Marie-Thérèse, Child of Terror
The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter
By Susan Nagel BLOOMSBURY
Copyright © 2008 Susan Nagel
All right reserved.
Sex and Politics
WHEN HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR Joseph I died without a male heir in 1711, the crown passed to his brother, Charles VI. At that time, twenty-six-year-old Charles had no children. If Charles were to have a son, that boy would have been next in line to inherit the throne; but, if Charles were to have daughters, his late brothers' daughters would have precedence over his own female issue. In order to ensure continuation of his own dynasty and to preempt any claims to the throne by his nieces or other branches of the mighty Habsburg family, Charles, still childless in 1713, drafted a document called the Pragmatic Sanction. The Sanction laid down a code of succession in which Charles's eldest child, male or female, would inherit all the disparate Habsburg lands - including Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and parts of Italy. However, before the Sanction could become law Charles had to negotiate fiercely with his nieces, cousins and various regional princes to persuade them to accept the measure.
Charles had one son who died in infancy and two daughters who would survive him. The eldest, Maria Theresa, became heiress to the throne and because Charles assumed that whichever husband she chosewould, in reality, rule the Empire, she was allowed to marry for love. In 1736, nineteen-year-old Maria Theresa married Francis of Lorraine and by the marriage settlement the region of Lorraine was ceded to France, and Francis was given the title Grand Duke of Tuscany and with it vast territories and riches.
In 1740, Charles died and Maria Theresa ascended the throne, becoming Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, and Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla. Despite the fact that during his lifetime Charles had devoted his diplomatic energies to having the Pragmatic Solution accepted by the major rulers of Europe, after his death Bavaria, France, Prussia and Spain immediately contested the document, advancing claims to great portions of the Empire. A war fought on many fronts, the War of Austrian Succession lasted for eight years during which time Charles of Bavaria was elected Holy Roman Emperor. The Austrians were able to defeat the French and Bavarians in Bohemia, sign a short-lived armistice with Frederick of Prussia, and, at last, when Charles of Bavaria died, secure the title Holy Roman Emperor for Maria Theresa's husband, Francis. Through her husband's election as 'Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I', Maria Theresa received the title 'Empress'.
Maria Theresa was acutely aware that as a female ruler her position would remain tenuous as without a male heir the legitimacy of the Sanction would be continually challenged. She and Francis would have sixteen children together - ten of whom would reach adulthood - but for the first three years of her marriage Maria Theresa gave birth only to daughters. Finally, in 1741, she gave birth to a son, Joseph, and was able to consolidate her position.
Despite Francis's widely acknowledged philandering, the royal couple successfully created a public image of family, piety, sobriety and good works. Although the royal tribe presented a somewhat casual family lifestyle - moving between the Hofburg Palace in Vienna and the nearby summer home, Schönbrunn Palace - there was nothing haphazard about their plans for their children. Each child was groomed for a specific role or marriage. Joseph was destined for and trained to be Holy Roman Emperor; Leopold II inherited his father's title, Grand Duke of Tuscany, when Francis I died in 1765; and Max Franz became Elector of Cologne. To the other young Archdukes and Archduchesses Maria Theresa applied the Habsburg family motto: 'Let other nations wage war; you, happy Austria, achieve your ends through marriage,' and she busily sought out and arranged marriages for them that would benefit the Empire. Eighth-born Maria Amelia fell in love with Prince Charles of Zweibrücken. The Empress and her minister Kaunitz disapproved of what they thought was an inferior match and forced the twenty-three-year-old Princess to marry the Duke of Parma, five years her junior and mentally impaired, in 1769. Maria Carolina, thirteenth-born, became Queen of Naples and Sicily. And in 1768, in what would prove the most tragic and ill-fated union, thirteen-year-old Maria Antonia was informed that she would be sent to France as the bride of Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin and future King of France.
In the 1750s, after centuries of hostility, Austria and France united against the British, but their alliance proved a disaster when, at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, a British victory left France without much of her American territories and with heavy debts from a series of defeats. Maria Theresa and King Louis XV of France hoped that the marriage of their children would engender a more lasting truce between the two defeated Empires. Although many in France decried the proposal as a crime of miscegenation, Maria Antonia and Louis-Auguste were, in fact, both descended from Anne of Austria, the mother of France's King Louis XIV (although as the daughter of the Spanish King Philip III, she had never actually set foot in Austria and came to the French court directly from Spain).
Until the time of her engagement, Maria Antonia had been largely ignored by her mother. She had been raised by a series of tutors, maids and courtiers. Like most aristocrats, Maria Antonia was fluent in French, though she had never ventured further than the outskirts of Vienna. She loved music and was a talented ballet dancer - her graceful carriage always regarded as one of her finest attributes. The rest of her education was poor, however, and it was later discovered that the pretty and beguiling young Archduchess had been able to persuade her tutors to allow her to skip key subjects such as history and culture. These instructors, afraid of losing their posts, often completed Maria Antonia's homework for her, telling the Empress that it was the work of the child.
