The marriage of Napoleon I and Marie-Louise of Austria

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
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Russia or Austria?

This timeline follows on from our “Divorce” timeline and forms part of our close-up on: the marriage of Napoleon I and Marie-Louise of Austria.

With the marriage between Napoleon and Josephine officially dissolved in January, 1810, Napoleon was free to continue his search for a new bride. A union with Russia was hindered by court opposition (particularly from Alexander’s mother, Maria Feodorovna), political indecision from Alexander and the young age of the one remaining Russian princess, Anna Pavlovna. The issue was, however, to prove even more complicated. Although Maria Feodorovna was anti-Napoleon in principle, she was aware of the advantages that could be gained from having Napoleon as an ally in a France-dominated Europe, the potential dangers of having Austria allied with France, and the effect that such a decision could have on public opinion back home in Russia. Thus, on 19 January, 1810, she wrote to Alexander to inform him that:

“As a mother, I cannot wish nor desire this union. However, as it should not be considered from a mother’s perspective, but as a matter of State of the highest importance, it should be discussed and judged as such. […] All that the State can wish of me is the total abnegation of my maternal rights; in this (unique) case I must make this sacrifice to you and to [the State]: [the decision] on your sister’s fate belongs to no-one but you, my dear Alexander.” [Letter from Maria Feodorovna to Alexander I, 19 January, 1810, in Marie Martin, Maria Féodorovna en son temps (1759-1828): contribution à l’histoire de la Russie et de l’Europe, Paris, 2003]

With his mother having removed herself from the picture, Alexander would be forced to make a decision. Whilst negotiations advanced little, Napoleon began to despair of any such union and the Austrian option was suggested. Feelers were sent out to measure the Austrian court’s receptiveness to a Franco-Austrian alliance. Towards the end of January, the French court was informed that Napoleon would not be refused if he were to ask for the Austrian emperor’s eldest daughter’s hand in marriage. Negotiations were begun but these discussions remained secret from everyone except those involved directly. It would thus appear that there is a point in early 1810 at which negotiations were being pursued with both the Russian and Austrian courts.

21 January, 1810: On the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI, husband of Marie-Antoinette and Marie-Louise’s aunt, a privy council was called in the Emperor’s personal study. Those present included (in the order they spoke) Napoleon; Lebrun (Prince Arch-treasurer); Eugène; Talleyrand; Comte Garnier, Senate president; Comte de Fontanes, president of the Corps législatif; Duc de Bassano; the Duc de Cadore (Champagny, Minister of Foreign Relations); the Prince de Neufchatel (Berthier); the King of Naples (Murat); and Cambacérès. Montalivet (the Interior Minister) was the final member involved (although Talleyrand includes Comte Mollien amongst those consulted, Mémoires du Prince de Talleyrand, 2007, p. 341).

According to Cambacérès’ memoirs, Napoleon opened by asking those present for their opinion on a new wife:

“Internal politics not permitting me to choose a French bride, I wanted to place before you the considerations that could determine a preference, between three European princesses who appear to display the necessary qualities to sit upon the throne of France. ”

Champagny read a report informing those assembled that the Emperor had drawn up a list of three potential princesses: Maria Auguste, Princess of Saxony; the Grand Duchess, Anna Pavlovna, the youngest sister of Alexander I; and Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria. All three royal houses had expressed an interest in forming an alliance with France. Champagny observed that Maria Auguste was no longer in the first blooms of youth (she would have been nearly 28 at the time) and that an alliance with Russia would involve numerous complications that might damage French traditions and customs: complications including prominently the demand that each palace have a Russian orthodox chapel and the open and free practice of Russian orthodoxy. With regards to Marie-Louise, Austria would request nothing more than what was agreed for the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

The opinion of Lebrun was then solicited. This was a break from tradition for if a ‘prince of the blood’ was not present, Cambacérès should have been the next consulted. Cambacérès comments that this was not by accident.

Lebrun, almost asleep and mumbling, was taken aback by the change in custom and said only “I am for the Saxon; she is from a good race.”

Eugene next had his say, opting for the archduchess. Talleyrand was also in favour of Marie-Louise, without giving his reasons. Garnier opted for Maria-Auguste, while Fontanes also opted for Marie-Louise. The Duc de Bassano was also consulted; this was another extraordinary turn as the Secrétaire d’Etat never had a say in council. He agreed with Fontanes. Champagny confirmed his choice for Marie-Louise, an opinion that was shared by Berthier. A majority was thus reached before Murat was consulted, and he showed himself to be against the union with Austria.

Cambacérès spoke last:

“As Your Highness is remarrying only for children, it seems appropriate to choose the princess most capable, through her age and constitution, of giving them to him. Concerning matters of State, I do not, however, think it favourable to the archduchess. Austria will never be to us anything other than a poorly reconciled enemy. Russia, through her geographical position, seems suited to an alliance with France. I believe that it would be better for us to smooth over the difficulties which appear to be preventing the Emperor’s marriage to a grand duchess of Russia, and that this union should be preferred above any other. ”

Napoleon, who had remained silent during the deliberations of each of his ministers and advisers, thus announced:

“I thank you, gentlemen, for the thoughts that you have expressed to me. I shall weigh them up in my chambers. I remain convinced that whatever difference there is between you, every one of the opinions expressed was governed by a well-informed zeal, in the best interests of the State, and by a loyal dedication to my person.”

