Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice. — G. K. Chesterton

Maria Theresa of Austria - George Upton




The Young Queen

It would almost seem that the Emperor Charles VI, the father of Maria Theresa, had a presentiment of what was to come, when, directly after his marriage, he obtained from the various states united under his dominion an order of succession called The Pragmatic Sanction, which decreed that in case his house should become extinct in the male line, succession to the throne should pass to his female descendants. To make this law binding and legal was such an important matter to him that it may be said to have been the chief aim of his life.

In the year 1716, to the great joy of the Emperor, a son was born to him. Vienna and the whole country shared in the rejoicings of the royal parents; but unfortunately their happiness was of short duration, for, before the Autumn of that year had strewn the earth with withered leaves, the heir to the throne had drooped and died. The Emperor's grief was intense, and was made harder to bear by reason of the many other cares and troubles which beset him on all sides at that time.

The second child was a daughter, Maria Theresa, who was born May 13, 1717, and upon whose head, according to the right of primogeniture established, by the Pragmatic Sanction, the crowns of the united Austrian states were one day to rest. Who could have imagined that this child, while inheriting all the beauty of her mother, would be endowed at the same time with a masculinity of intellect, together with a strength and wisdom, a firmness yet kindliness of disposition, which but few men have manifested?

St. Ambrose's. Hymn of Praise was at once sung in the most solemn manner in St. Stephen's Cathedral, in the presence of all the highest dignitaries of the Empire, and the baptism of the heiress to the throne took place on the evening of the day of her birth with great pomp and splendor. After the loss of their first-born, the imperial couple were overjoyed at the advent of this child, and, amid all the cares and responsibilities forced upon him by his numerous wars, the devoted father never lost sight of his fixed purpose or relaxed his efforts to obtain universal recognition of his law of succession among the European powers, as well as the various states of his own empire. He felt the importance of securing his beloved daughter's undisputed title to the throne, while the Empress' motherly heart rejoiced at each hardly won acknowledgment of the rights of her child, who already showed signs of such splendid promise.

But it was not alone in such well-grounded and well-directed efforts that the parents' care showed itself: no pains were spared to develop to the, fullest extent Maria Theresa's abundant mental gifts and talents, so as to fit her for her future position as ruler of an empire; nor did the noble mother fail to sow the seed and nourish the growth in her daughter's tender nature of those womanly virtues which were to bear such rich harvest.

With loving eyes the wise and careful Empress watched over the early training of the Princess' mind,—a mind which warranted the brightest hopes of all those to whose hands her education was intrusted. As may be readily understood, these instructors were selected from among the most distinguished ladies of the Court; the Countesses von Thurn and Valsassina, von Stubenberg and von Fuchs. They worked in perfect accord with the august mother upon whose breast God had placed the precious jewel, and to whose care He had intrusted the treasure. Later, as it became necessary for her to occupy herself with more serious and important subjects, learned and capable men were assigned the task of guiding the clear and active mind of the Princess through the departments of religion, history, and other branches of learning, the comprehension of which was deemed necessary. The study of languages, too, was begun at an early age and covered a wide range, as it was important that the future ruler of Austria should be familiar with the various tongues spoken within her dominions, and thus be able to dispense with interpreters who might, and indeed must inevitably, stand between her and her people to a certain extent. Above all, it was requisite that she should not only understand Latin but speak it fluently, since that was the language spoken in Hungary; and almost equally important was a knowledge of French, Italian, and Spanish. The most accomplished masters were chosen by the imperial parents, and equal care was bestowed on the choice of teachers for music, drawing, and painting.

My young readers will perceive from this that the Archduchess had no easy tasks to perform.

Though, as compared with the requirements of our times, such an education may seem defective in many respects, still it bore surprising fruit, due largely to the remarkable endowments of her who received it; she made such good use of it that it was possible for her not only to assume the high position that devolved upon her at an early age, but to maintain it with strength and dignity through all the troubled period of her minority.

The following incident confirms the truth of this statement. Maria Theresa was sixteen years of age when the important and complicated question of the election of a king of Poland was, to be decided by the King's councillors. The imperial maiden entered the council chamber at her father's side, to take part in the deliberations of the foremost statesmen of the empire, and bore herself with a grace and dignity that excited universal admiration. She listened with grave attention to the wise words of the councillors, but when it came her turn to express her opinions, at her father's desire, the astonishment of the ministers was unbounded, as was the Emperor's delight also, at the clearness and: accuracy of her judgment, and the acuteness and keenness of her perceptions.

