Marie Louise of Austria, Napoleon’s Second Wife

Marie Louise of Austria, 1810

Marie Louise of Austria, Empress of the French and Queen of Italy, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1810

At the age of 18, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria was obliged to marry 40-year-old French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had spent years waging war against her country. Despite the circumstances, the marriage was relatively happy. Napoleon and Marie Louise spent four years together and then never saw each other again. While he was destined for an early death in faraway exile, she went on to govern the Duchy of Parma.

Marie Louise’s upbringing

Marie Louise of Habsburg-Lorraine was born at the Hofburg in Vienna on December 12, 1791. Her father, Archduke Francis of Austria, was the son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Her mother, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, was Francis’s second wife and double first cousin. Marie Louise was the eldest of her parents’ 12 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. During Marie Louise’s first year of life, Leopold II died and her father became Holy Roman Emperor Francis II.

Marie Louise was a calm, industrious and obedient child. She had a secluded upbringing in the Austrian court and was carefully educated as a Habsburg princess. This meant – among other things – that her reading was censored. She learned many languages besides German, including French, Italian, Spanish, English, and even Latin, which was familiar to her father’s Hungarian subjects. She was fond of drawing and painting. She enjoyed music and was said to be a good pianist and a competent harpist, although an indifferent dancer. She embroidered portfolios for her father and knit woolen skirts for her mother. She liked animals and had several pets, including a dog, a rabbit and birds. She enjoyed spending time outdoors, hunting and fishing with her father. She was his favourite child.

For most of Marie Louise’s childhood, Austria was at war with France. The French Revolution – in  which Marie Louise’s great aunt, Marie Antoinette, and the latter’s husband, King Louis XVI, were guillotined – greatly alarmed Emperor Francis II. Austria fought against France in the French Revolutionary Wars and continued to oppose France in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1805, Napoleon defeated the Austrian army and led his soldiers into Vienna. While Francis went to Olmütz and his family fled to Hungary, Napoleon stayed at their summer residence of Schönbrunn Palace. After Napoleon defeated a combined Austrian-Russian force at the Battle of Austerlitz, Francis II asked for peace. The terms led to the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1806, Marie Louise’s father was reduced to being Emperor Francis I of Austria.

The following year, Marie Louise’s mother died of complications from a premature childbirth. Francis soon remarried, choosing as his new bride another of his first cousins, Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este. The latter was only four years older than Marie Louise and became like an older sister to her. Maria Ludovika hated Napoleon, whose invasion of northern Italy in 1796 had required her family to flee their home.

In 1809, Austria attacked French-occupied Bavaria, hoping to regain some lost territory while Napoleon was preoccupied with the war in Spain. Things did not go well for the Austrians. In May, Napoleon recaptured Vienna. This time he occupied Schönbrunn for several months. While Francis I remained in the field, his family took refuge in Hungary. In letters to a friend, Marie Louise referred to Napoleon as the “Anti-Christ” and said that to see him “would be the most terrible of martyrdoms.” (1) In October, Francis was forced to sign a peace treaty with Napoleon, in which Austria lost her Adriatic ports and about 20% of her population. The Habsburgs returned to Vienna.

Marriage to Napoleon

Arrival of Marie Louise at Compiègne

Arrival of Marie Louise at Compiègne, by Pauline Auzou, 1810

In December 1809, Napoleon ended his 13-year marriage to Josephine because of her failure to provide him with an heir. He wanted a new, fertile wife from one of Europe’s royal families, thinking that this would add legitimacy to his regime. Hoping to cement the new Franco-Austrian alliance, he settled on Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. At first Marie Louise couldn’t believe that Napoleon would want to marry his enemy’s daughter, or that her father would consent to the match. Her stepmother, Maria Ludovika, was strongly opposed. However, Francis I and his foreign minister, Clemens von Metternich, saw the proposal through the eyes of statecraft, as a means of securing some years of peace during which Austria could rebuild her forces. Although Marie Louise was not keen on marrying the man who had caused her family so much distress, she submitted without protest to her father’s wishes (see my post about Francis I).

On March 11, 1810, at the Augustinian church in Vienna, 18-year-old Marie Louise married 40-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte sight unseen. They literally did not see each other, since it was a marriage by proxy: Napoleon was in France and the bride’s uncle, Archduke Charles, stood in for the groom (see my post about the marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise). Two days later, Marie Louise left for Paris. Napoleon wrote to her every day. Once she entered French territory, he sent flowers along with the letters. When she got close to Compiègne, where he was staying, he was so eager to see her that he rode out to meet her and flung himself into her carriage. According to Napoleon’s secretary, Claude Méneval, the Emperor was favourably impressed with his bride’s appearance and “natural dignity.”

