Monday 2 September 2013

The Scandalous Adventures of Marie Joséphine of Savoy

Marie Joséphine of Savoy (Maria Giuseppina Luigia; Turin, Italy, 2nd September 1753 – Buckinghamshire, England, 13th November 1810) 

Portrait of Marie-Joséphine-Louise de Savoy by Joseph Boze and Robert Lefèvre, 1786
Marie-Joséphine-Louise de Savoy by Joseph Boze and Robert Lefèvre, 1786

Well, of late we've been all over Europe and beyond of late but today we're back in France, this time travelling by way of Italy in the company of Maria Giuseppina Luigia di Savoia, Princess of Savoy, Countess of Provence and eventually Queen of France at the accession of her husband, King Louis XVIII.

Marie Joséphine was born in the Royal Palace of Turin to the Infanta Maria Antonia Ferdinanda of Spain and Prince Victor Amadeus of Savoy, son of the King of Sardinia. She was raised in privilege and luxury, prepared for the marriage that would surely follow. 

Portrait of Marie-Joséphine-Louise de Savoy

On 16th April 1771, the young woman was married by proxy to the Count of Provence, Prince Louis Stanislas of France, brother of King Louis XVI. The marriage ceremony that followed at Versailles on 14 May 1771 was a luxurious affair with over 5000 guests attending and celebrations that went on for days. Although bride and groom appeared at first to be well suited, the newly-wed Countess of Provence found herself not quite welcome at the palace and before long, rumours and gossip were flying. 

Marie Joséphine was tangled up in court politics from the off as the friends of her new sister-in-law, Marie Antoinette, took an instant dislike to her. Comments were made about her personal hygiene and lack of intelligence, whispering that Louis Stanislas refused to consummate the marriage due to her refusal to bathe and the stench that accompanied here wherever she went. However, mindful that his own brother and Marie Antoinette had also not yet shared a bed, Louis Stanislas boasted of his enthusiastic sex life, even going so far as to claim falsely that Marie Joséphine was pregnant soon after their marriage. In fact, the couple would not conceive until 1774 with the pregnancy ending in miscarriage as would a second pregnancy in 1781; to the end of their days, the couple were destined to remain childless.

Portrait of Louis XVIII in Coronation Robes by Robert Lefèvre, 1822
Louis XVIII in Coronation Robes by Robert Lefèvre, 1822

Marie Joséphine and her husband did not get on with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the animosity was more than mutual, with both sides plotting and gossiping against each other. The domestic situation was hardly helped when Louis Stanislas took his wife's lady-in-waiting, Anne Nompar de Caumont, Countess of Balbi, as a mistress and the couple's already strained marriage became even more troubled. When the couple finally went their separate ways years later, Marie Joséphine insisted that Anne remain in her service, thus scuppering her husband's hopes of cosying up to his mistress on the continent!

These uncomfortable domestic arrangements were to change when the clouds of revolution gathered over Versailles in 1789 and the two royal couples were forced to relocate to Paris. As Louis and Marie Antoinette established their family and courtiers at the Tuileries, Marie Joséphine and Louis Stanislas took up residence in the Luxembourg Palace. When the time to flee finally came and the royal family made their famed and failed flight to Varennes in June 1791, the bickering Count and Countess of Provence made a successful escape, finding refuge in the Austrian Netherlands and, later, Germany.

Portrait of Marie Joséphine of Savoy by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1782
Marie Joséphine of Savoy by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1782

Following the execution of Louis XVI and the death of the 10 year old Louis XVII of France on 8th June 1795, Louis Stanislas found himself proclaimed King by the exiled French court, sheltering under the protection of Tsar Paul I. However, this did nothing to improve the strained relations that existed between the new king and queen and they spent more time apart than together. Marie Joséphine found solace in the friendship and of her lady-in-waiting, Marguerite de Gourbillon, with whom it has long been rumoured she enjoyed a romantic entanglement. 

Marie Joséphine and Marguerite lived harmoniously in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, whilst Louis spent time in Russia at the court-in-exile. In 1799 he ordered his wife to join him to celebrate the wedding of the late king and queen's daughter, Marie Thérèse, to Louis-Antoine, Duke of Angoulême, insisting that Marguerite remain in Germany. Mindful of the PR value of showing the world an apparently happy family, Louis was unprepared for the scene to follow.

Drawing of Marguerite de Gourbillon
Marguerite de Gourbillon

An outraged Marie Joséphine refused to even entertain the prospect of travelling without her friend and when the two women arrived in Russia, they were detained and Marguerite refused entry to the wedding. A furious Marie Joséphine made a very public protest about this treatment and refused to leave her quarters, drinking herself into a stupor. With Marie Joséphine and Louis ostensibly reunited though still utterly at odds, the two women would continue to exchange adoring letters throughout the years to come, though they would never live alone together again.

The unhappy marriage between the couple continued as they travelled Europe and in 1808 they took up residence together at Hartwell House in England, with Marguerite following in her ceaseless quest to renew her acquaintance with Marie Joséphine. However, Louis had not grown any more fond of his wife's closest friend and refused to allow the women to see one another.

Portrait of Marie Joséphine of Savoy by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty, 1775
Marie Joséphine of Savoy by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier d'Agoty, 1775

Marie Joséphine's physical condition deteriorated badly throughout the years in Europe and her life in England was a secluded one, blighted by ill health. As her death approached she took to her bed and received visitors from the French court, making her peace with each. She also made efforts to reconcile with her husband, who remained with her through her final days.

The funeral of Marie Joséphine was held at Westminster Abbey and was an enormous event. attended by French courtiers and the English royal family alike. Initially laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, she would not rest here long and was reburied twelve months later in Cagliari Cathedral, Sardinia, a queen who had never assumed a throne. 

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

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Unknown said...

Families! This one seems rather more troubled than most modern ones! That's amazing. I never realized there was a Louis XVII let alone a Louis XVIII that took refuge with the Tsar in Russia. The French court seems to have survived rather well in exile!

Catherine Curzon said...

It positively flourished!

Beth Elliott said...

ThIs is a really interesting post for me as I'm writing a story that includes scenes with Louis XVIII while he lived at Hartwell House. I visited there last summer and found all the staff very knowledgeable about Louis and Marie-Josephine. Apparently Louis did not have much to do and he grew roses, so that he could gather a bouquet of them each morning to present to his wife. Show or affection...? I'm a romantic, so I mentioned his rose garden in my story.

Catherine Curzon said...

That's a lovely tale; I do hope it was affection rather than show. I think it's a really nice element to include though, because I'm a romantic too!

Anne Stott said...

Did she have Protestant funeral in Westminster Abbey, or did the abbey allow itself to be used for Catholic rites? Is so, who presided?

Catherine Curzon said...

Her funeral is reported in some detail in The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Wednesday, November 28, 1810 where is is reported that the Catholic service was performed at King Street Chapel on Portman Square, by Philippe-François Dalbignac, Bishop of Angouleme, who also led the service at the Abbey. Let me know if you would like to see a copy of the report!

Unknown said...

Louis XVII was Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette`s son...sadly he died in prison in the 1790´s. The Count of Provence, Marie Josephine´s husband, Louis XVIII took this name Louis XVIII due to the respect for his late nephew that never reigned.

Unknown said...

Fascinating. Thank you.