Marie Thérèse of Savoy was born on 31 January 1756 as the third daughter and fifth child of the future King Victor Amadeus III of Sardinia and Maria Antonia Ferdinanda of Spain. Her parents would go on to have a total of 12 children, though not all of them lived to adulthood. She and her elder sister Marie Joséphine would both marry into the French royal family.
On 14 May 1771, Marie Joséphine married Prince Louis Stanislas, Count of Provence, the younger brother of the future King Louis XVI of France. Two years later, on 16 November 1773, Marie Thérèse followed in her sister’s footsteps when she married the third brother – Prince Charles Philippe, Count of Artois. At the time, her husband’s grandfather, King Louis XV, was entering the last year of his reign. With his eldest son predeceasing him, Marie Thérèse’s new brother-in-law Louis Auguste was next in the line of succession. He married Marie Antoinette in 1770.
Marie Thérèse left many at Versailles unimpressed with her appearance. She was described as “extremely small and burdened, like her sister Joséphine, with an exceptionally long nose.” One English observer even cruelly described her as “a starved witch.” However, King Louis XV was pleased with her “good complexion” and her “good bosom.”1
Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste’s marriage had famously remained unconsummated so far, and Marie Thérèse was noted for her ability to “please her husband.”2 Shortly before the wedding, Marie Antoinette had confided in her husband that she feared that she would be humiliated before the entire court if the Count of Artois’s new wife fell pregnant before her.3 But before any concerns over pregnancy could be raised, it became clear that the King was dying. On 3 May 1774, the King himself spoke the dreaded words, “It is smallpox.”4 The following day, he regretfully ordered his mistress Madame du Barry, to leave for Ruel. As his daughters continued to nurse him dutifully despite the risk of infection, his condition deteriorated. Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste were not with him, as they could not risk infection. Instead, they waited together in Marie Antoinette’s apartments.
On 10 May 1774, at three in the afternoon, King Louis XV died, and Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette became the new King and Queen of France. Courtiers rushed towards them to be the first to kiss their hands, but the King and Queen fell to their knees in prayer, saying, “Dear God, guide us and protect us. We are too young to reign.”5 A new reign had begun, and Marie Thérèse was at the centre of it. That afternoon, the royal family, including the King’s younger brothers and their wives, departed for the Palace of Choisy. The body of the late King was quickly put in a sealed coffin and sent to the Cathedral of Saint-Denis. The mood in the carriages was sombre, but Marie Thérèse reportedly pronounced a word wrong and sent the entire party into a fit of laughter.6
The following December, Marie Antoinette received the news she had been dreading. Marie Thérèse had indeed fallen pregnant before her. The baby was due in December, and meanwhile, plans for the King’s coronation were going ahead. Plans to have Marie Antoinette crowned alongside him were rebuffed, especially as she had not yet produced an heir. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable day. Two months later, on 6 August 1775, Marie Thérèse gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He was named Louis Antoine and given the title of Duke of Angoulême. According to etiquette, Marie Antoinette was forced to attend the birth and had to witness her own humiliation in person. Upon having been told it was a boy, Marie Thérèse exclaimed, “My God, How happy I am!”7 Marie Antoinette embraced Marie Thérèse tenderly before being allowed to retire to her own rooms. Courtiers called after her, “When will you give us an heir to the throne?”8 Once in the relative safety of her own apartments, Marie Antoinette broke down in tears.
Sarah Tytler described Marie Thérèse as “the more childish and mindless of the sisters; she was the less deceitful, while she could be guilty of the petted behaviour of a spoilt child. After she had been years at the French Court, she still spoke the language of her adopted country in the most deplorable manner. She became the exultant mother of children, while the Dauphiness and the Comtesse de Province, to their keen disappointment, continued childless; but the advantage of being regarded for three or four years as the mother of the probable heir to the throne, did not win the smallest popularity for the unattractive little Comtesse.”9
She wrote of the relationship between the sisters-in-law, “Marie Antoinette pined for fit company of her own age, and all the uncongeniality between her and her sisters-in-law did not come out in a day. The Dauphiness welcomed the Comtesse de Provence and the Comtesse d’Artois with her frank friendliness, and for a time, the increase of privileged young people brought a corresponding increase of sociality and animation in what was apt to be, to the princes and princesses the deadly liveliness of the Court of the blasé old King.”10 The couples spent a lot of time together at first and were very close. During the early years of the new reign, the King and Queen often dined with the Count and Countess of Artois. When Marie Antoinette fell ill with measles, Marie Thérèse was among those who nursed the Queen back to health.
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.129
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.129
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.128
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.137
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.138
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.139
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.162
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.163
- Marie Antoinette: the woman and the Queen by Sarah Tytler p.57
- Marie Antoinette: the woman and the Queen by Sarah Tytler p.58