Maria Karolina

by Julia Meister

Maria Karolina – the Italian Maria Theresa

It is well known that Maria Theresa liked to bring her daughters to men as profitably as possible in order to consolidate alliances and underpin alliances through marriage. This process was seldom painless for the respective daughter; usually the chosen one went to a country she had never set foot in before and married a lord she would never have considered of her own accord.

Now Maria Theresa’s daughters had a strong role model in their mother: even though she admonished the girls in countless letters and appeals never to act capriciously, since women must of course be lovable, the young ladies were not unaware of how proudly and powerfully their own mother presented herself on the political stage. Maria Karolina, whose life story will be described below in all its idiosyncrasy, was the daughter who was “most like her mother, not in appearance, but in character”. According to Elfriede Iby, the second youngest daughter of the great ruler turned out to be “headstrong and strong-willed, courageous and open-hearted, full of temperament and equipped with a strong drive for independence”. A multifaceted woman who did not let fate get her down, sometimes suffered unspeakably, but never lost her pride and assertiveness!

Much like her sister Maria Antonia – later Marie Antoinette – Maria Karolina’s fate was to be used by her mother to strengthen the Habsburgs’ alliance with the Bourbons. Fittingly, the Habsburg girl called Charlotte was also brought up together with Maria Antonia.

Erzherzogin Maria Karoline (1752-1814), Königin beider Sizilien, an einem Tisch sitzend, Halbfigur; ©KHM-Museumsverband; Link zum Bild

Already in the course of the education by the common Aja of the two daughters, Countess Brandis, Maria Theresa became aware of Maria Karolina’s steadfastness when she requested a change of governess at the age of fifteen. Such a request had never been made at court before! Apparently the mother knew in her heart that her daughter was right – Countess Brandis was simply not the right person to educate Maria Karolina, and accordingly she complied with her daughter’s request. Already at this point there was a series of admonitions from the mother: Maria Karolina should devote herself more to prayer and her studies, not give so much to gossip – they would keep a close eye on her from now on! After all, as a woman one should be kind, otherwise one would not receive love – she also raised her voice far too loudly!

Harsh words towards a young girl who first of all wants to find herself and be loud sometimes. But courtly composure forbade this! And Maria Karolina had to be trimmed all the more perfectly for courtly life after the death of her sister Maria Josepha, who died of smallpox in October 1767: the young man who was actually intended for her sister simply moved up a sister after Josepha’s death! Maria Karolina was thus suddenly to be married to Prince Ferdinand in Naples-Sicily. The marriage contract was signed on 3 February 1768. In no time at all, State Chancellor Prince Wenzel Kaunitz set about preparing the young Karolina for her role as Queen. It quickly became clear how clever the fifteen-year-old was and what political calculations she possessed.

Did Ferdinand even know what a beautiful and clever woman he was being sent to Naples? Well, his reaction to the painting of the girl that was delivered to him speaks volumes: “He clapped his hands joyfully on his thighs and planned to have a sack race in the throne room to greet her.” This clearly sums up the character of the heir to the throne, whose upbringing had not taught him any manners or courtly etiquette; languages and art were not his cup of tea either.

He ignored the business of government, which he once had to take on; instead he went hunting, played with servants and was generally given to crude jokes. Outwardly rather dull than ugly, Ferdinand was distinguished above all by his large nose, which earned him the nickname il re nasone.

At the age of only eight, the young man was appointed successor to his father, who ascended the throne as Charles III in 1759. He was to rule Naples and Sicily, which were merged into the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1811. Before and after Ferdinand’s declaration of majority, the First Minister, Marchese Tanucci, was responsible for practically all governmental matters; Ferdinand fell into a kind of dependency. Just like Ferdinand, he displayed rather coarse manners, and in addition had an aversion to women. Maria Karolina therefore faced rather disastrous courtly circumstances! Maria Theresa also knew this and urged her daughter to be careful with Tanucci.

Ferdinand I. von Neapel, Giuseppe Guzzi; © Wien Museum; Link zum Bild

Maria Karolina, considered extremely beautiful with her blonde hair and blue eyes, was led pro procurationem down the aisle of the Augustinian Church in Vienna by her brother Ferdinand on 7 April 1768. Dressed in a white atlas dress with myrtle branches applied to it, she must have looked ravishing. Maria Karolina did not miss the opportunity – and this says a lot about her character – to whisper jokingly to her brother that he was the wrong Ferdinand! After the ceremony, the mother and daughter had a farewell dinner together, but both lost their appetites. Afterwards, the hardest ordeal of her short life began for her: Maria Karolina now wore a blue and gold travelling dress, said a tearful goodbye to her family – especially to her beloved sister Maria Antonia – before the 57 (!) carriage train disappeared in the direction of Italy.

