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Maria Barbara of Braganza (1711–1758)

Maria Barbara of Braganza (1711–1758)

Queen of Spain and wife of Ferdinand VI who ruled during his illnesses . Name variations: Marie-Barbara of Portugal; Barbara of Braganza or Barbara de Bragança; Maria Barbara, Marie-Barbara, or Mary Barbara; Marie Magdalena Barbara; Maria Magdalena Josepha de Bragança. Born in Lisbon on December 4, 1711; died on August 27, 1758, in Aranjuez; daughter of Joao V also known as John V, king of Portugal (r. 1706–1750), and Maria Antonia of Austria (1683–1754); sister of Joseph I (1714–1777), king of Portugal (r. 1750–1777), and Peter III (d. 1786), king of Portugal (r. 1777–1786); married Fernando or Ferdinand VI el Sabio (1713–1759), king of Spain (r. 1746–1759), on January 20, 1729; children: none.

War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714); birth of Ferdinand VI (1713); Treaty of Utrecht guarantees Philip V's claim to the Spanish throne (1715); abdication of Philip V in favor of Luis I (1724); death of Luis I (1724); death of Philip V (1746); death of Ferdinand VI (1759).

The daughter of John V of Portugal and Maria Antonia of Austria , Maria Barbara of Braganza was born in Lisbon on December 4,1711. She became a tool of dynastic diplomacy in 1725 when her father betrothed her to Ferdinand (VI), a son of the Spanish monarch Philip V. To strengthen the alliance further, the royal houses also agreed to the marriage of Maria Barbara's brother, Joseph (I), to Ferdinand's sister, Maria Ana Victoria (1718–1781). Given the youth of the parties involved, however, the marriages did not occur until January 1729, in a gala celebration. The rites took place in a wooden palace built solely for the occasion across the Caya River, on the Spanish-Portuguese border between Elvas and Badajoz. In another fit of extravagance, Maria Barbara's father built the Vendas Novas palace solely to host the Portuguese wedding guests for a night en route to the ceremony and another night on their return to Lisbon.

Spaniards rejoiced at the marriage, despite their initial perceptions of Maria Barbara. In 1725, Ferdinand had become heir to the Spanish throne when his elder brother Luis died of smallpox. Furthermore, their father's second wife, Elizabeth Farnese (1692–1766), was imperious and widely unpopular, dominating her husband and Spanish policy. Many Spaniards looked to Ferdinand as a counterweight to his stepmother's influence, and his marriage to Maria Barbara seemed to convert him into an adult rival. On the other hand, Spaniards found the Portuguese bride homely and lamented that Ferdinand had to make such a sacrifice for the monarchy.

Nonetheless, Ferdinand and Maria Barbara fell deeply in love, and within a short time he became very reliant upon her. By nature, Ferdinand was docile, melancholic and irresolute. Although timid, Maria Barbara had received a good education, spoke several languages, and adored sacred music, which she also composed. She was especially remembered as the patron of the Italian opera star Farinelli (Carlos Broschi), who performed often at court. Love of music and the arts heightened the bond between Maria Barbara and her husband.

Perhaps three worries troubled Maria Barbara more than any others. First, she and Ferdinand had no children. Second, without children she could not prevent the Spanish throne from passing to Charles III, the son of Elizabeth Farnese, whom Maria Barbara resented. Third, Portuguese by birth, Maria Barbara inherited that nation's pro-British sentiments, which were contrary to the traditional French leanings of the Spanish Bourbons.

On July 9, 1746, Philip V died, thereby elevating Ferdinand VI and Maria Barbara to the Spanish throne. Farnese defied protocol by remaining at court, until Maria Barbara insisted that Ferdinand order her to depart. To Maria Barbara's chagrin, however, he allowed Farnese to occupy La Granja Palace at San Ildefonso. Despite palace intrigues between pro-French and pro-British factions attempting to influence royal policies, Ferdinand and Maria Barbara ruled over a period of relative prosperity and tranquility. Ferdinand was, according to historian William Coxe, a "prince of inferior capacity but upright intentions and pacific disposition." He lacked the energy or will to govern, and thus it remained for Maria Barbara and royal ministers such as the Marquis of Ensenada and José de Carvajal to manage the government.

Prior to 1746, Maria Barbara had largely avoided politics, in part fearing Farnese's wrath. Ascended to power and wedded to a weakling, she overcame her personal timidity. Writes John Lynch, "although she had power over her husband and an eye for Portuguese interests, she did not use her position to distort Spanish policy. She strongly supported the diplomacy of neutrality and joined her husband on the path of peace." Maria Barbara's ties to the Portuguese crown proved valuable to the negotiation of the Treaty of Limits (1750), which adjusted the boundaries between the Iberian nations' South American colonies. When the pro-French Marquis of Ensenada fell from power, she stepped in to prevent the complete triumph of the British faction.

Queen Maria Barbara died on August 27, 1758, and was buried in the chapel of Las Salesas convent, which she had founded in 1750. Her will confirmed rumors of her notorious avarice. She left a huge fortune, acquired since her arrival in Spain, to her brother, and Spaniards were outraged that it would be transferred out of the country. Her death left Ferdinand VI deeply depressed and unable to live without his beloved companion. He isolated himself in the royal palace at Villaviciosa and refused to govern. Ferdinand died on August 10, 1759, less than a year after his wife.


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. 5 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815.

Danvila, Alfonso. Fernando VI y dona Bárbara de Braganza (1713–1748). Madrid: J. Rates Martín, 1905.

Lancastre-Laboreiro e Souza de Villalobos, Anna de. Infantas lusitanas reinas de España e infantas españpas reinas de Portugal. Cáceres: Imprenta Moderna, 1931.

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

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

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