Isabel Fernanda of Spain was born on 18 May 1821 as the daughter of Luisa Carlotta of Naples and Sicily and Infante Francisco de Paula of Spain. Her parents were uncle and niece, and several of her ten siblings would die young. Isabel would be their eldest surviving child.
Isabel Fernanda’s aunt, her mother’s sister, became Queen of Spain as the wife of Ferdinand VII of Spain and would become the mother of Queen Isabella II of Spain. Ferdinand set aside salic law (which barred women from inheriting the throne) in favour of male-preference primogeniture to allow for the succession of his eldest daughter. Following his death in 1833, Isabel Fernanda’s mother supported her niece as Queen, but Luisa Carlotta was deeply disappointed in her sister’s secret remarriage to Agustín Fernando Muñoz. The Queen regent eventually ordered Luisa Carlotta and her family abroad.
They settled in France where they often attended the court of Louis Philippe, King of French, whose wife Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily was Luisa Carlotta’s aunt. At the French court, they were described by the Duchess of Dino. “The Infanta is very fair, with a face which, though washed out, is none the less stern, with a rough manner of speaking. I felt very ill at ease with her, although she was very courteous. Her husband is red-haired and ugly, and the whole tribe of little infantes, boys and girls, are utterly detestable.” When Luisa Carlotta’s sister was ousted from her regency and exiled to France, the family were able to return to Spain.
They were eventually allowed to return to Madrid, and they focussed their attention on marrying their sons Francisco de Asis and Enrique to the young Queen Isabella II and her sister Luisa Fernanda. Their insistence led to a second banishment in 1842. In 1843, Queen Isabella was declared to be of age, and Luisa Carlotta and Fransisco returned to Madrid once more. They moved into the Palace of San Juan.
By then, Isabel Fernanda had done the unthinkable. While being educated at the Sacre Coeur in Paris, she eloped with her riding instructor Count Ignatius Gurowski. The family was initially appaled by the secret marriage, but they were reconciled. They made their home in Brussels while receiving a pension from the Spanish government under Queen Isabella II. However, during Isabella’s exile, this pension was apparently stopped, and they were living in quite reduced circumstances for a while. Isabel Fernanda’s brother married Queen Isabella in 1846 and offered to make the Count a Duke to which he reportedly replied, “I would prefer being an old Count to a new Duke!”1
Though the marriage was initially kept hushed up, her brother’s high profile as the Queen’s consort brought her into the spotlight of the Belgian Court. The couple went on to have eight children together, though only four would survive to adulthood. She was also rumoured to have had an affair with King Leopold I of the Belgians and they reportedly had a daughter together. After the death of Queen Louise, Isabel Fernanda was essentially the first lady of Belgium.
Isabel Fernanda moved to Paris in 1886 where her husband Ignatius would die the following year at the age of 74. Isabel Fernanda survived him for ten years, dying on 8 May 1897 – just days before her 76th birthday. She was reportedly in financial ruin, acting as the hostess of a hotel. She was buried at the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery where her husband was also buried.