Marie Antoinette & Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma

Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma
(public domain)

Maria Amalia was born on 26 February 1746. The Archduchess was the eighth child of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, who had accended the Imperial throne just a year before Maria Amalia was born.

After a tumultuous few years and a drawn-out succession crisis, her mother’s reign was finally secure. The Empress and her growing family lived in luxury between the Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces. As her parents ruled over one of Europe’s largest empires, the children were given nothing but the best and were educated according to their rank as future rulers of Europe. The boys were given a rigorous education, drilled morning until night in all subjects, whereas the girls focused on art, history and needlework. [1]

Over the years, Maria Theresa went on to have thirteen children who survived into adulthood. The flock was divided into an older group and a younger group, the split having been caused by the sad loss of a number of the middle children. Maria Amalia, known simply as Amalia by her family, belonged to the older group of children and was always overshadowed by Maria Christina, who was her mother’s favourite.[2] Maria Antonia, the youngest daughter, joined the family in 1755, meaning there were nine years between Amalia and little Antoine, as she was fondly known.[3]

Maria Theresa and family (public domain)

While Maria Theresa loved her children and wanted the best for them, she did not show love readily and was often very critical of the children. Some of the children, it seemed, could never put a foot wrong, while others, including Amalia, received very little attention from the Empress other than criticism.[4] Though the family employed a large number of staff and governesses to care for the children, the brood was often unruly and difficult to tame. The atmosphere in the nurseries and school rooms of the palace was often tense and competitive, while at other times, the children would be “in open war with each other, throwing priceless pieces of artwork and fighting.” [5]

The girls were forever compared for their looks, manners and behaviour, and there were often jealousies and rivalries between them.[6] Marie Antoinette (as Maria Antonia was later known) was always jealous of her older sister Maria Christina, but when it came to Amalia, the pair were more friendly as Amalia was seen as a “less threatening figure” who was not as pretty, graceful, clever or interesting as some of the others.[7] The large age gap, however, meant that Amalia and Marie Antoinette, though raised together, had little in common and did not play together much growing up. On the other hand, Marie Antoinette and Maria Carolina were raised like twins and spent all of their time together, playing games and often getting involved in mischief.[8]

As the sisters grew older, the focus of their mother shifted to their future marriages. After the death of their father, Empress Maria Theresa became obsessed with arranging prestigious matches for her children. In a period of grief and despair, Maria Theresa had allowed Maria Christina to marry a lower-ranking man for love. Following this, the girls’ older brother, the new Emperor Joseph II, tragically lost his wife and vowed never to have more children. For the remaining unmarried Habsburg children, including Amalia and Marie Antoinette, this meant the stakes were raised, and their spouses had to be carefully chosen in order to create further dynastic ties to other royal houses throughout Europe.

In the late 1760s, there were three daughters still to be married; Maria Carolina, Maria Amalia and Maria Antonia. The first to wed was Charlotte, who became known as Queen Maria Carolina of Naples upon her marriage to King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Sicily on 7 April 1768.

Next, it was time for Amalia to marry, and she was determined to marry for love as her sister Maria Christina had. Amalia had fallen for Prince Charles of Zweibrücken, but she was not permitted to marry him as this did not fit in with her mother’s plan to marry the girls off to powerful Bourbon men.[9]

Maria Amalia submitted to her mother’s will, but their already strained relationship was damaged irreparably after Amalia was forced to marry against her wishes, especially when she discovered her groom was a poorly-educated man who was six years younger than her and had little control over his own penniless state.

Ferdinand I of Parma (public domain)

Nevertheless, the pair were married on 19 July 1769. As with Maria Carolina before her, Amalia said an emotional farewell to her Austrian family. They were all hugging and kissing and in floods of tears, knowing they may never meet again.

Marie Antoinette was devastated at watching her older sisters leave, though it was not long before she left Austria for good to become the French Dauphine.[10] In one of the most important marriages of the 18th century, Marie Antoinette married the Dauphin Louis Auguste on 16 May 1770, the youngest of Maria Theresa’s daughters was now destined to become Queen of France.[11]

Even when living in different countries, the girls were forever receiving letters from their mother about their conduct as royal consorts. Maria Theresa would write to Maria Carolina and Amalia advising them to obey their husbands and not to interfere in politics. When it was reported that Maria Carolina and Amalia were “perceived as interfering consorts”, Maria Theresa was furious and constantly worried about how this would affect the newly married Dauphine.[12]

Upon reaching her new home in the Duchy of Parma, Amalia was shocked to see how provincial and how small everything was when compared to the glistening courts of her Austrian homeland. There was also a bitterness that she was merely a Duchess when her sisters were now both Queens.[13] Over time, Amalia settled into her life in Parma and was determined to free Parma from French control and bring about reforms.

When Amalia and Ferdinand were blessed with children, the couple came a little closer together and thrived in their role as parents.[14] Their first child was a daughter who was named Carolina, despite Maria Theresa’s demands that all granddaughters be named after her. Carolina was followed by eight siblings, though only four children survived to adulthood. The people of Parma were pleased with Amalia for providing heirs for the Duchy, and she was popular with the masses for giving to the poor and treating everyone as equals. The nobility and her husband’s ministers, however, despised her due to her interfering, behaving like a tomboy and the fact she was spending the country in to ruin as she bought lavish clothes and held grand parties.[15]

Children of Maria Amalia (public domain)

It was not long before Marie Antoinette was also reprimanded by her mother for failing to fall pregnant. The Dauphine was heartbroken whenever she heard that one of her sisters had fallen pregnant, and it famously took Marie Antoinette seven years to bear a child. Over time, after becoming Queen, Marie Antoinette became known for her over-spending while the country was starving, just like her sister Amalia. Their upbringing at lavish Austrian palaces had obviously left a mark on both women.[16] 

Though Marie Antoinette was far away from her siblings, she stayed in contact with them by writing letters and sending gifts and portraits regularly. When Marie Antoinette was imprisoned and awaiting her death during the French Revolution, it was her sisters she wrote to, and when they heard she had been executed, Maria Carolina and Amalia were utterly bereft. Maria Amalia’s daughter wrote that her upon hearing of her sister’s execution in 1793, she turned pale, began to cry and scream and then fell to the ground. Amalia completely lost control and sunk into a depression that would stay with her for the rest of her life. Despite being apart for much of their lives, this shows how much love remained between the sisters.[17]

Like her sister, Amalia’s life came to a sad end because of the French Revolution. Parma was stormed by Napoleon’s troops and was soon annexed to a new puppet state, the Kingdom of Etruria. After the death of her husband Ferdinand, Amalia died in Prague, where she had spent her final years living in exile with her younger daughters. However, Amalia’s son went on to rule as King Louis I of Etruria, and in time, the Duchy of Parma was restored to the family line.

[1] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.17
[2] How To Ruin a Queen by Jonathan Beckman p.20
[3] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.15
[4] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.17
[5] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.11
[6] Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser p.25
[7] Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser p.27
[8] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.25
[9] Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser p.56
[10] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.64
[11] The French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert p.20
[12] Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser p.57
[13] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.77
[14] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.107
[15] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.107-108
[16] The French Revolution: 1789-1799 by Peter McPhee p.19
[17] In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa by Justin C. Vovk p.269

How to ruin a Queen- Jonathan Beckman
The French Revolution- Christopher Hibbert
The French Revolution 1789-1799- Peter McPhee
In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa- Justin C. Vouk
Marie Antoinette: The Journey- Antonia Fraser

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