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Maria Theresa of Austria

Civilization:European: Austrian
Era: Enlightenment
1717–1780Field of Renown:monarch: Queen

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 Years’ War, a major battle that pitted Prussia and Great Britain against Austria, France, Russia, Spain, and Sweden.

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 Years’ 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

Year Event
1713 Pragmatic Sanction
1717 Born
1736 Married Francis Stephen of Lorraine
1740 Father died and Maria became queen
1740 War of the Austrian Succession
1743 Had herself crowned King of Bohemia
1756 Seven Years' War
1765 Husband died; Joseph became Holy Roman Emperor and co-ruler of Austria
1767 Came down with a severe case of smallpox
1780 Died

Book Links
Maria Theresa of Austria  by  George Upton


Story LinksBook Links
Charles VII  in  History of Germany  by  Marshall
Maria Theresa  in  Awakening of Europe  by  Synge

Image Links
Maria Theresa in Statesmen and Sages

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