Cover Image: Portrait of Marie Louise d’Orléans (1662-1689), c. 1679, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marie-Louise_d%27Orl%C3%A9ans,_reine_d%27Espagne.jpg
If, according to the contemporary view, the reign of Marie-Louise d’Orléans, wife of King Carlos II of Habsburg, ended with the fleeting victory of the Austrian faction at the court of Spain, her sudden death, which gave rise to tenacious suspicions of poisoning, has something to feed the romantic imagination.
Marie-Louise was the daughter of Philippe d´Orléans, brother of Louis XIV, and Henriette-Anne Stuart, sister of King Charles II of England. When she was born, she did not seem destined for Spain; at court, there were talks about an alleged marriage to the heir to the French crown. But Louis XIV’s daughter, Princess Marie-Thérèse, whom everyone already treated as a little Queen of Spain, died in 1672, aged five; the king’s niece was the only one who could replace her cousin. The wedding between Marie-Louise and Carlos II was celebrated after the peace of Nijmegen, in the royal chapel of the castle of Fontainebleau, on August 31, 1679.
The young Spanish king was not yet eighteen, but his shaky stride was obvious to all. His legs were too short to hold him upright; he dragged them around painfully and often appeared drowsy; epileptic seizures left him exhausted, and he suffered from multiple intestinal disorders. He probably had macrocephaly and his face was misshapen, with a disproportionate nose. His prognathism, a typical Habsburg malformation in which the lower jaw protruded, was so pronounced that swallowing was very difficult and his speech was hampered by excessive salivation. Carlos II showed a touching eagerness for Marie-Louise, whose beauty everyone celebrated, highlighting the promise of fertility that she held. In love with his young wife, Carlos devoted a passionate affection to her for a long time, before languishing in a resentful solitude, obsessed with the idea of a spell that prevented him from becoming a father, unable to tame a sick body eating him away relentlessly.
Once she arrived in Spain, Marie-Louise retained her fidelity to France, to the point that, at the court of Madrid, there were those who suspected her of being, basically, only a well instructed spy for Louis XIV; falsely, because the sense of honour, duty and royal dignity, which her father and uncle instilled in her to the highest degree, forbade Marie-Louise from betraying her new homeland. However, Marie-Louise never succeeded in truly detaching herself from France and her family; Spain remained strange to her.
In France, the common voice peddled the image of a languishing young queen in Madrid, in a dismal court, hostage to a King and a people who hated all that was French. Certainly, the instinctive antipathy of the Spaniards for their Queen was undeniable, as were the French prejudices against Spain. However, Marie-Louise was above all a shy young woman, aware of her duties but without particular aptitudes, tragically ill-prepared to face the challenges imposed by her role.
Contemporary sources also drew astonishment, mixed with tacit disapproval, for the Queen’s attachment to her French family. It is true that her mother, the charming Henriette-Anne, died when she was only eight years old, but her father was overflowing with affection for his offspring and Philippe d’Orléans’ second wife, Élisabeth-Charlotte de Bavière, once settled into the family, testified to Marie-Louise’s tenderness. A true writing enthusiast, Élisabeth-Charlotte sent two letters to Madrid every week, while the Duke of Orléans wrote to his daughters, who were married abroad, at least once every seven days, even in times of war, which astonished the courtiers.
To become tangibly more attached to her new the kingdom, Marie-Louise would have needed a child whose Spanish interests could be defended. But her womb, the stake in a succession with enormous implications, remained empty. The survival of the Spanish Hapsburg monarchy depended on it; the wait for this heir who never arrived became a veritable international obsession and, for Marie-Louise, a painful and humiliating odyssey. As is tradition, the blame fell on her, even if the deficiencies of Carlos II were so obvious that questions arose regarding his impotence. Ministers and ambassadors lied in wait for the secrets of the royal household, the doctors debated the causes of the Queen’s sterility, the chambermaids offered their advice and their questionable remedies; the Church also got involved and Marie-Louise was offered exorcisms aimed at freeing her from an alleged spell. An infamous rumour circulated, which said that Louis XIV made his niece unfit to have children, thus, to prepare the succession of the Dauphin to the throne of Spain; it was also claimed that the princess inflicted on herself treatments which would have rendered her sterile in order to be sent back to France upon the death of the king.
