Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma was Napoleon Bonaparte’s second wife—but the Little Corporal was just her first of many husbands. Demure, modest, and retiring, Marie Louise was married off for political purposes until she found her nerve. Betrayed by her family and abandoned by her people, she learned the hard way to follow her heart and fend for herself. Read all of the facts to learn about the courageous story of Marie Louise, the Errant Empress.
1. She Had A Knack For The Imperial
Archduchess Marie Louise was born in December 1791 to Archduke Francis of Austria at the imperial palace in Vienna. She must have been a good luck charm for her father because one year after her birth, he ascended to the throne of the Austrian Empire. But she wouldn’t always be the bringer of good luck to Europe’s emperors.
2. She Had A Sharp Tongue
Marie Louise grew up during a period of intense turmoil—in fact, her whole life would be more like a never-ending rollercoaster than a stroll through the imperial gardens. Nevertheless, she managed to get a well-rounded education, becoming fluent in English, French, Italian, Spanish and Latin. But above all, she learned how to harbor a grudge.
3. She Disliked The French
Marie Louise spent a lot of time with her grandmother Maria Carolina, who told her about how her sister—the ill-fated Marie Antoinette—had, erm, lost her head during the French Revolution. To add to it, France and Austria were bitter enemies at the time. As such, Marie Louise grew up hearing horrible propaganda about the burgeoning French Empire.
It wouldn’t be long before she ended up behind enemy lines, so to speak.
4. She Was A Momma’s Girl
Despite the constant conflict with the French, her childhood had been free of hardship…until it wasn’t. Marie Louise suffered a devastating loss when she was 15 years old. Her mother, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, unexpectedly miscarried and passed suddenly on her twelfth pregnancy. Marie Louise was devastated—and to put salt in the wound, her father moved on before his wife’s corpse was even cold.
5. Her Stepmother Was A Step-Up
Her father, Francis II, remarried less than a year after her mother passed—and that’s not even the worst part. Marie Louise’s new stepmother was almost the same age as her. Her father’s new wife was Maria Ludovika was only four years her senior. Nevertheless, Marie Louise took a shine to dad’s new boo. The two probably bonded over their hatred for the French. But they wouldn’t be friends for long.
6. She Was A Refugee
Marie Louise had reason enough for disliking the French herself. France—under Napoleon—defeated Austria twice between 1805 and 1809, forcing Marie Louise and her family to flee from their own palace. In a narrow and harrowing escape, Marie Louise made it to Buda in Hungary “wet through, and nearly worn out with fatigue.”
But in an ironic twist, she would eventually go from running from Napoleon to running into his arms.
7. She Was An Eligible Bachelorette
The Austrians knew that they had to make peace with Napoleon—they couldn’t run from him forever. Fortunately for them, Napoleon was in the market for a new bride and nothing less than a princess would do (something about a “short-man” complex). Of course, the Austrians had just the princess in mind to make the little Emperor feel ten feet tall.
8. She Had A Little Blind Date
Napoleon had his eye on the Russian Tsar’s daughter, but the Russian regime was giving him the cold shoulder. So, the Austrian imperial family and their political representatives proposed Marie Louise’s hand in marriage to Napoleon. There was just one caveat…no one had bothered to tell her about the whole sordid arrangement.
They had no way of predicting how she was going to react.
9. Her Fate Was Decided For Her
Napoleon didn’t need much time or convincing. Within just a few months, the French Emperor had decided on Marie Louise as his future empress and he hastily signed a marriage contract with the Austrian ambassador. After all of that back-room scheming, it was finally time to tell Marie Louise that she was going to get married—to the ogre from her anti-French nightmares.
10. She Kept Calm And Carried On
With the marriage contract signed, all the Austrians had to do was break the news to Marie Louise that they had married her off. When the Austrian foreign minister informed her, she had a simple response for him: “I wish only what my duty commands me to wish,” she said. Even though she hadn’t been part of her own wedding plans, she got quite the bargain.
11. She Said “I do” To Her Uncle
Marie Louise had never actually met her new husband face-to-face (she had, after all, been running from him her whole life). Of course, by the customs of 19th century Europe, being complete strangers was no barrier to marriage. In fact, it wasn’t even an impediment for wedding ceremonies. Marie Louise tied the knot with Napoleon via proxy at a church in Vienna. Her uncle stood in for the stranger-emperor.
