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Countess Maria Walewska: Napoleon’ s Reluctant Mistress Who Sacrificed Her Honor for Poland's Freedom

Countess Walewska

Garbo played Countess Maria Waleska (1786-1817) on film.

The beautiful Polish aristocrat gave in to Napoléon’s romantic overtures in the vain hope that he would restore her nation’s independence.

The teen bride of a 72-year-old aristocrat was persuaded by Polish nationalists, including her husband, to indulge Napoléon’s obsessive attraction to her. The French emperor long after he had become dictator of most of Europe continued to pay lip-service to the ideals of the French revolution, liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Polish leaders deluded themselves that the autocratic betrayer of those ideals would nevertheless grant liberté to the long-suffering Poles.

The Rape and Mutilation of Poland in the 18th Century

In the early 19th century, Poland hadn’t been an independent nation since the previous century when the country was partitioned out of existence by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The pious hypocrite who ruled the Austrian empire at the time, Maria Theresa, felt guilty about her collusion in one of history’s most blatant land grabs which wiped Poland off the map.

But the empress didn’t feel guilty enough to pass up Austria’s share of Poland’s mutilation. Prussia’s Frederick the Great, her partner in this crime of grand theft – real estate, believed that Maria’s tears resembled a crocodile’s. Frederick’s pithy quip dismissed the empress’ weepy absorption of Poland into the Austrian empire: “She wept and she took.”

Ever since their country disappeared from the community of independent nations, Polish patriots dreamed of regaining freedom from foreign rule, which remained a daydream until a century later, after Austria’s defeat in World War I allowed the victorious Allied powers to restore Poland’s sovereignty.

Poland’s War of Independence Waged in Maria Walewska’s Boudoir

After nationalist uprisings were suppressed by Russian troops in the 18th century, Poland’s intelligentsia and aristocracy tried an alternate route to freedom via the bedroom.

Although patriotic appeals finally changed her mind about Napoléon’s advances, it was not prudishness or virginity that initially made her rebuff him. When she married the septuagenarian Count Walewski, a wealthy landowner, she was a woman of the world at 18. And worldly enough to have become pregnant by another man.

To escape the scandal of unwed motherhood, she had married Walewski. As he later proved by pushing his wife into Napoléon’s bed, the old man did not mind playing the role of cuckold.

Napoleon crossing Alps

Although pudgy in later life, the young General Bonaparte had dark, Italian good looks.

A year after her marriage, Walewska first met Napoléon in a suburb of Warsaw. Her memoirs claimed Napoléon didn’t seem impressed with her, which failed to explain why he asked to see her again in the Polish capital. Maybe modesty blinded her to Napoléon’s obvious interest, which he later revealed was instantaneous and all-consuming because of her exceptional beauty.

It’s not melodramatic to call Maria a sacrificial victim of political expedience because she used the term in her memoirs. “The sacrifice was complete,” she wrote. A journal entry revealed that patriotism not sexual attraction motivated her.

So, she swallowed her distaste and ignored a guilty-conscience and its accompanying sadness as she followed the emperor about Europe as he conquered it. In Vienna, she lived next door to the Schönbrunn palace left vacant by the fleeing Austrian emperor and occupied by his French counterpart.

Also in Vienna, Maria conceived Napoléon’s child, but her accommodating husband accepted the infant as his son and heir and once again saved his wife from scandal. No doubt the patriotic nobleman was also motivated by a desire to retain Napoléon’s favor in order to regain Polish independence.

Maria Walewska’s Husband Laid Down His Wife for His Country

As friends of Prince Charles liked to joke about the similar laissez-affaire acceptance by Camilla Parker-Bowles’ first husband of her affair with his best friend, the Prince of Wales, “He laid down his wife for his prince.”

Within four years of their meeting in a suburb outside Warsaw, a still-smitten Napoléon, whose short-attention span usually gave most of his love affairs the shelf life of dairy products, ensconced his mistress in a Parisian palace with an allowance of 120,000 francs ($350,000 today) just for the rent.

In case her husband had second thoughts about accepting Napoléon’s bastard as heir to the Walewski name and wealth and disinherited the child after the deposed emperor lost his usefulness for Polish independence, Napoléon provided financial security for his mistress and their son with massive land grants in the kingdom of Naples occupied by French troops and ruled by the emperor’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, later executed after the restoration of Naples’ Spanish Borbon king.

Dynastic concerns and a late-life conversion to marital fidelity trumped his love for Maria after he married his second wife, Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor, and decided to take his marriage vows seriously this time. After stashing Maria in a palace in Paris, he ended their affair.

If the 18-year-old bride had married the 72-year-old groom to avoid the scandal of bearing a bastard, by her mid 30s she no longer cared about propriety, which had led to her refusal to be seen in public with the imperial peacock who liked to put his latest conquest on display as a trophy girlfriend and a living symbol of his potency and virility.

Maria’s disregard for her reputation as she matured explains why she divorced her 80-year-old husband in 1812 when she was 36 and lived in an era when divorce was almost as scandalous as unwed motherhood.

