From almost the moment Isabella of Parma was born, doom hovered around the edges of her life. Though she was a granddaughter of two kings, Isabella’s glittering existence wrapped around a dark core of heartache, scandal, and melancholy. When a forbidden love came and carried her away, that tragedy only deepened—and in the end, all Isabella’s ominous predictions came true.
Isabella had an illustrious family, but also a pretty weird one. Sure, she had a major pedigree: Her father Prince Philip was the son of the King of Spain, and her mother Elisabeth was the eldest daughter of the King of France. Except, money couldn’t buy happiness even back then, and Isabella’s parents didn’t get along in the slightest.
Their marital relations were nothing short of frigid, and Isabella was an only child for over a decade. And you know what they say about only children…
Being an only child doesn’t always give you the best social skills, and Isabella’s childhood was a strange one. Her mother Elisabeth was just 14 years old when she had her in 1741, and they grew up like sisters. Instead of having a more parental relationship, the two women flounced about in Versailles for much of Isabella’s young life. Until one day, tragedy struck.
In 1759, when Isabella was still only a teenager and her mother Elisabeth was just 32, the matriarch perished from a brutal bout of smallpox, leaving Isabella without her best friend. This of course had a devastating effect on the young girl, but also an eerie one. From then on, Isabella became convinced that she would also die young like her mother. Sadly, she wasn’t wrong.
Less than a year after her mother’s tragic end, Isabella’s life flipped upside down again. Her father apparently didn’t believe much in "healing time," because he quickly arranged for the 18-year-old Isabella to marry Archduke Joseph of Austria, the heir to the powerful Habsburg monarchy. Cool, shoving your grieving teenage daughter into marriage with a stranger. What could go wrong?
To be fair, Isabella and Joseph were a good match in some ways. The Archduke had a tendency to be self-serious, but Isabella was no frivolous girl, either. She had a deep passion for music—she was excellent on the violin—and liked to read deep treatises and solve mathematical problems in her spare time. In a word, she was the hot geek girl of many a man’s fantasy. Only, Joseph just couldn’t keep up.
Joseph was usually stuck with his head in a book. As a result, he was absolutely dismal when it came to making small talk or, you know, charming his beautiful bride-to-be. It was the charming Isabella who had to take on the brunt of the conversational maneuvers between the young couple, and of course, she did it with pitch-perfect skill.
Before long, their wedding day approached—yet it was no fairy tale.
Honestly, the marriage didn’t even start out OK, at least by our modern standards. The bride and groom first got married "by proxy," an old custom where either party didn’t actually attend the ceremony, but had a representative go in for them. In other words, Isabella didn’t even see her groom on her wedding day. And as for when she did…
On October 6, 1760, Isabella and Joseph had a second wedding ceremony, this time actually in person. While there, the royals let it all hang out, putting on a spectacle that lasted literal days. Even better, by now the Archduke was reportedly completely enthralled by his bride’s beauty and considerable charms. Except once she had time to think it over, Isabella’s response was much less promising.
Archduke Joseph was so obsessed with Isabella, he actually took it too far. Inexperienced and super thirsty for her, he absolutely lavished his new bride with attention, smothering her with compliments and love. For Isabella, who was used to a rather solitary existence and who was still dealing with the trauma of losing her mother, it was all too much. Yet there were other forces at play.
Isabella was a great music lover, sure, but Joseph? Um, not so much. And not just in an "I love everything but rap and country" way. The Archduke of Austria, who had the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful music ever made on Earth firsthand, did try to be a patron of the arts and support musicians. However, he also had enough nerve to tell Mozart his music had too many notes. Enough said.
Life as the newest princess at the Austrian court may have been extravagant, but that didn’t mean it was emotionally healthy for Isabella. Viennese traditions at court were notoriously strait-laced and conservative. It wasn't just Joseph but her surroundings that began to make Isabella feel suffocated. They required her to be always stiffly formal, always polite, and always on guard. Then it did get personal.
