Reconciliation with Britain was the obsession of Napoléon III. On her first voyage to France, he reserved for Queen Victoria the pomp and ceremony that Versailles had not known since the monarchy.
From 17 to 28 August 1855, Queen Victoria was on a state visit to France. She wished to return the visit that Napoléon III had made to her in London in April. The Emperor was an anglophile. He had spent many years in England and wished for a profound and durable reconciliation with Great Britain despite the fact that it had defeated his uncle, Napoléon I. He worked to bring about the first “entente cordiale” and deployed all the seductions of diplomacy. Since 1854, he had been Britain’s ally in the Crimean War. He travelled to Dunkirk to welcome the Queen and accompanied her personally as far as Paris. The Emperor wanted to reserve a splendid reception for her at Versailles on 25 August.
Napoléon III loved Versailles. He had come here for the first time on 11 April 1849 and came back on 5 July for the official opening of the Gare des Chantiers and the Paris-Chartres railway line. In 1853, he took the Empress Eugénie on a visit to the Petit Trianon of Marie-Antoinette whom she adored. A museum in homage to the Queen was opened here for the World Fair of 1867. Along with the habitual pomp of official ceremonies, the Emperor intended to use contemporary innovations: so the Marble Courtyard, the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Opera House were illuminated by gas. The first photographs were taken in the Hall of Mirrors.
A ball was organised here with 1,200 guests. Four orchestras conducted by Strauss and Dufresne, and surrounded by flowers and potted shrubs, were positioned in the four corners of the room. Hundreds of chandeliers, candelabras and candle-stands were reflected in the mirrors. Great garlands of flowers hung from the vault. The men in tails and the women in crinolines sparkled with gold and diamonds. Napoléon III waltzed with Victoria, and Prince Albert with Eugénie. Then dinner followed in the Royal Opera House. The sovereigns were seated on the right of the royal box. The stalls had been cleared to make room for the tables of the guests. The chandeliers gleamed with hundreds of lights. A fireworks display was held after the dinner. Then a second ball began in the Hall of Mirrors, lasting until 3 am.
The festivities bore fruit: apart from the treaty of alliance for the Crimea, Victoria was to follow Napoléon III to Mexico. A 10-year trade treaty was signed in 1860. The Emperor had revived the diplomatic vocation of the Versailles of Louis XIV. The 20th century was to keep this lesson in mind.