Queen Marie-Henriette of the Belgians (1836-1902) was born an Austrian Archduchess in Budapest where her father Archduke Joseph resided as Palatine of Hungary. A gifted artist, musician and horsewoman, the young Archduchess was described as a vivid, energetic creature. A scion of the catholic Habsburg dynasty, Marie-Henriette fit the bill for a dynastic marriage to the Duke of Brabant, eldest son of King Leopold I of the Belgians. King Leopold was a protestant monarch in a catholic country who had raised his royal brood in the church of Rome. Marie-Henriette’s mother, Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Wurttemberg, brokered the dynastic match.
Within weeks of the wedding in 1853, seventeen-year-old Marie-Henriette wrote to her painting master, ‘I am an unhappy woman. God is my only support. My poor mother begins to perceive what she did when she arranged my marriage. She only sought my happiness but now she sees the opposite is the case. If God will hear my prayer, I will live no longer’. Austrian diplomat’s wife the Princess Metternich described the marriage as one ‘between a stable boy and a nun’ … Marie-Henriette being the stable boy and the future King Leopold II the nun.
Leopold and Marie-Henriette were temperamentally unsuited. She was vivacious and had a love for adventure. He was an aloof, unsociable young man with a short tempter and would prove to be serially unfaithful. Their daughter Princess Louise wrote in her memoirs, ‘I cannot recall a single act of kindness or tenderness on his part towards my mother that I especially noticed in my youth’. Queen Victoria’s 1858 diary reports Marie-Henriette ‘is looking vey pretty … but she is becoming very reserved and, though I think there is no real love or affection between them, she never allows a word to be said against Leopold’.
The lady Belgium christened ‘the rose of Brabant’ fulfilled her duty in providing Leopold with an heir in 1859. Another daughter, Princess Stephanie, was born in 1864 a year before the royal couple acceded to the throne as King Leopold II of the Belgians and Queen Marie-Henriette. Despite profound unhappiness in her marriage, Queen Marie-Henriette sought solace in philanthropy, patronage of the arts and as mistress of her stable of wild Hungarian horses. As Princess Louise recalled in her memoirs, ‘the Queen preferred high-spirited animals. Refreshed with champagne or bread dipped in red wine, she would drive her horses (and) they flew like the wind. One might have said she guided them by a thread but, in reality, she made them obedient to the sound of her voice’.
Of the early years of the reign, Princess Louise would say of her mother ‘the Queen’s beauty and grace were unrivalled. The purity of her lines and her shoulders merited the expression “royal”. Her supple carriage was that of a sportswoman. Her voice was of such pure timbre that it awakened echoes in one’s soul. Her eyes, a darker brown than those of the King, were not so keenly luminous but they were far more tender, they almost spoke’. Furthermore, the Queen ‘would often adorn the gowns worn by her at receptions with garlands of fresh flowers … earning her the admiration of leaders of Parisian fashion’ and ‘was gay and entrancingly charming with her intimate friends’. Princess Louise noted that her mother took no part in politics and, of her father’s infidelities, wrote ‘the first reception which the Queen experienced was followed by others which became more and more cruel’.
Despite her apolitical role, Queen Marie-Henriette was entrusted with a sensitive diplomatic mission in 1867 to escort her deranged sister-in-law ex-Empress Carlota of Mexico back to Belgium after the assassination of Austrian-born Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. The assassination of the Emperor by firing squad had unhinged Carlota’s mind and it was Queen Marie-Henriette who nursed the broken woman back to some semblance of health.
King Leopold and Queen Marie-Henriette’s marriage would suffer an irretrievable blow when their only son, Prince Leopold, fell into a pond at the Belgian royal palace of Laeken outside Brussels, contracted pneumonia and died after a prolonged illness in 1869. King Leopold allegedly blamed Marie-Henriette for the child’s death and a further attempt to sire an heir only resulted in a third princess, Clementine, in 1872. Though Princess Louise’s memoirs were kind to her mother, King Leopold’s infidelities and her religious faith made the embittered Queen a melancholy, strict and divisive presence in her children’s lives.
What was bred in the bone, came out in the flesh. Princess Louise would scandalise European court circles by eloping with a Hungarian count to lead an extravagant, dissolute life on the French Riviera. She would be confined to a lunatic asylum only to be rescued by her lover and would cause further scandal after her mother’s death suing King Leopold for a portion of Queen Marie-Henriette’s estate. Second daughter Princess Stephanie married the doomed Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (another Henry Poole & Co customer), who died in the Mayerling incident of 1889. The Crown Prince and his mistress Maria Vetsera shot themselves at the royal hunting lodge Mayerling in an alleged suicide pact.
It fell to Princess Clementine to assume the role as ‘first lady’ at the Belgian royal court when Queen Marie Henriette finally retired from public life in 1895 and retreated to Spa where she died of heart failure in 1902. The unhappy queen was buried in the Royal Crypt at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken in Brussels.