The future and last Empress of France was born in Granada, Spain to Don Cipriano Palafox de Guzmán y Portocarrero, Count de Teba, subsequently Count de Montijo, and his half-Scottish, half-Spanish wife, Maria Manuela Kirkpatrick, a daughter of the Scots-born William Kirkpatrick, who became U. S. Consul to Malaga and later operated a wine bar. Her sister, Maria Francisca de Sales, aka Paca, inherited the Montijo title as well as other subsidiary family titles, married the duke of Alba, and died in 1860. According to some sources, Don Cipriano was not the father of his daughters, and rumor had it that Eugenie's father was actually a British diplomat, George William Frederick Villiers (1800-1870), later 4th Earl of Clarendon, who gained fame as British Foreign Secretary.
The Countess de Teba, as Eugénia/Eugénie was known before her marriage, was educated in Paris at the fashionable convent of Sacré Coeur, where she received an indelibly Catholic training. When Louis Napoleon became president of the Second Republic she appeared with her mother at the balls given by the prince-president at the Elysée, and it was there that she met the future Emperor Napoleon III, whom she wed on January 30, 1853, not long after he had been rebuffed in his eager attempts to marry Queen Victoria's teenage niece Princess Adelaide von Hohenlohe-Langenburg. In a speech from the throne on the 22nd of January he formally announced his engagement, saying "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 love match was looked upon as bourgeois in some British circles; The Times wrote, "We learn with some amusement that this romantic event in the annals of the French Empire has called forth the strongest opposition, and provoked the utmost irritation. The Imperial family, the Council of Ministers, and even the lower coteries of the palace or its purlieus, all affect to regard this marriage as an amazing humiliation ...." Apparently, a 26-year-old Spanish countess was not considered nearly good enough for a Bonaparte (in any case, rumor suggests that the emperor was probably not even a blood Bonaparte, but the result of one of his mother's extramarital affairs).
On March 16, 1856, the empress gave birth to a son, Napoleon Eugene, Prince Imperial. By her beauty, elegance and charm of manner she contributed largely to the brilliance of the imperial regime. When she wore the new cage crinolines in 1855, all Europe followed suit, and when she abandoned vast skirts at the end of the '60s, the silhouette of women's dress followed her again. As she was educated and very intelligent, Eugénie's husband usually consulted her on important questions, and she acted as Regent during his absences, in 1859, 1865 and 1870. Eugenie's influence countered any liberal tendencies in the emperor's policies. She was a staunch defender of papal temporal powers in Italy.
When the Second Empire was overthrown after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the empress and her husband took refuge in England, and settled at Chislehurst, Kent. After his death in 1873 she moved to Farnborough, Hampshire and to a villa she built at Cap Martin on the French Riviera, where lived in retirement, abstaining from all interference in French politics.
The former empress died in July 1920 at the age of 94, during a visit to her native Spain, and she is interred in the Imperial Crypt at Saint Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, with her husband and her son, the Prince Imperial, who died in 1879 in Africa during battle with Zulu warriors.
Her deposed family's association with England was commemorated when the second daughter of the present Duke of York, born in 1990, was named Princess Eugenie.