Marie-Thérèse Louise of Savoy-Carignan was born on the 8th of September 1749 in Turin. She was the sixth child of Louis Victor, Prince of Carignano and his wife Landgravine Christine of Hesse-Rheinfels-Rotenberg. As her father was descended from King Victor Amadeus II of Sardinia, Marie-Thérèse was a member of a cadet branch of the House of Savoy, one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious royal houses.
When Marie-Thérèse was seventeen, a proposal for her hand in marriage came from the court of France. The French King Louis XV suggested Louis Alexandre de Bourbon, Prince of Lamballe as her suitor. The Prince de Lamballe was a prince of the blood as he was a great-grandson of King Louis XIV and his mistress Madame de Montespan. Louis Alexandre was also the heir of the wealthiest nobleman in France, the Duc de Penthièvre. The match was deemed a very good one for Marie-Thérèse despite Louis Alexandre’s terrible reputation as a debauched and selfish young man. The King of Sardinia agreed to the pairing as an alliance between France and Savoy was long sought after, and plans were put in place straight away for the wedding.
The wedding took place in January 1767 in Turin by proxy, with Marie-Thérèse’s brother standing in for the groom. The celebrations continued for weeks as Marie-Thérèse left Turin and headed to meet her husband and father in law in Nangis, central France. The night before the couple was due to meet formally, the Prince de Lamballe delivered flowers to his bride, disguised as a page. The new Princesse found the page handsome and charming and was happy to find out the next day that he was, in fact, her husband. While in Nangis the couple’s marriage was blessed and they celebrated with a banquet which was attended by many of the princes of the blood. Everything seemed to be going well for the new young couple.
The Prince’s father, the Duc de Penthièvre, had hoped that marrying a sweet, pious woman such as Marie-Thérèse would bring a stop to his son’s womanising and gambling, but after just a few short weeks of marriage, it was clear that the Prince could not be tamed. The Prince often abandoned his wife and visited his mistresses for months on end. After seventeen months of marriage, the Princesse de Lamballe was widowed as her husband succumbed to a venereal disease. The Princesse tried her best to nurse him, to no avail. After her husband’s death, it was only her father-in-law’s intervention that stopped her from retreating to a nunnery as he asked her to stay with him and help in his charitable work. From this point on, he loved the Princesse like his own daughter.
After the death of her husband, the young Princesse spent her time between the French court where she had begun to form friendships and joining in with her father-in-law’s charitable endeavours. The pair began to be known as the good angel of Penthièvre and the King of the poor and were well-loved by local people. Once her sister-in-law, the Duc’s daughter was married to the Duc de Chartres, however, the Princesse and her sister-in-law both spent more time at court where a young fashionable circle was forming just in time for the arrival of the future Queen, Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette arrived in France in May 1770 at the age of fourteen as the new wife of the Dauphin Louis, the heir to the French throne. Her mother and governesses wished to select only the most suitable of girls as the new Dauphine’s friends and luckily as a Princess of the blood and a discreet and pious young woman, the Princesse de Lamballe met the criteria. The Princesse and Dauphine were introduced to each other by King Louis XV and grew close rather quickly.
This was an era of deep female friendships, where elite young girls obsessed over their best friends, carried pictures of them around and were deeply devoted to each other to an almost romantic level. This was certainly the way Marie Antoinette seemed to feel about the Princesse de Lamballe; the pair was rarely seen apart, and if they were, Marie Antoinette would draw images of the Princesse and weep about missing her. In March 1771, the Austrian ambassador reported “For some time past the Dauphine has shown a great affection for the Princesse de Lamballe. This young Princesse is sweet and amiable, and enjoying the privilèges of a Princess of the Blood Royal, is in a position to avail herself of her Royal Highness’s favour.”
Soon this deep friendship became more of a familial bond as three of the Princesse de Lamballe’s cousins married siblings of the Dauphin. By this stage, the French and Savoyan royal houses were deeply interwoven, and the Princesse de Lamballe was assured of her high rank and favour at court.
In May 1774, the sudden death of King Louis XV meant that Marie Antoinette and her husband ascended to the throne as the King and Queen of France. The pair reportedly dropped to the floor in prayer and proclaimed “we are indeed too young to reign”. After she became Queen, Marie Antoinette found that many of her doubters suddenly wished to become close to her, and she had to determine who her true friends were. Despite apparently saying ‘the Queen does not avenge the Dauphine’, Marie Antoinette gave the highest-ranking post in her household to her dear friend the Princesse de Lamballe and made her the Superintendent of the Queen’s household.
The elevation of the Princesse to this post caused friction at court; firstly because many older or more experienced women believed they should have the post and secondly because the post had not existed for thirty years. The role was one of the most highly paid at court, and despite having plenty of her own money, the Princesse would not renounce the 50,000 crowns a year salary which came with her new post. Marie refused to renounce the salary because she was undertaking such a huge amount of work at court; due to the state of France’s finances, this earned her many enemies. Her new role meant that the Princesse was elevated above all other women at court, on top of this she had to organise all entertainments for the Queen and she received all of the Queen’s letters and petitions.
Though some people did suspect Marie-Thérèse of pushing her Savoyan interests at court and promoting family members to high ranking positions, she was mostly regarded as an honest and true friend who stayed away from plotting and gossip, unlike her Savoy cousins who did not make such a good name for themselves. Marie Antoinette certainly trusted her greatly and said to her husband that “the Princesse de Lamballe’s friendship is the charm of my life.” It seemed that the two young friends were too busy having fun to notice France’s people slipping further and further into poverty and despair. In the freezing winter of 1776, the friends attended glorious parties and went out on horse-drawn sleigh rides. Madame de Campan, a lady in waiting, wrote that the Princesse de Lamballe looked like “spring clothed with ermine” or “a rose in the snow” and described her and the Queen as twins.
After 1776, the friendship between the Princesse de Lamballe and Marie Antoinette began to wane somewhat, as Marie-Thérèse was seen as reserved and quiet, whereas Marie Antoinette was coming into the prime of her life, wishing to entertain and have fun. Though the pair remained constant friends, they saw less of each other, and Marie Antoinette began to favour the outgoing Duchesse de Polignac.
Despite falling slightly from the Queen’s favour, the Princesse de Lamballe maintained her role as Superintendent of her household and also threw herself into work with charities and the Freemasons. Before long the Queen gravitated back towards de Lamballe and away from de Polignac. At the same time, the first groans of the revolutionary voices were heard in France, and de Lamballe was targeted in explicit pornographic pamphlets which portrayed her to be the lover of the Queen and helping her to spend France into ruin.
On the 7th of October 1789, the Princesse de Lamballe returned from a trip away caring for her father-in-law. She had been away from court on holiday, then with her father-in-law during the beginnings of the French Revolution. While countless royals and nobles fled the French court over the next few years, the Princesse de Lamballe did the opposite and returned as soon as she could. On her return, she joined the royal family who had been removed from Versailles and was under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace at this time.1