Two hundred years ago, today, the Duke of Wellington moved in to the Palais Borghese in Paris. It was the opulent Paris town home of Princess Pauline Borghese, the youngest sister of the recently deposed French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. As was his practice, Wellington had not commandeered the property of the conquered nation as other leaders might have done. He had directed that the magnificent property be purchased from its notably notorious owner, for use as the British Embassy in Paris. A few days after final negotiations were completed, the Duke moved into Pauline’s palace. Though Wellington spent little time there as ambassador, the grand mansion once known as the Hôtel de Charost became, and remains to this day, the heart of the British Embassy in France.
A brief history of the Palais Borghese and its second incarnation as the British Embassy in Paris . . .
The core of the building which now serves as the British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris began as an hôtel particulier, built west of the city on plot of land that had been used a market garden, along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the main route from the city to Versailles. King Louis XIV, who had forced the French aristocracy to live at his enormous palace outside Paris was dying, and the nobles felt free to begin establishing residences beyond Versailles and close to the capital, but not within its over-crowded and squalid central section. One of those aristocrats was Paul François de Béthune-Charost, marquis de Ancenis, Captain of the King’s Bodyguard. He commissioned the architect, Antoine Mazin, to design a grand mansion for him in what was then a rural setting. Mazin presented his completed plans to Ancenis on 20 April 1722, and the house was ready for occupation in December of 1725.
As was typical of these great hôtels at that time, the marquis’ extended family had quarters in the new house. Ancenis’ father, Armand de Béthune, the 3rd duc de Charost, had a full suite of rooms on the first floor, overlooking the garden. Ancenis had a suite on the same floor, facing the courtyard, while his wife’s suite was on the floor below. The extended family was served by a host of servants who were housed above the extensive medieval-style domestic "office" building and the commodious stables. The family had the favor of King Louis XV and their fortunes were on the rise during his reign. Through the early decades of the eighteenth century, the hôtel de Charost was home to various members of the family. However, the 5th duc de Charost, Armand Joseph, who abolished all feudal rights and privileges on his many estates, preferred to live in one of his other homes in Paris. He leased the hôtel de Charost to a distant relative, Auguste Marie Raymond d’Arenberg, comte de la Marck, in 1785. By 1792, the comte de la Marck was in exile, having tried to smuggle King Louis XVI and his family out of France. La Marck sublet the great house to the Portuguese ambassador, Dom Vicente de Sousa Coutinho, who died only a few months later.
La Marck was heavily in debt and, upon the death of the ambassador, his creditors demanded that the house be sealed so that none of its contents could be removed until his debts were settled. A skeleton staff was retained to care for the property and feed the guard dog. A few months later, in January 1793, King Louis XVI was guillotined in the place de Révolution, barely five hundred yards from the hôtel de Charost. As an exile, La Marck was subject to the confiscation of his property and in July of 1795, the contents of the hôtel were put up for auction. The true owner of the hôtel, the 5th duc de Charost, was eventually able to regain his property from the government, but still chose not to live there. In 1799, he leased the building for use as an office to an agency responsible for the administration of military hospitals. The duc de Charost died in 1800 and in 1802, his widow, the duchesse de Charost, leased the house to the British Ambassador, Earl Whitworth. But its use as a British Embassy this first time was short-lived. British relations with France were broken off in May of 1803 and Britain declared war on Napoleon’s France.
In February of 1803, only a few months before Britain declared war on Bonaparte, his youngest sister, Pauline, returned to France from the Caribbean. She had left the island of Santo Domingo as a widow, with her infant son, after the death of her first husband, General Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc. She initially stayed at the grand Paris home of her brother, Joseph. Pauline was still young, strikingly beautiful, and without doubt the most ambitious of Napoleon’s siblings. She had every intention of taking advantage of the fact that she was the sister of the First Consul of France. Nearly all of her siblings had an opulent residence in Paris, luxuriously furnished with financial assistance from their brother. It was not long before Pauline decided she should have an equally grand residence of her own. She soon cast her eye on the hôtel de Charost, recently vacated by the British Ambassador.
Within a few weeks, Pauline made a very generous offer for the property to the duchesse de Charost, despite the fact that Pauline had nowhere near the proposed amount and Whitworth’s lease had not yet expired. At the time, Pauline was also preparing for her second marriage, to Prince Camillo Borghese, again arranged by her brother, Napoleon, in yet another attempt to ally his family with European nobility. The alliance with Italy was especially important, since Napoleon was widely hated in that region. The young prince was handsome and passionate and Pauline decided she could not wait the "decent" interval of a full year after the death of her first husband. She and Prince Camillo were secretly married in August of 1803. Napoleon was furious, but only because he wanted to keep up appearances of propriety within his upstart family, who were looked down upon by most of the aristocracy of Europe. Though her new residence in Paris would be renamed the Palais Borghese, in keeping with her new married name, by the terms of her marriage contract, it remained Pauline’s sole property, even though she could still not afford the purchase price.
