The Queen of Corsica
The Queen of Corsica
The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary at Bastia
The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary at Bastia
Despite the timing of his proposal, which was made just as he was being pestered by his ministers to designate an heir, it remains a matter of debate as to whether Theodore believed a marriage to Maria Eleonora Katharina, duchessa di Guastalla was an alternative to naming a successor. There was, after all, no certainty that the union would result in issue; now 35 years of age, Maria Eleonora was still potentially capable of conceiving but the most fertile years of her life were well behind her. She had bore no children yet, although this was likely due to her (probably) never-consummated marriage with a lunatic whom she detested rather than any evident physical disability. Given the financial situation of his kingdom and the debt incurred to France, the king may have been more interested in her fortune than her reproductive potential.
Or perhaps he was just lonely. After more than fifteen years of struggle and sacrifice, Theodore's wildest dream had become true: he had gained a royal crown, one of an elect few in Europe. If his goal was to win fame, that was certainly accomplished; whatever might happen subsequently, the baron had made his indelible mark on history. But actually being king - and the king of Corsica, at that - was both more difficult and less rewarding than being prince of some picturesque fiefdom in Germany where the people were obedient, the threat of conquest was remote, and an income was always assured. Corsica no longer needed a magician, a fast-talking salesman, or even an intrepid general; it required a statesman, possessed of more wisdom than wit, who could stand betwixt rival factions and feuding personalities and keep the nation together. Though at the pinnacle of his popularity and renown, Theodore was also under an obligation to live up to the larger-than-life reputation he had created. He was now surrounded by men who expected the world of him, and in such company he could never let down the proverbial mask. Since the death of Grand Chancellor Sebastiano Costa he had nobody in his inner circle who might really be considered his friend. Perhaps the Duchess of Guastalla was not the ideal royal consort from the perspective of producing an heir of his body, but she was an intelligent, independent-minded woman who shared Theodore’s social background, his native tongues, and his experience of being a foreign ruler in an alien land.
Of course, it was by no means certain that the duchess would accept this proposal. As tempting as it was to be made a queen, she would be queen of Corsica. Retiring into well-heeled spinsterhood in Brno, a city with a population several times larger than all of Corsica’s major “cities” put together, promised considerably greater comfort. But she was unquestionably drawn to Theodore - to his personality, his mind, and his great adventure - and while the fire of her ardor may have cooled since their rumored “rendezvous” in 1747, she had remained in close contact with him since then. Three years later her letters still reflected her friendship and admiration. She decided to take the plunge.
Being a widow with no living male relations, the choice was hers alone. Nevertheless, Theodore felt it was important to gain the approval of Empress Maria Theresa, and hoped that seeking her blessing would help repair his relationship with Vienna which had broken off rather coldly after the Treaty of Monaco. Don Federico, Principe di Capraia was chosen for this task for several reasons. Theodore needed a man of high rank to approach the Austrians, and of his “nephews” the Prince of Capraia was the most amenable to the king’s marriage. As he was a recent arrival without much of a local following, his position depended even more on Theodore than that of Don Matteo or Don Giovan, and it seemed unlikely that he would be selected as heir (as while Theodore could do it, there would be great pressure on him to choose one of the other cousins better known to the Corsicans).
Don Federico’s proposal was quite the surprise to the empress, but it did not seem harmful. On the contrary, it was an obvious way to pull Corsica back towards Vienna’s orbit, for although the Duchess of Guastalla was distantly descended from Danish royalty she was by any reasonable standard an Austrian. She had been born and raised in Vienna, her principal family estates were chiefly in Moravia, and her father and grandfather had both been important imperial officials. The new queen’s desire to protect her imperial estates would offer Vienna some leverage in Corsica which it did not presently enjoy; at the very least, the confiscation of the Hungarian lands of the Duke of Modena for waging war against her was an effective cautionary tale. And even if she had disapproved, it was not as if she could stop the marriage, as there was no legal or canonical impediment to it. The empress thus decided to give her consent and blessing.
