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 - Freeke De Meyer -

In the Zwartzuster monastery in Leuven, on the 10th of April 1743 at 8.30 in the morning, a girl was born. She was given the name Marie Catherine Josephe, and she inherited the impressive noble titles of Countess of Merode and Princess of Rubempré and Everberg. Marie Catherine was the product of a love marriage, and her birth shook and countered the customs of the nobility at the time.  


Her place of birth was not one of choice, but due to her mother’s incarceration inside the monastery. Her mother, Catherine Ocreman, had been locked away, when her husband Maximilien Leopold, Earl of Merode and Prince of Rubempré and Everberg, was imprisoned in the Citadel of Antwerp by the Empress Maria Theresia. The reason for his custody: the most scandalous marriage of the century. Maximilien Leopold had been a well-respected member of the Brussels’ court nobility and was considered one of the highest ranking noblemen of the Austrian Netherlands. Defying all rules, regulations, and expectations of the nobility, he had married a commoner. Catherine Ocreman, his linen maid, had been his love for fourteen years prior to the marriage. Notwithstanding the social outcry, the marriage was deemed legal and endured. 


As one of the wealthiest heiresses of Europe, Marie Catherine was a desirable bride-to-be, despite her mother being a commoner. At the age of 15, she married a distant relative, a nobleman with respectable military credentials, Philippe Maximilien, Earl of Merode and the Holy Roman Empire. During the marriage, Marie Catherine starts showing signs of her own independence. When her ambitious husband, frustrated by a lack of military promotion, turns his back on the Habsburgians and moves to France, Marie Catherine stays in Brussels. She enjoys her newly found freedom and during that period grows into an independent, mature woman with her own views and a strong will.  


On one hand, Marie Catherine, Countess of Merode and Princes of Rubempré is a textbook example of the nobility living in the second half of the eighteenth century. She lived a lavish life, with an army of domestic servants, ready to respond to her every whim and fancy. She closely followed the latest fashion, enjoyed exquisite meals, and travelled whenever she felt like a change of scene. As was expected of a courtier, she frequently visited the theatre, attended dinners and balls. She splashed out as her status expected, but Marie Catherine was not just a squandering and carousing countess.  


First and foremost, she was a femme d’action, bursting with energy, enthusiasm and vigour. Her independence and enormous sense of responsibility are a constant throughout her life. Within the boundaries of the patriarchal society of the Ancien Régime, she claimed autonomy wherever possible.  After the death of her husband, she became the head of the Merode family as regent, and consistently demonstrated her skill and ability to manage this complex and, at times, delicate task. For years, she governed the vast patrimony superbly well. She had a keen eye for business, was a meticulous accountant, and did not shy away from using her power as head of the family.  


The Merode family entered the 19th century in a very powerful financial economic and social position. This was in large part due to Marie Catherine’s financial acumen and her smart succession planning. Towards the end of her life, the Brabantine revolution sparked her political interest and she actively engaged in the ongoing political debates.  


She died on the 26th of March 1794 at the very end of the Ancien Régime, oblivious to the new era about to begin.   


Image: Unknown Artist (Year Unknown) Portrait of Marie Catherine Josephe Countess of Merode Princess of Rubempré and Everberg. ©Bureau voor Iconografie VAKB vzw.


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