Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV of France, is a queen whom history has sometimes overlooked. Known for her virtue and religious devotion, the Spanish royal never quite managed to fit in at the fashionable French court and was often outshone by her husband’s many mistresses. But behind her pious and long-suffering façade Maria Theresa was a fascinating woman—with some shocking secrets of her own.
The daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, and his wife, Queen Elisabeth of France, Maria Theresa was born into privilege but had a tragic childhood. In 1644, when she was only six years old, her beloved mother sadly perished—but that was just the start of her nightmare. Before she could recover from this heartbreaking loss, her older brother passed unexpectedly after contracting smallpox. The loss left Spain without a male heir.
As her father’s only living child, Maria Theresa suddenly found herself in a very powerful position.
Following her brother’s passing, it looked like Maria Theresa would be the one to inherit her father’s crown—as long as he didn’t have a son. The princess grew up hoping she would someday rule Spain and the vast empire it controlled. However, Philip’s second marriage to a much younger woman meant Maria Theresa’s position as the next heir was anything but secure.
Maria Theresa had a complicated relationship with her stepmother. In 1649, Philip married the fourteen-year-old Mariana of Austria in the hope that she would bring him a male heir. Not only was Mariana close in age to her 11-year-old stepdaughter, but she was also King Philip’s niece and Maria Theresa’s first cousin.
The Habsburgs’ tendency to marry each other to keep wealth in the family would have devastating consequences for future generations. But at that moment, the consequences of this marriage for the young Maria Theresa were also devastating—for vastly different reasons.
In 1657, Queen Mariana gave birth to the son everyone in Spain had been waiting for—everyone except Maria Theresa. The birth of Prince Philip, followed by the births of two more sons in the years to come, dashed the princess’s hopes of ascending to the Spanish throne. But by this time, it had begun to look like Maria Theresa’s destiny lay outside of Spain.
After 24 years of constant fighting, the leaders of France and Spain were eager to secure a peace treaty—so they made Maria Theresa a pawn. The plan involved a marriage between Maria Theresa and the young King Louis XIV of France. Although the Spanish princess barely spoke any French, the end of the war depended on her. She had to a new life in a country she had never visited…with a man she had never met.
Maria Theresa and Louis had a proxy marriage, meaning they were legally bound to each other before ever meeting in person. The advisors of both kings were so eager to ensure peace between the two countries that they couldn’t even wait for Maria Theresa to travel to France. Not long after, Maria Theresa left Spain forever to begin an exciting new chapter of her life.
Although Maria Theresa had never met Louis before arriving in France, they were closely related. Louis’s father, Louis XIII, was the brother of Maria Theresa’s mother, and his mother, Anne of Austria, was the sister of Maria Theresa’s father. But despite the intimate connection between the two royal families, Philip had some trust issues. He was definitely worried about Louis’s motives for marrying his daughter—she was, after all, a princess with claim to the Spanish throne.
For the first year of their marriage, Louis wanted to spend as much time as possible with his new bride. However, this state of devotion didn’t last for long. After they married, Louis made a vow to spend every night by Maria Theresa’s side. But about a year after their marriage, he began a pattern of unfaithfulness that would last for the rest of Maria Theresa’s life.
Maria Theresa and Louis shared the same religion, but they expressed their faith in very different ways. Having grown up in the conservative Spanish court, Maria Theresa was a very devout Catholic. She valued her virtue, modesty, and devotion to prayer above all else. Her strict religious upbringing led to major culture shock when she arrived at the French court.
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As a Spanish princess living in France, Maria Theresa had trouble adapting to the customs of her new country. The decadence and frivolity of the French court shocked her religious sensibilities. Although she adored her new husband, his scandalous behaviour with other women upset her, and her poor language skills made fitting in even more difficult.
Although Maria Theresa lived in France for more than half her life, she never mastered the language. She could barely understand French and avoided speaking it whenever she could. Her difficulties speaking French made it impossible for her to follow the witty banter of the French court and led to people mocking her behind her back. Luckily, there was one powerful woman at court she could turn to for support.
