Tragedy struck the house of Habsburg again on 8 April 1676 when Empress Claudia Felicitas died at the age of just 22. Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, had been widowed for the second time, and he had just one surviving daughter from his first marriage to Margaret Theresa of Austria. There were not a lot of options for the widowed Emperor, and the choice fell on the 22-year-old Eleonore Magdalene of Neuburg to become his third wife.
Eleonore Magdalene was born on 6 January 1655 “after midnight at 2 o’clock in the morning”1 as the daughter of Philip William, Elector Palatine and Elisabeth Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt in Düsseldorf. She would be the eldest of a total of 17 children, though not all would live to adulthood. Eleonore Magdalene was baptised later that same day, and Te Deums were sung in Neuburg when the news arrived.
Her parents brought her to Neuburg in August of that same year, and it was also her mother’s first time there since getting married. Eleonore Magdalene received an excellent education, consisting of several languages, literature and theology. She was very pious and was drawn to the penitential side of Catholicism. Her father’s instructions for her day to day life were followed to the letter. She should get up at 7 a.m, finish dressing and praying by 8 a.m., receive French instruction until 9 a.m., receive religious instruction until 10.30 a.m. before attending mass until 11 a.m. The Princess then received an hour break for lunch and then followed an hour of “recreation.” After this, she had instruction in dance for an hour before receiving writing lessons for the next hour. This was followed by another hour of religious instruction and another hour of French. From 5 to 6, she was again allowed to take a break. The break was followed by dinner and recreation until 9. Then it was finally time for bed.
Eleonore Magdalene enjoyed reading and translating religious works into various languages and probably later also used her skills to teach her younger siblings their languages. From an early age, she was known for her charitable acts. Once, she gave her embroidered shoes to two monks who had no shoes and told them to sell her shoes so they could buy their own. If she received money from her parents, she would often donate it to the poor. On religious feast days, she often fasted or lived on just bread and water. At the age of 17, Eleonore Magdalene was sent to live at Benrath Palace in Düsseldorf, where she learned etiquette. She had expressed her wish to become a nun to her parents, but they refused to give their permission.
Negotiations for the marriage between Eleonore Magdalene and Leopold began in April 1676, shortly after his second wife’s death and were initially thwarted by rumours that she was physically unattractive and in poor health. After a doctor confirmed to the Emperor that she was healthy, negotiations finally concluded in October. On 4 October 1676, he announced his intentions to marry Eleonore Magdalene. Eleonore Magdalene herself showed “not a single pleasure … that she was delighted at the prospect of such high dignity.”2 She still wished to become a nun but would obey her parents.
Her dowry was set at 100,000 florins, and a dispensation was requested from Pope Innocent XI as both the bride and the groom were great-grandchildren of William V, Duke of Bavaria. The wedding date was set for 14 December 1676, and it was to take place in Passau rather than Vienna. Eleonore Magdalene left Neuburg on 2 December, accompanied by her parents and her brothers Wolfgang George, Ludwig Anton and Charles Philip. The latter two only accompanied her until Neustadt an der Donau before returning home. Another brother, Johann Wilhelm, travelled ahead to Vienna. They arrived in Neuburg am Inn on 11 December, and Eleonore Magdelene first met her future husband in person the following day. She was reportedly so in awe of him that she fell to her knees. Their first impression of each other was good, and he raised her to her feet.
The ceremony took place at 5 in the afternoon in the court chapel of the episcopal residence in Passau. Eleonore Magdalene wore a silk dress in white and blue with silver embroidery. In her blonde hair, she wore gold, diamonds and pearls. As a wedding present, she received the famous Wittelsbach diamond, which had been a present to Margaret Theresa – Leopold’s first wife – from her father. The bride’s father was reportedly so moved by the ceremony that he burst out in tears. The ceremony was followed by a wedding feast in the evening. After withdrawing at 11, Eleonore Magdalene’s mother stayed with her until 2 in the morning.
After remaining in Passau for the next three days, the newlyweds began their journey home to Vienna. They stopped in Linz to celebrate Christmas and the New Year before arriving in Vienna on 7 January 1677. By the end of the year, Eleonore Magdalene was pregnant with her first child, and her delighted parents travelled to Vienna to be near her for the birth. On 26 July 1678, she gave birth to a son named Joseph, to everyone’s great joy. He was baptised the following day and was carried to the font by his maternal grandmother.
Proving her fertility, Eleonore Magdelene gave birth to ten children in 12 years time. Following Joseph, Eleonore Magdalene gave birth to a daughter named Maria Christina Joseph on 18 June 1679, but she died just hours after being baptised. On 13 December 1680, a second daughter named Maria Elisabeth was born. On 2 June 1682, a second son named Leopold Joseph was born, but he died not long after his second birthday. Their third daughter Maria Anna Josepha was born on 7 September 1683, followed by a fourth daughter named Maria Theresa on 22 August 1684. A third son named Charles followed on 1 October 1685, followed by a fifth daughter named Maria Josepha on 6 March 1687 and a sixth daughter named Maria Magdalena on 26 March 1689. A short-lived seventh daughter named Maria Margaretha completed the family on 22 July 1690.
Due to her many pregnancies and the threat of war, Eleonore Magdalene was not immediately crowned. Her coronation as Queen of Hungary took place on 9 December 1681, and on 19 January 1690, she was finally crowned as Holy Roman Empress. Eleonore Magdelene showed great interest in government and often worked with her husband as a sort of secretary. She advocated for her family, and with her fertility proven, her two sisters Maria Anna and Maria Sophia became Queen of Spain and Queen of Portugal respectively. Her oldest brother Johann Wilhelm married Leopold’s sister Maria Anna Josepha. She continued to correspond with her family and her father in particular. She asked him not to write to her as an Empress but as his loyal and obedient daughter. Her parents also visited her often in Vienna, and on one occasion, they stayed for seven months.