Before Maria Antonia could be presented to the French court as their future Queen, the young Archduchess had to undergo certain preparations including painful teeth straightening and an intensive course in French court customs. On April 19, 1770, Maria Antonia was married by proxy to Louis-Auguste of France. She was fourteen years old; the future Louis XVI, fifteen. The couple had never met, and both had reservations about the marriage. Maria Antonia was anxious about leaving her home forever. Louis-Auguste, convinced by courtiers and tutors that the Austrians were to be mistrusted, was far from happy about the exogamous union. Despite the bride's misgivings, she wrote to her new King informing him that the wedding by proxy had taken place, 'yesterday according to every ecclesiastical ceremony required'. She assured him that she would but 'occupy all my life to your care and to what pleases you to merit your confidence and goodness ... to submit to your wishes', and, revealing a certain persuasive charm that she would become famous for, addressing His Majesty as 'my very dear grandfather', the new Dauphine added, 'I know that my age and my inexperience might require your indulgence.'
On the eve of her departure, Maria Antonia received a present from her mother: a gold, enamel and amber watch and chain that had belonged to the Empress herself. The following day, Saturday, April 21, Maria Antonia, sobbing uncontrollably, embraced her mother for the last time, said her goodbyes to the Austrian courtiers and left the Hofburg Palace, the place she would always recall as idyllic. She carried with her a list of instructions from her mother that included guidelines on French diet, religion, and acceptable reading material. The Empress bid her daughter farewell, announcing to all within earshot that she was sending France 'an angel'.
The fifty-seven-carriage cortege that departed Vienna splendidly befitted the occasion. The teenage bride's entourage rode in carriages upholstered in vivid-colored velvets, embroidered with crests and symbols. Maria Antonia's own carriage, sent especially by the King of France, had been designed to show off her beauty to the world. The berlin's panels were made of brilliant glass that shimmered like diamonds encasing the Dauphine as the new crown jewel of France, each panel set by finely wrought white, yellow and rose-colored gold that wrapped vine-like around the windows. The roof of the coach, a solid-gold encasement with bouquets of flowers, again in tri-colored gold, was so delicately crafted that the flowers actually swayed in the breeze as the procession headed west.
In an attempt to elicit favorable public relations around the Empire, the Austrian court had set out a travel itinerary for the new bride, which took her around Western Europe, allowing its subjects to behold the young beauty, lavish tribute upon her, and feel optimistic about their reigning family. From Melk to Ulm to Freiberg, Maria Antonia traveled for up to ten hours a day as enthusiastic throngs of people waved her on. Finally, after meandering through a week of pomp and celebration, she reached the Rhine near the town of Kehl, the final stop before she left the borders of her homeland.
Maria Antonia was to meet her new family on an island in the middle of the Rhine, signifying neutral ground - the same island where Maria Josepha of Saxony had been handed over to the French to become Dauphine some twenty-three years earlier. A group of citizens from nearby Strasbourg had erected a wooden pavilion decorated with tapestries in which to receive their new Dauphine. Oddly, one of the tapestries hurriedly nailed to a wall depicted a scene from the story of Jason and Medea, recalling the monstrous mother who kills her own children. The writer Goethe, a young man studying law in Strasbourg at the time, had visited the site a few days prior to the Dauphine's arrival, and, in his memoir, commented on the horrific inappropriateness of the imagery.
Maria Antonia arrived on the island in the afternoon of May 7, beneath gathering storm clouds. She was deposited inside the pavilion by her Austrian courtiers, who were then asked to leave. The French, insisting on a clean break from the past for this daughter of the Holy Roman Empire, demanded that the Dauphine proceed to France accompanied only by Prince Starhemberg, former ambassador to France and special assistant to Chancellor Kaunitz. Even her pet was banished: the fourteen-year-old was forced to leave her pug dog, Mops, with the Austrian delegation.
Although her magnificent trousseau had been crafted in France, it too was deemed to be 'Austrian'. She was stripped and her clothes thrown to waiting female attendants, who squabbled over them. Maria Antonia was then symbolically transformed into the future Queen of France. Completely re-attired in a second set of French-made, French-styled clothing, she was led to the next room in the pavilion, where she was received by various members of the French nobility. No longer Maria Antonia, Archduchess of the Holy Roman Empire, she was now Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France.
According to the French courtiers who were present at the official remise, Maria Antonia committed a serious faux pas the moment she was presented to her French entourage. Tradition demanded that the person of the King and, by extension, his family, were absolutely sacred and therefore the body of the Dauphine was not to be touched by anyone. Overcome with emotion and desiring to make a fine first impression, Maria Antonia reached out and hugged the particularly severe Comtesse de Noailles, who had been appointed the Dauphine's Lady of Honor. The Countess, stunned at the young girl's impulsiveness and informality, cringed and remained rigid. Maria Antonia was immediately judged ill-prepared to serve as Queen.
