Maria Theresa

(Maria Theresa of Austria)


Maria Theresa of Austria was the only female monarch of the Habsburg dynasty. She reigned over Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Milan, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parma, ruling for forty years until her death. She was by traditional law not allowed to be her father’s successor, but the passing of Charles VI’s Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 allowed a daughter to rule in his stead should he not produce a male heir. After his death, however, Prussia, Saxony, and Bavaria renounced the agreement and invaded Silesia, sparking a nine-year power struggle known as the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa remained in power but was forced to surrender the territory of Silesia, which she later tried and failed to recapture during the Seven Year's War, a major battle that pitted Prussia and Great Britain against Austria, France, Russia, Spain, and Sweden.

Maria Theresa
While Charles VI had passed the sanction that would ensure the continuation of his kingdom, he still hoped for a son to rule after him, and as a result he chose not to educate his eldest daughter in the affairs of the state. Rather, Maria was raised to perform the trivial duties of a queen consort, such as painting and playing music. She married Francis Stephen of Lorraine and later gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of whom survived infancy. When her father passed away in 1740, Maria found herself in a difficult situation; she did not know how to rule the country, and she was unaware of the weakness of her father’s ministers. She chose to defer to her husband—a poor decision—and set about ensuring his rise to the status of Holy Roman Emperor. Almost immediately after the start of her reign, the War of the Austrian Succession broke out, and Maria fought to keep a hold on the mineral-rich state of Silesia, to no avail. She fought another major war several years after the conclusion of the first, this time with the assistance of Spain, France, and Russia. France suffered much during the Seven Year's War, but Austria’s fortunes were largely unchanged. Throughout both wars, the queen occupied herself with the marrying off of her children, whom she loved but used as pawns to enlarge her sphere of influence. Maria Theresa caught smallpox at the age of fifty from her daughter-in-law, and while she survived, the young woman as well as Maria’s own daughter passed away from the disease.

While not as learned as her sons, who assisted her in ruling the Habsburg Empire and would later take their turns as emperor, Maria Theresa was widely respected by her subjects. She instigated several economic and educational reforms, promoted agricultural development, and reorganized the military. She also outlawed capital punishment, witch burnings, and torture. She was, however, a staunch Roman Catholic, and while she largely avoided Rome’s opinions of her decisions, she refused to allow religious toleration. She regarded Jews and Protestants as enemies of the state and actively tried to subdue them, imposing harsh taxes and ultimately forcing them out of the country. Her refusal of toleration was perhaps the greatest oversight during her reign, and it made her appear bigoted and superstitious.

Francis Stephen passed away in 1765, and from that moment forward, Maria Theresa dressed in clothes of mourning, painted her rooms black, and completely withdrew from public life, which had a negative effect on her mental health. She likely never completely recovered from her smallpox outbreak, and as a result she passed away in 1780.

Key events during the life of Maria Theresa:

Pragmatic Sanction
Married Francis Stephen of Lorraine
Father died and Maria became queen
War of the Austrian Succession
Had herself crowned King of Bohemia
Seven Years' War
Husband died; Joseph became Holy Roman Emperor and co-ruler of Austria
Came down with a severe case of smallpox

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Charles VII  in  The History of Germany  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Maria Theresa  in  The Awakening of Europe  by  M. B. Synge

Book Links
Maria Theresa of Austria  by  George Upton

Image Links

Maria Theresa
Maria Theresa
 in Back Matter

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