Louise-Marie Thérèse Charlotte Isabelle d’Orleans was born in Palermo, Kingdom of Sicily, now in Italy, on April 3, 1812. She was the eldest daughter and second child of Louis-Philippe I, King of the French and Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies. Among her ancestors are Kings of France, Spain, Poland, Sicily and Naples, and Holy Roman Emperors. Marie Antoinette, Queen of France was her mother’s aunt. Her paternal grandfather was Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, known as Philippe. He actively supported the French Revolution and adopted the name Philippe Égalité. He was a deputy for Paris to the National Convention, had a role in arresting the French royal family, and voted in favor of the death sentence for King Louis XVI. Philippe Égalité eventually met the same fate as Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.
Louise-Marie had nine siblings:
- Ferdinand, Duke of Orléans (1810 – 1842), married Helene of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, had issue
- Marie d’Orléans (1813 – 1839), married Alexander of Württemberg, had issue
- Louis, Duke of Nemours (1814 – 1896), married Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had issue
- Françoise Louise Caroline d’Orléans (1816 – 1818)
- Clémentine d’Orléans (1817 – 1907), married August of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had issue including Ferdinand, Tsar of Bulgaria
- François, Prince of Joinville (1818 – 1900), married Francisca of Brazil, had issue
- Charles d’Orléans (1820 – 1828)
- Henri, Duke of Aumale (1822 – 1897), married Maria Carolina of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, had issue
- Antoine, Duke of Montpensier (1824 – 1890), married Luisa Fernanda of Spain, had issue including Infante Alfonso, Duke of Galliera who married Princess Beatrice of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Because her father was in exile resulting from the French Revolution, Louise-Marie’s early years were spent under British protection in Palermo, Italy in a palace given to her parents by her maternal grandfather, King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. Upon the abdication of Napoleon as Emperor of France in 1814, Louise-Marie’s family returned to France. However, when Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815 and made a brief return to France before his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the family had to leave France. In 1817, the family was given permission to return to France where they lived at the Palais-Royal, which had been the home of Marie-Louise’s paternal grandfather Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (Philippe Égalité). In 1830, the July Revolution resulted in the overthrow of King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and the ascent of his cousin and Louise-Marie’s father as Louis-Philippe, King of the French. 18 years later, Louis-Philippe was overthrown. He spent his exile in England where he was well received by Queen Victoria, who let him live in Claremont House for life.
Louise-Marie’s paternal aunt Adelaide of Orléans never married and instead lived with brother’s family. Adelaide was devoted to her nieces and nephews and was a second mother to them. Historian Jules Michelet taught Marie-Louise history. Painter and botanist Pierre Joseph Redouté taught her the art of painting flowers.
In 1831, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, uncle of both Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, became the first King of the Belgians. Leopold’s first wife had been Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only child of King George IV of the United Kingdom, who would have become Queen if she had not tragically died due to childbirth complications. Leopold had to marry again to provide for the Belgian succession and his choice was Louise-Marie. She did not hide her distaste for this marriage which she called “a sacrifice for a very difficult future.” Leopold was 22 years older than Marie-Louise, had been a widower for 14 years, and was an austere Lutheran. After meeting Leopold at a dinner, Marie-Louise described Leopold as a cold and gloomy man who “is as indifferent as the man one passes on the street.” The marriage inspired French writer Alfred de Musset, a schoolmate of Marie-Louise’s brothers, to write the play Fantasio in which a princess is forced to marry a fat and ridiculous prince.
Nevertheless, on August 9, 1832, the nearly 42-year-old Leopold married 20-year-old Louise-Marie at the Château de Compiègne, in France. Since Leopold was Protestant and Louise-Marie was Catholic, they had both a Catholic and a Protestant ceremony. Although Leopold remained Protestant, his children were raised as Catholics because the vast majority of Belgians were Catholic.
Leopold and Louise-Marie had four children:
- Louis Philippe, Crown Prince of Belgium (1833 – 1834)
- King Leopold II of the Belgians (1835 – 1909), married Marie Henriette of Austria, had three daughters and one son (who died at age 10)
- Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders (1837 – 1905), married Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, had five children including King Albert I who succeeded King Leopold II
- Princess Charlotte of Belgium, (1840 – 1927), married Archduke Maximilian of Austria, later Emperor of Mexico until his assassination, no issue
Despite her original misgivings, Louise-Marie quickly changed her mind when she got to know Leopold. She wrote to a friend, “All I can say is that the king makes me perfectly happy. His kindness to me touches me deeply. I deeply believe that he has strong and endearing qualities which alone could satisfy my heart. ” Leopold never forgot his beloved Charlotte and considered his second wife as a very dear friend. He regularly spent evenings in Louise-Marie’s salon where she read aloud recent literary works. However, sometime between 1842-1844, Leopold started an affair with Arcadie Claret that would last until his death. Leopold and Arcadie had two sons.
Louise-Marie had difficulties getting used to the mentality of her new Belgian subjects. She readily communicated her thoughts to friends. In one letter she wrote, “I do not denigrate the Belgians or Belgium. I would never make fun of them, at least publicly. If they were not so vain, I really would love them because they are very good people. ” Frequently, Louise-Marie’s father had to advise his daughter to be more cautious. Eventually, Louise-Marie’s attitude toward the Belgian people changed. Every morning, she received reports about some needy families. She then personally visited their homes to bring them comfort and financial aid. Sometimes Louise-Marie did not have enough money for his charitable works and then borrowed money without telling her husband.
In August 1850, during a memorial service for Louise-Marie’s father at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels, Belgium, it was noticed that Louise-Marie had difficulty walking and needed support from her husband to prevent her from falling. A month later, suffering from tuberculosis and feeling increasingly weak, she moved to Ostend, Belgium on the sea. Surrounded by her mother, her husband, and her children, Louise-Marie died at the age of 38 on October 11, 1850.
Louise-Marie had expressed a desire to be buried in Laeken in Brussels, Belgium. Leopold had the Church of Our Lady of Laeken built in her memory. Louise-Marie was buried there and the crypt there has become the burial site for the Belgian royal family. Leopold survived her by nearly 15 years, dying on December 10, 1865, at the age of 74. Among his last words were “Charlotte…Charlotte.” Was he calling to his daughter or to his beloved first wife Princess Charlotte of Wales? King Leopold was buried in the Royal Crypt in the Church of Our Lady in Laeken, in Brussels, Belgium with his wife Queen Louise-Marie.