Maria Christina of Austria was born on 13 May 1742 as the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria, who celebrated her 25th birthday that day, and Francis of Lorraine – Holy Roman Empress and Emperor. She was reportedly her mother’s favourite child and was nicknamed Mimi in the family. She was 13 years old when her youngest sister Marie Antoinette was born. She was not popular among her siblings, who were jealous of their mother’s apparent preference.1
In contrast to Marie Antoinette, Maria Christina was a good student, particularly where languages were concerned. She loved music and began drawing and painting at an early age. Her early years were structured; she was awoken at 7.30 to pray. From 8.30 to 10, Maria Christina and her sisters were instructed in grammar and handwriting. Then at 10, they attended mass. Afterwards, they were instructed in French until noon. They then had an hour with their mother, and then they were taught religion, embroidery and music until 5. They were then back in church and were allowed to walk outside for exercise.
In 1757, Maria Christina fell ill with smallpox, but fortunately, the spotting was minimal, and she was not as sick as her brother. Maria Christina became attached to her brother Joseph’s new wife, Isabella of Parma. Shortly after her arrival, Isabella fell into the hands of melancholy.2 When she became pregnant in the middle of 1761, it seemed to make things even worse. She told her parents-in-law, “Death speaks to me in a distinct voice that rouses in my soul a sweet satisfaction.”3 Isabella found Joseph very controlling and overbearing and often tried to escape his presence. She began to spend most of her time with Maria Christina and began to harbour romantic feelings for her, which also affected her already melancholic mood. During her pregnancy, she suffered from constant headaches, and she was watched closely by doctors. Finally, on 20 March 1762, at 7 p.m., Isabella gave birth to a daughter who was named Maria Theresa, after her grandmother. She was baptised the following day with her grandparents Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen among her godparents. The delivery had been difficult for Isabella, and it took several weeks for her to recover.
Whenever Isabella and Maria Christina were apart, they wrote each other letters. Unfortunately, Maria Christina’s letters have not survived, and they were probably destroyed by Maria Christina after Isabella’s death. However, she carried with her around 200 letters that Isabella had written to her, even taking them with her as she travelled. These letters were later deposited in the archives by her husband, which is why they have survived to this day. The relationship between Maria Christina and Isabella has been much discussed, but the letters clearly show how madly in love Isabella was. The fact that Maria Christina kept these letters tells me that she likely reciprocated these feelings. However, even Maria Christina could not understand Isabella’s melancholic moods and her growing obsession with death. In the early morning of 27 November 1763, Isabella died of smallpox shortly after giving birth to a daughter who had been named Maria Christina. After her death, Maria Christina carried a miniature of Isabella in her prayer book.
Maria Christina was ready for marriage, and Prince Albert of Saxony certainly had his eye out. Albert wrote, “All the Princesses are beautiful, but the second one had such a graceful figure, such a noble, intellectual countenance that I was in love with her from the very first moment.[…] Her conversation was as delightful as her appearance, yet I dared not tell her what I felt. A princess of her standing was far above a portionless younger son.”4 It took a while, but Maria Christina was soon in love as well. In early 1764, Maria Christina secretly promised to marry him.
After waiting a while, Maria Christina privately went to her mother and told her about her love for Albert and their desire to marry. Her father wanted her to marry someone else, and Maria Theresa would not overrule him. She told Maria Christina to wait it out. Francis’s sudden death on 18 August 1765 changed everything. Maria Christina was on hand to support her mother in her grief, and just three months later, Albert’s older brother made a formal request for Maria Christina’s hand on behalf of Albert. Maria Christina now also required her brother Joseph’s permission, and she was happy to learn that he was enthusiastic about the match. Albert was informed by Joseph himself, and apparently, “It was a long time before he would believe that I was speaking seriously.”5
As he was relatively penniless, Maria Theresa was incredibly generous to them. Joseph also ceded the Duchy of Teschen to them, and they were promised the governorship of the Austrian Netherlands and Hungary. Their wedding took place on 8 April 1766 – Maria Christina had managed to marry for love.
On 16 May 1767, Maria Christina gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter named Maria Christina Theresa, who tragically lived for one day. Maria Christina also became seriously ill with puerperal fever, and Maria Theresa was constantly by her daughter’s side as she recovered. Marie Antoinette wrote to her, “How I envy Marie Christine, the happiness of seeing you so often!”6 Maria Christina and Albert would eventually adopt one of the younger sons of her brother Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany as their heir.
Although Maria Christina and Albert were officially based in Hungary, she still remained mainly at home as a confidante to her mother. When the marriage for Marie Antoinette was arranged, she was to undergo a crash course for her education at the Hofburg. The sisters had never been particularly close, but this was undoubtedly the end of an era.