Empress Maria Theresa Of Austria: A Biography

Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was born on the 13 May 1717 not long after the death of her elder brother, the Archduke Leopold. The baby was baptized  the same day and was introduced to her cousins and her aunt Wilhelmine Amalia.

It was obvious that Maria Theresa was going to outrank them even if the grandfather had his sons sign a decree that gave precedence to the daughters of the older brother. Her father, Charles VI, was the only living male member of the Hasburg family and was never able to accept Maria Theresa’s birth. Maria Theresa replaced her cousin Maria Josepha as future heiress thanks to her fathers’ Pragmatic Sanction that declared her the rightful heir. According to descriptions, Maria Theresa was blonde and blue eyed and had a strong body.

She was a serious child that loved singing and archery and her major teachers were Jesuits that gave her a non-perfect education. She was particularly attached to Marie Karoline von Fuchs-Mollard, her etiquette teacher. She was educated in several traditional arts that were necessary to prepare her to be a queen consort. At 14 years old she started to attend meetings and councils with her father but he never discussed empire’s problems with her, always hoping to have a male heir and not really teaching his daughter how to be a queen.

The Archduchess was engaged when she was still a child with Leopold Clement of Lorraine, however the boy died of smallpox before meeting his fiancee.

Charles VI, in order to meet other possible candidates, invited at court Francis Stephen, the new heir of Lorraine, that soon became the emperor’s first choice. Maria Theresa was first promised to Charles of Spain and then, due to political affairs, was finally engaged to Francis Stephen. In order to marry her, however, the Duke of Lorraine had to surrender his country to the former King of Poland and the couple was married in 1736.

The Duchess was very jealous and possessive as it is testified by the letters she sent to her soon-to-be husband; on the contrary he was very traditional and sometimes cold. Her jealousy however had realistic roots since Francis Stephen unfaithfulness was the greatest flaw of this marriage.

Charles VI died in 1740 after eating poisonous mushrooms and Maria Theresa found herself in a very difficult situation since no one told her how to reign and she right after discovered that her husband had the same experience.

The first move of the new Queen was to ensure the imperial office for her husband since she couldn’t become Emperor due to her gender. In order to make Francis Stephen a possible candidate for the throne she made him co-ruler but it took one year to obtain the acceptation of the Diet of Hungary. In 1740 Maria Theresa took the oath of fealty and showed her power in the act of homage of the Lower Austrian Estates.

Right after her succession, the new ruler found herself surrounded by enemies like Charles Albert of Bavaria, husband Maria Theresa’s cousin and King Frederick II of Prussia who invaded SIlesia and asking the Queen to surrender it. She fought back to maintain her dominions but had to negotiate when several countries betrayed her and planned to divide the empire. Unexpectedly the biggest support to the Archduchess came from Hungary where she was crowned as King on 25 June 1741 and, appearing in front of the Diet with her child as well as using her superb theatrical skills she also obtained support for her husband.

In 1741 Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, captured Prague and was unanimously crowned as King of Bohemia but Maria Theresa surprised all deciding to attack them on a winter campaign. The brave Archduchess took Munich, Charles Albert’s capital and was crowned Queen of Bohemia, destroying the French plans that involved Maria Theresa relatives.

Finally, on 13 September 1745 Francis Stephen was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor with the formal recognition of Prussia while Maria Theresa confirmed the surrender of Silesia. Although Francis Stephen was the official ruler, Maria Theresa was the one who took all decisions and often chased away her husband from the councils when he had opposite ideas.

Empress Maria Theresa gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of whom survived infancy. Her first children were all females and caused her a great disappointment until she was able to produce the long awaited male heir. Her favorite child was Maria Christina who shard the same birthday of the Empress.  Her greatest wish was to have many grandchildren and continuously scolded the sons without children, the only one that never disappointed her was Maria Christina even though she had no living children.

Maria Theresa was renowned to be a Catholic empress but she did not attack the minorities always emphasizing the equality of every religion. During her long reign, the empress was able to balance the Monarchy’s budget for the first time in history and gave a significant bust to medical field opening the Vienna General Hospital and decreeing that autopsy was mandatory for every hospital death. She also decided to inoculate children after a great smallpox epidemic and waited on the children herself while hosting a dinner to inaugurate this new method. Maria Theresa took control of the burial issue and forbid the Church to open new cemeteries without the government approval in order to regulate the previous wasteful and unhygienic customs.

The female ruler abolished witch burning and torture and took capital punishment off replacing it with forced labor, although the capital punishment will be reintroduced by her successors. 

Francis Stephen died in 1765 while attending to his second son’s wedding. Maria Theresa was devastated, she cut her hair, dressed in black until her death and ordered the walls of her room to be painted black, spending the entire August mourning and locking herself alone in the room on the 18th of each month.

Maria Theresa, needing a new co-ruler, gave this title to her son Joseph; the two rulers, however, often disagreed since the dowager empress was a practical person and her son was more intellectual. The relationship between them was complicated since Maria Theresa’s personality was stronger than Joseph’s ones, and understanding her son’s rage, she contemplated the choice of abdication.

In the end she decided to maintain her position, often scolded by her son who was never able to took decisions without his mother’s intrusion. While her son decided to partition Poland without her complete approval, she claimed Galicia and Lodomeira and succeeded in obtaining this province. Her biggest enemy, Frederick II of Prussia said ” the more she cried, the more she took.”

The dowager empress contracted smallpox at least two times and surely she did not recover completely from the latest attack in 1767, probable living with breath issues, cough, necrophobia and insomnia. She fell ill in 1780 and died surrounded by her children on 29 November 1780. Her death signed the extinction on the House of Hasburg and the start of the Hasburg-Lorraine one.

She left to her son a revitalized empire and with great honor, she was buried in the Imperial Crypt next to her husband.

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