Shortly before she departed for Rome with her new husband, and before she had paid for the property, Pauline tried to hire the most famous architect in France, Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine, to refurbish her new Paris residence. Unfortunately, Fontaine had worked for Pauline before, on one of her other properties, for which he had yet to be paid, and he refused the commission. Instead, the new Princess Borghese employed Pierre Nicholas Bénard, an architect who had worked for Prince Camillo’s brother. Due to her extremely precarious financial situation, the princess could not afford any significant remodelling of the structure. Therefore, the refurbishment of this Louis XV-era house consisted almost entirely of interior decor and furnishings. But the new mantle-pieces, lavishly gilt paneling, textiles, bronze ornaments and furniture were, and are, some of the finest examples of the French Empire style, the official style of Napoleon and his court. Nearly all the damasks, brocades and velvets used throughout the house were silk, woven exclusively in France, in support of the French silk industry. Each room had a different color or theme, with all of the decor and furnishings made to match.
Pauline returned from Rome, bored with her husband, but delighted with her new Paris home. She was still unable to pay for it and borrowed vast sums from her brother, Joseph. Napoleon refused to cover her debts, hoping to force her to give up her home and return to her husband in Rome. But she had come to despise Prince Camillo’s never-failing good nature nearly as much as she hated Rome. Harried by her many creditors, she eventually prevailed upon Napoleon to settle all her debts, which he did in April of 1804, only a few months before the tragic death of her six-year old son. After that, Napoleon relented and allowed his little sister to live in Paris while her husband lived most of the time in Rome. When Prince Borghese did come to Paris, he usually stayed in the opulent townhouse which bore his name. But on the majority of those occassions, Pauline removed herself to her country estate outside Paris until her estranged husband left the city again.
For most of the next decade, Pauline was the center of her own court at the Palais Borghese, which was modeled on the elaborate and aristocratic courts of the previous century. She had dozens of servants, of which her favorite was Camille Paul, her premier valet de chambre, a tall, powerfully built black Egyptian who dressed in eastern-style costume. Reportedly, he attended her every need, including carrying the princess to her bath. There were rumors that she used some of her ladies in waiting as footstools. What is certain is that she took many lovers, enjoying decadent Bacchanalian romps with them, often in her Paris townhouse. When funds permitted, she expanded and further enriched her palace. She laid on running water soon after her return to Paris. In 1809, she felt the need for more space and commissioned Bénard to add two wings to the main house, a Picture Gallery and a grand Dining Room. Both were furnished as lavishly as the rest of the house. In 1811, she had the chapel used by the de Charosts converted into a Billiard Room. In 1812, she commissioned an elaborate jewel cabinet for her palace. Though it was completed, it was never delivered. It is also believed that it was in June of 1812 that Pauline last saw her opulent Paris residence.
When the Allies entered Paris in April of 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication, the Palais Borghese was commandeered as the residence of the Emperor of Austria. Pauline was then living in Provence, from where she sent orders for the sale of the Palais Borghese. Despite Napoleon’s unwillingness to cover her debts in 1804, she sold nearly all her assets, intending to use the proceeds to improve her brother’s living conditions on Elba. She was the only one of his siblings to join him in his exile there. She even pleaded to be allowed to join him on St. Helena, when he was sent into his final exile the following year. Her pleas were refused, and she eventually removed to Rome, where she came under the personal protection of the Pope. When she moved to Rome, her husband, Prince Borghese, left for Florence, in order to keep some distance from her. But in 1825, the Pope convinced her husband to reconcile with her, which he did, only a few months before she died of pulmonary tuberculosis, at the age of forty-four.
Even before Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of France in April of 1814, the Duke of Wellington was offered the position of British Ambassador to France once the war was over. He promptly accepted, since he knew he needed some other employment than war once Napoleon was defeated. He had acquired a host of diplomatic skills while dealing with the authorities in Portugal and Spain as he prosecuted his Peninsular Campaign to push the French out of the Iberian Peninsula. He believed he could now put those skills to good use for his country as relations with France were re-established. However, Wellington did not approve of the usual Foreign Office practice of leasing a property for the use of their ambassador in a foreign capital. Because he was who he was, his opinion prevailed and he was given permission to purchase a property to serve as the British Embassy in Paris. In June of 1814, when Wellington was finally able to get to Paris after arranging for the return of his troops to Britain, he ordered his aide-de-camp, Sir Charles Stuart, to find a suitable property.