Unlike some people, Maria Theresa was lucky enough to have a great relationship with her mother-in-law, Anne of Austria. Anne was Maria Theresa’s aunt on her father’s side and one of the only people she could speak Spanish to in the French court. But after Anne’s demise in 1666, Maria Theresa felt more isolated in France than ever—and their her husband added insult to injury.
Louis began flaunting his mistresses more publicly at court.
Unfortunately for Maria Theresa, Louis’s fondness for beautiful women was an open secret throughout their marriage. He had many lovers in addition to official mistresses, and after his mother was no longer living, he brought Louise de La Valliere to live permanently at court. Maria Theresa had to endure the humiliation of living with a woman everyone knew had an intimate relationship with her husband. And it only got worse from there.
Maria was used to betrayal from Louis, but never expected that her only friend would stab her in the back, too. Madame de Montespan had been Maria's only confidante in the French court, yet it turns out that she'd only played the role of friend to get closer to the king. Her plan worked.
After Madame de Montespan became the king’s preferred paramour, Louise de La Valliere decided to become a nun and leave court forever—but not before making a heartfelt apology to Maria Theresa. Louise threw herself at the queen’s feet and begged her forgiveness for the pain she had caused her. Maria Theresa not only graciously accepted the apology but also regularly visited Louise at her convent and was even present when Louise took her vows as a nun.
Unfortunately, Maria Theresa would never get such an apology from Madame de Montespan.
While Louise had always respected the queen’s position at court, Madame de Montespan was different. She openly mocked Maria Theresa for her failure to hold the king’s attention. Her disrespectful behavior toward the queen was so flagrant that even Louis sometimes felt the need to put his haughty mistress in her place. Maria Theresa would have to wait another ten years before karma finally caught up with Madame de Montespan.
One of the reasons Maria Theresa was so distressed by Louis’s affairs was because she was completely infatuated with him. While his interest in her cooled quickly, she adored her husband, and it pained her to see him fooling around with other women. Even after years of enduring life surrounded by his mistresses, she still hoped that he would someday turn faithful and realize she was his destiny.
As Louis’s wife, Maria Theresa could do one thing for Louis that none of his mistresses ever could—give him a legitimate heir to the throne. In 1661, only a year after her marriage, Maria Theresa gave birth to healthy son, named Louis after his father. Unfortunately, he would be the queen’s only child to make it past his sixth birthday.
When it was time for Maria Theresa to give birth, she had to partake in a bizarre tradition. She gave birth in front of an audience. In the French court, courtiers attended royal births to witness the arrival of the new heir and ensure that no one tried any funny business like switching out a girl for a boy or a healthy baby for a stillborn child. Maria Theresa finally gave birth to Louis after 12 hours of excruciating labor in front of a crowd of eager French noblemen. While this time her ordeal had a happy ending, the public nature of royal births would later end up involving Maria Theresa in a scandalous rumor.
While other French queens became known for their patronage of the arts, Maria Theresa preferred less serious forms of entertainment. She was especially fond of playing cards, especially games involving gambling for money, a habit that some members of the court considered undignified and beneath the station of a queen. But her love of games didn’t prevent her from rising to the occasion when she did get a chance to wield some political power.
Maria Theresa never involved herself too much in political affairs, but she played a powerful role while her husband was away fighting in his many wars. When Louis was away from France, he appointed Maria Theresa regent in his absence, making her the official head of state. One of these occasions occurred when Louis decided to fight to restore the rights that Maria Theresa believed she had long since given up.
Maria Theresa had signed away her right to inherit the Spanish crown when she got married, but Spain hadn’t held up its end of the bargain. Philip had agreed his daughter and her heirs would only lose their right to inherit the throne if Spain failed to pay her dowry, and according to Louis, Spain had never paid up. When Maria Theresa’s half-brother Charles took the throne, Louis jumped into action.
