Marie Henrietta of Austria was born on 23 August 1836 as the daughter of Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, and Duchess Maria Dorothea of Württemberg. Dorothea de Ficquelmont described the young Archduchess as “having been raised as a boy.” Marie Henrietta was a happy girl who learned to speak German, French, English and Italian. She was musically gifted and played the piano and the harp. She rode horses like a professional.
Her future husband, the future King Leopold II of the Belgians, was described by his own father as having “bad habits that damaged his soul, body and mind.” Marie Henriette and Leopold married on 10 August 1853 by proxy, with Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother Karl Ludwig standing as the proxy for Leopold. On 14 August, Marie Henriette departed for Belgium. Meanwhile, Leopold had come down with measles. Marie Henriette was in no hurry and did not arrive in Belgium until 21 August. They were finally married in person the next day, and from then on, she was known as The Duchess of Brabant. It was a disaster from the start. A desperate Marie Henriette wrote to her mother, “I am very unhappy, and I pray that I will be dead as soon as possible.”
Leopold’s father responded by sending the young couple to England to visit Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria adored the young Duchess as opposed to the haughty Duke. Queen Victoria was also alarmed to learn that the marriage had not been consummated. She wrote Leopold’s father to assure him that she would educate Marie Henriette. Upon their return to Belgium, not much had improved. Marie Henriette purchased a parrot and monkey to keep her company. Her only friend at court was her sister-in-law Charlotte, later Empress of Mexico.
When Leopold fell ill again in 1854, the couple headed for warmer weather. The first stop was Vienna, where Marie Henriette visited her mother. Leopold despised Venice, and according to him, Greece and its cultural sights were “a filthy mess.” In Egypt, Marie Henriette visited the pyramids, which he described as “little towers which were not worth it.” He was inspired by the plans for the Suez canal and filled notebooks with plans for a dam. Cruelly, Leopold withheld a letter from Marie Henriette which informed her of the death of her mother, simply because he did not wish to cut the trip short. Now, she had had enough, but she would still need to keep going for another four months. They returned to Belgium on 26 August 1855.
On 18 August 1858, Marie Henriette gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Louise. She was not only criticised for the sex of the child but also for breastfeeding her. On 12 June 1859, a son named Leopold was born. His father declared him to be very ugly. From then on, the King could no longer persuade the couple to keep up appearances. Marie Henriette went to visit her half-brother, while Leopold took the waters at Bad Gastein. Perhaps it was here that his extramarital affairs began. Marie Henriette began a friendship with Pierre Chazal, leading to rumours of an affair. Despite this, a third child, a daughter named Stéphanie, was born in 1864.
On 12 December 1865, Marie Henriette was present at the deathbed of her father-in-law. He refused to see his own children. The new King and Queen visited every capital of the provinces of Belgium.The relationship between them remained cold. Leopold was away a lot, and when he was there, the mood automatically became dark. From 1867, Marie Henriette cared for Charlotte, who had sunk into a deep depression after the death of her husband, Maximilian. In 1869, their only son would die. Leopold cried openly at the funeral of his only son. Attempts at producing another heir led to a miscarriage and the birth of another daughter named Clémentine in 1872. After Clémentine’s birth, Marie Henriette drew a line. They would now live completely separate lives.
Leopold was not fond of his daughters and attempted to completely disinherit them. In 1900, he gave all his real estate to the Belgian state on the condition that they remain available for the heirs to the throne. Marie Henriette herself could be cruel as well. After Stéphanie had married Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and had given birth to his daughter, she became infertile due to a venereal disease she had received from her husband. Marie Henriette knew that Stéphanie was seriously ill, but she wrote, “Papa and I will not receive you until you have given birth to a son.” Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide in 1889 and Stéphanie was forced to beg to be allowed to return to Belgium.
Marie Henriette turned more and more to her villa in Spa. From 1884, her health began to deteriorate. On 19 September 1902, Marie Henriette died all alone in Spa. Leopold attended the funeral with his mistress.1