Archduchess Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha of Austria was the second wife of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French and later Duchess of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla in her own right. She was born on December 12, 1791, at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, the eldest child of Franz II, Holy Roman Emperor (later Emperor Franz I of Austria), and Maria Teresa of Naples and Sicily.
Maria Ludovica spent her childhood living at Hofburg Palace and Schönbrunn Palace and was her father’s favorite daughter. She did not, however, have a close relationship with her mother, who showed little affection for her children. She received a traditional education at court, with much focus on religion and languages, becoming fluent in at least six. From a young age, she had developed a dislike for all things French. This was greatly influenced by her grandmother a sister of the French Queen Marie Antoinette who was killed during the French Revolution when Maria Ludovica was just a toddler. She lost her mother in 1807 but became close to her step-mother, Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este, who was very close in age.
By the end of 1809, the French Emperor Napoleon was searching for a new bride who could bear him an heir and set his sights on the leading royal families of Europe. When his focus turned toward a Russian Grand Duchess, the Austrian Prime Minister, Count Metternich, encouraged the Austrian Emperor to suggest his own daughter, Maria Ludovica. Ending his quest for a Russian bride, Napoleon began negotiations to take Maria Ludovica as his wife. A marriage contract was signed in February 1810, and the couple was married by proxy on March 11, 1810, at the Augustinian Church in Vienna. The young Maria Ludovica became Empress of the French and Queen of Italy, taking on the French version of her name, Marie Louise.
After leaving Vienna, she arrived in France and met her husband for the first time on March 27, 1810, in Compiègne, France. A civil wedding was held on April 1, 1810, in the Grand Hall of the Château of Saint-Cloud, and the following day, the couple made their grand entrance into Paris, arriving at the Tuileries Palace. They then made their way to the Louvre Palace, where their religious ceremony was held in the Salon Carré.
Marie Louise settled in quickly to her role as Empress, although she wasn’t always welcomed by those in the French court. Too recent memories of the last Austrian consort – Marie Antoinette – had many wary of their new Empress. She was also very timid and reserved and did not speak much publicly, which didn’t help to reassure many people that she was any different from her great-aunt. But the Emperor went out of his way to make her as comfortable as possible and appears to have developed quite a love for his second wife. Soon, the couple had their only child:
On a trip to Austria in 1812, just before France invaded Russia, Marie Louise met Count Adam Albert von Neipperg for the first time. Little did she know at the time that their paths would cross again in a few years, in a much different manner. After disastrous results against Russia, Napoleon soon saw the collapse of his empire. Prussia and the United Kingdom soon joined forces with Russia, declaring war on France. Marie Louise tried to get her father to join forces with France, but Austria, too, soon joined the coalition against Napoleon.
On March 29, 1814, with her husband leading his troops to try to stave off an invasion, Marie Louise and her court left Paris and moved to Blois. Days later, the French Senate deposed the Emperor, and he formally abdicated on April 11, 1814, at the Château of Fontainebleau. Under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Marie Louise retained her rank and style and was granted the duchies of Parma, Placentia, and Guastalla, with her son as her heir.
Dissuaded from joining her husband, Marie Louise soon returned to Vienna, taking up residence at Schönbrunn Palace. Several months later, she planned a visit to the spas in Aix-les-Bains. In order to keep her from trying to join her husband in Elba, her father sent Count von Neipperg to accompany her. The two soon fell in love, and von Neipperg became her Chamberlain and represented her at the Congress of Vienna. The news of this romance caused quite a bit of scandal, both in France and in Austria.
Following Napoleon’s escape and return to power in 1815, Marie Louise remained in Austria, asking that her husband would agree to an “amicable separation”. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and exile to Saint Helena in October 1815, the two had no further contact. Meanwhile, the Congress of Vienna modified the decisions of the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Maria Louise remained Duchess of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla, but only for her lifetime, and she was prohibited from bringing her son to Italy. She also lost her title as Empress and was then styled as Her Majesty Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla. Accompanied by Count von Neipperg, she arrived in Parma in early 1816. Despite still being legally married to Napoleon, she and von Neipperg had three children:
Following Napoleon’s death, Marie Louise and von Neipperg were married morganatically on August 8, 1821, before their third child was born. The Count died several years later – on February 22, 1829 – leaving Marie Louise devastated.
In 1831, Marie Louise found herself caught up in the uprisings spreading around Italy against the Austrian-appointed Prime Minister. Initially prevented from leaving Parma, she managed to escape to Piacenza. She asked her father to replace the Prime Minister, but he instead sent Austrian forces to suppress the rebellion. The following year, Marie Louise traveled back to Vienna and was at the bedside of her son when he died of tuberculosis in July 1832.
Soon, Marie Louise would marry for the third time. In the summer of 1833, the Austrian court sent Count Charles-René de Bombelles to Parma to serve as head of the court. Six months later, on February 17, 1834, Bombelles and Marie Louise were married.
As Duchess of Parma, Marie Louise supported many causes, with much of her efforts going toward improving medical care and treatment. She established a childbirth hospital and a training school for nurses, as well as a hospital for those with mental illness. She worked toward ensuring that the Duchy was as prepared as possible for potential outbreaks of disease, and her efforts helped to minimize the number of deaths in a cholera outbreak which came to Parma in 1836. She also promoted the establishment of roads and bridges and was a great supporter of music and theater. Having established a new Ducal Theater in the 1820s, she made sure that tickets were made available at prices which would allow the less-fortunate to attend. She established the Conservatory of Parma and supported numerous artists, including famed composer Giuseppe Verdi. She also brought libraries, museums, and art galleries to Parma, and founded several schools and colleges.
In early December 1847, Maria Louise fell ill with pleurisy and her condition quickly worsened. She died on December 17, 1847, in Parma, Duchy of Parma, now in Italy, at the age of 56 and was interred in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, the traditional burial site of the Austrian Habsburgs.