Marie Louise (Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia; Italian: Maria Luigia Leopoldina Francesca Teresa Giuseppa Lucia; 12 December 1791 – 17 December 1847) was an Austrian archduchess who reigned as Duchess of Parma from 1814 until her death. She was Napoleon’s second wife and, as such, Empress of the French from 1810 to 1814.
As the eldest child of the Habsburg Emperor Francis II of Austria and his second wife, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, Marie Louise grew up during a period of continuous conflict between Austria and revolutionary France. A series of military defeats at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte had inflicted a heavy human toll on Austria and led Francis to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire.
The end of the War of the Fifth Coalition resulted in the marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise in 1810, which ushered in a brief period of peace and friendship between Austria and the French Empire. Marie Louise dutifully agreed to the marriage despite being raised to despise France.
She was an obedient wife and was adored by Napoleon, who had been eager to marry a member of one of Europe’s leading royal houses to cement his relatively young Empire. With Napoleon, she bore a son, styled the King of Rome at birth, later Duke of Reichstadt, who briefly succeeded him as Napoleon II.
Napoleon’s fortunes began to change dramatically in 1812 after his failed invasion of Russia. The European powers, including Austria, resumed hostilities towards France in the War of the Sixth Coalition, which ended with the abdication of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. The 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau handed over the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla to Empress Marie Louise. She ruled the duchies until her death.
Marie Louise married morganatically twice after Napoleon’s death in 1821. Her second husband was Count Adam Albert von Neipperg (married 1821), an equerry she met in 1814. She and Neipperg had three children. After Neipperg’s death, she married Count Charles-René de Bombelles (fr), her chamberlain, in 1834. Marie Louise died in Parma in 1847.
Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria (who was given the Latin baptismal name of Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Francisca Theresa Josepha Lucia) was born at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna on 12 December 1791 to Archduke Francis of Austria and his second wife, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily.
Her father became Holy Roman Emperor a year later as Francis II. Marie Louise was a great granddaughter of Empress Maria Theresa through her father, and thus a great niece of Marie Antoinette. She was also a maternal granddaughter of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, Marie Antoinette’s favorite sister.
Marie Louise’s formative years were during a period of conflict between France and her family. She was brought up to detest France and French ideas.
Marie Louise was influenced by her grandmother Maria Carolina, who despised the French Revolution which ultimately caused the death of her sister, Marie Antoinette. Maria Carolina’s Kingdom of Naples had also come into direct conflict with French forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte. The War of the Third Coalition brought Austria to the brink of ruin, which increased Marie Louise’s resentment towards Napoleon.
The Imperial family was forced to flee Vienna in 1805. Marie Louise took refuge in Hungary and later Galicia before returning to Vienna in 1806. Her father relinquished the title of Holy Roman Emperor but remained Emperor of Austria.
To make her more marriageable, her parents had her tutored in many languages. In addition to her native German, she became fluent in English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.
In 1807, when Marie Louise was 15, her mother died after suffering a miscarriage. Less than a year later, Emperor Francis married his first cousin Maria Ludovika Beatrix of Austria-Este, who was four years older than Marie Louise. Nonetheless, Maria Ludovika Beatrix took on a maternal role towards her stepdaughter. She was also bitter towards the French, who had deprived her father of the Duchy of Modena.
Another war broke out between France and Austria in 1809, which resulted in defeat for the Austrians again. The Imperial family had to flee Vienna again before the city surrendered on May 12. Their journey was hampered by bad weather, and they arrived in Buda “wet through, and nearly worn out with fatigue.”
After escaping an assassination attempt in Vienna while negotiating the Treaty of Schönbrunn on 12 October 1809, Emperor Napoleon decided that he needed an heir to cement his relatively young Empire. He also sought the validation and legitimation of his Empire by marrying a member of one of the leading royal families of Europe. He began proceedings to divorce Joséphine de Beauharnais, who did not bear him a son, and began searching for a new empress.
His wish to marry Tsar Paul I of Russia’s sister, Grand Duchess Anna, caused alarm in Austria, who were afraid of being sandwiched between two great powers allied with each other. At the persuasion of Count Metternich, a marriage between Napoleon and Marie Louise was suggested by Emperor Francis to the Count of Narbonne but no official overture was made by the Austrians.
Though officials in Paris and Austria were beginning to accept the possibility of the union, Marie Louise was kept uninformed of developments.
Frustrated by the Russians delaying the marriage negotiations, Napoleon rescinded his proposal in late January 1810 and began negotiations to marry Marie Louise with the Austrian ambassador, the Prince of Schwarzenberg. Schwarzenberg signed the marriage contract on 7 February. Marie Louise was informed of the marriage by Metternich. When asked for consent, she replied: “I wish only what my duty commands me to wish.”
Marie Louise was an obedient wife and settled in quickly in the French court. She developed a close friendship with her maid-of-honour, the Duchess of Montebello.
Napoleon initially remarked that he had “married a womb” to an aide, but their relationship soon grew. He “spared no pains” to please her and claimed at one point to prefer Marie Louise to his first wife Joséphine; while he had loved Joséphine, and though he claimed Joséphine remained his greatest friend even after their amicable divorce, he had not respected her, whereas with Marie Louise, there was “Never a lie, never a debt” — presumably a reference to Joséphine’s rumoured extramarital affairs and reputation as a spendthrift.
Marie Louise wrote to her father: “I assure you, dear papa, that people have done great injustice to the Emperor. The better one knows him, the better one appreciates and loves him.” However, the marriage was not without tension; Napoleon sometimes remarked to aides that Marie Louise was too shy and timid, compared to the outgoing and passionate Josephine, whom he remained in close contact with, upsetting Marie Louise.
The excitement surrounding the wedding ushered in a period of peace and friendship between France and Austria, who had been largely at war for the last two decades. The people of Vienna, who hated Napoleon only months before, were suddenly in full praise of the French Emperor. Flattering letters were sent between Napoleon and Emperor Francis, Empress Maria Ludovika Beatrix and Archduke Charles during the wedding festivities.
During public occasions, Marie Louise spoke little due to reserve and timidity, which some observers mistook for haughtiness. She was regarded as a virtuous woman and never interfered in politics. Privately, she was polite and gentle.
Marie Louise fell ill on 9 December 1847. Her condition worsened for the next few days. On December 17, she passed out after vomiting and never woke up again. She died in the evening. The cause of death was determined to be pleurisy.
Her body was transferred back to Vienna and buried at the Imperial Crypt.