Leopold I: Marriage and family

Charles Boit: Leopold I surrounded by his family, 1703, enamel painting on gold plaque

Leopold I was married three times and fathered a total of sixteen children, of whom only six survived into adulthood.

Charles Boit: Leopold I surrounded by his family, 1703, enamel painting on gold plaque

His first marriage was to the infanta Margarita Teresa (1651–1673) from the Spanish Habsburg line. Intended to consolidate the claim of the Austrian Habsburgs to the Spanish throne, the wedding took place in 1666 after a lengthy diplomatic prelude. This is recalled in Velázquez’s series of exquisite portraits of the young infanta at various ages that were sent to Vienna and intended to document the imperial bride’s development. These impressive paintings are today among the highlights of the collections held by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The couple were very closely related in an almost absurd example of dynastic inbreeding: Margarita Teresa was marrying her first cousin who was also her uncle.

Margarita Teresa died at the age of just twenty-two, after bearing four children and suffering two miscarriages in six years of marriage. Of her four children only one daughter was to survive into adulthood: Maria Antonia (1669–1692). The latter was later married off to the Elector of Bavaria, a marriage that was to prove disastrous. The couple disliked each other so much that Maria Antonia sought refuge with her father in Vienna, where she died giving birth to her son Joseph Ferdinand. Her claim to the Spanish throne, which passed to her son and thus to the House of Wittelsbach, complicated the conflicts in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Leopold’s second wife was Archduchess Claudia Felicitas (1653–1676) from the collateral Tyrolean line of the dynasty. They were married immediately after the death of Leopold’s first wife in 1673. Claudia Felicitas was the last representative of this branch of the Habsburgs, and with this union Tyrol once more reverted to the main line of the dynasty. This marriage too was to be of only brief duration, as the young woman died in 1676 aged just twenty-three, having given birth to two daughters, neither of whom survived infancy.

It was now a matter of urgency for Leopold to father surviving offspring in order to preserve the dynasty from extinction. He thus entered into a third marriage without delay.

His third wife was Eleonore Magdalena (1655–1720) from the ruling German family of Palatinate-Neuburg. Leopold’s choice of bride was influenced by his desire for reconciliation with her father, the elector Philip of Palatinate-Neuburg, who had until then opposed the Habsburgs. The union was intended to bolster support and strengthen the emperor’s standing within the Empire.

Brought up in strict accordance with Catholic principles, Eleonore Magdalena reinforced the already very pious atmosphere at the Viennese court. Her character was shaped by an extreme religiosity that at times verged on bigotry. A telling character-sketch of the empress has come down to us in the words of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British envoy to the Sublime Porte, who spent a few months in Vienna in 1716/17: I had an audience next day of the empress mother, a princess of great virtue and goodness, but who picques herself too much on a violent devotion. She is perpetually performing extraordinary acts of penance, without having ever done any thing to deserve them.

Eleonore’s union with Leopold is described as very harmonious, both partners having very similar characters. She proved an important source of support for her husband.

The couple proceeded to have a large number of progeny, being blessed with ten children, of whom only five were to survive into adulthood, however.

The first-born son Joseph (1678–1711) was a sturdy child whose birth relieved his father of worries about the succession. However, his dissolute lifestyle was a source of much disquiet to his pious parents. As a ruling Habsburg he has his own biography on this site.

Maria Elisabeth (1680–1741), who is regarded as one of the most learned daughters of the dynasty, remained unmarried and was appointed Stattholder of the Austrian Netherlands from 1725 to 1741. There are conflicting assessments of her governance during this time.

Maria Anna (1683–1754) was married to King John V of Portugal, an ally of Austria in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Charles (1685–1740) was initially intended to preserve the dynasty’s interests in Spain as the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne. Following the early death of his brother he succeeded the latter as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy. A detailed account of the life of the House of Habsburg’s last male representative can be found in his biography on this site.

Maria Magdalena (1689–1743) remained unmarried. She was Maria Theresa’s aunt and enjoyed a close relationship with the future ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Leopold’s third wife was to survive her husband by fifteen years. During the reign of her elder son Joseph she was at the centre of an opposition group at the imperial court that was highly critical of the emperor’s lifestyle and advisors. After Joseph’s sudden death in 1711 Eleonore assumed the regency in the interim period until Charles VI took over the reins of government.


Martin Mutschlechner