Thursday, August 5, 2010

Consort Profile: Queen Marie Therese of France

HRH Princess Marie Therese Charlotte of France was the first child born to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. She was born on December 19, 1778 at Versailles. Her birth was a much heralded event and had been a long time coming and, although not the son and heir everyone was hoping for, she was adored, especially by Queen Marie Antoinette who doted on her as her special little girl she could keep to herself and not have to share with the country as she would a son. She was named Marie Therese after her devout and formidable grandmother Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Holy Roman Empire of Germany). She grew up under the guidance of the Duchess of Polignac, her governess, but Marie Antoinette was a very “hands on” mother and despite the favor she showed the little “Madame Royale” she did not spoil the princess as her father King Louis XVI tended to. Despite the popular misconception of the Queen she was not extravagant, uncaring or aloof and she took great care to raise her daughter to be a grounded, compassionate woman who was not snobby or held herself above others.

Marie Therese grew up knowing very different parents than what people think is the “truth” about the King and Queen today. She adored and revered her father and noted how often her mother concerned herself for the poor and took care that Marie Therese did as well. She also knew tragedy very early in life when her brother and sister died, leaving her and her remaining brother as the only children of the royal couple. The King and Queen did their best to protect their children from the growing French Revolution but eventually they were touched by the horror that engulfed France like everyone else. The mob violence effected Marie Therese for the rest of her life and the little Royal Family was arrested and thrown in prison. King Louis XVI was executed, which was especially heartbreaking for Marie Therese who placed her father on such a pedestal and so adored him. When Queen Marie Antoinette was also taken away (ultimately to her execution as well) the Madame Royale was placed in the care of her aunt, the pious Princess Elisabeth of France. A year later in 1794 the saintly Elisabeth was also executed and by the next year her brother the Dauphin (by then legitimately King Louis XVII) died of starvation and the effects of long periods of torture and neglect at the hands of the revolutionaries. This left poor little Marie Therese as the only surviving member of the immediate French Royal Family.

The goodness of Princess Marie Therese is hard to overestimate. In the face of the most horrific tragedy and unspeakable suffering (and she was never told what happened to her family other than her father who she knew was executed) she asked God’s forgiveness on those who had murdered her father and persecuted her family. The emotional trauma she endured was unimaginable and fears for her own life did not end until the Reign of Terror finally came to a halt and the Madame Royale was released and sent to her relatives in Austria just before she turned 17 as part of a prisoner exchange. This marked the beginning of the period of her life usually dismissed as the period in which she was a mere political pawn for the House of Hapsburg. However, the sensitive young girl was grateful enough to be away from the setting of the nightmare she had endured. She later moved to Latvia where her uncle, the Comte de Provence now titled King Louis XVIII, was being harbored by Tsar Paul I of Russia. He arranged her marriage, in Latvia in 1799, to his nephew Louis-Antoine the duc d'Angoulême. The two were rather shoved together and Marie Therese was happy enough to have some stability and a family of her own in her life again.

The couple later moved to Britain and after the first downfall of the Emperor Napoleon in 1814 the Madame Royale was able to return to France again for the first time since she had left under such tragic circumstances in 1795. The homecoming was very traumatic for her. Memories of France were terrifying, sad reminders appeared everywhere she looked and all around her were the faces of those who had betrayed her family. Given all she had gone through she was understandably a little paranoid. However, she was also no coward and when Napoleon made his return and her uncle Louis XVIII fled his throne the Madame Royale was prepared to stand and fight and inspired French royalists to organize in support of the traditional monarchy. She left only when the threat of imperial troops sent to arrest her made her fear their retaliation on the surrounding population. Napoleon was impressed by her bravery and, in a way, she did make a difference as French royalists did rise up against Napoleon and he had to dispatch troops to suppress them. Had he not been lacking those soldiers the battle of Waterloo might have ended differently.

Yet, Napoleon was defeated, the Bourbon dynasty was restored yet again and when Louis XVIII died and Charles X became King of France the Madame Royale found herself then the Madame la Dauphine as her husband became heir to the throne. When revolution threatened to bring down the staunchly royalist King Charles X he prepared to abdicate in favor of his son. However, Marie Therese and her husband had never had children and the Dauphin was prepared to abdicate in favor of his nephew. So it was that Marie Therese was in the unique position of being the Queen consort of France for a grand total of roughly 20 minutes in 1830 from the time her father-in-law abdicated to the time her husband abdicated as nominal King Louis XIX. It ended up being a matter of pure principle in any event as it was Louis Philippe III, Duc d’Orleans who actually took the throne. Despite being considered a usurper by the former (immediate) royal family King Louis Philippe saw his displaced relatives to the coast to sail into exile once again in Britain.

