Maria Theresa of Austria - George Upton

The Last Days of Maria Theresa

Peace! The joyful cry rang from one end of Maria Theresa's dominions to the other, and was echoed in her own heart; for, deeply as she grieved over Silesia, now lost to her forever, she must have had a feeling of thankfulness when she thought of those battlefields which had been reddened with the blood of so many thousands of her people. Her deeply religious nature must have prompted the thought: "Since all my sacrifices, all my efforts and exertions have availed nothing toward the restoration of Silesia to me, it must be the will of Him who rules all, and without whose notice not a sparrow falls."

The great Empress, who could control herself so well, could not fail to recognize how incomplete her efforts toward governing and improving the condition of her people had been thus far, and to welcome a peace which would enable her to continue the work, and, in devoting all her energies to remove the devastation caused by the war, find a balm for the wound in her own heart which the loss of Silesia had inflicted.

It would be doing Maria Theresa a great injustice, however, to imply that she to whom the condition of the government and its evils had been so clear, even during her father's lifetime, had not profited by the occasional intervals of peace which the country had enjoyed, and worked zealously for their reform until war again turned the ploughshare into the sword. It was impossible for her to recognize defects without endeavoring to remedy them. We have already seen how resolutely she checked the luxury and extravagance of the Court after her father's death; how, taught by bitter experience the need of reformation in the army, she had strengthened and prepared it for the long and desperate struggle that was to come; how she had increased the country's revenues and readjusted the system of taxation upon which she depended for means to defend her right to the throne; and with what unerring judgment she had chosen the best men to carry out her plans, and placed them where their abilities would be of most service to the country.

Her character and talents especially fitted her for the position she occupied as sovereign of a great Empire in need of reorganization, for to her clear insight, her habit of going to the root of things, and her wide sympathies, was added a calmness and strength of purpose which enabled her to achieve great results without rashness or precipitancy. Her reforms indeed were brought about so gradually, and newer and more effective methods succeeded the old so naturally, that they aroused no opposition, and were accomplished with none of that confusion which more abrupt and violent changes might have caused. She took great pleasure in watching the fruitful results of these efforts, without any desire for that personal glory which is often so cheaply obtained. There was, in truth, no department of public affairs which was not in need of reconstruction, no part of the national life where she did not find something to rectify; but nothing escaped her, even to the smallest detail. Everywhere, from the army down to her own domestic service, the results of her conscientious card and judicious supervision were visible.

In all matters of learning and education Maria Theresa depended on the help of Van Swieten, an eminent and accomplished Dutch physician. She had appointed him to a position in Court, but soon recognized his profound knowledge in all branches of learning, and at once assigned him to a field where his talents could be utilized, not only in the sanitary administration of her realm, but also in other departments in which his services were quite as valuable.

Under the personal supervision of the Empress, Van Swieten undertook the reconstruction of the whole system of education and the reorganization of the Imperial library. Many schools and institutions were established, including one for the study of Oriental languages, rendered necessary by the increasing importance of Austria's relations with the East, one for veterinary surgery, and an academy for young noblemen. Though deeply and sincerely devout, Maria Theresa realized that the ecclesiastical power and authority required restriction, and that the condition of the monasteries was sadly in need of reform. Much as she accomplished for higher culture, the education of the lower classes was no less important to her; for Austria had not kept pace with general progress in this direction, and dense ignorance prevailed among them. Her chief adviser and supporter in this work was Joseph von Sonnenfels, whose suggestion, "It is not enough to have public schools in the large cities; not even the smallest village should be without one," was warmly approved by Maria Theresa, the mother of her country. The Normal School in Vienna set an example for other cities, which was soon followed in the so-called "low country."

If the abolishment of the rack, with its inhuman and unchristian tortures, had been Maria Theresa's only contribution to higher civilization in her Empire, she would have deserved the thanks, not only of her own people but of all mankind; but while this was her most notable act, there was no department of life, no branch of the government, that did not bear witness to her noble qualities of head and heart or feel the influence of her beneficent power. She loved and fostered music, and among the masters who shed a lustre over that period the great names of Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart will testify to her unfailing interest in this art; while the branches of painting and sculpture claimed no less a share of her patronage and support.

It is useless to attempt here to go into all the details of her various achievements, but one subject must be mentioned which deeply involved the welfare of the people and of the country,—that of agriculture, trade, and commerce. Her efforts to improve agricultural conditions were necessarily rudimental, and results were left for the future to develop; but it was Maria Theresa's sowing that made the harvest of later times possible, and she prepared the way by founding schools for the study of agriculture, thus providing opportunities for the farmers to secure larger knowledge of their avocation. Another great step was the realization of the need of a system of drainage, now so indispensable to human welfare, but which at that time had received little attention, especially in Austria. She instituted a thorough study of the subject, had large areas of land drained and made productive, thus providing more farms for the people. She also built new villages in the sparsely populated districts of Hungary, Galicia, Bohemia, and Banat, and settled them with industrious workmen; founded the Economical Society of Lower Austria, and instituted annual prize examinations. She imported merino sheep from Spain, and had them distributed among sheep-raisers. In Hungary and Bohemia, where there were large flax fields, apiaries were started. Fine breeds of horses were raised for use by the cavalry. In these and other ways the resources of the country were developed for its own enrichment, instead of going out of the country for the advantage of foreign treasuries. Trade and commerce were facilitated by the building of new roads and canals. Rivers were made more navigable; new markets were opened up and seaports were improved and increased, while home industries and manufactures were encouraged by the erection of factories.

