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Empress Marie-Louise, by François Gérard 1810 © Louvre Museum

Childhood in Austria

Marie-Louise de Habsburg-Lorraine was born on 12 December, 1791, in Vienna. Her parents, Francis II, who succeeded his father, Leopold II, as Holy Roman Emperor on 1 March, 1792, and Maria Theresa of Naples were both related to Marie-Antoinette. Raised by her various governesses, she had a bourgeois but happy upbringing despite the difficulties imposed upon her after her family’s exile in 1805. This experience developed into a distinct aversion to France and a loathing of the one known as the “Corsican ogre”. She later admitted to Ménéval that she grew up “if not in hating [him], then at least in an environment hardly favourable to the man who had on numerous occasions brought the House of Habsburg to within a hair’s breadth of destruction, and who had forced her family to flee the capital and to wander from town to town in confusion and dismay.”(1)

Build-up to the imperial marriage

In 1809, Marie-Louise, then aged eighteen, learned of rumours circulating that Napoleon I, having just recently defeated Austria again, was looking for a new bride. The idea that she could be the next Empress of the French was abhorent to her and she wrote: “Napoleon is too afraid of being refused and too intent on hurting us further to make such a demand, and father is too good to insist on something of such importance.”. Whilst waiting for Napoleon’s decision, she wrote to one of her friends, Madamoiselle Poulet: “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. […] I am placing my fate in the hands of divine Providence. […] If misfortune so wishes it, I am prepared to sacrifice my own happiness for the good of the State, convinced as I am that true happiness comes only from the accomplishment of one’s duties, even at the expense of one’s wishes.” [letter dated 22 January, 1810]. She also wrote to her father: “I await your decision with filial respect.”.(2) Francis II dared not inform her of his decision himself, and delegated the task to his minister, Metternich. Resigned to her fate, she accepted the decision with no hint of bitterness. After this, events unfolded at a pace. Berthier left for Vienna on 24 February and on 8 March, the official request was made. The next morning, the marriage contract was signed and on 11 March, the marriage by procuration took place. The religious marriage took place in Paris on 2 April.

Empress and mother: the birth of the King of Rome

Upon her marriage to Napoleon I, Marie-Louise became Empress, which she would remain for four years. Napoleon did not have to wait long for an heir: on 20 March, 1811, after a long and difficult labour, Marie-Louise gave birth to a son, who received the title of Roi de Rome. Nicknamed “the eaglet”, he was conferred to Madame de Montesquiou, who would become his governess.

Marie-Louise’s life was governed by ceremony and etiquette. Josephine’s chambers in every one of the imperial palaces were refurbished for her, and strict protocol imprisoned the young lady in a golden cage. She fulfilled her representative role with diligence and conducted herself with dignity.

In 1813, after the Russian disaster and as Napoleon set out for his campaign in Germany, Marie-Louise was left in France as regent, albeit with limited political power. Although the French Emperor returned when the capital was threatened, he left again on 25 January, 1814, never to see his wife and son again. On 28 March, the enemy was at the city’s gates; whilst Marie-Louise wished to stay, Napoleon insisted that she leave with her son for the Loire valley. In her letters to Napoleon, she pleaded with him to be allowed to accompany him to the island of Elba. Instead he sent her to Austria, back to her father’s court, where he hoped that she could secure leniency for him and his family. In doing so he promised that he would see her again afterwards. Marie-Louise met her father at Rambouillet, where she was persuaded to return to Vienna and rest. After, instead of returning to her husband’s side, she proceeded to Aix and its thermal spas, accompanied by the Comte de Neipperg. The King of Rome remained in Vienna as a hostage. Easily seduced, Marie-Louise abandoned all thought of returning to her husband (her personal correspondence does not appear to make any further mention of him (3)) even after his triumphant return in 1815. France’s defeat at Waterloo finally convinced the young Austrian that her fate lay faraway from France.

The Duchess of Parma

The Final act of the Congress of Vienna (9 June, 1815) (4) made her Duchess of Parma, which she ruled benevolently in the company of the Comte de Neipperg. Her son, who now bore the title of Duke of Reichstadt, remained in Vienna, where he died from tuberculosis in 1832. Marie-Louise, at the age of twenty-five, made her entrance in Parma on 9 April, 1816. She remained popular with her subjects, whilst external and military affairs were left in the very capable hands of Neipperg.

She married Neipperg in 1821, before the latter passed away in 1829. Unwilling to bear the prospect of solitude, she married the Comte de Bombelles on 17 February, 1834. Marie-Louise died on 17 December, 1847, and is buried in Vienna, in the Kapuzinergruft, along with other Habsburg family members. As per the Treaty of Paris ruling, the duchy of Parma returned to the House of Bourbon-Parma, to be ruled by Charles II.

Emmanuelle Papot (tr. & ed. H.D.W.)

(1) Méneval. Napoléon et Marie-Louise, Souvenirs historiques, Amyot, Paris, 1844. P. 329-330.
(2) Correspondance de Marie-Louise (1799-1847), Charles Gérold, Vienne, 1887
(3) Correspondance de Marie-Louise (1799-1847), lettres intimes à la comtesse de Colloredo et à Melle Poutet, depuis 1810, comtesse de Crenneville, Vienen, 1887.
(4) Article 99, see Michel Kérautret, Les grands traités de l’Empire (1810-1815), Nouveau Monde Editions/Fondation Napoléon, Paris: 2004, p. 250.

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