Maria Leopoldine of Austria

by Julia Meister

Maria Leopoldine of Austria: A Habsburg as Brazilian National Heroine

The short life of Maria Leopoldine, or Leopoldine for short, was to last only 29 years. 29 years, which the daughter of Francis II. (I) and his second wife Maria Theresa of Naples-Sicily was able to fill with her own forward-looking intelligence and lively intellectual interests. Born on a Sunday, 22 January 1797, in the imperial residence city of Vienna, little Leopoldine Josepha Carolina – her full name – was brought up in the spirit of the Enlightenment principles of her grandfather, Emperor Leopold II. Already at the age of nine she wrote down those principles:

Do not oppress the poor. Be charitable. Do not grumble at the providence of God, but improve your morals. We must earnestly strive to be good.

Strict principles for a growing girl who, surrounded by six siblings, naturally did not always sit quietly in her room. Leopoldine, it should be mentioned, was ambivalent in her character: Thus “[she] could be lively and cheerful, then again timid and melancholy”. In any case, the granddaughter of Maria Karolina of Naples had inherited her grandmother’s extreme willpower and tenacity, according to Helga Thoma. It is therefore not surprising that Leopoldine took the time as an adolescent to pursue her scientific interests, which were in the fields of botany and mineralogy. In the course of Leopoldine’s exploration of the tropics during her youth, these landscapes exerted a special magic on the little archduchess. Perhaps, Gloria Kaiser speculates, Leopoldine even dreamed herself in the tropics in the mountain rooms of Schönbrunn Palace?

Maria Leopoldine of Austria, unknown painter; © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie, Inv. Nr. 7.192; courtesy KHM-Wien

Leopoldine was just ten years old when her natural mother died in Vienna in April 1807. At least “she had the good fortune to have a very educated and sensitive stepmother in Maria Ludovika von Este, who was only four years older, and to whom she attached herself very closely”, as Helga Thoma writes.

Leopoldine’s sister, Marie Louise, married the so-called Habsburg hereditary enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1810. In 1811 she bore him a son, Napoleon Franz Josef Karl, King of Rome and Duke of Reichstadt. Leopoldine, the little Napoleon’s aunt, looked after him charmingly – she much preferred this to putting on a show and dressing up for lavish court balls. Leopoldine was a quiet girl; she preferred to occupy herself with her books, chose mostly plain clothes, and was deeply religious. As she tended to react very emotionally to external influences, she presented herself as rather cool and disciplined to the outside world in order to protect herself – not for nothing did Leopoldine compile a small book of rules for her life. She became more and more of an outsider at court.

Self-imposed rules like the following were not exactly conducive to social life at the Viennese court of the time:

            Keep away from me the sensational dress. […]

           Let my heart remain eternally closed to the corrupting spirit of the world; let harmful luxury, unseemly finery, ambiguities and scandalous dresses also remain far from me. […]

           Let modesty always be my indispensable virtue, in order to preserve the purity of my heart. […]

           I will always regard lying as a devil’s work and the plague of society.

When Leopoldine’s beloved stepmother, Maria Ludovika, died in 1816, the Archduchess was in extreme mourning for her: “…I owe everything I am to her,” Leopoldine said. In July 1816, Leopoldine again felt as if she were losing a family member: her younger sister Marie Clementine married her uncle, Prince Leopold of Salerno. Leopoldine’s life was somewhat without perspective, and father Franz II. (I) already joked that he wanted to employ her as a court mineralogist. But the Archduchess did not have to wait long: In the summer of 1816, Franz II. (I.) and Metternich began looking for a suitable marriage candidate for Leopoldine. This was certainly extremely exciting for her, who naturally hoped to finally be able to leave the scheming Viennese court!

At the age of 19, she was almost too old for the marriage market of the time, since noble women were expected to marry as young as possible in order to have as many childbearing years as possible ahead of them. Initially, Friedrich August II, the nephew of the King of Saxony, was under consideration, when suddenly a far more lucrative marriage candidate presented himself to Metternich: Dom Pedro, Crown Prince of Portugal and Brazil. A certain reputation preceded the candidate, as Dr. Lorenz Mikoletzky also states:

           Although Franz I was hesitant about the marriage plan because of Dom Pedro’s immoral lifestyle and epilepsy, he finally agreed at Metternich’s insistence.

