Madame Elisabeth, Duchess of Parma, daughter of Louis XV

Madame Elisabeth Madame Henriette Gobert

Madame Elisabeth and Madame Henriette of france Gobert

On August 14, 1727, Marie Leszczynska, Louis XV’s Queen, gave birth for the first time, to twin girls, the first born being Marie-Louise-Elisabeth, known as Madame Elisabeth, or simply, as the King’s eldest daughter, Madame.

Louis XV, who was only seventeen, had of course been hoping for a male heir, but he was nonetheless delighted by the birth of the girls. “People said I could not have children,” he went around repeating, “and see, I made two!”

Elisabeth is his darling, his Babette. She has never been considered pretty like her twin Henriette, but she is bright, vivacious, willful. Yet dynastic politics lead Louis XV  to arrange her marriage  to her cousin, Philippe de Bourbon, younger son of the King of Spain. It is considered a mediocre match for a fille de France (“daughter of France”) to marry a foreign prince unlikely to succeed to any throne, but Louis XV wants to reinforce the family ties with the Spanish Bourbons.

The bride is only twelve, and she is heartbroken when she must leave Versailles and her beloved twin, Madame Henriette. “Tis forever, my God, tis forever,” she sobs in the arms of her sister. Indeed it was often true at the time: as a rule a princess, once married abroad, never set foot again in her native country. That is, for instance, what happened to Marie-Antoinette. But, as she shall see, Madame Elisabeth will never allow herself to be bound by rules applicable to ordinary princesses.

Once in Spain, Elisabeth is not unhappy with her husband, a kind and self-effacing man, but she does not get along with her mother-in-law, Queen Isabella Farnese, another strong personality. Elisabeth is only fourteen when she gives birth to her first child, a girl named Marie-Isabelle. Elisabeth finds the Spanish Court dull after Versailles, and she is too ambitious to be satisfied with her position as wife of the King’s younger son. She intends to find her husband a throne of his own, preferably far from the Spanish court and her mother-in-law.

Her wishes come true when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, at the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession, makes available the Duchy of Parma, a small independent state in northern Italy. Elisabeth, alone, hastens to Versailles to make sure her father intervenes to secure the Duchy for her husband. Louis XV obliges.

Madame Elisabeth Duchess de Parma Nattier

Madame Elisabeth of France Duchess de Parma and daughter Nattier

This portrait by Nattier, representing Elisabeth, then 23, with her daughter Marie-Isabelle, is painted during this Versailles stay. Louis XV is delighted to see his dear Babette again, and the young woman is in no hurry to leave for her new Duchy of Parma.

At Versailles, Madame Elisabeth allies herself with the rising star of the time, her father’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. This causes tensions with her siblings, who hate the favorite, but Madame Elisabeth puts ambition ahead of personal preferences.

After ten months in Versailles, she must, if only for the sake of appearances, leave to join her husband in Parma. There she gives birth to two more children, a boy, Ferdinand, and another girl, Marie-Louise, in January and December of 1751, respectively.

In her new Duchy, Elisabeth promotes French style, gives her son French tutors who espouse the values of the Enlightenment, and tries her best to emulate Versailles in her little Italian court. The following year, she is distraught when she receives the news of her sister Henriette’s death from smallpox. Elisabeth had remained very close to her twin in spite of their differences over Madame de Pompadour. A grieving Elisabeth leaves for Versailles for another one-year stay, before reluctantly returning to Parma.

She comes back again to Versailles a few years later, in 1757, to better arrange an alliance with Empress Maria Theresa. Elisabeth hopes to obtain from the Empress the appointment of her husband as Governor of the Austrian Netherlands. To strengthen her alliance with Austria, she negotiates the marriage of her elder daughter, Marie-Isabelle (the little girl in the Nattier portrait, who is no longer a little girl, but now a bright, beautiful teenager) with the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Joseph, future Emperor Joseph II.

Madame Elisabeth Duchess of Parma

Madame Elisabeth of France Duchess of Parma

Unfortunately Madame Elisabeth falls ill. Her mother, Queen Marie Leszczynska, nurses her, but soon it becomes clear that the princess, like her twin sister a few years earlier, has contracted smallpox. She dies at the age of 32 in her beloved Versailles.

To conclude this post, I chose a family portrait painted in Parma (below.) Elisabeth is seated on the sofa, next to her husband. After her death, no one, least of all himself, would think of another throne for hapless Philippe de Bourbon. But the marriage arranged by Elisabeth between their eldest daughter, Marie-Isabelle (standing, with a sheet of paper in her hands) and Archduke Joseph would indeed take place. Joseph would fall passionately in love with his bride, but she would never return his feelings. Marie-Isabelle would die three years later, yet another smallpox victim.

Now look closely at the two little children to the left. The boy is Ferdinand, who would succeed his father as Duke of Parma, and would be dethroned by Bonaparte during the French Revolution. See how he is dressed in a suit of bleu de France (“French blue”) embroidered with the fleur-de-lys of the French monarchy. The painting thus stresses the maternal ancestry of the heir. Of all of Louis XV’s grandchildren, he was the closest to the King, who would exchange with him a sustained and most interesting correspondence. Like his elder sister, he would marry one of Marie-Antoinette’s siblings, Archduchess Maria Amelia. He is the ancestor of the Bourbon-Parme branch of the French royal family.

The little girl , Marie-Louise, would marry her cousin King Carlos IV of Spain and be immortalized as Queen Maria Luisa in Goya’s famous portraits. Note how she has seized her brother’s sword and firmly refuses to give it back. This was a family of strong women…

Madame Elisabeth Duchess of Parma and Family

Madame Elisabeth of France Duchess of Parma and Family

Links to the entire Daughters of Louis XV series:

Madame Elisabeth, Duchess of Parma
Madame Henriette
Madame Marie-Louise
Madame Adélaïde
Madame Victoire
Madame Sophie
Madame Thérèse
Madame Louise (Venerable Mother Thérèse de Saint-Augustin)

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