After being made to renounce her claim to the Habsburg lands by her uncle Charles, Maria Joseph and Frederick Augustus were married on 20 August 1719. Nevertheless, with Charles’s daughters still in their infancy, there remained a distant possibility of succeeding to the Imperial Crown. The couple would go on to have 14 children together – of whom five sons and six daughters who lived to adulthood. Maria Josepha’s first child was a son named Frederick August, who lived for just two months. Her second son, Joseph August, died at the age of seven. Her third son, Frederick Christian, lived to adulthood and succeeded as Elector of Saxony but he had some kind of paralysis in his legs and in his left arm – something which caused Maria Josepha’s immense grief.
Her husband was elected King of Poland in 1733, and when she travelled to Krakow in January 1734 for the coronation, she left behind seven children in Dresden. Her second daughter Maria Margaret would die during her absence at the age of six. The election had not been quite unanimous, and the uncertainty meant that Maria Josepha and Frederick Augustus spent the next two years in Poland. Two daughters, Maria Christine and Maria Elisabeth, were born during this time. She tried to keep in touch with her children in Dresden, and this was done through letters. Over the year, she would spend more time apart from her children, but never again such a long period at once. The surviving letters show that she did not just wish to see formal letters from her children and tried to bond with them as best she could, being so far away. The children all had pet names, such as “Pepa” – who was her name-sake third daughter Maria Josepha, who became the mother of the ill-fated King Louis XVI of France.
In 1740, her uncle Charles died, and she briefly claimed the Austrian succession on behalf of her husband. However, after an agreement between her husband and her sister’s husband, she renounced her claim in their favour. Her sister’s husband, the Elector of Bavaria, managed to invade and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1742. He held the title for just three years until his death in 1745. His heir made peace with Maria Josepha’s cousin Maria Theresa, and Maria Theresa’s husband Francis was elected Holy Roman Emperor later that year.
Five of her children made brilliant matches: Maria Josepha became Dauphine of France, Maria Anna married the Elector of Bavaria, while Frederick Christian married the Elector’s sister Maria Antonia, Maria Amalia married Charles III, King of Spain and Albert married Maria Christina of Austria, a daughter of her cousin Maria Theresa. However, the alliances with Austria and Catholic Europe led to Prussia marching into Saxony – starting the Seven Years War in 1756. Saxony could not withstand such an attack, and the court was promptly overrun, and the King went into exile. He spent the whole of the war in Warsaw, and Maria Josepha never saw her husband again. Maria Josepha remained behind in Dresden with her son Frederick Christian and his wife, Maria Antonia. On the day of her husband’s departure with two of their sons, she wrote on a tiny scrap of paper, “I am very envious of the happiness of your brothers in being able to kiss the hands of your very dear Papa and to see you. You can judge the pain I feel at being from my dear King for God knows how long. Kiss his hands a hundred times a day for me, who wishes you all happiness and who sends you her maternal blessing.”1
She tried to help the war efforts as best she could, even writing notes in invisible ink while under guard by the King of Prussia. She would spend the last year of her life as a prisoner in her palace in Dresden. She died on 17 November 1757 of a stroke. She was buried in the Hofkirche in Dresden, a church that had been built upon her urging. Her husband managed to return to Saxony only in 1763, and by then, he was already seriously ill. He died on 5 October 1763 and was briefly succeeded as Elector of Saxony by their son Frederick Christian. He tragically died of smallpox after reigning for just three months. His young son would eventually become the first King of Saxony.