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Maria Theresa ( ; 13 May 1717 – 29 November 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatiamarker, Bohemia, Mantuamarker, Milanmarker, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parmamarker. By marriage, she was Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Duchess of Lorraine, German Queen and Holy Roman Empress.

She became sovereign when her father, Emperor Charles VI, died in October 1740. Charles VI paved the way for her accession with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, as the Habsburg lands were bound by Salic law which prevented female succession. Upon the death of her father, Saxony, Prussia, Bavariamarker and Francemarker (the states of Europe that had previously recognised the sanction) repudiated it. Prussia proceeded to invade the affluent Habsburg province of Silesia, sparking an eight year long conflict known as the War of the Austrian Succession.

Maria Theresa promulgated financial and educational reforms, with the assistance of Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz and Gottfried van Swieten, promoted commerce and the development of agriculture, and reorganised Austria's ramshackle military, all of which strengthened Austria's international standing, but refused to allow religious toleration. In addition, contemporary travellers thought her regime was bigoted and superstitious.

Though she was expected to cede power to her husband Francis I or son Joseph II, both of whom were officially her co-rulers in Austria and Bohemia, Maria Theresa was the absolute sovereign of her dominions. She criticised and disapproved of many of Joseph's actions. She vehemently resisted the First Partition of Poland, but Joseph and her Chancellor, Prince Kaunitz, forced her to authorise it. Maria Theresa oversaw the unification of the Austrian and Bohemian chancellories. She had sixteen children by Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, including a queen of France, a queen of Naples, a duchess of Parma and two Holy Roman Emperors. Maria Theresa was intellectually inferior to her sons, but possessed qualities appreciated in a monarch: warm heart, practical mind, firm determination, sound perception, and, most importantly, readiness to acknowledge mental superiority of her advisers. As a young monarch who had to fight two dynastic wars, she believed that her cause should be the cause of her subjects, but in her later years she came to understand that their cause must be hers.

Birth and background

The second but eldest surviving child of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Maria Theresa was born early in the morning of 13 May 1717 at the Hofburg Palacemarker, Viennamarker, shortly after the death of her elder brother Leopold. The least inbred Habsburg ruler for centuries, she was christened Maria Theresia Walburga Amalia Christina later that day. Most descriptions of her baptism stress that the infant was carried ahead of her cousins, Maria Josepha and Maria Amalia, the daughters of Charles VI's elder brother and predecessor Joseph, before the eyes of Joseph's widow Wilhelmina Amalia of Brunswick, indicating that Maria Theresa would outrank them even though their grandfather Leopold had his sons sign the decree which gave precedence to the daughters of the elder brother.

Maria Theresa resembled her mother and a year-younger sister, Archduchess Maria Anna. She had large blue eyes, fair hair with a slight tinge of red and wide mouth. Her body was large and notably strong.

Her father, who ruled over vast areas of land in Central Europe, needed a male heir; the Habsburg dominions were hindered by Salic law which prevented females from succeeding. Thus, the birth of Maria Theresa was a great disappointment to him and the people of Vienna; Charles never managed to overcome this feeling.

Heiress presumptive

Four years before the birth of Maria Theresa, Charles VI provided for a male-line succession failure with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. The emperor favoured his own daughters over those of his elder brother and predecessor, Joseph I, in the succession, ignoring the decree he had signed during the reign of his father. Charles sought the other European powers' approval. They exacted harsh terms: England demanded that Austria abolish its overseas trading company. In total, Great Britainmarker, Francemarker, Saxony-Poland, United Provinces, Spainmarker, Venicemarker, States of the Churchmarker, Prussia , Russiamarker, Denmarkmarker, Savoy-Sardinia, Bavaria, and the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire recognised the sanction. France, Spain, Saxony-Poland, Bavaria and Prussia later reneged.

As a youth, Maria Theresa greatly enjoyed singing and archery. She was barred from horse riding by her father, but she would later learn the basics for the sake of her Hungarian coronation ceremony. The imperial family staged opera productions which she relished in participating in. Charles VI was in the habit of conducting these shows. Her education was overseen by Jesuits. Contemporaries thought her Latin to be quite good, but in all else, the Jesuits did not educate her well. Her spelling and punctuation were offbeat. The lack of education resulted in the lack of formal manner and speech which had characterised her Habsburg predecessors. Maria Theresa developed a close relationship with Countess Marie Karoline von Fuchs-Mollard who taught her etiquette. She was educated in drawing and painting, music and dancing - the disciplines which would have prepared her for the role of queen consort. Even though he had spent the last decades of his life securing Maria Theresa's inheritance, Charles always expected a son and never had his daughter prepared for her future role as sovereign.


