Mariana Victoria of Spain’s first claim to fame was being the child bride–a failed one to be exact–at the center of an international scandal. Then, life threw everything but the kitchen sink at her, from an apocalyptic natural disaster to a husband gone mad. This would’ve broken most people, but this Queen kept her eye on the prize: power. Europe would never be the same.
Silver spoon doesn’t even begin to describe Mariana Victoria, who entered the world in 1718 as the first daughter of Philip V of Spain, the nation’s longest reigning monarch, and Elisabeth Farnese, its unofficial ruler. Mariana Victoria was also the great-granddaughter of King Louis XIV of France.
Understandably, her matchmaking parents wanted to preserve this royal pedigree…only, it ended in utter humiliation.
Everyone has bad neighbors, but France and Spain took it to a whole new level. After ending a bitter and bloody conflict, they didn’t like or trust each other. To be fair, France’s paranoia wasn’t baseless: Spain did try to snatch the French throne. So both sides searched for a solution and surprisingly found one in two-year-old Mariana Victoria.
France and Spain traded battles for wedding bells—but one wasn’t enough. The neighbors arranged a pack of royal marriages. But one match was clearly the crown jewel. Louis XV was the future French king, and one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors. Mariana Victoria’s parents figured only the best would do for her. It turned out to be a disturbing match.
There’s young love, and then there’s…whatever this was. Louis XV was 11 years old. Mariana Victoria was three years old. They were also first cousins. Mariana Victoria was too young to marry now, but these brilliant minds came up with another crafty solution. Poor Mariana Victoria never stood a chance.
They shipped our poor little rich girl off to France—away from her family, and everything she’d ever known. Mariana Victoria found nothing but politics, drama, and a… let’s just say, complicated fiancé waiting for her. There, they molded her into the perfect French queen. One she’d never be. It was already the beginning of the end.
In spite of this messy situation, there was a silver lining: people loved Mariana Victoria. Who could blame them? She was intelligent and charming. Princess Elisabeth Charlotte even said she was “the sweetest and prettiest little thing". Mariana Victoria was well on her way to becoming the people’s princess.
Everyone adored her—except the one who mattered the most.
Mariana Victoria thought Louis XV was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but the feeling was not mutual. Unsurprisingly, the teenage boy didn’t care about girls or marriage. So he avoided her, making their engagement not just long, but awkward too. Then, a terrifying twist of fate made Louis XV realize he couldn’t wait for Mariana Victoria.
Louis XV wasn’t just sick of Mariana Victoria, he was literally sick. He terrified the nation with health scare after health scare. You see, his passing without an heir would trigger a succession crisis. But Mariana Victoria, still a child herself, was too young to have children. It was years away. Schemers saw the opportunity and pounced.
Prime Minister Louis Henri, Duke of Bourbon—like Louis XV—wasn't a fan of Mariana Victoria. He suggested that the heir find an older bride and start making babies immediately. Louis Henri even had the audacity to give Louis XV a list of a whopping 99 alternative brides. This included two of his sisters, because of course it did. It gets juicier.
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Even Louis Henri’s mistress entered the fray. Madame de Prie lobbied hard for Maria Leszczyńska, the poorest and ugliest woman on the list. She wasn’t being charitable. Jeanne selected the woman she could most dominate. Would Louis XV really stab Mariana Victoria—not to mention Spain—in the back?
After Louis XV became King at the age of 13, everything changed. Now, he had the motivation to get rid of his pesky cousin-turned-fiancée. You see, Louis XV became more interested in beautiful, grown women. This was a big deal, especially considering that King Henri II’s affairs with older mistresses ruined him. Basically, Louis XV needed to get married. Stat.
King Louis XV and his manipulators—sorry, I meant advisors—sent the seven-year-old Mariana Victoria back to Spain. But though she left France, she left pieces of herself behind. The mismatched pair sat for painfully awkward portraits that’d remain as reminders of what could’ve been. Turns out, Mariana Victoria wasn’t the one. She was the one who got away.