Marie Louise was in all the splendor of youth…her complexion was animated by the movement of the journey and by her timidity; her fine, abundant and light chestnut-coloured hair framed a fresh and full face, to which her kindly eyes gave a charming expression; her lips, a little thick, were characteristic of the reigning family of Austria…. [H]er whole person exuded candor and innocence, and her plumpness, which she lost after childbirth, announced her good health. (2)

Napoleon later said that Marie Louise “was beautifully made,” with “charming hands and feet.”

When I went to meet her, it was the first thing that struck me. She was fresh as a rose and without any coquetry; she differed in that respect from Josephine, who had much. (3)

Napoleon and Marie Louise spent the night together and then continued on to Paris. They had two more weddings: a civil ceremony at the Château de Saint-Cloud on April 1, and a religious ceremony at the Louvre on April 2.

Napoleon had Josephine’s rooms in the imperial palaces completely refurbished in anticipation of their new occupant. He also bought Marie Louise an entire new wardrobe, much of it in white silk, and a large amount of jewelry, each piece of which he inspected himself. Marie Louise was pleased with her new husband and her status as Empress of the French. On April 24, 1810 she wrote to a friend who was about to be married, with the wish “may you soon be as happy as I am.” (4)

Birth of the King of Rome

Marie Louise with the King of Rome

Marie Louise with her son, the King of Rome, by Joseph Franque, 1811

For the first few months of their marriage, Napoleon spent considerable time with Marie Louise. They went on excursions together. They enjoyed hunts, plays, balls, concerts, operas, banquets and receptions. At the end of April, they embarked on a month-long honeymoon through northern France and Belgium. Napoleon often embraced and pinched Marie Louise, one of his methods of showing affection. Once they were back in Paris, Napoleon went to see Josephine at Malmaison. When Marie Louise showed signs of jealousy, he curtailed his visits to his ex-wife.

Napoleon’s valet Louis-Joseph Marchand noted:

It must be said that the Emperor was very much in love with Empress Marie Louise…. The Emperor attributed to her all the qualities that would make her loved: he said she was kind, gentle, affable, and even playful in her normal relations. (5)

Napoleon did not have to wait long for his anticipated reward. On March 20, 1811, after a difficult labour, Marie Louise gave birth to a son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who was given the title King of Rome. Marie Louise loved the baby, but rarely handled him. In contrast, Napoleon often played with his son. Marchand, whose mother was a nurse to the King of Rome, wrote that Marie Louise “would not have known how to initiate” playful interactions with the child, “either out of shyness or out of fear of hurting her son.”

One did not find the spontaneous signs of affection that mothers have for their children in her. She was even ill at ease carrying him, and that gave birth to the rumour that she did not like her son. My mother always told me the opposite: she had much affection for the King of Rome. It is true that she seldom took him in her arms, but if she did not show all her affection for him, it was because he was always accompanied by Madame de Montesquiou [the boy’s governess]. She had been made to feel uncomfortable around this lady. … The qualities of generosity and sensitivity do honor to the heart and soul of this princess, who could not be faulted for anything during her stay in France. My mother has always told me that her first reaction was always excellent, but bad influences spoiled everything. (6)

Empress of the French

Once Napoleon had his heir, he devoted less attention to Marie Louise. He was fond of her and treated her with consideration, but he needed to attend to the pressing demands of state and war. Marie Louise spent her time drawing, painting, playing the piano, doing needlework and reading books. She rarely allowed herself to be seen in public, which did not endear her to the French people. They remembered how charming Josephine had been. One of Marie Louise’s ladies-in-waiting wrote:

[B]orn in the purple, accustomed from her infancy to homage and respect, and of a naturally shy and reserved disposition, [Marie Louise] knew nothing whatever of the mind of the French nation, and had no one about her who was in a position to advise, guide, and make her understand how essential it was, not only for her own, but for her son’s sake, that she should win their regard. But, although the empress had the defect of being cold and impassive in public, the blame ought not to be laid to her account. She was constantly told that one ought to be natural, and to appear just as one is; an excellent principle in private life, no doubt, but it does not work in the case of sovereigns, or indeed in that of the great, who require to do many kindnesses, and to be very condescending, in order to make the lower classes like them. (7)