When she first came to Austria, Isabella complained that "In the high society in which [a princess] is forced to live, she has neither acquaintances nor friends". But this went from stiff to sinister. Isabella also complained that she had entered "into a family" where she was "received with jealousy," indicating that most of Joseph’s relations weren’t waiting with open arms. That is, all but one…
As Isabella got settled into life at court, she met a very scandalous playmate. While avoiding Joseph’s amorous advances at all costs, Isabella found herself spending a lot of time with his younger, unmarried sister Maria Christina, who was known as "Mizzeri" to her closest friends. Unlike her brother, Maria Christina was comely, lively, and funny, and Isabella caught feelings hard.
To be fair, Isabella obviously had great taste in women, even if she had bad luck in the men department. Her new crush Maria Christina was the pride and joy of the Austrian court, as well as the firm favorite child of the royal family. Her parents would continually lavish her with compliments, gifts, and privileges, and everybody either wanted to be her or be with her. It didn’t take long for trouble to start brewing.
Besties Isabella and Maria Christina began to spend nearly every waking moment together, having deep conversations, discussing their mutual love of music, and ambling in the gardens side by side. They even painted portraits of each other, which is how you know things were really getting intense between the two princesses.
When they weren’t physically together, though, that’s when it really amped up.
Aside from their daytime activities, Isabella and her new bosom friend Maria Christina wrote copious letters to each other, exchanging hundreds of notes even as they lived in the same court. The contents of these letters are extremely revealing. In one, Isabella confessed "I am madly in love," and the passion and ardor of the missives leave even the most skeptical historians convinced that the women likely carried on a full-blown affair.
Isabella and Maria Christina were so attached at the hip, few people in court could fail to see how devoted they were to each other. Because of their mutual love of music, they earned the joint nickname "Orpheus and Eurydice" after the tragic Greek myth of the musician who traveled down to the Underworld to get his love back. Yeah, put a pin in that "tragic" part.
One of the biggest tensions in Isabella’s relationship with her sister-in-law Maria Christina was the fact that, well, she was in love with her sister-in-law. During this time, Joseph was still fawning all over her, and Isabella had to hide her growing, illicit passion for his sibling. Luckily, the Archduke was inexperienced enough not to notice what everyone else already saw…but Isabella started to make it painfully obvious.
Isabella’s desires obviously didn’t help her nurture an ounce of affection for her husband, but she had some other huge impediments to intimacy, too. She had grown up watching her beloved mother flinch away from her father’s grasp again and again, and she began to do the same with the Archduke. Oh, but it got a lot worse than that.
Isabella wasn’t just shy about her husband’s ardor for her—eventually, she became downright disgusted by it. She grew utterly terrified of even the idea of having intercourse with her husband, and conveniently thought the deed was too "sinful" to even attempt it with him in the early days of their marriage. Just face it Isabella: You like the ladies.
As time wore on at the Viennese court, Isabella’s neuroses hit a fever pitch. She already wasn’t going anywhere near her husband, let alone his bedroom, but she soon also developed an enormous pregnancy phobia to boot, mostly because—as with so many things in her life—she was sure it would cause her untimely end. Again, though: She wasn’t wrong.
Despite her lady love Maria Christina, Isabella was patently miserable in Austria, especially with its stuffy, conservative court and its stuffy, conservative men. In fact, she so despised her situation, she even wrote her "Treatise Over Men," where she called men "good-for-nothings," "unnecessary animals," and "parasites of human company".
Dang Isabella, men down. Except it turned out that Isabella couldn’t trust the women in her life, either…
Isabella was right in the deep end with Maria Christina, but there were signs that Maria herself wasn’t nearly as devoted. Back then, young, unmarried women often had close "relationships" with other women, whether emotionally or physically intimate, and Isabella began to get the sense she was simply an experiment for the Habsburg princess. So, the cracks started to show.
The turmoil of Isabella’s relationship with Maria Christina is heartbreakingly visible even all these years later. While Maria Christina remained happy and placid at court, an old ghost haunted Isabella. She slipped once more into melancholy and morbidity, thought of death frequently, and her letters to Maria Christina began to reflect her stormy moods in terrifying ways.
In one letter to her love, Isabella scrawled, "I am writing you again, cruel sister, though I have only just left you. I cannot bear waiting to know my fate, and to learn whether you consider me a person worthy of your love, or whether you would like to fling me into the river". Indeed, Isabella’s violent passions only grew as time went on, eroding her mental health and heading to a tragic breaking point.
