In April 1843, Princess Ludovika of Bavaria – wife of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria – wrote to her niece Mathilde (Princess Mathilde Caroline of Bavaria, later Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine) that she was pregnant for the 7th time. She was “a little more miserable than usual, but when God gives me a healthy child, these complaints will disappear!” When the little girl was born on 30 September 1843 at Possenhofen, she was named Mathilde Ludovika and Princess Mathilde was asked to be a godparent. She quickly gained the nickname of “Der Spatz” – the Sparrow – probably due to her delicate constitution. Her father was present at her birth, though this was rather an exception than a rule.
Her mother spent a lot of time without her husband – very much unlike the happy family life portrayed in the famous Sisi movies. The siblings became very close, and Mathilde Ludovika was especially close to Marie Sophie. The family’s time was divided between Munich and Possenhofen – where life was quite informal.
When her elder sister Elisabeth married their first cousin Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, a painting was created with all the siblings, especially for her. It shows Mathilde Ludovika and her elder sister Marie Sophie with their favourite pets – a parrot and a dove. The family accompanied Elisabeth to Vienna.
When Elisabeth and Franz Joseph’s eldest daughter died in infancy in 1857, Mathilde Ludovika, Helene and Marie Sophie accompanied their mother to Vienna less than a week after the little Sophie died. Elisabeth was cheered by the company of her family but took the loss hard. Then, on 8 January 1859, Marie Sophie married the future King Francis II of the Two Sicilies by proxy in Munich. Just five days, she said goodbye to her family, but both families may have already had a second match in mind. On 22 May 1859, Marie Sophie’s husband succeeded as King of the Two Sicilies. Marie Sophie was now Queen at the age of 17, but soon the Kingdom would fall, leaving them without a throne.
The loss of the Kingdom initially crushed plans to have Mathilde Ludovika married to King Francis’ half-brother Louis. However, the marriage of her elder sister had thus far remained without children – probably due to Francis’s phimosis – and an heir was needed. Prince Louis travelled to Bavaria to meet his future in-laws, and Mathilde Ludovika’s mother was charmed. “He is a dear, simple, comfortable person, he is modest and yet not timid, cheerful, and then, in conversation, very serious and sensible.”
On 6 June 1861, Mathilde Ludovika and Prince Louis, Count of Trani, were married at the Ducal Palace in Munich. Mathilde Ludovika and Louis joined their exiled family in Rome, but soon Prince Louis was more interested in other women. Marie Sophie and Mathilde Ludovika had each other at least. It was perhaps no surprise that the vivacious Marie Sophie – with her impotent husband – fell in love with Armand de Lavayss, a Belgian Captain of the Papa Guard. In August 1862, Marie Sophie left first for the baths of Soden and then to Taxis where her sister Helene lived. Newspapers reported that she was ill, but she was, in fact, expecting a child. On 24 December 1862, Marie Sophie gave birth to a daughter who was named Maria Cristina Pia. Not much is known about the girl, except that she was removed from her mother and either given to her father or adopted. She died at the age of 19 from consumption. Marie Sophie was devastated to be separated from her child, and she became very depressed. Her mother later commented, “I would have wished them husbands who had more character and knew how to give them guidance, of which both are still in great need; but good as the two brothers are, they are no support to their wives.” Duke Max shrugged it all off, saying, “Well, all right, such things happen. What’s the point of cackling?”
Mathilde Ludovika followed her sister’s example and fell pregnant by the Duke of Ripalda. In early 1864, she gave birth to a daughter named Marie, who was adopted by her paternal family. Mathilde Ludovika, too managed to make things right with her husband, at least long enough to have his child as well. On 1 January 1867, she gave birth to a daughter named Maria Theresa. Empress Elisabeth was with her sister for her confinement. Mathilde Ludovika had a slow recovery, and Maria Theresa was to be their only child. The following year, both Marie Sophie and Mathilde Ludovika were present by the bedside of their sister Empress Elisabeth when she gave birth to Archduchess Marie Valerie. They both stood as godmothers for the newest addition to the family.
Mathilde Ludovika was soon on the move – without her husband but with their daughter, Maria Theresa – travelling to Munich, Paris and Baden-Baden. Prince Louis was known to be an alcoholic and reportedly also had an illegitimate child. Maria Theresa was known to be very anaemic, and her diet reportedly included chewing half-raw steak and spitting out the remains. Her hands and pinafore were soon soaked in blood, to the horror of onlookers.
In 1886, Prince Louis died – officially due to heart disease – but he most likely committed suicide. The following year – still in mourning for her husband – Mathilde Ludovika and most of her siblings were together in Hungary to celebrate Empress Elisabeth’s 50th birthday. On 27 June 1889, Mathilde Ludovika’s only child Maria Theresa married Wilhelm, Prince of Hohenzollern and they had a daughter and two sons together. Maria Theresa’s health remained delicate, and she lived mostly in Bad Tölz and Cannes. She was in Cannes when she died at the age of 42 – most likely of multiple sclerosis.
In 1914, both Marie Sophie and Mathilde Ludovika moved back to Munich at the outbreak of the First World War to be close to their only other surviving sibling Ludwig Wilhelm. Both sisters had spells of depression in old age, and they were most likely quite lonely as well. Ludwig Wilhelm died of a stroke in November 1920, and now the sisters were the last ones standing. Marie Sophie was the first one to go, and she died of pneumonia on 19 January 1925 – leaving her estate to Mathilde Ludovika. She would outlive her sister for just five months – dying on 18 June 1925.1