France under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III was an intoxicating place. Paris was alight with newly invented gas lamps and every night the ballrooms of the Tuileries Palace were thronged with the most beautiful and fashionable nobility of the era. At the center of this thriving court, where crinoline petticoats and the polished boots of cavalry officers waltzed the night away, was the star of the Second French Empire: Empress Eugénie de Montijo.
Born in Spain in 1826 to a wealthy if somewhat notorious noble family, her birth was heralded by an earthquake that shook the city of Granada, and in years to come it would seem tied to her fate: this noblewoman was destined to shake the world. Eugénie managed to climb higher than anyone could have foretold. As beautiful as she was headstrong, no one ever expected her to catch the heart of Napoleon III - Europe's most eligible bachelor. Napoleon III was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and similarly to Napoleon's tumultuous relationship with his empress, Napoleon III chased Eugénie for years because she refused to become his mistress - rather like how Anne Boleyn refused to become Henry VIII's mistress - only to find out she thought the act of intercourse was disgusting.
Eugénie wasn't exactly one of the greatest warrior queens in history, since her advice in war was disastrous for France: after nearly two decades of ruling, the empire crumbled, and Eugénie fled Paris with an angry mob on her heels, barely escaping with her life into exile. She might have avoided the tragic fate of Marie Antoinette, but just like the last queen of France, Eugénie's reputation cemented her in history as one of the most celebrated, the most fashionable, and most reviled women of all time.
When she was old enough, Eugénie's mother brought her to Paris to receive an education, and to meet eligible men. The greatest prize in France was Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized power in a coup d'état in 1852 and crowned himself emperor. Eugénie and Napoleon met at the Elysee Palace, where the Bonaparte prince threw balls. He was instantly attracted to Eugénie, but she refused to be wooed by the bachelor, who had quite reputation as a ladies' man.
She was only interested in Napoleon if he married her, and impressively her hard-to-get strategy worked. When the French questioned Napoleon's choice of a relatively minor Spanish noble for his empress, he said, "I have preferred a woman whom I love and respect to a woman unknown to me, with whom an alliance would have had advantages mixed with sacrifices." The two were married in 1853.
After giving birth to a male heir, Eugénie decided she had no interest in sex. She'd already made up her mind on her wedding night. The morning after her wedding, she was overheard saying "Sex? What filth!" Eugénie didn't understand what all the fuss was about. She confided in a friend, "But really, why do men never think of anything but that?"
It probably didn't help that her husband only waited for six weeks after their wedding before returning to his mistress. Napoleon was a well-known philanderer, and rarely if ever had physical relations with his wife again after their son was born. Napoleon told his cousin, "I need my little amusements, but I always return to her with pleasure." A pleasure that Eugénie apparently didn't share.
Long before she became an empress, Eugénie had a string of love affairs - albeit largely one-sided - that defined her dramatic image. Eugénie had an older sister, nicknamed Paca. When Eugénie was 16, she fell in love with the Duke of Alba, one of Spain's wealthiest and most eligible noblemen. But Eugénie's mother, Manuela, had her own ideas. As the mother of two beautiful daughters, Manuela saw it as her duty to make good matches for her children - regardless of their personal preferences. So Eugénie's mother arranged for her sister Paca to marry the Duke of Alba instead.
Eugénie fell into a depression after her crush married her sister. She even threatened to run away to a convent or commit suicide. And it didn't help when, a short time later, she fell in love with a second man who secretly loved Paca. That time, Eugénie swallowed a poisonous concoction made from match heads and milk, and only narrowly lived by taking an antidote in time.
In 1858, when she was still a relatively new empress and her son was not yet two years old, assassins tried to murder Eugénie and her husband. The plotters were Italian terrorists who saw Napoleon III as a symbol of European imperialism, and were intent on upsetting the balance of power. The would-be assassins planted three bombs outside the Opéra Le Peletier on the evening of January 14, 1858, when the imperial couple were planning to attend a performance of Rossini's William Tell. As their carriage pulled up to the theater, all three bombs exploded, rocking the street. Several people were killed during the incident,
Eugénie and Napoleon were not seriously hurt, although flying glass cut Eugénie's face near her eye. She exited the carriage and said, "Let us show the assassins that we have more courage than them." The brave empress led her husband into the opera house to the imperial box to show the cheering audience they had not been harmed - a genius PR move if ever there was one.