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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21 Comments to “Adélaïde de Bourbon-Penthièvre, Duchesse d’Orléans: a revolutionary romance”

  1. steven says:

    The small round Ivory engraved painting was done by a painter called Derval.
    do you have any idea who Derval is and when that ivory painting was done ?
    I have the honor of owning that exact painting.

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    And about Grace Elliott, I just posted about her:
    Great prison scenes in her Journal!

  3. sarah says:

    Thanks Catherine, great suggestions and will try to obtain copies of the first two. Have already read Madame Roland in translation and found it absolutely fascinating,
    kindest regards

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Sarah, there are many eyewitness accounts of life in prison (not necessarily the Luxembourg) during the Revolution. Check the Souvenirs of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, those of the Duchesse de Tourzel and Madame Rolland (if you speak French.) Those are what inspired the prison scenes in my own Mistress of the Revolution.

  5. Sarah says:

    This is such a great story and in particular I’d love to know more about what is was like for them in the Luxembourg, can anyone suggest how I can read eye witness accounts?

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Certainly, Matterhorn! You are absolutely right, Queen Louise-Marie was Adelaide’s grand-daughter.

  7. Matterhorn says:

    Fascinating story- may I link? I’ve recently become interested in the whole Orléans clan because (well, among other reasons) the first Queen of the Belgians was from this family (it seems she would have been Adélaide’s grand-daughter).

  8. Tom says:

    i have never heard this but dont believe it; Marie-Adélaïde was famed for her virtuousness; even the future empress of russia (sophie of Württemberg – wife of paul I) said she was an example of virtue =]

  9. Tom says:

    the story of Marie-Adélaïde reaalyy does amaze me..i find her fascinating =] i would have loved to have met her..does anyone else know anything about her?

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Great choice, Penny!

  11. penny klein says:

    Thank you again for this lovely story. maybe I am going blind, but i do not see who painted it. as I mentioned, it is is one of the works i would love to hang here in my apt.

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Felio – Yes, the Princesse de Lamballe had married Adelaide’s brother.

    Elena – True, the Duc de Penthievre was a very generous man and a beloved figure. He remained extremely popular until his death in 1793, well into the Revolution.

  13. I am not surprised that the Orleans were so crass to the Duc de Penthievre, but what a shame, since the Duc was a fine man, a true “gentle man.”

    The only thing that makes me wonder if Artois did make advances towards Adelaide sometime between the time of her marriage and his later infatuation with Madame de Polastron is that later, as Charles X, he was overwhelming generous with Louis-Philippe and family, much to the disgust of the Duchesse d’Angouleme. But I confess that I have not researched this matter at all, but merely saw the claim on a discussion board. I will let you know if I find anything out…..

  14. Felio Vasa says:

    This was such a great choice & what an amazing story! I love that she was the first patroness to Louis-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and this painting of Adelaide is gorgeous with her hair flowing & the tassels on her belt.
    Also now I understand the connection with Princess Lamballe.
    Thank you!

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Penny – Hope Adelaide finds a place on your rooms!

    Elena – No, I
    hadn’t come across this rumor. Artois was quite a cad as a young man,
    so it wouldn’t have been out of character for him to slap a lady.
    However, he was only 12 at the time of Adelaide’s marriage. A bit young
    for such a romance? Who knows, with him… What I did read about is the
    Orleans clan, during the engagement “negotiations” behaved in such a
    way as to make it clear that they were only interested in the bride’s
    dowry and were extremely rude to the Duc de Penthievre. Please let me
    know if you have any leads on the Artois story.

  16. Catherine Delors says:

    Franklin – The Duc d’Orleans was tried for and convicted of conspiracy against the Republic. The charge wasn’t the kinship with Louis XVI, but rather the Duc’s political ambitions. The vote in favor of his cousin’s immediate execution, far from establishing Egalite’s revolutionary credentials, simply confirmed the idea that he was getting rid of the last hurdle before himself and the throne.

    And for learning French, as for love, it’s never too late!

  17. Catherine, I am delighted that someone has finally written about this fascinating lady in a blog post. Have you ever come across the rumor that Artois had an affair with Adélaïde when they were very young? I read somewhere, but have never been able to verify the claim, that once Artois slapped her before the court in some torrid lover’s quarrel. Have you ever heard such a thing??

  18. Penny says:

    I love the portrait as already been said. I am also drawn to her facial expression. she seems to be in contemplation. this in spite of the love story angle.
    thank you for this portrait.

  19. F Michaels says:

    I agree. What an amazing tale for Valentine’s Day! And one that parallels Mistress in many ways: the first marriage to a husband who used his position to leave her as a virtual dowager, only to be redeemed by the most improbable of loves, but one lasting a lifetime(okay, so her story departs in a few significant parts from Mistress, including the bit about living happily ever after). Let’s here it for love after 40!

    One question comes to mind. You say that because the Duc d’Orléans voted for the immediate execution of the King, “This increased the Revolutionaries’ deep suspicious of his ambitions, and soon he was jailed with his two younger sons . . . .” Do the Records of the Revolutionary Tribunal reflect just what crime, other than mere association of blood with his eldest son, was Louis Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, actually convicted? (I understand the records of the tribunal are available online, but alas my life would have been entirely different had I been able to learn French in high school.)


  20. Catherine Delors says:

    I believe this portrait would be enough to make Adelaide interesting, even without the subsequent love story. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, with that of Marie-Antoinette and her children.
    Thank you for your kind words, Valeria, and happy Valentine’s Day!

  21. I loved this history. I know nothing about this princess and her sad and later fortunate life. Now I know that the Duc d’Orléans is worse than I imagine.

    Thanks for your always interesting site. It’s gorgeous.

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