Frivolous but charismatic, Maria Isabella of Spain had an unparalleled zest for life. She lived a pampered life, but danger stalked her every move. Behind the public image of a picture-perfect life, Maria Isabella's world was wrought with tragedy, family conflicts, and life-threatening debacles—right until the bitter end.
Born on July 6, 1789 to King Carlos IV of Spain and Maria Luisa of Parma, Maria Isabella of Spain faced scandal right from the get-go. Around that time, her mother's favorite official, Manual Godoy, rose to power. The timing of her birth and Godoy’s close bond with the queen led to accusations and rumors that Godoy, not the king, was her real father.
The gossip had already begun to swirl with Maria Isabella's birth, but the rumblings in the Spanish court were about to get even louder.
Chaos revolved around Maria Isabella's childhood as undeniable turmoil whipped its way through Europe. The French Revolution led to the demise of the French Bourbon dynasty. In Spain, economic problems, the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, and the King’s poor governance resulted in public discontent with the royal family.
But as the outside world raged around her, Maria Isabella had her own set of challenges to overcome.
As expected, Maria Isabella grew up with the perks of a princess. The king and queen royally doted on their youngest daughter—but made a shocking decision in regard to her education. Although they could have blessed their daughter with a rigorous education, the royal couple only provided her access to the bare bones of academia.
After all, there was no need for Maria Isabella to become an impressive intellectual...She only needed to marry well. This deficiency would come around to haunt her in the worst way.
Maria Isabella’s parents showed much enthusiasm in their search for a husband for her. In December 1800, an excellent opportunity arose when Lucien Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, became the new French ambassador. Napoleon was then the First Consul of France, and people suggested that he should divorce his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and marry into royalty. That's when Maria Isabella's mother spotted her chance.
Maria Luisa was an opportunistic mother. When she realized that a marriage to Napoleon would be politically advantageous for her daughter, she jumped at the opportunity. In April 1801, she proposed a marriage between Maria Isabella and Napoleon through Lucien Bonaparte. But that's not the cringiest part. You see, Maria Isabella was only 11 years old at the time.
But as eager as the queen was to win Napoleon for Maria Isabella, she miscalculated big time.
The House of Bourbon seemed to be in denial about their status. Once a powerful monarchy, the royal house had fallen many notches down the European royal totem pole—and they were fools to think that Napoleon hadn't noticed. When he received Maria Isabella's marriage proposal, he rejected it badly. Adding salt to the wound, he scoffed, "If I would have to remarry, I wouldn't look in a house in ruins for my descendants". Burn!
Faced with this crushing rejection, Maria Isabella's mother became more desperate than ever before.
Just when the problem of Maria Isabella's prospects reached an all-time low, an interesting suggestion came from an outsider. Alquier, who was the former French ambassador in Spain and Naples, recommended double marriages between the Spanish and Neapolitan royal houses. Maria Isabella and her oldest brother, Ferdinand, would respectively marry their paternal first cousins, Prince Francesco of Naples and Sicily and Maria Antonia. However, it was about much more than kissing cousins.
Maria Isabella's marriage to Prince Francesco seemed like the perfect solution everyone's problems—but it wasn't as easy as it seemed. At the time, the Kingdom of Naples had good relations with England and was on bad terms with France, Spain’s ally. Spain and France needed a way to get Naples on their side. Therefore, two royal marriages—especially involving first cousins AND two crowns—sounded like a solid idea that wouldn’t face any opposition...Well, it did.
Sharing flesh and blood didn’t mean the royal families of Naples and Spain had a strong bond. Maria Carolina, the Queen of Naples, was against the proposal because she hated France (her favorite sister was the ill-fated Marie Antoinette) and didn’t trust Spain because of its alliance with the former. Aside from political mistrust, there was also a delicate matter that had many people concerned—Maria Isabella’s age.
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Maria Isabella's youth was a huge issue: She was only 12 years old. Yes, during that era, princesses married young, but it was uncommon for one to marry that young. However, the political turbulence in Europe necessitated marriage. Spain and Naples needed each other to deal with the growing power of Napoleon. And so, young Maria Isabella had no choice but to grow up disturbingly fast.
Maria Isabella’s 13th birthday didn’t just mark the start of her teenage years, it was also the day she became a married woman! She finally married her 25-year-old cousin and became his second wife and the Crown Princess of Naples. Apart from a husband and a title, the former Infanta also gained a new name—she went from being called Maria Isabel to Maria Isabella.
It was a wonderful day except for one detail: The groom wasn’t there.
