King Philippe V married the Princess of Savoy who made the mistake of dying.
A terrible tragedy. They had indeed produced an heir, a son, but it was not therein that lay the problem: King Philippe V could not carry on without making love or he would fall ill. This uncompromising Christian would share his bed only with his legitimate spouse. Within a few weeks, the situation had become untenable.
Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon had sent the Princess des Ursins, a French aristocrat, to govern, literally, the young King Philippe V, and to act as their spy. In actual fact, she was the one ruling Spain.
She searched frantically for a suitable spouse for Philippe V but to her great disservice she found none. She no longer knew at which alter to pray. The king was indeed falling ill and the need for a wife was becoming increasingly urgent.
She was discussing this with Alberoni when, after having thought it through and endeavoured to find solutions, he murmured that there might be a possibility. The Princess des Ursins gladly jumped at the opportunity. Elizabeth Farnese was this possibility: the Duke of Parma’s niece and sole heir. The Princess des Ursin’s stomach turned. A Bourbon King of Spain, marrying a Farnese, a nobody: she accused Alberoni of having lost his mind.
He asked the princess if she had another solution to offer. The princess confessed that she had none at all. Alberoni then went on to insinuate that Farnese would be the best solution because her house was so small that she would be eternally grateful to the Princess des Ursins for having guaranteed her a future beyond her dreams and for hoisting her up onto the Spanish throne against all hope. This formula sounded rather clever. The Princess des Ursins convinced Louis XIV of the goodness of this union, which, for the purists of the day, was quasi unthinkable.
She swiftly sent a letter to Parma to ask for Elizabeth Farnese’s hand. However in hindsight, or with an esprit d’escalier, the princess wondered what indeed lay behind Alberoni’s suggestion: might there be covert designs against her? It all seemed too easy. To eliminate any such risk she send a second letter off as well, to cancel the marriage proposal.
In Parma, Elizabeth Farnese’s uncle the Duke received the first letter with the marriage proposal; and the second with the cancellation of this same proposal. He replied to the second: ‘You have the choice,’ he told her, ‘either you deliver the message now cancelling the marriage proposal and you do not leave my palace alive, or you admit that you arrived too late, and that the marriage proposal has not only been accepted, but that the marriage has already taken place by proxy and you shall receive a lot, really a lot, of gold.’
The second letter preferred ducats.
The duke therefore, jubilantly happy, accepted the marriage proposal to his niece. The marriage by proxy was hastily celebrated. The second letter arrived late and Elizabeth Farnese left Parma for her new kingdom.
We can guess how eagerly Philippe V awaited his new spouse. To tell the truth, he could not stand it any longer. Saint Simon’s description portrays a nervous man riddled with red blotches, gasping for breath. In short, his unsatisfied sexual needs were driving him almost mad.
The Princess des Ursins had decided to wait for the new queen in Guadalajara, north of Madrid. Alberoni went on ahead of her and met Elizabeth’s cortege on its way. He got into the carriage of the new queen whom he had known forever. This was Guadalajara, in winter, and icy cold, which had not stopped the Princess des Ursins from adorning herself with the grandest courtly clothing: a brocade robe, a plunging neckline, elaborate hair-do, many more diamonds than could be reckoned with, and a long train. As she goes down the steps to meet the sovereign she stops in the middle of the staircase, not yet having reached the bottom. There, she waits, like a goddess, an idol, the veritable queen.
Elizabeth Farnèse gets out of her carriage, enters the palace vestibule, sees the Princess des Ursins standing in the middle of the staircase: “Arrest this woman forthwith”.
The capitain of the guards thinks he has misheard. He stammers objections to the queen he has just met. She presents him with a written note from her husband King Philippe V commanding everyone to take orders from the queen. It was obviously Alberoni who had conceived of it, written it, and brought it to her. The captain of the guards had no choice but to obey.
Slowly, he went up the steps with his men and, in the name of the king, he arrested the Princess des Ursins. ‘She must be sent into exile without delay’, Elizabeth Farnese added.
The Princess who was all-powerful a minute earlier, was practically tossed into the carriage that sped away at full tilt towards the border. She did not even have time to bring any warm clothing with her and so travelled that way for a week with her low-cut neckline, dying of cold. According to Saint Simon, the only food she had until the border was two hard-boiled eggs.
It was thus, thanks to little Alberoni, that one of the most powerful women of that century fell. Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon, relieved to know that Philippe V had at last found a solution for his sexual problems, did not dare protest. As for Alberoni, he merrily set to work governing alongside his compatriot from Parma, Queen Elizabeth. He could well have contented himself with this role, but smouldering ambition meant he did not linger on this fine path. Saint Simon claims that when Alberoni died, he was plotting to become the next Pope.