"She is a princess of the highest spirit and regards her father's loses as her own. She sighs and pines for her Duke of Lorraine all day and all night. If she sleeps it is but to dream of him, if she wakes it is but to talk of him to her lady-in-waiting."
The writings of a British ambasador.

The issue of Maria Theresa's marriage was raised early in her childhood. She was first engaged to be married to Clement of Lorraine, who was supposed to come to Vienna and meet Maria Theresa in 1723. Instead, news reached Vienna that he had died of smallpox, which upset Maria Theresa. Clement's older brother, Francis Stephen, was invited to Vienna, but Maria Theresa's father considered other possibilities (such as marrying her to the future Charles III of Spain) before announcing the engagement of the couple. France demanded that Maria Theresa's fiancé surrender his ancestral Duchy of Lorraine to accommodate the deposed King of Poland.

Maria Theresa married Francis III of Lorraine on 12 February 1736. Francis was Emperor Charles VI's favourite candidate for Maria Theresa's hand. Francis was to receive the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, in exchange for his renunciation of Lorraine, upon the incumbent, childless Grand Duke's death. Until then, Maria Theresa was Duchess of Lorraine. He tended to leave the day to day administration to Maria Theresa. Unlike many princesses of her time, she married for love, but the marriage suffered because of Francis's infidelity.

Francis III became grand duke of Tuscany on 9 July 1737, and Maria Theresa its grand duchess. In 1738, following Francis's dismissal from his military post, Charles VI sent the young couple to make their formal entry into Tuscany. A triumphal arch was erected at the Porta Galla in celebration, where it remains today. Their stay in Florencemarker was brief. Charles VI soon recalled them, as he feared he might die while his heiress was miles away in Tuscany. In the summer of 1738, Austria suffered defeats during the ongoing Russo-Turkish War. The Turks reversed Austrian gains in Serbiamarker, Wallachia and Bosnia. The Viennese rioted at the cost of the war. Francis Stephen was popularly despised, as he was thought to be a cowardly French spy. The war was concluded the next year with the Treaty of Belgrade.


Charles VI died on 20 October 1740 at the Favorita Palacemarker, Vienna. It is thought that his death was caused by consumption of poisonous mushrooms. He left Austria in a poorly state. It was bankrupted by the recent Turkish war and the War of the Polish Succession; the treasury contained only 100,000 florins. The army numbered only 80,000 men; most of whom had not been paid in months, but were nevertheless remarkably loyal and devoted to their new sovereign.

The new sovereign found herself in a difficult situation. She did not know enough about matters of state and she was unaware of the weakness of her father's ministers. She decided to rely on her father's advice to retain his councillors and defer to her husband, whom she considered to be more experienced, on other matters. Both decisions, though natural, would prove to be unfortunate. Ten years later, Maria Theresa bitterly recalls the circumstances under which she had ascended in her Political Testament:

I found myself without money, without credit, without army, without experience and knowledge of my own and finally, also without any counsel because each one of them at first wanted to wait and see how things would develop.

The first display of the new queen's authority was the formal act of homage of the Lower Austrian Estates to her on 22 November 1740. It was an elaborate public event which served as a formal recognition and legitimation of her accession. The oath of fealty to Maria Theresa was taken on the same day in Hofburg.

She dismissed the possibility that other countries might try to seize her territories and immediately started ensuring the imperial dignity for herself; since she was precluded from being elected Holy Roman Empress, she wanted to secure the imperial office for her husband whom she had already made co-ruler of the Austrian and Bohemian lands on 21 November 1740. The main challenger to this ambition, as well as to her inherited crowns, would prove to be Charles Albert of Bavaria, the husband of Maria Theresa's deprived cousin Maria Amalia.