Remember how Louis XV and Mariana Victoria’s match was supposed to quell tensions between their warring nations? Yeah, that didn’t go as planned. Mariana Victoria’s family and country regarded the breakup as a huge insult. On the other hand, this scandal ended on a happier note for our girl.
Mariana Victoria’s family welcomed her home with open arms. But she soon found out that her parents had learned nothing from this botched engagement. It didn’t take long for her parents to put on their matchmaking and husband-hunting hats again. Oh boy, time for round two.
Mariana Victoria found herself back on the marriage market again. She may have been the dumpee, but she was still the daughter of Spain’s King and Queen. She caught the interest of royal suitors and gossipers. The latter even spread the juicy rumor that Emperor Peter II of Russia came knocking.
If that’s true, it was yet another failed engagement. This time, she would’ve dodged a major disaster.
Peter II, like Louis XV, ended up choosing another woman. Some still wistfully wonder about the what-ifs concerning Mariana Victoria and Louis XV. But no one wondered about Peter II. Turns out, he was an incompetent ruler. Not to mention, he perished from smallpox a day before his wedding. Luckily, fate had bigger and brighter plans for Mariana Victoria.
Enter, Joseph I of Portugal. As another future King, he was also one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors. This time, Mariana Victoria actually made it down the aisle. The catch? She was 11. He was 15. And once again, this match couldn’t be further from romance. The young royals found themselves as pawns in a game they never signed up to play.
Mariana Victoria’s wedding was called The Exchange of the Princesses. Romantic, right? It was part of a double wedding that also married her brother and Joseph’s sister. It was a ridiculously showy wedding that was more about politics—and outdoing Louis XV—than love. Despite these unromantic origins, Mariana Victoria and Joseph’s married life was unexpected, to say the least.
The teenage newlyweds actually had a close marriage. They bonded over their shared interests in hunting, music, theater, and religion. But there’s always a catch, and their relationship was no exception. By the time Mariana Victoria discovered the hard way that Joseph had a major flaw, it was too late. And boy was it a big one.
Turns out, Mariana Victoria and Joseph didn’t share an important hobby: being loyal. He had not one, but multiple mistresses. To make matters worse, he had a clear favorite: Teresa Leonor, a married member of a notable family. Other Queens accepted this as par for the course, but the strong-willed Mariana Victoria hated it—and she didn’t just get mad, she got even.
Some wives remain silent about their husbands’ indiscretions and suffer in silence. Not our girl. Mariana Victoria brazenly exposed his betrayals to friends, acquaintances, and the royal court. After all, if Joseph was going to embarrass her, he deserved the same treatment. It was Mutually Assured Humiliation. She may have publicly shamed Joseph, but he was shameless.
Mariana Victoria gave birth to eight babies, but only four daughters survived infancy. This included Maria I, the firstborn and heir to the throne. All of the girls were eligible princesses, so Mariana Victoria dove into matchmaking. This time, she was on the other side of the table. However, it didn’t take long for past dramas and grudges to rear their heads.
A boy named Louis was a potential husband for daughter Mariana Francisca, and he seemed perfect. Louis was rich, well-connected, and a future king. Well, he was almost perfect. Louis, Dauphin of France was the son of Louis XV. Mariana Victoria rejected this match, but this move may have backfired.
Mariana Francisca remained unmarried for the rest of her life. Of course, Mariana Victoria didn’t stop there.
Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans was a great match for Mariana Victoria’s daughter Doroteia. He was one of the richest and most important noblemen in his country. But Louis Philippe II had an unforgivable flaw: his country was France. Once again, Mariana Victoria refused to let go of the past. On the other hand, the matches she agreed to were creepy (and I’m being generous).
Mariana Victoria arranged the marriage of her eldest daughter Maria with Peter III of Portugal. This time, she kept it in their country. And as it turned out, she also kept it in the family. Peter III was Mariana Victoria’s brother-in-law, and Maria’s uncle. She drew the line at Frenchmen, but not relatives. It gets even worse.
