Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily was born on 6 June 1772 as the eldest daughter of King Ferdinand IV & III of Naples and Sicily (later King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) and Maria Carolina of Austria. She went on to have 17 siblings, but only six of those would survive to adulthood. Most of her siblings succumbed to smallpox. There is no doubt that Maria Theresa was named after her famous grandmother.
She grew up at the court of Naples and was trained from an early age to one day perhaps become the wife of a sovereign. Her day began at 7 o’clock and included lessons in French, religion, maths, geography, music, drawing and dance. These lessons took place in half-hour units. A midday nap was included, followed by a half-hour break. Lessons then continued in the afternoon with her mother supervising personally. This gruelling schedule was only interrupted during the summer months at Caserta. Maria Theresa was known to be especially musical, and she was praised for her singing, dancing and playing the piano. She was a favourite of her mother and was known to have resembled her physically.
She was still only 14 years when plans for her marriage were already becoming very concrete. Her mother, Maria Carolina, and her uncle Leopold (the future Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor) had arranged a match between Maria Theresa and Leopold’s eldest son Francis. Leopold’s elder brother Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, had married twice, but he left no surviving children and was not likely to remarry again. Thus, it would be Leopold and his sons who would eventually succeed him. However, it would be Joseph, as the sovereign, who had a final say of any marriage, and he decided on another bride for Francis – Elisabeth of Württemberg. Elisabeth’s sister was Sophie Dorothea – the future Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia – and thus an important link to Russia. Therefore, Maria Carolina and Leopold moved their attention from Francis to his younger brother Ferdinand.
The marriage negotiations had not been concluded yet when both Elisabeth and Emperor Joseph died within days of each other in early 1790. Plans were now completely open again, and Maria Theresa was again being considered as a bride for Francis, while Ferdinand was to marry her younger sister Luisa Maria. Thirdly, the heir to the Neapolitan throne – also named Francis – was to marry one of Leopold’s daughters, Maria Clementina. Maria Theresa’s wedding to Francis took place on 19 September 1790 in a double wedding with Ferdinand and Luisa Maria in the Augustinian Church in Vienna. They were well-matched, and when they were apart, Maria Theresa wrote to him often, though he did not write quite as frequently as she would have liked.
In one instance, she wrote, “Dearest, best Francis, On some really pretty paper1 I am writing you a really thundering letter. I am angry at you, first because you sent me no news of yourself, and I fear lest something has happened to you and second, because I am told that you will remain away longer than had been anticipated. But my entire anger will vanish immediately upon your casting your first glance upon me again. Please, dearest love, come back soon.”2
On 21 December 1791, Maria Theresa gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Marie Louise, who would one day marry Emperor Napoleon I of France. Just three months later, Maria Theresa’s father-in-law Leopold died of a stroke at the age of 44. Her husband Francis now succeeded to the Habsburg lands, and in July, he was officially elected as Holy Roman Emperor. By then, Maria Theresa’s second pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage, and her mother-in-law had died suddenly as well.3 It was a strange time and the situation in France that would lead to the execution of Maria Theresa and Francis’s aunt and uncle, King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette, occupied their minds as well.
On 19 April 1793, Maria Theresa gave birth to a son and heir – the future Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria. At least ten more children were born to her over the following years, and a total of seven children – two sons and five daughters – would survive to adulthood. Unfortunately, she also suffered a miscarriage of twins in 1806.