Marie Sophie is arguably less famous than her sister, the Empress of Austria, known as Sisi. Yet, her actions to save her country from ruin should earn her place equal to or surpassing her famous sister. She was trapped in a deeply unhappy marriage and sought refuge with another man, leading to the birth of an illegitimate daughter. The heroine of Gaeta suffered the loss of her daughters, the loss of her Kingdom and saw a world plunged into war. This is the story of the last Queen of the Two Sicilies.
Marie Sophie in Bavaria was born on 4 October 1841 as the daughter of Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. She was the younger sister of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who was known as Sisi. She was one of ten siblings, of which eight survived to adulthood.
All the siblings were high-spirited, and Marie Sophie gained the nickname “Madi.” She loved being outdoors, and she loved to swim. The family spent the summers at Possenhofen, where life was generally informal, while the winters were spent in Munich. They enjoyed a simple upbringing, and little attention was paid to their education. When Marie Sophie was 11 years old, her elder sister was betrothed to their first cousin, Emperor Franz-Joseph I of Austria. It had been planned that he should marry her eldest sister Helene, but he preferred Elisabeth. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were married in 1854. The jilted Helene did not remain unmarried for long, and she married Maximilian Anton Lamoral, Hereditary Prince of Thurn and Taxis in 1858. Marie Sophie was now the eldest unmarried daughter.
In October 1857, Marie Sophie celebrated her 16th birthday amongst rumours that Francis, the Duke of Calabria, the eldest son of Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, would soon be asking for her hand in marriage. It was a great match, and her parents saw little reason to reject the offer. At last, attention turned to her education, and Marie Sophie underwent a crash course in court etiquette, basic Italian, and the art of conversation. Marie Sophie had also not yet had her first period, and doctors tried to kickstart it by treating her with leeches and hot baths. Her mother dreaded her daughter’s departure and wrote to her sister Sophie, “Although I must wish that it will not be drawn out, for surely it is better that she comes young into this altogether different, foreign situation, she will find and adapt herself all the more readily and with less difficulty.”
The proxy wedding was celebrated on 8 January 1859 at the Church of All Saints at the palace in Munich. She wore a dress of brocade and lace with orange blossom and long white velvet train and a veil held down by a coronet. Her uncle, Prince Leopold of Bavaria, stood in for the groom. The wedding was attended by King Maximilian II of Bavaria and his wife Queen Marie (born of Prussia). On 13 January, Marie Sophie said goodbye to her family, and she headed south. She was forced to spend an extra week in Vienna when her father-in-law became ill, and she could not have her state entry into Naples. On 3 February, she finally arrived in her new homeland with only her canary Hansi as a companion. She finally met Francis for the first time, and they spoke to each other in hesitant French. Her father-in-law was too ill to be there, and she enquired after him. She would later meet him while he was on his sickbed, and he embraced her tenderly. Shortly after her arrival, a second wedding ceremony took place in the palace.
In accordance with tradition, Marie Sophie and her new husband were locked in a chamber for the wedding night. Her husband – who was particularly devout – spent much of the night in prayer while Marie Sophie cried. She finally fell asleep from exhaustion, and he then crept into bed, trying not to disturb her. Needless to say, the marriage was not consummated. They were not off to a good start and in many ways, they were exact opposites. Marie Sophie was now part of a royal family overshadowed by the King’s illness, and the Queen treated her coldly. Queen Maria Theresa (born of Austria) was Francis’ stepmother, and she would prefer to see her eldest son succeed as King. When she asked Francis to intercede on her behalf with his stepmother, he refused to do so, leading to quarrel between Marie Sophie and Francis. However, the main issue became the lack of consummation, probably caused by Francis’s phimosis – a genital condition which in most cases cured itself naturally. Marie Sophie tried to make the best of the whole situation with diversions, such as fishing. On 22 May 1859, Marie Sophie’s father-in-law died, and she became Queen consort of the Two Sicilies after just four months of marriage. She was still only 17-years-old.
The heroine of Gaeta
Just a few days later, the new King and Queen held a reception at the Palace at Naples as officials came to the hands of their new sovereigns. No longer under the control of Queen Maria Theresa, the relationship between Marie Sophie and her husband improved, though he remained shy and lacking in confidence. Their reign was to be short. In 1860, unrest captured the city of Naples to calls for the unification of Italy. The situation became increasingly desperate with invading forces taking over several towns. Francis desperately promised to proclaim the constitution of 1852 and was promptly seized by panic attacks. The constitution came far too late, and the Queen Dowager took her children to the safety of the city of Gaeta. Marie Sophie remained with her husband and even declared that if he would not place himself at the head of his troops, she would do so herself. Troops continued to invade, and eventually, they were also forced to withdraw to the fortified city of Gaeta. The siege of Gaeta would last for three months and for Marie Sophie, it was perhaps her finest hour. She cared for the wounded, rallied the army and dared the invaders to do their worst. When the leader of the enemy forces told her to mark her residence with a flag so that they could avoid it, she dismissed it and dared them to shoot at her if they wanted to. She also ordered her soldiers down to the seaside rampart and told them to moon the fleet attacking them. She was not to be messed with and went down in history as the “heroine of Gaeta.” There were a few occasions where she barely escaped with her life.
