Marie-Caroline, the Duchess of Berry, lived a life of struggle, heartbreak, and scandal. Determined to bask in the glow of the French royal family, she set her sights on the throne. Unfortunately, her bid for power proved far more dangerous and painful than she could have ever expected, and before she knew it, she had enemies in every corner.
While growing up as royalty in beautiful Italy may seem like a dream, Caroline's youth wasn't exactly picture perfect. Born in 1798, she was the first child of Prince Francesco and Archduchess Maria (who just happened to be cousins). Despite her questionable origins, her childhood seemed to be going off without a hitch. But when Caroline was only three years old—a tragedy darkened her world.
In 1801, Caroline's mother passed from either lung disease or tuberculosis. Of course, her father wasted no time wallowing in grief. The following year, he'd already moved on and remarried, introducing his daughter to a brand new stepmother, Maria Isabella of Spain—another first cousin. It was an extremely fruitful union, and before long, Caroline had as many as 12 half-siblings.
However, despite the protection of a large and flourishing family, her youth wasn't free of danger.
From 1806 to 1816, the entire household had to make a move down south to Sicily. Why? Because they were running from the French who’d decided to occupy Naples during this time. This must have been a huge inconvenience to the large household, and you’d think it might make Caroline a little less fond of all things French. Oddly enough, the opposite happened.
By the time Marie-Caroline was 18, she was ripe for marriage, primed to win her family a brand new alliance. But this was no love match. Her husband-to-be, Charles Ferdinand, the Duke of Berry, was—surprise, surprise—her first cousin. Moreover, he was also from France, the same nation who'd terrorized her childhood hometown of Naples.
It was a questionable match, but it was about to get so much worse.
You see, Marie-Caroline's groom kept a dark and scandalous secret: He was already married. During his exile in England, he'd struck up a romance with a woman named Anna Brown and taken her as his bride. Luckily for Caroline, however, Anna's family refused to acknowledge this marriage; they didn't want their daughter tied to a Frenchman.
Tired of waiting for his in-laws' approval, Ferdinand rushed back to France and fell straight into Caroline's arms.
By marrying Ferdinand, Caroline gained a very powerful and strategic position. Because of her new beau, the French throne dangled tantalizingly in front of her. Ferdinand just happened to be from the House of Bourbon, a distinguished house from where many of France's reigning monarchs had been born. If the House of Bourbon prevailed, Caroline's husband was next in line to be the King of France.
Of course, there were other houses in the running, and with the promise of royalty on the horizon, fearsome rivals began to circle.
Marie-Caroline and Ferdinand’s House of Bourbon had two rival houses: the House of Orléans and the House of Bonaparte. So, it was these three houses that competed to be the families at the head of France. But what did it actually mean for these houses to compete? Well, this is France, and so the battlefield was more bizarre than bloody.
Thrown into the fray, Caroline prepared for the most refined skirmish imaginable. At this time, the houses didn’t compete in any rough or physical way. Instead, they competed with their collections of art. Each house worked at amassing paintings, and other art forms, for both their personal collections and for the national museums.
As the future queen, the house expected Caroline to have good taste and, more importantly, to continue collecting the cream of the crop. But how would Marie-Caroline fit in with these houses and their artful battles?
Luck seemed to shine on Marie-Caroline, and despite having an arranged marriage, she and Ferdinand managed to find wedded bliss. Her happiness made her position in the House of Bourbon far easier to navigate. And the cherry on top? The luxury and glamor. Caroline got to live in the beautiful Élysée Palace in Paris, which they’d received as a gift.
But despite this seeming fairytale, there was one glaring caveat...
Caroline truly seemed to be living the life of a princess, but that didn't mean that she was free of expectation. You see, because Ferdinand's brother had failed to produce any heirs, everyone looked to Ferdinand and Caroline for some expert baby-making. The pressure was on. With her husband next in line to be King, the weight of France rested on Marie-Caroline's shoulders.
The nation anxiously waited to see if Caroline and Ferdinand could produce children. Luckily, they had their first child straight out of the gates and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was going to plan, that is until a devastating tragedy ruined everything: The baby didn't survive. Unfortunately for Marie-Caroline, this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
Despite their grief, Caroline and Ferdinand were eager to try again...However, a terrible deja vu moment occurred when the same fate befell their second child. Was there something wrong with Caroline's ability to bear healthy children? It must have been with a heavy heart that the couple tried for a third time. As Marie-Caroline waited out her pregnancy, she could only pray and hope.
