What does a medieval castle in a small Spanish town and a modern housing estate in Madrid have in common? You might be surprised to learn that both are linked to the last Empress of France: Eugenia, the Countess of Montijo.
To use her full name: María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick, this daughter of Spanish nobility was born in Granada in 1826. Eugenia had a rather adventurous youth before marrying Napoleon III, France’s first President and the last Emperor of the French during the Second Republic from 1852-1870. A well travelled woman, she had an interest in international politics, fashion and art and lived a life that is worthy of several blog posts and probably a Netflix series.
Today, I’m going to talk about two sites linked to Eugenia that I have visited myself. First is the medieval castle at Belmonte, near Cuenca, built in the 1450s to protect the Kingdom of Castile from multiple rival claimants to the throne. Eugenia inherited the castle from her father Cipriano Palafox y Portocarrero, the Duke of Peñaranda, but it had fallen into a bad state over the centuries. It was in fact attacked by the French forces of her future uncle Napoleon I, which might have made for a super awkward dinner party conversation. However her father had actually fought alongside the French against the Spanish in the War of Independence, losing his right eye in the Battle of Salamanca in 1821. His daughter decided to renovate the castle site in the 1850s, keeping the medieval exterior that still dominates the town today, but decorating the inside in the French Romantic style of the time in keeping with her role as Empress of the French.
When not renovating this home, Eugenia and her mother lived in a small Madrid palace in Quinta de Miranda (now in the southern neighbourhood of Carabanchel Alto). Her mother María Manuela, herself the head lady in waiting to Queen Isabel II, also had an interesting family history. Of Scottish descent, the Kirkpatricks had been exiled to Spain for supporting the House of Stuart in their dynastic claims during the Jacobite rising of the 1740s.
Their estate dated back to the 15th century and contemporary descriptions and photographs show that the palace was a two story stone house with a tower, and was full of sculptures, paintings and tapestries. Hosting many a ball and aristocratic party, the building sat in ornate floral gardens with fountains, trees and great views towards the city of Madrid.
However Eugenia’s time as a jet-setting hostess, negotiator and patron of the arts was not to last. Her husband was dethroned in 1870 after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the family fled to England. She founded the Benedictine monastery of St Michel’s Abbey near Farnborough in Hampshire, where her husband and son were buried before her in granite sarcophaguses paid for by Queen Victoria.
After Eugenia’s death in the Liria Palace in Madrid in 1920, the Carabanchel estate passed to an order of nuns. The order remained there until the 1960s, with a brief period of exile by anti-clerical Republican forces during the Civil War. A fire damaged the building in 1969 and there was an idea to turn it into a museum of Romanticism, with support from the press and the Royal Academy of History. However Madrid City Council authorised the demolition of the building (sadly typical of short-sighted bureaucracy all over world at this time) and the subsequent construction of a new housing estate that stands there today: the Colonia Parque Eugenia de Montijo.
With the house gone and very little of the estate remaining, you now need a deal of imagination to picture it in its heyday. All that is left of the grounds is a small fountain and pine trees planted by Eugenia herself. The neighbouring park, a school and the Metro station nearby bear her name, but these can only hint at the importance of this area, once the home of the last ruler of France.
For pictures of the palace and more information about the area, check out the excellent local history blog (In Spanish of course) at: https://karabanchel.com/placa-2-palacio-eugenia-de-montijo/