, she mourned the loss of her country deeply. But when she found out that her husband was still alive and in captivity in Germany, her reaction was utterly disturbing.
34. She Wished Her Husband Was Dead
Eugenie was an old-school empress if there ever was one, and she was bitterly ashamed that Napoleon III hadn’t gone down with his ship. After hearing that he had surrendered to the enemy, she reportedly launched into an unhinged rage, screaming “”No! An emperor does not capitulate! He is dead!…They are trying to hide it from me.”
35. She Caused an International Scandal
Even though she despised her husband’s gossiping mistresses, Eugenie was no stranger to scandal either. One day while visiting the royal Sultana in Constantinople, the Empress took the arm of one of the Sultana’s sons. This was actually a grave and forward mistake. The Sultana was so offended that she slapped the Empress and nearly caused an international incident.
36. She Faced Rioting Mobs
While Eugenie was unravelling because of her husband’s lily-livered surrender, the Empress should have been watching her own back. With the fall of France, the Republicans in Paris started stirring, and almost overnight riotous crowds overran the city. In a flashback to her violent childhood, violent mobs even started forming around Eugenie’s window.
37. She Was the Last Woman Standing
In a matter of days, Eugenie went from an empress to an outcast. As the city she knew and loved unspooled in front of her terrified eyes, Eugenie panicked, leading servants to flee her perfectly appointed palace. Stubborn to a fault, Eugenie refused to abandon her now eerily empty home…until she was suddenly forced to run away in a raw panic.
38. She Fled From France in a Bizarre Way
Eugenie soon realized that she had to make a choice: She could either keep her country or her life, and if she wanted to avoid her idol Marie Antoinette’s dark fate, she’d have to act quickly. Desperate to escape France, Eugenie looked toward an unusual saviour: Her American dentist, Thomas Evans. He helped her board a yacht and sail to England. Eugenie was now an exiled empress…but she was just getting started.
39. She Started a Luxurious Trend
It only makes sense that Eugenie’s “brand” would become unimaginable luxury. In 1854, Napoleon III started constructing the “Villa Eugenie” in Biarritz—a town near her native Spain—to give his sweetums a summer home fit for a queen. Now known as the famous Hotel du Palais, the villa put Biarritz on the map as a royal vacation destination.
40. She Went Undercover
Despite her disdain for her husband’s cowardly surrender, Eugenie’s ovaries of steel wouldn’t let her abandon Napoleon III to his fate. The erstwhile emperor was held as a gentleman prisoner in Germany, and Eugenie made frequent incognito trips to Deutschland to see him and keep him company. Not that he deserved it.
41. She Bent Her Husband to Her Will
During her time as empress, Eugenie was famous more as a ball-buster than a radical. She held more conservative Catholic views than Napoleon III, and tended to curb his more liberal political impulses. Hey, if she couldn’t get him to stop his “liberal” habits in the bedroom, maybe she could do it in parliament…
42. She Was Obsessed With Extravagance
Eugenie might have been a good little Catholic girl, but she didn’t mind a little pride and vanity. She had a fabulous collection of jewellery that she loved displaying for any occasion she could manage. Her baubles were so covetable that the Brazilian socialite Aimee de Heren later bought almost all of them. If you can impress a socialite, you can impress anyone.
43. She Tried to Reclaim Her Throne By Force
Shortly after Eugenie’s escape from France, she was officially reunited with her freed husband, and the former royal couple settled into a quiet life in London. Just kidding, they didn’t do that at all. Instead, they almost certainly started planning their return to the French throne. Fate, however, had a much crueller plan in store for Eugenie and her just-liberated hubby.
44. Her Husband Abandoned Her
In 1873, just bare years after he had admitted defeat and lost his crown, Napoleon III lost his life. Sure, his health and been deteriorating for years and Eugenie never liked him much, but she was still devastated at the loss. As consolation, she focused all her energy and hopes of a restoration through her son Napoleon Eugene…and then tragedy struck again.
45. She Was an Early Feminist
Even though she was a traditionalist in many ways, Eugenie was also an absolute firebrand for women’s rights. She fought—and failed—to get the female writer George Sand inducted into the prestigious Academie francaise. It definitely says something about the Boys Club of literature that the freaking Empress of France couldn’t even manage this task.
46. She Lost Her Only Son
In 1879, Eugenie felt the cruellest blow of her life. That year, Napoleon Eugene perished in the Zulu conflict in South Africa, which—all tea, no shade—is kind of what you get when you’re a colonizing force invading another country to re-secure your power. Eugenie was now bereaved, bereft, and forever denied another chance at the throne.
47. She Became a Fashion Icon
In another fashionable homage, the Eugenie paletot, an impressive woman’s coat with enormous bell sleeves and a button closure, is also named after the last Empress of France. Eugenie was very fond of this style of coat and helped make it the thing to wear while getting out of a carriage and heading to the ball of your choice.
48. She Had a Bitter Romantic Rival
One of Napoleon’s most notorious mistresses was the beautiful and vain Countess of Castiglione, and she quickly became Eugenie’s fiercest rival. One day, the countess arrived at costume ball in full view of the empress. Scandalously, Castiglione was dressed as the Queen of Hearts, a veiled allusion to her influential spot in the Emperor’s bedroom. But that wasn’t even the worst part.
49. She Was a Mean Girl
Prim, proper, and dutiful Eugenie had to suffer in contempt when she got the full view of the Countess of Castiglione’s costume—and I do mean the full view. The dress, while dotted with hearts, was almost entirely see-through, and the good old countess wasn’t wearing a corset. Reportedly, Eugenie went up to her romantic rival and hissed, “The heart is a little low.”
50. Her Passing Was the End of an Era
Though Eugenie survived a revolution—a feat her beloved Marie Antoinette couldn’t claim—she experienced a different kind of curse. She lived. Passing at the incredible age of 94, Eugenie lived to see every thing else around her fall or fade, from her kingdom, to her husband, to her son. She even saw the last gasp of European monarchies after WWI.
So when she finally died on July 11, 1920, Eugenie truly was the last of a kind.