Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France was born 19 December 1778, the eldest child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the only member of her immediate family to survive the bloodbath of the French Revolution.
She was a well-loved child, adored by both her doting parents. Marie Antoinette reportedly cooed to her newborn baby, whom everyone had hoped would be a son, “Poor little one, you are not desired, but you will be none the less dear to me! A son would have belonged to the state—you will belong to me.” The queen, like a early modern Princess Diana of Wales, was devoted to raising her children to embrace their subjects and empathize with them.
“Marie Antoinette … often invited children of lower rank to come and dine with Marie-Thérèse and encouraged the child to give her toys to the poor. In contrast to her image as a materialistic queen who ignored the plight of the poor, Marie Antoinette attempted to teach her daughter about the sufferings of others. On New Year’s Day in 1784, after having some beautiful toys brought to Marie-Thérèse’s apartment, she told her: I should have liked to have given you all these as New Year’s gifts, but the winter is very hard, there is a crowd of unhappy people who have no bread to eat, no clothes to wear, no wood to make a fire. I have given them all my money; I have none left to buy you presents, so there will be none this year.”
Marie Antoinette had three more children, Louis Joseph Xavier François, Dauphin of France, in 1781, Louis-Charles de France, Duke of Normandy, in 1785, and Sophie Hélène Béatrix, Madame Sophie, in 1786. Both the Dauphin and Sophie died young, leaving only Marie-Therese and Louis-Charles.
As sod’s law would have it, the people (who were crushed by the French government and aristocracy) rose up and slaughtered the queen who tried to help them, the king who loved them was prevented by the government from helping them, and Marie Therese’s siblings. The fate of her youngest brother, Louis-Charles, is particularly heartbreaking. He was systemically abused in the hellhole of Temple Tower until malnourishment and tuberculosis killed the little boy at age 10. Marie Therese was “luckier”, if you can call having everyone you loved dragged away to be beheaded and listening to your baby brother being tortured luckier.
On 13 August 1792 the royal family and Madame Élisabeth, Louis XVI’s youngest sister, were imprisoned together Temple Tower, and over the next year Marie Therese watched her parents and aunt, one by one, be taken to visit Madame Guillotine. The first to go was her father, on 21 January 1793. Then, on 3 July 1793 revolutionary guards came and dragged away the eight-year-old Louis Charles from his pleading mother and sister, and gave the boy to a monster named Antoine Simon, a Temple commissioner and sadist who delighted in hurting the young king. Marie Therese had to say goodbye to her beloved mother on in the night of 2 August, but no one would tell her that her mother was to be executed shortly thereafter.
Neither did anyone tell her when her last comfort, her aunt, was taken away on 9 May 1794 that Élisabeth would beheaded the following day. Overflowing with worry, the teen princess scratched these words onto the wall of her prison-room:
Marie-Thérèse Charlotte is the most unhappy person in the world. She can obtain no news of her mother; nor be reunited to her, though she has asked it a thousand times. Live, my good mother! whom I love well, but of whom I can hear no tidings. O my father! watch over me from Heaven above. O my God! forgive those who have made my parents suffer.”
The poor child didn’t find out what had happened to her mother, aunt, and brother (who had died two months earlier and been mercifully released from Antoine Simon’s cruelty) until 2 August 1795. For the next six months the teenager was left with only her grief to dwell on, denied even the distraction of books to read.
The psychological damage would have been immense.
Marie-Therese was finally released on 18 December 1795, the day before her 17th birthday. She was exchanged for some French prisoners her Austrian relatives had captured and taken on the three week trip to Vienna under the protection of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. When she had recovered slightly, she was reunited with her father’s younger brothers, Louis Stanislas Xavier and Charles Philippe. At the urging of her uncle Louis, she married her uncle Charles’s son, Louis-Antoine, duc d’Angoulême on 10 June 1799. Her marriage would be a reasonably happy one, but childless.
They royal family then moved to England, finding refuge among their traditional enemies. They were given Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire for their residence, although Charles Phillipe spent the majority of his time in Edinburgh, because he had been given apartments at Holyrood House. The French royal family would stay in Great Britain until the abdication of Napoleon I in 1814 and the subsequent Bourbon Restoration, when Marie-Therese’s uncle became King Louis XVIII.