While he was in Paris that month, Wellington met the wealthy British author, Quinton Craufurd, who had lived there for many years. Craufurd believed that the former hôtel de Charost would make an ideal embassy for Britain. Craufurd may even have taken Wellington on a tour of the house while he was in Paris that June. What is certain is that before he left Paris for England, Wellington directed Sir Charles Stuart to negotiate with Pauline Borghese’s comptroller to purchase the property. Initially, Princess Borghese intended only to sell the house and grounds. She wished to retain the contents, which she was planning to ship to Elba for the use of her brother. In the end, the logistics proved impossible to manage, and Pauline sold the house, its contents and the grounds to the British government. Though the structures on the property were all thoroughly French in design and construction, the garden was very English. Pauline, like her sister-in-law, the Empress Joséphine, at Malmaison, had hired an English gardener. Thus, though he would live in a French mansion, Ambassador Wellington would look out on grounds that were classically English. The purchase price for the property was 500,000 francs for the house, 300,000 francs for the furniture and 61,500 francs for the stables. The final total of 861,500 francs, about £40,000, was more than twice what Pauline had paid for the property in 1803. She was very pleased with the deal.
The Duke of Wellington returned to Paris from the Victory Celebrations in London on Monday, 22 August 1814. He presented his ambassadorial credentials at the French court that same day. Four days later, in the name of the British government, the new ambassador to the Court of the Tuileries signed the official inventory of the house and its contents and the agreement by which Pauline Borghese’s former home became the property of the British government. The terms of the agreement called for payment to be made in installments, over the course of the next two years. Wellington moved into the former Palais Borghese three days later, on Monday, 29 August 1814. That night, in a letter to the Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, William Hamilton, he wrote, "I have come into her house, …" But that is as close as the Duke came to the Princess when he purchased her Paris home. All of their negotiations had been conducted by third parties, so the principals did not meet face to face. Wellington would not meet Pauline until several weeks later.
The Duke of Wellington was the second British Ambassador to have his headquarters in the erstwhile hôtel de Charost, and the first to occupy it as the property of the British government. But his tenure there would be one of the shortest on record, only four months. During that period, there were a number of threats and attempts on the life of the Duke of Wellington. He had always shrugged them off, but the British government became increasingly concerned for the well-being of their greatest living hero. They sent multiple requests to Wellington, asking him to return to Britain. All were politely refused, since Wellington was aware of the reason they were made. By January of 1815, Liverpool’s government had hit upon a solution to their problem. Lord Castlereagh was then serving as the British representative at the Congress of Vienna. But he was needed back in Britain, and the government decided to replace him with the Duke of Wellington. They believed that Vienna was much safer for the Duke at that time than was Paris, and he was not a man to fail in his duty to his country. Before the end of the month, Wellington was in Vienna.
However, within a month of Wellington’s arrival in the Austrian capital, Napoleon had slipped out of Elba and back to France. It was not long before Wellington was given command of the combined allied forces. He was soon on his way to Brussels, since it was assumed that Napoleon would move north, once he had re-consolidated his power base in Paris. After Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington became the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Army of Occupation in France and did not return to his post as British Ambassador to France. In fact, the next British Ambassador to France was Sir Charles Stuart, Wellington’s former aide-de-camp and the man who had negotiated the purchase of the Palais Borghese. Stuart remained in that post until 1824.
Despite the fact that the Duke of Wellington served so briefly as British Ambassador to Paris, in a sense he has remained a presence in the house in the two centuries since its purchase. The room in the original house in which the duc de Béthune had stored his elaborate saddle-cloths had been converted into a salon for Prince Borghese’s quarters. Wellington had used it as a conference room, though later ambassadors used it as study. It is now known as the Wellington Room, and on its walls can be found a number of prints of the Duke engaged in various activities. There are also at least two portraits of the first Duke which hang in different rooms of the house. When Wellington purchased the house from Pauline Borghese, it was not only the home of the British Ambassador, but also housed the working offices of the embassy. Some years ago, another building next door was purchased for the embassy offices and the former Palais Borghese is now the British Ambassador’s official residence in Paris. It is still the location for many official ambassadorial functions, so it still serves much the same purpose to which Wellington himself put it. A Google Image search on the phrase "british ambassador’s residence in Paris" will yield a wide array of photos of this magnificent building and its beautiful grounds.
There are many who believe that the British Ambassador’s Residence in Paris is the most elegant and beautiful of all of the British ambassadorial residences around the world. One would be hard pressed to find another residence as lovely, or with such a rich history as the former Palais Borghese. And it became the property of the British government two hundred years ago today.