Farnese, Elizabeth (1692–1766)

views updated

Farnese, Elizabeth (1692–1766)

Queen of Spain who wielded wide political power during her husband Philip V's prolonged periods of insanity and inertia. Name variations: Elizabeth of Farnese or Elizabeth de Farnese, Princess of Parma; Isabel Farnese or Isabella of Parma; Isabella Elizabeth Farnese; (Ital.) Isabel de Farnesio. Born on October 25, 1692, in Parma, Italy; died on July 10, 1766; daughter of Dorothea Sophia of Neuburg and Odoardo also known as Edward Farnese of Parma (eldest son of Ranucci II, duke of Parma); married Philip V (1683–1746), king of Spain (r. 1700–1724, 1724–1746), on December 24, 1714; children: Charles IV (1716–1788), king of Naples and Sicily (r. 1735–1759), also known as Charles III, king of Spain (r. 1759–1788); Francisco (b. 1717); Maria Ana Victoria (1718–1781); Philip (1720–1765); Maria Theresa of Spain (1726–1746, who married Louis le dauphin); Louis or Luis Antonio (b. 1727); Maria Antonia of Spain (1729–1785).

Daughter of Dorothea Sophia of Neuburg and Edward Farnese, eldest son of Ranucci II, duke of Parma, Elizabeth Farnese was born on October 25, 1692. The girl's father died the following year, "suffocated by his extraordinary fatness," according to court historian Poggiali. Unwilling to submit to a widow's life, Dorothea Sophia persuaded Edward's younger brother Antonio Farnese to marry her. It soon became obvious, however, that the couple would have no children and that young Elizabeth would inherit the duchy of Parma after her uncle. Thereupon, Dorothea Sophia closely limited Elizabeth's education, apparently hoping to break the girl's spirit and ensure that the mother would continue to wield power. Although Elizabeth learned to speak German, French, Latin, and Spanish and studied history, geography, philosophy, rhetoric, and religion, she never developed a hunger for intellectual matters. As an adult, she read nothing but sermons and other pious works. Her interest in politics was rudimentary. Of more concern to her was the smallpox, which scarred her face.

Fate thrust Elizabeth on the international stage shortly after the death on February 14, 1714, of Queen Marie Louise of Savoy , wife of Philip V of Spain. His wife's body was barely cold when Philip began casting about for a replacement. The second grandson of Louis XIV, France's Philip had succeeded to the Spanish throne upon the death in 1700 of the last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II. Though the Castilians optimistically supported Philip during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13), anticipating that he would resurrect the monarchy, Philip baffled them. Louis XIV had raised and educated Philip to be submissive so as to pose no threat to his older brother's claim to the French throne. Philip was thus poorly suited to rule Spain when the childless Charles II named him heir. Once he arrived in Spain, his subjects found Philip's personal behavior bizarre. "Driven by two compulsions, sex and religion," wrote one historian, "he spent his nights, and much of his days, in constant transit between his wife and his confessor, torn between desire and guilt, a comic figure easily subject to conjugal blackmail."

Within a week of Marie Louise of Savoy's death, Giulio Alberoni, the Parmesan envoy, reportedly approached the Spanish court with the suggestion that Philip marry Elizabeth Farnese. Rather than dealing with Philip directly, he discussed Elizabeth with Marie-Anne de la Trémouille , princess of the Ursins. Louis XIV had sent the princess to Madrid ostensibly as head of Marie Louise's household but more important to bend Spanish policy to French aims through her dominance of Marie Louise and thus her indirect influence over Philip. According to some malicious tongues, the power-hungry Ursins attempted to persuade Philip to marry her. But Philip's sensuality found little appetite for a woman 40 years his senior. Ursins then listened more carefully to Alberoni's sly enticements: Philip would find Elizabeth robust and charming, and as she had little interest in politics, Ursins would be able to dominate her. Taking Alberoni's bait, Ursins persuaded Philip and Louis XIV to approve the Italian marriage. In Parma on September 16, 1714, Elizabeth wed Philip by proxy.