This is given, as a proof of her clear understanding and early maturity of mind, but it must not be supposed that these qualities detracted in any way from her feminine charms. Indeed, her kindness of heart, delicacy of thought, and above all her moral purity and lofty strength of purpose, combined to form a personality which seemed born to rule by divine right over the hearts of men, as well as to sway the sceptre of a mighty Empire; nor was her power lessened by a physical beauty and grace that made her the envy of all the princesses of Europe.

As she approached the age when the question who should one day share the throne with her had to be seriously considered, its political bearing began to assert itself; personal views were taken less into account than careful calculations as to what would benefit the crown and state and serve to increase the national importance and influence. The Emperor and his consort had already discussed the question privately, before any of the foreign princes had turned their glances toward the throne and the heiress herself.

[Illustration] from Maria Theresa of Austria by George Upton
MARIA THERESA IN THE COUNCIL CHAMBER


An old tradition, to the effect that the crown of Spain would one day be joined again to that which was to adorn the beautiful head of Maria Theresa, was much talked of in Vienna, and with even more seriousness in Madrid. It came to nothing, however, and this laid the foundations of a deep and lasting enmity in Spain toward Austria. Other alliances, too, were discussed and rejected. Whether the affections of the Princess were involved in any of them is doubtful, especially as there happened to be a certain prince staying at the imperial court in Vienna who lacked none of the attractions of mind or person that particularly fitted him for success in his wooing. This was Francis Stephen, son of Duke Leopold and Hereditary Prince of Lorraine, who was somewhat older indeed than the youthful Archduchess, but worthy of her in every way. He had succeeded to the dukedom of Lorraine on his father's death, and there seemed no obstacles to the alliance, either personal or political, when an approaching war-cloud relegated all thoughts of marriage into the background.

The centre of disturbance in those days was Poland, a part it has repeatedly played since, under other circumstances and conditions. The throne of this unhappy land was vacant, and the number of claimants, with the variety of their pretensions, made it a veritable apple of discord. Charles VI supported the claim of the Elector of Saxony, but France, cherishing an old grudge, had other plans, and took up arms against Austria. The war did not last long, for Charles was anxious for peace; but many important changes resulted, which reduced Austria's possessions in Italy, and Maria Theresa's betrothed, instead of remaining Duke of Lorraine, was made Grand Duke of Tuscany. After peace had been declared, preparations were resumed for the marriage of the affianced pair. The nuptials were celebrated with the greatest splendor; but unfortunately the joy and satisfaction which the occasion brought the Emperor were embittered by the disastrous results of a war with Turkey, which made the death of Prince Eugene, "der edler Ritter," even more keenly felt, since all that his sword had won for Austria was lost again through the incompetency of other commanders. Not long after this, the happy young couple began their triumphal journey to Tuscany, the sovereignty of which had devolved upon the consort of the Archduchess.

The Emperor Charles' most ardent desire, to see a male heir born of this happy union, was not to be fulfilled; he was forced to close his eyes full of anxiety as to the continuation of his line and crushed by the fatal peace of Belgrade, which had been such a blow to him. His death occurred on October 20, 1740. The inheritance which he bequeathed to Maria Theresa, as his heiress and successor, consisted of little territory beyond what Prince Eugene's sword had won and secured. Austria's possessions had become greatly diminished by the results of unfortunate wars. The great leaders and nobles of the Empire, instead of working together to insure the stability of the much-talked-of Pragmatic Sanction, or, what was even more important, to fill the treasury and establish and maintain an army that should command respect, had ceased to be of any help or support to the Emperor; while an exceedingly lavish and brilliant Court swallowed up more than the country's resources warranted. So when Maria Theresa came to the throne, the state treasury was almost empty, the army large only on paper; in short, everything was lacking, and no order or system existed anywhere.

