Born August 23, 1836, in Budapest, Marie-Henriette was the daughter of Archduke Joseph of Austria, Palatine of Hungary, and his third wife, Dorothea of Württemberg. Her childhood, amidst a large family in the Hungarian countryside, was happy, and she grew up into a handsome, vigorous, lively girl, an accomplished horsewoman.
At 17, Marie-Henriette married Prince Leopold, eldest son and heir of King Leopold I of the Belgians. It was a political match, intended to shield Belgium from possible French aggression. In addition, it was hoped, the Hapsburg connection would securely establish the new Belgian dynasty among the prestigious Catholic monarchies of Europe. The spouses' temperaments, however, clashed from the start. Only weeks after her wedding, the bride wrote to her painting master:
...I am an unhappy woman. God is my only support. My poor mother begins to perceive what she did when she arranged my marriage. She only sought my happiness, but now she sees the opposite is the case. If God will hear my prayer, I will not live longer...
Despite her wish, this was only the beginning of nearly 50 years of grief. Pragmatic necessity (chiefly, the quest for an heir) united the couple during the early years of their marriage, but the death of their only son, at age 10, bitterly disappointed the King and strained the royal couple's fragile bond. When a further attempt at producing an heir merely resulted in the birth of their (third) daughter, Clementine, all hopes of marital harmony were shattered. Selfish, cynical, and cruel, Leopold was notoriously unfaithful, and Marie-Henriette was the first to suffer from his long series of scandals, which outraged Belgian public opinion and seriously damaged the royal family's reputation.
As Queen, Marie-Henriette was largely excluded from political affairs. She devoted her time principally to charity and philanthropy, and became a great patroness of art and music. In 1867, however, two years after her husband's accession, she was entrusted with an important political mission. Her sister-in-law, the unfortunate, deranged Empress Carlota of Mexico, was sequestered by the Hapsburgs at Miramar, and the Belgian queen had to arrange for her return to Belgium. She negotiated ably with the Austrians, accompanying Carlota on her journey home and kindly caring for her after her arrival.
The Queen has been described as a difficult character. She was certainly intractable with her daughters, pressuring the two eldest, Louise and Stephanie, into marriages which would prove disastrous, and reproaching the youngest, Clementine, merely for her independent spirit. Yet, some of her authoritarian parenting may simply have been normal for the period, and her deep personal unhappiness (eventually, despite her strong character and profound religious faith, she attempted suicide) probably contributed to her difficult behavior. In any case, her endurance of decades of loneliness and grief was admirable, as were her charity and great piety, which won her the Golden Rose of Virtue from Pope Leo XIII.
In 1895, Marie-Henriette finally separated from her husband, leaving the Belgian court and settling at Spa. Clementine assumed the role of the country's "first lady," while her mother lived in quiet retirement. In her solitude, she entertained herself with her life-long passions, art, music (she was a talented player of the piano and the harp), horses, and dogs. She also had a circle of intimates; one of her favorites was her nephew, Prince Albert, later King Albert I of the Belgians.
The Queen's last years, however, were darkened by illness and the tragic outcome of her eldest daughters' marriages. Louise's union with a Saxe-Coburg relative proved deeply unhappy, and the impetuous princess scandalized Europe by eloping with a lover and leading an extravagant and dissolute life; for a few years, she was even confined to a lunatic asylum. Stephanie's marriage to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria also proved unhappy, and ended in the Mayerling tragedy. Decades of grief and disappointment took a heavy toll on their mother's spirits and health. Prematurely aged and emaciated, surrounded by her last faithful friends, she died of heart failure on September 19, 1902.
Gubin, Eliane & Dupont-Bouchat, Marie-Sylvie. Dictionnaire des femmes belges. 2006.
Weber, Patrick. Amours royales et princières. 2006.
"A Queen's Unhappy Life: Misery of the Late Marie Henriette of Belgium Revealed in Letters", published in the New York Times, October 4, 1902.
"Tragedies of the Belgian Royal Family," by Ivan C. Waterbury, in Hearst's International: The World Today, Vol. III, no. 1, 1902, pp. 2042-2043.