What exactly is alluded to in this brief summary of Dom Pedro’s character? First of all, the son of King João VI of Portugal and Brazil lacked discipline and self-control – extreme “outbursts of rage and sadistic fits against people and animals were not uncommon with Dom Pedro”. Furthermore, he assumed that women, from slave girls to court ladies to burghers’ daughters, were at his free disposal. In addition, he suffered from an illness which, as is well known, did not stop at the Habsburgs: epilepsy.

Leopoldine knew nothing of all this, which was probably best for her, because she had to submit to her father’s choice anyway, and by keeping her in ignorance of her future husband, she was probably also spared some nightmares, at least in the time before the wedding. In stark contrast to the reality awaiting her, she painted her future in the most dazzling colours, dreamed of Brazil and its inhabitants, and wrote to her sister Marie Louise that the prince was as handsome as an Adonis and that she was already deeply in love with him in view of his portrait.

Peter I, Emperor of Brazil; © Austrian National Library, ÖNB/Wien, PORT_00042566_01; with kind permission; to the website

On 13 May 1817 Leopoldine was married per procurationem to Dom Pedro – her uncle, Archduke Karl, was her proxy. Leopoldine would not have been Leopoldine if she had not already written down appropriate principles for the time after the marriage:

From the 13th of May, the day of my marriage, I resolve to:

1. to restrain my vehemence, to be good to my people, in order to accustom myself to gentleness and compliance,

2. to shun all unchaste thoughts, since from this day forth I belong to my husband,

3. I will endeavour to work diligently at my education,

4. I will now make every effort always to speak the purest truth.


It is extremely tragic that Dom Pedro was not aware of his wife’s virtues, or rather that they simply did not interest him. When Leopoldine arrived in Rio de Janeiro on 5 November 1817 – up to this point she had completed a three-month voyage by ship, the main features of which were boredom and severe seasickness! -, more extreme contrasts could hardly have met for the first time. Although he initially appeared to be a charming cavalier to the Archduchess, the beautiful façade concealed the hot-tempered temper described above and a very low level of education.

However, as Lorenz Mikoletzky describes it, although “Leopoldine’s deep religiosity as well as her lively intellectual interests […] contrasted with Dom Pedro’s superficiality and half-education, her inclinations were respected by him”. Rather, Leopoldine exerted a calming influence on her hot-headed husband. For his sake, she endured the disorderly economy at court, and did not complain about the lack of court ceremonial. No doubt her stoic perseverance was also due to the fact that, as she assumed, the couple would be moving to Portugal in no more than two years. Until then, however, and this should not be underestimated when considering Leopoldine’s life, she endured “a court whose language she did not understand, a murderous climate in a capital surrounded by jungle […], and a life in an atmosphere of constant fear of conspiracies and rebellions”, as Hellmut Andics sums it up.


Francois Seraphin Delpech (lithographer), Charles-Louis Bazin (artist), “MARIE LOUISE.”, before 1825, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. W 4703, CC0; to the website


Dom Pedro even went so far as to take Leopoldine with him when he visited his mistress, a French dancer. Despite this, the Archduchess maintained the composure she had been taught, which is a good illustration of how strictly the idea of self-control had been instilled in her during her upbringing. Leopoldine’s husband went so far as to take away her monthly pin money, which not infrequently caused her financial hardship. Her constant efforts to act as a calm, understanding counterpart to Dom Pedro’s irrationality towards the people certainly brought her to the brink of a nervous breakdown – even if she did not let on. The only person at court who met Leopoldine with understanding and empathy was her father-in-law, King João VI: he had a bust of Emperor Francis II (I) placed in the palace of Boa Vista near Rio. (I) in the palace of Boa Vista near Rio, for which Leopoldine thanked him imploringly.

In the years of marriage between 1817 and 1822, Leopoldine gave birth to two girls and a boy. In particular, the birth of the first daughter, Maria dá Gloria, must have been terrible for the young woman: She wrote to her sister Marie Louise that the Portuguese surgeon had literally mauled her with his hands.

In 1821, after his father had devoted himself to Portuguese politics, Dom Pedro took over the government of Brazil. Out of the dream for a return to Europe! Or was it? Leopoldine, at any rate, continued to hope. And now she also became politically active: after the Portuguese Cortes had expressed their intention to downgrade Brazil from a kingdom to a mere colony, the proud Habsburg urged her husband to firmly oppose this plan! In his declaration entitled “I remain!”, Dom Pedro declared Brazil’s far-reaching autonomy in January 1822. There is no question among historians that Leopoldine played an extremely decisive role in this.

