Maria Anna of Savoy – A good and gentle being (Part one)

Maria Anna of Savoy
(public domain)

Maria Anna of Savoy was born on 19 September 1803 as the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia and Archduchess Maria Teresa of Austria-Este (a granddaughter of Empress Maria Theresa). Maria Anna had a twin sister named Maria Teresa, who became Duchess of Parma and Piacenza. The twin sisters were born in Rome and were baptised by Pope Pius VII. Two other sisters survived to adulthood, but the only son of her parents’ marriage tragically died of smallpox before his third birthday. In the family, Maria Anna was known as Pia.

At the time of her birth, the family was in exile because of Napoleon. The family was not able to return to Turin until Napoleon’s fall in 1814. Maria Anna grew up during these years of turmoil, but her education was not neglected. As was usual, her education focussed on learning several foreign languages and on religion. Maria Anna would always prefer to write in French. In 1821, her father abdicated in favour of his younger brother Charles Felix. The former King died in 1824.

Maria Anna remained unmarried until the age of 27. Two of her sisters had already married in 1812 and 1820, while her younger sister (with an age difference of 9 years) married in 1832. In 1831, the Austrian Emperor Francis I (known as Francis II before the dissolution of the Holy Roman Emperor) was looking for a bride for his eldest son; the future Emperor Ferdinand I. Ferdinand suffered from hydrocephalus, epilepsy and a speech impediment. This was most likely genetic as his parents were double first cousins. Ferdinand’s younger brother Franz Karl had married Sophie of Bavaria in 1824, and she had recently given birth to the future Emperor Franz Joseph. It seemed unlikely that Ferdinand would even be able to consummate the marriage as he was reported to have up to 20 epileptic attacks a day. Still, if he were to produce a son with Maria Anna, he would have taken precedence over the newborn Franz Joseph. In any case, it was hoped that the marriage between Maria Anna and Ferdinand would bring the two monarchies closer together.

On 12 February 1831, the proxy wedding took place in the cathedral in Turin with her uncle Charles Felix standing in for the groom. It was also her uncle who accompanied her to Milan the following day. Maria Anna travelled incognito under the name Countess von Habsburg to Milan, where she was officially handed over. Her uncle died shortly after returning home. Maria Anna travelled on towards Wiener Neustadt, where she would finally meet Ferdinand.

It is not clear what the two thought of each other upon their first meeting. Afterwards, Ferdinand returned to the Hofburg, while Maria Anna went to Schönbrunn. On 27 February, she made a solemn entry into Vienna with the usual ceremonies. She was met by Ferdinand, who led her inside. At 3.30 p.m., the couple were married in the Joseph’s Chapel in the Hofburg, and the ceremony was performed by Archduke Rudolf – a son of Emperor Leopold II – who was the Archbishop of Olomouc. Archduchess Sophie later wrote, “We cannot thank Heaven enough for having sent us such a good and gentle being.”1 Ferdinand’s stepmother Caroline Augusta wrote, Ferdinand is always very satisfied. . . Marianne seems to be very attached to him. She seems very sensitive, I don’t think he could have made a better choice.”2

Although she was well-received at court, she was unable to speak German and never learned it properly. She always spoke French and was known to be an introverted and humble person. She got on well with her new husband and worried about his health. However, this also meant that she was more a nurse than a wife to him. He continued to suffer from frequent epileptic attacks. Her first experiences with her husband’s attacks must have been scary for her. In December 1832, he was so ill with his attacks that he received the last rites. It was a Christmas miracle that he survived. Maria Anna herself was not a healthy woman either. Surviving documents show that she was described medications on a near-weekly basis for stomach issues and the like. She also went on extended stays in the spas of Italy.

On 2 March 1835, Ferdinand’s father Francis died at the age of 67. He had left his son several letters advising him to follow the advice of Prince Metternich, the Chancellor of the Austrian Empire. Nevertheless, many doubted that Ferdinand was capable of ruling at all, and indeed, he was rarely politically active. As Empress, Maria Anna was described with the words, “Her dignity, her politeness and her agility correspond exactly to the image of the first lady of the empire. She seldom dances, but when she does, she moves with incredible grace and grace, so that everyone is completely carried away by her.” 3 As Emperor and Empress, they devoted themselves to charity, and Ferdinand let politics take its course, relying on the advice of others. 

Read part two here.

  1. Frauen auf Habsburgs Thron by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.110
  2. Frauen auf Habsburgs Thron by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.110
  3. Frauen auf Habsburgs Thron by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.114

About Moniek Bloks 2701 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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