If that sounds unromantic, just you wait…
12. She Partied It Up
Just because Napoleon hadn’t attended his own wedding ceremony didn’t mean that the Austrians couldn’t party. According to the French ambassador who attended the ceremony, the wedding celebrations were a riotous affair. He said that there was a “magnificence that it would be hard to surpass[…].” But surpass it, Marie Louise would.
13. She Was In A Haze
After the wedding party—and the wedding after-party—Marie Louise finally had to depart for her new home in France. At first, France was every bit as terrible as the propaganda she had grown up with made it out to be. When she arrived, her new sister-in-law took her through an embarrassing old tradition—a.k.a. the 19th-century version of imperial hazing.
14. She Was Strip-Searched
Part of Marie Louise’s cruel introduction to French imperial culture meant giving up everything from her home country of Austria. Literally, everything. Including her clothes. Her new step-sister forced her to strip down right to her birthday suit and take a bath in front of her. Her step-sister then forced her to put on French bridal clothes.
But the French were full of surprises.
15. She Was (Pleasantly) Surprised
On a trip to the town of Compiègne, Marie Louise finally met her new husband. If she had been expecting to come face-to-face with the green, three-eyed ogre the Austrian propaganda had prepared her for, then she was pleasantly surprised. Upon meeting Napoleon, she remarked, “You are much better-looking than your portrait.” But was he pretty on the inside?
16. She Exchanged Vows
Napoleon must also have been happy with his new bride when he finally met her because he and Marie Louise decided to celebrate their marriage in style. The new Imperial French couple led a procession to Paris in the coronation coach and said their vows again (for the first time to each other) at Salon Carré. And then they partied like it was 1810…because, you know, it was.
17. Her Marriage Was Off To Bad Start
Marie Louise and Napoleon (finally united in person) celebrated their marriage for two whole months. The celebrations included a ball, a masque, a mock sea battle, and a fireworks display attended by more than 4,000 people. But, while it was all coming up sparks and fireworks in public, their union wasn’t exactly catching fire in the boudoir.
18. She Was Just A Baby Factory
Marie Louise and Napoleon’s marriage was, obviously, all about securing peace in Europe. Ironic, then, that their marriage wasn’t at all peaceful at first. Napoleon had divorced his first wife—and the love of his life—just to marry Marie Louise. And he resented her for it at first. In confidence, he had utterly cruel words to say about his new partner. He remarked to an aide that he had “married a womb.”
But their romance soon blossomed.
19. She Never Told A Lie
Back in 1810, Marie Louise was timid and demure, especially when compared to Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine. While Napoleon might not have been too enthusiastic about her at first, he soon learned that she was the water to his fire. He remarked that, with Marie Louise, there was “never a lie, never a debt.” And soon there wouldn’t even be an empire.
20. She Fell For France
The tiny French Emperor had also left a good impression on Marie Louise. In the months and years following their marriage, against all odds, she was beginning to actually like the man. She wrote to her father, “I assure you, dear papa, that people have done great injustice to the Emperor. The better one knows him, the better one appreciates and loves him.”
21. She Won The Peace Prize
Marie Louise’s marriage to Napoleon seemed to be serving its intended purpose in bringing their feuding empires closer together. It wasn’t long before the Viennese were speaking fondly of their Parisian neighbors. Simply by saying, “I do”, she had managed to bring peace to Europe’s superpowers. Take that in your peace prize and smoke it, Alfred Nobel.
22. She Was Green With Jealousy
Even though Marie Louise and Napoleon had come around to each other, some tension still remained in their marriage. Specifically, Marie Louise, quiet and retiring as she was, was starting to get jealous. She didn’t like that Napoleon was still close with his ex-wife, Josephine. Sadly, the timid Marie Louise never confronted Napoleon about it—and it even gets worse.
Napoleon wouldn’t be the only member of her family to pick Josephine over her.
23. She Had A “Little” Napoleon
Even though Napoleon had called Marie Louise a “womb,” she wasn’t churning out any little—or littler—Napoleons. Not long after their nuptials, she succeeded in her royal “duties” when she gave Napoleon the thing he wanted most and no, it was not platform shoes. Marie Louise gave birth to a male heir, Napoleon II. In time, he too would prefer the company of Josephine.
24. She Had The Heir And Forget The Spare
Even if Napoleon preferred Josephine, he still loved Marie Louise. In fact, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing her. Even if it meant that he would lose his legacy. After Marie Louise survived the challenging birth of their first child, Napoleon said, “I had rather never have any more children than see her suffer so much again.”
Kind words—but suffer she would.
