Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) (Maria Theresa; 1717–1780; Ruled 1740–1780)

views updated May 18 2018

MARIA THERESA (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (Maria Theresa; 17171780; ruled 17401780)

MARIA THERESA (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (Maria Theresa; 17171780; ruled 17401780), empress of Austria. Many historians regard the eighteenth century as a time when monarchical government represented the most progressive force in economics, politics, and society. Maria Theresa was one of the greatest of these eighteenth-century monarchs, but no one would have anticipated her success when she came to the throne. The Habsburg Monarchy was not a single entity, but a conglomeration of provinces stretching from Belgium in the west to Transylvania in the east and Silesianow in Polandin the north to Tuscany in the south with many spaces in between. Many historians agree that, when she ended her reign, these disparate lands had achieved a unity they had never known before.

In the early eighteenth century, many of these provinces had no provision for a female ruler. As it became increasingly apparent that the Habsburg family might be running out of males, in 1713 Maria Theresa's father, Charles VI (ruled 17111740), made public an internal family document called the Pragmatic Sanction, which guaranteed the right of succession to female family members. After 1720 Charles worked hard to persuade first his crownlands and then the other European powers to recognize the Pragmatic Sanction so that his elder daughter, Maria Theresa, could inherit the Habsburg patrimony. By the time Charles died in 1740, he seemed to have succeeded.

Within two months of his death, Charles's carefully crafted diplomatic effort to assure his daughter's succession fell apart. In December 1740 the new king of Prussia, Frederick II (later known as "Frederick the Great"), invaded the Austrian province of Silesia, claiming it for his crown. Maria Theresa's advisers, including her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, recommended that she seek an accommodation with Frederick because Austria was in no condition, militarily or financially, to resist.

Maria Theresa rejected that advice peremptorily. She vowed to fight to preserve her inheritance and to use every resource to do so. She rallied support from all parts of her realm, inspired her soldiers and officers with stirring words, and set out to crush Frederick, whom she would later refer to as the "monster." Thus began the War of the Austrian Succession (17401748), which became a European-wide affair with Prussia, Bavaria, and France fighting on one side against Austria and Britain on the other. It took many twists and turns, finally ending in 1748 with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) between Austria and France. The Austro-Prussian war had ended in 1745 with Maria Theresa ceding Silesia to Frederick II.

The Prussian seizure of Silesia was the driving force in Maria Theresa's reign. From the outset, she was determined to right this terrible wrong that Frederick had inflicted upon her, and her reform efforts for the rest of her reign always had that leitmotif running through them. Maria Theresa was not a theorist; she had no compelling vision of what she imagined her possessions should become. Rather, she was practical, authorizing reforms she believed were needed and adjusting their impact to the expected and unexpected results they invariably generated.

The reforms began at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession to answer the fundamental question: how does one raise an army that can defeat the Prussians and provide it with the financial support necessary to do so? To deal with this issue, she adopted the plan of a noble but impoverished refugee from Silesia, Count Friedrich Wilhelm Haugwitz, which called for ending the annual negotiations with the monarchy's estates for human and financial resources and replacing them with negotiations every ten years. The estates would grant the central government an annual revenue for a ten-year period, along with the authority to collect it. With these funds and by combining many functions of government under the authority of a new central General Directory, Maria Theresa was able to raise a peacetime army of 110,000 men to prepare for war with Frederick II.

The opportunity to begin that war came in 1756. In that year Frederick concluded an accord with Britain, thereby pulling this old ally from its association with Austria. Instead of bemoaning the loss, Maria Theresa's master of foreign policy and brilliant adviser for many years to come, Wenzel Anton Kaunitz, arranged an alliance between Austria and its age-old enemy, France, in what has come down in history as the Reversal of Alliances (or the Diplomatic Revolution). The adherence of Russia to the alliance seemed to give it overwhelming power in relation to Prussia. In August Frederick launched a preemptive strike against Saxony, and thus began the Seven Years' War (17561763), called at times in central Europe the Third Silesian War.

Maria Theresa fought this war with all her heart. This was the war that she hoped would rectify the harm that Frederick had inflicted upon her in 1740. But Austria just could not pull off the necessary victories. Haugwitz's reforms had substantially improved the financial condition of the monarchy and the army, but they had been designed for peacetime, not for war. The monarchy had to resort to a number of financial gimmicks to keep the war going, and a number of favorite economic projects had to be abandoned. Austria's allies, France and Russia, were not at their peak in terms of military efficiency, while France especially was sidetracked by its war against Britain in Europe, America, and India. And Frederick was a formidable enemy. A master of the use of interior lines, Frederick kept his many enemies at bay until the war finally came to an end in 1762 when Russia dropped out of the coalition.