Maria Karolina travelled via Innsbruck. In the Hofburg there, in her father’s death chamber, she prayed together with her elder brother Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. On the long journey to Italy, Maria Karolina became increasingly restless, was very afraid of not pleasing Ferdinand – this naturally worried her brother. When Maria Karolina had to part with her court, she fell weeping into the arms of Countess Trautmannsdorf; the rest of the female court also burst into tears.

The first meeting of the young couple took place in a specially built residence in Portobello. As Hanne Egghardt writes, “curiosity was on Ferdinand’s face […], [while] […] Karoline [seemed] as if she would storm off at the next moment”. The couple greeted each other according to protocol, whereby Ferdinand needed some effort to even kiss his bride on the cheek. Things didn’t go any better in the carriage towards Gaeta, as Ferdinand more or less ignored Maria Karolina – a behaviour that also defined the dinner. The young woman was afraid of rejection, yet it was above all Ferdinand’s shameful manners that gave the impression of disrespect!

On 12 May 1768, the two were officially married. On the wedding night Maria Karolina reported to her brother’s wife, Maria Ludovica, who incidentally was also the sister of Maria Karolina’s husband (!), that the king had behaved “very rudely and very indecently”. Worried about her favourite sister Maria Antonia, who was threatened with the same fate, she even wrote to her Aja, Countess Lerchenfeld:

“I have always had a special tenderness for her (Marie Antoinette). When I imagine that her fate will be the same as mine, I would like to write whole volumes about it. I only hope that she has someone like me with her to begin with, because otherwise – I confess it sincerely – it is despairing and one suffers a martyrdom … it is better to die than to experience again what I experienced there. Now all is well and this is how I can say it. It is not an exaggeration, but if my faith had not said: think of God, I would have killed myself. Living like that for only eight days seemed like hell to me …”

“Auf die doppelte Vermählungsfeier …” (der Erzherzoge Franz und Ferdinand mit den neapolitanischen Prinzessinnen Maria Therese und Luise am 19. September 1790), Quirin Mark; © Wien Museum; Link zum Bild

Life at the court of Naples was characterised by strict Spanish etiquette, with which Maria Karolina, tomboy that she was, had her problems. Various scheming servants monitored her actions around the clock, and the five multi-course meals a day meant that she soon put on quite a bit of weight. Ferdinand’s animals, on the other hand – his cats, hunting dogs, geese, chickens and rabbits, but also mice and rats – freely and carefree populated the palace’s sumptuous chambers. This must have made for a bizarre picture and been very stressful for the inhabitants! But it did not stop there, Ferdinand did not only appreciate live animals: thus “he loved to cut up animals himself and then return to the palace covered in blood”. Poor Maria Karolina!

With her usual frankness, she wrote again to Countess Lerchenfeld:

“The King is very ugly to the face … but one gets used to it; for the rest, everything about his character is better than has been claimed. […] So far … I have been wise, gentle and reasonable, but I take no responsibility for what will happen. If I run out of patience, it will not be found again so quickly. […] What makes me impatient most of all is that the king thinks he is beautiful and agile. He is neither the one nor the other. I must say and confess that I love him only out of duty, … but he does nothing of what I want. From this you can judge what patience I must have …”

Despite all these adverse circumstances, Maria Karolina managed in the course of her life to steer her husband’s behaviour into regular channels – and moreover to bear 18 (some sources speak of at least 17) children! She cared very little about her husband’s extramarital affairs, unless it was with a lady of rank, in which case she was summarily expelled from court.

This self-confident daughter of Maria Theresa also gradually gained more influence politically. Friedrich Weissensteiner describes that she “skilfully involved the king in political discussions, […] praised his decisions, […] encouraged him in his opinions, […] unobtrusively guided his steps, […] advised him in his decisions and […] incidentally also got him out of the habit of one or two bad habits. Soon the courts in Vienna and Madrid knew of Maria Karolina’s skilful influence, and both Charles III and Maria Theresa condemned this development in the harshest terms in their letters! However, Maria Karolina gave birth to the heir to the throne in January 1775, and was allowed to attend the meetings of the Council of State, albeit not until 1778, but nevertheless – quite clearly who was the winner here! Ferdinand’s hitherto overpowering political supporter Tanucci had increasingly become Maria Karolina’s enemy, and she certainly breathed a loud sigh of relief when he was finally dismissed by Ferdinand in October 1776. In order to push forward the necessary state reforms, brother Leopold sent his sister the Englishman John Acton, who was extremely clever and also very handsome. Together they implemented all kinds of innovations: There was now a city guard in Naples; the expansion of the road network followed; cemeteries were moved to the city’s environs; an academy of sciences was established, and last but not least, the army and navy underwent a much-needed reorganisation. Naturally, intriguing stories followed about Maria Karolina being allied with Acton and that she, and not Ferdinand, was actually the real regent – lies that reached as far as Versailles. This fact, combined with her many pregnancies, made Maria Karolina a nervously tense, sleepless young woman who was also often tormented by stomach problems for psychosomatic reasons.