In May 1812, Napoleon and Marie Louise went to Dresden for a gathering of European leaders that Napoleon had organized to gain support for his planned invasion of Russia. The Emperor and Empress of Austria attended. Marie Louise was delighted to be reunited with her parents. She continued on to Prague to spend more time with her Austrian family before returning to France. Meanwhile, Napoleon travelled to Poland to take charge of his army. Marie Louise missed him. She wrote to her friend, “I will only be happy and peaceful when I see him again. May God ever preserve you from such a separation; it is too much for a loving heart, and, should it continue longer, I feel that I shall succumb.” (8)

Regent of France

Marie Louise, Empress of the French

Marie Louise of Austria, Empress of the French, by Jean Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Marie Louise did not see Napoleon again until December, when he returned after the destruction of a large part of his army in Russia. In March 1813, when Napoleon set out for battle in Germany, he appointed Marie Louise as his regent in France. She had no real power. Napoleon still took all the decisions and had his senior officials implement them. Although Marie Louise urged her father to support her husband, Austria ended the alliance with France and joined Britain, Russia, Prussia and others in the coalition against Napoleon.

The campaign did not go well for Napoleon. He returned to Paris in November, following his defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. In December, the allies crossed into France. On January 24, 1814, Napoleon again made Marie Louise regent. Early the next morning he left to command his army. It was the last time he saw Marie Louise and the King of Rome.

In March, when the allied forces were approaching Paris, Marie Louise wanted to remain in the city. As the daughter of Francis I, she thought she would be treated with respect and she worried that leaving would embolden the supporters of Louis XVIII. However, Napoleon sent a letter insisting that his wife and son depart: “I would prefer to know that they were both at the bottom of the Seine, rather than in the hands of the foreigners.” (9) On March 29, the French court left the Tuileries for Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. The allies entered Paris the next day.

Marie Louise and the King of Rome continued on to Blois, accompanied by the Council of Regency and a portion of the National Guard. Much news was kept from her, but eventually Marie Louise learned that Napoleon had abdicated and was being exiled to the island of Elba. She would retain her title of Empress and be given the Duchies of Parma, Placentia and Guastalla. Marie Louise met with her father, hoping to persuade him to support Napoleon. Instead, Francis I persuaded her to go to Vienna with the King of Rome to have a rest. They arrived in May and were warmly received.

Seduction by Neipperg

Marie Louise still had hopes of joining her husband. In July, she requested and received permission to take the waters at Aix-les-Bains, intending to proceed from there to Parma and afterwards to Elba, although she had to leave the King of Rome in Vienna. She even wrote to Napoleon that he should “reserve a small lodging, because you know I intend to come as soon as I can.” (10)

However, when Marie Louise arrived outside Aix she was met by a charming Austrian officer, Adam Albert von Neipperg, who was to serve as her escort. Neipperg was under instructions from Metternich to dissuade her from going to Elba. On August 15, Napoleon’s 45th birthday, Marie Louise wrote: “How can I be happy…when I am obliged to pass the feast day, so solemn to me, so far from the two people who are dearest to me?” (11) But Neipperg was working his magic on her. When Napoleon sent a letter saying a ship was waiting for her at Genoa, Marie Louise replied that she could not go to Elba without her father’s permission. On September 5, she and Neipperg left Aix to return to Vienna. He became her lover on that journey.

In Vienna, Francis told Marie Louise not to reply to Napoleon’s letters. When Marie Louise learned of Napoleon’s escape from Elba in March 1815, she wrote to the allies saying that she was in no way complicit with her husband. When he reached Grenoble, Napoleon wrote asking Marie Louise to return to Paris with the King of Rome, adding “I hope to embrace you before the end of March.” (12) When Marie Louise did not respond, he sent another letter, saying he expected to see her and his son in France in April. This was followed by a third letter. Finally, he wrote to Francis I to formally reclaim his wife and son.

Ménéval, who was with Marie Louise and trying to encourage her to join Napoleon, wrote:

The mind of the Empress…contemplates the possibility of her return to France with terror. Every possible means have been employed for eight months, or, shall I say, for three years, to separate her from the Emperor…. For six months I have not been allowed to speak to her without a witness…. Unknown to anyone, she has been induced to take steps to declare herself foreign to the Emperor’s projects, to place herself under the protection of her father and the Allies, and to ask for the crown of Parma….. Marie Louise is really good at heart, but very weak, and averse to serious reflection. (13)

When Ménéval said goodbye to Marie Louise before returning to France himself, she told him that she would always remember her adopted land. She asked him to assure Napoleon that she wished him well, and hoped he would understand her unhappy position.