The Seven Years' War was the last true conflict Maria Theresa fought against Prussia or any other state. In 17781779 the War of the Bavarian Succession, encouraged primarily by her son and co-ruler, Joseph II (ruled 17651790), seemed about to become another war for Silesia, but she intervened personally to stop it. Her reforms did not stop, however, nor did their intent to strengthen the Habsburg state. In the post-war period, Maria Theresa's reforms reflected the prevailing idea of Enlightened Absolutism, namely that the strength of a state did not rest in the size of its army or the amount of land it controlled but in the health and well-being of its people and the wealth they generated.

This second period of reform caused Maria Theresa some spiritual angst. She was a devout and conservative Roman Catholic who deeply opposed religious pluralism as a threat to the souls of her subjects. She also bore a number of prejudices that came out every now and then, one notable example being her expulsion of the Jews from the city of Prague in 1745 and another her forced emigration of crypto-Protestants either to Transylvania or out of the monarchy altogether. But, in keeping with her reforms, she wanted her church to be of practical benefit to her people and instituted a number of policies to make it that way. She insisted that the church reduce the number of monks, allow taxation of the clergy, create more parishes, and strengthen existing parishes. When the pope abolished the Jesuit Order in 1773, she secured papal permission to convert its property in the monarchy to use by the state in order to establish a system of public education. These policies reflected Maria Theresa's pragmatic desire to improve the lot of her subjects and her pious wish to strengthen the role of the church at the parish level. They also hinted at Josephinism, her son and co-ruler's more thorough endeavor to use the church's resources for the good of the state.

Other reforms included her efforts to improve the lot of the peasantry. In response to peasant unrest, she alleviated the condition of the serfs on crownlands and imposed restrictions on lords' treatment of their peasants. She advocated the conversion of work dues to rent in order to encourage the peasants to be more productive, which in turn would bring in more revenue to the state and offer a higher quality recruit for the army. Maria Theresa likewise determined to revise the civil and criminal codes of the monarchy. She abolished the use of torture in 1776, but wide-scale reforms were delayed in part because Joseph II and some of her ministers regarded what she wanted as not liberal and far-reaching enough.

Maria Theresa was famous not only for her successful reforms and her vigorous foreign policy but also as a wife and mother. Reflecting on the lack of Habsburg males as a reason for triggering the Prussian invasion of Silesia, she determined from the outset that the Habsburg family would never again be short of offspring. She was the mother of sixteen children, five boys and eleven girls. She wrote to one of her daughters, "I can never have enough children; in this I am insatiable." She deeply loved her husband, Francis Stephen. An effective ruler in his own province of Tuscany and bearing the title of Holy Roman emperor from 1745, in Vienna his primary political role was to offer advice. When he died in 1765, she went into deep mourning, even pondering giving all her authority to her eldest son, Joseph.

Joseph succeeded to the title of Holy Roman emperor in 1765 and became co-ruler with his mother until her death in 1780. Their relationship was a turbulent one, with Joseph advocating much more extensive reform than Maria Theresa was willing to allow. Their voluminous correspondence is full of references to Maria Theresa's resisting her son's advice and demands, and of Joseph's heading off on inspection trips around the monarchy to work off the tension and stress his mother's resistance caused him.

Maria Theresa's death in 1780 caused considerable grief throughout the monarchy. A tribute came from her lifelong foe, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who wrote when he heard of her passing, "I accepted the death of the empress-queen. She did honor to her throne and to her sex; I fought wars with her, but never was I her enemy." The Pragmatic Sanction created a legal basis for the unity of the Habsburg Monarchy; Maria Theresa established it in fact.

See also Austria ; Austrian Succession, War of the (17401748) ; Bavaria ; Charles VI (Holy Roman Empire) ; Frederick II (Prussia) ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Holy Roman Empire ; Joseph II (Holy Roman Empire) ; Prussia ; Seven Years' War (17561763) .


Beales, Derek. Joseph II: In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 17411780. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Dickson, P. G. M. Finance and Government under Maria Theresa, 17401780. 2 vols. Oxford, 1987.

McGill, William. Maria Theresa. New York, 1972.

Roider, Karl A., ed. Maria Theresa. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973.

Szabo, Franz A. J. Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 17531780. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Wangermann, Ernst. The Austrian Achievement, 17001800. London, 1973.

Karl A. Roider

Maria Theresa

views updated May 18 2018

Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa (1717-1780) was Holy Roman empress from 1740 to 1780. Ruling in the most difficult period of Austrian history, she modernized her dominions and saved them from dissolution.