Against the background of this drama the ancestral conflict between the wife and the mother-in-law emerged; in this case Marie-Anne of Austria, who was regent for Carlos II from 1665 to 1675. It is undoubtedly necessary to nuance the picture of a persecuting Queen mother, ready to sacrifice her daughter-in-law to the interests of the Habsburgs of Austria, yet the fact remains that her relationship with Marie-Louise was difficult. Little cut out for the fight, the young queen could only be defeated, as Marie-Anne was so jealous of Marie-Louise’s ascendancy over Carlos II.
At the beginning of February 1689, the Queen was struck down by a colic which had afflicted her for a long time and for which she had often asked her father for medication. Two days earlier, despite a tormenting cough, she got out of bed to go hunting. An accident while hunting nearly killed her. Her horse reared up and, in the effort she made to restrain him, Marie-Louise struck the pommel of the saddle; she received a very violent blow to the stomach, and many feared the worst. On returning from the hunt, Marie-Louise went back to bed to treat her cough. The next day, feeling better, she ate plenty of raw oysters, olives and large glasses of ice milk. The next morning, at five o’clock, she had stomach pains, vomiting and very severe dysentery. Her illness quickly worsened; on February 11, after her confession, she was given Extreme Unction. The apostolic nuncio, who gave her the papal blessing, found her dying; “Only her eyes showed signs of knowledge,” he wrote.
Marie-Louise d’Orléans, Queen of Spain, died on February 12, 1689, at nine o’clock in the morning, “so quietly,” her confessor wrote, “that we hardly noticed her passing away”.
Several accounts of the Queen’s illness did not forget to mention the hunting accident she suffered. But it would take much more to quell the rumours about poison that were spreading in the European courts. When, on February 20, the tragic news reached Versailles, tongues were loosened. Without doubt, the death of the young queen did not displease the Austrian “party” at the court of Carlos II; indeed, in April 1689, the declaration of war against France was announced in Madrid. But the poisoning thesis, so prized by early modern historiography, willingly belittled Marie-Louise’s state of health. She had just recovered from smallpox, a very dangerous disease; for a long time, she had suffered from stomach pains and nausea. The most banal hypothesis is also the most probable, that is, poisoning caused by the ingestion of contaminated food, especially raw oysters; in such a case, the outcome is often fatal, especially for a young woman who was recovering, prone for years to eating disorders. But involuntary poisoning by Marie-Louise herself is not entirely to be ruled out; to promote fertility, the Queen had been taking all kinds of remedies for years and, during the final crisis, she had just undergone an unprecedented treatment, based on “drugs” whose composition is unknown.
For her French family, a fond memory and a painful feeling of failure remained, perhaps tinged with remorse. Marie-Louise, so unloved during her lifetime, ended up being missed, as much by her husband as by her subjects. Never again did Carlos II feel the “spring air” he apparently experienced with his first wife. Shortly before dying, he opened the tomb of Marie-Louise and gazed at her with morbid fascination before running away, frightened. The French chroniclers recall that the young queen’s body was still “whole and with all her clothes”, with the face “a little coloured”. The legend of Marie-Louise, “a French fleur-de-lis blowing in a south wind”, was born.
Bartolomé Bennassar, Le Lit, le pouvoir et la mort. Reines et princesses d’Europe de la Renaissance aux Lumières (Éditions de Fallois, 2006).
Ezechiel Borgognoni, “The Royal Household of Marie-Louise of Orleans, 1679-1689 : the Struggle over Executive Offices ,” The Court Historian, 23.2, 2018: 166-181.
Jaime Contreras, Carlos II el Hechizado. Poder y melancolía en la Corte del último Austria (Temas de Hoy, 2003).
Elisabetta Lurgo, Marie-Louise d’Orléans, nièce de Louis XIV. La Princesse oubliée (Perrin, 2021).
Sylvia Z. Mitchell, “The Spanish Habsburg Court during the Reign of Carlos II (1665-1700)”, The Court Historian, 23.2, 2018: 107-112.