Her trip to meet Philip turned out to be one of the decisive events of her life, although it did not begin with much promise. Embarking by sea to meet her husband at Alicante, Elizabeth fell seasick and ordered a landing in Monaco. She then proceeded overland, making prolonged visits along the way. The slow pace frustrated Philip, waiting ardently for the woman who would, in the words of the king's confessor, enable him to "satisfy his masculinity." As she made a wintry crossing through the mountains of Navarre, Alberoni met Elizabeth and advised her how to deal with Philip and Ursins. On December 22, 1714, the king awaited in Guadalajara, while Ursins, as head of the queen's household, went to the nearby village of Jadraque to meet Elizabeth. Taking the young queen aside, Ursins imperiously upbraided Elizabeth for her delayed arrival and her unsuitable clothing. Ursins evidently hoped thereby to intimidate the young woman, but exactly the opposite happened, due to Alberoni's planning and Elizabeth's own volatile temperament. The angry queen dismissed Ursins and commanded her to leave Spain. A guard placed Ursins in a carriage, which delivered her posthaste into France. When a surprised Philip learned what had transpired, he made no attempt to help Ursins. As the king had jocularly announced, he was intent upon spending a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve; literally "good night") with his new wife. She indeed arrived at Guadalajara on December 24, whereupon Philip immediately ordered performance of the necessary religious ceremonies. Elizabeth's triumph at Jadraque not only eliminated her chief rival but put her in a position to dominate Philip.

The king found his new bride enchanting. She proved energetic, up early to go hunting with him and receptive to his sensual urges. Courtiers even praised her sharpshooting. She approached meals with equal zeal, requisitioning supplies from Italy to overcome her disappointment with Spanish cuisine. On January 20, 1716, she gave birth to the royal couple's first child, the future Charles III. Meanwhile, Philip showed slight interest in anything except the hunt and his wife, providing ample opportunity for her to influence royal policy. But Elizabeth had little inclination to shoulder the burden of government, to the consternation of Alberoni who hoped to direct the king through his wife.

In fact, Elizabeth confronted a difficult political and cultural dilemma as queen. Her subjects had grown restive over Philip's dependence on France and his reliance on French advisors. Ambitious Spaniards hoped that the death of Louis XIV and Elizabeth's arrival would eliminate such heavy foreign influence over the king. Elizabeth's dismissal of Ursins heightened their hopes. But the queen remained Italian and condescending to things Spanish. Italian influence increased. Despite being the duke of Parma's envoy, Alberoni emerged as the unofficial chief minister of Spain from 1714 until his fall in 1719, and other Italians found influential posts. With Elizabeth and Alberoni guiding Spanish policy, Italian considerations received undue weight. This especially frustrated Spanish aristocrats, among whom the queen was unpopular. Tensions grew in 1717 when Philip showed clear signs of mental instability. As his illness worsened, the king declared that in the event of his death, his wife and Alberoni should govern as regents until Philip's eldest son from his first marriage, Louis (I), came of age to rule. Disgruntled nobles plotted with the French to oust the two Italians in Louis' name, but the conspirators only managed to discredit themselves.

From Spain, Elizabeth maneuvered to protect her claims to Parma so they might be passed on to her own sons. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, hindered those efforts. Under its terms, the Spanish monarchy surrendered its Italian possessions, including Milan, to the Austrian Habsburgs and Sicily to the duke of Savoy. Thus, Spain had few geopolitical reasons to intervene on Elizabeth's behalf in Italy. But she proved willing to expend Spanish resources and manpower if necessary to obtain Italian territories for her sons to govern.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth gave the government what little direction it received from the throne. The queen possessed no real understanding of statecraft or of the true interests of her subjects. But within a few months of her arrival in Spain, the Council began holding its meetings in her rooms. Her biographer, José Calvo Poyato, writes: "She was a strong personality, in contrast with the indecisive and irresolute character of her husband. In this circumstance Philip V had someone on whom he could let fall the responsibilities of the government." She made little effort to win the approval of Spaniards, who resented her reliance on Italian advisers. Alberoni lamented her "invincible indolence and dislike of business" and remarked that he could not bring her to "talk seriously for a quarter of an hour." Yet except in time of war, which somehow seemed to energize him, Philip refused to rule at all. This created the opportunity for Elizabeth to satisfy her ambitions for her children.

Nonetheless, Philip's mental state made the monarchy fragile. For one thing, the Treaty of Utrecht had forced him to renounce all claims to the French throne, but he longed to return and rule his native land. Furthermore, he began to suffer recurring episodes of hysteria and melancholy. In 1717, for example, he became convinced that the royal couple's undergarments and bedclothing were radiating light because they had not paid to have sufficient masses said for his deceased first wife. Two years later, mentally unbalanced and longing for France, Philip confided to Elizabeth and his confessor that he intended to abdicate. Over the following years, he occasionally renewed his secret pledge. Rumors about it spread, however, and some concluded that he wanted to give up the Spanish throne to make himself available to rule France should Louis XV die without an heir.

