Maria Anna of Spain was born on 18 August 1606 as the daughter of King Philip III of Spain and Margaret of Austria. She was their fourth born but third surviving child. Her elder sister Anne became Queen of France, while her elder brother Philip succeeded their father as King of Spain. Four more siblings followed, but only two of those survived to adulthood. Even more tragically, her mother died in 1611 following the birth of her last child.
Maria Anna was an important pawn in her father’s matrimonial projects. She was initially betrothed to her first cousin Archduke John-Charles of Austria, who would die at the age of 14 before the marriage could take place. In 1622, she was the subject of the so-called Spanish Match. Her betrothed would be the future King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Author Pauline Gregg describes her at that time as “then seventeen years old, a gentle withdrawn girl, devoted to her religion, terrified at the consequences of marrying a heretic.” She had even announced she would rather go into a nunnery.1 In the end, the wedding never took place, and her intended fiance ended up marrying Henrietta Maria of France.
At the end of 1626, she was betrothed to her first fiance’s brother, the new heir and the future Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor. He would be crowned King of Hungary in 1626 and King of Bohemia in 1627. When the marriage contract was finally signed in 1628, Maria Anna was to retain her inheritance rights of the Spanish throne, unlike her sister Anne who had to renounce them upon her marriage in 1615. The proxy wedding took place in Madrid on 25 April 1629 without any ceremonial pomp. Maria Anna left Madrid in December 1629, but the journey would last for almost a year, with many delays. She met her future brother-in-law in Trieste in January 1631, and he accompanied her the rest of the way.
Her first in-person meeting with her husband would not come until almost two years later, on 22 February 1631. He decided to secretly view his wife and was in a group of nobles who received an audience. He was struck by her beauty and reportedly immediately revealed his identity. Maria Anna could also breathe a sigh of relief because she had heard ugly rumours about him that did not turn out to be true. Over the next few days, she met her step-mother-in-law Eleonora and her father-in-law (and uncle). Her father-in-law did not allow her to kiss his hand, and he embraced her and kissed her forehead instead. Afterwards, he led her into a room where all the princes, counts and gentlemen kissed her hand.
The wedding festivities would last for one month. On 26 February 1631, they travelled to Vienna and were married in the Augustinian church. While the Emperor and Empress wore clothes with gold thread, Maria Anna and her husband wore clothes with silver thread. The following wedding dinner took place in the Hofburg.
On 8 September 1633, Maria Anna gave birth to her first child – a son named Ferdinand. The following year she gave birth to a daughter – named Maria Anna. During her husband’s absence in the years 1635 and 1636, they wrote to each other often. Maria Anna was often concerned about her husband’s health and the wellbeing of their children. She reported to her husband on their eldest son when he was teething, in a bad mood or crying. She also reported on his love for horses and how Eleonora rode with him on her lap through the garden. Little Ferdinand was even allowed to scribble things on his mother’s letters so his father could see his writing. She also wrote that Ferdinand appeared to be too lazy to start speaking. Although quite an involved mother, the daily upbringing of their children was in the hands of Countess Trautson.
When her father-in-law died in 1637, Maria Anna was pregnant with her third child. It would be a son by the name of Philip August. Her next child was another son named Maximilian Thomas. Both boys would die within a week of each other in 1639. In 1640, another son followed – he would be named Leopold and was his father’s eventual successor.
In 1646, Maria Anna was pregnant again, but she unexpectedly fell ill on the evening of 12 May, most likely with preeclampsia. She had never been afraid of childbirth, but she had confided in her confessor to being afraid this time and that she had seen the “white woman” several times. This was apparently an omen that a member of the Imperial Family would die.
She died the following morning around 6 am – she was still only 39 years old. In a desperate attempt to save her child, doctors performed a caesarian section. The little girl was born alive but was very premature. She was baptised with the name Maria and passed away the very same day. Maria Anna was dressed in the habit of a Carmelite nun before being placed in her coffin with her little daughter in her arms. Her ladies accompanied Maria Anna’s coffin back to Vienna, while the grief-stricken Ferdinand remained behind in Linz. He became physically ill and refused to speak to anyone. Bells rang out as the barge carrying Maria Anna’s coffin sailed down the Danube.
Maria Anna was interred in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. Her husband later wrote, “The Empress dies, the whole world mourns, but she lives happily in her God.” When her coffin was opened in 1852 for restoration work, she was found to be wearing a different dress than what she had been dressed in initially. She was now wearing a red velvet dress with gold embroidery. She was well-preserved, and her hair was still bright red. Only a few bones remained of her little daughter. 2