Adélaïde de Bourbon-Penthièvre, Duchesse d’Orléans: a revolutionary romance

For the last few days I had been pondering suitable Valentine’s Day posts, beyond the obvious hearts, poetry and roses. Romance, maybe?

Suddenly came to mind the very unlikely story of Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon-Penthièvre, born in 1753. Unlikely? Yes, periods of upheaval like the French Revolution often spawn extraordinary stories, and bring together lovers who would have been utterly separated in quieter times (as my heroine Gabrielle de Montserrat would wholehearted confirm.)

Vigee Lebrun Adelaide de Bourbon Penthievre duchess dOrleans

Yet the story of Adélaïde began in a very ordinary fashion, insofar as the destiny of a princess can be deemed ordinary. Of the eight children of her parents, she was the only daughter to survive to adulthood. Her father was the Duc de Penthièvre, grandson of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. Her mother was an Italian princess, Marie Thérèse Félicité d’Este-Modène. Her only surviving brother, the Prince de Lamballe died at the age of twenty, leaving a young widow who would become one of Marie-Antoinette’s closest friends.

This left Adélaïde, known as Mademoiselle de  Penthièvre, the sole heiress to the largest fortune in France, and one of the most marriageable princesses of her time. As fate would have it, her father, when she was sixteen, arranged a match with another member of the royal family, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, Duc de Chartres. The wedding was duly celebrated in the Royal Chapel of Versailles.

The young couple settled in the Palais-Royal, in the heart of Paris. And they had many children (six in eight years.) Were they happy? Not quite. Adélaïde’s husband, now Duc d’Orléans, was a libertine who found his lovely bride very boring. He preferred the company of many mistresses, including the infamous Comtess de Genlis, by whom he had an illegitimate daughter named Paméla. Unfortunately not a unusual occurrence for princely and aristocratic marriages in the 18th century.

The Duc d’Orléans added insult to injury when he appointed Madame de Genlis “governor” (she wouldn’t hear of the title of “governess,” which she found demeaning) not only of his daughters, but also of of his three sons. Thus Adélaïde had the sorrow to see her children raised by her rival, alongside Paméla of course, in a separate establishment especially designed by and for Madame de Genlis.

The Duchesse d’Orléans now lived separately from her husband at the Palais-Royal, visiting Versailles from time to time, as was required of a princess of the royal blood. She led a quiet life in Paris and was a gracious hostess, often mentioned in the diary of Gouverneur Morris, the American Trade Representative to Paris at the time. She was also the first patroness of Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and introduced the promising young painter to Court. It is to Madame Lebrun that we owe this gorgeous portrait of the princess.

The Duc d’Orléans, in the meantime, was becoming the head of the opposition to his cousin Louis XVI, and the many malcontents in the kingdom rallied around him. He had rented part of the Palais-Royal to shopkeepers. As the abode of a prince of the royal blood, it was exempt from police searches, and many a pamphlet attacking the monarchy, and Marie-Antoinette in particular, was printed there. The Duchesse stayed away from her husband’s politics.

Marie Adelaide de Bourbon Penthievre duchesse d'orleans

Adelaide de Bourbon Penthievre duchess dOrleans

The rest is well known. The Duc d’Orléans adopted the name Philippe Egalité (“Equality”) and increasingly radical positions. In 1792 he was elected by the City of Paris as a Representative to the National Convention, the governing body after the fall of the monarchy. The Duchess then left him and returned to live with her father in one of his chateaux in Normandy. Her eldest son, also called Louis-Philippe, shared his father’s revolutionary sympathies and had joined the Army, where he achieved the rank of Lieutenant-General.

The Duc d’Orléans, as a Representative, went so far as to vote in favor of the immediate execution of his cousin Louis XVI in January 1793. This increased the Revolutionaries’ deep suspicious of his ambitions, and soon he was jailed with his two younger sons, Antoine and Louis-Charles. However, the eldest, Louis-Philippe was outraged by his father’s vote and left France and the Army. This of course put Adélaïde in grave danger: her eldest son was now considered a deserter and a traitor, her husband a conspirator against the Republic. She was promptly arrested herself and jailed in the former Palace of the Luxembourg in Paris. Her daughter had managed to flee France in the company of Madame de Genlis and Paméla. In jail Adélaïde learned of her husband’s trial and execution. She was now simply the Widow Egalité. Without any self-pity, nor any hope of ever seeing her children again, she resigned herself to the fate that seemed so obviously to await her.

This is where her life takes an unusual turn. In jail she meets a fellow prisoner, a moderate revolutionary by the name of Jacques-Marie Rouzet, now suspected of royalist sympathies. Rouzet, like her late husband, was a Representative to the Convention, but he had voted against the execution of Louis XVI. She is a Bourbon, Rouzet is a commoner, they are both 40, past the age of youthful infatuations. They expect to die shortly and fall passionately in love.

The fall of Robespierre in 1794 saves them. Rouzet is released a few months later and reinstated into his functions as a Representative. Yet Adélaïde still languishes in jail. He doesn’t forget her and, thanks to his tireless efforts, she is released the following year. They are reunited, and he now dedicates himself to the release of her two younger sons, which finally occurs in 1797. Alas, during the same year, the French government issues a decree of banishment of all members of  the Bourbon family. The two young princes, as soon as they are free, must embark for the United States. Adélaïde flees to Spain, but Rouzet cannot bear to be separated from her and decides to join her. Yet all is not smooth: he is arrested before he can pass the border.

It will take some time before he is released and can join his beloved. They will never be separated again. They live happily in Barcelona with her daughter, also named Adélaïde, who has escaped the Revolution and joins them at long last.

As for her two younger sons, Antoine, Duc de Montpensier, and Louis-Charles, Comte de Beaujolais, she will never see them again. They were joined in the United States by their elder brother Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans. The three princes, after many adventures in America, managed at last to return to Europe and settled at Twickenham, near London.

Dreux royal chapel

Chapelle Royale Dreux

The young Montpensier died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis and was buried at Westminster Abbey. The youngest of Adélaïde’s sons, the Comte de Beaujolais, who had also contracted tuberculosis, traveled through the Mediterranean with Louis-Philippe in hopes of improving his health. Instead it steadily deteriorated and he died in Malta in 1808,
where he is buried.

Adélaïde remains in her quiet Spanish exile until the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1814. Then she, her daughter and Rouzet, now titled Comte de Folmon, can return safely to Paris, where they find her elder son,Louis-Philippe, and his family.

Rouzet dies in 1820, at the age of 67, and she follows him the following year. They are both buried in the Royal Chapel of Dreux (above), the resting place of the Orléans branch of the Bourbons. Which leads me to believe that they had been secretly married at some point. Where? In Paris during the Revolution? Maybe even in jail? Later in Spain? No one knows.

What is sure is that Adélaïde died nine years too early to see her eldest son become King of the French under the name Louis-Philippe I.

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