The Death of Maria Walewska After Giving Birth

Accusations that modesty had made her Napoléon’s unwilling sex partner lack credibility because of her passionate relationship with a long-time lover, one of Napoléon’s generals, Count Philippe Antoine d’Ornano, whom she married in 1816 and bore their son a year later. Soon after the delivery, she succumbed to a kidney disease that had afflicted her for years.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, pear-shaped and height-challenged, explained why he often appeared in public with beautiful women several inches taller and decades younger with the statesman’s typical self-deprecation: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Power had that effect on Napoléon’s first wife, Joséphine, who confessed to her suitor which didn’t discourage his pursuit that this Master of the Universe would never master her heart because she found him physically repellent and proved it by carrying on an affair with a handsome, much younger officer, whose love letters were intercepted by the British and published in newspapers around the world. Amazingly for a macho man of his time, his love of Joséphine made him forgive her dalliance that had made him the laughing stock of Europe whose humiliation reached as far as America.

Napoléon Was Not a Midget, He Just Hung Around With Big Guys

One of the greatest historical myths accepted as fact claims that Napoléon’s height turned him into the first victim of a Napoléonic complex, aka Short Man Syndrome. Contrary to history, which is written by the victors, their enemy Napoléon was not dwarfish.

At 5’ 6”, he was of average height in the preindustrial era when ignorance of nutrition and other growth factors kept men from reaching the average height of Caucasians today, 5’ 9”. A few Francophobe historians have claimed that Napoléon was only 5’ 2”, close to the clinical definition of dwarfism.

The myth may not have been propaganda spread by the emperor’s opponents. Members of the Imperial Guard, Napoléon’s personal security detail, were selected for their intimidating height. Surrounded by these giants, the emperor’s relative shortness created the illusion that a midget had conquered Europe.

Although he began to look like a chubby sparkplug in later years, portraits of the 20something General Buonaparte reveal a man with dark Italian good looks who might have found work on a fashion runway or the cover of Playgirl today.

Power eventually had its aphrodisiac effect on Joséphine’s heart and libido because her repulsion turned into genuine love and lust as her final years reveal. A weeping Napoléon told the post-menopausal Joséphine in 1810 of his plans to divorce her and marry a nubile young woman, the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise, who could give him a male heir and perpetuate the Bonaparte dynasty. The fading beauty fainted in his arms at the news.

Napoléon continued to visit his ex-wife after their divorce due to affection not romance. Her beauty and conversational brilliance spread throughout Europe. After the Russian Emperor Alexander I defeated her ex-husband and occupied Paris, he visited Joséphine at Malmaison, her jewel-box estate in a suburb of Paris.

A royal snob about family pedigrees, Alexander had rejected Napoléon’s offer to marry his sister, which her brother considered a mesalliance between a Russian royal and a Corsican peasant. (Another myth: Napoléon was not the low-born parvenu detractors claimed. His father had been a lawyer, statesman, and member of Corsica’s minor nobility. Proof comes from his admission to a French military academy open only to the children of the aristocracy.)

Both of Napoléon’s Wives Tried to Follow Him Into Exile

After Napoléon’s exile to the tiny island of Elba in the Mediterranean, Joséphine begged to join him there but was rebuffed by the vengeful victors of the Napoléonic wars. It says something about the lingering aphrodisia of power that both his first and second wives tried to share his living burial on fly-infested Elba. Joséphine died before his final detention on Saint Helena, a speck of volcanic rock with an inadequate source of fresh water in the South Atlantic.

But Marie Louise was still around and apparently remained influenced by her husband’s legend rather than by power Napoléon no longer possessed. Her failure to reunite with her husband and father of their son despite her clout as daughter of the Austrian emperor suggests how terrified Europe’s reactionary leaders remained that Napoléon might return and reignite the spark that had consumed the continent and ignited the national aspirations of Poland and Italy.

For the same reason, Napoléon’s tubercular son, Napoléon II and short-time king of Rome, couldn’t follow his doctors’ advice to recover in the warmer, curative climate of Italy.

His father had already stirred up revolutionary ardor among Italian patriots by promoting unification of the peninsula’s city-states and Austrian-ruled north and Spanish-ruled south. The restored leaders of the ancien regime dreaded a renewed attempt to unify Italy led by the dethroned king of Rome, Napoléon, Jr.

Napoléon II’s Gilded Prison Killed Him

Austrian authorities rejected medical advice and kept L’Aiglon(The Little Eagle) sequestered in the drafty Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 21, still worshiping his father’s memory and regretting his failure to resurrect his family's dynasty.

The son’s hope of restoring his father’s line would have to be achieved by surviving Bonapartes. His first cousin, Napoléon III, did just that, after a plebiscite elected him Emperor of the French in 1852.

The Second Empire, as the restoration was known, lasted less than 20 years, until Prussia defeated France in 1870. Any hopes of a Third Empire ended when Napoléon III’s son, the Prince Imperial, died at the age of 23 fighting in Zululand as an army officer in the service of Britain, the ancestral enemy of his family and country.

Maria Walewska’s initial rebuff of Napoléon supports the mathematical axiom that an exception to the rule proves the rule. Maria was the exception to the rule that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Unlike Joséphine, Maria didn’t find power erotic, and her reluctant affair with the French emperor never turned into a love match and remained her patriotic sacrifice for Poland.

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This article.

This article is one that I feel I could come back to again and again. The level of detail allied, with the fluency of your prose, just sweeps the reader along.


Thank you, and well done.