In 1819, three years after her wedding, Caroline's wishes finally came true: She bore a healthy baby girl, Louise Marie Thérèse of Artois. However, as we all know, every royal family is obsessed with one thing, and one thing only—a male heir. Caroline was no doubt bolstered by the birth of Louise, but what she really needed was a boy.
While trying her best to produce a male child, life went on for Marie-Caroline and her husband. However, there was certainly trouble brewing. Not everyone in France was on board with the present monarchy. In fact, some were very much against it. Since Ferdinand was set to be the next King, he was on the receiving end of some vicious animosities.
This was no laughing matter. Before long, both Caroline and Ferdinand's lives were in danger.
On February 13, 1820, Marie-Caroline and Ferdinand went to the opera house in Paris for a night of entertainment. When they left the grand opera house, they met up with a lowly saddle maker named Louis Pierre Louvel. Louvel was not a fan of the House of Bourbon; he was a Bonapartist and wanted to express his dissatisfaction in a very public and damaging way.
Louvel took one look at Caroline and Ferdinand and his hatred for the House of Bourbon consumed him. He produced a knife and lunged at the unsuspecting couple. Ferdinand received the brunt of the attack as Louvel drove the dagger home. There was blood everywhere, and his condition seemed dire. Although Caroline remained unharmed, her husband's life hung in the balance.
After the attack, bystanders rushed Caroline and the injured Ferdinand back into the opera house, and out of harm’s way. They ushered them into an antechamber, and frantically tried to help him with his wounds. Ferdinand was in agony, and not one to go through it quietly. His groans of pain blended in with the opera singers' voices.
However, this particular cacophony was a twisted echo of some of Ferdinand's naughtier escapades...
While Ferdinand was moaning in pain with the opera singers, a few Parisians had something very gossipy to say. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time Caroline’s husband had made music with the singers. On former occasions, he'd moaned with sounds pleasure. Apparently, many people already knew about Ferdinand’s affairs with the female singing stars—but Caroline didn’t know a thing about it.
Ferdinand's alleged affairs never dampened Marie-Caroline's affection. The day after the attack outside the Paris Opera House, she received the most horrifying news imaginable: Her husband Ferdinand had passed due to his injuries. Caroline was inconsolable. He’d been her husband for only four years, and they’d been mostly happy ones.
To commemorate her husband’s life, Caroline went to the dark side.
The loss of her husband devastated Caroline, and now she needed a way to grieve. And so, she devised a grisly plan. She would have a hospice built in his honor, and in the hospice, there would be an altar. Caroline wanted to bury something under the altar—something that would be a very personal tribute to Ferdinand. But what?
She finally decided to bury her husband's blood-stained clothes, and something a little more strange—his actual heart. As Caroline mourned in the only way she knew how, the House of Bourbon also had to face the consequences of Ferdinand's untimely demise.
With Marie-Caroline’s husband no longer in the picture, there was something missing: A male heir to the throne of France. Back in those days, in France anyway, there was no such thing as a reigning Queen—not without a husband who was the King. And because all of Louis XIV's descendants were girls, the House of Bourbon was in serious trouble. But just as all hope seemed lost—something miraculous happened.
You see, on the fateful day of the Paris Opera House attack, there was something that Caroline probably didn’t even know herself: She was two months pregnant. Once everyone realized that she was carrying Ferdninand’s child, there was hope for the royal family. But, it was a hope that depended on one very important thing—Caroline's ability to bear a male heir.
Seven months after the attack at the opera house, Marie-Caroline—still grieving her lost husband—went into labor. The anticipation of the child's gender could not have been greater. An entire nation was on the edge of their seats. A baby girl would mean the end of the line for the House of Bourbon, with the playing court opening up to the competition—the Orléans or the Bonapartes...
The need for a boy was tantamount.
The rivalry between the three houses was intense. So much so, that each birth had to have a witness from a competing house present to verify that the baby had actually come from the ruling family’s line. Maréchal Suchet, from the House of Bonaparte, got the job of witnessing this all-important birth. But something happened during the birth that made Suchet freeze in fear.