War of the Austrian Succession

"She has, as you well know, a terrible hatred for France, with which nation it is most difficult for her to keep on good terms, but she controls this passion except when she thinks to her advantage to display it. She detests Your Majesty, but acknowledges your ability. She cannot forget the loss of Silesia, nor her grief over the soldiers she lost in wars with you."
Prussian ambasador's letter to Frederick the Great.
George II of Great Britain told Austria he would be honouring "the engagements I am under". Frederick II of Prussia (The Great), whose father had recognised the Pragmatic Sanction, assured Austria of the "purity of his intentions". He even went as far as writing a letter of condolence to Francis that assured him of Prussia's support of his imperial candidature. In December, Frederick sent an envoy to Vienna to request the cession of the Duchy of Silesia, a mineral-rich Austrian crownland on Prussia's border. Francis and Maria Theresa blankly refused. At that stage, Prussia had already invaded Silesia. Great Britain offered Maria Theresa the use of 12,000 troops if all attempts at mediation failed. General Maximilian von Browne commanded the Austrian troops against Frederick, managing to gather a force of 6,000 men.

As Austria was short of experienced military commanders, Maria Theresa released Marshall Neipperg from prison, having been imprisoned by her father for his poor performance in the Turkish War. Neipperg took command of the Austrian troops in March. The Austrians suffered a crushing defeat that April at the Battle of Olmütz. France drew up a plan to partition Austria between Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Spain. The thought of this worried England. Marshall Belle-Isle joined Frederick at Olmütz. Vienna was in a panic, as none of Maria Theresa's advisors expected France to betray them. Francis urged Maria Theresa to reach a rapprochement with Prussia, as did England. Maria Theresa reluctantly agreed to negotiations. George II, unbeknownst to Maria Theresa, offered Frederick Glogaumarker, Schwiebusmarker and Grünberg. Frederick rejected the offer, and aligned himself with France in June.

By July, attempts at conciliation had completely collapsed. Maurice de Saxe crossed the Rhinemarker frontier into the Holy Roman Empire, and Saxony abruptly abandoned Austria for the French. The Electoral Palatinate combined forced with the Electorate of Cologne and the Electorate of Bavaria. George II declared the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg to be neutral.

Maria Theresa had herself crowned King of Hungary on 25 June 1741 after spending months honing the equestrian skills necessary for the ceremony and negotiating with the Diet. On 26 October, Charles Albert of Bavaria captured Praguemarker and declared himself King of Bohemia. Charles Albert sold Frederick the County of Glatz at a reduced price in exchange for his electoral vote and was elected Holy Roman Emperor on 24 January 1742. The same day, Austrian troops under Ludwig Andreas von Khevenhüller captured Munichmarker, the Emperor's capital. The Treaty of Breslau of June 1742 ended hostilities between Austria and Prussia. French troops fled Bohemia in the winter of the same year. On 12 May 1743, Maria Theresa had herself crowned King of Bohemia in St. Vitus Cathedralmarker.

Prussia became anxious at Austrian advances on the Rhine frontier, and Frederick sacked Prague in August 1744. The plans of France fell apart when Charles Albert died in January 1745. The French over-ran the Austrian Netherlands in May.

Francis was elected Holy Roman Emperor on 13 September 1745. Prussia recognised Francis as emperor, and Maria Theresa once again recognised the loss in Prussia by the Treaty of Breslau in December 1745. England and France were determined to end the war. It dragged on for another three years, with fighting in Northern Italy and the Austrian Netherlands. The Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, which concluded the 8-year long conflict, recognised Prussia's possession of Silesia and Maria Theresa ceded the Duchy of Parma to King Charles VII of Naples.

Seven Years War

Frederick's invasion of Saxony in August 1756 began the Seven Years' War. Empress Maria Theresa and Kaunitz wished to exit the war with possession of Silesia. Austria was aligned with France and Russia; England with Prussia and Portugal. Giving Austria huge subsidies came back to haunt France. She could not bolster defences in New France; the British easily captured Louisbourgmarker in 1758, and went on to conquer all of New France.

Maximilian von Browne commanded the Austrian troops. Following the indecisive Battle of Lobositzmarker in 1756, he was replaced by Prince Charles of Lorraine, Maria Theresa's brother-in-law. Frederick was startled by Lobositz; he eventually re-grouped for another attack in June 1757. The Battle of Kolinmarker that followed was a decisive victory for Austria. Frederick lost one third of his troops, and before the battle was over, he had fled the scene.

Maria Theresa openly bemoaned French losses in 1758. France, having secured the Anglo-Hanoverian neutrality for the rest of the conflict, in September 1757, lost it in January of the next year. France suffered a crushing defeat at Krefeldmarker that June. French forces withdrew to the Rhine.