Mariana Victoria’s matchmaking somehow got even worse—and more incestuous. In another universe, her youngest daughter Benedita could’ve married Ferdinand VI of Spain or Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor. But in this universe, she married José, Prince of Brazil. He was Maria’s son and Benedita’s nephew.
To be fair, this match wasn’t entirely on Mariana Victoria: Her husband insisted on it. There are close families, and then there’s Portugal’s royal family.
When King John V passed in 1750, it was Mariana Victoria’s time to shine. At 32 years old, she was finally Queen. Her father-in-law left behind huge shoes to fill: He'd elevated Portugal to unprecedented wealth and power. But Joseph’s reign couldn’t have been more different. Behind the scenes, a puppet master pulled the strings.
Joseph wore the crown, but it was the Marquis of Pombal who called the shots. The king loved this arrangement, but the intelligent and ambitious Mariana Victoria? Not so much. The queen hated Pombal for holding power that she felt belonged to her. So Mariana Victoria waited for the perfect time to strike.
At 9:40 AM on Sunday, November 1, 1755 (All Saints Day), most of Portugal was up praying. Without warning, the Great Lisbon Earthquake brought a biblical disaster to life. Survivors emerged from the rubble, only to find nothing but gigantic cracks in the ground and destruction. Their nightmare was just beginning. Portugal—and Mariana Victoria—would never be the same.
Lisbon couldn’t catch a break: tsunamis as tall as skyscrapers struck Portugal’s capital following the earthquake. Not to mention, toppled stoves started an inferno that swept through the city. Basically, Lisbon stood no chance—and that’s not even including the casualties.
It was one of the worst earthquakes in history—and one of, if not the worst experiences in Mariana Victoria’s life.
Mariana Victoria got lucky—or as much as you could get during an apocalypse. In any other year, her family spent All Saints Day in Lisbon. But in 1755, one of their daughters begged to go out of town for the day. While the royal family wasn’t at the epicenter of the earthquake, it still felt like the end of the world.
Mariana Victoria soon discovered it was actually the end of the husband she knew and loved.
Joseph was alive, but not well. He couldn’t shake off the earthquake and developed extreme claustrophobia. It became so severe the king never felt safe in walled buildings again. Joseph decided that if he couldn’t live in a normal building, he’d take his whole circle with him. Mariana Victoria had no choice but to follow.
If an earthquake destroyed their palace, most rulers would rush the construction of a replacement. But at this point, it was clear that Joseph was no longer like most kings. Instead, he chose to live in a complex of tents. Not only that, but he took the entire royal court with him. While the tents were nice, they were still tents at the end of the day.
They were a serious downgrade from the lavish palaces and the lifestyle Mariana Victoria was accustomed to.
Mariana Victoria was famous in her own right, but she pales in comparison to her goddaughter. Does the name Marie Antoinette ring any bells? Yes, Mariana Victoria’s goddaughter was Marie Antoinette. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, Marie Antoinette was born a day after the infamous earthquake.
Basically, Mariana Victoria had a lot going on. But life was about to throw even more at her.
In 1758, Mariana Victoria's husband was on his way home after a night with one of his mistresses. His carriage was unmarked, guardless, and traveling on an obscure road. A group of men descended onto the carriage and fired on everyone. The assassins managed to get Joseph's arm. They raced home where Joseph was patched up. The Marquis of Pombal launched an inquiry—and what he found was shocking.
A few days later, two men were taken into custody. After a brutal interrogation, the pair confessed not only their guilt but also a crazy conspiracy. The assassins claimed the Távora family hired them to get rid of Joseph and place Duke of Aveiro on the throne instead. If the name Távora rings any bells, it’s because Joseph’s favorite mistress Teresa, married the heir of this family. Things were about to get nasty.
Over the next few weeks, Mariana Victoria's whole life turned upside down. Authorities rounded up the entire Távora family along with their alleged conspirators. Men, women, children, Teresa, everyone. They faced charges of high treason and attempted regicide. The evidence consisted of the confessions, the Duke of Aveiro’s weapon, and the belief that only a Távora could’ve known about Joseph and Teresa’s rendezvous.
