A True History

A Different Kind of Versailles Tale: Marie Josephine of Savoy

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to go on a tour of the French palace, Versailles. As somebody who is currently obsessed with the TV show Versailles and used to voraciously read every Marie Antoinette book I could get my hands on, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve always loved reading about the opulent court life and how glamorous all the members of the royal family were. They seemed larger than life.

There are so many rumors that surround the Bourbon family rulers and their spouses because, let’s face it, the French court thrived on drama. That’s why all those books and movies about people like Marie Antoinette and the Sun King are so entertaining!

This isn’t a post about them though. They are entertaining and their lives were glamorous, but my trip to Versailles made me far more interested in King Louis XVIII ‘s wife, Marie Josephine.

Marie Josephine was born Maria Giuseppina Luigia in Italy and was considered to be the Princess of Savoy so she grew up in a life of luxury.

Originally, it was pitched to King Louis XV that she would marry his oldest grandson, Louis-Auguste, but that was turned down in favor of Louis-Auguste marrying Maria Antonia of Austria (aka Marie Antoinette) and instead, Marie Josephine was betrothed to his younger brother, Louis-Stanislas.

It didn’t go well.

Louis-Stanislas and Marie Josephine got along okay and by many accounts they were well suited for each other at first. However, Louis-Stanislas also knew that his older brother and his wife (Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette) had yet to consummate their marriage and would make sure to loudly boast to anybody that would listen that he had consummated his marriage many times over. They hadn’t and Marie Josephine was none too pleased with the lie.

The lie most likely also didn’t help relations with her sister-in-law Marie Antoinette who gossiped about her constantly and always had a snide remark for her. I suppose that’s teenage girls for ya.

I think perhaps my favorite story about Marie Josephine takes place when she’s an adult after the French Revolution occurred. She and Louis-Stanislas were able to escape France before Louis XVI was executed. After the death of Louis XVI and his son, Louis-Stanislas ended up being proclaimed King by the exiled French court. However, at that point in time, Louis-Stanislas was living under the protection of Tsar Paul I in Russia and Marie Josephine was living with her lady-in-waiting, Marguerite de Gourbillon in Germany.

It’s long rumored that Marguerite and Marie Josephine’s relationship was romantic, which in my opinion is pretty cool considering Marie Josephine was such a prominent figure in politics!

The two of them lived together in Germany for years until 1799 when Louis-Stanislas ordered his wife back to France in order to celebrate the wedding of their niece (Marie Therese – daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) and nephew (Louis-Antoine – son of Louis-Stanislas’ brother Charles Philippe and his wife Marie Josephine’s younger sister Maria Theresa). The point of the two of them getting together for this wedding was a big PR move which probably could have gone smoothly if Louis-Stanislas had allowed Marguerite to attend with her.

Poor Louis-Stanislas was definitely not ready for the scene that unfurled.

Because, you see, Marie Josephine absolutely refused to travel without Marguerite and brought her along anyway. The two of them traveled to Russia together to meet up with Louis-Stanislas, but they were detained when he found out Marguerite was traveling with her. Marie Josephine was absolutely furious and made a huge stink about the whole thing by locking herself in her quarters and drinking herself into a stupor while crying and screaming about it.

That was the last time Marie Josephine and Marguerite saw each other, despite sending each other adoring letters all the time for the years to come.

Personally, this is a favorite story of mine because so often when you think about history, you think about these people who seemed perfect. It’s easy to forget that family and marital issues have been around for years and it’s not just a new phenomenon and it’s always fascinating to read about same sex couples in the past who lived together unabashedly and were devastated upon being separated.