Cambacérès wrote that he believed that the meeting had been set up and decided before hand, and that Eugene had been leaned on by Bassano and Talleyrand at Napoleon’s request. [Mémoires inédits : éclaircissements publiés par Cambaceres sur les principaux événements de sa vie politique, vol. II, Paris, Perrin, 1999, pp. 324-329]

22 January, 1810: Whilst a decision was being formulated in France, Marie-Louise wrote to Madamoiselle Poulet, a friend: “Since Napoleon’s divorce, I continue to open the Gazette de Francfort in the hope of finding an announcement of his new bride. I must admit that this delay has given me much cause for worry. […] If misfortune so wishes it, I am prepared to sacrifice my own happiness for the good of the State.”

27 January, 1810: Metternich wrote to his wife:

“I consider this affair to be the most important that can possibly concern Europe at this time; I see in the Emperor’s choice the possible guarantee of an order that conforms as much to the general interest of the many peoples who, after such terrible and numerous shocks, hope for peace, as to the personal interests of this prince. [Letter from Metternich to his wife dated 27 January, 1810, in Mémoires, documents et écrits divers laissés par le Prince de Metternich, vol. II, p. 316]

6 February, 1810: Napoleon wrote to Champagny, outlining certain concerns with the Russian princess, namely her young age and thus perceived inability to conceive.

“[It has been] observed that Princess Anne [is] not yet mature [she would have been fifteen at the time]; occasionally it takes a couple of years for some girls to attain maturity having reached the marriageable age and the idea of waiting three years with no hope of conceiving a child goes against the intentions of the Emperor.” [Letter from Napoleon to Champagny dated 6 February, 1810, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Second Empire edition, n° 16,210]

That same day, Napoleon wrote again to Champagny, seemingly decided against the Russian: “Tomorrow evening […] you will dispatch a letter to inform [the Russians] that I am decided in favour of the Austrian.” [Letter from Napoleon to Champagny dated 6 February, 1810, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Second Empire edition, n° 16,211]

Napoleon makes his choice

15 February, 1810: Metternich announced to Marie-Louise that Napoleon wished to marry her. She answered:

“I want only what my duty commands me to want.” [quoted by Paul Ganière, “Marie-Louise d’Autriche” in Dictionnaire Napoléon, ed. Jean Tulard, p. 1140]

That same day, the exchange of marriage ratifications/agreements took place in Vienna (news of which arrived in Paris on 6 March).

23 February, 1810: Napoleon wrote to Francis I, Emperor of Austria:

“Monsieur mon Frère, I have dispatched my cousin the vice-connétable, Prince de Neuchâtel [Berthier], to ask Your Imperial Majesty for the Archduchess Marie-Louise, your daughter, in marriage. The great qualities that distinguish so eminently this princess, the valuable advantage that she has in belonging to You, makes me greatly desire this union. I have been led to believe that Your Majesty would like to consent to it.” [Letter from Napoleon to Francis I dated 23 February, 1810, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Second Empire edition, n° 16287]

24 February, 1810: Berthier left for Paris for Vienna.

4 March, 1810: Berthier arrived in Vienna.

8 March, 1810: Maréchal Berthier asked Francis I for Marie-Louise’s hand in marriage on behalf of Napoleon.

9 March, 1810: Berthier and Metternich signed a marriage contract which set out Marie-Louise’s dowry (the equivalent of 400,000 Francs). She also renounced all claims to the Austrian crown’s kingdoms, provinces and territories, as well as 200,000 Florins worth of rings and jewels given to her by the Austrian Emperor. This was offset by 200,000 Écus worth of presents and jewels given to her by Napoleon. Her dower came to a total of 500,000 Francs.

11 March, 1810, 5.30pm: Marie-Louise married Napoleon by proxy in Vienna, with Archduke Charles standing in for Napoleon.

13 March, 1810: Marie-Louise left Vienna for France.

16 March, 1810: the Austrian delegation arrived at the border between Austria and Bavaria, at Braunau-sur-Inn. There, Marie-Louise was met by Caroline, Queen of Naples and the Maréchal Lannes‘ widow, the Duchess of Montebello.

20 March, 1810: Napoleon left Paris for Compiègne.

27 March, 1810: impatient, Napoleon met the party at Compiègne and spent the night with his new bride.

31 March, 1810: the couple received the imperial family and others (including Cambacérès).

The marriage ceremonies

1 April, 1810: the civil marriage of Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria and Napoleon took place in a second ceremony.

2 April, 1810: the religious ceremony was held in the chapel at the Louvre in Paris. See our page on the painting The religious marriage of Napoleon I and Marie-Louise in the Salon Carré at the Louvre, on 2 April, 1810, by Georges Rouget for more details on the ceremony.

3 April, 1810: The imperial couple received congratulations and tributes from the Senate, Conseil d’Etat, the Italian Senate, the Corps législatif, ministers, cardinals, the Empire’s grand officiers, civil and military authorities, and the palace ladies, amongst others.

New arrivals

10 May, 1810: Alexandre-Florian-Joseph, Comte Colonna Walewski, was born to Napoleon’s mistress, Marie Lontchinska, a Polish countess.

20 March, 1811: Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte was born to Napoleon and Marie-Louise.

(H.D.W. March 2010)

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