In 1759, peace negotiations at The Haguemarker came to nothing. The series of Franco-Austrian losses were reversed until, in 1762, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia died. Her successor Peter III greatly admired Frederick, and at once withdrew Russia's support from the French coalition. Prussia proceeded to kick the Austrians out of Saxony, and the French out of Hesse-Kassel. Naturally, it was feared that Frederick would now invade Austria and France, and they capitulated. The peace treaties, Hubertusburg and Paris, exacted harsh terms on France, as she was forced to relinquish most of her American colonies. For Austria, though, it was status quo ante bellum.

Family life

Over the course of twenty years, Maria Theresa gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of whom survived infancy. The first child, Maria Elisabeth (1737-1740), came a little less than a year after the wedding. Again, the child's gender caused great disappointment and so would the next two births, for the first three children born to Maria Theresa were female, including Maria Anna, the eldest surviving child of Maria Theresa, and Maria Carolina (1740-1741). While fighting to preserve her inheritance, Maria Theresa gave birth to a son and named him after Saint Joseph to whom she had repeatedly prayed for a male child during the pregnancy. Maria Theresa's favourite child, Maria Christina, was born on her 25th birthday, four days before the defeat of the Austrian army in Chotusitzmarker. Five more children were born during the war: Maria Elisabeth, Charles, Maria Amalia, Leopold and Maria Carolina (1748-1748). During this period, there was no rest for Maria Theresa during pregnancies or around the births; the war and child-bearing were carried on simultaneously. Five children were born during the peace between the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War: Maria Johanna, Maria Josepha, Maria Carolina, Ferdinand and Maria Antonia (future "Marie Antoinette"). She delivered her last child, Maximilian Francis, during the Seven Years' War, aged 39. Maria Theresa asserted that, had she not been almost always pregnant, she would have gone into battle herself.

Maria Theresa's mother, Empress Elisabeth Christine, died in 1750. Four years later, Maria Theresa's governess, Marie Karoline von Fuchs-Mollard, died. The Empress showed her gratitude to Countess Fuchs by having her buried in the Imperial Cryptmarker along with the members of the imperial family.

Shortly after finishing giving birth to the younger children, Maria Theresa was confronted with the task of marrying off the elder ones. She led the marriage negotiations along with the campaigns of her wars and the duties of state. She treated her children with affection but used them as pawns in dynastical games and sacrificed their happiness for the benefit of state. A devoted but self-conscious mother, she wrote to all of her children at least once a week and believed herself entitled to exercise authority over her children regardless of their age and rank.

Maria Theresa came down with a severe attack of smallpox shortly after her fiftieth birthday in May 1767, caught from her daughter-in-law and empress, Maria Josepha of Bavaria. Maria Theresa survived, but the new empress did not. Maria Theresa forced her daughter Archduchess Maria Josepha to pray with her in the Imperial Cryptmarker next to the unsealed tomb of Empress Maria Josepha. Maria Josepha started showing smallpox rash two days after visiting the crypt and soon died. Maria Carolina was to replace her as the pre-determined bride of King Ferdinand IV of Naples. Maria Theresa blamed herself for her daughter's death for the rest of her life because, at the time, the concept of an extended incubation period was largely unknown and it was believed that Maria Josepha had caught smallpox from the body of the late empress.

In April 1770, Maria Theresa's youngest daughter, Maria Antonia, married Louis, Dauphin of France, by proxy in Vienna. Maria Antonia's education was neglected, and when the French showed an interest in her, her mother went about educating her as best she could about the court of Versaillesmarker and the French. Maria Theresa kept up a fortnightly correspondence with Maria Antonia, now called Marie Antoinette, in which she often reproached her for laziness and frivolity and scolded her for failing to conceive a child. She disliked Leopold's reserve and often blamed him for being cold. She criticised Ferdinand's lack of organisation, Maria Amalia's poor French and haughtiness, and Maria Carolina for her political activities. The only child she did not constantly scold was Maria Christina, who enjoyed her mother's complete confidence, though she failed to please her mother in one aspect: she did not produce any surviving children. One of Maria Theresa's greatest wishes was to have as many grandchildren as possible, but she had only about two dozen at the time of her death, of which all the eldest surviving daughters were named after her.


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