The Princess & The Archduchess

Alexandra Bowles

For many periods of history, sexuality was unseen and unspoken.

For many periods of history, sexuality was unseen and unspoken and even in today’s more accepting society, there is often a reluctance among historians to state the obvious in regards to historical LGBTQ+ relationships. Often two historical figures of the same gender are referred to as “close friends” or “intimate pals” despite evidence to suggest a romantic or sexual connection. One of the couples whose legacy has been marred by this reluctance is Isabella of Parma and Maria Christina of Austria. Isabella of Parma was born in 1741, the daughter of Philip Duke of Parma and Louise-Elisabeth of France and thus granddaughter of Philip V King of Spain and Louis XV King of France. Her childhood was not a particularly happy one; her parents' marriage, like many politically arranged marriages of history, was unhappy and for years Isabella was the couple’s only child. Upon her mother’s death from smallpox in 1759, Isabella was absolutely distraught and in the aftermath of her loss, she developed a morbid fascination with death, becoming convinced that she shared her mother’s fate and was destined for an early demise. A year later she was married to Archduke Joseph who was the heir to the Holy Roman Empire. Both Joseph and Isabella were unsure about the marriage, not wanting to marry someone they had never met. The marriage went ahead regardless and despite his initial apprehension, Joseph soon fell completely head over heels in love with his new wife. A feeling that she, unfortunately, did not seem to reciprocate. In fact, upon arriving in Vienna, it became abundantly clear that she preferred Joseph’s sister Maria Christina.
The Princess & The Archduchess
Princess Isabella of Parma

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The Princess & The Archduchess
Maria Christina, Duchess of Teschen

Both women were highly educated, beautiful and charming

Whilst Isabella was a talented musician who composed her own music and played the violin beautifully, Maria Christina was noted for having a particular talent for painting. The two very quickly developed an intense bond and despite living in close proximity, wrote to one another constantly. Luckily for us, some of their letters, most of which demonstrate a bond that goes beyond sisterly affection, have been preserved and published in various books and journals. In one letter Isabella writes, “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly” whilst in another she writes, “I am madly in love with you, virtuously or diabolically, I love you and I will love you to the grave”. It’s often been suggested that Maria Christina’s feelings were less intense than Isabella’s which is entirely possible. However, we cannot be sure as Maria Christina’s letters were all destroyed after her death. In one letter between them, Isabella herself questions the depth of Maria Christina’s feelings, writing “I cannot bear waiting to know my fate, and to learn whether you consider me a person worthy of your love”. Blinded by his own infatuation with her, Joseph remained unaware of how intense the relationship between his wife and sister had become; he also initially remained unaware of Isabella’s increasing melancholy. When he did realise the full extent of her struggles, he had no idea how to help her. Over the course of their three-year marriage, Isabella’s melancholy worsened, no doubt exacerbated by two miscarriages, an increasing dislike of sex, a difficult pregnancy and the traumatic birth of their daughter Maria Theresa, a hatred of the strict formality of the Austrian court and the death of Joseph’s other sister Johanna which only furthered Isabella’s obsession with death. Ultimately the story would have a tragic ending; whilst six months pregnant Isabella was diagnosed with smallpox, which caused her to go into labour prematurely and on the 22nd November 1763 she gave birth to a daughter who died shortly afterwards. Her final act was to name her daughter Maria Christina. Isabella died less than a week later. Both Maria Christina and Joseph were heartbroken; the latter seemingly never recovered and for some time afterwards refused to even consider remarrying. Even after he did, he made it clear Isabella was the love of his life. Maria Christina also eventually married and had a long seemingly happy marriage. During the course of their relationship, Isabella and Maria Christina’s closeness was noted upon by their contemporaries although they were not explicitly accused of anything, until after Isabella’s letters became public. The letters are a fascinating insight into what was at a bare minimum unrequited love but may very possibly have been a great love story between two brilliant women, born into a society not ready for a relationship like theirs.
Ancestry UK
The Princess & The Archduchess

Alexandra Bowles

I’m Alex and I’m the Assistant Editor here at the Historians Magazine. I’ve been obsessed with history, ever since I was a child and it remains the thing I am most passionate about, hence why I did a BA in History at the University of Sussex. I find exploring the trials, tribulations and mind boggling achievements of those that came before us, delightful and I’m particularly fascinated with female historical figures, who despite their often extraordinary resilience and brilliance have failed to receive the same recognition as their male counterparts. One of the things I adore most about history is just how vast it is; there are so many stories yet to be told, and hopefully here at the Historians, we’ll be able to tell a few!
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