by Emily McMahon
Princess María de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies was born in Madrid on December 23, 1910, the daughter of Carlos of Bourbon-Two Sicilies and his second wife, Louise of Orléans. Maria Mercedes had a very impressive royal lineage – on her father’s side she was descended from multiple branches of the Bourbon-Two Sicilies family who ruled in Italy until the late 19th century. On her mother’s side, Maria Mercedes was descended from both recent Spanish and French royalty. Maria Mercedes’ father had previously been married to Mercedes, Princess of Asturias (a sister of Alfonso XIII of Spain), giving the family a further tie to the Spanish monarchy. These connections made Maria Mercedes a very desirable potential royal bride, particularly to the Spanish royalty.
Maria Mercedes spent a large part of her childhood in Seville, and she remained fond of the city for the rest of her life. However, like her future husband Maria Mercedes and her family were exiled from Spain at the start of the Second Spanish Republic. During her time in exile in France, Maria Mercedes studied art and nursing.
Maria Mercedes attended the wedding of her second cousin, Infanta Beatriz of Spain (a daughter of Alfonso XIII of Spain) to Italian Count Alessandro Torlonia of Civitella-Cesi in January 1935. It was there that she became reacquainted with Beatriz’s brother Juan, Count of Barcelona, also the heir to the defunct Spanish throne. The two quickly began a romance and married the following October, settling initially in Cannes and later in Italy, Switzerland, and Portugal. Maria Mercedes and Juan had four children:
- Infanta Pilar, Duchess of Badajoz (1936)
- King Juan Carlos of Spain (1938)
- Infanta Margarita, Duchess of Soria, 2nd Duchess of Hernani (1939)
- Infante Alfonso of Spain (1941-1956; killed in a gun accident at the family’s home)
Maria Mercedes’ adult life was dominated by the actions of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator. It was Franco who kept the family from living in Spain, Franco who was constantly at odds with Don Juan, and Franco alternately named Juan Carlos his successor and refused to consider the monarchy restored. In 1949, when Maria Mercedes’ father was terminally ill in Seville, Franco denied her entrance into Spain. Maria Mercedes’ father died before she could visit, and she was said to have never forgiven Franco for this action.
Still, the family lived in relative comfort in Estoril, Portugal, alongside other deposed royalty. Maria Mercedes represented the Spanish royal family at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Maria Mercedes and her family were among the royals who sailed on the 1954 Agamemnon cruise through Greece, where her son Juan Carlos first met his future wife Sofia. It was also Maria Mercedes’ nursing training that saved Juan Carlos who, while sailing home after the trip, developed appendicitis. While the crew wanted to keep Juan Carlos warm, Maria Mercedes knew that an inflamed lower right quadrant should be iced until medical help could be sought. Juan Carlos had his appendix removed during an emergency stop in Algeria.
In 1969, Franco ultimately decided that the Spanish monarchy should be restored following his death. As suspected, Franco passed over the Count of Barcelona for his successor in favor of Juan Carlos. The Count was furious and cut off all communication with his son. It was up to Maria Mercedes to enable communication between her husband and son for several years. The two finally reconciled in 1976, the in which Maria Mercedes and her husband finally returned to live in Spain. In 1977, the Count of Barcelona formally renounced his rights to the Spanish throne.
The last twenty years of Maria Mercedes’ life was spent in rerelatively ill health due to a broken hip and femur. She still attended family events whenever possible, including the marriages of her grandchildren and baptisms of her great-grandchildren. Maria Mercedes died at La Mareta at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands of a heart attack on January 2, 2000. In accordance with her son’s wishes, Maria Mercedes was buried in El Escorial with the rites of a Queen of Spain.