Royal Mistresses: Marie Walewska

I saw no one but you, I admired no one but you, I want no one but you.

written by Napoleon Bonaparte to Marie Walewska after their first meeting

When you have ceased to love me, remember that I love you still

Marie Walewska, inscribed on a locket to Napoleon with a lock of her hair.

Imagine that one is a beautiful blonde noblewoman from an aristocratic but impoverished family. You are married to a much, older man to further your family's ambitions. You capture the notice of one of the greatest men the world has ever known who presses his attentions on you, much to your dismay. Your friends tell you that you are your country's greatest hope. What do you do?

This was the dilemma faced by the young Marie Walewska in 1806 when she met the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

She was born Marie Laczynska on December 7 1786, to a family of little money but aristocratic lineage. The family lived on a rundown estate, where Marie was one of six children, raised by her widowed mother. Marie's family lost most of their estates during the first partition of Poland, being swallowed up by Prussia. Her father, Matthias, was killed in 1794 when she was 7, fighting against the Russians. Marie had been brought up and educated by a French tutor, Nicolas Chopin (the father of the composer Frederic Chopin). Chopin helped to flame the budding patriotism in his young charge. He'd come to Poland from his native Lorraine to join a friend in business. Falling in love with the country, he'd joined the Polish Volunteer Army like Marie's father and had been wounded in the same battle.

When she was 14, Marie was sent to Warsaw to a convent school. At the tender age of 15, she came to the notice of Count Anaste Colonna de Walewice Walewski who was in his sixties at the time. He was attracted to her stunning blonde beauty and beautiful blue eyes. Marie also had a kind nature while Walewski was cheerless, but he was wealthy with many estates and a castle, and he could do much for her family. Despite her reluctance, she married him when she was 16, her family's debts were immediately paid and her brother was sent to France to study. Once married, Marie found that her husband wasn't quite as bad as she thought. In 1805, she bore the count a son, Anthony Basil Rudolph Walewski who was born sickly. At loose ends, she spent her time getting more involved with the Polish nationalist movement.

Poland at this time was a country that been divided twice like a Christmas turkey by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the first time in 1772. It was the largest country in central Europe and thick with natural resources and access to the sea. However, Poland had long been vulnerable due to its lack of natural borders, and the ineptitude of its nobility. Although it had a King who was elected by the people, he had no real power. The nobles who made up the ruling assembly called the Diet made it difficult to get anything done. They controlled the treasury, the military and were exempt from taxation. So while they grew richer, the treasury lay empty. Empy treasury, no money for ships and no trade with foreign countries.

Educated Poles considered France their cultural home. French was the language of the court, French philosophy and fashion were the norm. 20,000 Polish men enlisted in the French military, forming all Polish units. They believed that Napoleon would be their savior.

It was during the French occupation of Poland that Marie first met Napoleon. It was New Year's Eve in 1806. Napoleon's coach was taking him into Warsaw, when a large crowd of Poles gathered around the carriage to welcome him. Marie was wearing a fur hat, and Napoleon at first mistook her for a peasant girl, until he heard her speak French to General Duroc. She asked to be presented to the man who had promised to liberate Poland, the man who had defeated not only the Austrians, but also Prussia and Russia, Poland's longtime oppressors.

She wrote later that, "Napoleon raised his hat, bent toward me, I don't know what he said to me then because I was too eager to express what I was feeling. Be welcome, a thousand times welcome to our country. Nothing that we could do would express strongly enough either our admiration for you personally or the pleasure we have in seeing you set foot on the land which expects you to reestablish it.... Napoleon looked at me closely and took a bouquet which happened to be in the carriage, and as he gave it to me he said, 'Keep it as a pledge of my good intentions; I hope that we shall see each other in Warsaw and that I shall receive a thank-you from your beautiful mouth.'"

Napoleon was immediately intrigued and asked Duroc to find out who she was. He arranged for her to be invited to a party to which he was to be the guest of honor. Marie declined the invitation, after which Napoleon than declared that he would not attend the function either. Her husband was approached to convince the Countess to change her mind. He was told that the future of Poland was at stake. Despite his reluctance, he agreed to let his friends convince her otherwise. Marie finally agreed but she did nothing out of the ordinary to attract Napoleon's attention to herself. In fact, she wore her dowdiest gown with a modest neckline with Napoleon rudely disapproved of.