The ceremony completed, the French procession made its way westward through the provinces. The bride, greeted with cheers and showers of flower petals, remained deeply anxious about meeting her new husband and seeing her new home, the incomparable Palace of Versailles.
The entourage arrived at the palace, west of Paris, on May 16. Six thousand people, dressed in their finest couture, assembled for a wedding celebration of heart-stopping splendor in the Opera House at Versailles, which had been built for the occasion. The young bride was lovely, declared the throngs of people. The aging Louis XV, who liked his women young and whose own mistress, Madame du Barry, was only two years older than his new granddaughter-in-law, was confident that the Dauphin would be extremely attracted to this 'delectable' Princess and that the dynasty would be preserved. To everyone's surprise, however, when the bridal bed was examined the next morning, it became clear that the couple had not consummated their marriage.
It seems that neither the fifteen-year-old Dauphin nor his fourteen-year-old bride had been taught anything about sex and neither of them had the slightest idea of what to do when they climbed into the marriage bed. It did not help that the two were temperamental opposites. Marie Antoinette was charming, graceful and outgoing, though deficient in formal education; the young Dauphin was plodding, reserved, of a solitary nature, and bookish. In 1763, having already read David Hume's History of England, the nine-year-old future Louis XVI was the only member of the royal family who was genuinely thrilled to meet the philosopher when he visited the French court (the rest of the royal family snubbed Hume). The Dauphin also enjoyed solving complicated geographical puzzles and creating intricate locks that took great ingenuity to pry open. He maintained a private smithy at Versailles where he would retreat to construct these devices. However, he expended most of his physical energy on hunting - going out almost every day, from early morning through a good deal of the afternoon. Gossip immediately spread among the thousands of courtiers at Versailles: the Dauphin preferred his smithy and the hunt to the company of his beautiful young wife.
In contrast with his grandson, Louis XV was a gregarious presence at court. He had little interest in serious thought and believed that a man's steady stream of mistresses was the true testament to his masculinity. He thought there was something very wrong with his grandson. Others said the same, and embarrassing pornographic cartoons began to appear, ridiculing the Dauphin's masculinity. In one, he appeared as a locksmith unable to work the key, an obvious insult to his lack of prowess. One picture showed the future king riding a giant phallic ostrich (autruche - a pun on the word for Austria: autriche) while Marie Antoinette stroked it. The Dauphin was a tall man; but as the number of caricatures increased, his height in them diminished leaving for posterity an image of him as a small, portly, inept little fellow.
The bride, so malleable, young, and desperate to fulfill her destiny, quickly became the ensnared pawn of rival factions at court, and of her own mother, the Empress. Week after week, month after month, Marie Antoinette received scolding letters from her mother who reminded her that her primary duty was to produce an heir to the throne. Maria Theresa also relentlessly nagged the Dauphine, stressing that she should serve the Austrian Empire, gain favor with the French King, find out as much information as she could and send that information back to Vienna. The great and powerful Empress of Austria, who fought dazzling political duels with the formidable Frederick II of Prussia, proved equally skillful at manipulating her own daughter; her letters to her frequently included comments such as 'If you loved me, you would ...' and 'You don't listen to a word I say'. And when it came to exerting even further pressure on her daughter with regard to producing an heir the Empress wrote, 'seeing you in this state [pregnant] ... would be the only thing that would give me a reason to prolong my sad days.' Later, Marie Antoinette would be accused of spying for Austria. These accusations - which could never be proved - were to a degree well founded because, owing to her complete naivety, Marie Antoinette unwittingly imparted information to her mother and brother who then used guile and trickery to obtain further intelligence from other sources.
Mother and daughter would communicate through letters carried by a private courier who left Vienna at the beginning of each month. This trusted messenger would journey from Vienna to Austrian Belgium and arrive in Paris about ten days later. He would remain in Paris until the middle of the month and would return via the same route in reverse, arriving in Vienna around the 25th of each month, though in the case of a family crisis, the Empress would dispatch extra couriers.
Such a system was essential to maintain a type of privacy. It was widely known that elaborate spy cabinets operated in every European court to digest and profit from potentially important and secret information. Among the most successful of the eighteenth-century nefarious Black Chambers - the teams of espionage who worked at deciphering and encrypting messages sent among the embassies - was the Austrian Geheime Kabinets-Kanzlei. Before any letter arrived at its intended location in Vienna, it would be sent to the Black Chamber at 7 a.m. for examination. Seals were melted, letters copied, and messages decoded. Language specialists, stenographers and cryptologists assisted in this treachery. The letters would then be resealed to perfection and delivered to the addressee by four in the afternoon, seemingly intact.
Excerpted from Marie-Thérèse, Child of Terror by Susan Nagel Copyright © 2008 by Susan Nagel. Excerpted by permission.
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