Wednesday 14 August 2013

The Twins of Versailles: Louise Élisabeth and Henriette de France

Louise Élisabeth de France (Marie Louise Élisabeth, also known as Babette, Versailles, France, 14th August 1727 – Versailles, France, 6th December 1759) 

Henriette de France (Anne Henriette, also known as Madame Seconde, Versailles, France, 14th August 1727 – Versailles, France, 10th February 1752) 

Louise Élisabeth and Henriette de France by Pierre Gobert, 1737
Louise Élisabeth and Henriette de France by Pierre Gobert, 1737

From Meiningen to Versailles and a story of royal twin sisters, siblings to our previous leading lady, Louise-Marie de France

Louise Élisabeth and Henriette were the eldest daughters of Louis XV and Maria Leszczyńska; born and raised at Versailles, the girls remained at the Palace under the tutelage of Marie Isabelle de Rohan, duchesse de Tallard, and developed into charming and intelligent young ladies. 

As was the tradition among the Catholic royal houses of the day, Élisabeth was betrothed to the Infante Philip of Spain, son of King Philip V and Elizabeth of Parma. Believing that the young princess could make a better dynastic match, the French courtiers were not particularly enthused by the engagement but Louis was determined and the deal was struck.

A proxy marriage took place between Élisabeth and Philip on 26th August 1739, the twelve year old bride and nineteen year old groom having yet to meet. Before the month was out the heartbroken girl was dispatched to join her new husband at Alcalá de Henares, leaving her twin sister at home in France. Whilst Élisabeth's future had already been decided, Henriette was deeply in love with her cousin, Louis Philippe d'Orléans, duc de Chartres. The couple approached the King with dreams of marriage but they were rejected by Henriette's father and the young princess remained unmarried. Instead, Henriette threw herself into her passion for music, becoming a talented instrumentalist under the tutelage of noted musicians.

Portrait of Madame Henriette playing the Viola da Gamba by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1754
Madame Henriette playing the Viola da Gamba by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1754

Deeply unhappy at being parted from Henriette, Élisabeth's marriage was not a particularly happy one though the couple had three children together. After the bright and informal court of Versailles she found the Spanish court dour and her strict mother in law, Elizabeth of Parma, interfering and imperious. Following the War of Austrian Succession in 1748 Élisabeth and Philip were named as Duke and Duchess of Parma after lobbying by Louis XV. Despite the upheaval, Élisabeth must have been relieved when she was allowed to return to Versailles to thank her father for this new position and she was overjoyed to be reunited with her family in France.

However, things were not as rosy as they had once been at Versailles and the sisters were temporarily divided by the presence of their father's mistress, Madame de Pompadour.  Watching the King lavish attention on his lover at the expense of his wife, Henriette loathed the woman. However, when Élisabeth visited France, she and Mme de Pompadour became good friends. Happily they were reconciled before Élisabeth travelled on to Parma, though Henriette would never warm to the apparent interloper at Versailles.

Portrait of the Family of Philip of Parma by Giuseppe Baldrighi, 1755
The Family of Philip of Parma by Giuseppe Baldrighi, 1755

In 1749 Élisabeth  arrived at her new home in Parma and, free of her mother in law's interference, set about stamping her own style on the new court. She brought a touch of Versailles to Parma, redecorating the Ducal Palace of Colorno to reflect a more French aesthetic; gone were the austere traditions of the Spanish court, replaced by the sense of informal fun that she had so enjoyed throughout her childhood.

When Henriette died of smallpox in 1752 a distraught Élisabeth returned to Versailles once more and remained there for the better part of a year. The woman who had once been so terrified to leave her home returned to Parma with a new sense of ambition, this time building a dynasty of her own. Securing good marriages for her three children,  Élisabeth forged a close alliance with Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, who promised her a European throne to call her own.

Portrait of Portrait of Louise Élisabeth of France by Louis-Michel van Loo
Portrait of Louise Élisabeth of France by Louis-Michel van Loo

In fact, Élisabeth would never achieve this lofty ambition and, during a visit to Versailles, contracted smallpox. She died in her childhood home on 6th December 1759. She was laid to rest beside her beloved sister at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the twins reunited at last. 

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Unknown said...

I still find it hard to get my head around all the arranged marriages that took place between the European royal families. Such an impersonal state of affairs and in contrast to the way some of my Asian and Indian friends experience their arranged marriages which are, in comparison, very liberal affairs! Ah well, Elisabeth seems to have made good in the end!

Catherine Curzon said...

She certainly did; the majority of her siblings remained unmarried. Her father was perfectly happy about this as it saved him a fortune in dowries!

Mari Christian said...

The portrait of Louise Elizabeth (above) is not particularly flattering. The little spaniel,however, is charming.

Anonymous said...

What is strange to me was the custom of not naming the children until they were several years old. Louis XV's girls were simply known by their birth order (eg Madame Seconde, Madame Troisieme etc). He had lots of daughters and it was reported that when he went to the official responsible for recording royal births, when asked for the identity of his eighth daughter, replied Madame Derniere.

Catherine Curzon said...

I love his bow!

Catherine Curzon said...

That is very strange indeed!

Fungirl said...

Did Henriette have a nickname?

Catherine Curzon said...

She was Madame Seconde!

Emila said...

Sorry my question was cut in half.
I wanted to ask if Henriette had a nicknames for other people? How did she look like? I must say I really love your website.