Maria Caterina Brignole was born on 7 October 1737 as the daughter of Giuseppe Maria Brignole Sale, 7th Marchese di Groppoli and Maria Anna Balbi. Her father was the Genovese ambassador to France, and so Maria Caterina and her mother regularly attended Versailles and the salons of Paris.
Maria Caterina fell in love with Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, but by 1755 her mother proposed a marriage between her daughter and a former lover of her own, Prince Honoré III of Monaco. Maria Anna and Prince Honoré had a passionate love affair for several years, but as Maria Anna began to age (she was already ten years older than her lover), Prince Honoré began to notice her fifteen-year-old daughter. By then, Maria Caterina was a “well-developed beauty of fifteen with a handsome widow’s peak, wide, dark eyes, a bewitching smile, full bosom and a slim waist.” Maria Caterina was obviously not hindered by the fact that he had been her mother’s lover as she wrote him, “I, the undersigned, declare and promise to the Prince de Monaco never to marry anyone but him, whatever may happen and never to listen to any proposal that might tend to release me.”
Maria Caterina’s father was less than amused, and Prince Honoré pressured him for several months to no avail. Instead, he opened discussions with the Duke de la Vallière. He eventually relented after intervention by King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. The couple were married by proxy on 15 June 1757, and by then they had not seen each other for two years. When her ship finally arrived at the harbour in Monaco, Maria Caterina did not disembark. Finally, a note was sent to the waiting Prince from Maria Caterina’s mother informing him that “conscious of her birth and rank” Prince Honoré should board the ship to greet his new wife, instead of Maria Caterina disembarking to greet him. Prince Honoré insisted that as a sovereign prince, his rank was greater than hers and that she must be the one to advance first. The gangplank was raised.
After six days, an agreement was reached. “This was to make a bridge out from the Condamine landing-stage to join one let down from their boat. The next day…a general post was sounded, we all took up our positions for the great event, the fleet arrived in the harbour, the palace guns fired a salute, the galley drew near our bridge and started to lower another, as had been agreed. The Prince grew tired of waiting for the end of what seemed a long job and became impatient to embrace his darling bride. He jumped into a boat, followed by his most intrepid courtiers, and in spite of the fuss reached the galley’s ladder. He had scarcely put foot on it when the Princess came down followed by her mother, three uncles and a cousin.”
Eleven months after their wedding Maria Caterina gave birth to a son, who was named after his father. Prince Honoré soon grew restless, and he left his wife for an extended visit to France, promising her that she could join him soon. Maria Caterina missed him a lot, “My dear love, I swear I feel as deeply as you how cruel it is to be separated from the one you love most in the world. My sorrow is ever with me. I’m only truly happy when dreaming, for then I’ve always the feeling of being with you…and I’m always happy to see you respond affectionately to the signs I give of my tenderness for you; but waking up is cruel for however much I look I don’t find you…” She was finally allowed to join him in December, and they remained in France for two years. She returned to Monaco when she found herself pregnant, but she suffered a miscarriage in the fifth month. Prince Honoré returned to Monaco to collect her and bring her back to Paris. Maria Caterina began to feel neglected by him. “You are forgetting about me, dear love”, she wrote in May 1763. By then, she was pregnant once again, but Prince Honoré was even further away in Normandy. She gave birth to another son, Joseph Marie Jérôme on 10 September 1763. Prince Honoré did not come rushing back to her.
Maria Caterina did not live up to the expectations of the French court, and she was one of the few women not to paint her face. She was described by Lady Sarah Lennox as having “a round face with a sweet and charming expression. Her complexion is lovely, and she’s got the best figure of any woman I know. She is the only one her not to paint her face, all the others dab rouge on in a horrible manner.” She managed to attract the attention of the Prince de Condé, who she saw as a kind friend. Prince Honoré descended upon Paris with rage, leaving behind his mistress in Normandy. If there was any love left, it was now completely gone between them.
On 9 January 1771, Maria Caterina was granted a legal separation from her husband, and she moved into the Château de Chantilly, and she bought the Château de Betz. Despite their problems, Prince Honoré allowed their sons to visit her. Now separated from her husband, she could finally allow love to grow for the Prince de Condé, and she became his mistress.
The French Revolution threw everything into turmoil. Her estranged husband, her eldest son and her grandson and the wife of her second son were imprisoned. The wife of her second son, Thérèse Françoise de Choiseul was executed on 27 July 1794. Her husband never regained his strength after eventually being released, and he died on 12 May 1795. However, Monaco was no longer a principality and her son succeeded to an empty title.
On 24 October 1798, Maria Caterina finally married the Prince de Condé in London, but the marriage was kept a secret for a decade. Maria Caterina put much of her wealth into supporting the exiled French community’s armed resistance. She did not live to see her son restored to Monaco’s throne. She died on 18 March 1813 in London.1