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The Politics of Marriage: Napoleon and Marie-Louise

Mark Soriano

In 1809, the United Kingdom and the Austrian Empire went to war against the French Empire, in what later became known as the War of the Fifth Coalition. For much of the past two decades, coalitions of European states had engaged in warfare first with the French Republic, and after 1804, Napoleon’s empire. The United Kingdom, Austria, Russia, and Prussia were all at one time or another involved in anti-French alliances in an attempt to stall French expansion, or even to restore the state to its pre-1789 existence. However, by the time of 1809, every coalition had failed in subduing France; Napoleon had achieved many definitive victories across the European continent, turning one-time enemies into submissive puppets and allies. The War of the Fifth Coalition ended much the same as its predecessors, with the Austrian defeat on July 6, 1809, at the hands of the French army. The Treaty of Schönbrunn, which ended the war, ceded over large tracts of Austrian land to France, and mandated payment by Austria a large indemnity. However, in the weeks that followed, Austria’s strategic position greatly improved, with the marriage of Napoleon to Marie-Louise, daughter of the Hapsburg emperor, Francis II, on March 11, 1810. While the Austrians pushed for the marriage to improve their own geopolitical situation, Napoleon worked tirelessly to achieve a marriage that would produce an heir, strengthen his power as emperor, and stabilize the European political landscape. Napoleon’s “Austrian Marriage” represents the result of the dual strategy of the French Emperor, attempting at once to improve his own dynastic legitimacy domestically and abroad, while stabilizing the international and domestic political structures that he spent over a decade creating.

On October 12, 1809, two days before the Treaty of Schönbrunn was to be signed, Friedrich Staps, a young German, attempted to assassinate Napoleon with a knife. This near-death experience brought to the fore a subject that the Emperor had been reflecting on since the formation of the empire, his lack of an heir. After years of marriage, Napoleon and his wife, Joséphine, remained childless (although Joséphine did have children from a previous marriage, to whom Napoleon was a stepfather), and at forty-six years of age, Joséphine was past her child- bearing days. Rumors circulated that Napoleon was impotent, and thus unable to produce his own heir. However, by September 1809, proof of the Emperor’s fertility came in the form of his pregnant mistress, Marie Walewska, returning blame to Joséphine. It became clear to Napoleon that his search for an heir could not be solved through his wife.

Napoleon’s desire for an heir came from a desire on his part to find a way of “perpetuating the dynasty” he had established in France and Europe. What would happen if the Emperor were to die or become captured? Napoleon believed that the absence of a clear and legitimate heir to his throne would lead “to a mad scramble of factions and generals for supremacy,” destroying the order that Napoleon had worked to establish since 1799, and resurrect the Terror. His brothers, viewed as too incompetent, could not be trusted to take over the throne, “only a son of my own can brings things together.” A son would be the only way that the Emperor could assure his power, and that of the Bonaparte dynasty. Napoleon moved to prepare Joséphine for the end of their marriage, citing “political necessity” and “the welfare of the nation.” Before the divorce was even made official in January 1810, Napoleon was already looking for a new wife, and made it known that he desired nothing less than a “walking womb,” a woman capable and ready to produce an heir. Thus it was that when Marie-Louise, the Hapsburg archduchess, was being vetted for the role as French Empress, her family’s history of fertility (Marie-Louise’s mother had thirteen children, and her great-grandmother twenty six) was of prime consideration. Conversely, Grand Duchess Anne, only fifteen at the time, was considered far too young to start having children, and it was believed that Napoleon would have to wait three years before a child would be born, a possibility too risky for the Emperor.

In searching for a wife, the Emperor wanted not only the “promise of motherhood,” but also desired “imperial connections” that would secure his position, and that of France. Napoleon wanted to marry a member of one of the great royal houses of Europe, an attempt clearly to legitimate his own dynastic house. Not any royal would suffice; the Emperor would not simply be able to marry a German princess, like so many of his own brothers. At the same time, members of royal houses that he personally established or aided, like that of Bavaria, would also be insufficient. Napoleon needed a marriage into an “illustrious” dynasty with power and history pervasive enough to reflect onto his own. Inherent in this was Napoleon’s clear “desire for acceptance by the royal families of Europe,” a need to shed any international uncertainty about his right to rule. Only two dynasties existed in Europe that were able to fill these prerequisites: the Romanovs of Russia and that Austrian Hapsburgs. A Russian marriage was at first sought, but as that prospect faded, Napoleon quickly turned to the Hapsburgs, a dynasty “more historic than the Romanovs,” and entirely capable of securing the stability and prestige he sought for himself and his dynasty.

