Princesse de Lamballe: Interesting Facts about Her

Princesse de Lamballe was born in Turin, Italy, on 8 September 1749, the 251st day of the Gregorian calendar, which was a Monday. What many people remember about the princess is her beheading and the horrid way in which she died. However, there are many other interesting facts about her that you may not know.

Princesse de Lamballe

Princesse de Lamballe as a child in 1770 by François-Hubert Drouais. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact #1: Princesse de Lamballe was a favorite of Marie Antoinette. In fact, because of their close relationship, Marie Antoinette revived a position known as Superintendent of the Household and placed the princess in that position. One of the benefits was the princess could determine who had access to the Queen. This, of course, caused infighting among those in the Queen’s household and contributed to some people not liking the princess.

Princesse de Lamballe

Princesse de Lamballe. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Fact #2: Freemasonry was one way the Princess de Lamballe spent her free time. In fact, she became quite involved after she joined the Adoptive Lodge called La Candeur. In addition, she was also appointed Grand Mistress of the Mère Lodge Écossaise d’Adoption. If you are interested in learning more about freemasonry in France in the 1700s, click here.

Fact #3: The princess once held a special fête for Gustav III of Sweden with the culmination of the event being a lift off of a balloon, a rare thing at the time. The first known flight of any balloon was a hot air balloon flown by the Montgolfier brothers — Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier — on 14 December 1782, and the first public demonstration of a manless hot air balloon ascending was also achieved by the Montgolfier Brothers in Annoay, France, on 4 June 1783.

Fact #4: King Louis XV pursued a relationship with the Princesse de Lamballe after her husband died of syphilis. However, because she was not interested, he ended up in a romantic relationship with the high squeaky-voiced Madame du Barry.

Fact #5: For wealthy women of the eighteenth century, musicality was a positive and desirable trait. Moreover, “in France, as in England, musical aptitude was seen as a sign of refined femininity, greatly enhancing a young woman’s marriage prospects.”[1] However, there were gender restrictions on what instruments women could play because according to Margaret Hunt:.

“In many European regions, both rural and urban, women were not permitted to play solo instruments such as the violin. Women were generally allowed to sing, to play instruments such as the lute or harp, used largely for the purposes of accompaniment, to play the castanets, tambourine, or other simple rhythm instruments … and to play background instruments if they were needed for a family band. … The prohibition against women performing on solo instruments, and sometimes on any instruments, rose to the level of a taboo.”[2]

Among those who played the harp in the eighteenth century was Marie Antoinette, her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth, and Jane Austen‘s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. The princess was also one of the women who enjoyed playing the harp and below is a picture of her harp.

Princesse de Lamballe harp

Princesse de Lamballe’s Harp. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France,

Fact #6: Many people enjoyed reading in the eighteenth century and reading Italian poetry was reportedly one of the favorite things that the Princesse de Lamballe did. If you are interested in learning about other things she read, click here.

Fact #7: Marie Antoinette thought that one her favorites, Yolande de Polastron, better known as Madame de Polignac, would become best friends with the Princesse de Lamballe. However, in the end, neither woman cared for the other despite both women being born on the same day, month, and year, 8 September 1749.

Fact #8: Although not much of card player herself, the Princesse de Lamballe hosted outstanding card parties that were allegedly so well attended women often had to change their clothes afterwards because their laps were blackened by the quantities of coins they received. The princess was also said to set a limited amount of money aside to gamble with and when she lost that she stopped, unlike Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, known as Madame du Châtelet, who was lover to the famous French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire, who interestingly was also the first person that Madame Tussaud made a wax cast from without help from her mentor and uncle, Philippe Mathé Curtius.

Princesse de Lamballe wax portrait

Wax portrait of the Princess de Lamballe by Madame Tussaud. Courtesy of Invaluable.

Fact #9: Princesse de Lamballe had a penchant for fortune tellers, as did Madame Récamier‘s friend, Madame de Staël. In the Princesse de Lamballe’s case she is reported to have patronized the famous French cartomancer Madame Lenormand, as well as the astrologist and fortune-teller Mrs. Williams.