Usually, both the groom and the bride are present at the altar. Well, not in Maria Isabella’s case. It was a proxy wedding, which actually wasn’t strange by royal standards. Maria Isabella’s brother, Ferdinand, represented Francesco in the ceremony in Madrid. The double weddings finally took place in person in October. A few days later, Maria Isabella for Naples as a married woman—but she did not receive the warm welcome she'd hoped for.
Maria Isabella had trouble putting her best foot forward in Naples. One reason was that she didn’t meet the beauty standards of the times. Like her sisters, she was short and homely in looks. It also didn’t help that she looked shockingly young for her age of 13. Courtiers teased that she was “little, and round as a ball.” But of all her critics, no one was as harsh as her new mother-in-law.
Maria Isabella faced an uphill battle with her mother-in-law. Before the marriage, Queen Maria Carolina already had misgivings about Maria Isabella. She was fond of Francesco’s first wife, who was also her niece. Regarding Maria Isabella, the best comment the Queen gave was that she had a “fine, fresh, healthy face”. That seemed nice enough, however, she had a lot more to say about Maria Isabella’s flaws.
Maria Isabella’s lack of education greatly upset Maria Carolina. She complained about the Crown Princess’ poor conversation skills and her simple-minded nature. As a result, she believed Maria Isabella didn’t have anything of worth to offer to the kingdom. She even went so far as to say, “Francis’ child aged four has far more intelligence”. But she saved the worst insult for last.
The queen was aware of the gossip running rampant in the Spanish court. The rumors surrounding Maria Isabella’s paternity followed her from Spain, and the Queen used it as ammunition. Maria Carolina openly attacked the Crown Princess by calling her a derogatory slur that referred to her possible illegitimacy. However, Maria Isabella rose above her hardship and finally received some good news.
After a rocky start, fate finally gave the struggling Maria Isabella a break. Two years after her wedding, she became a mother when she gave birth to her first child, Luisa Carlotta, on October 24, 1804, at the Palace of Portici. Another daughter, María Cristina, came two years later. But despite the happiness of her new babies, it couldn't disguise the fact that Maria Isabella's life was, once again, in turmoil.
Troubling political events poisoned Maria Isabella’s happy existence as a new mother. Concerned for his position, her father-in-law, King Ferdinand, joined a political alliance called The Third Coalition, which fought against Napoleon. But Napoleon defeated the Royal Neapolitan Army before occupying Naples in 1806. As a result, the royal family fled to Sicily—but the worst was yet to come.
Back in Spain, politics tore Maria Isabella’s family apart. Concerned about the decline of Spain and Godoy’s influence, her oldest brother decided to intervene to save the monarchy. He tried to oust their father from the throne but ultimately failed. In 1808, Ferdinand finally succeeded and ascended the throne. Little did she know, Maria Isabella and her family still weren't out of the woods.
A stunning series of events transformed Maria Isabella's life into a downright nightmare. There was an external threat lurking over the Spanish Bourbons—and sadly, they were unable to escape from the clutches of Napoleon. He overthrew both Maria Isabella’s father and brother, crowning his own brother, Joseph, as the King of Spain.
He imprisoned her parents and her rumored father, Godoy, in France for over three years. Meanwhile, Maria Isabella holed up in Sicily, thinking she'd be safe. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
Although Maria Isabella and the royal family found refuge in Sicily, it wasn’t secure. Unrest still reigned as the French troops tried to capture the region. Thankfully, the Sicilian officers managed to defend the island with the help of British forces. Still, Maria Isabella watched from the sidelines as the king and queen failed to regain control of the Italian mainland. But wait, it gets even more disturbing.
In Sicily, King Ferdinand only ruled in name. It was the British who really wielded power on the island. Instead, the king passed his time hunting and only appeared in person when required. In 1812, Maria Isabella’s husband, Francesco, became the regent and was active in his duties. Although power was now effectively back in the royal family’s hands, things were not running smoothly.
Unlike her mother, Maria Isabella showed little interest in politics. When it came to the governance of Sicily, the Crown Princess fully left the responsibility to her husband. Unfortunately, Francesco stirred up problems like no other. To fund the conflict against France, he raised new taxes, which angered the island’s nobility. As a result, the enraged nobles insisted that he'd gone against their rights.
All of a sudden, Maria Isabella found herself caught in the middle of an overwhelming mess.
Maria Isabella could only watch as the men played a game of dangerous politics. In 1816, King Ferdinand unified the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples under the title of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. As the future king of both kingdoms, Francesco received the title of Duke of Calabria, making Maria Isabella a duchess.
With a large family to tend to, she followed in her mother's
Maria Isabella had at least one thing in common with her overbearing mother: She had a flair for securing suitable marriages for her daughters. However, she didn't hesitate to marry them off in a disturbing way: she matched her daughters with her own brothers. In fact, four of them wed into the Spanish royal family—with the first marriage arranged between her eldest daughter and Infante Francisco de Paula of Spain, her younger brother.
