Maria Antonia of Austria was born on 18 January 1669 as the second child but eventually the only surviving child of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife and niece Margaret Theresa of Spain. Her mother was the only full sibling of King Charles II of Spain, and she had retained her succession rights when she married – unlike her half-sister Maria Theresa who had to renounce her rights (conditional upon the payment of a large dowry) when she married the King of France.
Maria Antonia would barely know her mother as she died on 12 March 1673 at the age of 21. She had given birth four times, had suffered at least two miscarriages and was found to be four months pregnant at the time of her death. Although Leopold was devastated at the death of his “only Margareta”1, he remarried later that same year to Claudia Felicitas of Austria, his second cousin. She died three years later, leaving no surviving issue. Leopold remarried for a third time to Eleonore Magdalene of Neuburg, who provided him with ten children, of whom two subsequently succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. Maria Antonia was nine years old when her first surviving brother was born.
With the death of her mother, Maria Antonia took her mother’s place in the Spanish line of succession and as long as King Charles II remained without offspring, she was the heiress presumptive. In 1675 – she was then six years old – she was proposed as a bride for her uncle King Charles II – who was then only 12 years old. This was considered to be a controversial match from the start, largely because of her age. She would not be able to bear children for many years to come, and the succession was in danger. King Charles II also had not reached puberty yet. However, not marrying her to Charles meant that someone else would marry her – like a French candidate. In 1676, the engagement was officially announced, and the proxy wedding was scheduled for December. However, the proxy wedding did not take place, and Charles informed Leopold the following year that he could not confirm the match as his main concern was the succession – he needed an older bride. He eventually settled on Marie Louise of Orléans, with Maria Anna of Neuburg becoming his second wife later on.
In 1681, to win over the Francophile Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, Leopold offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. As Maria Antonia was still the heiress presumptive to the Spanish throne, she was clearly quite the catch. They were married four years later, on 15 July 1685. Maria Antonia remained in Vienna at first, as Maximilian was away fighting. As a condition of the marriage, Leopold had made Maria Antonia secretly renounce her rights of the Spanish throne in favour of her father’s male successors. Leopold himself was also in the line of succession as the son of Maria Anna of Spain, King Philip IV of Spain’s younger sister. In return for agreeing to this renunciation, Maximilian was offered full possession of the Spanish Netherlands if Austria should inherit Spain.
When the Spanish learned of this secret renunciation, the councillors of state refused to recognise it, and King Charles II wrote to Leopold in 1687, “All my states are firmly convinced that the Archduchess should unquestionable succeed me in all my territories.”2 Maria Antonia and her offspring remained firmly in the line of succession. The marriage between Maximilian and Maria Antonia was unhappy as he had soon grown tired of her quiet ways, and he found amusement with his mistresses. Nevertheless, Maria Antonia gave birth to a son named Leopold Ferdinand, who lived for two days in 1689. A second child died immediately after its birth in 1690.3 On 28 October 1692, a third pregnancy ended with the birth of a living son – Joseph Ferdinand. Maria Antonia was in Vienna at the time after her husband had left her behind to take up a post in Brussels as governor of the Spanish Netherlands.
Tragically, Maria Antonia died two months later of postpartum complications after falling into a deep state of melancholy. She was still only 23 years old. In her will, she again renounced the Spanish succession for herself and her heirs and left everything she had to her young son. Nevertheless, Joseph Ferdinand was widely considered to be King Charles II’s heir during his lifetime.
Maria Antonia was buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, where her sarcophagus reads that she was “a princess highly famous for her birth, her marriage, her womb and death.”4 Upon the death of King Charles II without heirs, the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. Joseph Ferdinand had tragically died the year before at the age of six, and eventually, the grandson of Maria Antonia’s half-aunt Maria Theresa inherited the Spanish throne as King Philip V of the house of Bourbon.