The Emperor was a kind-hearted, cultivated, and high-minded man, but not the kind of a ruler demanded by the condition of affairs and the importance of his position. He had a natural taste for art and learning, and sympathized with all that was lofty and noble. He was also devoted to the welfare of his people and indefatigable in all that pertained to their good; but in matters that concerned the political position of Austria, he lacked the necessary firmness and energy. Thus, while in some ways Maria Theresa had only to maintain what her noble father had planned and begun, in others she was obliged to act on her own responsibility and strive to remedy evils that needed a stronger and more masculine hand than is often possessed by a woman. But to her had been granted the clear, judicious mind and resolute spirit of a born ruler; she was singularly fitted for the difficult task, and what a man might not have been able to accomplish even under the most favorable circumstances, the woman and youthful Empress effected with the happiest results. It was no easy task for her, however, and the eyes of Europe were fixed expectantly, if somewhat doubtfully, on the fair young Princess who had grasped the reins of government under such difficult conditions.

One plan had been suggested to her which, viewed in the light of subsequent events, must have made a strong impression on her mind. When the question of choosing a consort for the Emperor's beautiful and promising daughter had been upper-most, Prince Eugene of Savoy proposed a union with the Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, he who afterward deservedly won for himself the title of "the Great"; and with his wonderful foresight and sagacity—indeed, it would almost seem with a prophetic vision of the future—strongly urged the execution of his plan. He did not succeed in uniting these two great hearts and minds, yet it shows how free from prejudice the great hero was. How different might the history of Europe have been had this dream of the knightly hero been realized! How far-reaching the consequences, extending even to our own times! How much, alas! that must be lamented, might Germany perhaps have been spared! But it was otherwise decreed in that high tribunal which rules all human affairs and speaks the irrevocable words,—"Thus Shall It Be!"

Maria Theresa was not yet twenty-four years old when she ascended the throne. She, whose insight was so clear and judgment so unerring, could not disguise from herself that her task was a hard one. The gravity of it was ever present before her, but she never allowed herself to be cast down or discouraged. She was ill, too, when the Emperor closed his eyes upon the troubles of this world, and sorrow for her honored father, together with the magnitude of her undertaking, lay heavily upon her heart; but with a devout glance to heaven, a fervent prayer for help to the source of all strength and courage, her lofty spirit rose again with the consciousness of divine aid and a firm resolve to fulfil the duties that had been imposed upon her. The leaders who should have been a support to her were more overcome by the Emperor's death than the devoted daughter who was able to conquer her grief so heroically, and she was compelled to take the lead, and revive their faltering spirits by her powerful will and lofty courage.

She had chosen for her motto one that she lived up to in thought and deed from the first to the last day of her reign, and of which all her acts and ideas bore the impress, namely, Justitia et Clementia, or, in English, Justice and Clemency." There was very soon a brilliant illustration of the latter quality. It was a time of want and distress for the poor, and one of the first acts of her reign was to throw open the well-filled imperial granaries and induce the great lords in her dominions to do the same. Is it any wonder that the people loved her with an enthusiastic devotion, and revered her as an angel sent to them from God? A second act, which quickly followed, completed this impression and strengthened its effect. Large herds of deer had been allowed to overrun the country and become a scourge to the industrious peasants, who were compelled to look on quietly while the animals, protected by law, grazed without hindrance over their cultivated fields, or suffer the heaviest penalties if they resisted. During the preceding year it had been the cause of an uprising in Styria, and the leaders of the rebellion had been condemned to death. Here were two great wrongs to be redressed, and the Empress did not hesitate to use the proper means. She caused the deer to be shot and their flesh publicly sold at the lowest prices, and pardoned those under sentence of death in Styria, but at the same time did not allow the insurgents to escape without any punishment. Her motto,

"Justice and Clemency," had become the rule of her life, and it was thus she entered upon her lofty and difficult sphere of action, with the God of justice and clemency ever before her eyes and in her heart.

That many reforms were necessary was everywhere made clear by the pressure of obsolete customs and ideas; but that they could be effected so promptly and thoroughly was more than any one had dared to hope. How could it have been expected that a woman, however wise, talented, and full of lofty aims, should understand the condition of the country well enough to decide at once upon the changes that were necessary, and be able to lay her hand upon the proper means for bringing them about?