In the days following the ball, Napoleon pursued her relentlessly, sending her letter after letter to which she refused to reply. He implied in his letters that only her submission to him would restore Poland. 'Come to me,' he wrote, 'All your hopes will be fulfilled. Your country will be dearer to me when you take pity on my poor heart.' Marie, however, refused all his invitations to dinner, she returned the jewels that he sent her, claiming that 'He treats me like a prostitute.'

Unlike the other women he had known in his life, Marie was virtuous, despite her marriage to a much older man. She was a devout Catholic, and although unhappy, she took her vows seriously. To give herself to Napoleon would be adultery. But she couldn't withstand the pressures put on her not only by the Emperor, but also Talleyrand, and the Polish nationalists in her circle such as Prince Joseph Poniatowsky (to take one for the team as it were). Even her brother Benedict, as head of the family, gave his permission. The first night they did nothing but talk. Marie told him that she was only there for Poland. He called her his gentle dove. Marie thought that was that, but she was persuaded to see him a second time. She finally agreed to give herself to him reluctantly. However, once she was in his presence, she chickened out, frightened by his attentions. Napoleon grew angry, threatening to destroy Poland, he hurled his watch at her feet and crushed it to bits beneath his heel.

Marie didn't know what to do so she fainted. When she came to, she discovered that Napoleon had had his way with her. Napoleon was apologetic for his actions and in the days that followed Marie's affection for the Emperor grew. He was tender and sweet, talking to her of his plans for Poland. She had only known one man in her life, who was known in his seventies, Napoleon awakened the sensual side of her nature that had been suppressed. She was good for Napoleon too who seemed to have suffered from performance anxiety. With Marie, he could play the tender lover, since she didn't really have anyone to compare him too.

When Josephine found out about the affair (and her enemies made sure that she learned of it), she wrote him a letter begging him to allow her to join him. Napoleon refused, claiming that the climate was too cold for her. Instead, Marie traveled with him while he was on campaign in Prussia. While he was out in the field, she stayed in her rooms reading or doing embroidery. They spent their nights talking and making love. Now that she had given up her inhibitions, Marie threw herself into her affair with Napoleon with abandon. She loved knowing that she had power over the Emperor of the French. 'Once I was an acorn, now I am an oak. Yet when I am an oak to all the others, I am glad to be an acorn to you.'

While Napoleon had helped to establish a new Polish ministry and reorganized the Polish army, he confessed to Marie that he could not liberate Poland, he had to put France's interests before all others. Despite his admission, Marie continued to fall deeper and deeper in love with him. She became pregnant so Napoleon brought her to Paris where he could have a doctor examine her daily. She came to Paris in 1808 living in a house at 48 Rue Victoire which Napoleon provided for her, with her brother and a maid. Unfortunately she suffered a miscarriage. While in Vienna, after crushing the Austrians at Wagram, he brought Marie to stay with him in a nearby cottage while he stayed at the Schonbrunn Palace where for three months they lived as man and wife. It was their last period together as lovers.

And when she finally became pregnant with his child again, he was ecstatic. Unfortunately for Marie, her pregnancy was the beginning of the end of her affair with Napoleon. He had long been obsessed with the need to have an heir, although he had named his step-daughter Hortense's son (by his brother Louis) as his heir which pissed off his other siblings. Her pregnancy helped to prove that he wasn't shooting blanks. While other women had claimed to have borne the Emperor's child, Marie's was the only one that he could be 100% sure was his.

The Emperor began looking around for a new wife, while beginning the proceedings to divorce Josephine, a prospect that did not feel him with joy. Josephine was no doubt the love of his life, but the years of their mutual infidelities and her inability to bear him an heir had eroded their marriage. He married the Austrian archduchess, Marie Louise in April of 1810.