She repeated to me that she would never agree to a divorce, that she hoped he would consent to an amicable separation, and that he would not retain any resentment about it; that this separation had become unavoidable, but that it should not alter the feelings of esteem and gratitude which she retained. (14)

After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequent exile to St. Helena, Marie Louise breathed a sigh of relief. When he was on St. Helena, Napoleon spoke of Marie Louise with respect and tenderness. He kept a portrait of her on the wall. He reportedly told his companions, “You may be quite certain that, if the Empress has made no effort to alleviate my sufferings, it is because she is kept in the midst of spies, who prevent her from knowing anything of what I suffer, for Marie Louise is virtue itself.” (15)

Marie Louise as Duchess of Parma

Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma

Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, by Giovanni Battista Callegari, circa 1835

In June 1815, the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna confirmed Marie Louise as Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, but prevented her from bringing her son to Italy. In April 1816, she moved to Parma, accompanied by Neipperg, who became her chief advisor and prime minister. Her son, who was given the title of Duke of Reichstadt, remained in Vienna and was raised in the Austrian court. He appears as Franz in Napoleon in America.

Neipperg and Marie Louise had three children together: Albertine Marie (born on May 1, 1817); Wilhelm Albrecht (August 8, 1819); and Mathilde (August 15, 1821; died in 1822). The births and baptisms were kept as secret as possible, in light of the fact that Marie Louise was still legally married to Napoleon. Marie Louise married Neipperg morganatically on September 7, 1821, not long after she learned of Napoleon’s death by reading about it in a newspaper.

The Duchy of Parma was a poor, rural part of the Austrian Empire, with a population of less than half a million people. Marie Louise’s and Neipperg’s job was to keep insurrection under control through a combination of repression and reform. They introduced a new code of laws and made some improvements to infrastructure. Marie Louise laid out gardens and planted orchards. She rode horses, gave balls, attended the theatre, and played billiards, chess and backgammon with the ladies of the court. She made annual visits to Austria to see her father and her son.

Neipperg died in 1829, a great loss to Marie Louise. The following years were troubled. In 1831, there was a rebellion in which Marie Louise had to flee Parma before being reinstated by Austrian troops. In 1832, the Duke of Reichstadt died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. Marie Louise returned to Vienna to be at his side during his final month of life.

In February 1834, Marie Louise married her chamberlain, Count Charles René de Bombelles. As with Neipperg, it was a morganatic marriage. Afterwards, he assumed the title of Minister of Defense. They were reportedly happy together.

Daguerreotype of Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, in 1847, age 56

Daguerreotype of Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, in 1847, age 56

Marie Louise of Austria died of pleurisy on December 17, 1847, at the age of 56. She is buried in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna, along with other Habsburg family members. Upon her death, the Duchy of Parma returned to the rule of the House of Bourbon-Parma, leaving the way open for Louise d’Artois, granddaughter of Charles X of France, to become Duchess of Parma.

Neipperg’s and Marie Louise’s daughter Albertine, the Countess of Montenuovo (Italian for Neipperg) married Luigi Sanvitale, an Italian nobleman in 1833. She died in 1867. Her brother Wilhelm, the Count (later Prince) of Montenuovo, joined the Austrian army. He participated in the counterinsurgency battles of 1848 in Italy and Hungary, earning – like his father – the rank of lieutenant field marshal. He married Countess Juliane Batthyány-Strattmann and died in 1895.