The eldest daughter of the emperor Charles VI, Maria Theresa was born in Vienna on May 13, 1717. Her education did not differ in the main from that given any imperial princess, being both clerical and superficial, even though by the time she was an adolescent it was becoming increasingly probable that Charles would produce no male heir and that one day Maria Theresa would succeed to all his dominions. Charles did not act upon the insistent advice of his most capable adviser, Prince Eugene of Savoy, and marry his daughter off to a prince powerful and influential enough himself to protect her dominions in time of need. Instead he chose to rely upon the fanciful diplomatic guarantees offered by the Pragmatic Sanction. Thus, in 1736 Maria Theresa was permitted to marry for love. Her choice was Duke Francis Stephen of Lorraine. So that France might not object to the prospect of an eventual incorporation of Lorraine into the empire, Francis Stephen was forced to exchange his beloved province for the rather less valuable Tuscany.

In spite of this, and even though the marriage in its first 3 years produced three daughters, Maria Theresa was boundlessly happy. Then suddenly, in October 1740, her father died. At the age of 23, without anything in the way of formal preparation, without the least acquaintance with affairs of state, Maria Theresa had supreme responsibility thrust upon her.

War of the Austrian Succession

Francis Stephen was designated coregent and put in charge of restoring the finances of the empire, a task to which he brought considerable ability but for which he was not to have the requisite time. The treasury was empty, the army had been badly neglected, and as Prince Eugene had warned, Austria's neighbors now engaged in a contest to establish which of them could repudiate most completely the obligations they had subscribed to in the Pragmatic Sanction. Bavaria advanced claims to a considerable portion of the Hapsburg lands and was supported in this venture by France. Spain demanded the empire's Italian territories. Frederick II of Prussia, himself very recently come to the throne of his country, now offered to support Maria Theresa against these importunities if Austria would pay for this service by turning over to Prussia the province of Silesia. When this cynical offer was indignantly rejected in Vienna, Frederick sent his troops into Silesia in December 1740. Bavaria and France soon joined in this attack, thus launching the 8-year War of the Austrian Succession.

At first it seemed as if the young Maria Theresa could quickly be overwhelmed. The elector Charles of Bavaria secured his election as Emperor Charles VII and with German and French troops captured Prague. If his army had achieved a juncture with the Prussians, the Austrians would no longer have been in a position to defend themselves. But Frederick II had not launched his attack on Silesia to introduce a French hegemony in central Europe. He now concluded an armistice with the Austrians, who were, in 1742, able to concentrate their forces against the French and Bavarians, whom they threw out of Bohemia. Frederick came back into the war in 1744, withdrew again the next year, in which, the Bavarian Charles VII having died, Francis Stephen was elected emperor. The war was ended at last in 1748, Austria being forced to acquiesce in the Prussian retention of Silesia and losing also the Italian districts of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla to France. The loss of Silesia was very painful indeed, as it was perhaps the richest of all the Hapsburg provinces.

Domestic Reform

Maria Theresa had learned her job under the most difficult conditions during the war. But she had soon found that, among the members of the high court aristocracy, the only class from which, traditionally, important servants of the Crown could be drawn, there was no dearth of able men willing to unite their fate with that of the house of Hapsburg. Although she had never, in the course of the war, found a really satisfactory general, she had recognized the talents of, and placed in responsible positions, a number of able administrators, men such as counts Sinzendorf, Sylva-Tarouca, and Kaunitz. Thus, at the end of the war, the basis for a reform of the governmental apparatus already existed.

The actual work of reform, with the explicit end of strengthening Austria so that one day in the not too distant future Silesia might be recovered, was turned over to a Silesian exile, Count Frederick William Haugwitz. The key to Haugwitz's reform program was centralization. Bohemia and Austria were placed under a combined ministry, and the Provincial Estates were, insofar as possible, deprived of their authority or at least circumvented. At the same time industry was encouraged as a producer of wealth that could most readily be tapped by the state. In the provinces to which it was applied, the system produced dramatic results: on the average, the military contributions of the districts in question rose by 150 percent. Unfortunately, the concerted opposition of the nobility in Hungary prevented it from being applied there. Moreover, Haugwitz's position was being continually undermined by his colleague Kaunitz, who himself wished to play the role of Austria's savior.

Foreign Policy

In 1753 Kaunitz was given the title of state chancellor with unrestricted powers in the realm of foreign policy. While serving as Austrian ambassador to France, he had convinced himself that Austria's defeat in the recent war had been due largely to an unfortunate choice of allies. In particular, he thought, the empire had been badly let down by England. He now set about forging a new alliance whose chief aim was to surround Prussia with an insurmountable coalition. Saxony, Sweden, and Russia became Austria's allies. In 1755 Kaunitz's diplomatic efforts were crowned with the conclusion of an alliance with Austria's old enemy France, a circumstance that led to the conclusion of an alliance between Prussia and England. This diplomatic revolution seemed to leave the Prussians at a hopeless disadvantage, but Frederick II was not the man to await his own funeral, and in 1756 he opened hostilities, thus launching what was to become the Seven Years War.

