Maria Elisabeth of Austria was born on 13 August 1743 as the sixth but fourth surviving child of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Empress Maria Theresa. Her youngest sister would be the tragic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
As a child, her day was strictly structured. All the children began their day at 7.30 and always started with prayer. After prayer, they received instruction in grammar and handwriting before attending Mass. Afterwards, they saw their mother for an hour or so and in the afternoon, more lessons followed. Around 5, they were back in church, and they also exercised. Only the evenings were free.
She was known to have been a great beauty, but her mother thought this had made her terribly vain. She said, “It mattered not if the look of admiration came from a prince or a Swiss guard, as long as someone was doing homage to her beauty, Elisabeth was satisfied.”1 Maria Elisabeth was 12 years old when Marie Antoinette was born.
Maria Elisabeth was forced to say goodbye to her beauty when she became ill with smallpox in 1768. After seeing the first spots appear on her face, she reportedly took “leave of those features she had so often heard praised, and which she believed would be greatly changed before she should see them again.”2 As she feared, she was left horribly scarred by the disease. The marriage negotiations with the Sardinian court were promptly stopped. Further marriage negotiations with the widowed King Louis XV of France also ended. Instead, the alliance between France and Austria would be between King Louis XV’s grandson and Maria Elisabeth’s younger sister Marie Antoinette. It was said that Maria Elisabeth had been quite pleased with the prospect of becoming Queen of France, despite the 33-year age difference with the groom.3
Maria Elisabeth was not only scarred from smallpox, but she was also quickly becoming too old to be a royal bride. It seemed unlikely that she would ever wed. She broke down in tears, and her mother later wrote, “She began to sob…[saying] that all [the others] were established and she alone was left behind and destined to remain alone with the Emperor [Joseph], which is what she will never do. We had great difficulty in silencing her.”4
Elisabeth was appointed as canoness of the Convent for Noble Ladies, but she remained with her mother for now, just like her elder sister Maria Anna, who had been vetoed for the marriage market due to a crooked spine.5 One traveller wrote that “they lead a gloomy, tedious life… immured in the Imperial Palace, almost destitute of society, obliged to attend their mother wherever she moved, and compelled to assist at ceremonies or exercises of devotion, as if they were nuns, rather than Princesses; scarcely rate they know to exist by any of the foreign nations of Europe, and never were any persons less objects of envy”6
She finally received some freedom upon the death of her mother in 1780 when she was appointed abbess in Innsbruck. A few years into her stay there, she developed an infection which left a hole in her cheek. She told the English ambassador, “Believe me, for an unmarried forty-year-old Archduchess, a hole in the cheek is fun. No event which breaks the monotony and ennui of my life can be looked upon as misfortune.”7
The literature does not speak much of the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Maria Elisabeth. The age difference meant that they grew up in separate “groups.” Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie Thérèse would later write to Maria Carolina, another of the sisters, that “She loved you more than all of her other sisters.”8 Marie Thérèse would eventually meet her aunt Maria Elisabeth in 1796 as she passed through Innsbruck. She found her aunt “difficult” and “repulsive” but kept up a polite correspondence with her.9 Not even her response to her sister’s execution has been left to us.
Maria Elisabeth was twice forced to flee Innsbruck following the Revolutionary Wars, and the monastery suffered from debts. In 1805, Emperor Francis II (Maria Elisabeth’s nephew) had to cede Tyrol, where Innsbruck is located, to Bavaria in the Peace of Pressburg. Maria Elisabeth hurriedly packed her bags and fled to Vienna, where she officially renounced her office on 20 March 1806.
She did not wish to stay in Vienna and asked her nephew to be appointed an accommodation befitting her rank and status. She eventually found a home in Linz and would spend the last two years of her life there. She frequently attended performances in the nearby theatre and was known to be charitable.
She died on 22 September 1808 at the age of 65. She was buried in the Old Cathedral in Linz, where she still rests today.
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.145
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.206
- Die Töchter Maria Theresias by Friedrich Weissensteiner p.114
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.236
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.181
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.276n
- In the Shadow of the Empress by Nancy Goldstone p.374n
- Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.531
- The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter by Susan Nagel p.174 & p.181