Marie Sophie in Bavaria was born on 4 October 1841 as the daughter of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. She was the younger sister of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who was known as Sisi. She was one of ten siblings, of which eight survived to adulthood.
All the siblings were high-spirited, and Marie Sophie gained the nickname “Madi.” She loved being outdoors, and she loved to swim. The family spent the summers at Possenhofen, where life was generally informal, while the winters were spent in Munich. They enjoyed a simple upbringing, and little attention was paid to their education. When Marie Sophie was 11 years old, her elder sister was betrothed to their first cousin, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were married in 1854. Her elder sister Helene married Maximilian Anton Lamoral, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis in 1858. Marie Sophie was now the eldest unmarried daughter.
In October 1857, Marie Sophie celebrated her 16th birthday amongst rumours that Francis, the Duke of Calabria, the eldest son of Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, would soon be asking for her hand in marriage. It was a great match, and her parents saw little reason to reject the offer. At last, attention turned to her education, and Marie Sophie underwent a crash course in court etiquette, basic Italian, and the art of conversation. Marie Sophie had also not yet had her first period, and doctors tried to kickstart it by treating her with leeches and hot baths. Her mother dreaded her daughter’s departure and wrote to her sister Sophie, “Although I must wish that it will not be drawn out, for surely it is better that she comes young into this altogether different, foreign situation, she will find and adapt herself all the more readily and with less difficulty.”
The proxy wedding was celebrated on 8 January 1859 at the Church of All Saints at the palace in Munich. She wore a dress of brocade and lace with orange blossom and a long white velvet train, and a veil held down by a coronet. Her uncle, Prince Leopold of Bavaria, stood in for the groom. The wedding was attended by King Maximilian II of Bavaria and his wife, Queen Marie (born of Prussia). On 13 January, Marie Sophie said goodbye to her family, and she headed south. She was forced to spend an extra week in Vienna when her father-in-law became ill, and she could not have her state entry into Naples. On 3 February, she finally arrived in her new homeland with only her canary Hansi as a companion. She finally met Francis for the first time, and they spoke to each other in hesitant French. Her father-in-law was too ill to be there, and she enquired after him. She would later meet him while he was on his sickbed, and he embraced her tenderly. Shortly after her arrival, a second wedding ceremony took place in the palace.
In accordance with tradition, Marie Sophie and her new husband were locked in a chamber for the wedding night. Her husband – who was particularly devout – spent much of the night in prayer while Marie Sophie cried. She finally fell asleep from exhaustion, and he then crept into bed, trying not to disturb her. Needless to say, the marriage was not consummated. They were not off to a good start, and in many ways, they were exact opposites. Marie Sophie was now part of a royal family overshadowed by the King’s illness, and the Queen treated her coldly. Queen Maria Theresa (born of Austria) was Francis’ stepmother, and she preferred to see her eldest son succeed as King. When she asked Francis to intercede on her behalf with his stepmother, he refused to do so, leading to a quarrel between Marie Sophie and Francis. However, the main issue became the lack of consummation, probably caused by Francis’s phimosis – a genital condition that, in most cases, cured itself naturally. Marie Sophie tried to make the best of the whole situation with diversions, such as fishing. On 22 May 1859, Marie Sophie’s father-in-law died, and she became Queen consort of the Two Sicilies after just four months of marriage. She was still only 17 years old.
Just a few days later, the new King and Queen held a reception at the Palace at Naples as officials came to kiss the hands of their new sovereigns. No longer under the control of Queen Maria Theresa, the relationship between Marie Sophie and her husband improved, though he remained shy and lacking in confidence. Their reign was to be short. In 1860, unrest captured the city of Naples to calls for the unification of Italy. The situation became increasingly desperate, with invading forces taking over several towns. Francis desperately promised to proclaim the constitution of 1852 and was promptly seized by panic attacks. The constitution came far too late, and the Queen Dowager took her children to the safety of the city of Gaeta. Marie Sophie remained with her husband and even declared that if he did not place himself at the head of his troops, she would do so herself.
Nevertheless, troops continued to invade, and eventually, they were also forced to withdraw to the fortified city of Gaeta. The siege of Gaeta would last for three months, and for Marie Sophie, it was perhaps her finest hour. She cared for the wounded, rallied the army and dared the invaders to do their worst. When the leader of the enemy forces told her to mark her residence with a flag so that they could avoid it, she dismissed it and dared them to shoot at her if they wanted to. She also ordered her soldiers down to the seaside rampart and told them to moon the fleet attacking them. She was not to be messed with and went down in history as the “heroine of Gaeta.” There were a few occasions when she barely escaped with her life.
The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies came to an end on 20 March 1861, leaving Francis and Marie Sophie without a throne.