One thing Maria Theresa was not was Empress of Austria, which was the core base of the Habsburg hereditary lands. In Austria she was Archduchess by birth, and by a quirk of fate was to become sole ruler of all those lands.
"When Maria Theresa was born in Vienna on 13th May 1717, she was a great disappointment to her parents".
In 1711, her father - the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, had succeeded his elder brother Joseph I, both as ruler of the Habsburg lands and later as Emperor.
The Imperial Crown was elective, but since 1440 a Habsburg had always been elected to the dignity. By 1711 the honour was just one of prestige but no real power outside the Habsburg lands.
Within the Empire there were strong and very ambitious states like Brandenburg-Prussia, Saxony and Bavaria, all of which were to prove a great headache to the Habsburgs.
Joseph I had only two daughters left - Maria Josefa (1699-1757) and Maria Amalia (1701-56), and one son, Leopold, who died at a few months old in 1701. When after nine years of childless marriage Charles’s wife, the Empress Elisabeth Christine, finally gave birth to a son in 1716, the last male child of the dynasty was born.
The parents were jubilant, but their hopes were dashed when little Archduke Leopold Johann died in November. The Empress was pregnant again and there were hopes for another son, but instead Maria Theresa was born.
Another daughter Maria Anna was born in September 1718 (d. 1744) and lived to adulthood. The youngest and final “disappointment”, Maria Amalia (1724-30), died young.
"It is sad to refer to the birth of these three girls as a “disappointment”, but such a mentality was inevitable in a system where direct female succession and rule were generally non existent".
Before his son was even born, and in view of how much infant mortality afflicted even the great and powerful, Charles was already worrying about the succession should he have no surviving son.
His nieces presented a problem to Charles. He decided that come what may, he would nominate his eldest daughter sole heiress of the hereditary Habsburg lands - which by then included Austria (including Slovenia and Bohemia), Hungary (including Slovakia, Croatia and almost half of present day Romania), Naples, Milan and roughly present day Belgium and Luxembourg plus a few scattered territories in Germany.
He decided to disinherit his nieces for the sake of Maria Theresa.
The young Maria Theresa
Charles VI spent the rest of his life on a mission seeking the recognition of Maria Theresa’s unhindered future succession by all Europe’s important powers. Great Britain, France, Spain, Prussia, Holland, Russia, Bavaria and Saxony all agreed, but things were to take a very different turn.
Maria Theresa was not prepared for the life of a ruling sovereign. Her father kept her away from state affairs and State Council meetings, which eventually forced the young woman to act upon her own good sense and judgement, helped by some very influential advisors.
The young Archduchess had a typical education befitting her station - languages, history, geography, music, dancing and so on, but not in statecraft. She was not a gifted amateur musician, unlike many of the children she would go on to have.
Maria Theresa had to have some grounding in history and geography, at least enough of the basics to acquaint her with the multi ethnic nature of her various lands. She spoke German and French and some Italian, but displayed no deep intellectual interests.
She was a fan of light theatrical entertainment. Mozart sat on Maria Theresa's lap as a child and played the harpsichord to her.
"She was of course a great catch on the European dynastic, matrimonial and diplomatic chessboard".
Suitors there were, but the only serious contenders were members of the Ducal House of Lorraine.
The semi-independent French speaking duchy was an imperial fief. Greedy Louis XIV of France occupied the duchy in 1675, and was only restored to the Duke Leopold in the 1720s.
Leopold’s mother was a Habsburg, and was first cousin to Charles. The Duke sent his promising eldest son Leopold Clement (1707-23) to Vienna to acquaint himself with his cousins. On his return to Lorraine the young prince died of smallpox.
The next son, Francis Stephen (François Étienne), who was a year younger, was sent to Vienna and the courtship would eventually gather momentum.
"Maria Theresa grew fond of the young man nine years her senior, and was to fall passionately in love with him to the end of his days, even though he was a notorious womaniser".
In due course things were changing in Europe. In 1729, Francis Stephen succeeded his father in Lorraine, and in 1731 the last Farnese Duke of Parma died without male heirs and his niece, Elisabetta Farnese, second wife of King Philip V of Spain, wanted Parma for a younger son of theirs.
In Tuscany, the childless last Medici Grand Duke Gian Gastone was reaching the end of the road. Long before he expired in 1737, the European powers were squabbling as to whom the grand duchy would go.
The outbreak of the War of Polish Succession in 1733 complicated matters. By 1735 it was clear that one of the Polish claimants, ex King Stanisław I Leszczynski had no hope of winning against his Saxon rival for the elective Polish Crown.
The French knew about Francis Stephen’s plans to marry Maria Theresa and felt very uncomfortable with Lorraine practically becoming an extension of the Austrian Netherlands on their northern and eastern borders, and the prospect of trouble was real.
In 1735 the French and the Emperor, in an agreement also ratified by the European powers (but a very sulky Spain), came to a compromise. Francis Stephen was to give up Lorraine to the deposed Polish King Stanisław I, who was to retain the title of King.
