Wilhelmine Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg was born on 21 April 1671 as the daughter of John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick-Calenberg, and Princess Benedicta Henrietta of the Palatinate. She was one of four daughters, although her eldest sister did not survive to adulthood. Her father died when she was six years old, and as she did not have any brothers, her father’s title passed to her uncle Ernest Augustus (who would marry Sophia of Hanover, and they became the parents of King George I of Great Britain).
After her father’s death, Wilhelmine Amalie moved with her mother and sisters to the French court, where they lived as a guest of her mother’s cousin Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchess of Orléans. She was educated at the Maubuisson monastery, where she was raised as a Catholic. She returned to Hanover in 1693, and she soon found herself part of marriage negotiations. Her suitor was the future Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor, who was five years younger than she was. Normally, her age would have been an issue, but in this case, her future mother-in-law Eleonore Magdalena of Neuburg was convinced by a Capuchin monk that she would be able to temper her son’s moods and licentious ways. Her great piety was also a good asset. The six long years of negotiations were mainly due to the opposition from the Danish King Christian V, who wanted his daughter Sophia Hedwig to marry Joseph. However, she refused to convert, ending her candidacy. Wilhelmine Amalie also had her French upbringing against her as it might suggest a pro-French political attitude. Another blemish was the fact that Lucrezia Borgia was one of Wilhelmine Amalie’s ancestors. Nevertheless, after a humiliating medical inspection, Wilhelmine Amalie was cleared for duty.
On 24 February 1699, Wilhelmine Amalie and Joseph were married in the Augustinian Church in Vienna. The new Archduchess quickly fell pregnant and gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Maria Josepha, on 8 December 1699. A son named Leopold Joseph was born on 29 October 1700, but he died of hydrocephalus before his first birthday. A second daughter named Maria Amalia was born on 22 October 1701. Then Joseph’s licentious ways caught up with him, and he passed a venereal disease to his wife, which rendered her unable to have any more children.1 He had reportedly contracted the disease from the daughter of a court gardener, but Wilhelmine Amalie blamed herself for the infection.2 Joseph’s mother was supportive of her daughter-in-law and had her son’s procurers thrown into the fortress prison. There was little she could do to her son, especially after he succeeded his father in 1705.
Even before his father’s death, worries existed about the succession, and the family began to plan for the possibility of female succession. Joseph and his younger brother Charles battled it out, with Joseph insisting that his daughters should take precedence over any of Charles’s daughters. At this time, Charles was not even married yet. They eventually signed the Mutual Pact of Succession, which made Maria Josepha the heiress in case Charles did not have any sons. Joseph enjoyed his freedom as Emperor a little too much. He managed a steady stream of mistresses with his favourite drinking and hunting pal, Count Johann Philip von Lamberg. His main mistress was Marianne Palffy, whom he paraded around in public and showered with gifts, despite protests by Wilhelmine Amalie.
In 1706, Eleonore Magdalene accompanied Charles’s fiance, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, on a pilgrimage to Mariazell, as she had to convert to Roman Catholicism. The official conversion took place on 1 May 1707, with the wedding following on 1 August 1707. The pressure of producing a son now lay with Elisabeth Christine, and it was brutal. She failed to become pregnant during the first three years of marriage. She was prescribed large doses of liquor, which gave her a rose-coloured face for the rest of her life. She was also prescribed a rich diet, which made her so large that she was eventually unable to walk unaided.
In the spring of 1711, a smallpox epidemic struck the court in Vienna. On 7 April, Joseph felt a little ill, but he went hunting anyway. On 9 April, he awoke with a fever and a slight rash and the following day, the dreaded marks began to spread over his body. He was still only 32 years so there was hope he would be able to survive. Nevertheless, a few days later, his fever rose sharply, and by the evening, he became delirious. At half-past ten on the morning of 17 April 1711, Joseph died.