In 1810, the 18-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Marie-Louise left Vienna to marry Napoleon, emperor of France. The French emperor’s marriage to his first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, had ended just a few months previously – and Napoleon intended to cement his empire by begetting a male heir. Although he had previously been diagnosed sterile by a doctor, this had been disproved when he fathered an illegitimate child by one of his sister’s maids.
There could have been no more desirable marriage candidate for Josephine’s replacement than Marie-Louise. A Habsburg archduchess, her credentials were impeccable. The great-grand-daughter of formidable empress Maria Theresa and daughter of emperor Francis II of the Holy Roman Empire (aka Francis I of Austria), she was related to practically every ruling dynasty in Europe.
Much beloved, Marie-Louise’s father stood at the helm of a vast empire. Reared since birth to be the most eligible bride in Europe, Marie-Louise had been kept largely cloistered in Habsburg palaces. She had received a thorough education, played the piano, guitar, and harp, and understood the importance of management of diplomatic relations. When relaxed and in familiar company, she was witty and playful. Though personifying modesty and virtue, she was in awe of no one – which would be a great tonic to the emperor Napoleon I, a man over whom the world fawned.
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Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich had the vision to see that marriage to Marie-Louise would be a powerful tool in the felling of the ‘Corsican usurper’, and he carefully dangled the prospect of Marie-Louise before Napoleon while intriguers at the French court encouraged the imperial divorce project. Her common sense and intellect would subdue the great military genius and, it was hoped, would put a brake on his destructive step.
Few could have been less favourably disposed towards the match than Marie-Louise. Ever since her birth in December 1791, France had been making life miserable for Austria. The abolition of monarchy and the guillotine in 1793 of the French king and queen, Marie-Louise’s great-aunt and uncle, placed the French administration beyond redemption. Marie-Louise’s grandmother, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily, was the most vociferous member of the family in her expression of hatred of the French, constantly ranting that they should all be pulverised.
War between France and Austria, which had already started in April 1792, was now set to continue with only brief respites for more than two decades, only finally coming to an end in 1815. By 1809, Napoleon had defeated Austria across her empire, reduced it to a quarter of the size that it had been in 1792, and occupied Vienna for a second time. Drastic measures were needed to prevent the Habsburg monarchy from collapse, and its territories from being subsumed into the French empire.
However unappetising the prospect of marrying Bonaparte might be, Marie-Louise knew to perform her duty for the good of the country. If only predictions of his premature death had come true, she lamented in a letter to a friend.
On 11 March 1810, Marie-Louise was married by proxy, Napoleon having appointed her uncle and his formidable Austrian opponent, Archduke Charles, to stand in for him at the altar of the Augustinian Church adjacent to Vienna’s Hofburg Palace – the principal Habsburg family seat. A few days later, Marie-Louise set out for Paris, following in the footsteps taken by Queen Marie-Antoinette 40 years earlier.
On 20 March 1811, Marie-Louise produced the king of Rome, the male heir whom all parties had expected of her. While Napoleon rejoiced, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and England planned his demise. England had been particularly furious that Austria had created an alliance with France by marrying Marie-Louise to Napoleon. But by the end of 1813, they would realise the wisdom of Metternich’s strategy.
With Marie-Louise and the baby, the French emperor began to neglect his affairs. Time was not to be on his side, especially when he made the gross mistake of invading Russia in June 1812, having discovered that tsar Alexander was breaching the continental blockade by allowing English ships and goods into the Baltic. Within six months, Napoleon and Russia’s snows had reduced la Grande Armée from almost a million men to barely 120,000. Equally catastrophic to Napoleon’s reign was the shattering of the Austrian-French alliance.
Unaware of her husband’s deceits, Marie-Louise was horrified when she learned that her father had joined Russia in war against her husband. Believing in Napoleon and his seeming invincibility, she declared herself loyal to Napoleon and France. She begged her father not to tempt defeat by Napoleon again.
By March 1814, Marie-Louise stood alone as regent of France, forced to decide whether she should confront her father and his allies – who were poised to march on Paris – or flee to Loire Valley, Centre-Val de Loire, as urged by her husband’s cowardly ministers. Her courage and heroism would not help her. Separated from Napoleon, she and her son were forced to return to Vienna as refugees.
After a hard campaign, Marie-Louise was finally granted the duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla promised her by the allies to secure her husband’s first abdication. In 1816, she set out for Parma, forced to leave her son in Vienna as hostage for Napoleon’s good behaviour on St Helena.
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Her enlightened permissive government, which assured her subjects a fair trial and placed women and children’s rights far ahead of their time, earned her the loyalty of her subjects – and their complicity in her secrets. This notwithstanding, though her subjects might have sympathised with her on a personal level, the tide of nationalist fervour which Napoleon had unleashed on the Italian peninsula disturbed any sense of security she might have deserved.
Well aware that her days were numbered as a foreign sovereign, Marie-Louise fought to hold on to her ducal seat. The revelation of the double life that she had been forced to lead by the allies’ treatment of her and by prevailing morality scandalised Europe. Humiliation was compounded by tragedy, the death of her son by Napoleon sparking controversy.
Trying desperately to ride the surge of patriotism fuelled by the operas of her subject, Giuseppe Verdi, Marie-Louise refused to implement the reactionary oppressive measures adopted beyond her borders and did her best to spare her subjects the political trials and the brutal sentences exacted elsewhere.
The patriots would not give up, and chased her out of Parma. Austrian bayonets restored her, but thereafter her life was precarious. Within a fortnight of her death, revolution spread across the Italian peninsula, her children pitched against one another in the struggle for Italian unification.
Deborah Jay is the author of Napoleon’s Other Wife: The story of Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, the lesser-known wife of Napoleon Bonaparte (Rosa’s Press, 2015).
This article was first published on History Extra in November 2015