You might also enjoy:

Francis I of Austria: Napoleon’s Father-in-Law

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise

What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

The Perilous Birth of the King of Rome

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s Son, the King of Rome

Adam Albert von Neipperg, Lover of Napoleon’s Wife

When the Duke of Wellington Met Napoleon’s Wife

When Princess Caroline Met Empress Marie Louise

The Death of Napoleon’s Son, the Duke of Reichstadt

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon’s Family

  1. Correspondance de Marie Louise, 1799-1847 (Vienna, 1887), pp. 96, 103.
  2. Claude François de Méneval, Napoléon et Marie-Louise, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1844), p. 371.
  3. Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 614.
  4. Correspondance de Marie Louise, 1799-1847, p. 146.
  5. In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 233
  6. Ibid., p. 608.
  7. Sophie-Henriette Durand, Napoleon and Marie Louise, 1810-1814, A Memoir (London, 1886), pp. 68-69.
  8. Correspondance de Marie Louise, 1799-1847, p. 159.
  9. Napoleon and Marie Louise, 1810-1814, A Memoir, p. 129.
  10. Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (New Haven, 2013), p. 508.
  11. Ibid., p. 509.
  12. Edith E. Cuthell, An Imperial Victim: Marie Louise, Vol. II (London, 1912), p. 59.
  13. Ibid., p. 68.
  14. Ibid., p. 79.
  15. Gaspard Gourgaud, The St. Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud, 1815-1818 (London, 1932), p. 348.

10 commments on “Marie Louise of Austria, Napoleon’s Second Wife”

  • Hels says:

    I realise that royal princesses had no choice in who they were married to, but this was more surprising than normal. Maria Louise was a teen and he was elderly; she knew that Napoleon was not royal; he had been happily married and ended it only to find a younger, more fertile wife; that their countries were enemies etc etc. I felt sorry for her.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Me too, Hels. I felt even more sorry for her sister, Leopoldina. She met a sad end in her forced marriage to the Portuguese king’s son, who became Emperor of Brazil.

  • Addison says:

    I have felt that the aristocracy of Europe was rotten and that humanity has been blessed by their (near) obliteration. Thanks for giving them a human face. They were just people, taught they had an intrinsic superiority to commoners and a special role to play. So are we all deceived.

  • James Fisher says:

    Another fine post and an excellent summary of Marie Louise’s life Shannon. It does seem, from what we understand, that she was happy as Napoleon’s wife and Empress of the French. One can only wonder how it might have run, had it continued. It would be interesting too, to get a sense of her thoughts on various arranged marriages, titles and moves. Or did she accept it as her ‘lot’ since that was what she was born to (and women were not overtly allowed power and choice)?
    Regards, James

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, James. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I think she did accept the marriage as her lot, and I agree that she was relatively happy with her situation. I don’t think she spent much time reflecting on arranged marriages, although she was keen to keep her title as Empress, and she also wanted to make sure that she received a territory to govern after she had to leave France. She did not want to go back to an obscure life in Vienna, apparently because she did not want to play second fiddle to her father’s latest wife, Empress Caroline Augusta.

  • Emily Gui says:

    This is such a well-researched and insightful post! I haven’t read much on Marie Louise before but your post really got me interested in her. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for a good monograph on Marie Louise and/or her relationship with Napoleon? Historical novels on the subject are also appreciated!

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Emily. I’m glad you liked the post. If you want to learn more about Marie Louise, An Imperial Victim: Marie Louise by Edith Cuthell (2 volumes, 1912) is a good place to start. It’s available for free on the Internet Archive: More recent works include Napoleon and Marie Louise by Alan Palmer (2001), which is rather academic in tone, and Napoleon’s Other Wife: The Story of Marie Louise by Deborah Jay (2015). In terms of novels, you could try The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court by Michelle Moran (2013). Happy reading!

  • Tom Vance says:

    I have just re-read this wonderful article. I’ve been trying to think about Marie Louise and her post-Napoleon experience, for which she gets such bad press. 1). The allied powers essentially ended her marriage with Napoleon; 2). For all practical purposes, Emperor Francis and Metternich arranged what amounted from the beginning as a state-sanctioned marriage between Marie Louise and General Neipperg; 3) her final marriage to Count Bombelles appears to be her only non-arranged marriage. So, imagine how much easier her life in Parma would have been (and how much better her relationship with the Duke of Reichstadt would have been) had the Viennese Court formally recognized a marriage with Neipperg in 1815. I know this was how the world worked then, but with today’s lens, it looks like a young woman was total manipulated by older men.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Tom. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Indeed, Marie Louise had little choice in her fate. When she did try to exercise discretion, for example in wanting to remain in Paris when the allied troops were approaching in 1814, and then in wanting to join Napoleon on Elba, she was overruled by the men in charge of her. That’s a great point about how an earlier marriage to Neipperg could have made her life, and the Duke of Reichstadt’s life (and her other children’s lives), better.

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She was fresh as a rose and without any coquetry; she differed in that respect from Josephine, who had much.

Napoleon Bonaparte