Marie Adélaïde Clotilde of France was once described as “fat as butter, very merry, and good-natured.” On the other hand, her husband, Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Piedmont (later Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia), was just the opposite. He was described as “thin and sickly, like a worn-out man.” Their marriage was part of a wider political scheme of marriages by Marie Clotilde’s oldest brother, Louis XVI. For example, Louis XVI had arranged the marriage of his brother, the Count of Provence, to Charles Emmanuel’s younger sister, Marie Joséphine in 1771, and, in 1773, he arranged the marriage of his other brother, the Count of Artois, to another of Charles Emmanuel’s sisters, Maria Theresa of Savoy.
Marie Clothilde would have preferred not to marry because of her pious character. Her parents were both dead by the time she was eight (her father died from consumption in 1765 and her mother from tuberculosis in 1767). She and her younger sister, Madame Élisabeth, were raised under the supervision of a royal governess, Madame Marsan. The sisters focused on religion and virtue and adapted themselves at a young age to strict Catholic devotion. In addition, their aunt, who was Louis XV’s daughter, Madame Louise, was a nun in the Order of the Carmelites, and both girls had a strong desire to follow in her path.
Because Marie Clotilde was fat, many people may have expected her to become a nun. In fact, she was so portly for her age and height, courtiers gave her the unflattering nickname Gros-Madame. The nickname seemed to be of little consequence to her, and illustrative of this is the following story.
One day Marie Clotilde, who was said to have a happy disposition, was playing with some friends and one of the playmates indiscreetly used the nickname of Gros-Madame in front of her. Madame Marsan was appalled and reprimanded the girl, telling her not to appear again. The next day, however, Marie Clotilde sent for the girl and said:
“My governess … has done her duty, and I will do mine; come and see us as usual, and think no more of a piece of inadvertency, which I myself have forgotten.”
Despite her large size, Louis XVI arranged a politically beneficial marriage like his was to Marie Antoinette. When the announcement of Marie Clotilde’s upcoming marriage was made, it caused one eighteenth century poet who was preoccupied with Marie Clotilde size, to compose the following stanza referencing the earlier marriages of her brothers to their Piedmont wives:
“Though we’ve only return’d one princess for the two,
Who from Piedmont were sent us of late;
Yet surely no question or wrong can ensue,
Since the bargain’s made up by her weight.”
Although Marie Clotilde may have preferred not to marry, she had no choice and had to accede to the will of her brother. Charles Emmanuel was a cousin to the princesse de Lamballe, and Marie Clotilde questioned the princesse about her intended husband so that she could understand him. Marie Clotilde also learned the Italian language to better fulfill her role as future Queen of Sardinia.
On 27 August 1775, the dutiful 16-year-old was married by proxy to 24-year-old Charles Emmanuel and some time later was on her way to Turin with her older brother, the Count of Provence. She met her husband for the first time at Pont-de-Beauvoisin, located in southeastern France. The couple then returned and joined the Sardinian court at Chambéry. She was received by “King Vittorio Amadeo, and his Queen, Antonia Ferdinanda … it seems that the bride’s sweet and gentle ways took their hearts by storm.” Her husband also fell in love with her because in many ways they were perfect mates: Charles Emmanuel was said to be passive and leaned on her because she had a strong personality.
Charles Emmanuel also suffered from weak health, which offered the pious Marie Clotilde opportunities to nurse him. One story about her care of him occurred a few years after they had been married. He fell ill with a fever and she would not leave his bedside. “Whilst she was taking a little rest, the prince fell into a heavy sweat, and it was necessary to change even the bed-clothes. Great was Clotilde’s distress when she found on awakening that her servants had not roused her as she had desired. She imputed it to herself as a fault, and was inconsolable.”
Marie Clotilde was greatly loved by all those who came in contact with her. Servants felt blessed to serve her because of “angelic piety,” and supposedly they praised her as an “angel.” Her father-in-law and mother-in-law also adored her, and her father-in-law “frequently gave it as his opinion that Clotilde was, perhaps, too good, taking upon herself, as she would do, things which were not on her conscience in order to screen her husband.” Her husband was also devoted to her, and although they tried for eight years to have children, it was not to be. Thus, in 1783, Marie Clothilde requested Charles Emanuel end sexual relations with her and live in chastity, which he agreed to do.
Marie Clotilde never returned to France and was not there when the revolution broke out. That did not mean that she did not care. In fact, she suffered from afar waiting for news about the safety of her siblings. Marie Clotilde had been extremely close to her younger sister Madame Élisabeth, and when she was executed by guillotine on 10 May 1794, Charles Emmanuel broke the news to his wife saying, “You have a great sacrifice to make.” From that day forward, except on occasions positively demanding otherwise, people reported that Marie Clotilde mourned by wearing nothing more than a plain woolen dress, “of the material called at Turin votivo della consolata.”
In October of 1796, King Victor Amadeus III died. Charles Emmanuel then succeeded his father as Charles Emmanuel IV. Upon taking the throne he remarked, “Heaven is sending me a crown of thorns.” Apparently, the country was in miserable condition and his reign suffered insurrections likely fomented by the French Directory. His fortresses, arsenals, etc. were seized by French troops, and after the French occupied Turin, he lost all his territories on the Italian mainland in December of 1798 and retired to the Island of Sardinia.
The following year Charles Emmanuel attempted to regain Piedmont but failed. He and Marie Clotilde then lived in Rome and in Naples as guests of the wealthy Colonna family. On 7 March 1802 Marie Clotilde died after a brief illness. Charles Emmanuel was so distraught and heartbroken, he abdicated on 4 June 1802 in favor of his brother Victor Emmanuel, although he retained the personal title of King. His wife was buried in the Church of Santa Caterina a Chiaia in Naples. Pope Pius VII, who had personally known Marie Clotilde, took the first step in her beatification by declaring her venerable on 10 April 1808. Charles Emmanuel died 11 years later, in 1819, in Rome.
-  Edinburgh Review, Or, Critical Journal, Volume 73, 1841, p. 474.
-  Ibid., p. 473.
-  Lamartine, Alphonse de, Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette, Volume 1, 1854, p. 87.
-  Ibid., p. 88.
-  Corcoran, James Andrew, etal., The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume 12, 1887, p. 511.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 512.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.