He seized some of Spain’s territories and reasserted his wife’s inheritance rights, leading to a war. Although Louis didn’t manage to keep the territories, he ultimately won the bigger fight over whether Maria Theresa’s heirs could rule Spain.
When you hear the phrase “let them eat cake,” you probably think of Marie Antoinette, but Maria Theresa may actually have been the one to say it. Although she was queen of France 100 years before Marie Antoinette, some historians believe Maria Theresa was the out-of-touch royal who suggested peasants who couldn’t afford bread should eat luxurious “brioche” instead. While it’s impossible to know if Maria Theresa really made this infamous remark, we do know she had a serious obsession with sweets.
Maria Theresa was a bit of a chocoholic, and she even helped make chocolate popular in France. Made from cacao from the South American colonies, chocolate had become popular in Spain by the 17th century, but was still a novelty in France. Maria Theresa loved chocolate so much that when she became engaged to Louis, she gave him a chest full of chocolate as a gift.
Because of Maria Theresa’s sweet tooth, chocolate became a staple of life at Versailles. Unfortunately, her love of chocolate also had some not-so-sweet consequences.
Maria Theresa was not known as much of a beauty, and there was one physical feature that particularly gave her trouble. The seventeenth century didn’t have great dental hygiene, but even by the standards of the day Maria Theresa had a gruesome smile. Her teeth were already badly decayed by the time she married and only got worse over the years due to her love of sweets. And her teeth weren’t her only insecurity when it came to her appearance.
Maria Theresa wore high heels to compensate for being short, but she couldn’t quite pull them off. The queen couldn’t walk comfortably in high heels and often fell in public due to the height of her shoes. Maria Theresa’s insistence on wearing heels despite her lack of grace led to people laughing at her behind her back. Unfortunately, she also had some other quirks that made her easy to mock.
Maria Theresa was so terrified of ghosts that she had difficulty sleeping and had a very peculiar bedtime routine. Each night, she would have one of her ladies-in-waiting tell stories to help her fall asleep and hold her hand all night while she slept. Maria Theresa even insisted that this companion remain in the room when Louis was in bed next to her. It’s no wonder some members of the court found the queen a bit childish.
Maria Theresa didn’t have it easy living with Louis, but she did get to live in one of the most of iconic palaces of all time. Throughout much of the 1660s and 1670s, the top architects in France were busy turning the king’s modest hunting lodge at Versailles into the magnificent palace that Louis envisioned for his court.
By the end of her life, the court had moved permanently to Versailles, and Maria Theresa was living in lavish chambers, playing cards and drinking hot chocolate to her heart’s content.
Maria Theresa was a true animal lover. Like the Sun King himself, Maria Theresa loved dogs and had many pet lapdogs over her time as queen. But in addition to dogs, she also had some more unusual pets, most notably a monkey and parrot. Her pets helped to console her through the many tragic losses that she endured as queen.
On top of the pain of her husband’s betrayals, Maria Theresa had to endure the agony of losing a child—five separate times. Although she gave birth to two more sons and three daughters over the next ten years, all her children except Louis failed to survive either infancy or early childhood. One of these losses was particularly devastating for Maria Theresa.
The loss that affected Maria Theresa the most was the passing of her five-year-old daughter, Marie Thérèse. It was the cherished hope of Maria Theresa that her namesake would someday become queen of her beloved Spain. The loss of young Marie Thérèse to tuberculosis broke Maria Theresa’s heart, especially having lost three children during infancy before her.
While many children in this era didn’t live to adulthood, modern historians believed one disturbing factor led to her children’s short lifespans. They think it was because their parents were closely related. Not only were Maria Theresa and Louis double first cousins, but they also came from generations of intermarrying between the Habsburg and Bourbon families. Given what we now know, it’s possible the genetic consequences of inbreeding caused the early demises of Maria Theresa’s children with Louis.
