The Hapsburgs once said: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube! The best way to expand an empire was not always to wage war, but more often it was to marry, and marry well. The saying means, “Let others make war. You, fertile Austria, marry!
Maria Carolina did marry well, with a match made by her mother that would make her queen of Naples and Sicily. She would go on to rule Sicily and Naples as a forward thinking ruler. Her reign would end when chaos from France and their revolution spread across Europe. Nonetheless, she was a woman with a mind of her own and she went to her grave as a true ruler and queen.
Maria Carolina was born on August 13, 1752 in Vienna to Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria. She was the thirteenth of sixteen (although five died) children. She was the third child of her parent’s marriage to receive the name Maria Carolina but she was the first to survive infancy. Maria Carolina formed a very close relationship to her little sister Maria Antonia (who would grow to be the ill-fated Marie Antoinette). The girls shared their governess, Countess Lerchenfeld, and often were so close they would even be sick at the same time. They girls behaved very badly together and their mother, displeased with their actions, separated the girls in August of 1767.
While the girls were getting into mischief and being separated their mother spent some time contemplating matches for her daughters. Maria Theresa was quite a politician and knew that alliances through marriage would benefit and increase her own power. Maria Theresa arranged a match; her daughter, Maria Josepha, to marry Ferdinand IV of Naples, as part of an alliance with Spain. Maria Josepha died of small pox though and with so many daughters to choose from, Maria Theresa just replaced the bride. At first she offered Maria Amalia, but it was determined she was too old, being five years older than the groom. As a result, it was decided that Ferdinand IV would marry Maria Carolina.
Maria Carolina was not excited, saying that no good ever came to those who married into the House of Naples. Despite her objections, the marriage went forward and Maria Carolina was married on April 7, 1768 to Ferdinand IV by proxy.
A Married Woman
Despite their mutual disdain for each other, Maria and Ferdinand had a royal duty to fulfill and they fulfilled it. Maria would have eighteen children, seven of which would grow to adulthood. Maria did not rule out right in the beginning. Instead she followed her mother’s instructions and feigned interest in her husband’s favorite activity-hunting. This allowed her to gain access to the politics of the country, although her power would not be formally recognized until 1775.
An Heir To The Throne and A New Queen
Carolina’s marriage did not make her happy in the least. Of course, this wasn’t the point of royal marriages. Ferdinand retreated into his joys and acted rather uncivilized. Nonetheless, the Queen maintained public appearances.
With full rule of the kingdom, Maria Carolina appointed John Acton to aid her in her duties. It was rumored that Acton, besides being the Queen’s right hand, was also her lover. Whether or not this was true, the two were able to make some great accomplishments in their country. One such accomplishment was to revamp and reorganize the Neapolitan navy. They opened four marine colleges and commissioned 150 ships. With the reorganization Acton became commander of the Navy. He also acquired the title of minister of finance and prime minister.
Patron to the Arts
However, that all changed of course when the monarchy was abolished and seeing the results of the ideas she had once championed, she totally reversed herself. It became worse when poor Marie Antoinette was executed and forever after Maria Carolina carried a portrait of her sister with her and vowed to avenge her death. It was due to her influence that her husband put the Kingdom of Naples in the First Coalition of European powers against the French republic. Maria Carolina also had quite a circle of intellectuals, including Vincenzo Cuoco, Vincenzo Russo, and Gaetano Filangieri.
Maria Carolina even procured Mozart to come to the palace and play. Maria Carolina supported the arts throughout her appointment as queen.
The Great Tragedy
When Maria Carolina first heard news of the alarming developments in France she immediately ended her experiment in enlightened absolutism and started instead on a reactionary course. She, of course, rejected the French Revolution and attempted to prevent the same ideas from spreading to Naples. She sub-divided Naples into twelve police wards that became controlled by government-appointed commissioners. Maria Carolina also created a secret police force.