Another important calculation made by Napoleon when choosing his future wife was his desire to shed the mantle of radicalism and revolution that foreign powers attached to him. The marriage to Marie-Louise marked a definitive point where Napoleon attempted to discard the revolutionary legacy. Instead of working for the betterment of society, or attempting to promote liberty and equality, Napoleon was seeking to shroud himself with the trappings of royalty, to glorify himself and his house through attachment to a historic imperial family. With a Hapsburg for a wife, so the theory went, no one would be able to represent him as a revolutionary. The very idea of bringing an Austrian wife to Paris marked another sharp challenge to the legacy of the French Revolution. The last Austrian royal to reign in Paris had been Queen Marie Antoinette, executed in 1793 as the Revolution slipped further into radicalism. Marie Antoinette had been rejected primarily because of her Austrian heritage, with rumors of treachery and disloyalty to France haunting her to her death. Napoleon’s wisdom in bringing another Austrian archduchess to France was in doubt. The marriage into an imperial family represented the maintenance of monarchy in Europe. The old desire to spread the Revolution across Europe had been abandoned. Instead, Napoleon sought to create a system of allied monarchies, with “kings as allies, kings as kinsmen,” all working together and united by Napoleon. In order to lead these monarchs, Napoleon himself would need to become more regal, necessitating the marriage he planned. Once the Emperor’s son, the King of Rome, was born, Napoleon instilled the glory of royal lineage onto his son, constantly reminding the child of his royal birth and heritage. The child of Napoleon was to be no son of the Revolution; he was to be a king.

Beyond personal concerns over an heir or his legitimacy as a monarch, Napoleon sought a marriage that would bring with it the promise of an alliance with a great power. For most of the past two decades, France had been expanding through military power. By 1809, the Empire straddled most of Western Europe, extending in the South all the way to the Adriatic Sea, and in the North close to Denmark. Control over puppet states and subdued kingdoms brought French influence to the borders of Russia. This system of French power needed to be consolidated and protected. The French Empire had been built through war, and had rapidly expanded on the backs of its military. Napoleon knew the instability inherent in his empire, and needed “an impervious alliance with one of the great states of the continent” to put an end to the wars and battles that plagued his rule, and that he knew would cause his eventual downfall. An alliance through marriage, Napoleon believed, would provide security, and guarantee peace with at least one of the great powers.

Marriage to a Russian Grand Duchess had been sought far before Marie-Louise and the Hapsburgs came into Napoleon’s view. Since the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807, Russia and France had been linked in an alliance, each agreeing to maintain the status quo on the continent. Napoleon desired to strengthen this alliance through a marriage with Tsar Alexander I’s sister, Grand Duchess Anne, a young girl of fifteen. This marriage would confirm the alliance to France, Russia, and all of Europe, improving Napoleon’s position, and establish a “fixed pole” of Napoleon’s foreign policy. Besides the United Kingdom, Russia remained the only state left in Europe of any significance outside of Napoleon’s influence. Situated at the far end of the continent, Russia was a vast empire capable of mobilizing huge armies and masses of resources. To the Emperor, an alliance neutralizing this “increasingly independent” and powerful state would bring with it untold political gains. It seems likely that Alexander I never intended to marry a Russian princess to Napoleon, and moreover his mother, who exercised complete control over the Romanov family, greatly disliked Napoleon, and was too protective of her underage daughter to allow the marriage to proceed. Additionally, the Tsar was alienated by the provisions of the Treaty of Schönbrunn, which denied Russia of its desired influence in Poland. As the negotiations over a possible Russian bride dragged on, Napoleon’s impatience got the best of him, and he cut off negotiations, instead seeking to find a wife among the Austrian Hapsburgs.

The marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise marked a shift in French political orientation away from Russia and towards Austria. When it came time to decide on pursuing a marriage with Archduchess Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s administration was divided. The archchancellor, Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, feared that a marriage to a Hapsburg would all too openly signal an alliance with Austria, angering the Russians and leading to war. Others countered that Austria remained a power worth hedging against, necessitating an alliance through marriage with the Hapsburgs to stabilize European politics and French hegemony. The Hapsburgs, Napoleon came to believe, would act as an “anchor” in his foreign policy, securing central Europe for France and adding “strength to his war map.” As the prospects of a Russian marriage faded away, the notion of an Austrian marriage grew in strategic importance. While the Tsar of Russia would have been Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Emperor Francis II would become Napoleon’s father-in-law, in Napoleon’s perspective a far safer position to be in, as the prospect of a father attacking his own daughter’s husband seemed remote. In addition, an alliance with Francis II, as of 1806 the last Holy Roman Emperor, would likely give Napoleon a great deal of influence over the Hapsburg’s former empire in Germany. The alliance between France and Austria became a key piece of Napoleon’s policy of stabilizing and securing his continental dominance, and the gains he made since 1799.