But things got even worse: for political reasons, Dom Pedro travelled to São Paulo in August 1822, leaving Leopoldine, whom he by now regarded as an important support, as regent in Rio de Janeiro. As the pressure from Portugal increased, but Dom Pedro was absent, the Council of Ministers, led by Leopoldine, decided to announce Brazil’s final separation from Portugal – they simply could not hold out any longer. “A Habsburg woman as the head of a rebellion against the legitimate ruler”, in other words, as Helga Thoma sums it up! Leopoldine was, and this cannot be denied, “a decisive initiator of Brazilian independence”.

In October 1822, the two finally became the official Brazilian imperial couple. Brazil’s newly founded constitutional monarchy subsequently attracted a number of European immigrants, and Leopoldine acted as a generous mother of the country. She also made a name for herself as a patron of the arts and sciences: Austrian natural scientists (Mikan, Natterer etc.) as well as painters such as Buchberger and Ender travelled to Brazil at her behest. In addition, the Archduchess sponsored numerous scholarly expeditions, had a natural history cabinet built in the National Museum in Rio, and supported the creation of a Brazilian museum in her hometown of Vienna.

Leopoldine’s early death was closely interwoven with her husband’s infidelities. In 1822, during his stay in São Paulo, Dom Pedro had met the bourgeois Dona Domitilia, whom he fell head over heels for. With her “appearance [at court] […] the worst time of Leopoldine’s life began”. While he neglected Leopoldine more and more, he even appointed his mistress as Leopoldine’s First Lady-in-Waiting and showered her with money and gifts, while Leopoldine constantly suffered from a lack of money. While the courtiers turned their backs on the empress with Domitilia’s appointment as official mistress, her opponent gained more and more power: she was all the more affirmed when the children born of her relationship with Dom Pedro were all legitimised by the latter – and this within the framework of official ceremonies, which Leopoldine naturally had to attend.

Johann Hieronymus Löschenkohl (artist), U. inscribed: “Marie Therese Archiduchesse d’Autriche/Epouse de l’Archiduc Francoise”, um 1792, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 165557, CC0; to the website


The empress suffered immensely from these humiliations; she became increasingly melancholic, rode out once a day, read a lot and visited old servants. Psychosomatically, this dissatisfaction manifested itself in the form of “sweat[s], headaches and insomnia”. Even the birth of an heir to the throne in December 1825 was unable to repair the relationship, which had long since broken down beyond repair.

In October 1826, Leopoldine issued an ultimatum to her husband, who had in the meantime elevated his mistress to the rank of marquise: he should publicly confess to her or to his mistress – otherwise she wanted him to return to her father’s realm. Leopoldine had Dom Pedro’s suitcases placed in front of the doors of the residence in Boa Vista, which led to a heated argument between the two, after which Leopoldine became visibly worse off than before. In November 1826, another incident occurred when Dom Pedro tried to force his wife to appear in public with the Marquise, which the former refused to do. Dom Pedro brutally manhandled Leopoldine, leaving her with bruises – abuse which she incidentally confirmed to her sister Marie Louise in a letter.

As a result, she suffered a miscarriage on 1 December 1822, which affected Leopoldine so badly that she died after ten days with a high fever and unbearable pain on 11 December 1826. Shortly before, she had aptly summed up her fate and that of many other Habsburgs to Marie Louise: “‘We poor princesses are like the dice that you throw and say luck or misfortune!


Andics, Hellmut: The Women of the Habsburgs. Vienna/Munich 1995.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Kahle, Günter: “Leopoldine, Empress of Brazil.” In: The Habsburgs. A Biographical Encyclopaedia. Ed. by Brigitte Hamann. Vienna 1988, pp. 264-266.

Kaiser, Gloria: “The Sunday Child Leopoldine.” In: The World of the Habsburgs. Online: [16.06.2021].

Kaiser, Gloria: “A Portuguese Prince Charming?” In: The World of the Habsburgs. Online: [14.07.2021].

Kaiser, Gloria: “1816 – Leopoldine’s Fateful Year.” In: The World of the Habsburgs. Online: [12.07.2021].

Dr. Lorenz Mikoletzky: “Maria Theresa, Empress, Second Wife of Emperor […] Franz II. (I.). In: The Habsburgs. A Biographical Encyclopaedia. Vienna 1988, pp. 344-345.

Dr. Lorenz Mikoletzky: “Marie Louise.” In: The Habsburgs. A Biographical Encyclopaedia. Ed. by Brigitte Hamann. Vienna 1988, pp. 334-337

Thoma, Helga: Unbeloved Queen. Marriage tragedies at Europe’s princely courts. Munich 2014 (12th edition).

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