When the King and Queen of France (Maria Carolina’s beloved younger sister, Marie Antoinette) were arrested on August 10, 1792, the Neapolitan government refused to continue to recognize the French diplomats legation. The queen was tempted to break off relations with France completely. When her sister was beheaded by guillotine in October 1793 Maria Carolina was prepared to go to war. However, when France started making their own preparations for war in November Maria Carolina and Ferdinand reconciled with Mackau and the new French Republic, not truly wishing to go to war.
During this time Maria Carolina’s popularity with her own people had decreased. They did not enjoy the restrictions on their freedom and Carolina’s use of a secret police. Throughout the Neapolitan state revolutionary ideas were spreading. In 1794 a Jacobin plot to overthrow the government was discovered, as a result Maria Carolina tightened up security. She ordered Medici to suppress the Freemasons. The army was kept perpetually mobilized in preparation for an attack. To do this, Maria Carolina issued a huge increase in taxation, lowering her popularity even further. She even employed food-testers for her family and switched the royal families apartments daily to confuse would be assassins.
In August of 1793 Naples had joined the First Coalition, an effort by Britian, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Spain and Portugal against France. In 1795 the aggressions between France and Spain ended and Napoleon, the new leader of France, turned his attention (and army) towards Italy. Bonaparte was successful in Northern Italy and Maria Carolina petitioned for peace, a move that was to cost 8 million francs. Maria Carolina had no plan of maintaining peace though. When her son married the Archduchess of Austria in 1797 Carolina entered into a secret defensive alliance with Austria on May 20, 1798. She was responding to the French occupation of the Papal states, which was very worrisome since these states shared a border with Naples.
The Queen, still in alliance with Great Britain, helped them to win the Battle of the Nile, which was fought August 1-3 in 1798. With this victory came a renewed vigor towards returning France to a monarchist state and the Queen decided to ally her country again in the Second Coalition against France. War council meetings were held in the Palace of Caserta and it was decided that the Neapolitan army would invade the Roman Republic, which was currently a French puppet state.
Naples attempted to take the Roman Republic and failed. Napoleon’s counterattack did not fail and The French took Naples in 1798. Maria Carolina and her family fled to Sicily and the French created the Parthenopean Republic in Naples. From Sicily the royal family continued their opposition and the British Royal Navy helped to protect them during this time. The royalist forces were finally able to retake Naples after sixth months and Maria Carolina took the lead role in bringing down the republic and giving out strict punishment to the revolutionaries. 1,000 were charged with treason and 100 of the ringleaders were hanged or beheaded. Finally, in 1800, Maria Carolina was able to relax for a short while. Carolina travelled with her three unmarried daughters and youngest son to Vienna. She stayed in her homeland for two years and arranged advantageous marriages for her children. It was the last opportunity Maria Carolina would be able to focus her mind on something other than the ongoing war with France and the growing revolutionaries.
The Final Hour
Maria Carolina returned to Naples on August 17, 1802. In 1805 Napoleon again turned his attention towards Italy. Napoleon did not hesitate in his campaign against Naples and once again the royal family was forced to flee to Sicily in February of 1806. The King and Queen of Naples again relied on the help of Great Britain but after the death of Admiral Nelson, who had advocated for the Neapolitan Queen, the British developed an aversion to Maria Carolina.
Maria Carolina retained her status in Sicily until 1812 when her husband abdicated and appointed their son Francis as regent. This left Maria Carolina powerless and she returned home to Austria. She arrived in Vienna in January of 1814 and began negotiating to be restored to the Neapolitan throne. This however never happened. Maria Carolina died on September 8, 1814 as a result of a stroke. Her maid found her lying dead on the floor among scattered letters and she was buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna with her parents.
Queen Maria Carolina died a changed woman, whose odyssey had decimated her original vision of monarchy and leadership. Beginning her reign invested in the ideas of “Enlightenment”, the brutality and violence of the Revolution deterred her from earlier beliefs and created a fear that led to her transformation as an ardent counterrevolutionary. She was a zealous queen who spent her last minutes fighting for her divine right.