However, there was a rumor that one of her children had survived after all—and was the result of a scandalous liaison.
Maria Theresa was famous for her piety, but there was one rumor that threatened her virtuous reputation. According to gossip, Maria Theresa had given birth—in public, of course—to a dark-skinned daughter who disappeared after her birth. Some claimed the father of the child was a dark-skinned courtier while others suggested the queen’s excessive consumption of chocolate caused the baby’s dark skin. Historians believe this infant was probably Maria Theresa’s daughter Marie-Anne, who only lived a few weeks, and that oxygen deprivation at birth caused her dark skin.
But this doesn’t explain the origins of the mysterious woman who would later come forward claiming to be the sister of the prince…
Despite the nasty rumors about an illegitimate child, people mostly felt sorry for the put-upon queen. She wasn’t as beautiful or quick-witted as her husband’s many lovers, and she lost most of her children and close allies during her first decade as queen. Plus, her accent and weakness for sweets, heels, and gambling often made her the subject of ridicule. However, some justice was finally served when her long-time rival fell from favor at court.
After years of humiliating the queen, the reign of Madame de Montespan as the king’s mistress came to an end. Not only had she gradually lost the king’s affection, but she was also publicly accused of practicing black magic and conspiring to eliminate one of her rivals. Although she vehemently denied the charges, the accusations ruined her reputation, and it soon became clear that a new woman had captivated Louis’s attention.
Maria Theresa found a friend where she least expected it. After Madame de Montespan’s fall from grace, Louis became infatuated with Madame de Maintenon, the governess of his children with Madame de Montespan. Instead of accepting his advances, she encouraged him to pay more attention to his neglected wife.
Maria Theresa was grateful for Madame de Maintenon’s thoughtfulness and warmly welcomed her into her inner circle. She had no idea that the governess would prove to be the king’s most significant favorite yet.
After grieving the loss of five other children, Maria Theresa’s son, the Dauphin of France, became the focus of her attention. She devoted herself to his religious education in the hope that he would grow up to be more devout than his philandering father. Unfortunately, King Louis didn’t share her adoration of their son.
Maria Theresa had dealt with her husband’s infidelity—but there was one aspect to it that caused her untold pain. Her husband preferred many of his illegitimate children to her beloved son Louis. According to one account, Louis found his eldest child “indolent, fatuous, and dull,” and the only thing they had in common was their love of hunting.
He also limited Maria Theresa’s control over her son’s life after he reached a certain age and didn’t even consult her when choosing a princess for young Louis to marry.
Maria Theresa and her daughter-in-law, Maria Anna of Bavaria, didn’t have the affectionate relationship that the queen had enjoyed with her mother-in-law. Maria Theresa had wanted her son to marry Maria Antonia of Austria, the daughter of her half-sister, and was jealous that the wedding celebrations in Maria Anna’s honor were more extravagant than her own.
To make things worse, everyone raved about the German princess’s perfect command of French. Still, there was one aspect of her son’s marriage that Maria Theresa couldn’t help but enjoy.
Maria Theresa lived just long enough to see her only child welcome his first child. In August 1683, just a month before Maria Theresa’s 44th birthday, the younger Louis’s wife gave birth to a son named, you guessed it, Louis. Soon after, Maria Anna became pregnant again, but unfortunately, Maria Theresa would never meet her next grandchild.
Despite her quiet life, Maria Theresa did not have a quiet end. The French queen fell gravely ill after returning home to Versailles following a trip with the court. An abscess on her arm led to severe complications. None of the treatments of the court doctors were able to relieve the intense pain and worsening symptoms.
On July 30, 1683, Maria Theresa passed on at the age of only 44, leaving behind a grieving son as well as some shocking rumors.
The loss of Maria Theresa was a shock to the French court. There were even rumors that someone had poisoned her. Although it is unlikely these claims were true, speculation that someone at court may have wanted the queen gone persisted—until a more shocking rumor began to circulate.
