As the news of the engagement spread around Europe, congratulations began pouring in. Queen Victoria was disappointed in Luis’s choice and wrote, “Naturally the change so sudden… in your opinion astonishes me greatly. But since you have made your choice, I have nothing more to say, except to wish that it will be alright and that you will be happy. What I regret is the extreme youth of Princess Maria Pia who… is hardly of an age to be useful to you. Let us always hope that she will possess all the qualities necessary for your wife and for a Queen.”1
A proxy wedding took place on 27 September 1862 with her cousin Prince Eugene of Savoy-Carignano standing in for the groom. On the 29th, Maria Pia boarded a Portuguese ship at Genoa to take her to her new homeland. The ship sailed into Lisbon on 5 October and anchored in front of Belem Palace where King Luis was waiting for her. Maria Pia later wrote, “I like him more than his picture.”2 The following day, a second wedding ceremony was performed at the church of Sao Domingos. Though perhaps believing herself in love at first, her husband turned out to be a disappointment to her. She also had trouble learning Portuguese, and she found her new ladies-in-waiting boring.
Fortunately, Maria Pia and Luis had been able to find an understanding, and despite being told not consummate the marriage too quickly because of Maria Pia’s age, Luis wasted no time. Within three months, she was pregnant with their first child – she was still only 15 years old herself. On 28 September 1863, Maria Pia gave birth to a son named Carlos. Despite her young age, she proved to be a devoted mother. She wrote, “My little Charles is always good. Oh, it is a great fortune to be a mother. My little one is white and pink with the large blue eyes of his father, and he has blond hair. It seems that he has already six months instead of a few weeks. He is always, always with me!”3 She was pregnant again in late 1864 and gave birth to a second son named Afonso on 31 July 1865. Although immensely happy at the birth of a second healthy son, Maria Pia suffered from severe postpartum depression. When the doctors recommended exercise for her excessive mood swings, Maria Pia began to attend military manoeuvres. It worked well, and Maria Pia slowly began to heal.
In early 1866, Maria Pia was pregnant for the third time. However, on 27 November 1866, she gave birth to a premature and stillborn son who was posthumously christened Miguel. Maria Pia was unwell for a long time, and she would never conceive again – having probably been rendered sterile by the difficult birth. Though she had two healthy sons, she had always wanted a big family, and she continued to long for a little girl. The death of brother Oddone at the age of 19 added to Maria Pia’s sorrows, and she became pale and very thin, which led to doctors advising her to take the waters.
Maria Pia took her eldest son to visit her sister and her husband in France before continuing to Italy for the wedding of her brother Amedeo to Princess Maria Vittoria dal Pozzo. She remained in Italy for some time, but she missed her husband and her younger son. Being around her sister made Maria Pia very happy, and the two often stayed up late into the night talking about everything. Maria Pia finally returned home in the summer after her husband came to get her. She returned to Italy the following year for the wedding of her brother Umberto to Princess Margherita of Savoy. He had been engaged to marry Archduchess Mathilde, but she tragically died after her dress caught fire. However, Maria Pia’s health remained a cause for concern, and her husband wrote to her father, “Maria is still very ill. I don’t know what to do. […] The doctor who cares for her does all he can, but the malady persists. Maria suffers and suffers a lot.”4
Maria Pia was known to be a loving mother, and she would often romp with her sons with no regard for formality. However, she could also be strict and handed out discipline when required. The two brothers were very close in age and thus became the best of friends. She kept a close eye on their education and even studied alongside them. In October 1873, Maria Pia witnessed her two boys being swept into the sea and she dove in after them to save them. The lighthouse keeper eventually managed to save all three. A grateful Luis awarded the lighthouse keeper with a lifetime pension and a medal. Maria Pia also received a medal for her heroism.
During her daily life, Maria Pia would never appear in public in anything but the finest clothes. She never repeated a dress, and any worn dress was donated to the National Theatre. Though this may have seemed aloof from afar, she was always warm and generous in person. She also liked to smoke cigars and tipped the ash wherever she may be. But most of all, she was known for her charity. After a fire in a theatre in Oporto killed many people, Maria Pia dressed in mourning and immediately left for Oporto. She tried to comfort all those she encountered in the streets and distributed money to those affected by the tragedy. The grateful inhabitants named her “the angel of charity.”