The duchess certainly knew how to keep it in the family—and, well, she was just getting started.
Maria Isabella seemed to favor marrying within the family a lot. When it came time to find a suitable husband for her second daughter, Maria Christina, she found one with a crown. Maria Isabella’s brother, King Ferdinand VII of Spain, was conveniently single and available. Luisa Carlota helped to organize the marriage. Of course, when she wasn’t busy playing cupid, the duchess occupied herself with her own fruitful bedroom relations.
Political unrest didn’t slow down the duchess from expanding her brood. The Neapolitan court disapproved of her, but Francesco showed his wife great affection. In total, the royal couple had 12 children with an even balance of six sons and six daughters. Nine of them were born within a span of 15 years! During these years, however, her family wasn’t the only thing that grew.
Motherhood changed Maria Isabella’s body. She was curvaceous from a young age, but the frequent succession of pregnancies took a toll on her body. She gained a lot of weight, but she still retained a certain beauty to her. However, more changes were still to come. She and Francesco returned to Naples in 1820, where the duchess faced a harsh reality that threatened her comfortable lifestyle.
In 1825, King Ferdinand met his demise, thrusting unwanted responsibility onto Maria Isabella's shoulders. Francesco became King Francis I, and the duchess finally became Queen of the Two Sicilies. But to everyone's dismay, the new queen didn’t show any interest in her duties. Instead, the task of running the royal household fell on the king’s valet and the queen’s lady-in-waiting.
As Maria Isabella clung to luxury, corruption began to wreak havoc all around her. However, in a stunning twist, her fun-loving personality granted her one huge win.
Queen Maria Isabella was one merry wife. Thrill-seeking in nature, she was always down for a good time. She spent her time attending the theater, balls, and public celebrations. Her generosity endeared the Neapolitans to her. As a result, she enjoyed greater approval from her subjects than they afforded the king himself. But despite her seemingly relaxed lifestyle, the reality was much graver.
Francis and Maria Isabella always lived with the threat of war and were constantly under the protection of Austrian officers—but they paid a heavy price for such attention. Their overall upkeep was costly, and, as a result, the kingdom accumulated incredible debts. Eventually, the king and queen approached the Austrians to shrink the force.
The Austrian ambassador granted their request, and, by 1827, all Austrian officers pulled out of the territory. Sadly, only tragedy lay in wait.
In 1830, Maria Isabella faced her most heartwrenching moment yet. The king’s health saw a swift decline—and on November 8, Francis I departed from this world forever. In the wake of this devastating loss, the king's son, Ferdinand, ascended the throne as King Ferdinand II. Maria Isabella became the Queen Mother, but once again, she found herself an unwitting participant in a plot hatched by others. This time, though, it was treasonous.
Not everyone wanted Ferdinand as a king. Prince Vincenzo Ruffo della Scaletta and Peter Ugo, Marquis delle Favare, planned to overthrow the young king and have Maria Isabella replace her son as regent for a few years. However, they made one huge mistake. They underestimated Ferdinand, who uncovered their plot and swiftly quashed it.
Although Maria Isabella had been oblivious to the treachery, her relationship with Ferdinand changed forever.
Maria Isabella had a frosty relationship with her eldest son. She and Ferdinand were polar opposites. Ferdinand took his royal responsibilities seriously and had more spunk. Maria Isabella, on the other hand, was fun-loving and easygoing. Due to their similar personalities, she also favored Ferdinand’s younger brother, Charles, over him.
Soon, these differences widened the rift between them in an unsettling way.
Maria Isabella was a young widow, but still flirtatious at heart. With the passing of her husband, she was free and single and ready to mingle. She had a fondness for good-looking, younger men, and rumors circulated that she fully played the field. Her scandalous actions led to slanderous claims, which embarrassed Ferdinand. Luckily, an outsider helped repair their fraying relationship.
Maria Isabella had a better relationship with her daughter-in-law, Maria Cristina of Savoy. The Queen Mother and the new queen developed a friendly rapport with each other. With the help of Maria Cristina, Maria Isabella settled her differences with Ferdinand. Mother and son repaired their relationship and, once again, found equal ground.
This reconciliation came right on time for Maria Isabella...She needed her son’s help.
After testing the waters, Maria Isabella finally set her eyes on a certain man. In 1835, she became embroiled in a passionate love affair with a married Austrian officer, Baron Peter von Schmuckher. The baron seemed to share the Queen Mother’s penchant for drama as the two often broke up and made up. Two years into their relationship, a convenient opportunity arose for them to make their attachment permanent.