When Maria Theresa passed on, Louis XIV’s reaction was heartbreaking. Louis remarked that her ever-loving and patient wife’s passing was “the first chagrin she has ever given me”. If only she had been able to say the same about him! Despite his failures as a husband, Louis made sure Maria Theresa had a funeral worthy of a queen. It came complete with a royal burial in the Basilica of Saint Denis. But it became clear that he hadn’t taken the loss too hard.
Soon after the passing of the queen, the king found a new woman to take Maria Theresa’s place. Two months after losing his wife of over 20 years, Louis married Madame de Maintenon in secret. They remained inseparable for the rest of his life. Louis was finally ready to commit to one woman…but unfortunately, that woman was not Maria Theresa.
Maria Theresa’s bad luck didn’t end with her unfortunate demise. During the French Revolution, revolutionaries looted her final resting place along with other royal tombs in the Basilica of Saint Denis. They then threw her remains into a mass grave nearby. After the restoration of the French monarchy, Louis XVIII had the bones of Maria Theresa and his other royal ancestors reburied in the church crypt.
Louis XIV outlived not only his first wife but also his first two heirs, Maria Theresa’s son and firstborn grandson. Both these princes met early demises. Som it was eventually Maria Theresa’s great-grandson—obviously also named Louis—who would become the next king to rule France from Versailles.
While Maria Theresa’s son didn’t live long enough to become king of France, her grandson Philip inherited the throne Maria Theresa had once aspired to as a young girl. As the second son of the heir to the French throne, Philip never expected to become king of anywhere. But when his uncle Charles II of Spain failed to produce a son, he named Philip heir to the Spanish crown. As king of Spain, Philip fulfilled the destiny denied to his grandmother.
After the queen’s passing, France became fascinated by the story of a nun with dark skin who claimed to be related to the royal family. Many people believed that this woman, Louise Marie-Therese, better known as the Black Nun of Moret, was the dark-skinned child Maria Theresa had given birth to in 1664. Others suspected she was the daughter of the Sun King himself. This is a theory that makes sense given how many children Louis fathered over the years.
We may never know the truth about the Black Nun’s royal origins...but the belief that she was Maria Theresa’s long-lost daughter continues to this day.
Remember back when Maria Theresa first got married to Louis? Well, despite arranging the marriage, her father grew some concerns about the pair. Philip believed Louis might have set his sights on the Spanish Empire. He thought the young king might use his marriage to Maria Theresa to take control of Spain. To make sure this couldn’t happen, Philip gave Maria Theresa a devastating order. She had to renounce her right to inherit the throne. There was one condition, however. The agreement was void if Spain didn’t pay Maria Theresa’s dowry.
The question of whether the dowry was ever paid would cause drama in the years to come.
King Louis XIV was notorious for his many mistresses. The trouble started soon after he and Maria Theresa tied the knot. And it only got worse with time. A few years into her marriage, Louis completely humiliated Maria Theresa by bringing his mistress to an event supposedly held in his wife’s honor.
Two years before his mother’s passing, Louis hosted an extravagant spectacle, known as the Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée, to launch the building of the Palace of Versailles. Although he dedicated the performances to his wife and mother, his mistress, Louise de La Valliere, publicly accompanied him.
This public display of infidelity horrified Maria Theresa and Anne, and Louis decided he’d better keep Louise away from them—at least while his mother was alive.
After the loss of her beloved mother-in-law and the arrival of Louise de La Valliere at court, Maria Theresa was grateful for the friendship of Madame de Montespan—until the beautiful noblewoman stabbed her in the back. Madame de Montespan went out of her way to befriend the king’s wife and mistress, but when Maria Theresa and Louise both became pregnant, Madame de Montespan took advantage of their condition to get closer to Louis.
Before long, Madame de Montespan was throwing her position as the king’s new favorite in Maria Theresa’s face.
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