The next step was to draw up a marriage contract. Notwithstanding her “fascination” with Theodore (as related by one of her Guastallan courtiers), she proved a shrewd and self-interested negotiator. She was more financially savvy than Theodore (or, for that matter, Don Federico) and had more to lose; she held estates worth more than two million livres, and did not wish to see her revenues siphoned off to service the debts of Theodore and his government. The final document was very favorable to her, stipulating that for the most part there was to be no “community of properties:” in other words, the majority of her lands and revenues would remain under her own control, inviolable either by Theodore or the Corsican state (and thus by their creditors as well). Excluded from this protection was approximately 250,000 livres worth of property in the Milanese which, along with 120,000 livres in cash and other movables, constituted her dowry. For the first time in his life, Theodore was to be a landowner.
King Theodore also sought the approval of King Frederik V of Denmark, who had never met the duchess but was the the dynastic head of the House of Oldenburg, and thus the Oldenburg cadet line of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Wiesenburg to which Maria Eleonora belonged. Theodore's intermediary was his old friend and admirer Georg Ludwig Albrecht, Reichsgraf von Rantzau, a nobleman of Holstein. The young Danish king readily agreed, thinking it most amusing that his distant cousin was to marry the famous Theodore of Corsica. Although intended only as a means to burnish his international recognition, the Danish approach proved lucrative; surprising even Theodore, King Frederik decided that the honor of the extended Oldenburg dynasty required more than mere assent to what was, after all, a royal marriage, and sent his own wedding gift of 30,000 thalers (about 130,000 livres). Frederik, however, may not have been acting wholly out of a vague sense of dynastic obligation. The second half of the 18th century saw a considerable expansion of the Danish merchant marine and an increasing involvement of Danish ships in Mediterranean trade, and thirty thousand thalers was a fairly small price to pay for influence with the ruler of a small but strategically placed Mediterranean kingdom and his genealogically (if not culturally) Danish wife.
King Frederik V of Denmark
Theodore’s ministers reacted with some surprise to the announcement that he was to be married, for most had given that up as a lost cause. The bride was not particularly controversial: the duchess was a German, but so then was their king, and as Germans went they could do worse than one who had spent 15 years in Italy and knew the language as well as anyone. The main objection was her age and her relative unsuitability to perform the primary duty of a royal consort - to wit, the production of children. Since it had been widely assumed that Theodore would never marry, however, Maria Eleonora was in that regard still a step up from having a bachelor-king, and since the announcement was only made to the cabinet after the marriage contract had already been agreed to (by Don Federico, the Corsicans really had little say in the matter. Theodore was willing to involve the ministry in some of his affairs, but his marriage was not one of them.
Maria Eleonora arrived at Bastia on the 18th of September, where Theodore had already traveled. After the finalization of the marriage contract, they were married six days later at the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary at Bastia. It was a scrupulously Catholic ceremony, bearing no resemblance to a “traditional” Corsican wedding. The officiating clergyman was the chapter vicar of Aleria, Giovan Paolo Gaffori - the cousin of Marquis Gianpietro Gaffori and Theodore’s nominee for the vacant see of Aleria (presently a matter of dispute between Corsica, Genoa, and Rome). The mood in the city seemed much changed from just a year before, when Theodore had been received rather coolly by the Bastiacci. As royal weddings went it was not particularly grand, but it was nevertheless the first royal wedding ever held on Corsica, and not an event to be missed. Crowds gathered outside the cathedral, and the city notables and their wives turned out in their best clothes to catch a glimpse and pay homage to the king and queen.