To Elizabeth's dismay, on January 10, 1724, Philip abdicated in favor of Louis, his 16-yearold son with his first wife, Marie Louise of Savoy. Out of power, Elizabeth could not satisfy her ambitions for her sons. Thus, when Louis died of smallpox on August 31, 1724, Elizabeth must have experienced relief, because Philip decided to reclaim the throne rather than allow the accession of Ferdinand (VI), his second son with Marie Louise. Back in the seat of power, Elizabeth removed Philip's confessor, Father Bermúdez, whom she hated for having tried to convince Philip not to retake the crown. Then she tried to negotiate the marriage of her son Charles to Maria Teresa (1717–1780), heir of Charles VI, the Austrian emperor and Philip's rival during the War of the Spanish Succession. As Parma was subject to Austria, this alliance would have guaranteed Elizabeth's hold. But the Austrians rejected the marriage, preferring a crown prince to one of the second rank.

In Philip's deteriorated mental state, the queen feared he might try to abdicate again. He recovered somewhat in 1726, when a gravely ill Louis XV appeared likely to die without an heir. But Louis' recovery dashed Philip's hope of returning to rule France and plunged him into a severe depression. By 1727, the king absolutely refused to conduct or even discuss any matters of state. He and chief minister José Patiño made out a political testament, naming Elizabeth regent for the duration of his illness. The situation undoubtedly distressed her, for she truly loved Philip. But his bizarre actions, abusive and violent behavior, and constant demands exacted an emotional and physical toll on her. Because he refused association with almost everyone at court, she personally had to supervise him closely. On one occasion, in 1728, while the exhausted queen was taking a nap, he surreptitiously sent a note to the Council of Castile, ordering it to convene for the purpose of accepting his abdication. Elizabeth managed to thwart this new attempt.

To lessen the likelihood of further communication with the Council and hopeful that a change of scenery might improve his outlook, she then moved the court south to Andalusia. The ostensible motive for their departure was to attend the double marriage between the Spanish and Portuguese royal families on January 20, 1729, near Badajoz, on the Portuguese frontier. Philip's eldest surviving son Ferdinand wed Princess Maria Barbara of Braganza and Elizabeth's daughter Maria Ana Victoria wed Joseph I Emanuel (José Manuel), who would inherit the Portuguese crown in 1750. Maria Ana's marriage was especially satisfying to Elizabeth. Engaged as a young child to Philip's young nephew, Louis XV, the girl had gone to Versailles to be raised in the French court. But two years later, before the children were married, a shift in French policy sent her packing back to Spain.

Following the royal marriages, Philip and Elizabeth proceeded on to Seville and took up residence there for four years. Madrid suffered from its loss of the court, and popular opinion turned against the monarchs. Growing numbers wanted to depose Philip and give the crown to Ferdinand, although the latter did little to encourage such talk. Philip's state improved but not for long. For 19 months, he refused to change his clothes, shave, or cut his hair. He stayed up all night and slept during the day, which forced Elizabeth and the court to do the same. Elizabeth could do little but humor him. When they finally returned to Madrid in May 1733, she looked, according to a British observer, "fat and dull."

In terms of her children, however, the situation had begun to improve. The duke of Parma died in 1731, and Charles inherited the duchy, despite opposition from the Austrian emperor. In late 1733, Charles assumed the government and almost immediately seized Naples and Sicily, with Spanish and French backing. Some Spaniards argued that the Two Sicilies should not pass to Charles but to Ferdinand, Philip's heir. After all, they argued, the Two Sicilies had belonged to Spain and had only been stripped away by the Treaty of Utrecht. As Spanish arms had now reconquered them, they should revert to the Spanish crown. But Elizabeth and Charles carried the day. On July 3, 1734, Charles was proclaimed king of the Two Sicilies, and Elizabeth abandoned her maneuvers to have him named king of Poland. Austria only recognized Charles, however, on the condition that he give up title to Parma and Tuscany.

Elizabeth then turned her energy to her son Philip de Bourbon's ambitions. She secured his marriage in 1739 to Louise Elizabeth , eldest daughter of Louis XV. When the Austrian emperor died in 1740 and the War of the Austrian Succession erupted, Philip and Elizabeth exploited the international chaos to seize Parma, Tuscany, Plasencia, and Milan. During the peace negotiations, however, their French allies betrayed the duo, and in the end Philip was unable to keep Milan.

