See all stories
31 Mar 2021

Princess Marie of Baden (1817–88)

Written by Sarah Beattie, Regional Curator, Ayrshire & Arran/Dumfries & Galloway
A portrait of a young Georgian woman, seated beneath a tree with a tall mountain on the backdrop. She wears a long white dress with a blue shawl, and holds a red ribbon in her hands. She is wearing several bracelets, one of which has a small portrait framed on it. She is looking to the side, with a slightly wistful expression on her face.
Princess Marie of Baden by Francis Grant (1803–78), c.1850, oil on canvas, Brodick Collection
Sometimes portrayed as a lonely and reclusive figure, in reality Marie was an opinionated and vivacious socialite who travelled Europe, mingling with the highest ranks of society, including emperors and royalty.

Marie was the third daughter of Stéphanie de Beauharnais (1789–1860), who was the adopted daughter of Napoleon I (1769–1821). Marie’s father was Karl Ludwig Friedrich (1786–1818), the future Grand Duke of Baden. Napoleon I was instrumental in arranging the marriage between Stéphanie and Karl in 1806, in an attempt to strengthen his political alliances and power in the region. However, the couple were not particularly happy together. For the first few years of their marriage, Stéphanie predominantly lived in Mannheim in south-west Germany, while Karl stayed in Karlsruhe (45 miles away) with his uncle Ludwig (1763–1830). He lived an extravagant and debauched life until Napoleon intervened, and the couple began spending more time together from about 1810. Karl became Grand Duke of Baden in 1811, and their first daughter Louise (1811–54) was born the same year. A second daughter, Josephine (1813–1900), was born in 1813 and Marie followed on 11 October 1817. The couple also had two sons who sadly did not survive past infancy.

Marie spent most of her childhood living at Karlsruhe Palace, in the pretty resort town of Karlsruhe near the French-German border, which was frequented by the Parisian upper classes in the summer months. Marie and her sisters were cousins of Louis-Napoleon (1808–73), the future emperor of France (as Napoleon III). They were also related to the Russian imperial family through their mother and the Swedish royal family through their paternal aunts. Like their mother before them, it was important for the family’s political and social standing that the princesses married well. In 1830, Marie’s eldest sister Louise married their Swedish cousin Gustav, Prince of Vasa (1799–1877), and in 1834 Josephine married Karl Anton, Prince of Hohenzollern (1811–85). Through the further political marriages of her nieces and nephews, Marie would become related to the royal families of Saxony, Romania and Portugal.

The marriage of Marie and William, Marquis of Douglas (1811–63) was first suggested anonymously in a letter sent to Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767–1852) in 1839. Because of his extravagant spending habits, the 10th Duke had considerable debts and mortgages on his property. The anonymous letter writer not only praised Marie’s physical appearance and Protestantism but was also keen to stress her monetary value, with a dowry of ‘between £50–60,000’. As we have seen so often before in this series, arranged marriages were more concerned with the financial and social benefits to the family than the happiness and wellbeing of the couple. Wealthy and aristocratic women in particular were often traded like commodities by their relatives.

The 10th Duke was extremely interested in the Bonaparte family, and Marie’s relationship to Napoleon I would have been an enticing incentive for him. However, William was not as keen on the match, and it took three years for the Duke to persuade his son to agree to the marriage. It’s not clear how Marie felt about the marriage but it’s believed Susan, Duchess of Hamilton travelled to Mannheim to finalise the marriage negotiations. The wedding finally took place in Mannheim on 23 February 1843. Between 1845 and 1850, Marie and William had three children: William (1845–95), Charles (1847–86) and Mary (1850–1922).

William and Marie remained affectionate and caring towards each other throughout their lives; however, they spent much of their time apart, and William is believed to have fathered an illegitimate daughter in 1846. It is this apparent estrangement and the lack of children after 1850, perhaps suggesting that the couple no longer had a sexual relationship, that seems to have led to the idea that Marie was a forlorn young woman who spent much of her life trapped on a lonely foreign island, mourning her loveless marriage. But the reality is very different!

