Maria of Austria – A future Empress (Part one)

maria austria
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Maria of Austria was born on 21 June 1528 as the second child and eldest daughter of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Isabella of Portugal. She was baptised immediately, probably in the Church of San Miguel de Sagra. Of her seven siblings, only her elder brother Philip (the future King Philip II of Spain) and her younger sister Joanna (born in 1535) survived to adulthood.

Maria was under the care of a Portuguese wet nurse by the name of Maria de Leite and several trusted ladies-in-waiting. They were all under the supervision of the first lady of the bedchamber, Guiomar de Melo. Until 1535, both Maria and Philip were raised in the household of their mother, Isabella. Their first years were spent in several different cities. There didn’t seem to have been much of an education happening there as Philip could neither read nor write at the age of seven. It is unclear if this was also the case for Maria, but Philip was quickly brought up to speed after this, though he never quite liked his studies.

In 1535, Philip was moved to his own household, but the siblings remained close. They continued to play and study together, kept birds as pets and played musical instruments. They eventually came to share a tutor, as the one assigned to Maria was only at court briefly. Maria was not “as devoted to letters as her brother.”1 By the end of 1535, Maria could read Spanish, and by the following year, she could write adequately. Though not particularly interested in grammar and letters, Maria appears to have been quite fond of music and dance in her childhood. She learned the Spanish and French styles of dance, which she displayed during special court occasions.

The death of her mother following childbirth in 1539 disrupted the peaceful family Maria had enjoyed thus far. Her father Charles was often away, and Maria and her younger sister Joanna were put in the care of trusted aristocrats in Arévalo. Maria was not happy there, and when her father came to visit in November 1539, she spoke out. Barely a year after their arrival, the girls were moved to Ocaña. Their stay there was brief, too, as Maria began to suffer from a skin condition. They eventually settled in Madrid, Alcalá de Henares and Guadalajara. Although their households were kept strictly apart, Maria was able to see her brother Philip under supervision.

When Maria was 15 years old, Philip married their first cousin Maria Manuela of Portugal, but she would tragically die in childbirth two years later. Her young son Carlos survived the birth. Several ladies-in-waiting in Maria Manuela’s household then joined the household of Maria and Joanna. Young Carlos also went to live with his aunts, and this also meant that Philip’s visits became even more frequent. Much to their father’s dismay, Philip began a relationship with one of their ladies-in-waiting. Meanwhile, Maria’s education was down to half an hour a day due to her lack of interest, and her handwriting was atrocious. However, she did still enjoy music and was getting into embroidery. And most importantly, her Catholic faith was unwavering.

Several suitors for her hand were considered over the years. Finally, in 1545, she was informed that she would marry the Duke of Orleans (Charles – the third son of King Francis I of France and Claude of France), which she accepted as she considered it her duty. However, he died suddenly that November. The next most suitable choice was her first cousin Maximilian, the eldest son of her father’s younger brother Ferdinand. Maximilian was called to Spain “for his upbringing and experience.”2 The marriage agreements were signed on 24 April 1548.

On 13 September 1548, Maximilian arrived in Vallodolid, and the couple were officially betrothed that same night. The following day, the nuptial mass took place. The couple were appointed governors of the Iberian kingdoms. Maximilian was accused of neglecting his wife in the first year of their marriage, and there were rumours that their marriage was not consummated. However, he was suffering from quartan fever, which left him weak until early 1549. The question of consummation was soon out of the way, too, as by early 1549, Maria was pregnant with their first child.

On 2 November 1549, a daughter named Anna was born, and she was to become her uncle Philip’s fourth wife in 1570. On 17 April 1551, Maria gave birth to a son named Ferdinand, but the boy died just a few months later. After serving as regents for Philip, Maria and Maximilian moved to Vienna in late 1551. One member of their entourage was an elephant named Suleiman, which had been a wedding gift from King John III of Portugal.3 Their solemn entry into Vienna finally took place on 7 May 1552 with elephant Suleiman in the entourage. They would divide their time between Vienna and Wiener Neustadt in the following years, with shorter stays in Prague, Linz and Innsbruck. Maria had a good relationship with her father-in-law Ferdinand, but she would not know her mother-in-law, Anne, as she had died in 1547. Her lack of language skills also severely limited her at court. She never learned to speak German and did not know Latin or French. The only other language besides Spanish she knew was Italian, but she still asked for a written text of speeches given in Italian so that she could understand it better.

On 18 July 1552, Maria gave birth to her first surviving son, Rudolf. A second surviving son, Ernest, was born on 15 June 1553. A daughter named Elisabeth was born on 5 July 1554, followed by a short-lived daughter named Maria on 27 July 1555. The nursery was filling up fast, but the lodgings in Vienna left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t until 1559 that the royal apartments in the Hofburg were completed, and by then, Maria had given birth to four more sons (of which three survived to adulthood): Matthias in 1557, a stillborn son in 1557, Maximilian in 1558 and Albert in 1559. Maria closely monitored her growing brood, and they spent a lot of time together, especially in their early years. Her daughters would remain at home for their education, but most of her sons were eventually sent to the court of Madrid to be raised by her brother Philip.

In 1556, Maria and Maximilian travelled to Brussels to meet with their fathers and other family members to discuss the future of the Habsburg dynasty. The succession to the Imperial throne had been determined in 1551, but this appeared to be unworkable, and a new alternative had to be found. It was determined that Maria’s brother Philip would renounce his claims to the empire and lands in central Europe and would receive the Iberian kingdoms. This would allow Ferdinand, and eventually Maximilian and Maria, to assume the Imperial throne. Maria’s father also suggested that her youngest daughter Elisabeth should be betrothed to the future King Charles IX of France to enforce peace with France, while their eldest daughter Anne was to be betrothed to her first cousin Carlos.

Read part two here.

  1. Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.17
  2. Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.35
  3. Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.60

About Moniek Bloks 2749 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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