Napoleon represented his marriage to Marie-Louise as an attempt to unite Europe together in the name of mutual history and royal authority. The Austrian marriage was supposed to “draw the three Emperors [Napoleon, Alexander and Francis] closer together,” in the spirit of collective action and monarchical solidarity. The union of France and Austria through marriage was only the beginning of the consummation of Napoleon’s longtime goal of a united, “federated Continent.” Napoleon understood the marriage to a Hapsburg to represent the passing of Charlemagne’s imperial mantel from Austria to France. In his role as the new Charlemagne, Napoleon would lead the kings of Europe to a new age of peace. England would end its hostilities, and the need for the militarism that had marked recent European history would disappear.

Napoleon never forgot domestic concerns during the process of finding a new empress for France. During the negotiations over a marriage between Napoleon and Grand Duchess Anne, the stipulation that Anne would remain Russian Orthodox became a noted issue. In order for a marriage to occur, Orthodox chapels would need to be opened in every palace, and Orthodox clerics present in the Emperor’s residences, representing an “obstacle to any reconciliation” with the Catholic Church, an important tenet of Napoleonic domestic policy. There were also deep misgivings in Napoleon’s administration about the Emperor marrying an Austrian archduchess, perceived as an unnecessary assault on the sensibilities of a French population historically opposed to Austrian royalty. However, Napoleon remained determined that he had the power to sway the French, and especially Parisian, opinion enough to erase the “prejudice against an autrichienne.” Napoleon was determined to ensure the popularity of marriage and new wife. The marriage was performed by a Catholic Cardinal, with eleven other cardinals in attendance. During the event, “chick, geese and joints of meat” were distributed to crowds of Parisians, wine and liquor were given out, prisoners were released, medals representing the Emperor and new Empress handed out, and pensions for war veterans raised. Marie-Louise was represented as the embodiment of peace and stability, the alliance with Austria in physical form. The marriage secured a place of respect and admiration among the masses of Paris, such that with the announcement of the birth of Napoleon’s son eleven months after the marriage took place, the crowds of Paris erupted into prolonged celebrations in the street, shouting “Vive l’Empereur!.” The marriage to Marie-Louise had the added benefit to Napoleon’s domestic position of helping him to ally the old French nobility to his regime. Napoleon was viewed by returning émigrés as the supreme “usurper,” linking him with the Revolution and the collapse of the aristocracy. With Marie-Louise, representative of royalty, nobility and conservative traditionalism, as empress, Napoleon found the task of allying the ancien régime nobility to his person far easier than it had previously been. It is clear that domestic concerns were at the top of Napoleon’s decision to remarry.

The European political scene reacted noticeably to Napoleon’s Austrian marriage, nowhere more significantly than in Austria and Russia. Klemens von Metternich, foreign minister of Austria, had for years predicted Napoleon’s divorce from Joséphine, and feared that the woman to replace her would be a Russian. A Russian marriage in Metternich’s mind would ensure an alliance between Russia and France unfriendly to Austria, which would be stuck in the middle of two gigantic empires unified through dynastic links. Thus, while Russian marriage negotiators made a marriage between Napoleon and Grand Duchess Anne contingent on significant and complex concessions by the French Emperor, Metternich presented Marie-Louise without any additional string attached, beyond the implied alliance. When the negotiations with Russia were cut off, and Napoleon decided on Marie-Louise, Metternich could not have been happier. Tsar Alexander I would undoubtedly become angered by this move, likely resulting in a conflict between France and Russia, the outcome of which would be a better positioned Austria, strategically speaking. As Metternich presumed, the Tsar was deeply offended by Napoleon’s choice. The abruptness by which Napoleon ended the negotiations with Russia betrayed to Alexander the Emperor’s cynical motives in pursuing a marriage. The alliance between Russia and France, in place since Tilsit in 1807, lapsed, and Russia prepared to face France. Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in 1812 represented the power of Russian arms and resistance, and gave Austria and the other former great powers, the opportunity to shed their French alliances, together launching the War of the Sixth Coalition, which toppled Napoleon. The Austrian marriage led to a political climate in Europe that alienated Russia from France, which in the end resulted in the collapse of Napoleonic Europe. Later, in his exile, Napoleon confessed that he had put far too much faith in dynastic connections, which he had hoped would protect him and the empire from Austrian duplicity.

The marriage of Napoleon, Emperor of France, to Marie-Louise, Hapsburg archduchess, represents the complexities of international diplomacy, and impacted European history significantly. Rather than remaining married to his first wife Joséphine, who Napoleon was genuinely in love with, Napoleon chose to apply the principles of strategy and political maneuvering to finding an acceptable wife. The marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise resulted from various concerns of Napoleon’s, most significantly the desires to reflect legitimacy and stability onto his dynasty and regime and to maintain the order and security he established internationally and domestically in France.



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Last Updated: 8/12/16