Marie Walewska

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Marie Walewska

1786-1818, Napoleon’s Polish mistress

The beautiful Marie Walewska (née Laczynska) was born in Warsaw on 7 December, 1786, into a family that had been ennobled in 1574. Her father, Mathieu Laczynski, who had fought heroically during the struggle for Polish independence, died prematurely, leaving his wife Eva to bring up their six young children on her own. The Laczynski family owned a small holding and they lived in a dignified poverty for many years (though some recent historians – notably Krzysztof Żaboklicki – have maintained their relative wealth). Marie was the eldest and, as her four brothers had contracted small debts, it was up to her to secure the future of her family. At the beginning of 1804 at the age of eighteen and encouraged by her mother, she was married to the sixty-eight-year-old Athanasius Walewski (b. 1736), assuring her family’s security. This was to be his third union, having been twice widowed already. The Walewskis were one of the greatest houses in Poland and of ancient nobility. Marie bore her aged husband a son, Antoni Rudolf Bazyli Colonna-Walewski, born on 14 June, 1805, but he was immediately seized by Marie’s sister-in-law and nieces (by marriage), who were a lot older than the young countess. Haunted by an obsession for the freedom of her country, the distraught and lonely Marie turned her attention to the future of her country.

It is said that Napoleon and Marie met at the beginning of 1807. The political context at this time was complicated. Warsaw was waiting impatiently for the Emperor’s arrival in the aftermath of the inconclusive Battle of Pultusk. Since Poland had been wiped off the map at the end of the previous century, Polish nationalists were placing all their hope in Napoleon as someone who might bring the country back into existence.

There exists a very popular and romantic account of the meeting (present even in Marie’s curious memoirs) which recounts how on 1 January, 1807, in spite of the bitter cold, Marie Walewska went to a coaching inn in Blonie (to the west of Warsaw) where the Emperor was to change horses one last time on his way into the city of Warsaw. Marie, it is said, pushed her way through the crowd, asked Duroc to be led up to Napoleon’s carriage, where she stuttered: “welcome, a thousand times welcome to our land…” Despite the huge mass pressed around him, the Emperor noticed (and was to remember) the young countess. Once settled in Warsaw, Napoleon asked her whereabouts. Prince Poniatowski then apparently found her and set out to use her as a political pawn in the fight for Polish freedom.

Polish historian Marian Brandys, following Marian Kukiel’s article of 1957, cast doubt upon this version composed by the countess herself. Blonie is not a possible staging point on the route between Pultusk (where Napoleon was on 31 December, due north of Warsaw) and Warsaw (where the Emperor settled on 1 January) (a straight path from north to south). Despite the fact that Marian Kukiel had suggested that the meeting took place ten days earlier (when Napoleon was approaching Warsaw from the west and so passing through Blonie), this too does not fit the details since Napoleon was on horseback at that time (because of the muddy conditions) and Duroc was not with the Emperor but in a field hospital, recovering from a wound. Others have suggested that the couple first met in Jablonnie (closer to central Warsaw), though nothing is certain. Other sources say that the first meeting was engineered by Talleyrand; Napoleon was to confide to Gourgaud on Saint Helena 10 or so years after the event that it was Talleyrand who had ‘procured’ Marie Walewska for him (C’est M. de Talleyrand qui m’a procuré Mme Walewska). Napoleon was later to say of Talleyrand “his pockets were always full of girls”, thus implying that this was one of the minister’s habitual services for the Emperor. Napoleon received Warsaw high society (including Marie Walewska) at a soirée on 7 January – the guest lists had been partly established by Talleyrand. And it was at the ball organised by Talleyrand on 17 January, 1807, where they would dance for the first time, as the Gazette de Varsovie reported on the following day: “His Majesty the Emperor was present at a ball in the house of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the prince de Bénévent, during which he invited the wife of Chamberlain Anastasius Walewski to join him in a contredanse”. After a conversation on Saint Helena, Montholon was to recount how smitten the Emperor had been by her beauty and how he had sent a general (Berthier) and an ADC on fake missions in order to ensure his unencumbered access to the Polish beauty. On the day after the ball in 1807, Napoleon sent Marie a letter which read: “I saw only you, I admired only you, I desire only you”. Familial and political pressure upon Marie arose from all sides – namely members of the provisional government, patriots, notables and, at the head of them, Athanasius Walewski himself – for her to offer herself to the Emperor.
Though unwilling, Marie finally gave in and there began the affair which would last even beyond the Emperor’s departure from Poland. Napoleon and Marie were to see each other again in Paris in 1808. And one year after that, just after the battle of Wagram, they were reunited in Austria whereupon Marie became pregnant. She was keen to follow the Emperor to France but he, now that his ability to have children was confirmed, was keen to divorce Josephine and find a new wife who could bear him children, so as to anchor the Napoleon dynasty on the throne of France. In March 1810, whilst Napoleon was distracted by preparations for his second marriage to Marie-Louise, Marie received a letter from her husband Walewski in which he ceded his land to his eldest son, and invited her back to Walewice, where she gave birth to her (and Napoleon’s) second son, Alexandre Walewski. Her husband recognised the boy as his own and even went as far as to declare him to the priest himself.

Napoleon, on hearing of the birth whilst on his honeymoon, sent Marie some lace from Brussels and 20,000 golden francs. In November 1810, Marie took up residence in Paris again, bored with her life in Walewice and financially secure thanks to Napoleon; but the affair appeared to be over. Napoleon saw to it that her every wish was granted, although he only visited occasionally to see his son. In 1812, Napoleon provided Alexandre with 69 farms in the Kingdom of Naples which brought in a revenue of 170,000 francs and the title of Count. Despite the gossip, Marie still maintained her position in society. On 17 August, 1812, her marriage to the old Count was declared null, thanks to her brother’s confession which asserted that he had forced her into it. Marie returned to Paris early the following year.

In 1814, after the first abdication, Walewska rushed to Fontainebleau, but Napoleon would see no one. When he was sent to the island of Elba she sent him a letter, asking for his help in reclaiming her son’s lands, which had been confiscated by Murat. Although Napoleon was possibly disappointed at the lack of tenderness shown in his old mistress’ letter, he nevertheless invited her to visit him on the island. She accepted, and it was in the utmost secrecy that Marie arrived at night on 1 September 1815 with her son, brother and sister. Napoleon himself came to meet her and escorted her to the remote convent high above Marciana, where he had erected a tent in the garden alongside the convent buildings in which to receive his guests. The visit was very short; the party left after only two days, as discreetly as they had arrived.  However, in spite of these precautions, the island was nevertheless alive with rumours of what had happened. She was to see the Emperor one last time, after the battle of Waterloo, when she was received by the Emperor at Malmaison.

On 18 January, 1815, Athanasius Walewski died at his country house in Walewice, near Warsaw. Eighteen month later, on 7 September, 1816, in Brussels, Marie married Philippe-Antoine d’Ornano, then General de brigade and future marshal of France (1861), whom she had met in 1807. His mother, née Isabelle Bonaparte, was Napoleon’s father’s first cousin. Marie died in Paris on 11 December, 1817, at thirty-one years old, having failed to recover from the birth of her third son, Rodolphe d’Ornano, after a kidney infection. A few weeks after her death, her brother asked that her body be brought back to Poland. Whilst her heart remains in the d’Ornano crypt in the Pierre Lachaise cemetery, Marie now lies in the church at Kiernozia.

PH, LS. June 2014

For a bibliography of Marie Walewska see here.

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