‘I smiled and curtsied, shyly looking around the gorgeous candlelit room at their faces, some were smiling and friendly but most were rather stern. ‘I am very pleased to meet you all.’ The King led me between them, personally introducing me to each and every member of my new family. Thanks to Abbé Vermond I already knew the names of most of the people present but there was a vast difference between my lessons in Vienna and actually standing in front of them all, struggling to link names to faces as Condés and Contis passed before my dazzled eyes, all splendidly dressed and reeking of musk and jasmine with haughty Bourbon faces and highly polished manners.
Standing a little apart was the Duc de Chartres, a handsome energetic young man in his early twenties who was heir to the powerful Duc d’Orléans. I had been told all about him by my Abbé and knew that he was highly intelligent, capricious, cultured, bad tempered, vengeful and utterly untrustworthy. I determined to charm him but could tell by the rather disdainful curl of his lip as he regarded me that it would be a struggle to convince him that I was anything other than a foolish ingénue. At his side stood his pretty little wife of one year, her wide grey eyes gazing adoringly up into his face and both tiny hands clasped possessively around his blue silk arm. Exquisite, glittering, rose scented Madame de Chartres was the grandaughter of one of Louis XIV’s bastards by Athénaïs de Montespan and was said to be the wealthiest heiress in all France with a dowry of six million livres, a frankly incredible sum of money. She didn’t have much to say for herself beyond tittering at all of her husband’s jokes and agreeing enthusiastically with every single word that he uttered.
Of more interest was her beautiful blonde widowed sister-in-law, the Princesse de Lamballe, an ethereal vision in frothy mauve gauze and diamonds who twisted her ivory painted fan nervously between her long white fingers as we were introduced and bestowed upon me the only genuine smile that I was to see all that long evening.‘ — From The Secret Diary of a Princess: a novel of Marie Antoinette.
Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon (known as Marie-Adélaïde) was born on the 13th March 1753 at the Hôtel de Toulouse in Paris, the daughter of the Duc de Penthièvre (a grandson of Louis XIV and Athénaïs de Montespan) and Princess Maria Teresa Felicity of Modena. Her mother died in childbirth when she was just a year old, leaving behind just Marie-Adélaïde and her brother Louis-Alexandre, the Prince de Lamballe in the care of their doting, kind hearted father.
As a young girl, Marie-Adélaïde was known firstly as Mademoiselle d’Ivoy and then Mademoiselle de Penthièvre. Convent school education had been popular amongst the French aristocracy for several generations at this point and so Marie-Adélaïde was duly sent to be educated at the Abbaye de Montmartre in Paris, where she remained for twelve years until she was ready to be married.
Marie-Adélaïde was always considered a good match but the premature death of her brother, the Prince de Lamballe left her sole heiress to one of the most enormous and fabulous fortunes in France, if not all of Europe. She would bring to her husband a dowry of 6 million livres and an annual income of 240,000 livres (which later doubled). This was before her father had even died so whoever married her could expect even more in the future.
You would think that the marriage of such an immense heiress would be easily accomplished but you would be wrong. It had been mooted for a long time that Marie-Adélaïde should be married to her cousin Philippe, the Duc de Chartres but his father, the Duc d’Orléans was ever mindful of the grandeur of his family and was therefore unwilling to marry his son and heir into an illegitimate branch of the royal family, ignoring the fact that he too was descended from Louis XIV and Athénaïs de Montespan. The death of poor Louis-Alexandre changed all of this though and the betrothal was announced as soon as it was considered decent.
For her part, Marie-Adélaïde was madly in love with her tall, handsome, powerful cousin and was thrilled when the match was given the go ahead. Philippe already had the reputation of being something of a libertine, which moved even Louis XV to gently try to persuade her father out of the match. He must have been pretty dreadful for Louis XV to be shocked!
The fifteen year old Marie-Adélaïde was married to the Duc de Chartres on the 5th April 1769 at Versailles. The wedding was expensive and lavish with vast amounts of titled guests and a wedding banquet hosted by Louis XV himself.
The couple went on to have six children, of whom four survived into adulthood: Louis-Philippe (who would become King Louis-Philippe of the French), Louis-Antoine duc de Montpensier, Louise-Adélaïde and Louis-Charles comte de Beaujolais.
Although Philippe was fond of his wife, it did not take long for him to return to his bachelor lifestyle. There was a ripple of scandal about his continued relationship with his wife’s lady in waiting, Stéphanie-Félicité, Comtesse de Genlis (the niece of his father’s morganatic wife), especially as Marie-Adélaïde seemed to have given her tacit approval so that the three of them lived together in a sort of ménage à trois. When the relationship was over, Stéphanie became governess to their young daughter.
The Duc’s infidelities continued throughout their marriage and relations became strained between the couple as a result until finally Marie-Adélaïde left her husband on 5th April 1791 and went to live with her father in his château in Normandy. Philippe’s revolutionary sympathies were well known by this point and Marie-Adélaïde may well have found them difficult to stomach.
In January 1793, Philippe voted for the execution of his cousin Louis XVI, an act that, oddly enough did him no favours with either side as it was known that he had always hated him and that the Orléans family had always had their eye on taking the throne for themselves.
In 1793, the eldest son of Philippe and Marie-Adélaïde defected to the royalist army in Austria and shortly afterwards the rest of his family that had remained in France were all arrested. Philippe did his best to save himself, even renouncing his son’s actions but it was not enough and he was guillotined on the 6th November 1793. All of his possessions were confiscated by the state (standard practise – the belongings of all condemned people and emigrés were seized during this period), leaving Marie-Adélaïde, formerly the richest girl in France utterly destitute. At this time she was under house arrest at her father’s château but she would later be moved to the Luxembourg Palace, which was being used as a rather comfortable prison at this time.
It was at this surprising point in her story that Marie-Adélaïde shocked everyone by falling intensely in love with a fellow prisoner, Jacques-Marie Rouzet who just happened to be a revolutionary and former member of the National Convention. It is incredible that in the depths of misery, she was able to find happiness and true love at last.
Marie-Adélaïde was probably narrowly saved from execution by the fall of Robespierre in July 1794 and was transferred to the Pension Belhomme, which was one of the most salubrious Parisian prisons and almost exclusively inhabited by the wealthy. Her lover was able to secure her release and that of her two imprisoned sons in 1795 and they immediately set up house together in Paris, remaining there until she was banished in 1797 along with all other members of the House of Bourbon.
Marie-Adélaïde and her lover were reunited in Spain and lived there together until they were able to return to France in 1814. She was able to get back most of her money, which must have been cause for celebration and lived very happily (although she and Rouzet never married) until her death on 27th June 1821 at the age of 68.