Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Visit of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor

In 1777 it had been seven years since the 14-year old Archduchess Maria Antonia had married the French dauphin, Louis Auguste. Seven years and no children had come from the union. Worse yet, the marriage had not even been consummated. 

This was the year when Marie Antoinette - now queen of France for three years - would see one of her family members again. Joseph - her elder brother - was the only Austrian family member she would ever get the chance to see again. The Holy Roman Emperor had several reasons for paying his sister a visit. Partially, the imperial family in Vienna was deeply concerned about the state of its youngest daughter's behaviour. The Austrian ambassador, Count Mercy-d'Argenteau, was keeping the queen's mother, Empress Maria Theresia, intimately informed of her daughter's every movement - and he was not impressed. 

The young Marie Antoinette had come to consider the marriage bed a taboo; she could not discuss her problems with anyone and had to contend herself with everyone's interest in the subject. Thus, she turned her mind elsewhere - in her case, to her personal entertainment. This naturally led to considerable expenditure (but still not near that of Madame de Pompadour nor Louis XIV) which harmed her image. Reconciling the young couple was one major point of traveling to Versailles.

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Joseph II

Another was the emperor's own interest. He had never seen Paris nor France at all and had a desire to learn more about this European power. Furthermore, he was an emperor. Consequently, he had an interest in seeing for himself who his rival really was.

In an attempt to avoid the stiff etiquette that accompanied a visit by an emperor, Joseph decided to travel incognito. In France he would be known as the Count of Falkenstein. This allowed him to reside in an hôtel away from the palace itself. The Count of Falkenstein duly arrived in Paris in April 1777.

He immediately went about his business. On 19th April he went to Versailles where the courtiers were astonished to find that he arrived "without any pomp and almost unattended". A long meeting with his younger sister followed in which Marie Antoinette poured out all her worries about her marriage. Joseph attempted to console her and gave her a few good pieces of advice.

That same night he dined with the royal couple and Madame Élisabeth in the queen's chamber. Madame Campan was present at this dinner and described the emperor in a very positive way. According to her, the emperor "would talk much and fluently, he expressed himself in our language with facility."

However, Marie Antoinette would soon learn that her brother's visit was not all familial pleasure. One day he was invited as guest to witness her toilette where he brusquely mocked her and her ladies for their extreme use of rouge; he went so far as to compare them to the Furies. Naturally, the queen was deeply embarrassed but perhaps it hit home with her; ever since her arrival in France she had been molded into a Frenchwoman. Everything had been done to make her forget the simpler way of life in her native Austria.
While it may have been a wake-up call to the queen, the courtiers were less excited. The Austrians already had a reputation for being brusque and unrefined in France which the emperor's behaviour only seemed to confirm. 

Louis XVI was less welcoming. The young king's character made it impossible to be warm and welcoming to a complete stranger. Added to that was the fact that Joseph was a fixture of complex emotions for the monarch. On one side Joseph was his brother-in-law and despite the state of their marriage, Louis had no wish to hurt his wife. On the other side, Joseph was the head of France's historical enemy - a direct threat, especially if the marriage soured even more.
While the king of France was hesitant, the Holy Roman Emperor wasted no time in calculating how to manage the situation best. Joseph - like his sister - realized that it would only hurt his cause if he were to put pressure on Louis. Instead, Joseph adopted a calm and reasonable demeanor. And it worked. Louis began confiding in Joseph about his marriage and its problems. 

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Marie Antoinette

Joseph then turned his attentions to the French capitol. Here, he immediately became a popular figure - his incognito was basically useless since rumours ran like wildfire. His Austrian simplicity endeared him to the Frenchmen and his natural curiosity did the rest. 

On the 9th May he returned to the royal palace where he had planned a different type of audience with his sister. Rather than acting the comforting listener he handed out a few well-placed truths. Joseph even gave Marie Antoinette a book on her responsibilities as a wife and a queen before telling her that she needed to change her attitude towards Louis. Above all, she was to make her relationship with him the greatest priority of her life. 
Louis himself was not to be idle, either. To him, Joseph advised a small surgical operation to alleviate his issues with his "private parts". However, whether such an operation actually took place is widely debated.

In total, it was noted that the emperor spent the following days with Louis: the evening of the 19th April, the 29th-30th April, the 14th May and finally on 29th May.
It is equally recorded that the private conversation about the marriage issues took place on the 14th ("private" may be saying too much) while the two of them explored the gardens of Versailles on the 29th May.

With this tedious but necessary business over with, he could amuse himself. Joseph went to the royal menagerie, to the military barracks, to the Invalides and even to a hospital for foundlings and severely sick patients.
When Joseph left France after some weeks he had made a profound impact on the marriage between the French king and queen. Noticeably, they both made a far better effort to accommodate each other. The result was clear: the marriage was consummated on 18th August 1777.

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