Eleonora found Bastia to be a quaint little city, but she was dismayed at the state of the “royal palace” - the old palace of the Genoese governor - which had been long since stripped of most of its furnishings and had most recently been used as a barracks for the Corsican army. Even tiny Guastalla had a state residence far more suitable than this. It only got worse from there, for after spending a week in Bastia the royal couple made their way to Corti. With the road totally unsuitable for carriages, she had to make the journey on muleback with the rest of the party. Upon arriving at Corti, the queen immediately found it to be a gloomy, uncultured, and lifeless place that made Bastia look like Vienna, and whose impromptu “royal residence” made the governor’s palace of Bastia look like Schönbrunn. She never did warm to the city, which she referred to disparagingly as la roche (“the rock”).
Rectifying this situation was one of the major projects of Queen Eleonora’s reign. Theodore was more than happy to give her free rein over the royal properties, and the queen oversaw every aspect of their repair and renovation. When she arrived in Corsica, only the Governor’s Palace might charitably be called a royal residence. By the time of her death, the kingdom had three: The Palazzo dei Governatori in Bastia; the Palazzo Agostiniano in Ajaccio, a seaside residence originally built as an Augustinian seminary; and the Villetta Reale in Corti, a small residence for the royal family in Corti when they were in residence there. While unimpressive by continental standards - a British visitor to Ajaccio some years later described the Augustinian Palace as “befitting an English country squire” - they were certainly the most stately homes in Corsica, and a compromise between royal dignity and royal means. Although sometimes criticized for spending a poor country’s money too freely on frivolities - not altogether fairly, as a great deal of the money she spent was her own - Eleonora understood better than Theodore that the monarchy consisted of more than just a monarch. For building its palaces, arranging its household, and supervising its finances, Eleonora deserves more credit than anyone - including her husband - for making the Corsican monarchy into an institution.
Eleonora’s place in Corsican politics remains a topic of debate. Constitutionally, of course, she had no place in government, and seldom interfered overtly in matters of national policy. More subtly, however, she wielded significant influence on the basis of her proximity to Theodore and her ability to control access to the king through her control over the royal household. While the queen did not choose Theodore’s ministers, she personally selected most of the grooms, valets, and other servants and staff who attended upon the royal family, and she was not ignorant of the political import of this position. Although not a frequent meddler in Corsican politics, she was not afraid to make her positions known on matters which related to the royal family and state finances. More controversially, she also held - or at least was perceived to hold - a pro-Austrian position on foreign policy, which was to play a part in the deterioration of relations between Corsica and France in the kingdom's early years.
Theodore had pledged to various southern potentates that he would make his first “official” tour with his new bride to the Dila as a means of smoothing feathers ruffled by his decision to cut his royal tour short the previous spring. Before that could occur, however, he had to preside over the consulta generale at Corti, the first legislative session of the independent Corsican government.[A]
 Indeed, the duchess never set foot in Denmark or Schleswig-Holstein; she had only ever lived in Vienna and Brno before being sent off to Guastalla as a 16 year old bride.
 Some have also suggested that Frederik’s status as a Freemason may have also played a role; that was a world Theodore was quite familiar with.
 Despite their notionally staunch Catholicism, marriage rites were one of many areas in which the Corsicans strayed rather far from Roman teachings. Weddings, particularly among the peoples of the interior, had few religious trappings and no officiating priest. The bride and groom and their families would convene in the house of the bride’s family, the engaged couple would kiss in the presence of their relatives, and the bride would then take a plate of fritelli (chestnut fritters), share one with the groom, and then pass them out to the rest of the family members in attendance. The symbolism of the bride uniting the two families with food was unmistakable - and, for the Corsicans, much more important than any religious ritual. After the sharing of the fritelli, the couple would then proceed to the bride’s room for the consummation of the union. A religious ceremony to consecrate the marriage would sometimes follow later, but typically not until after the birth of the couple’s first child, and sometimes the sacrament was skipped altogether.
 Maria Eleonora was colloquially known as Donna Eleonora throughout her reign in Corsica, and thus she is often referred to in English sources, both contemporary and modern, as “Queen Eleanor.” Her first given name of “Maria” was rarely used.
[A] A short update ahead of schedule. Happy New Year!