In 1761, Isabella received horrific news. Well, horrific for her. After finally conceding to having bedroom relations with her husband, she found herself pregnant. Where for many 18th-century wives this would be the culmination of their noble duties, it represented only dread and doom for the paranoid Isabella. Her fears came true almost immediately.
Isabella’s whole life was like one long, self-fulfilling prophecy, and her pregnancy was no different. Some women have wonderful, easy pregnancies; Isabella was not one of these women. Nearly as soon as she discovered she was with child, she started suffering from headaches and crippling fatigue. And since medicine wasn’t exactly super-advanced during this time, her cure was worse than the disease…
According to the common wisdom of the time, the best thing to do for the pregnant Isabella was to "bleed" her. This was a procedure where doctors placed leeches at points across her body and let them suck out her supposedly "bad" blood. If that sounds both disgusting and ineffective, that’s because it was, and it only made Isabella’s condition worse.
When it did come time for the baby to be born, she was nowhere near ready.
On March 20, 1762, Isabella finally went into labor, and her childbirth was a nightmare. Joseph stayed and held her hand while she pushed, but it was a difficult and harrowing experience. It wrecked her body and left her bedridden for six weeks afterward. At long last, however, a girl they named Maria Theresa came into the world. Yet instead of joy, Isabella felt more pain.
The miracle of birth only seemed to implant the obsession with death further into Isabella of Parma’s soul. During her excruciatingly long convalescence from childbirth, Isabella would constantly mention to her friends and attendants while on her sickbed that she expected to pass at any moment. Only, her predictions didn’t stop there.
Isabella was certain she would die young, but she also feared for those around her. Before Maria Theresa was even crawling, Isabella began predicting the babe would perish in an untimely end. That wasn’t even the worst part. While Isabella’s mental health was obviously deteriorating, her clueless husband Joseph still seemed to notice nothing. No wonder it got so out of hand so fast.
Utterly wrapped up in this terrifying mental state, Isabella started to welcome the Grim Reaper and look forward to his arrival. As she wrote in one of her missives, "Everything arouses in me the desire to die soon," and she even sent a love letter to her paramour Maria Christina saying, "I am impatient to die at your bosom".
Tragically, Isabella’s time was indeed coming…but not before more horrors visited her.
With Joseph still super out of the loop about his wife’s breakdown, he took the exact wrong tactic and started trying to grow their family more, this time hoping for that ever-coveted male heir. It ended in heartache. In the very same year that she gave birth to little Maria Theresa, Isabella suffered through two harrowing miscarriages, leaving her despondent.
Not that she got much sympathy from her family…
Isabella’s mother-in-law was the formidable Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress, a woman who was specifically famous for her child-rearing abilities—I mean, this lady had 16 children in almost as many years. So when Isabella started having pregnancy issues, the matriarch was far from understanding. Her only advice was for Joseph to "restrain his lust" the next time Isabella got pregnant so as not to spur on another miscarriage.
On second thought, I’m not sure Isabella would have minded that…
Evidently, whatever problems Isabella had with childbirth, she didn’t have a problem getting pregnant, and in 1763 she had a bun in the oven yet again. This time, Joseph and the whole royal family were determined the child—who just had to be a boy—would survive. Joseph even followed through on his promise and left Isabella’s bedroom alone in preparation for his heir. Then fate came in with a cruel twist.
In the fall of 1763, Isabella was six months pregnant with her child. It looked as though she would finally carry another babe to term. It wasn’t to be. She contracted smallpox, which not only put herself at risk of dying, but also put the life of her unborn child in harm’s way. Indeed, Isabella went into labor on November 22, three full months before her due date. It quickly spiraled out of control.
That November, Isabella gave birth to yet another little girl, and she made a heartbreaking tribute. She named the daughter Maria Christina, most probably after her own beloved. Only this time, there were no miracles at the end of her difficult childbirth. The premature girl only lived a few bare hours before passing. The tragedy, however, only continued.