25. She Was A Helicopter Mom
Marie Louise was obsessed with her son. Normally, the imperial family would pawn their children off to a cabal of handlers, but not Marie Louise. She loved Napoleon II so dearly that she had him brought to her wing of the palace every morning and visited him in his rooms throughout the day. But in a heartbreaking twist, that little momma’s boy would grow up to despise her.
26. Her Stepmother Hated Her
Marie Louise and Napoleon made their way to Dresden where they met up with her father and stepmother. While Marie Louise and Marie Ludovika had been good friends before, jealousy soured their relationship. Ludovika fumed when her stepdaughter-turned-empress upstaged her throughout the trip. But Marie Louise had her eye on someone else.
27. She Fell For A One-Eyed Man
While in Dresden, Marie Louise met one of her future flames (although, there may have been some sparks in Dresden, who knows?). The French Empress—obviously still married to Napoleon—encountered the eye-patch-wearing and roguishly handsome Count Adam Albert von Neipperg. It was fortuitous timing as well, because she would need a man of adventure in her years ahead.
28. She Survived An Attempt On Her Life
When Napoleon marched off on his ill-fated campaign in Russia, Marie-Louise stayed behind in Paris. He might as well have left the unassuming Marie Louise in a den of wolves. In October 1812, some of Napoleon’s political rivals attempted a coup, forcing Marie Louise and her infant son to seek refuge outside of the palace until Napoleon returned, almost three months later.
29. She Lost Her Father’s Support
Napoleon’s fortunes took a turn for the worse after his failed invasion of Russia. A coalition of European powers saw blood in the water and pounced on his weakened empire. Marie Louise tried to convince her father to get Austria to come to France’s defense against the Sixth Coalition, but she had been gone from Austria for too long. As far as her Austrian relations were concerned, she was French.
No help was coming, and Marie Louise found herself in greater danger than ever before.
30. Her Family Betrayed Her
Whatever allegiances Marie Louise had, if Napoleon lost his crown, then she would lose hers too. Sadly, for her, instead of heeding his daughter’s plea for help, her father had Austria join the fray against the beleaguered French emperor. That was probably the wake-up call Marie Louise needed: Her family had only ever used her. From then on, she was going to look out for herself.
31. She Said One Last Goodbye
After Marie Louise’s failed attempt to recruit Austria to defend the French Empire, Napoleon headed off into certain defeat. On the decidedly chilly morning of January 25, Marie Louise embraced her husband for the very last time as he headed off to face the music. Their marriage of peace was coming to an end. And so was their empire.
32. She Refused To Abandon Her Post
With Austria joining in, the Sixth Coalition roundly defeated Napoleon and their forces began closing in on Paris. Marie Louise, still thinking that she and her infant son would receive fair treatment for their Austrian connections, wanted to remain in the capital. But Napoleon knew better, so he enacted desperate measures to ensure that no harm would come to his wife.
33. She Escaped In The Nick of Time
Napoleon gave orders to his men who remained in Paris to get Marie Louise out of the city. The tone of his words, however, was brutally grim: He wrote, “I would prefer to know that they [the Empress and Napoleon II] are both at the bottom of the Seine rather than in the hands of the foreigners.” Considering how her family treated her after, the bottom of the Seine might not have been a bad place.
34. She Lost It All
When Napoleon accepted defeat, the fair treatment that Marie Louise expected to get from her father was nowhere in sight. She had expected the Sixth Coalition to simply replace the elder Napoleon with Napoleon II under her regency. Instead, her own father deposed Napoleon, thereby making her son ineligible. What her father did give her was more like a slap in the face.
35. She Was Heartless And Indifferent
The Sixth Coalition permitted Marie Louise to keep her imperial titles…and that’s about all. She eventually found her way back to Vienna, but her countrymen didn’t welcome her back with open arms. They considered her a heartless wife and an indifferent mother for abandoning her husband and giving up her son’s inheritance. Kind of hard to be a supportive wife when your husband is in exile…just saying.
36. She Got The Cold Shoulder
Marie Louise was finally back at home in Vienna with her birth family. She’d spent years dreaming of such a day, but when it finally happened, it was more like a nightmare. She spent a considerable amount of time with her sisters at the imperial palace, but her traitorous father and jealous stepmother shunned her altogether. Deposed in all but name and betrayed by her family; it was all more than she could bear.
37. She Was In A Dark Place
With her whole world crumbling around her, Marie Louise entered a period of depression. She wrote, “I am in a very unhappy and critical position; I must be very prudent in my conduct. There are moments when that thought so distracts me that I think that the best thing I could do would be to die.” Considering what she did next, she clearly was not in her right mind.
