St Michael’s Abbey

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Following a TV episode of 'Great Railway Journeys' with Michael Portillo, a local coach firm decided to include a visit to St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough in their 2014 brochure. It looked interesting and so, I, and a small group of friends decided to book some seats.

We left at 9 am on the morning of 3rd July for a journey of approximately one hour. The tour was scheduled for 2 am, so we had two breaks en route. One of the stops included a visit to Farnham for lunch and a look around the town.

A pair of large iron gates confronted us when we arrived at the Abbey. These automatically open at a specific time to allow access. Disembarking from the coach, we were met by two female guides, who split us into two groups for the tour. We processed up the steps of the abbey entrance into the seemingly little known treasure trove of history, faith and architecture.

After being crushed by exile and the loss of both her husband (Emperor Napoleon III) and son, the Prince Imperial, Empress Eugene de Moitijo, Countess of Teba, commissioned a mausoleum and monastery at Farnborough for the burial place of their bodies. In 1880, Eugene bought a home in Farnborough, approx. 30 miles from London.

Born in Granada, Spain, Eugene was distantly descended from a King of Spain and a King of Portugal, as well as from St Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. Her mother was a daughter of a Scottish wine merchant and her father, a Spanish Noble. Her godmother was Queen Victoria and her godfather, Pope Pius IX. She was raised and educated in Paris before meeting and marrying Napoleon III (nephew and heir of Napoleon I), after he became Emperor.

Following controversy that precipitated the France – German War of 1870, and after the battle of Sedan Sepal, Eugene joined her family in exile in England. Emperor Napoleon was the first elected President and last Monarch of France. He was perhaps best known for his reconstruction of Paris, carried out by Baron Haussmann. Napoleon also modernized the French banking system as well as consolidating the railway system.

In order to build the Abbey (as a monastery) and Mausoleum, Eugene sold her extensive and unique collection of jewellery. The Empress invited French Benedictines from Saint Pierre de Solesmes, in 1895. The Benedictines wanted a monastic foundation dedicated to liturgical studies, but had been unable to find a suitable place and funding. So began their daily prayer, work and study. The monks followed the pattern of life codified by St Benedict in the sixth century. Ronald Knott described this place as, 'A little corner of England which is forever France.' In 1947 a small band of monks arrived from Prinknash Abbey, near Gloucester to anglicise the house and ensure continuity of the monastic life. Dom Zerr was the last French monk, who died in 1956.

The Abbey itself was designed by Gabriel Destailler in a French, Gothic and Romanesque style, after he completed Waddeston Manor for the Rothschilds family. This splendid Grade I Abbey Church is one of England's finest Catholic Churches. It has a renaissance dome. Inside there are lofty arches and an Italian marble pavement going along to the High Altar. The Archangel statue stands above the pipe organ and eagles and bees decorate the walls surrounding the altar. In 2000-02 the pace was extensively renovated with the aid of the English Heritage Lottery Fund.

We sat inside the abbey for some time, listening to the tour guide's interesting information before being led out to visit the Mausoleum. Once outside we were able to have a good look at the exterior of the Abbey and view the 'renaissance dome' towering above us.

Before being brought to the Mausoleum, Eugene's husband had been buried in St Mary's Catholic Church in Chislehurst where they had lived. It was in 1888 that the crypt of the future Abbey was ready to receive the bodies of Napoleon and the 23 year old, Prince Imperial.

Louis, Prince Imperial, had trained as a soldier in England. He was killed in the Anglo Zulu War, thus ending a great dynasty. Fired on by about 40 Zulus, Louis clung on to his bolting horse's saddle before the strap broke, and he fell beneath the animal. His right arm was trampled but he managed to get up and drew his revolver with his left hand. He was out chased by the Zulus and suffered 18 assegal wounds to his body as well as his right eye being stabbed.

The Mausoleum holds a polished red granite sarcophagus containing the remains of the Prince Imperial, a reproduction of the massive and handsome sarcophagus which was presented by the Queen to the Empress on the death of Napoleon III. Sadly, there was a theft from the Crypt in February this year when the Abbot reported a break in and three framed altar cards were stolen. These were in heavy, large frames and easily identifiable as coming from the Abbey because of their size and the Napoleonic emblems with Latin and French texts, as well as religious scenes. Auction houses and dealers were alerted as well as police involvement on an international level. The cards were from the Prince Imperial's tomb and they contained texts of prayers found in the wallet when he died. Forensic evidence is good and it is hoped , through vigilance, these important international historic items can be found.

Leaving the Mausoleum and walking towards some steps you are able to see the monks house. The 4 residential monks have a small farm with about 30 Wiltshire Ham sheep and about 30 colonies of honey bees.

There is an Abbey Shop where you can purchase books, cards and monastic products. A good moisturising 'monastery balm' costs £5 and a 'lip balm,' £1.50. Monastery mugs can be bought for £3, along with other items. There are no tea (café) facilities and just one toilet located through the shop.

If interested in visiting, the 1 hour guided tour of the Abbey and Crypt are on Saturdays at 3pm, when there is no need to book in advance. Arrangements can be made if wanting to visit on other days by contacting via email or telephone. There is a monetary donation of £3 – children free.

Organ recitals take place at 2pm on the first Sundays of each month. No charge, just a retiring collection. In August there is a special recital to raise money for Aid to the Church In Need.

I was so pleased I had the opportunity to visit the Abbey, so rich in history and it spurred me on to find out more about the lives of the family and the Napoleonic dynasty. A good day out!

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