Maria Theresa, although no lover of warfare for its own sake, welcomed the war as the only practical means of at last recovering Silesia. It was not to be. In spite of a much more energetic conduct of the war on the part of Austria, Frederick was for the most part able to fight his enemies one at a time. And when, in 1762, his situation at last appeared desperate, the death of Empress Elisabeth brought about a Russian withdrawal from the war, which now could no longer be won by the allies. In 1763 peace was concluded, and Silesia remained firmly in Prussian hands.

In the course of this second war, Maria Theresa developed the habit of governing autocratically, excluding Francis Stephen from all participation in the affairs of state. In spite of this the marriage was a happy one. From the dynastic point of view, the birth of Archduke Joseph in 1741 had assured the male succession. His birth was followed by numerous others, the imperial couple producing 16 children in all. Then suddenly, in 1765, the Emperor died of a stroke. Maria Theresa was inconsolable. For a time she thought of withdrawing to a cloister and turning the government over to Joseph, who was then 24. It was only with great difficulty that her ministers, with Kaunitz in the lead, managed to dissuade her from this course. And when she did return to public life, it was as a different woman. For the rest of her days she wore only black; she never again appeared at the gay divertisements of what had been a very lighthearted court; and if she had all her life been a pious Catholic, her devotion to religion now came to border on both fanaticism and bigotry.

Later Reign

At his father's death Joseph had been appointed coregent. Unlike his father, the archduke meant in fact to share in the governance of the realm. But this Maria Theresa was unwilling to let him do. After many recriminations, a compromise was arrived at: Joseph was to take charge of army reform and to share with Kaunitz the responsibility of making foreign policy. This arrangement was unfortunate not only because it deprived Joseph of any real influence on the internal affairs of Austria, the sector in which his ideas were most promising, but also because he had no talent whatever either for diplomacy or for warfare.

The 15 years of the coregency were a time of continual struggle between mother and son, but it would be a mistake to construe them as an unrelenting struggle between the forces of progress, as represented by Joseph, and those of reaction, led by Maria Theresa. Although the archduke vigorously defended the principle of religious toleration, anathema to his mother, and once threatened to resign when she proposed to expel some Protestants from Bohemia, on the equally important question of peasant emancipation, Maria Theresa took a stand distinctly more favorable to the peasants than Joseph. In foreign affairs, she opposed Joseph's adventurous attempt to acquire Bavaria, which, as she had feared, led to war with Prussia in 1778; and when Joseph lost his nerve in the midst of the struggle, she took matters into her own hands and negotiated a by no means disadvantageous peace that resulted in the acquisition of the Innviertel.

These last events, incidentally, confirm that after the unsatisfactory conclusion of the Seven Years War the main Austrian objective was no longer a redress of balance against Prussia. If political and social reforms continued, it was in part because reform had become a way of life, in part because Maria Theresa recognized that a more centralized and effective government was an end worth pursuing for itself. Although it is true that throughout the coregency Joseph kept up a clamor for various changes, some of the major reforms of the period can nevertheless be attributed chiefly to the desires of the Empress. This is particularly true of the new penal code of 1768 and of the abolition of judicial torture in 1776. The penal code, although objected to as still unduly harsh, nevertheless had the virtue of standardizing both judicial proceedings and punishments. In spite of her devotion to the Catholic Church, Maria Theresa insisted on defending with great vigor the rights of the state vis-à-vis the Church.

In her reign, neither papal bulls nor the pastoral letters of bishops could circulate in her dominions without her prior permission, and in 1777 Maria Theresa joined a number of other European monarchs in banishing the Society of Jesus from her lands. In the course of 1780 Maria Theresa's health deteriorated rapidly. She died on November 29 of that year, probably of a heart condition.

Further Reading

The standard work on Maria Theresa is in German. The best biography in English is Robert Pick, Empress Maria Theresa: The Earlier Years, 1717-1757 (1966). Other biographies are J. Alexander Mahan, Maria Theresa of Austria (1932); Constance Lily Morris, Maria Theresa: The Last Conservative (1937); and Edward Crankshaw, Maria Theresa (1970). George P. Gooch's excellent Maria Theresa and Other Studies (1951; repr. 1965) is part biography and part historiography, ending with a survey of European historical novels. For historical background and further information on Maria Theresa see Edith M. Link, The Emancipation of the Austrian Peasant, 1740-1798 (1949).

Additional Sources

Crankshaw, Edward, Maria Theresa, New York: Atheneum, 1986. □

Maria Theresa

views updated Jun 08 2018

Maria Theresa (1717–80) Archduchess of Austria, ruler (1740–80) of the Austrian Habsburg Empire. She succeeded her father, Emperor Charles VI, but neighbouring powers challenged her in the War of the Austrian Succession (1741–48). She lost Silesia to Prussia but secured the imperial title for her husband, Francis I. She switched allegiances, but failed to regain Silesia in the Seven Years' War (1756–63).

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