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Maria Elisabeth of Austria (Maria Elisabeth Leopoldine Josepha; 13 June 1702 - 13 January 1775) was an Archduchess of Austria and future Duaphine of France as wife of Louis, Dauphin of France who died before succeeding his father Louis XV. Married to the Dauphin of France at the age of 13 in 1715, her marriage was bought about by the War of the Spanish Succession which caused a rupture between France and the Holy Roman Empire. The union was the brainchild of Ludwig von Birona who would later have a long prosperous as a protégé of the Archduchesses father Leopold Joseph, Holy Roman Emperor. Maria Elisabeth was known as Marie Élisabeth in France and was the longest serving dauphine. Despite her husbands early death, she maintained great influence over all her children, and in the reign of her son Louis XVI was made Regent while her son fought in central Europe during the 1745 War of Polish Independence. She remained Regent for just over a year and was praised as a good ruler and would always remain popular with the French. During her tenure as Regent, she overhauled the governmental systems in French provinces, regulated the power of the church and began a remodeling of Versailles which her grandson, Louis XVIII continued. Upon her sons return, she still maintained her political influence and successfully intruiged to marry her two daughters to the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain respectively. She died having outlived three of her children and was still alive when her great grand daughter Marie Élisabeth, Queen of France was born in 1770. She was nicknamed the Dauphine Queen referring to her political influence and her queen-like lifestyle. She was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis by order of her grandson Louis XVI.

Archduchess of Austria[edit]

Infancy and education[edit]

Archduchess Maria Elisabeth was born at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria and was the eldest child and only surviving daughter of Leopold Joseph, Holy Roman Emperor and Marie Élisabeth of France. She received the names Maria Elisabeth Leopoldine Josepha in honour of her parents. The young archduchess was baptised on the day of her birth and was immediately placed in the care of the Countess of Almsburg, a lady-in-waiting to her mother. Her godparents were the King of France and the Queen of Spain. As a female, she was unable to inherit her fathers various dominions which were subject to salic law which forbade females from inheriting. As such, her birth was greeted with disappointment as a result of her sex. However, two years after her birth, her mother gave her husband a son who would reign as Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor. Her education was organised by her mother who closely supervised all aspects of it. She was taught to read and speak Latin, French, Italian as well as Spanish. She was taught to sing by Frederik van der Bull and her history lessons were conducted by the famous Prince of Burgstrom. She was bought up with her brother and the two would frequently preform musical and plays at the Hofburg often in honour of foreign dignitaries at the Viennese court. When she turned ten in 1712 she caught a smallpox which killed her infant sister Maria Carolina who died aged 4. Despite the disease being particularly vicious, Maria Elisabeth survived relatively unscarred despite receiving the last rights in May before recovering.

Marriage candidates[edit]

Maria Elisabeth with her other siblings in 1710 by an unknown artist

Shortly before Maria Elisabeth caught smallpox, the courts of Vienna and Savoy were engaged in talks regarding a match between the young Archduchess and Victor Amadeus, Prince of Piedmont, heir of Victor Amadeus II. Her father was keen to ensure the union go ahead as it would encourage a link between the Austrians and Savoyards who had had conflicting views on territory after War of the Grand Alliance. This match would allow the Austrians would get the Duchy of Milan and the Savoyards would in turn get a politically important wife for the Prince of Piedmont. However, when news reached the Savoyard court of Maria Elisabeth's illness, Victor Amadeus II quickly ignored correspondence and soon married his son to a Princess of Tuscany thus ruining the chance of gaining Milan. Despite this, when news reached the courts of Europe that Maria Elisabeth had in fact recovered, she received proposals from Portugal, Tuscany, Spain and Hesse-Darmstadt. Leopold Joseph wanted a union with the King of Portugal but his son and heir José, Prince of Brazil died in April 1713 and the crown soon went to his sister Maria Barbara thus ruining an Austro-Portuguese match. George II proposed his son Charles, Prince of Wales but Maria Élisabeth herself refused to convert from catholicism. Despite these fruitless matches, Louis XV hearing the young archduchess was still available, offered his son Louis, Dauphin of France as a potential son-in-law for Leopold Joseph.

Leopold Joseph accepted the propasal of the King of France in February 1715. The young Maria Elisabeth was married by proxy at on 28 February 1715 to the Dauphin with the Grand Prince of Tuscany acting as proxy groom as no other person at court was of equal rank other than he. The archduchess left Vienna on 2 March taking leave of her family and attendants on 4 March at Salzburg. Travelling with the Countess of Almsburg and the Duke of Koros, she arrived in Paris on 20 March and took up residence at the Louvre. The royal party including King Louis XV, Queen Marie Louise and the Dauphin left for Versailles on the 22 arriving the following day.