And poor Marie! She was hurt that the Emperor planned to marry another woman although she understood. Instead when her son was born in May of 1810, he bore the name of Walewski. When Napoleon heard the news that Marie had born him a son, Alexander, he immediately made him a Count. He invited Marie to bring the boy to see him and settled on her an allowance of ten thousand francs a month. While in Paris, Josephine sent word from Malmaison that she would like to meet Napoleon's son, and Marie dutifully brought Alexander to meet the former Empress.

Marie returned to Poland and for the next four years spent her time raising her son, and keeping tabs on the man she loved. She was something of a celebrity in Poland, where people referred to her as Napoleon's 'Polish wife.' In 1811, she heard the news that Marie Louise had born the Emeperor a son, who was made King of Rome. When Napoleon abdicated and was sent into exile at Elba, Marie took her son and went to visit him. She offered to share his exile with him but Napoleon turned her down. Napoleon delighted in the boy but he permitted Marie to only spend two days on the island because he still hoped that Marie Louise would join him in exile. Marie offered him her jewels but Napoleon refused to take them, instead he gave her sixty thousand francs since the royal pension he had given her was no longer valid. She saw him one last time in Paris before the battle of Waterloo.

The Empress Marie Louise never did share Napoleon's exile. Instead she became lovers with the man her father, the Austrian Emperor had sent to spy on her and to convince her not to join her husband, Adam Adalbert, Graf von Neipperg, a general in the Austian army, who was known to be notoriously attractive to women. He also detested Napoleon and was quite happy to work his magic on his wife. Marie Louise lived with him in Parma where she was had been made Duchess (by Napoleon), and bore him two children. Napoleon made excuses for her behavior, declaring that after his death he wanted his heart preserved in wine and presented to his 'dear Marie Louise'. After his death, she married von Neipperg and bore him a son.

The woman he should have left his heart to, Marie Walewska remarried after the death of her husband to one of Napoleon's Generals named Phillipe d'Ornano, who like the Emperor was also Corsican and his second cousin. Marie had first met D'Ornano in Warsaw in 1807 soon after she met Napoleon. They kept in touch over the years and he was her escort during her stay in Paris in 1812. While she was fond of d'Ornano, he never replaced Napoleon in her heart. She died in childbirth in 1817 at the age of 28. Her son by Napoleon, Alexander Walewski grew up to become the minister of Foreign Affairs for Napoleon III. He had a son by the French actress Rachel and his descendants still live in France .

While Marie's historical significance may be small her greatest gift to Napoleon was that she loved the man more than the Emperor.

Sources include Wikipedia
Napoleon's Women - Christopher Hibbert

Nymphos and other Maniacs - Irving Wallace

Cupid and the King - Princess Michael of Kent

Marie Walewska: Napoleon's Greatest Love - Christine Sutherland

Conquest - starring Greta Garbo as Marie and Charles Boyer as Napoleon


Jasia said…
I was waiting for this one... and you didn't disappoint! Being of Polish descent, Marie Walewska is a name I've come across before in Polish historical fiction. It's very interesting to see what was fiction and what is fact! Thanks for a great read!
Your welcome, jasia. I found Marie to be so interesting. How many woman became mistresses to help their countries? I think she was the one woman in his life who loved him and didn't want anything from him. I think that if he hadn't been so consumed with creating a dynasty, he could have been quite happy with Marie.
Anonymous said…
Oh gosh, another great post! I just love what you are doing with this site. I link to every single article you can be sure. And I know from my readers that they do read these and look forward to them. thanks again, for a great blog.
Anonymous said…
Fascinating, fascinating stuff!
"Conquest" is a grand film!
Elena, I haven't seen it yet, but they are doing a Charles Boyer film festival at Lincoln Center and I may try and see it there on a big screen.
Wow, what a life, Marie. I wouldn't have the emotional fortitude for all the drama though...
It can't be easy Leanna, loving a man like Napoleon, someone so driven, particularly since he didn't really like women! And the older he got, the more of a misogynist he became, but he had a soft spot in his heart for Marie, and it was nice that her son became such a valued member of Napoleon III's court.
Unknown said…
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That long post was incredibly well written! I’m a sub for any stern mistress and you fascinate and interest me at the same time~ -blushes-
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