Life in exile
The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies came to an end on 20 March 1861, leaving Francis and Marie Sophie without a throne. The exiled Marie Sophie and Francis were given sanctuary by Pope Pius IX in the Quirinal Palace where they stayed for 18 months while the Farnese Palace was being prepared for them. Though they had some financial investments, finances were pretty strained. Francis’s stepmother and her children also settled in Rome, and the relationship remained strained. Marie Sophie was still only 19-years-old, and she was now without a crown.
In May 1861, Marie Sophie went to visit her childhood home at Possenhofen, and she finally felt a little better. Meanwhile, her heroic behaviour was the talk of Europe, and her parents were discussing a marriage between Marie Sophie’s sister Mathilde Ludovika and the King’s half-brother Prince Louis, Count of Trani. The King’s stepmother probably believed more in a possible restoration than Marie Sophie and Francis did, but they did not object to the marriage. Empress Elisabeth thought it a good idea because the sisters could then keep each other company. On 6 June 1861, Mathilde Ludovika and Prince Louis married at the Ducal Palace in Munich. Within a year, Prince Louis showed more interest in other women.
A secret pregnancy
King Francis set up a government in exile in Rome which had the full support of the Pope. However, their social life was restricted, and Marie Sophie was bored and restless. It was perhaps no surprise that the vivacious Marie Sophie – with her impotent husband – fell in love with Armand de Lavayss, a Belgian Captain of the Papal Guard. In August 1862, Marie Sophie left first for the baths of Soden and then to Taxis where her sister Helene lived. Newspapers reported that she was ill, but she was, in fact, expecting a child. It was later announced that she needed rest after her tragic experiences at Gaeta and would retire to the Ursuline Convent at Augsburg where a doctor would attend on her. On 24 December 1862, Marie Sophie gave birth to a daughter who was named Maria Cristina Pia. Not much is know about the girl, except that she was removed from her mother and either given to her father or adopted. She died at the age of 19 from consumption. Marie Sophie was devasted to be separated from her child, and she became very depressed.
Unaware of the affair, Francis tried to reconcile with his wife while she was away. After an absence of almost a year, Marie Sophie returned to Rome and confessed the affair. Francis forgave her, and it was around this time he also underwent medical treatment for his phimosis. It was a new beginning.
In the spring of 1869, Marie Sophie learned that she was finally expecting a child by her husband. Empress Elisabeth came to Rome to be with her sister during her confinement. On 24 December 1869 – exactly seven years after the birth of Maria Cristina Pia – she gave birth another daughter who was given almost the exact same name: Maria Cristina Louise Pia. She was baptised four days later by the Pope himself, who was also her godfather. However, the little girl was a sickly child, and for the final week of her life, Marie Sophie sat by her cradle without undressing or going to bed. Francis recorded in his diary that she was “seized with convulsions and flew to heaven.” Marie Sophie reportedly clung to her daughter’s body all night. They would never have another child, and the little girl was laid to rest in the Church of Santa Spirito dei Napoletani.
Marie Sophie began to pack her bags immediately after the funeral and left Rome on 8 April. She eventually returned to her husband, who was by then in Paris, and they began to divide their time between Paris, the south of France and Bavaria. She even began to regularly visit England, where she rented a house. Ever restless, she travelled all around Europe and did not spend much time with her husband. Mathilde Ludovika’s Prince Louis committed suicide in 1886. The sisters were reunited with most of their siblings for Empress Elisabeth’s 50th birthday at Gödollo. In November 1888, their father Duke Max died at the age of 79, following by the suicide of Empress Elisabeth’s son Crown Prince Rudolf in January 1889. On 16 May 1890, Helene died at the age of 52 with Empress Elizabeth by her side. Not much later, Marie Sophie hurried to be bedside of their mother Ludovika, but she arrived a few hours too late. Ludovika died on 25 January 1892 at the age of 83.
Marie Sophie and Francis spent the summer of 1894 together in Bavaria and by that time Francis was already seriously ill. She returned to Paris while he took the baths of Arco. He would die there on 27 December 1894, and once again Marie Sophie arrived too late. On 13 January 1895, he was buried in the Catholic Church at Arco. Marie Sophie returned to Bavaria with her brother and his wife. More tragedy was to come. Her sister Sophie Charlotte, Duchess of Alençon, perished during a fire in a charity bazaar in Paris on 4 May 1897. Her sister Empress Elisabeth was assassinated on 10 September 1898. Marie Sophie did not attend the funeral. During her final years, she divided her time between Paris and Munich.
Marie Sophie lived through the First World War and saw the fall of several empires and kingdoms. In February 1922, Marie Sophie fell seriously ill, but she recovered. Three years later, she once again fell ill while visiting her brother in Munich. She died of pneumonia on 19 January 1925. She was interred at Tegernsee Abbey next to her parents.