In 1837, an unexpected event changed the course of Maria Isabella’s relationship with von Schmuckher. The baron’s wife met an early end, leaving him officially free to wed. Of course, Maria Isabella expressed her desire to marry him—but the baron had a disturbing set of stipulations. He agreed to marriage provided he be allowed to use the title of Royal Highness and enjoy the privileges that came along with it. Finally, Maria Isabella saw her lover’s true colors.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Upon learning of von Schmuckher’s condition for marrying her, Maria Isabella saw him for who he was—a scheming social climber. Usually a sweet-natured woman, she showed how hard-hearted she could be. The Queen Mother ended things with the baron and implored her son to banish him. In January 1838, the king just did that.
However, Maria Isabella’s love wasn’t the only thing to go up in flames.
In the early hours of February 6, 1837, a fire broke out at the royal palace and reached Maria Isabella’s bedroom. Luckily for the Queen Dowager, a sergeant broke into her room and carried her to safety. No one was able to discover the cause of the fire, and it was most likely an accident. Clearly, Maria Isabella had gotten used to putting out all kinds of fires—and this certainly wouldn't be the last.
Fate had even more sorrow to throw Maria Isabella's way. Her favorite son, Charles, Prince of Capua, eloped with a foreign commoner. His actions angered the king, who opposed the marriage. Maria Isabella’s two eldest sons already had a tense relationship because Ferdinand resented his brother for being their parents’ favorite. And so, this incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Fearing for Charles’ future, Maria Isabella stepped in. Hoping to use her position to influence the king, the Queen Mother begged her eldest son to show the Prince of Capua leniency. However, Maria Isabella’s pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears. Ferdinand banished his younger brother, who spent the rest of his life in exile in England...Maria Isabella never saw her beloved Charles again.
Despite her quarreling offspring, Maria Isabella still had marriage on her mind. Of course, because she needed Ferdinand’s approval, he became her wingman of sorts. The king gave her a list of young, eligible noblemen in the kingdom. Although she was a good catch herself, the queen mother’s second trip to the altar was bumpier than ever before.
Being royalty didn’t make the hunt for a husband easy. Maria Isabella had a hard time finding a husband. She proposed to her top two choices, but the men wavered in their decisions. Tired of their indecisiveness, she retracted her proposals. It appeared that she was going to be single for a long time. But when it seemed as though all hope was lost, Maria Isabella finally found a match.
The queen mother’s search for her man was over. At the age of 50, she married 34-year-old Francesco, Count dal Balzo dei Duchi di Presenzano, a lieutenant from a poor noble family with a long history, in a private ceremony. After the wedding, the newlyweds settled at the Palace of Capodimonte. Maria Isabella showered her new husband with love and attention, leaving little for anyone else.
Maria Isabella allegedly indulged in her new marriage. Moreover, many claimed it had a profound impact on her parenting abilities. Some said that she failed to care for her daughter, Teresa Cristina, who grew up in a conservative environment. The result was that Teresa Cristina became a meek woman who didn’t assert herself when required.
However, as happy as Maria Isabella seemed in her new union, it didn't save her from unbelievable heartbreak.
Just as her life was on the ups, misfortune entered her life again. In January 1843, the life of her fourth son, Antonio, Count of Lecce, ended tragically. As a well-known womanizer, the count’s playboy ways became the end of him when the jealous husband of his latest conquest sought brutal revenge. Devastated by this tragic turn of events, the royal family had no choice but to hush up the incident.
Unfortunately for Maria Isabella, her bad luck was far from over.
Politics somehow always found a way into the Queen Dowager’s life. The kingdom faced more political turmoil in a string of uprisings called The Insurrection of 1847. Rebels hoped to institute a constitutional monarchy or a republic and join the Kingdom of Italy. Instead of staying away from the matter as she had in the past, Maria Isabella became involved in finding a resolution.
After shunning politics throughout her life, Maria Isabella finally got her hands dirty. She just couldn’t turn a blind eye to this current predicament. Along with her third son, Leopold, the Count of Syracuse, and her brother-in-law, Leopold, Prince of Salerno, she supported liberal reforms. Unfortunately, she wasn’t successful, but surprisingly, it didn’t put a damper on her reputation.
You see, her generosity to the poor and her lovable personality captured the hearts of Neapolitans—right up until the bitter end.
After a lifetime of passionate highs and devastating lows, the Queen Dowager departed for the afterlife on September 14, 1848. Despite his tumultuous relationship with his mother, Ferdinand mourned Maria Isabella, and, after her passing, retreated further from the public eye. Tributes poured in with references to her charitable and vivacious character. For this reason, her legacy remained golden.
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