When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Thomas Lawrence

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Thomas Lawrence

While Napoleon took a dim view of the Duke of Wellington, his wife Marie Louise was more forgiving. Wellington met Marie Louise at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and again at the Congress of Verona in 1822. By this time, Marie Louise was the Duchess of Parma and married to Count von Neipperg (Napoleon had died in 1821). As Wellington tells Dorothea Lieven in Napoleon in America, he played cards with Marie Louise and paid in gold Napoléon coins. Marie Louise’s warmth towards Wellington at Verona inspired Lord Byron to write a poem.

The service he did her

Wellington talked about his encounters with Napoleon’s wife in conversation with his friend Lord Mahon.

Rambling from subject to subject, we came at length to the ex-Empress Maria Louisa. I mentioned Lord Strangford having told me that during the Congress of Verona he had often seen the Duke and the widow of Napoleon playing at écarté together, and the word “Napoleon” frequently passing between them in payments for the game. The Duke assented. He said that she had been very civil to him during the Congress, and that he had the honour of dining with her. She had the same cook that he had once – a man who had been formerly in Napoleon’s service – entered the Duke’s after Waterloo, but left it on the breaking up of his establishment, when the allied army was withdrawn from France – and then sought employment in Italy from his ancient mistress. On his report of the Duke’s usual fare, she accosted him thus the day the Duke dined with her: I am very sorry indeed that I could not get any roast mutton for you.

The Duke said that the first time he had seen her was during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when he went to pay his respects to her at Schönbrunn; but owing to the state of things in France, he did not often, of course, find himself in her society. It is a very curious thing, he added, that she afterwards said to some one: The Duke of Wellington little knows the service he has done me by winning the battle of Waterloo! The fact is, she was then with child by Neipperg – whom she afterwards married; and if Napoleon had prevailed she would have had to return to him in that state. (1)

Mahon is wrong on that last point. Although Marie Louise had three children with Neipperg before their marriage, the first was conceived in 1816, when Napoleon was safely imprisoned on St. Helena.

According to the French representative at the 1822 Congress of Verona, Marie Louise was “in excellent spirits” there.

The world had taken upon itself the task of remembering Napoleon; therefore Maria Louisa thought she need not trouble herself to think of him. We informed her that we had met her troops at Placentia, and remarked that she once possessed a much more numerous army. She replied: ‘I never think of that.’ (2)

Appearing on his arm

Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma by Isacco Gioacchino Levi

Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma by Isacco Gioacchino Levi

On November 18, 1822, Wellington was present at the opera in Verona when Marie Louise arrived.

The first act was nearly over when the Arch Duchess Maria Louisa entered her box, attended by two Maids of Honour and her grand Chamberlain, Count Neipperg. When she first presented herself, she was wrapped up in a large kerseymere cloak trimmed with ermine, the night being rather cold, and on throwing it aside, she appeared dressed in a white satin slip, with a border of deep lace round the bosom. Her neck and bosom, which are very fine, were left quite exposed and she wore no ornaments. Her head dress consisted of a small white beaver hat, with a plume of ostrich feather to correspond, fastened at the side in a rosette of white ribbon. She looked extremely interesting and the more so from the eventful scenes with which her bloom of life has been associated.

Immediately after the Opera, she went to attend a musical party at the Duke of Wellington’s, where Lady Burghersh presided upon the occasion. On her arrival, the Duke of Wellington was in waiting to receive her Imperial Highness, and he led her leaning on his arm to the Grand Salon. What must have been her sensations at that moment! What must she have felt while thus taking the arm that had hurled both her husband and herself from the greatest Throne in the universe. Apparently, however, she betrayed not the slightest emotion, and on entering the room she went up to Lady Burghersh and shook her by the hand with an air of affectionate cordiality. (3)

Lady Burghersh was Wellington’s niece, Priscilla Wellesley-Pole. She and Marie Louise had become friends in Italy (Priscilla’s husband was the British ambassador to Tuscany).

Some found it unseemly for Marie Louise to appear on the arm of the man who had defeated her former husband. One writer tried to excuse her behaviour by blaming it on her father, Francis I of Austria.

It does not throw any discredit on the assertion respecting Maria Louisa’s desire to join her husband in his banishment that she played a rather ostentatious part in the congress of Promise-breakers and Ungratefuls at Verona, and actually took the Duke of Wellington’s arms at a grand public entertainment. Affection, and constancy in adversity, are two distinct qualities. Besides, there is no knowing what sort of secret influence may have been used on the part of the Austrian father, to compel this display. (4)

Byron disapproved

Lord Byron was unforgiving. He wrote in Canto XVII of “The Age of Bronze”:

