Eug?nie's English Exile
St. Michael's Abbey in Hampshire, England — popularly known as “Farnborough Abbey” — is a little bit of France in the English countryside.
The abbey's border-straddling story goes back to the 19th century and the emperor Napoleon III of France. This “Second Empire” was a time of glamour and style in Paris, exemplified by the famous Winterhalter portrait of the empress Eugénie, in the beautiful crinoline she helped to popularize as the fashion icon of the age.
But it all ended with France's crushing defeat in the Franco-Russian war, capped by the flight of the emperor and empress across the sea to England. Eventually, together with their son, they settled at Chislehurst in Kent and began a new life in exile.
When Napoleon III died, all hopes for the future of the dynasty were pinned on the young prince, Louis. Talented, devout and determined to make his life one of service, the prince joined the British Army and, after much pleading on his part, went with his regiment to South Africa. Britain was engaged in wars with the Zulus, and there, during a routine patrol, he and a small group were ambushed by a group of Zulus. Heavily outnumbered, they were slaughtered.
When the news reached England, it broke the empress’ heart. The young man's body was brought back and initially buried at Chislehurst, but she wanted to ensure a nobler resting place for the bodies of her husband and son, and so acquired land at Farnborough, Hampshire, near the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
She built a fine home at Farn-borough Hill and also arranged for a splendid abbey to be built and a group of monks brought from France to serve it. The bodies of the emperor and the prince were placed in magnificent tombs in the crypt. The monks and their successors were committed to praying for the souls of the deceased members of the imperial family.
And so it remains to this day. The empress now lies near her husband and son. Her home at Farnborough Hill is now a school. The monks at St. Michael's Abbey today are English, but are proud of their abbey's history and welcome visitors who tour the crypt and learn its story.
A Community Thrives
Fascinating enough, all of that, yet there is much more to Farn-borough Abbey than dusty history. This is a thriving community: The monks run a publishing house, the Farnborough Abbey Press, while also keeping hens and bees, and, most importantly, singing the Divine Office of the Church and welcoming people for retreats and pilgrimages.
A house on the grounds, South Lodge, is available for guests. Catholic groups and organizations come for day visits or longer sojourns. Students come to learn about monastic life; confirmation candidates come for prayer, reflection and study.
The beautiful grounds lend themselves to processions, and the abbey church, with its soaring ceiling and splendid organ, makes a noble setting for a sung Latin Mass each Sunday.
A statue of Prince Louis now stands on the grounds of the Royal Military Academy, and the imperial family is also commemorated in local street names such as Empress Avenue and Napoleon Way. The town of Farnborough itself is a major center of the aviation industry and has a massive international air show every two years. It's quite a sight to see modern fighter jets and vintage aircraft using the spire of the abbey church as a landmark “turning point” as they hurtle around the sky.
The entrance to the abbey is hidden today behind a tall office block and, at first, the visitor may think he is mistaken. Surely there cannot be a monastery here amid the noise of traffic on the edge of a busy industrial town?
But on entering through the massive gates — operated by remote control from the abbey some way up the drive — you walk into another world. Tall, mature trees crowd together overhead and, as the abbey buildings come into view, half chateau and half red-brick college, you may be greeted by some of the monks’ pet peacocks as they strut about the grounds. Nor should you be surprised by the rabbits and squirrels darting about the woodland.
Then the church comes into view, magnificent with its gargoyles and massive oak doors. Beyond it, the grounds stretch with meadows and wooded paths. The town of Farnborough seems miles away.
Alive with Prayer
The church at Farnborough is a wonderful place to pray. A magnificent statue of St. Michael stands guard above the high altar, as if taking prayers up to God. And, because the monastic community sings the Divine Office in this church regularly throughout the day, the sanctuary seems warm and alive with prayer — even when the church is empty.
Our Lady stands in the traditional place on the right, at the foot of the sanctuary, just as she stood at the foot of the cross at Calvary. Hers is an unusually beautiful statue, and each night the monks walk in procession after Compline to sing the Salve Regina before it. Although the abbey is dedicated to St. Michael, Mary's statue has its own veneration; for pilgrims who come here, she is unofficially “Our Lady of Farnborough.”
At Christmas, a small Nativity scene is erected near Our Lady's statue on the lower altar steps, a delight for children and grownups alike.
This is a thriving Benedictine community and, on Sundays after Mass throughout the year, locals and visitors gather at the abbey door to buy fresh eggs, laid that morning by the monastery's hens. Honey from the comb and beeswax candles are also popular.
Many people linger to browse in the abbey's bookshop. One of the monks is available at set times to take people on a tour of the imperial crypt and tell the abbey's amazing story.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.
- October 17-23, 2004