In return, Francis Stephen was to get Tuscany when Gian Gastone died. Stanisław I’s only child and heiress Maria was already married to Louis XV of France. On her father’s death in 1766 she inherited Lorraine, which finally became an integral part of France.
The French also confirmed their promise not to hinder Maria Theresa's succession to her father’s dominions. Meanwhile, it goes without saying that these manoeuvres did not take into consideration what the people of Lorraine and Tuscany really wanted.
It was only then that the Emperor really consented to his daughter’s marriage to Francis Stephen, and the wedding took place in February 1736. According to the standards of the time, the couple were considered old (18 and 27) when they got married.
"Although with important political and diplomatic considerations behind it, this turned out to be an uncommonly successful arranged love match!"
Soon after Gian Gastone de’ Medici died in July 1737, Francis Stephen and Maria Theresa made their solemn entrance in Florence. The transfer of power was peaceful and an arch built to commemorate the event still stands.
Earlier that year, the eldest of their 16 children, Maria Elisabeth, was born. This was the first in a series of disappointments to the couple (and the hopeful Emperor) that a son or sons would be born to secure the succession.
"As with all royal families until relatively recently, many of Maria Theresa's numerous children were treated as mere pawns on the chessboard of the royal marriage market".
Maria Theresa with her family
Maria Theresa did not seem to have much motherly feeling towards her children, her letters to them were full of advice not so much as to discuss their personal welfare, but to ensure that they were careful not to commit any mistakes, lest these would endanger their mission in furthering Habsburg interests.
The second child was Maria Anna (1738-89) and a third daughter, Maria Carolina joined her sisters in January 1740.
"It was not surprising that some believed a kind of curse had hit the couple".
The situation in the Habsburg lands was by then not a very happy one. An unsuccessful war against the Turks ended up with Austria losing most of the gain made back in 1718. Charles had obtained Parma but lost Naples.
This had cost a lot of money and the people were discontented, little imagining that much worse was to come. On a personal level, Maria Theresa and her husband lost their eldest child in June 1740, possibly from smallpox.
Maria Theresa was already pregnant with her fourth child when her father, aged beyond his 55 years, died in October 1740, probably after accidentally eating poisoned mushrooms. Once news spread of Charles VI’s death, most of the powers who had promised not to hinder Maria Theresa’s accession broke their word.
The main, implacable enemy was Prussia, whose King, Frederick I (the Great), referred to Maria Theresa as “the Apostolic Hag”. That is because she was Queen of the Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary. She would always refer to him as “that Evil Man”.
King Frederick the Great
Frederick had just inherited a very strong and highly disciplined army from his brutal father, who had merely enjoyed drilling his soldiers, never risking a real war.
Frederick had other ideas, and in December 1740 invaded and annexed the very rich province of Silesia (now in Poland). The lame excuse was discrimination against the Protestants. Thus began the War of the Austrian Succession, which was to last on and off until 1748.
France joined in the fray against the Habsburgs. Maria Theresa’s cousins declared they would not recognise their disinheriting by their uncle. In this they were supported by their respective husbands - Maria Amalia’s was Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, and Maria Josepha’s was Frederick August II, Elector of Saxony, and after 1735 also King of Saxony as Augustus III. (Saxony remained neutral at first).
England and the Dutch were for Maria Theresa, while Russia’s Tsarina Elisaveta sided with France, Spain and Prussia.
Maria Theresa was beleaguered on many fronts. She had the good fortune to have a number of wise counsellors, chief among them Count Kaunitz, who with others like Haugwitz and van Swieten helped reorganise the administration with her full support.
There were some necessary reforms in the army, but the situation was very bleak. Her third daughter Carolina died in January 1741, but in March the long expected son and heir was born - the future Joseph II. Harassed as she was on all fronts, Maria Theresa still kept having children.
One very important source of help she managed to obtain was that of her Hungarian subjects. The autonomously minded Magyars bristled at direct Habsburg rule and a lot of diplomatic activity took place behind the scenes.
She made a dramatic appeal for help to the Hungarian Diet in Bratislava, with her baby son on a cushion next to her.
"She was crowned sovereign of Hungary, and as added privileges had been conceded to them, the magnates shouted their approval and raised their swords, saying in Latin that they were ready to die for their King (!) Maria Theresa".
It helped, but things were glum. The Bavarians occupied Prague in October, and in 1742 Charles Albert was elected Emperor Charles VII. By that time however he had lost Prague and soon after, the second phase of the war in Silesia was over.
The Bavarian Emperor died early in 1745, and as Francis Stephen was Archduke of Austria by marriage he could vote and also stand for election to the vacant imperial dignity. He was elected Emperor as Francis I as the long war dragged on until it ended with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in 1748.
Never really reconciled to the loss of Silesia, Maria Theresa embarked on a series of reforms which strengthened the army and improved the administration by centralising power more than ever.
