Barbara of Portugal was born on 4 December 1711 as the eldest child of King John V of Portugal and Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria. She was given the name Barbara in honour of Saint Barbara, the saint of her birthday. She was briefly heiress presumptive to the Portuguese throne until her mother gave birth to a son.
Barbara received an excellent education, and she was a talented musician. She was a student of Domenico Scarlatti from an early age until his death. From her teenage years, she was considered as a possible bride for King Louis XV of France, but she was eventually removed from the list.
On 20 January 1729, Barbaria married Ferdinand, Prince of Asturias, the future King Ferdinand VI of Spain. At the same time, Barbara’s brother Joseph married Ferdinand’s half-sister Mariana Victoria of Spain. Barbara was apparently pockmarked, but she gained the love and trust of her husband. He soon came to completely depend on her advice and support. Barbara’s primary aspiration was to support the good relations between Spain and Portugal, and she remained in close contact with her father. During their time as King and Queen in waiting, they were kept in the background by Ferdinand’s powerful stepmother Elisabeth Farnese. Ferdinand’s father Philip had long been prone to melancholy and had left the government to his wife.
Ferdinand too suffered from ill-health, and their isolation allowed Barbara to cultivate a considerable influence over her husband. Unfortunately, they did not have any surviving children. They were continually spied upon by Elisabeth’s supporters. When Philip died in 1746, the French ambassador said, “It is rather Barbara who succeeds Elisabeth than Ferdinand succeeding Philip.”1 Barbara’s sole purpose now was to keep her influence over her husband.
Elisabeth would not be put aside so easily. Ferdinand treated his stepmother kindly, and she moved into a rented mansion with two of her children. By 1747, she was openly criticising the new regime to Barbara’s frustration. Elisabeth was exiled to La Granja, where she would stay for 12 years. She made the best of her time there by throwing herself into the building of a new palace. She managed to gain some support back but was kept firmly away from the court. Her health began to fail, and she became increasingly blind and lame. In 1750, Barbara married Elisabeth’s daughter Maria Antonia to the future Victor Amadeus III of Sardinia.
Barbara’s influence over the King remained, and the ministers showed her all the important papers because “only she knows what ought to either to be said to or hidden from the king.”2 Barbara continued to “sway him as she pleases, with as much power, but much less difficulty, than ever the Dowager [Elisabeth] did the late King, his father.”
In later life, Barbara became asthmatic and obese. Without much sporting interest, Barbara devoted herself to the arts and music. Both Barbara and Ferdinand loved large theatres displays with hundreds of performers. Barbara died on 27 August 1758, plunging Ferdinand into deep mourning. He would follow her in death on 10 August 1759. Barbara was buried in the Convent of the Salesas Reales, which she had founded.
Elisabeth was made interim regent of Spain until the arrival of her own son, now King Charles III.