Enough of this – a sight more mournful woos
The averted eye of the reluctant muse.
The imperial daughter, the imperial bride,
The imperial victim – sacrifice to pride;
The mother of the hero’s hope, the boy,
The young Astyanax of modern Troy;
The still pale shadow of the loftiest queen
That earth has yet to see, or e’er hath seen;
She flits amid the phantoms of the hour,
The theme of pity, and the wreck of power.
Oh, cruel mockery! Could not Austria spare
A daughter? What did France’s widow there?
Her fitter place was by St. Helen’s wave,
Her only throne is in Napoleon’s grave.
But no, — she still must hold a petty reign,
Flank’d by her formidable chamberlain;
The martial Argus, whose not hundred eyes
Must watch her through these paltry pageantries.
What though she share no more, and shared in vain,
A sway surpassing that of Charlemagne,
Which swept from Moscow to the southern seas
Yet still she rules the pastoral realm of cheese,
Where Parma views the traveller resort
To note the trappings of her mimic court.
But she appears! Verona sees her shorn
Of all her beams – while nations gaze and mourn –
Ere yet her husband’s ashes have had time
To chill in their inhospitable clime;
(If e’er those awful ashes can grow cold;
But no, – their embers soon will burst the mould;)
She comes! – the Andromache (but not Racine’s,
Nor Homer’s) Lo! on Pyrrhus’ arm she leans!
Yes! the right arm, yet red from Waterloo,
Which cut her lord’s half shattered sceptre through,
Is offered and accepted! Could a slave
Do more? or less? – and he in his new grave!
Her eye, her cheek, betray no inward strife,
And the Ex-empress grows as Ex a wife!
So much for human ties in royal breasts!
Why spare men’s feelings, when their own are jests? (5)

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Nemesis: the Duke of Wellington

What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

When Princess Caroline met Empress Marie Louise

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

Adam Albert von Neipperg, Lover of Napoleon’s wife

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

The 1823 French invasion of Spain (on the diplomacy at the Congress of Verona)

Charades with the Duke of Wellington

  1. Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851 (London, 1889), pp. 232-233.
  2. François-René de Chateaubriand, The Congress of Verona, Vol. 1 (London, 1838), p. 74.
  3. Galignani’s Messenger, No. 2419, Paris, December 3, 1822.
  4. Leigh Hunt, ed., The Literary Examiner (London, August 9, 1823), p. 94.
  5. George Gordon Byron, The Works of Lord Byron; In Verse and Prose (New York, 1835), p. 452.

18 commments on “When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife”

  • Addison says:

    She and Josephine behaved about the way the age expected them to behave: “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

    • Shannon Selin says:

      When Napoleon was first exiled to Elba, Marie Louise wanted to go with him, but she was young and easily swayed by her father. In the words of Imbert de Saint-Amand (The Happy Days of the Empress Marie Louise, 1890): “Certainly Marie Louise was neither a model wife nor a model widow, and there is nothing surprising in the severity with which her contemporaries judged her, a severity which doubtless history will not modify. But if this princess was guilty, more than one attenuating circumstance may be urged in her defence, and we should, in justice, remember that it was not without a struggle, without tears, distress, and many conscientious scruples, that she decided to obey her father’s rigid orders and become again what she had been before her marriage,–simply an Austrian princess.”

  • Hels says:

    Here is an interesting thought – “Some found it unseemly for Marie Louise to appear on the arm of the man who had defeated her former husband.” Yet Napoleon had been unpopular in most countries. Marie Louise, still a young woman, would never have been able to talk to ANY man, if she eliminated all of Napoleon’s old enemies from her company.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Good point, Hels. Though I think the Duke of Wellington raised particular objections among Napoleon’s supporters.

  • April Munday says:

    Byron was a bit over the top. Since she couldn’t go with Bonaparte, Marie Louise had to find some means of carrying on in a post-Waterloo Europe.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Byron revered Napoleon and had an idealized view of Marie Louise. In his “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,” composed in 1814 after Napoleon’s first abdication and exile to Elba, Byron wrote:
      “And she, proud Austria’s mournful flower,
      Thy still imperial bride;
      How bears her breast the torturing hour?
      Still clings she to thy side?
      Must she too bend, must she too share
      Thy late repentance, long despair,
      Thou throneless Homicide?
      If still she loves thee, hoard that gem,—
      ’Tis worth thy vanish’d diadem!”
      I don’t think it ever occurred to Marie Louise that it might be inappropriate to be seen cozying up to the Duke of Wellington. She saw him as her father’s ally rather than her late husband’s enemy.

  • Christoph Fischer says:

    Great post, as always 🙂

  • Hunter S. Jones says:

    Enjoyable!

  • Charles D.F. Cohn says:

    Well written and researched. Too bad modern politics isn’t played out in poetry!

  • Joseph C Ogbonna says:

    This is indeed a brilliant research work embarked upon by so brilliant and intellectual a mind. I did enjoy reading every bit of it, especially the poem, with its remarkable artistry and fine delicacy of language.

  • Josh says:

    Always nice to read a bit about the Duke.

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What must she have felt while thus taking the arm that had hurled both her husband and herself from the greatest Throne in the universe.

Galignani’s Messenger