Part of Suchet’s job as a witness was to actually see the child attached to the mother by the umbilical cord. Apparently, Caroline’s birth was so fast, that she could barely keep the umbilical cord attached long enough for Suchet to see it. Caroline became so desperate for Suchet to believe that she was the actual mother, that she demanded that Suchet tug on the cord with his own hand.
To the joy of the House of Bourbon, Caroline’s fourth child was a boy. Henri, Count of Chambord, born in 1820, was soon called the “miracle child” because he was the only male descendant of King Louis XIV of France. The Houses of Orléans and Bonaparte were out of the running for the throne, and unsurprisingly, they were extremely sore losers.
Caroline was still basking in the happiness of having given birth to a male heir when the Duke of Orléans made a visit. To be sure, the Duke had good reasons to be less than thrilled with Caroline and her son—they’d robbed him of the throne after all. But even so, that certainly doesn’t forgive his rather rude behavior.
Upon entering Caroline's home, the Duke of Orléans gave his respects to the newborn king-to-be. While Caroline looked on, a nurse presented the baby to the Duke for him to admire. Instead of admiring him, however, the Duke said something horrible: He said the baby was ugly. In fact, his remarks were so unkind that the nurse holding young Henri broke down in tears.
Being the mother of the next King of France certainly boosted Caroline’s standing in politics. Caroline was just 22 years old at the time, but she became known as a leader of the arts in France. This included fashion, entertainment, and all things artsy. Finally, at peace with her role, she began enjoying her newfound fame as a powerful matriarch. Unfortunately, she would soon lose it all.
Caroline’s son Henri was only four years old when tragedy poisoned the house of Bourbon yet again: King Louis XVIII, suffering from obesity, gout, and gangrene, passed. As Henri was far too young to take the role of King, Louis’ younger brother Charles X stepped up to the plate. Henri would still be King someday, he just needed to grow up. Unfortunately, he couldn’t grow up quite fast enough.
When Caroline’s son Henri was just ten years old—and Charles X was still King—life in France was a pressure cooker. Citizens were becoming more and more unhappy with the ruling classes. Then, in 1830, the pressure cooker burst, and a revolution began. After the dust had settled, Charles X had abdicated the throne and run off to Great Britain, leaving a vacancy for the King of France. But surely Henri was still too young to take it...wasn’t he?
After the revolution, Charles X demanded that Caroline's son Henri be crowned the new King of France. The provisional government said, sure, but they added an odd provision: Henri had to travel to Paris alone. They wouldn’t even allow his mother to accompany the ten-year-old King-to-be. Surely this was some kind of ploy to get young Henri away from the adults who protected him.
Caroline was at a loss. She certainly wanted Henri to take his rightful place as King, but what would happen if she sent her 10-year-old son to Paris without her protection? Was there some evil plan afoot? In the end, neither Caroline nor Charles X was willing to leave Henri in Paris by himself. What they did next, however, changed the course of history forever.
It seemed that the House of Bourbon was no longer the favorite, and members were fleeing like rats from a ship. Marie-Caroline took her two children and headed off to Great Britain to live in exile. She first went to Bath and then joined her father-in-law Charles in Edinburgh. But what about the monarchy? Who, in fact, would be King?
With Marie-Caroline and Henri out of France, the House of Bourbon was not in the running to provide a King. So, the people turned to the house of Bourbon’s arch-enemy: the House of Orléans. The same Duke who had insulted Henri so dreadfully was now up for the top job in France. On August 9, 1830, the National Assembly proclaimed Louis Phillipe—of the House of Orléans—the King of France.
But although Caroline's hopes had been dashed on the rocks, not all was lost.
Marie-Caroline’s son Henri had been the official King of France for seven days following the revolution, and some people still believed he was King. These people took the name Legitimists and their enemies, who believed Louis Phillipe was King, got the name Orléanists. Caroline and her son Henri still believed Henri was the King, but what good would that do?
Life in Edinburgh was less than charming for Caroline, and she was still sore about the turn of events back in France. She wanted her son to be King, and moreover, she wanted to be the King’s mother. The first thing she did was proclaim that her son was actually the King of France. And the second order of business? A dangerous expedition in search of supporters for her cause.
Caroline found her way back to her home in Naples, traveling through the Netherlands, Prussia, and Austria to get there. Once in Naples, she tried to muster support for making her son King again. She enlisted the Legitimists to help her with her cause. But that wasn't all. While in Naples, Caroline did something else—something that she needed to keep a secret.
