Saturday, May 8, 2010

Consort Profile: Marie Henriette of Austria

The Archduchess Marie Henriette Anne of Austria was born in Budapest, Hungary on August 23, 1836 to the Archduke Joseph of Austria, Palatine of Hungary and his wife Maria Dorothea of Wurttemberg. Her grandfather was the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and she had a happy life in Hungary where he father was very popular amongst the Magyar population. She loved horseback riding and the wide open spaces Hungary. However, she was just a teenager when her fate was sealed by a marriage arranged mostly by her mother and the Belgian King Leopold I. Leopold was a Protestant monarch in a Catholic country but he had his children raised Catholic and wanted the newly independent Belgium to be accepted into the community of established Catholic monarchies. There seemed no better way to accomplish this than to marry his son and heir to the granddaughter of a Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor. For the family of Archduchess Marie Henriette the match also offered the chance of their daughter becoming a Queen.

So it was that at the age of 17 she was married to the 18-year-old Prince Leopold, considered even at that age to be a rather cold and off-putting character. It was not to be a happy marriage and ill-omens seemed present from the very start. Leopold was taken ill and had to send a substitute to stand-in for him at his own wedding ceremony. The couple could not have been more mismatched. Marie Henriette was vivacious, boisterous and outgoing. Leopold was shy, aloof and grim. About the only thing they had in common was being short-tempered which naturally did not bode well for the future. One observer referred to the match as that of a stable boy and a nun (the princess being the stable boy and the prince being the nun). Leopold seemed willing to tolerate his bride only for the purpose of obtaining an heir and even that required some marriage counseling from his relatives Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Great Britain.

Their relationship was strained from the very start but, nonetheless, children were eventually forthcoming. Princess Louise Marie Amelie was born in 1858 but a son was what was required. The next year the job was done with the birth of Prince Leopold Ferdinand, followed in 1864 by another girl; the Princess Stephanie. The next year Marie Henriette officially became Queen when her husband succeeded his father as King Leopold II of the Belgians. Now on the throne and with the succession secured it seemed that the royal couple could take a break from each other. However, disaster struck with the death of the little Prince Leopold in 1869. Marie Henriette was grief stricken and it seemed to many that Leopold II blamed her for the loss of his son. They tried the baby game one more time but when the result was another daughter, Princess Clementine, the two effectively gave up on their charade of a marriage.

The two lived apart from each other and Leopold could indulge his mistress while Queen Marie Henriette busied herself with the usual good causes and her lifelong love of Hungarian horses. She was something of a martinet with her daughters but, lest anyone be too harsh towards her, it must be remembered that she had been forced into a miserable life with a loveless marriage when she was only 17 and that could not have but had an impact on her. She also did a good deal of charity work, was a musical and artistic patron and she attentively cared for her tragic sister-in-law, Empress Carlota of Mexico, when she returned home mad with grief while her older brother would have little to do with her (which I will admit causes me to overlook other things). Marie Henriette had always been kept at something of a distance at court and soon even her title as Queen became mostly symbolic as she spent most of her time at her home in Spa while her daughter Princess Clementine looked after the King and provided the feminine presence at court functions. The unfortunate and unhappy Queen of the Belgians died on September 19, 1902 at her estate in Spa and was buried at the Royal Castle of Laeken.


  1. A note to readers: I had written a consort profile on the admirable Empress Zita for this post and it was only after I'd finished that I realized I had already done a profile on her sometime back, so I had to come up with something in a snap. As I will be doing a monarch profile on Leopold II of Belgium next I thought perhaps Queen Marie Henriette would be a fitting choice this time. My apologies to those who think I am stuck in a rut -rest assured diversity is never far away and upcoming posts will cover southern Europe, the Far East and America in the near future.

  2. This was such a sad and bizarre story.

  3. If I may go off topic a bit (though tying to the Habsburgs), has anyone heard of the German play Elisabeth? Long story short, it's the tale of Empress Sisi from the viewpoint of the Italian anarchist who killed her.

    For lack of a useful general source, here's the tropes page for it:


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