It was expected that Maria would act as a discreet advisor to her son who should not decide on “serious matters in the council of state until they were made known to the empress and her advice sought.”1 He was, after all, young and inexperienced.
One of Rudolf’s first acts jointly with his mother was to decide the fate of his younger brothers and give them ecclesiastical offices. Albert was to receive the cardinal’s hat and the Archbishopric of Toledo from his uncle King Philip II. However, while the cardinal’s hat was quickly granted, he would have to wait 20 years for the Archbishopric of Toledo. Young Wenceslaus was appointed the right of succession of the Grand Priory of the Order of Malta, but he died suddenly a year later at the age of 17. Matthias was not inclined towards an ecclesiastical office, but the younger Maximilian readily accepted.
There were also three daughters who lived at home. Elisabeth, who had married King Charles IX France and had been widowed in 1574, had returned home following her husband’s death. And then there were Margaret and Eleonore. She began to hunt for a suitor for Eleanore and discussed the possibility of her marriage to Charles Emmanuel, the future Duke of Savoy, but Eleanore tragically died in 1580 at the age of 11. By contrast, she wouldn’t even consider marriage for Margaret, “as she is ugly and disastrous […] and so it is more convenient for her to be with me for my whole life and do what I tell her.”2 Elisabeth, as a dowager Queen, demanded autonomy from her mother, but several suitors were considered for her. Nevertheless, Elisabeth refused all offers.
Maria had expressed the wish to return to Spain and live a religious life shortly after her husband’s death. Her new role of dowager empress did not work well for her, and she was depressed and tired. However, both her brother and her son discouraged her from this but as her relationship with her son deteriorated, her wish only became stronger. Finally, in 1581, she received permission to return home. Her daughter Anna, who had been married to her uncle, had died the previous year at the age of 30.
Maria and her daughter Margaret arrived at the port of Collioure on 12 December 1581, 30 years after she had left Spain. Despite her strong wish to retire, Philip hoped he could change her mind as he was in need of someone to act in his absence. They finally met in May 1582, and Philip later wrote, “You can imagine how much she and I rejoiced when we saw each other, having lived 26 years without seeing each other.”3 Maria was also reunited with her son Albert, whom she had not seen for 12 years as he lived at the Spanish court. Maria travelled on to Lisbon, where she would spend a year, continually refusing the accept the regency over Portugal. She also resisted Philip’s attempt to marry off Margaret because “she was crippled apart from lame and had a very different face and appearance from the others and was quite deformed.”4 She did wish for another marriage though – the marriage of her son Rudolf to Philip’s daughter Isabella Clara Eugenia.
Finally, after much wrangling, Margaret was allowed to join the monastery of the Descalzas, and Maria would be allowed to accompany her for the rest of her life. Margaret professed in January 1584 under the name Sister Margarita de la Cruz. Unfortunately, her wish for the marriage of her son was not fulfilled, and he would remain unmarried for the rest of his life. Maria lived outside of the cloister in the quarters that had once been used by sister Joanna, who had founded the monastery. She received papal dispensations to enter the monastery and share the monastic life. While there, she had a demanding daily schedule that consisted of being read about the life of the saint of the day, prayers with her daughter Margaret, some free time and more time for prayers in the evening. Until her health started to deteriorate at the end of the 1590s, she was able to move around freely in Madrid. Sometimes Philip invited her on country and hunting trips. She also maintained extensive correspondence with her other children.
On 13 September 1598, King Philip II died and was succeeded by his only surviving son, who now became King Philip III. Maria was very close to her grandson, and she now hoped for a more prominent role. He presented himself at Descalzas to receive her blessing shortly after his father’s funeral, and her niece Margaret of Austria was to become Philip’s wife. However, the influence of the Duke of Lerma meant that there would be no prominent role for Maria.
By the middle of February 1603, Maria came down with a cold that she found hard to shake. Her grandson Philip had wanted to visit her, but his newborn daughter, also named Maria, was dying. It soon became apparent that the elder Maria was also nearing the end of her life. Her daughter Margaret fulfilled her destiny “by helping her to die well and being by her side, and when she expired, [Margaret] closed her eyes and left.”5 It was 26 February 1603 at five in the morning, and Maria had lived to the age of 74.
- Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.150
- Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.155
- Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.179
- Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.180
- Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress (1528-1603) by Rubén González Cuerva p.236