Early on the morning of July 9, 1746, Philip V suffered an apoplectic seizure and died minutes later in Elizabeth's arms. This placed her in a precarious situation. The Spanish people disliked her, and she had not treated her stepson, Ferdinand VI, with warmth. Yet he allowed her to remain in Madrid, contrary to custom, and attended to her with considerable kindness. Italian influence waned at court, and Ferdinand ordered the Spanish troops home from Italy. This cost Philip some reversals in Parma, and he returned to Spain also. But son and mother meddled and plotted so much that Ferdinand VI sent the army back, in part to remove his half-brother from Spain. Eventually, in July 1747, Ferdinand's wife, Maria Barbara of Braganza, prevailed upon her husband to exile Elizabeth from Madrid. He offered Valladolid, Burgos, or Segovia as the site of her residence but in the end permitted her to live at the palace San Ildefonso, which she and Philip had enlarged and beautified.

She remained isolated there, outside Segovia, until 1759, when Ferdinand died on August 10. He left no children and his wife had passed away the year before. That made Elizabeth's son Charles next in line to the throne and temporarily brought about the old queen's political resurrection. Ferdinand's will named her regent until Charles could arrive from Italy. The whole situation caused anxiety among the political elite, who had rejoiced at Elizabeth's eclipse, spurned her during her years at San Ildefonso, but now faced her as mother of the new monarch. Charles III abdicated the throne of the Two Sicilies in favor of his third son Ferdinand and then returned to Spain, arriving in Madrid on December 9, 1759. Elizabeth acted as regent during the intervening months.

Charles III treated his mother kindly but refused to give her political influence. He allowed her to remain at court but would not meet with her alone, to avoid giving the impression that he consulted with her. By this time, she was infirm and nearly blind. Although she continued to grant audiences, two retainers had to hold her up because she was unable to stand for long. Even then, however, she possessed continued ambitions for her children and regretted her failure to provide for Louis as she had for his two older brothers. One observer remarked that he expected her last words to be: "Remember Tuscany for Don Louis!" Elizabeth died July 11, 1766, and in accordance with her desires, was buried at San Ildefonso, next to her husband, rather than in the royal mausoleum at El Escorial.

Elizabeth Farnese was, according to Alberoni, "indolent, but yet ambitious, resolute at a crisis, negligent in everyday life." She remained first and foremost a wife, a mother, and an Italian. Despite Philip's derangement, "she sincerely loved this tyrant that she tyrannized." Hungry for popularity and grandeur, she lacked the discipline and understanding of state affairs to achieve them. To the British, French, and Austrians, she was a meddlesome, misguided woman, a "termagant." But Elizabeth provided more energy and direction to the Spanish government than it received from her husband. Edward Armstrong, her biographer, asserted of Philip: "No man has ever given such an example of the misuse of marriage, allowing himself to be ruled by his wife, who ruled him badly." Yet she achieved her objectives for her family and Parma, and during her reign, Spain began to recover some of its earlier prosperity and glory. Those successes compensated to some degree for her failure to assimilate the interests of Spain and make them her own.


Armstrong, Edward. Elisabeth Farnese: "The Termagant of Spain." London: Longman, Green, 1892.

Calvo Poyato, José. Felipe V, el primer Borbón. Colección Memoria de la Historia/69. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1992.

Coxe, William. Memoirs of the Kings of Spain of the House of Bourbon, from the Accession of Philip V, to the Death of Charles III: 1700 to 1788. 2nd ed. 5 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orem, and Brown, 1815.

Erlanger, Philippe. Philippe V d'Espagne: Un roi baroque esclave des femmes. Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1978.

Lynch, John. Bourbon Spain, 1700–1808. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

suggested reading:

Memoirs of Elizabeth Farnesio, the Present Queen Dowager of Spain. London: T. Gardner, 1746.

Moore, George. Lives of Cardinal Alberoni, the Duke of Ripperda, and Marquis of Pombal, Three Distinguished Political Adventurers of the Last Century, Exhibiting a view of the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, During a Considerable Portion of That Period. 2nd ed. London: Rodwell, 1814.

Taxonera, Luciano de. Isabel de Farnesio: retrato de una reina y perfil de una mujer (1692–1766). Barcelona: Editorial Juventud, 1943.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

About this article

Farnese, Elizabeth (1692–1766)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article