An extremely well-known personality from English history developed into a confidante of Maria Karolina from 1786 onwards: Emma Hamilton, the wife of the English envoy in Naples, Sir William Hamilton. However, this is only in passing: Emma’s life is so complex and her personality so interesting that her work should be examined in a separate article.

Der Königspalast von Caserta , etwa 40 km nördlich von Neapel gelegen; ©jomo333

In August 1790 Maria Karolina returned to her native Vienna with her daughters Maria Theresa and Marie Louise – there they were to be married to Franz (later Franz II/I) and Ferdinand, two sons of her brother Leopold, who in the meantime occupied the Habsburg throne. At the same time, Leopold’s daughter Clementine, only thirteen years old, was married to the heir to the throne of Naples, Francesco. Together with her husband, Maria Karolina spent a few days at Schönbrunn after the wedding ceremonies to reminisce about her youth. As Charlotte Pangels notes, she found it visibly difficult to say goodbye; at the same time, she did not miss the opportunity to give her daughter Maria Theresa some well-intentioned advice on the path of marriage, which was, however, strongly reminiscent of her own mother.

In the early 1790s, Maria Karolina was virtually overrun by strokes of fate: first the French Revolution, which left her sister at the mercy of the revolutionaries, then the sudden death of her brother Leopold. Hanne Egghardt sums it up aptly when she writes that from now on “hatred of the French [determined] her [Maria Karolina’s, author’s note] thoughts and actions”. When Napoleon wanted to seize Naples-Sicily in 1795, this was only the beginning of the horror: in 1798, the royal family was forced to flee; on the sea voyage to Palermo, Maria Karolina’s six-year-old son died of a serious illness in Emma Hamilton’s arms.

Feeling visibly out of place in Palermo, Maria Karolina seized the opportunity in 1800 to travel with the Hamilton couple and Lord Nelson to Vienna, where she would subsequently spend two relaxing years amidst various family members expelled by Napoleon. Emperor Franz II/I found the self-confident Maria Karolina too socially boisterous, especially as she tried to influence his wife, who was after all her daughter, and generally lived for gossip.

Auf die Vermählung der Erzherzogin Maria Carolina mit Ferdinand von Neapel, Anton Franz Widemann; © Wien Museum; Link zum Bild

In 1802, Maria Karolina was allowed to move back into Naples: From then on she lived separately from her husband, who had aged considerably and had become ill-tempered. As expected, she reacted angrily to Napoleon’s self-crowning as king of all Italy in 1804, and did not hide this from her correspondence partners.

Napoleon swore revenge; in 1806 Maria Karolina and her court had to flee towards Sicily. Due to the death of her daughter Maria Theresa, who had died in childbirth, severely depressed and plagued by biliousness, it infuriated her furiously that her granddaughter Marie Louise now also married her arch-enemy Napoleon. Maria Karolina was finally deprived of her power when her husband, at the insistence of Lord William Bentinck, a special plenipotentiary of the English Crown, handed over the reins of government to his son Francesco. She retreated to a lonely Sicilian villa where, in her solitary rage, she devoted herself mainly to writing countless letters and was afflicted by epileptic fits. It must have been a dreadful time, which she spent in complete seclusion and in disastrous health.

In 1814 she went to Vienna again – Maria Karolina’s last journey. She finally took up residence at Hetzendorf Palace, next to Schönbrunn Palace, and even welcomed her granddaughter Marie Louise, who had returned to her parents’ court after Napoleon’s exile on Elba. The ex-Queen of Naples showered her great-grandson, Napoleon’s son, with gifts; after so many strokes of fate, it was certainly immensely comforting for her to enjoy some family idyll. Even before the start of the Congress of Vienna, Maria Theresa’s daughter, who was so close in character to her great mother, died of a heart attack in the night of 7 to 8 September 1814. Maria Karolina was 62 years old, and in this she also resembled her mother, who breathed her last at the age of 63.

On request, we can send the complete text including footnotes by e-mail to interested readers.


Egghardt, Hanne: Maria Theresias Kinder. 16 Schicksale zwischen Glanz und Elend. Wien 2017.

Gruber, Stephan: „Die Königin von Neapel-Sizilien.“ In: Die Welt der Habsburger. Online: [13.03.2021].

Iby, Elfriede: „Die kaiserliche Familie. Maria Theresia, Franz Stephan und die Gründung der Dynastie Habsburg-Lothringen.“ In: Maria Theresia. 1717-1780. Strategin, Reformerin, Mutter. Wien 2017. S. 172-181.

„Maria Theresia“. In: Die Welt der Habsburger. Online: [18.03.2021].

Pangels, Charlotte: Die Kinder Maria Theresias. Leben und Schicksal in kaiserlichem Glanz. München 1980.

Univ..-Prof. Dr. Wandruzska, Adam: „Leopold II.“ In: Die Habsburger. Ein biographisches Lexikon. Hrsg. von Brigitte Hamann. Wien 1988, S. 255-260.



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