The fourth son and fourteenth child of Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, was born on 1 June 1754. The baby Archduke was named Ferdinand Karl. As one of the last children of the Imperial couple, it was always unlikely that Ferdinand would rule as Emperor or reign over any of the larger Habsburg dominions as his brothers Joseph and Leopold did.
The lack of Habsburg land and titles did not diminish Ferdinand’s prestige as a son of one of Europe’s most important families. His upbringing and family name meant that he was engaged to Maria Beatrice, daughter of Ercole III, who was the last in the line of the Este Dukes of Modena and Reggio. The engagement in 1763 meant that Ferdinand was heir to the Duchy of Modena in modern-day Italy as Ercole had no sons.
Ferdinand married Maria Beatrice in October 1771. The lavish ceremony was celebrated in Milan. Maria was the sovereign of Massa and Carrara as well as the heiress to her father’s lands; she was an ideal bride for Ferdinand. The couple had ten children together.
Ferdinand and his family were always on the move, living between Milan and Modena, as he became governor of Milan in 1771. In 1780, Ferdinand’s brother, Joseph, the Holy Roman Emperor, elevated him to rule over the whole region of Lombardy. Unfortunately, the entire family was affected by General Napoleon Bonaparte’s annexation of areas of Northern Italy into the emerging French Empire, and the family, including Duke Ercole, had to flee from the invading French. It was not until 1814 that Ferdinand’s son Francis truly regained and ruled over the family Duchy of Modena, which had been lost in all but title to the French republic. Ferdinand personally only ruled as Duke of Breisgau, a title he gained in compensation for his Italian losses after the Treaty of Campo Formio.
Ferdinand died in 1813, leaving the new House of Habsburg-Este as his legacy. He was buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. 1