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By the time of the death of King Felipe IV on September 17, 1665, the Spanish Empire had reached approximately 12.2 million square kilometers (4.7 million square miles) in area but in other respects was in decline, a process to which Felipe IV contributed with his inability to achieve successful domestic and military reform.

The Portuguese Crown was lost in 1640 with the Accession of the Duke of Braganza as King João IV of Portugal (1604-1656) and marked the end of the 60-year-old Iberian Union, by which Portugal and Spain shared the same monarch.

Felipe IV, King of Spain


When King Felipe IV died on September 17, 1665, the new King Carlos II of Spain was only three; Maria-Anna was appointed regent, advised by a Regency Council, until he became a legal adult at the age of 14. She adopted the system of using a valido or ‘favourite’ established by Felipe IV in 1620 and widely used elsewhere in Europe. The first was Juan Everardo Nithard, an Austrian Jesuit and her personal confessor who came with her from Vienna; as Felipe IV’s will excluded foreigners from the Regency Council, he had to be naturalised, causing immediate resentment.

A ‘foreigner’ herself, the two men habitually identified as her ‘favourites’ were also outsiders; Nithard and Fernando de Valenzuela, 1st Marquis of Villasierra Valenzuela, who came from the lower rank of Spanish nobility. Even modern English-language sources are often based on contemporary sources that viewed women as incapable of ruling on their own and thus imply a sexual relationship.

In reality, Maria-Anna used a variety of advisors, including Castilian nobles such as Count Peñaranda and the Marquis de Aytona. Historian Silvia Mitchell disputes whether either Nithard or Valenzuela can truly be considered a ‘valido’, since Mariana retained power, rather than delegating it to them.

Carlos II, King of Spain

Due to Queen Maria-Anna’s son, King Carlos II, being in such poor health and lack of an heir led to a constant struggle between Maria-Anna’s ‘Austrian’ faction, and a ‘French’ faction, nominally led by his illegitimate half-brother, Juan of Austria the Younger. Spain was also divided into the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, whose very different political cultures made it almost impossible to enact reforms or increase taxes. Government finances were in perpetual crisis, the Crown declaring bankruptcy in 1647, 1652, 1661 and 1666.

The external situation facing Maria-Anna would have challenged even the most competent ruler; Spain was financially exhausted by almost a century of continuous war. Her reign also coincided with the Little Ice Age, a period of cold and wet weather that affected the whole of Europe in the second half of the 17th century. Between 1692 to 1699, an estimated 5-10% of the European population starved to death.

Juan of Austria the Younger

In 1672, Spain was dragged into the Franco-Dutch War; Valenzuela, advisor to the Regent, was dismissed when Carlos came of age in 1675, but Spanish policy continued to be undermined by the struggle for power. Queen María-Anna reinstated the regency in 1677 on the grounds of Carlos’ ill-health and Valenzuela was restored, before Juan of Austria the Younger finally gained control in 1678. His control of the government was short lived for he died in September 1679 and Maria-Anna became regent once again. One Juan of Austria’s final acts was arranging the marriage of Carlos II to 17-year-old Marie-Louise of Orléans.

Enamel miniature of Marie-Louise of Orléans by Jean Petitot, circa 1678

Marie-Louise d’Orléans was born at the Palais Royal in Paris. She was the eldest daughter of Philippe of France, Duke of Orléans and of his first wife, Princess Henrietta of England. As a petite-fille de France she was entitled to the attribute of Royal Highness, although, as was customary at court at the palace of Versailles, her style, Mademoiselle d’Orléans, was more often used.

Charming, pretty and graceful, Marie-Louise, who was her father’s favourite child, had a happy childhood, residing most of the time in the Palais Royal, and at the château de Saint-Cloud situated a few kilometres west of Paris.

On November 19, 1679, Marie-Louise married King Carlos II in person in Quintanapalla, near Burgos, Spain. This was the start of a lonely existence at the Spanish court. Her new husband had fallen in love with her and remained so until the end of his life. However, the confining etiquette of the Spanish Court (e.g., touching the Queen was forbidden), the King’s mental and physical infirmities and her unsuccessful attempts to bear a child caused her distress.

After 10 years of marriage with no children, Marie-Louise died in February 1689. As with many deaths of the period, limited medical knowledge led to allegations she was poisoned. Modern assessments of her symptoms conclude it was almost certainly an appendicitis, possibly from the treatments undertaken to improve fertility.

Her replacement was Maria-Anna of Neuburg, (1667-1740) the twelfth child of Philipp-Wilhelm, then Duke of Berg and Jülich and Elisabeth-Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt. The family had a reputation for fertility and it made them popular choices for royal marriages. Of her sisters, Maria-Sophia married King Pedro II of Portugal, while Eleonore was the third wife of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Queen Maria-Anna (of Newburgh) was aunt to future emperors Joseph I and Charles VI, making her an ideal choice for the Austrian faction.

Maria-Anna of Neuburg

King Carlos II remained childless; by that time, he was almost certainly impotent, his autopsy later revealing he had only one atrophied testicle. As his health declined, internal struggles over the succession became increasingly bitter, leadership of the pro-French faction passing to Fernández de Portocarrero, Cardinal and Archbishop of Toledo.

Under the influence of the ‘Austrians,’ in 1690 Spain joined the Grand Alliance in the Nine Years’ War with France. It declared bankruptcy again in 1692 and by 1696, France occupied most of Catalonia; Carlos II’s mother, Queen Maria-Anna retained power with the support of German auxiliaries under Maria-Anna’s brother Charles-Philipp of Austria, many of whom were expelled after María-Anna’s death.

Maria-Anna of Austria, Queen Consort and Regent of Spain

Maria-Anna of Austria, Queen Consort and Regent of Spain died on May 16, 1696 at the Uceda Palace in Madrid, at the age of sixty-one; the cause is thought to have been breast cancer.


Maria-Anna supported the 1668 mission led by Diego Luis de San Vitores and Saint Pedro Calungsod to convert the indigenous Chamorro people of Guam and the Mariana Islands to Christianity.

The Portrait of Maria-Anna painted by Diego Velázquez was commissioned by Felipe IV and is the only known full-length painting of her. The original is in the Prado Museum in Madrid; a copy was sent to her father Ferdinand and is held by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Several other portraits of her were made, including Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo’s Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning, 1666. She also appears as a detail in Velasquez’ masterpiece Las Meninas which features her daughter Margaret-Theresa.