Fact #10: After the “Women’s March on Versailles” the princess accompanied the Royal Family to the Tuileries Palace. Supposedly what they found when they arrived was a rundown palace with poor accommodations. In addition, the Royal Family and their household were closely watched, which may have been one reason why the princess referred to her apartment there as “my dungeon.”

Fact #11: The Duke of Penthièvre was the Princesse de Lamballe’s father-in-law. He was also the richest man in France at the time of her marriage. When she married his son, the Duke reputedly gave her so many diamonds and jewels, it would have required pages to list them all.

“Based on today’s value they are conservatively estimated to have been worth about £83,300. In addition, the duke provided a dowry of 60,000 livres, and … in the unlikely event of her husband’s death, ‘thirty thousand livres income for life, besides sixteen dresses and other articles for her use, to the amount of 75,000 livres. By comparison, French peasant tilled the land for the rich privileged classes and existed typically on ‘bread, butter, and cakes.'”[3]

Princesse de Lamballe's husband

Prince de Lamballe. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fact #12: The princess was extremely fond of children and willingly played with them. One visitor to Versailles noted on 8 January 1787 that she was ill with a bruise on her head. Apparently, she had fallen while romping with her nephew Louis-Charles, who was the son of Louise Marie Adelaïde de Bourbon (daughter of the Duke of Penthièvre) and Philippe of Orléans (the future Philippe Égalité). Louis-Charles was also younger brother to the future King Louis-Philippe I of the French.

Fact #13: Anti-monarchists were unhappy about the monarchy and contributed to vicious rumors about the Queen. Also included in salacious rumors spread about the Queen were her friends, the Princesse de Lamballe and Madame de Polignac who were alleged at various points to be the Queen’s lovers. 

“One particularly slanderous piece depicted them in a five-act play titled, La Gallerie des Dames Françaises. … There was also L’autrichienne en Gouguettes, ou L’Orgie Royale (The Austrian Woman on the Rampage, or the Royal Orgy) that took aim not only against the Queen and madame de Polignac but also the King and his brother, the comte d’Artois … [making] highly obscene [innuendoes]. It claimed that while the King was sleeping, the lecherous comte d’Artois was bedding the Queen with a lustful madame de Polignac observing.”[4]

Fact #14: The Duke of Penthièvre built the princess a cozy two-room cottage at Rambouillet called Chaumière aux Coquillages (Shell Cottage). Built between 1779 and 1780, it is about a mile or so down the road from the Rambouillet chateau. The cottage is a rustic, square building with a couple of windows, two exterior doors, and a magnificent dark, thick thatched roof. The inside is intensely interesting as there are thousands of shells, fifteen different types, used to decorate the walls, thereby giving the cottage its name. It was here at the shell cottage that the princess would escape to read, visit with friends, or spend quiet time.

Princesse de lamballe - her shell cottage

The Princesse de Lamballe’s shell cottage at Rambouillet. © G.L. Walton.

Fact #15: A painting of the Princesse de Lamballe completed by French artist Antoine Vestier (1740-1824) was stolen by the Dublin Cahill gang in a famous art heist in 1986. It took years and a concerted effort by sly detectives before the portrait was recovered in 1993. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating heist, click here.

Princesse de Lamballe stolen artwork

Vestier’s Painting of the Princesse de Lamballe that was stolen in 1986. Author’s collection.

Fact #16: A gardener of the 1820s by the name of Auguste Miellez was so inspired by the Princesse de Lamballe and her story, he bred white or near white roses with a strong fragrance that he then named after her calling them Princesse de Lamballe.

