The Heroine of Gaeta

Today I would like to introduce another remarkable Wittelsbach. For a brief time Marie Sophie (known in the family as Madi) eclipsed her sister Sisi, the Empress of Austria, in fame.

Marie Sophie Queen of the Two Sicilies
Marie Sophie Queen of the Two Sicilies


She was born at Possenhofen Castle in Bavaria on 4th October 1841. As she grew up, she became almost as great a beauty as her sister, Sisi, with great dark eyes that often seem melancholy in her pictures. When she was sixteen, her hand was sought by Francis, Crown Prince of Naples, Duke of Calabria, and eldest son and heir of Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies. The marriage was entirely political, as the king wanted to ally himself with the Emperor of Austria, a fellow absolutist monarch. Already revolution in the form of the Italian unification movement was threatening the kingdom of Naples.

At this time, Marie had not yet begun her menses. This was a serious impediment, so she had to undergo treatments which included the use of leeches applied to her abdomen. If she was a typical girl, she must have loathed that! Also, she was expected to learn Italian. The menses began, the Italian didn’t go so well.

Quite aside from these matters, Marie can’t have been altogether thrilled at the prospect of marriage to a man she had never met, whose language she was unable to speak and who was reputed to be in delicate health, fearful of priests and the reactionary set at court, and dominated by his Habsburg stepmother. Nor was he handsome or well-educated. Furthermore, although Marie probably didn’t know it at the time, Francis was impotent. He suffered from phimosis, a condition that made intercourse painful.

On the other hand, she would be a queen, which was no small thing.

Francis II King of the Two Sicilies
Francis II King of the Two Sicilies

On 3rd February 1859, Marie was married by proxy. She then travelled to Vienna to spend some time with her sister, the Empress, who accompanied her to Trieste, where she would take leave of her family and formally enter her new country.

In Trieste, they were conducted to a large hall where a silk ribbon stretched from one wall to the other to symbolize the border between Bavaria and Naples. A large table stood under the ribbon, half in ‘Bavaria’ and half in ‘Naples’. Marie was led to a chair at the ‘Bavarian’ end of the table. The doors at each end of the hall opened to admit the two delegations accompanied by an honour guard of Neapolitan or Bavarian soldiers. Documents were exchanged across the silk ribbon and passed on to attendants. The delegates bowed to each other. The Bavarian representative spoke words of parting to Marie, and all the Bavarians filed by to kiss her hand. Then the ribbon was lowered and Marie passed into ‘Naples’.

The parting took place in the cabin of the ship that was to carry Marie away to her new husband and a land in turmoil. She was among strangers whose language she barely understood, and the only living creature with her from her home was a pet canary.

Within the year Ferdinand II was dead, and Marie’s husband became king of Naples, as Francis II. During the time of the engagement, the situation in Italy had deteriorated. Naples was threatened by Giuseppe Garibaldi and a Piedmontese army. In September 1860, with the Neapolitans ready to welcome Garibaldi’s troops, Francis II decided to abandon the city. When the flag was lowered, it signified the end of the Bourbon dynasty.

Francis and Marie fled to the coastal fortress of Gaeta. The Garibaldines were soon there, pounding the walls with their artillery. It was during this time that Marie showed her Wittelsbach mettle by rallying the defenders, caring for the wounded and challenging the enemy to come within range of the fortress’s guns. Afterward, even Garibaldi spoke admiringly of her. Proust called her ‘the soldier queen on the ramparts of Gaeta.’ Her nickname, the Heroine of Gaeta, remained with her for the rest of her life.

The outcome of the siege was inevitable. The king and queen escaped in a boat and sailed for Rome. For centuries Rome had been the centre of the Papal States, but by this time all that was left was the city of Rome itself. King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont came down from the north to join with Garibaldi, the conqueror of the south, freeing most of Italy from Habsburg rule. Francis set up a government in exile which was recognized by some European powers, at least for a time.

The pope placed the Farnese Palace at the disposal of the exiles. They were escorted there by a contingent of papal guards. The captain of the detachment was a handsome young Belgian count who caught Marie’s eye. Or perhaps she caught his. In any case, they fell in love and a romance flowered. The vast Farnese Palace provided many trysting places  for the lovers to carry on their affair. The result was inevitable. Marie became pregnant. This was a catastrophe of epic proportions, particularly for the female part of the illicit affair. Her husband’s delicate condition was too well-known for her to be able to pass the unborn child off as a Bourbon heir. The Empress of Austria’s sister – to bear an illegitimate child! The scandal! The headlines!

Marie went home to her family. Sisi was called in for her advice. It was decided that in order to avert a scandal Marie must bear her child in secret. Before her pregnancy became known she would retire to the convent of St. Ursula’s Convent in Augsberg and deliver her child. When it was over, the child would go to its father’s family to be raised, and Marie would see neither one again. With what heartache she agreed to this we can only imagine. She fell into such deep depression that her family feared for her sanity. Eventually her youth and good health restored her spirits and she decided to return to Rome and try to make her marriage work.

So it happened. No scandal was ever attached to the shining name of the Heroine of Gaeta.

A year later, with the full support of Sisi, Marie confessed the affair to her husband. He appears to have taken it very well. In fact, he finally submitted to an operation which relieved his condition and he was able to consummate the marriage. Marie became pregnant again. On 24th December 1869 a daughter was born to the overjoyed pair. This was also the birthday of the child’s aunt, Sisi, who became her Godmother.

It seems the Wittelsbachs were all born under an unlucky star. The little girl survived for only 3 months. Francis and Marie never had another.

In 1870 Rome fell to the Italian unification movement. Marie and her husband fled to Bavaria. Francis died in 1894, and Marie moved to Paris, where she established a Bourbon court-in-exile. Rumours of her activities at this time suggest that she was covertly working to destabilize the newly-formed Italy.

During World War I she was certainly active on the side of the German and Austrian Empires against Italy, once again in the hope of dividing the nation and restoring Naples. It was not to be. The nation/state of Italy had been born in war and would survive.

Santa Chiara, Naples
Santa Chiara, Naples


Maria Sophie died in Munich in 1925, widely admired for her brave exploits. Her remains rest with those of her husband in the Church of Santa Chiara in Naples.



Author: susanappleyardwriter

I am a writer and reader of historical fiction. In the eighties I had 2 books published traditionally and recently 2 books self-published. I live in Canada for half the year - the warm half - and Mexico for the other half.

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