Thursday 23 June 2011

June 23rd, 1703: The birth of the Polish Queen of France

On this day in 1703, one of the most powerful aristocrats in the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanislas Leszczynski, marked the birth of his second daughter, Maria (above). Christened in honour of the Virgin Mary, baby Maria's full name was Maria Carolina Sophia Felicity Leszczynska. Both the baby and her mother, Katarzyna, were in fine health and a year later they both acquired a royal title, when Stanislas was able to pursue his claim to the Polish throne, thanks to his Swedish allies.

Stanislas I's reign in Poland, however, was short and troublesome. He was king for less than six years before being deposed and the royal family were forced to seek asylum in Lorraine, in modern-day Germany. They also endured personal tragedy when Maria's elder sister, Anna, died at the age of eighteen after contracting pneumonia.

The ex-king, queen Katarzyna and princess Maria lived a relatively quiet life in exile until Maria's name was unexpectedly put on the list of ninety-nine eligible princesses to marry the young King Louis XV of France. Louis's chief minister, Cardinal Fleury, lobbied hard for the King to pick Maria as his bride, since she had royal ancestry and a Catholic faith (both pre-requisites for a future queen of France), but, more pragmatically, her father's lack of political power meant that a marriage to Maria Leczszynska would not pull France into any dangerous or costly foreign alliances, as the marriage of Louis XIV to Maria-Teresa of Spain had done in the previous century. The marriage between the exiled Polish princess and the handsome young monarch took place at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg on the Feast of the Assumption in 1725.

The marriage itself was an unremarkable one, although it began happily enough. Marie (as she was known in France) endured her husband's numerous affairs with relative complacency. With unusual grace and tact, she managed to establish a friendly relationship with her husband's most notorious mistress, the marquise de Pompadour, a famously beautiful but unpopular woman, who was the only one of Louis XV's lovers to treat the Queen with anything like respect and courtesy. 

A devout Roman Catholic, Marie was noted for her charities and for her large family. Between 1727, two years after the marriage, and ten years later, the Queen gave birth to eleven children - including the future duchess of Parma and the father of three kings, Louis XVI, Louis XVIII and Charles X. 

Novelist Elena Maria Vidal writes on her blog of Marie's time as queen: -
"She was the last Queen of France before Marie-Antoinette. According to Jean Chalon, the author of Chรจre Marie-Antoinette, Queen Marie tightened up the rigorous court etiquette that Marie-Antoinette later relaxed because it was so suffocating. The daughter of a dethroned monarch and wife of a blatantly unfaithful husband probably needed the highly ritualized pomp to boost her morale and her rank more than did the "daughter of the Caesars." Yes, Marie Lesczynska's father was the dethroned king of Poland and her early life was complicated by upheaval and exile. Yet for this very reason, she was chosen to be the bride of the teenage Louis XV, because she had no political entanglements at all... Queen Marie quietly devoted herself to her faith and her family. Courtiers mocked her Polish ways and called her La Polonaise even as later they would call Marie-Antoinette L'Autrichienne. All of Marie's children were as religious as she was; her youngest daughter Madame Louise became a Carmelite nun and a Blessed of the Church. Some of her grandchildren were quite pious as well, especially Louis XVI, Madame Clothilde, and Madame Elisabeth. Clothilde was declared a Venerable and Louis XVI and Madame Elisabeth can be regarded as martyrs in that they would not surrender their religious principles. When she died in 1768, Louis XV sincerely mourned the mother of his children, and we hope he regretted causing her such pain with his infidelities."

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