Dauphine of France[edit]

Wife[edit]

Maria Elisabeth was married to the Dauphin at Versailles on 24 March 1715 in the presence of the court. The Cardinal of Paris officiated and there were celebrations in Paris, Versailles and Orléans. Due to the young Dauphine Marie Élisabeth only being twelve, it was agreed that the couple would only be able to share the same bed till after she reached the age of sixteen in June 1718. The young Dauphin had orriginally been sceptical of the young archduchess who, though considered a beauty, was known to be haughty and aware of her rank as a daughter of the Emperor. Marie Élisabeth's first official engagement occurred at the Château de Saint Cloud when she officiated a ball in honour of the Duke of Lorraine who was staying in France having lost his territory to Marie Élisabeth's own father. Despite the difficult circumstance, Marie Élisabeth was praised as having a natural grace and was very respecting of the situation. The Duke of Lorraine was so charmed by the young Dauphine that at the ball he ordered his own wife to give her a necklace as a token of appreciation much to the Duchess of Lorraine's discontentment.

Mother[edit]

Marie Élisabeth in 1719 following the birth of her first child by Louise du Remont

From the age of sixteen, Marie Élisabeth and Louis were allowed to share a bed. King Louis XV had suffered a stroke in 1716 and was eager to make sure that the Dauphine fell pregnant as soon as possible. The couple complained of the others arrogance and the two were very suspicious of each other. Despite this, the Dauphine was reported pregnant in June 1718 and the following March she gave birth to a son named Louis. The joyous occasion was spoilt for Marie Élisabeth as the child was taken away from her minutes after she gave birth. Protocol dictated that the child would be raised by a group of nurses but Marie Élisabeth refused to allow it and soon appealed to Louis XV to look after her own child. This change in character encouraged the Dauphin to pay more attention to his wife who was beautiful, cultured and intelligent. The couple were soon seen together everywhere and would frequent the Château de Marly with a small group of friends.

Now her rank as mother of the Dauphin was secure, Marie Élisabeth encouraged her husband to take a more prominent role at Versailles. She appealed to King Louis XV to let the Dauphin attend council meetings and foreign audiences which were previously forbidden. The King hesitated but soon gave in when Marie Élisabeth insisted. Her intervention soon healed the great distrust between the King and his oldest son. Her careful mediation between the two, led to the Dauphin to found the Church of Saint Marie Élisabeth, a Parisian chapel dedicated to his wife for Austrians in Vienna seeking refuge from the Austrian Rebellion of 1719. The chapel was consecrated in January 1720 on Marie Élisabeth's birthday and was quickly followed by the King ordering Dauphin Louis to go to Madrid to cement an alliance with the King of Spain in honour of the marriages of the Dukes of Anjou and Berry, the Dauphins younger brothers.

The Dauphin left France in March 1720 and returned in August the same year with the two Infanta's in his entourage. During his absence, the King had become increasingly fond of the charming Dauphine and soon she was attending the meetings of state much to the dislike of Queen Marie Louise. The Queen, who had never been allowed to do such a thing, appealed to her husband and asked him to stop. The King however ignored saying that Marie Élisabeth had "a great understanding of politics" and "showed the keenest interest in helping her adopted country". Meanwhile, the relationship between Queen Marie Louise and Marie Élisabeth soured quickly but in the eyes of her husband and father-in-law she could do no wrong.

Orléans affair[edit]

The close relationship between the Dauphin and his wife was soon ruined. When her Spanish sisters-in-laws arrived at court, they had been made aware of the Dauphine's popularity with the King and the Infanta's married the Dukes at the Louvre in September with the Dauphine's cousin, the Archduke Leopold as a guest of honour. The two Infanta's soon became intensely jealous of Marie Élisabeth and joined up forces with Queen Marie Louise in order to disgrace her.

Louis, Dauphin of France in 1720 by Rosette de La Fare

In September 1720, a rumour that the Dauphine was having an affair with the Duke of Orléans was circulating Versailles and quickly reached the ears of the King and and his son to the ignorance of Marie Élisabeth. On November 1, the feast of Saint Charlotte, the Dauphine awoke to being under house arrest in her apartments at Versailles. When she appealed to have an audience with the King she was refused. Another audience with the Queen and then the Dauphin were also ignored. Unable to leave the confines of her apartments, the Dauphine tried to escape using the door to her privy. However, the guards caught her and took her back and locked her within her bedroom. The following day the King arrived and decreed that he had ordered a carriage for her which was destined to take her to the Basilica of Saint Denis outside Paris where she was to live the remainder of her days in France. When asking what crime she had committed, the King remarked that she need not lie about her infidelity and that the Spanish Duchesses (their nickname at Versailles) had informed him of her affair with the Duke of Orléans which had begun when the Dauphin was in Madrid the same year.

Though the rumours were untrue, Marie Élisabeth was all to aware of the Spanish Duchesses dislike of her and explained the situation to the King. The King sent for the Duchesses. The Duchesses admitted the affair was a lie and quickly accused the Queen of having been the ring leader of the plot. The Queen was sent for and refused to speak to the "woman who was unfaithful to the Dauphin". The party moved to the Queens bedchamber. The three ladies argued for some hours before the Queen, in tears, admitted the affair was untrue. The King admitted that the Dauphine had been under surveillance for some three months but it appeared that, though the Dauphine and Orléans had been spending much time together, the two were only together when the Spanish Duchesses had organised the meeting on the pretext of going to the theatre.