In 1831, while Marie-Caroline was trying to muster support for her son, she did something that went totally under the radar—she remarried. Her groom was the Italian nobleman Ettore Carlo Lucchesi-Palli. Caroline needed to keep it a secret as the marriage may have had a negative impact on her campaign to make her son King. Caroline didn’t know it then, but this secret marriage would eventually blow up in her face.
Disguised as a peasant, Caroline arrived in Marseille, France in April 1832, with supporters in tow. Their goal? To restore the House of Bourbon to the French throne, and, perhaps most importantly, make her son King. By June of that same year, she tried a full-on insurrection against the House of Orléans. Nothing was going to stop her from recapturing her hard-earned glory, or, at least that's what she thought...
Marie-Caroline’s insurrection attempt met with strong opposition before the worst happened: It failed miserably. Not only that, but the people of France weren't too happy with her attempt. Caroline took a look around, read the room, and decided she’d better get herself out of there. She made a run for the city of Nantes and hid herself away.
Five months into her hiding, Caroline met a courtier named Simon Deutz. Deutz became her confidant, but Caroline shouldn’t have trusted him. Deutz turned on Caroline and betrayed her, revealing her hiding place to the authorities. The jig was up so to speak. The government raided her place in Nantes and whisked Marie-Caroline away—but the consequences of her actions were far more demented than she ever thought possible.
The French government decided that Caroline needed to pay for her misconduct. In 1832, they placed her in a fortress, where she would serve out her sentence. Caroline had reached an all-time low. Not only was her son not going to be King, but she was also serving time for trying to help him. Then, just when things looked like things couldn’t get any worse—they did.
Remember how Marie-Caroline had secretly married an Italian? Well, circumstances were about to expose that clandestine union—big time. While incarcerated in the fortress, something became clearly obvious: Caroline was pregnant again. That being said, she had a difficult choice to make. She could either claim to be an unmarried mother or confess her scandalous marriage.
With her pregnancy exposed, Caroline had no choice but to come out as a married woman. However, this revelation incited some very negative consequences. First, the Legitimists—the ones who helped her with the insurrection—were finally through with her. They saw her marriage to an Italian as a cop-out to the French cause.
Secondly, her scandalous confession ended her ambitious plans for her son. But wait, there's more.
As the wife of an Italian, Marie-Caroline discovered something even more shocking: She was no longer French. Because it was the husband’s side that determined nationality, Caroline was Italian again. And then things took an even darker turn. Because she was no longer French, she could never be French royalty—even if her son became King.
All her dreams had suddenly vanished into thin air. However, one tiny silver lining remained.
Despite Marie-Caroline's incarceration, the government knew she was no longer a French citizen, and therefore, not a threat to the safety of the country. Because of this, in 1833, the government decided to release Caroline from the fortress that had been her prison. She was a free woman—but it wasn't exactly the happy new beginning she'd lusted after.
Before they released Marie-Caroline from the fortress, she went into labor with her fifth child. Her daughter came into this world safely, and she was able to walk away from captivity with her bundle of joy in tow. This was a whole new world for Caroline; she reunited with her husband and moved to Sicily. But there was only more heartbreak to follow.
Upon their arrival in Sicily, Caroline and her husband Lucchesi-Palli were ready to put their troubled past behind them. They prepared to set up a normal life—away from all the royal drama—and their new baby was at the center of it. It seemed like life could finally be peaceful for Marie-Caroline. But she was doomed to yet another heartbreaking loss...The child didn't survive.
Marie-Caroline spent the remainder of her life living in Italy with her husband. She was still fairly young when they moved to Italy—just 35 years old—and the couple managed to have four more children. They lived in a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, and then, when another political disruption occurred in Italy, they retired to a small village in Austria.
They led a simpler life in the end. Her husband passed in 1864, and Caroline, six years later, at the age of 72.
Caroline never got to see her son become King, although in his own eyes he always was. From 1844 until his passing, Henri, Count of Chambord and Duke of Bordeaux, had yet another name—as if his own weren’t a mouthful enough. They called him the Legitimist Pretender. In 1870—the year Marie-Caroline passed—they did finally offer him the kingdom, but Henri declined for a silly reason: He didn’t like the colors on the new flag.
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