Fact #17: Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian was a French poet and romance writer. His uncle and guardian, the Marquis of Florian, who had married a niece of Voltaire’s, introduced him at the château de Ferney and in 1768 he became page at in the household of the Duke of Penthièvre, who remained his friend throughout his life. In 1788, he was elected to the Académie française and on the outbreak of the French Revolution he retired to Sceaux, but he was soon discovered and imprisoned; and though Robespierre’s death spared him, he died a few months later while in prison from tuberculosis. However, in 1789, he wrote a poem in that honored the princess and was inserted it in front of his “six nouvelles.” 

Fact #18: The Princesse de Lamballe maintained that she frequently went into her own purse and paid for items for the Queen and Madame Élisabeth. Moreover, she was rarely, if ever, reimbursed by the either of the women.

Portrait by J. B. Charpentier of the Duke of Penthievre, his son Prince Lamballe, the Princess de Lamballe, daughter (the future Duchesse d’Orleans), and the Countess Toulouse drinking chocolate. Public domain.

Fact #19: The princess loved to travel and visited many places during her lifetime. Sometimes she traveled with the King’s royal court and other times her trips were made just with the Queen, with her sister-in-law, or alone with her adopted daughter, Madame de Lâge. However, there are many interesting anecdotes related to her travels that you can read by clicking here.

Fact #20: Many people of the 1700 and 1800s were known to love animals. For instance, Eliza de Feuillide so loved her pugs Jane Austen included Lady Betram, who had an exaggerated love for her pug, in her novel Mansfield Park. Like Eliza, the Princesse de Lamballe was known to love her dogs, of which she had several. In fact, in her will she made sure to provide for them after her death.

Fact #21: The house that the princess bought in Passy in the mid-1770s was about three miles outside of Paris at the time. Part of the reason for her purchase was because Passy offered a bucolic setting and she could escape from all the ceremony associated at Versailles or the formality of Paris. Benjamin Franklin was also drawn to the Passy area and lived there during part of the time he served as Ambassador to France. After the princess died, the bulk of her estate went to her nephew, which he sold after the Reign of Terror to a French banker named Joseph Baguenault. It remained in the Baguenault family who rather than use it themselves, let and sublet it so that by the mid-1800s, her Passy house began serving as a psychiatric hospital. Today, it functions as the Turkish Embassy. If you are interested in learning more about her home and its history, click here.

Avenue de Lamballe. Author’s collection.

Fact #22: The Duke of Penthièvre was known to be a generous benefactor who also performed all sorts of charity work around Rambouillet where his estate was located. Because of his example, the princess also became involved in charitable work while living at Rambouillet and thus acquired the nickname of “The Good Angel of Penthièvre.”

Fact #23: The princess remained a popular figure long after her death. In fact, in 1897, when a Devonshire Costume Ball was held, Lady Ampthill choice to dress and pose as her.

Fact #24: When the princess returned to France from exile in Aix-la-Chapelle, she brought a spaniel dog named Thisbée as a gift for the Queen. Marie Antoinette renamed the dog “Mignon” for cute.

Fact #25: The Princesse de Lamballe was prone to collapsing and was known to faint over the slightest thing, including the sight of lobsters, someone yawning, or the odor of violets. In fact, there are many interesting stories about her fainting. Included among them is one that involves Gaspare Pacchierotti, a famous castrato of his time:

“Sometime between 1778 and 1790, Pacchierotti visited Versailles and was induced to perform. His performance was so moving, and the song so pathetic audience members began to cry. It also happened that he ‘touch[ed] some chord in the sensitive bosom of Madame de Lamballe, which vibrated to such a degree as to cause her … to faint.” [5]

If you are interested in learning more about the Princesse de Lamballe, my book, “Marie Antoinette’s Confidante,” contains more about her life during the French Revolution and her friendship with Marie Antoinette.

References:

    • [1] “Interior Motives: Seduction by Decoration in Eighteenth-Century France” in Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion, Furniture in Eighteenth-Century France,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2006.
    • [2] Hunt, Margaret, Women in Eighteen Century Europe, 2014, p. 253.
    • [3] Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, 2016, p. 10.
    • [4] Ibid., p. 154.
    • [5] Ibid. p. 22.

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