The family maintained their innocence, so the guilty verdict devastated them.
Joseph and his government were after blood. They seized the Távora family’s properties and titles. They even went as far as sentencing everyone to execution, even women and children. Mariana Victoria believed they crossed a line, and she intervened to save most of the women and children.
However, everyone else endured excruciating public executions that they might not have deserved.
Turns out, the Távora family’s guilt isn’t the open-and-shut case we thought it was. Historians still debate their innocence. After all, the king traveled in a normal carriage on a dangerous road. It could’ve been just a random ambush. Not to mention, no Távora tried to flee the country after the attack. Maybe Mariana Victoria was onto something with her mercy.
They just couldn’t catch a break when it came to Joseph's health. Thanks to countless strokes, he declined even more. The king knew what he had to do. In November 1776, Joseph made Mariana Victoria the Regent of Portugal. This meant she replaced him as the head of government. She held this role until tragedy struck the family once again.
A few months later, Joseph passed, and everything changed. After Maria became queen, Mariana Victoria was no longer regent. But she still came out on top. It turns out that the new queen relied heavily on her mom’s advice. Basically, Maria and Mariana Victoria were the new Joseph and Pombal.
Speaking of the devil—at least to Mariana Victoria and Maria I—this duo didn’t forgive and forget.
Maria got it from her mama! And by it, I mean an intense hatred of Pombal. But they didn’t just get mad. They got even. After decades of resenting Pombal and his influence, the perfect time to strike finally arrived. Maria kicked him out of office and basically banished him to his estates. He’d live out the rest of his days in near exile. But she went even further.
There’s petty–and then there’s Maria I. The queen issued one of history’s first restraining orders. Her royal decree prohibited Pombal from being 20 miles within her presence. If Maria traveled near his estate, Pombal had to leave home to comply. It was the power move that ended all power moves. But was it a step too far?
Mariana Victoria had dreams—and now, she had the time and power to turn them into reality. It broke her heart that Spain and Portugal didn’t get along. They even clashed over American territory. But the Spanish King, Carlos III, just happened to be her big brother. So Mariana Victoria made her way home in hopes of mending broken bridges.
Incestuous double marriages brought about a treaty between two nations. This time, Mariana Victoria arranged matches between Carlos III’s son Gabriel, and her granddaughter Mariana Vitória. The second marriage was between Carlos III's granddaughter Carlota, and her grandson John VI. With a family tree that looked like a circle, no wonder Mariana Victoria’s health issues were coming for her.
In Spain, Mariana Victoria experienced a health scare thanks to Rheumatism. Her chronic illness took a turn for the worse. After a flare-up, she ended up wheelchair-bound. Basically, it was not a good time. Months later, Mariana Victoria returned to Portugal, where even worse health news awaited her.
Turns out, Mariana Victoria’s health was worse than anyone could’ve imagined. They discovered her laundry list of issues also included heart disease. It was the end of the line. In 1781, she passed from these countless health battles. Tragically, Mariana Victoria left behind her children, who needed their mother more than ever.
The story of Mariana Victoria was ultimately a triumph, but her children’s lives were tragedies. Three out of four daughters developed incapacitating mental illnesses. Maria I even went from being known as "Maria the Pious" in Portugal to "Maria the Mad" in Brazil.
It led people to wonder whether it was just bad luck or if something darker lurked in the royal genes.
Speaking of family, we can’t forget about Louis XV. He did go from being her cousin, fiancé, ex, then enemy. Turns out, Mariana Victoria had the last laugh. She outlived Louis the Beloved by nearly seven years. On top of that, Mariana Victoria was even more beloved than he was. The best revenge really is a life well lived.
While Mariana Victoria passed centuries ago, she continues to live on in our history books. The queen’s descendants include the current King of Spain, King of Belgium, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, Prince Carlos the Duke of Parma, and the Count of Paris. Talk about one heck of a family reunion. Now that’s a real legacy to leave.
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