Isabelle of Orléans Duchess of Guise (detail)
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The charming Isabelle d’Orléans, Duchess of Guise

This charming French princess is Isabelle of Orléans, Duchess of Guise (1878-1961). She was born on 7 May 1878 at the Château d’Eu in Normandy, to Philip of Orléans, Count of Paris and Orlean pretender to the French throne, and his wife Marie-Isabelle of Orléans, Infanta of Spain.

His maternal grandmother was Luisa Fernanda of Spain, younger sister of Isabella II of Spain, while her great-grandparents (both maternal and paternal) were the last kings of the French: Louis Philippe of France and Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily.

Miou‘, as she was called in her family, spent the first years of her life in Normandy with her parents, the Count and Countess of Paris. In 1886, however, the government of the Third Republic introduced an exile law for members of families who had ruled in France. As a result, Isabelle’s family took refuge at Stowe House in the United Kingdom and Villamanrique de la Condesa in Spain. Thereafter, Isabelle was occasionally able to return to France, as the exile law only covered heads of families who had ruled in France and their direct heirs, while women were excluded.

Isabelle soon became a very beautiful young woman, which, added to her father’s claim to the throne, allowed her to have many suitors. Of these, the most important was certainly the future Albert I of Belgium, who unfortunately had to give up the courtship in the face of opposition from his uncle King Leopold II, who feared reactions from Paris to a marriage with the daughter of an exiled suitor.

Eventually, Isabelle married a first cousin, Jean d’Orléans, in 1899. On this occasion, Isabelle and her husband received the courtesy titles of Duke and Duchess of Guise.

Four children were born of the union between Isabelle and Jean:

Isabelle, who married Count Bruno d’Harcourt and later Prince Pierre Murat;

Françoise, who married Prince Christopher of Greece, son of King George I of Greece;

Anne, who married Prince Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta, Duke of Aosta and Viceroy of Ethiopia;

Henry, Count of Paris and Orlean pretender to the French throne, who married his cousin Isabelle of Orléans-Bragance.

For several years, the Duke and Duchess of Guise divided their lives between Paris and their lands in Nouvion-en-Thiérache. A year after giving birth to their last child, Henry, in 1909, the couple left for Morocco, where they settled permanently. Jean and Isabelle bought a house in the Larache region, ‘the palace of the Duchess of Guise’ (today the ‘Riad Hotel’), and a large estate on whose land they practised modern agriculture.

On their way to Morocco, ‘they resided for some time in Marseille, where the Duchess of Guise became, in the eyes of all, the mistress of a soap merchant named Bernis‘. The latter’s sister ‘claimed that Henri, Count of Paris, was indeed the son of [her brother] Gustave‘.

This is – as you can imagine – a taboo subject among the Orléans and even more so among the Orleanists.

Rumours were already circulating in Belle Époque Paris, where insiders were repeating: ‘Where is Bernis going? But he is running to his Guise‘. It seems that, in order to escape these rumours, the Duke and Duchess of Guise left France for Larache, followed by Gustave de Bernis himself, a year after Henry’s birth. On 14 February 1925, the Count de Bernis died during a mysterious ‘sword attack’ in the gardens of the Duke of Guise’s villa. The ruthless Parisian public laughed again and dedicated this imaginary epitaph to him: ‘Here lies the Count of Bernis, who all his life made love to his Guise‘.

During the First World War, the Duke of Guise returned to France to act as a Red Cross delegate near the front, but his wife and children remained in Morocco.

It was only after the death of the Duchess of Guise’s brother and the claim of her husband as head of the House of France in 1926 that Jean and Isabelle of Orléans returned to Europe. The couple settled in the Manoir d’Anjou in Belgium, where they led the Orleanist-fusionist current of the French monarchist movement. While her husband discussed politics with French militants, the Duchess of Guise was involved in charity work, including sponsoring holiday camps for poor children.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Duke and Duchess of Guise returned to their Moroccan homeland, but the Pretender could not cope with the French defeat in 1940 and died shortly after the start of the German occupation.

Surrounded by her son Henry, the new Count of Paris, her daughter-in-law and several grandchildren, the Duchess of Guise did not lose heart. She kept up her charitable duties by regularly visiting the underprivileged and running the ‘Casa del Niño’, an institution she founded to help poor children.

Isabelle d’Orléans eventually died in Larache in 1961.

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