There were fiscal reforms and, while resisting the liberation of the serfs and disliking Jews and Protestants, she made primary school education compulsory in all her lands.
She encouraged trade and agriculture and pursued a foreign policy which aimed at providing the security of her dominions. One could see that strengthening her power base was in preparation for her mission to regain Silesia.
"Maria Theresa was seen as the Mother of her People".
In wanting her people's welfare guided from her from above, one wonders if she wanted her people to be happy not for their own sake, but so that they would give no trouble.
While she herself had been allowed to follow her heart when she married her husband, Maria Theresa did not allow her children the same right.
There was one exception based on an irrational whim. That was in the case of Maria Christina, and simply because she had been born on her mother’s birthday (13th May) she was allowed to choose.
Not just any suitor but her second cousin, Albert of Saxony, later created Duke of Teschen. They really lived happily ever after until Christina’s death in 1798.
One arranged marriage did turn into a real love match for Maria Theresa's heir Joseph II. When his wife died he would not consider marrying again, but because he had only one daughter (who was to die later, aged almost 8) and no son she forced him into taking a Bavarian second wife, whom he cruelly ignored.
As much as Maris Theresa tried to force her son to marry a third time when this second wife died, he absolutely refused to be bullied and remained a widower.
Maria Theresa knew that without allies she would never be able to deal with Frederick the Great. It had long been brewing, but by 1756 there was a great shift in diplomatic relations.
"After centuries of mutual hostility, Bourbon France and the Habsburgs entered into an alliance sealed by a number of arranged marriages.
"The most famous was that of her youngest daughter, better known as the tragic Marie Antoinette".
When still in her cot, it was agreed she would marry the eldest grandson of Louis XV, the future and equally ill starred Louis XVI.
Joseph was married to Louis XV’s granddaughter, Isabella of Parma. When she died in childbirth, he married his cousin Josefa of Saxony, but it was a loveless marriage.
"Death prematurely stalked Maria Theresa’s children".
The first to go was the brilliant Charles Joseph, who died of smallpox just short of 16. He was betrothed to Maria Luisa of Spain, another Bourbon princess, so the bereaved fiancée was engaged to the next son, the future Emperor Leopold II. They too were to have sixteen children.
Another Bourbon-Parma link was when the very rebellious Maria Amalia married Isabella’s brother, Ferdinand Duke of Parma. Maria Gabriele was destined to be the wife of Ferdinand IV of Naples, but smallpox killed her too in 1762.
However, there were enough daughters to take her place, so Maria Josefa was chosen, but she too died of smallpox in 1767, in the same epidemic which killed Joseph’s second wife. That was on the eve of her departure for Naples, so the last available daughter, Maria Carolina, was sent there to marry King Ferdinand.
They had eighteen children, of whom only seven survived infancy. Archduke Ferdinand married the heiress to Modena and Massa. This strengthened Austria’s presence in Italy.
She already controlled Lombardy, and younger members of the family also governed Tuscany after 1765. The youngest son was rather sickly and he followed an ecclesiastical career, becoming Archbishop Elector of Cologne.
Meanwhile, what became known as the Seven Years War broke out in 1756. Maria Theresa wanted to reconquer Silesia, and during the ups and downs of the conflict her armies scored a few notable victories.
At one point her ally and fellow hater of Frederick the Great, Tsarina Elisaveta of Russia’s hordes had occupied Berlin. Elisaveta’s sudden death early in 1762 saved Frederick because the Russian army was recalled home by her successor, who admired Frederick no end.
It proved impossible to regain Silesia, and Maria Theresa had to renounce all claim to it when peace was signed in 1763.
The French fared worst, losing their colonies in India, Canada and some Caribbean islands to Britain.
When Emperor Francis I suddenly died in 1765, Maria Theresa wore black in mourning for the rest of her life. This loyal approach to mourning her husband can remind us of Queen Victoria, who had the same approach in using her children as political pawns, but who did have a faithful husband, unlike Maria Theresa.
Her younger son Leopold was sent to rule in Tuscany and the eldest, now Emperor Joseph II became co-Regent in the hereditary lands. He had his own ideas, but as hers was the last word the son could not pursue his own course.
"She was an absolute ruler, brave and resilient, always believing she sought the best for her subjects".
Although professing great reluctance, in 1772 Maria Theresa and Joseph took part in the infamous First Partition of Poland.
A blot on her reputation but force majeure was invoked because otherwise, the other two bandits in this affair, Russia and Prussia, would have become too powerful and dangerous to her if left alone to gather the spoils.
The rest of her reign was peaceful, except for brief skirmishes in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778-9), which was practically reduced to some absurd military posturing on both sides and was soon ingloriously nicknamed as the “Potato War”.
Maria Theresa fell ill late in November 1780. She developed pneumonia and died surrounded by her remaining children on 29th November.
She was only 63, and was buried with her husband in the crypt of Vienna’s Capuchin Church.
Their joint monumental tomb (pictured above) is the crypt’s most magnificent, and occupies centre position.