Maria Isabel of Braganza was born on 19 May 1797 as the daughter of John VI of Portugal and his wife Carlota Joaquina of Spain. She was their third child, but her elder brother would die at the age of six. Six more siblings would follow, including Peter IV of Portugal and I of Brazil. Her parents’ marriage was notoriously bad, and her mother even attempted to have her father declared insane, as her grandmother Queen Maria I had been. Nevertheless, it is said that the couple remained cordial towards their children.
In 1807, the family was forced to flee to Brazil as Napoleon invaded Portugal. Carlota sent her eldest surviving son to join his father and grandmother on board the Principe Real while she and the other children boarded the Affonso d’Albuquerque. The arrival at Rio de Janeiro was pitiful. Carlota and her children had been compelled to shave their heads and wore white muslin caps as they entered the harbour. At least they were free from the clutches of Napoleon. The family continued to live apart while in exile. Carlota adored her second surviving son Miguel, who lived with her. She and her husband communicated through letters and hardly saw each other for the next four years.
During this time in Brazil, Maria Isabel was carefully educated under the supervision of her mother in a liberal atmosphere. She was known to be balanced, kind and introverted and resembled her father personality-wise.
On 20 March 1816, Queen Maria I died, and Maria Isabel’s father became King of Portugal and Brazil. On 29 September 1816, Maria Isabel married her widowed maternal uncle King Ferdinand VII of Spain. He was 13 years her senior and his first wife Maria Antonia of Naples and Sicily had died in 1806 without having had any children, but she had suffered at least two miscarriages.
Maria Isabel fell pregnant quite quickly and gave birth to a daughter on 21 August 1817. Little María Luisa Isabel died at the age of four months on 9 January 1818. Maria Isabel became pregnant again not much later and went into labour on 26 December 1818. The baby was in a breech position, and the doctors soon realised that the child had died. Maria Isabel was thought to be dead as well. The doctors then began to perform a caesarian section to remove the dead fetus. She was revived by the pain and would die a few hours later in great pain.1 “When they extracted the girl that she carried in her womb, she was born lifeless, the mother gave such a cry that she was not dead yet, as the doctors believed, which made it a dreadful butchery.”2
As she did not leave an heir for the throne, she was buried in the Pantheon of the Princes, rather than the Pantheon of the Kings, in the El Escorial monastery.
During her short tenure as Queen, Maria Isabel did manage to leave a legacy behind. She promoted the creation of the Royal Museum of Paintings, now known as the Prado museum. Her most famous painting shows her pointing towards the museum. The painting was made on her widower’s orders around ten years after her death. Her husband would go on to marry two more times. His fourth and final wife Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies gave him two daughters, and the eldest succeeded him as Queen Isabella II of Spain.