38. She Wanted To Escape
Marie Louise was so unhappy in Vienna that she thought that anywhere must have been preferable. She even considered rejoining Napoleon in exile on the isle of Elba. The only reason that she didn’t go was because her advisors informed her that Napoleon was distraught over the passing of Josephine. Still, even that wasn’t enough to keep her away.
39. Her Father Set Her Up…Again
After the treatment she had received in Vienna, Marie Louise was ready to join Napoleon, distraught or not. But her meddling father intervened before she could make her daring to escape. He sent her to the spa town of Aix-les-Bains with a familiar chaperone who was certain to take her mind off of the deposed French Emperor.
40. She Wore “The Scarlett A”
Marie Louise’s chaperon in Aix-les-Bains was the rakish and devilishly handsome Adam Albert von Neipperg. The old acquaintances quickly started flaunting their romantic affair, which didn’t earn Marie Louise any fans. Neipperg was Napoleon’s enemy and their fling earned Marie Louise criticism from both the French and the Austrians.
Napoleon didn’t give her up without a fight though.
41. She Kept A Safe Distance
Napoleon escaped his exile and reinstated his rule, but Marie Louise didn’t rush off to her husband’s side. She wrote, “I shall never assent to a divorce, but I flatter myself that he will not oppose an amicable separation[…].” In other words, “You don’t have to see me, Napoleon, but I’m going to keep the ring and the bling.”
42. She Found Her Tribe
Marie Louise made off to Parma with her new kept-man, Neipperg. Upon her arrival, she discovered that not everyone in Europe hated her guts. She wrote to her father, bragging, “People welcomed me with such enthusiasm that I had tears in my eyes.” Those were definitely the good days. And there wouldn’t be too many of those left.
43. She Was Finally Free
Marie Louise had three children with Neipperg—while still technically married to Napoleon—and even made him prime minister of Parma. It wasn’t until Napoleon passed away in May 1821, however, that she was truly free to pursue her heart. She married Neipperg only months later, sending all of Europe into a tizzy for marrying so far below her station.
It wouldn’t matter for long though.
44. Her Marriage Couldn’t Last
Sadly, for Marie Louise, her second happily ever after was short on the “ever after” part. Less than eight years after they said their “I dos,” Neipperg passed away—frankly, the one-eyed battle veteran had been on borrowed time anyway. Even after all of those years, her family still had it out for her. Austria prohibited Marie Louise from mourning Neipperg’s passing in public.
45. Her Son Disavowed Her
While Marie Louise had been getting closer to Neipperg, she had been drifting ever so slowly away from her son, Napoleon II. Though she had loved her son so dearly as a boy, the man he became offered her a cruel betrayal. The true heir to the French Empire remarked, “If Josephine had been my mother, my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena, and I should not be at Vienna. My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.”
She wouldn’t have to suffer his scorn for long though.
46. She Lost Her Little Emperor
Marie Louise had been an obsessive mother over Napoleon II, so it must have cut deep when he practically disavowed her. Even more so because he openly talked about his preference for Josephine. However, despite the rift in their relationship, Marie Louise was nevertheless devastated when her little Napoleon passed away of tuberculosis.
She wouldn’t find comfort anywhere.
47. She Sought The Help Of An Old Enemy
Changing political tides created strong anti-Austrian sentiments in Parma. The people who had once welcomed Marie Louise had now turned on her. She found herself trapped in the city by angry protestors and turning to the unlikeliest person for help. She managed to escape the city while her father sent in the troops to “quell” the protests.
48. She Kept Her Chamber “Lain”
Marie Louise returned to Parma and managed to find the people’s good graces once again (lest they find the bottom of her father’s boot). Not long after her return, she started a secret romantic relationship with her chamberlain, Charles-René de Bombelles. She knew that this was her last chance at happiness and she wasn’t about to blow it.
49. She Carried A Secret To Her Grave
Marie Louise lived so much of her life in public and she had been constantly scrutinized by her Austrian family and an unsympathetic public. But with Bombelles, things would be different. She proposed to Bombelles herself and remained married to him in secret for the remainder of her days. What few of those days remained.
50. She Finally Returned Home
In December 1847, Marie Louise fell ill. She began vomiting vigorously and fell into a comatose state from which she would never again wake up—not exactly the sleeping beauty anyone would want to kiss. Throughout her final days, Bombelles stayed right by her side (bile-filled vomitus and all). In the end, Marie Louise returned to her home country of Austria…albeit in a coffin in the Imperial Crypt.