Isabella had barely survived her labor, and her life teetered violently in the balance. Raging with an uncontrollable fever, she apparently cried out, "My whole body burns, because I have sinned with my whole body!" Then, at long last, all Isabella of Parma’s predictions bore sinister fruit. The princess passed on November 27, just five days after her lost daughter. The effects were catastrophic.
Perhaps one of the most tragic details concerning Isabella of Parma’s dark end is how ironic it was. The melancholy Princess perished from the exact same illness, smallpox, that had felled her beloved mother all those years ago, and which had spurred in her a lifelong obsession and attraction to mortality and morbidity.
Even princesses can run out of luck.
Although the Archduke Joseph had been out of touch for so much of their marriage, his reaction to Isabella’s end was unhinged. He was now all too aware that he would never get his wife or little daughter back, and he went nearly mad with grief. As he wrote to his father, "I have lost everything, my adored wife, my only friend is no more…I hardly know if I am still alive".
But what about Isabella’s one true love?
Maria Christina might have been slightly flightier than Isabella when it came to their illicit romance, but she was no less heartbroken than her brother about Isabella’s untimely passing. According to everyone who knew her, Maria Christina was heartbroken at the news and withdrew into herself. When the Habsburg royal finally did marry three years later, however, it may have been all thanks to Isabella.
As part of her morbid premonitions, Isabella made sure she wouldn’t leave Maria Christina out in the cold, even long after she was gone. So just before passing, Isabella gave one last gift to her love. She wrote down a series of advisements for Maria Christina to get the most out of court life and court politicking, and they came quite in handy.
In the aftermath of Isabella’s passing, one of her friends, the penniless and relatively unimportant Prince Albert of Saxony, came over to Austria to offer his condolences to the family. To her surprise, Maria Christina found herself falling in love with him, and it took all of Isabella’s posthumous advice to convince her parents to bless the union. In the end, the pair married in 1767.
Although Isabella was growing cold in her crypt, one final tragedy was to come. The melancholy princess had always worried that a gruesome fate would befall her only surviving child, Maria Theresa. As with so many of Isabella’s macabre predictions, this one came true, too; the little girl perished from pleurisy in 1770 when she was only seven years old. In a strange way, though, Joseph’s fate was just as bad.
It seemed that on Isabella of Parma’s passing, the whole royal court of Austria turned fallow and dark in an instant. Her husband Archduke Joseph never recovered from losing his love, and especially never recovered once he had lost the little girl they had together; after 1770, he withdrew from nearly all public life. He did try to make one more go of marriage…but it ended in disaster.
Right after Isabella’s unfortunate passing, Joseph’s domineering mother Maria Theresa tried to push her son into marriage before the official mourning period was over. His response was a testament to his love. Joseph stubbornly rebuffed the idea, and made everyone wait another two years before he married Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria in 1765. Yeah, that still wasn’t enough time.
Joseph and Maria Josepha’s marriage was ridiculously unhappy, not the least because he wasn’t over his very, very dead wife. It also didn’t help that Maria Josepha was notoriously unfortunate looking, with bad teeth and sores all over—not exactly a good comparison to the radiant Isabella. In a total role reversal of his first marriage, Joseph now spent most of his time avoiding his second wife.
Actually, he went even further.
Isabella’s replacement Maria Josepha so repulsed the Archduke, he couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping with her. In one explicit letter he writes, "If I could put the tip of my finger on the tiniest part of her body which was not covered with pimples, I would try to have children". With that glowing review, is it any surprise they never did have kids? I’d say you won that round, Isabella.
According to lore, Isabella’s obsession with death might have had a bloody start. Sometime around her mother’s early passing, Isabella reportedly fell in love with a young man her father disapproved of—so then, like all sane dads, he had him killed. As Isabella’s lover drifted away, she heard him say, "You, three…" which she believed meant she too would die in three hours.
Isabella, as the story goes, dutifully waited three hours, then three days, and then three years, always certain that one day, the Grim Reaper would get her. Although this is likely more myth than fact, it does give insight into her legacy.
If we still don’t know for absolute certain if Maria Christina and Isabella of Parma had a full-blown romantic relationship rather than a platonic one, there is a telling reason for this. While Isabella’s passionate, tense letters still exist, Maria Christina and her family destroyed all of her own letters to her bosom friend.
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Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
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