Queen Marie Therese lived in exile, moving around Europe from Scotland to Austria to Italy, outliving her husband until her death in 1851 of pneumonia. She was the same caring, compassionate and saintly person she had always been right to the very end. In all the years since her death she remains a fascinating figure. Perhaps, to a large degree, because though all she had endured may have scarred her, none of it was able to break her. Undoubtedly she endured a lot, aside from the earliest years of her childhood, her entire life had been one long tragedy marked by suffering, persecution, political upheavals and several trips into exile. Yet, through it all, the core values her devout parents instilled in Marie Therese never left her through all her trials in all her life.


  1. Thank you! What a heroine she was, and a real survivor. I think she inherited tremendous inner strength from her mother and grandmother, Maria Teresa.

    I don't know if it's just me, but that first portrait of her always reminds me of the young Marie-José. And they were both called 'the only man' in their respective families (Bourbons / Savoys). And they both adored their fathers...See, I can go on and on.

  2. A great lady sadly not as well known as she should be.

  3. That was a very interesting synopsis. I hope to learn more about the French Royal Family, particularly this period, as it something I know little about. Would you recommend any good general books on the subject?

  4. Matterhorn, I had never noticed but now that you mention it there is some similiarity. I think it is the hair. Marie-Jose as a child always brings to my mind the word 'cherubic'. As for being the 'only man' I've wondered about that. Napoleon said the same thing about the Queen of Prussia. He was either very fond of the phrase or someone was being inventive. In any event, it was rather true.

    Monarchist1990, I can't think off hand of any general books on the French monarchy at the time (though I know there are a great many of them). Elena Maria Vidal from Tea at Trianon has written some good books on the period. They are novels but ones she really did her homework on to ensure the history is as factual as possible. If others have any recommendations I would be glad to hear them.

  5. I think that, given how the French Monarchy tends to be viewed in light of the Romantic retelling of the French Revolution, peopel tend ot forget her in the same way they forget the Reign fo Terror whilst declarign the glorious triumph of the Revokution for Human Rights. She stands in a Sharp contrast to the mythic narrative of evil Monarchies being overthroen by Just Republicans, and so really doesn't register in most peoples thinking. Its liek Juarez and Maximillion, as everyone knoes Juarez is a Hereo, the post by Mad Monarchist here would be incomprehensable to many people. Havign a Brave and Staunch French Royal after the Revolution who fared on her own agaisnt Napoleon woudk too Romantisise the Monarchy in a time when Republicanism had been breached, and is too much a threat tot he credibility of the Republican Ideal.

    Especially to the French.

    This is not to say she was unimpressive, but quiet the reverse. But this is why I think it is impotant to learn how these events have been romantisised, and the Truth behind them. otherwise, France will never be restored, nor the rest of the world.

  6. If another poster hasn't beat me to the punch...

    There's one biography titled "Marie-Therese: Child of Terror" by Susan Nagel, published two years ago. When it came out, EM Vidal reviewed the biography and interviewed the author on her blog. It's an interesting read; I learned more about her.

    For younger readers, "The Lacemaker and the Princess" by Kimberly Bradley is a sympathetic and balanced read. Although the story focuses on the lacemaker Isabelle, Madame Royale plays a significant role in the novel.

    Hope these two suggestions help!

  7. Thank you, Elisa and Matterhorn, for mentioning my novel MADAME ROYALE, the only novel which covers the life of the adult princess.

  8. Ummm...looking over the comments I believe I'm the only one who has mentioned it, though I'm sure the others would recommend it as well.

  9. Has anyone read Francine DuPlessix Gray's new work 'The Queen's Lover'. It doesn't portray the last Madame Royale in such a gracious light as on here. I wish there were more documentation on her.

  10. Marie-Antoinette was also called 'the only man at court' by her enemies. It certainly rings true. In trying circumstances, she showed more balls than the men around her. So it's not surprising that Napoleon I called her eldest daughter 'the only man in her family', since it was tradition to address impressively brave women as such.


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