As we saw in the last instalment, after visiting Arran for the first time together, William and Marie quickly began trying to persuade the 10th Duke to build an extension to Brodick Castle. Although still very new to the family, Marie was an active and opinionated participant in these discussions. Letters from the period show that Marie was not afraid to express her opinions on the extension of the castle, and there is even a hand-drawn plan of the proposed changes with accompanying French annotations in Marie’s hand. The tone of the letters gives an interesting insight into her personality and her relationship with her new father-in-law. She is affectionate and respectful but is clearly trying to convince him to make the improvements. In one letter from December 1843, she wrote: ‘Oh dear! You dont see the matter as we do and that idea alone is extremely hurtful to us ... it will only be a question, my dear Papino, of adding a few rooms in a way to be there more comfortably …

Eventually the Duke was convinced, and the building work was formally inaugurated on 25 May 1844. Marie was a key part of the ceremony to lay the foundation stone, and the mallet she used is on display in the castle today.

An oil painting of Brodick Bay, looking north across the bay to the castle and the towering mountains behind. A heron stands on the shore in the foreground, and a white-sailed boat is in the middle of the bay. The sea and sky are blue, with an orange haze to the west.
View of Brodick Bay by George Edwards Hering (1805–79), 1857, oil on canvas, Brodick Collection

After the building work was completed, Marie then turned her attention to the gardens around the castle. In 1848, with assistance from her friend, artist George Hering (1805–79), she designed romantic landscape walks in the grounds, punctuated with four Bavarian summerhouses, one of which survives. Hering, a London-based landscape painter and son of a German bookbinder, was a frequent summer visitor to Brodick and, as a German speaker, developed a close friendship with Marie. Their shared German heritage undoubtedly contributed to the European feel of the garden and the Bavarian-inspired summerhouses.

Marie also had a close relationship with her cousin Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. During his exile in Britain in the 1840s, Louis-Napoleon attended the christening of the couple’s second child and stayed at Brodick Castle several times. Marie was delighted when Louis-Napoleon was elected President of the Second Republic in December 1848, and Marie and William attended the festivities at the Élysée Palace in Paris. They continued the celebrations a few years later by holding a ball at the Hôtel Bristol, supporting Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état on 2 December 1851. One year later, Marie and William rode in front of Louis-Napoleon as he made his state entry into Paris to be proclaimed Emperor in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

From 1852 onwards, Marie and William regularly attended important public and private events with Napoleon, including his marriage to Eugénie (1826–1920), Countess of Teba, in 1853. Marie was a frequent visitor and enjoyed private meals, Mass and Christmas celebrations with the Emperor and Empress, occasionally taking on the role of hostess if Eugénie was unavailable. Undoubtedly influenced by her time with Napoleon and Eugénie, Marie’s adoption of Roman Catholicism was announced by the Glasgow Free Press in August 1853. She began attending St Mary’s Catholic Chapel in Hamilton and invited the priest there to visit Brodick Castle to hear confession and say Mass.

After the 11th Duke’s early death on 15 July 1863, Marie spent most of her time at the Villa Stéphanie in Baden-Baden. The German town was a popular spa resort for the wealthy elite of Europe. In 1904, a few decades after Marie’s time there, the Lady’s Realm magazine described the Villa Stéphanie as ‘the rendezvous of the very best cosmopolitan society’. While staying there, Marie was visited by illustrious guests such as Queen Victoria (1819–1901), who was godmother to Marie’s daughter Mary. Marie died in Baden-Baden on 17 October 1888 at the age of 71.

This series of blogs would not have been possible without the expert knowledge and generosity of internal and external colleagues. Particular thanks are due to Dr Godfrey Evans for his extensive research on the Hamiltons and their collections; Dr Amy Frost for taking the time to discuss her work on Beckford, his Jamaican plantations and their enslaved workers; Dr Bet McLeod for sharing her knowledge on William Beckford and the Hamilton ceramics; and to Sue Mills, Education Officer at Brodick, for always being patient and generous with her knowledge of the castle.

Explore Brodick Castle

Visit now