Thus, Marie-Therese was in England during the height of the Regency period. She would have warn the flowing “classic” style gowns that were so popular then, maybe in materials that were smuggled in from France during the Napoleonic Wars. She would have had the opportunity to have read Jane Austen’s popular books when they first came out. We know Austen’s works were a hit with the French, because pirated copies translated into that language sold like hotcakes in that country. Did Marie-Therese read them? Enjoy them?
Marie-Therese was a contemporary with Princess Charlotte of Wales, who we know DID enjoy Austen’s books. Princess Charlotte read Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, and liked it so much that she wrote, “‘I think [Marianne Dashwood] and me are very alike in disposition, though certainly I am not so good.” Did Princess Marie-Therese have similar feelings about any of Austen’s characters? Or did the warm familial attachments in the books just cause her distress, remembering everything she had lost?
More than two decades after her father was murder by revolutionaries Unsurprisingly, Marie-Therese was unhappy when she returned to France. She did not trust the Frenchmen and women surrounding her, as could be expected. She spent her time visiting the sites of her families’ deaths and graves, and having her parents reburied in Saint-Denis Basilica, the royal necropolis of France, on 21 January 1815, the 22nd anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution.
Of course, disaster struck again. In March 1815 Napoléon returned to France and raised an army. He deposed the newly crowned king until his own defeat at Waterloo in June, a time known as the Hundred Days. While Napoleon was on the ascendant, Louis XVIII fled to Austria, but Marie-Thérèse hunkered down in Bordeaux and tried to rally the local men-at-arms. Although the troops at Bordeaux promised to keep her safe, the refused to engage in a civil war with Napoleon. Marie-Thérèse stayed in Bordeaux even though Napoléon’s had ordered that she be arrested. In the end, she only left to join her family in Austria because she feared Bordeaux would suffer in defending her. Her bravery inspired Napoléon to say that she was the “only man in her family.”
On 8 July 1815 King Louis XVIII returned to France, accompanied by the valiant Marie-Therese, who was now even more reluctant to trust the French. Nonetheless, she remained in Paris, loyal to her surviving kin and her husband.
Louis XVIII died on 16 September 1824, and was succeeded by his younger brother as Charles X. Marie-Thérèse’s husband was now next in line to the throne, making her Madame la Dauphine. Her father-in-law had learned nothing from his own history, however, and soon his ultra-royalist beliefs angered the populace. In due time there was another rebellion against the king, the 3 day long Revolution of July 1830. Charles X, now thoroughly afraid of his subjects, abdicated in favour of his son on 2 August 1830.
Marie-Therese was only queen for about 20 minutes, because her husband immediately abdicated in favour of his 9 year old nephew, Henri, Duc de Bordeaux. Before abdicating, Charles X asked Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, to act as regent for the young Henri. Louis-Phiippe had other plans, though, and allowed himself to be crowned in Henri place.
The first thing King Louis-Philippe did was ship his relatives out of France, sending Marie-Therese and her family back to Great Britain. They lived at 21 Regent Terrace in Edinburgh until 1833, after which they relocated to Prague as a guests of Emperor Francis I of Austria, before moving onto the estate of Count Coronini, near Gorizia in modern day Italy. It was there that the former Charles X died in 1836, with his ever-patient daughter-in-law Marie-Thérèse by his side until the end.
When her husband died in 1844, Marie-Thérèse laid him to rest at the side of his father and then moved to Schloss Frohsdorf, a castle near Vienna. She lived their quietly and peacfully with her nephew, Henri, comte de Chambord, and her nephew’s half-sister, Louise, future Duchess of Parma. In 1846 they were joined by Henri’s new bride, Archduchess Marie-Thérèse of Austria-Este.
This brave woman’s tragic life ended on 19 October 1851, close to the anniversary of her mother’s beheading. She was buried next to her uncle, Charles X, and her husband. Her gravestone is inscribed with the title Queen Dowager of France, because of her husband’s extremely brief reign as Louis XIX of France.
To be honest, I don’t think Marie-Therese had ever wanted to be queen. I think she would have gladly traded her titles to have her parents longer-lived and her baby brother on the throne. She was born a beloved princess, but her life was anything but a Disney film. If she lived a fairy tale, it was one of the dark ones recorded by the Brother’s Grimm.