The truth out, the King threatened the Spanish Duchesses with exile and the Queen with a convent. Despite the relationship between the three sisters-in-law was never close, the situation was only worsened and whenever the three were in the room, they were to be polite and nothing more and nothing less or the King would come out with a list of threats again...

Reconciliation[edit]

After news of the "Orléans affair" was cleared, the Dauphine stated that she wanted to retire for some time to her favourite residence, the Palais des Tuileries in Paris where she had spent the first days of her marriage. The King allowed it and also ordered that the Spanish Duchesses would go into a similar form of exile but less on their own terms. Anjou went to the Palais du Luxembourg and Berry went to the Château de Fontainebleau. Marie Élisabeth lived a quiet existence in Paris till March 1721 when the King ordered her to return to Versailles, him being aware of his sons "secret" visits to the Tuileries since January. The embarrassed Dauphin and his wife reconciled and in November 1721 the couple were the parents of twin daughters, named after Dauphine Marie Élisabeth and Queen Marie Louise. With her position fully restored and the apple of the King and Dauphins eyes, she did however refrain from exterting her influence on the political stage and lived at Versailles and the Grand Trianon occupying herself with raising her three children whom she doted on. Her last child, Léopold Joseph, named after her father died aged seven months. When Princesses Marie Élisabeth and Marie Louise had an attack of smallpox in December 1724, it was Marie Élisabeth who nursed the children without any help from doctors and the refusal of resting herself. The princesses were saved but Marie Élisabeth herself caught the illness. Having already survived the illness when she was ten, she was cleared of infection in January 1725, but, soon passed it onto the Dauphin.

Widow[edit]

Marie Élisabeth with her son the Dauphin in 1730 by Hector Frejus

Having been married for some ten years, the royal couple had become very close despite the scandal of the Orléans affair. When Marie Élisabeth was ill with smallpox, her husband insisted on nursing his wife. He soon caught the illness and died within days of Marie Élisabeth passing it to him. The court at Versailles was in dismay. Marie Élisabeth, now a widow aged twenty-one was left distraught. The King ordered mourning for 14 months and the Queen was greatly affected at the death of her son as well as her part to play with Marie Élisabeth's "sojourn" in Paris. The Dauphins body remained at Versailles till the 27 January when it was taken to the Basilica of Saint Denis for the official funeral. The Dauphine did not attend the funeral preferring to comfort her children who sensed the tense atmosphere at Versailles. When the young Princess Marie Louise asked where her father was, Marie Élisabeth replied he had gone to sleep, the Princess asked why had he not kissed her good night...

As a widow, Marie Élisabeth worried about her position at Versailles without her husband. Weeks after her husbands death, she expressed a wish to return to Austria and live out her days in the Church of Marie Élisabeth inn the capital. The Queen encouraged the King saying she was a drain on the royal coffers but he refused. The King said that he was too attached to the Dauphine and that he would not let her leave Versailles for fear of loosing her. He also pointed out that her children could not be bought up as orphans. Marie Élisabeth eventually agreed and moved into the Grand Trianon with some fifty members of staff. It was at Trianon which she lived until the death of Queen Marie Louise in 1727 allowed her to resume her role as premier dame of the court. During her tenure at Trianon, she rarely went to the palace and often refused audiences with foreign ministers. The only person she did see was her nephew the Archduke Leopold of Austria who was visiting Versailles in hope of marrying Princess Victoire, the Kings only daughter who was a nun. The idea was fruitless but it encouraged Marie Élisabeth to regain her political vigour and position at Versailles which had been dominated by the Spanish Duchesses.

Regent of France[edit]

Marie Élisabeth in 1745 portrayed as regent by Philippe Arjon

Marie Élisabeth and government[edit]

Marie Élisabeth and religion[edit]

Marie Élisabeth and Versailles[edit]

Retirement[edit]

Marie Élisabeth in 1767 after her second marriage by Louis Ducreaux

Second marriage[edit]

Death[edit]

Legacy[edit]

Issue[edit]

  1. Louis XVI of France (1719-1756) married Maria Anna Victoria of Spain and had issue.
  2. Marie Élisabeth of France (1721-1767) married Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and had issue.
  3. Marie Louise of France (1721-1801) married Luis I of Spain and had issue.
  4. Léopold Joseph of France, Duke of Orléans (1723-1723) died in infancy.

Titles, styles, honours and arms[edit]

Titles and styles[edit]

  • 13 June 1702 - 24 March 1715 Her Royal Highness Archduchess Maria Elisabeth of Austria
  • 24 March 1715 - 13 January 1725 Her Royal Highness The Dauphine of France
  • 13 January 1725 - 13 January 1775 Her Royal Highness The Dowager Dauphine of France


Ancestry[edit]

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External links[edit]

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See also[edit]

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