Elisabeth Farnese – The Termagant

(public domain)

Elisabeth Farnese was born on 25 October 1692 as the daughter of Odoardo Farnese and Dorothea Sophie of Neuburg. Her father was the heir to the Dukedom of Parma, but he died just 11 months after Elisabeth’s birth. Her elder brother Alessandro also died the following year. Her mother went on to marry her late husband’s half-brother Francesco, but they would have no further children together. Elisabeth’s last uncle Antonio became Duke of Parma after her stepfather’s death, but he too would have no children.

Elisabeth’s first letter dates from 1698 and reads, “My Most Serene Lord and most respected uncle, I cannot better employ the first fruits of my pen than in wishing your Highness happiness at the Holy Christmastide. May it please your Highness to accept my duty and to give me the proof of it by presenting me with many opportunities of serving you, professing myself to be your Highness’ Most affectionate niece and servant, Elisabetta Farnese. Parma, 12 December 1698.”1

Elisabeth received a strict education, reportedly from confinement in an attic in the Palace of Parma. Steps for succession in the female line were already being tentatively introduced to the Pope, and so Elisabeth’s prospects were raised. Conveniently, Philip V of Spain was widowed in 1714, but he had three sons, so there was no immediate need for him to remarry. Philip had insisted on his conjugal rights almost to the last days of his first wife, and her death had left him “sexually frustrated and emotionally and politically bereft.”2 So, Cardinal Alberoni recommended Elisabeth. “He mentioned her name coldly and between his lips, adding that she, was a good-natured Lombard girl, fattened on butter and Parmesan cheese, brought up in homely fashion, and had heard nothing talked about but trimmings, embroidery, and linen.”3

On 24 December 1714, she married the King of Spain in person, having been married by proxy in September. He quickly fell in love with his new wife, and she became his confidante. She would often join him for audiences with ministers. At first, she would sit at a distance and embroider, listening to every word and later became more vocal as her husband sat “mute and shy.”4 Elisabeth soon learned to dominate her husband, and he remained a monarch with a “paralysed will.”5 Philip suffered from severe attacks of debilitating depression and bipolar disorder, some so prolonged that doctors began to fear for his life. He would spend weeks in bed, lying in his own excrement.6 Despite this, Elisabeth gave him a further six children. Her eldest son would eventually succeed as King of Spain, after outliving his elder half-brothers. Her second son succeeded as Duke of Parma, while her third son became a cardinal and an archbishop. Her three daughters made marriage alliances with Portugal, France and Sardinia.

(public domain)

As Elisabeth became more powerful, the King became increasingly inaccessible and Elisabeth inevitably was targeted because of this. On 9 July 1746, Philip died and was succeeded by Elisabeth’s stepson Ferdinand. Ferdinand was much like his father and also left the business of government to his wife, Barbara of Portugal. The French Ambassador commented that “it is rather Barbara who succeeds Elisabeth than Ferdinand succeeding Philip.”7

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. She briefly returned to Court in 1759 when her stepson died. She was made interim regent of Spain until the arrival of her own son, now King Charles III.

Elisabeth died on 11 July 1766 at the age 73.

  1. Armstrong, E: Elizabeth Farnese, the Termagant of Spain
  2. Clarissa Campbell Orr: Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort p.161
  3. Armstrong, E: Elizabeth Farnese, the Termagant of Spain
  4. Clarissa Campbell Orr: Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort p.164
  5. Clarissa Campbell Orr: Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort p.165
  6. Clarissa Campbell Orr: Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort p.165
  7. Clarissa Campbell Orr: Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort p.174

About Moniek Bloks 2742 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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