With the death of his second wife, Maria Leopoldine, in 1649, Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor, needed to find a third wife. The name of his future third wife would have sounded familiar to him, as she was the namesake of his stepmother, Eleonora Gonzaga (known as the Elder). In fact, the two Eleonoras were great-aunt and great-niece.
Eleonora (known as the Younger) was born on 18 November 1630 as the daughter of Charles Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers – heir to the Duchy of Mantua, but he died before succeeding – and Maria Gonzaga, Duchess of Montferrat in her own right. Her father died before Eleonora’s first birthday, and so she never knew him.
Eleonora lived with her mother in the Monastery of Sant’Orsola until 1637, when her elder brother succeeded their grandfather as Duke of Mantua, and her mother had to take up the regency for him. Her mother made sure she received an excellent education, and she was known for her poem-writing.
It was her great-aunt who negotiated the match between Eleonora and the now twice-widowed Emperor Ferdinand III. The court of Vienna was taken aback by this, believing the elder Eleonora to have too much influence. It was also believed that the younger Eleonora was deformed after having been bitten by a monkey in 1643. Another issue was the dowry. The Emperor could do with a large dowry, but after the Thirty Years’ War, the Gonzagas were unable to pay the dowry requested of them. Nevertheless, negotiations were concluded, and the official wedding took place on 30 April 1651. The wedding celebrations were overshadowed by the death of a trumpeter who had suffered burns from a fireworks display.
Eleonora was accompanied by her mother, brother and sister-in-law Isabella Clara of Austria into the care of her great-aunt and now also her step-mother-in-law. The elder Eleonora was glad to see her great-niece as it somewhat rehabilitated her own position at court after having been unjustly accused of having caused the death of Maria Leopoldine.1 The young Eleonora got on well with the children from her husband’s first and second marriage and also gave birth to four children of her own in quick succession. Two daughters, Eleonora and Maria Anna Josepha would survive to adulthood. She also had at least one miscarriage.
Tragedy struck in 1654 when her eldest stepson Ferdinand (known as Ferdinand IV, King of the Romans as his father’s heir) suddenly became ill with smallpox. Everyone who had not yet had the disease quickly fled from the court, including his father, stepmother and the other children. Ferdinand quickly worsened, and he died on 9 July 1654 at the age of 19. The Emperor was devastated and withdrew from the court for several weeks. He wrote sadly to his sister, “The loss is great.”2 Her second stepson Leopold now became his father’s heir, even though he was being prepared for a bishopric. When Eleonora gave birth to a third daughter in December 1654, many were disappointed that it was not a boy, considering the circumstances.
During the early years of her marriage, Eleonora spent quite a bit of time with the elder Eleonora, but the elder Eleonora was often sick and had to leave the court for her health. The elder Eleonora died on 27 June 1655. She had named her great-niece as her heiress. She was initially buried in the monastery where she had died, but in 1782, her remains were transferred to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Her heart was removed from her body and interred with her husband.
The younger Eleonora was pregnant with her fourth child when her husband entered the last year of his life. He had been ill on and off since they had been married, but it was becoming more serious now. At the end of November 1656, he was suffering from gout and stomach problems. He spent two weeks in bed and seemed to recover, though he remained in pain. On 11 February 1657, “the court was particularly pleased” when Eleonora gave birth to a son named Ferdinand Joseph Alois.3 It did not appear that the Emperor anticipated his death would come soon, and life continued as normal. On 17 March, he joined Eleonora for her first public appearance after childbirth, but he had been vomiting the day before. From then on, he continued to grow weaker, and Eleonora informed her husband that the doctors told her he should make his last confession. He told her not to cry and that he had hoped to be with her for a few more years. He also called his brother Leopold to him and asked him to take care of the Empress and his son.
Easter Sunday would be the last day of his life. He was given the last rites, and eventually, Eleonora was persuaded to go to sleep. Around midnight there was a small fire in the kitchen directly below the Empress’s chambers. She and the children were rescued by the Emperor’s brother, and the fire was put out by soldiers. The Emperor died around 4 A.M. on 2 April 1657. He was buried with his previous two wives and the six children that had predeceased him. His heart was taken from his body and buried at Graz. Just one year later, Eleonora’s young son passed away.
Her brother-in-law Leopold Wilhelm may have taken his brother’s request to care for Eleonora a little bit too seriously as he sought to marry her in the hopes of being elected Holy Roman Emperor himself. However, Eleonora was a strong supporter of her stepson Leopold, and he was duly elected Emperor Leopold I in July 1658. Per the will of her late husband, Eleonora received the guardianship of her children and stepchildren. She had a separate court and lived at the Favorita Palace, Schönbrunn, Laxenburg and the Hofburg. She also enjoyed great respect from her stepson.
Eleonora remained the first woman at court until the arrival of Leopold’s first wife, Margaret Theresa of Spain, who was both his first cousin and his niece, in 1666. She got along with Margaret Theresa, but tragically Margaret Theresa died at the age of 21 in 1673, leaving one surviving daughter. Eleonora did not get along quite so well with her successor, Claudia Felicitas of Austria. This appears to be mostly because Eleonora had preferred another woman for Leopold, Eleonore Magdalene of Neuburg. Claudia Felicitas died in 1676 of tuberculosis, having given birth to two short-lived daughters. The much-preferred candidate Eleonore Magdalene became Leopold’s third wife later that same year.
In 1678, both of Eleonora’s daughters married. The elder and her namesake married Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, and she was briefly Queen of Poland. After her husband’s death in 1673, she remarried Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, in 1678 and had four surviving children by him. Her younger daughter Maria Anna Josepha married Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine, but the marriage produced just two short-lived sons. As Eleonora entered the last decade of her life, she often withdrew from court due to ill health.
Eleonora died on 6 December 1686 in Vienna, and she was interred in the Imperial Crypt. When her sarcophagus was restored in 1990, a piece of jewellery was found with her remains with the inscription “Sola ubique triumphat ” – she alone (virtue) triumphs.” This refers to a forgotten order founded by Eleonora in 1662, which was later replaced.4
- Nur die Frau des Kaisers?: Kaiserinnen in der Frühen Neuzeit by Bettina Braun, Katrin Keller and Matthias Schnettger p.125
- Kaiser Ferdinand III. (1608 – 1657) by Mark Hengerer p.310
- Kaiser Ferdinand III. (1608 – 1657) by Mark Hengerer p.336
- The Kapuzinergruft