23.2.6: Napoleon’s Marriage to Marie-Louise
Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise, triggered by his desire to have an heir and marry into one of the major European royal families, was shaped by European politics. However, the two also developed a close personal relationship.
Identify the reasons why Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie-Louise
- When after a few years of marriage it became clear that Josephine could not have a child, Napoleon began to think seriously about the possibility of divorce even though he still loved his wife. Despite her anger, Josephine agreed to the divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir.
- In addition to the desire for an heir, Napoleon sought the validation and legitimization of his Empire by marrying a member of one of the leading royal families of Europe. In 1810, he married 19-year-old Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, and a great niece of Marie Antoinette by proxy. Thus, he married into a German royal and imperial family.
- Marie-Louise was daughter of Archduke Francis of Austria and his second wife, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily. Her father became Holy Roman Emperor 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 overlapped with a period of conflict between France and her family. She was brought up to detest France and French ideas but became an obedient wife and settled in quickly in the French court. Napoleon initially remarked that he had “married a womb,” but their relationship soon matured.
- Despite the initial excitement and peace over the marriage and resulting alliance between the two long-time enemies, France and Austria soon engaged in another military conflict. Until Napoleon’s abdication and exile, the marriage between him and Marie-Louise was always shaped by European politics.
- Although Marie-Louise did not join her husband in exile and returned to Vienna, she remained loyal to her husband.
- Congress of Vienna
- A conference of ambassadors of European states chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and held in Vienna from November 1814 to June 1815. The objective was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
- Treaty of Fontainebleau
- An agreement established in Fontainebleau, France in 1814 between Napoleon I and representatives from the Austrian Empire, Russia, and Prussia. With this treaty, the allies ended Napoleon’s rule as emperor of France and sent him into exile on Elba.
Napoleon and Josephine: Divorce
When after a few years of marriage it became clear that Josephine could not have a child, Napoleon began to think seriously about the possibility of divorce even though he still loved his wife. The final die was cast when Josephine’s grandson Napoleon Charles Bonaparte, declared Napoleon’s heir, died of croup in 1807. Napoleon began to create lists of eligible princesses. He let Josephine know that in the interest of France, he must find a wife who could produce an heir. Despite her anger, Josephine agreed to the divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce ceremony took place in 1810 and was a grand but solemn social occasion. Both Josephine and Napoleon read a statement of devotion to the other. Despite the divorce, Napoleon showed his dedication to her for the rest of his life. When he heard the news of her death while on exile in Elba, he locked himself in his room and would not come out for two full days. Her name would also be his final word on his deathbed in 1821. However, in 1810, he married 19-year old Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, and a great niece of Marie Antoinette by proxy. Thus, he married into a German royal and imperial family.
Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria was born in 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 overlapped with a period of conflict between France and her family; she was thus brought up to detest France and French ideas. She was influenced by her grandmother Maria Carolina, who despised the French Revolution that ultimately caused the death of her sister, Marie Antoinette. Maria Carolina’s Kingdom of Naples also came into direct conflict with French forces led by Napoleon. The War of the Third Coalition brought Austria to the brink of ruin, increasing 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. Napoleon also contributed directly to the final dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and Maria-Louise’s father relinquished the title of Holy Roman Emperor although he remained Emperor of Austria. Another war broke out between France and Austria in 1809, resulting in another defeat for the Austrians. The Imperial family had to flee Vienna again.
Napoleon and Marie-Louise: Marriage
In addition to the desire to have an heir, Napoleon sought the validation and legitimization of his Empire by marrying a member of one of the leading royal families of Europe. His wish to marry Tsar Paul I of Russia’s daughter Grand Duchess Anna caused alarm in Austria, whose officials grew concerned about 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. Frustrated by the Russians delaying the marriage negotiations, Napoleon rescinded his proposal and began negotiations to marry Marie-Louise. The civil wedding and the religious wedding ceremony the next day were held in 1810. The excitement surrounding the wedding ushered in a period of peace and friendship between France and Austria, at war for most of the previous two decades.
Marie-Louise was less than happy with the arrangement, at least at first, stating “Just to see the man would be the worst form of torture.” However, she seemed to warm up to Napoleon over time. After her wedding, she wrote to her father “He loves me very much. I respond to his love sincerely. There is something very fetching and very eager about him that is impossible to resist.”
Marie-Louise was an obedient wife and settled in quickly in the French court. Napoleon initially remarked that he had “married a womb,” but their relationship soon matured. While he loved Josephine and claimed she remained his greatest friend even after their divorce, he was critical of her affairs and extravagant lifestyle leading to massive debts, whereas with Marie-Louise, there was reportedly “never a lie, never a debt.” 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. 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. Marie-Louise gave birth to a son in 1811. The boy, Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, was given the title King of Rome in accordance with the practice where the heir apparent to the Holy Roman Empire was called the King of the Romans.
Collapse of the Empire
The weakened French position triggered the Sixth Coalition (1813-14). Prussia and the United Kingdom joined Russia in declaring war on France, but Austria stayed out due to relations between the Imperial families. In 1813, Marie Louise was appointed Regent as Napoleon set off for battle in Germany. The regency was only de jure, as all decisions were still taken by Napoleon and implemented by his most senior officials. Marie-Louise tried unsuccessfully to get her father to ally with France, but Austria too joined the opposition to France. She maintained a correspondence with Napoleon, informing him of increasing demands for peace in Paris and the provinces. In January 1814, Marie-Louise was appointed Regent for the second time and two days later Napoleon embraced Marie-Louise and his son for the last time. He left to lead a hastily formed army to stave off the Allied invasion from the north.
As the Allies neared Paris, Marie-Louise was reluctant to leave. She felt that as the daughter of the sovereign of Austria, one of the allied members, she would be treated with respect by allied forces. In addition, her son would be a possible successor to the throne should Napoleon be deposed. She was also afraid that her departure would strengthen the royalist supporters of the Bourbons. Marie-Louise was finally persuaded to leave but she did not expect her father to dethrone Napoleon and deprive her son of the crown of France. In April 1814, the Senate, at the instigation of Talleyrand, announced the deposition of the Emperor. Marie-Louise was astonished to discover the turn of events.
Napoleon abdicated the throne in April 1814. The Treaty of Fontainebleau exiled him to Elba, allowed Marie-Louise to retain her imperial rank and style, and made her ruler of the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla, with her son as heir. Marie-Louise was strongly dissuaded by her advisers from rejoining her husband, who had heard accounts of Napoleon’s distraught grief over the death of Josephine. When Napoleon escaped in 1815 and reinstated his rule, the Allies once again declared war. Marie-Louise was asked by her stepmother to join in the processions to pray for the success of the Austrian armies but rejected the insulting invitation. Napoleon was defeated for the last time at the Battle of Waterloo, was exiled to Saint Helena in 1815, and made no further attempt to contact his wife personally. The Congress of Vienna recognized Marie-Louise as ruler of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla, but prevented her from bringing her son to Italy. It also made her Duchess of Parma for her life only, as the Allies did not want a descendant of Napoleon to have a hereditary claim over Parma.
- Napoleon’s Marriage to Marie-Louise
“Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Louise,_Duchess_of_Parma. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Treaty of Fontainebleau (1814).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Fontainebleau_(1814). Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“800px-Napoleon_Marie_Louise_Marriage1.jpeg.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Napoleon_Marie_Louise_Marriage1.jpeg. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.