Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel is perhaps best known as the mother of the famous Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa but she was also the longest-serving Holy Roman Empress consort.
Elisabeth Christine was born on 28 August 1691 as the eldest daughter of Louis Rudolph, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and his wife Princess Christine Louise of Oettingen-Oettingen. She had two surviving sisters; Charlotte Christine, who married Alexei Petrovich, Tsarevich of Russia, and Antoinette, who married their father’s eventual heir Ferdinand Albert II, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
Elisabeth Christine was raised as a Lutheran but when she was being considered as a bride for the future Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, she agreed to convert to Catholicism after extensive efforts by her grandfather Anton Ulrich. She agreed out of respect for him and his claim that God wished for this union. Her future mother-in-law Eleonore Magdalene introduced her to Catholicism and took her on a pilgrimage to Mariazell in 1706. Her conversion took place on 1 May 1707 in Bamberg. With the religious difference out of the way, there was more to discuss. As a future Empress, she would need to encompass the contemporary standards of beauty and deportment. Her character was studied and one witness said that he was not aware of anything that would render her unworthy and noted that her “countenance and manners are proper and not affected, speaks and writes in perfect French, skilled in the arts of women of her class [i.e. embroidery], God-fearing and graceful to all.”1 She also underwent a humiliating medical examination to prove her fertility to a doctor and a Jesuit confessor. She passed the test.
Elisabeth Christine married Charles by proxy in 1708. At the time, he was in Spain as he had declared himself King of Spain, following the death of his kinsman King Charles II in 1700. This was disputed by other claimants and led to the War of the Spanish Succession. He only really exercised power in Catalonia and the war was eventually settled in the favour of Philip, Duke of Anjou, who became King Philip V of Spain. But for now, Charles remained in Spain and Elisabeth Christine travelled to meet her new husband there.
He had been in the arms of his mistress Countess Althan but was prepared to be kind to the teenage Elisabeth Christine when she arrived. When she did, he was struck by her beauty and wrote to her father, “Although on every side I had been told in advance of the exceptional beauty and remarkable qualities of my angelic queen and consort (who is winning all hearts here), now that I have seen her everything that has been said about her is but a shadow devoured by the light of the sun. I have no words to express my exceeding happiness and satisfaction. I shall be eternally grateful to you for making it possible that this angel should become my queen. I only wish she had a consort worthy of her merits; but I will do my best to be to her a faithful husband. The treasure that has been committed to my care shall be truly guarded.”2
Pressure to produce a son would begin almost immediately as Charles’s rival for the Spanish throne already had a son. But the war kept them apart, which could not have helped Elisabeth Christine’s chances of conceiving. In Vienna, Elisabeth Christine’s sister-in-law Empress Wilhelmine Amalie had two surviving daughters but she had been infected with a venereal disease by her licentious husband which likely rendered her sterile. In 1711, her brother-in-law Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor, died at the age of 32 during a smallpox epidemic. With Charles and Elisabeth Christine still in Spain, her mother-in-law Eleonore Magdalene was named regent in Vienna. Charles returned to Vienna and he was duly elected Holy Roman Emperor in October 1711. Elisabeth Christine remained in Spain for now and ruled the little Spanish stronghold Charles still held as regent until 1713. Once again, them being apart could not have helped her conceive.
In April 1713, Elisabeth Christine finally arrived at the court of Vienna as the new Empress. Even before the death of Charles’s father in 1705, worries existed about the succession, and the family began to plan for the possibility of female succession. Joseph and Charles battled it out, with Joseph insisting that his daughters should take precedence over any of Charles’s daughters. At this time, Charles was not even married yet. They eventually signed the Mutual Pact of Succession, which made Maria Josepha the heiress in case Charles did not have any sons. The three Empresses (Eleonore Magdalene, Wilhelmine Amalie and Elisabeth Christine) had not officially been informed of the pact that had been signed but suspected that it existed. When they finally managed to get the document from Charles, he had announced his wish to change it in favour of his own (future) daughters. This became the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713.
Meanwhile, Elisabeth Christine’s ‘failure’ to conceive meant that more drastic measures had to be taken. She was prescribed large doses of liquor which failed to get her pregnant but did give her a rose-coloured face for the rest of her life. In 1715, Elisabeth Christine became pregnant for the first time and on 13 April 1716, she gave birth to a son named Leopold Johann. The birth was celebrated with great pomp and he was baptised the following day in the Knight’s Hall of the Hofburg Palace. However, the longed-for heir would live just seven months and he died on 4 November 1716. The following day, his little body was opened to remove the entrails and the heart. The little boy wore a crown of flowers and around his neck was the small chain of the Golden Fleece. His heart was placed in a silver urn, while his entrails were placed in a copper urn. They were both placed in the ducal crypt in St. Stephen Cathedral in Vienna. The body was taken to the Imperial Crypt.3
As her little boy was laid to rest, Elisabeth Christine was already pregnant again. Would it be another boy?