The surprising fact, however, was brought to light that the young ruler was fully acquainted with the state of affairs in her realm and with the causes of the principal evils, which astonished the people as much as it did her ministers, to whom she had already revealed this unsuspected sagacity and penetration at their first conference, thereby causing some uneasiness to agitate the old gentlemen's powdered wigs and make them anxious to assist her in her reforms.

Maria Theresa already had realized the force of the advice Prince Eugene had so strongly urged upon her father. The army was utterly demoralized; the officers had unlimited leave of absence, and frequently lived in Vienna or anywhere they chose, except with their regiments and in their quarters. So it was like a thunderbolt to them when the young Empress issued orders for the immediate return of all officers to their regiments, and for the army to be increased and placed upon such a footing that a sudden outbreak of war should not find it unprepared; but at the same time she won the devotion of the entire army by thus infusing fresh life and vigor into the almost paralyzed service, and also by another act of clemency. The leading officers, colonels and generals, who had been held responsible for the results of the last disastrous Turkish war, and been made to pay heavily for their mistakes by dismissal and imprisonment, were not only liberated but restored to all their former honors and dignities. The effect of this upon the army was magical, and the shout of Hungary in later days, "We will die for our Empress!" swept through the army in an enthusiastic expression of devotion and reverence, which was also shared by the officers' families.

Charles VI had been harshly blamed for the enormous sums swallowed up by the imperial household. The retinue of well-paid officials and retainers was so numerous that they only hindered the business at Court instead of promoting it, and the salaries were out of all proportion to the services rendered. Fraud and peculation, too, were not wanting, and Maria Theresa found herself burdened with a household which cost the state more than the important affairs of government. With her clear insight and resolute will, it was but a short step from perception to action. She determined that as far as was consistent with the dignity of the Court, it should be regulated according to the system that prevailed in lower ranks of life; the spirit of display and show should be curbed, and a judicious economy introduced. Dismissals accordingly took place at once, salaries were decreased, many unnecessary expenses done away with, and a strict inspection of household accounts and expenditures instituted; and, as Maria Theresa's consort also brought his influence to bear in the control and regulation of this as of other departments of state finances, matters began to assume a very different appearance, and the ever-pressing need for money disappeared. The people, too, were delighted to see that their beloved young ruler understood the management of her vast household as well as any thrifty German housewife. As in her administration of the affairs of the Empire she showed a masculine clearness and certainty in deciding between what was proper or improper, right or wrong, so here also her feminine instincts for order and the practical management of domestic affairs were conspicuous.

How much Maria Theresa loved and respected her husband is shown very plainly in the fact that she could not bear to have him occupy an inferior position to her, and that she spared no pains to make a way for him toward imperial honors. Scarcely a month after their accession, she made him co-regent and bestowed upon him the electoral dignities which belonged to the crown of Bohemia, thereby displaying not only her affection for him but also her womanly tact and diplomacy. She realized the strained relations with foreign courts that existed in Austria, and well knew that only the slightest provocation was needed to involve her in terrible wars. Thus it was a question not only of gratifying the dictates of her own heart, but also of guarding against any errors or false steps which her foes might seize upon and make an excuse for active enmity; and she succeeded in this in a masterly manner, though more depended upon the observance of forms and ceremonies than their real significance warranted. It was of the highest importance not to give offence anywhere; for although the so-called Pragmatic Sanction had been recognized in many quarters,—a recognition too often purchased by her father at a heavy sacrifice,—it was by no means certain that objections might not yet be raised against the step, as well as against her elevation of her husband to imperial honors, and that would mean war. It was therefore a relief and satisfaction to her that the States of her Empire did not delay in pronouncing their hearty concurrence in both measures. When some who opposed them showed their disapproval by an absurd attempt to assert their authority, the kindly sovereign maintained a discreet silence and ignored it. Bavaria, indeed, asserted claims to the crown of Bohemia; but when Maria Theresa, in reply, sent troops to the disputed kingdom, a wholesome fear weakened the ambition of Bavaria, and the hint was sufficient to prevent any further trouble.

So Maria Theresa's throne seemed firmly established both at home and abroad. She had a loyal, devoted people on one side and an enthusiastic army on the other, to support her, and looked cheerfully and hopefully into the future, where no gathering storm, no lowering clouds, appeared to threaten her peace and security.