The Queen of Naples and Sicily

Maria Karolina, oil painting by the 'Master of the Archduchess Portraits', c. 1765

After several potential spouses of Ferdinand IV of Naples had died before the event, Archduchess Maria Karolina had to grit her teeth and marry him herself.

I consider Josepha as a political sacrifice, and if she does her duty towards her husband and her God, then I will be content.

Maria Theresa on the planned marriage of her daughter Maria Josepha to Ferdinand IV of Naples

Maria Karolina, oil painting by the 'Master of the Archduchess Portraits', c. 1765

The marrying off of women and young girls against their will was all part and parcel of international dynastic politics. It was thus nothing out of the ordinary when Maria Theresa set her heart on a match between one of her daughters and the heir to the Neapolitan throne, the future Ferdinand IV of Naples (III of Sicily). This move reflected Habsburg concern to build up friendly relations with the Bourbons and defuse their age-old enmity with France.

Ferdinand appears to have been a particularly inauspicious bridegroom, as he had no fewer than three of Maria Theresa’s daughters lined up for him in succession. The first to be engaged to him was Archduchess Johanna, who died at the age of twelve. The next was the sixteen-year-old Maria Josepha, who put up a certain resistance but had no choice in the matter. Shortly before her departure for Naples, she paid a visit to the crypt of the Capuchin church in order to bid farewell to her ancestors – and a couple of days later successfully escaped marriage by dying of smallpox.

Finally, Maria Theresa’s thirteenth child Maria Karolina proved robust enough for the task and had to marry Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily in 1768. Her royal spouse was not exactly a dream prince – he was at best semi-literate and preferred hunting and gambling to the serious duties of kingship. Although the first period of the marriage was a martyrdom for Maria Karolina, she gradually acquired influence at the court of Naples: in 1780, for example, she brought about the foundation of an academy of science and scholarship. Ferdinand showed little interest in politics, preferring to devote his attention to the mistresses customarily kept by men of the nobility. Nevertheless, in the forty-six years of her marriage Maria Karolina bore her husband him eighteen children, thus even surpassing her mother’s prolific record. Nor did her own negative experiences prevent her from marrying off her own daughters in accordance with dynastic power politics.

Maria Karolina was particularly concerned by the French Revolution and its consequences – in 1798, her own family had to flee from Napoleon’s troops. Her attempts to organize resistance proved unsuccessful. She was outraged when the arch-enemy Napoleon married her granddaughter Marie Louise, nor – dying as she did in Vienna in 1814 – did she live to see the Congress restore Naples to her husband Ferdinand.

Stephan Gruber