In short, the field over which her watchful supervision extended was boundless, and yet every detail received her personal attention. All reports were made to her directly, and she discussed matters of all kinds with those who were experts, often surprising them by her accurate knowledge and apt suggestions. And yet with all these cares the Empress still found time to perform the various duties of government with unabated zeal and energy, and devoted herself to her family, the care of which was a sacred mission to her, with the utmost fidelity.

As we take a glance into this august family circle it is difficult to believe it that of an Emperor and Empress, such an atmosphere of simplicity and sincere affection prevailed there. Maria Theresa presided over it with all the womanly charm and devotion of a true German housewife and mother. A handsomer royal couple could scarcely have been found. Their married life had been very happy, for they were one in heart and mind. She was devoted to her husband and he to her, although her father had not favored the attachment. The Emperor Francis II was calm and deliberate; Maria Theresa high-spirited and quick-tempered, but firm and decided, and full of life and vivacity. Their natures therefore complemented each other, the Emperor's placidity and easy-going disposition often acting as a beneficial restraint. When a disagreement occurred between them,—something that will happen in the happiest married life,—the Empress would burst out impetuously, while her consort only grumbled in his beard; but the chief lady-in-waiting, Countess Fuchs, who shared the confidence of both, usually succeeded in soon restoring peace, for their misunderstandings never lasted long.

The Emperor rarely concerned himself with matters that did not appeal to his own tastes and inclinations, and took no part in affairs of state except at the request of his wife. At such times he gave his advice gladly and cheerfully, for no one could resist the covert flattery of Maria Theresa's entreaties. Their marriage was blessed with sixteen children, living bonds which united and made the happiness of their lives, and whose love and affection were a refuge to the Empress from the cares of state. How often must her weary brain and over-burdened soul have found rest and comfort in the embraces of her children, especially the younger ones, always nearest to a mother's heart, while she drew fresh strength and courage from their pure and innocent affection! The difference in the natures of the imperial pair was of advantage also in the training of their children, for the father's unfailing patience and good nature often acted as a check on the mother's hasty and imperious temper. At the same time there was no friction, for they were of one mind as to the importance of implanting the right principles; the Emperor insisting on strict obedience, propriety of behavior, and order (which was especially dear to him), while their moral and religious training fell to the share of the Empress, who never appeared lovelier or more interesting than in the privacy of her family life.

The education of their numerous children was the most sacred duty and interest of both parents, and their teachers were selected with the greatest care. The Empress devoted especial attention to the education of her oldest son and successor, Joseph, particularly in the various languages spoken in her dominions. She knew from her own experience how strong is the bond between a sovereign and his people when he can speak with them in their mother-tongue. As a mark of her gratitude toward Hungary, she gave her dear Seppel (her familiar name for the Archduke Joseph), as steward of his household, the brave Hungarian Prince Bathiany, a man well fitted for the position and much esteemed and beloved by his own countrymen. No detail was neglected in the care bestowed on the management of the royal children, and the Empress' strict orders that they should "always be courteous to servants and inferiors" might well serve as an example to all mothers. This simple and beautiful family life, which had been Maria Theresa's chief joy and happiness, was sadly shattered by the death of the husband to whom she was so tenderly attached. It cast a deep shadow over the rest of her life, and from the day of his death she never laid aside her mourning.

How richly Maria Theresa rewarded faithful service, aside from the honors or orders she conferred, is shown by the friendly relations between herself and the men she most valued and esteemed. She called old Count Palffy her "father"; the brave and loyal Khevenhuller, her "knight"; gallant Traun, her "shield"; and so on. Of the honored Count Chotek she once wrote: "I have had news from him every day, and was anxious for two days lest the worst might happen. When he is able to be out of bed, I shall visit him." Again, when Count Chotek had begged from the Empress the services of the Court physician, Dr. Kessler, for his sick child, she wrote back at once:

"Thank God that he is to be in such good hands as Kessler's. It can be easily arranged, and the letter will be sent to van Swieten as a matter of form. I could not sleep last night for thinking of the charming child, and Van Swieten was much affected when he learned from me of his condition, but cheered up at once when he found that Kessler had charge of him. I hope he will not be marked as his brother Humelauer was, and that Kessler will let me know every day how he is, for I am deeply interested."

[Illustration] from Maria Theresa of Austria by George Upton


Once when she was at Laxenburg it chanced that a poor woman, one hundred and eight years of age, who was well known to her, and had not missed for many years the usual ceremony of the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, was unable that year to be present, and bitterly lamented that she was not to see her beloved Empress. Maria Theresa heard of this, and was so touched by it that she went herself to the dame's miserable dwelling.

"You were grieving," she said, with her winning smile, "because you could not see me? Well, be comforted then, my good woman, for I have come to see you," and seating herself by the sick-bed she talked for some time with the delighted old woman in her kindly and sympathetic way, leaving when she departed a sum of money for her care and support. Nor did she ever afterward lose sight of her.

An event which happened at the time of the birth of one of her grandsons is deeply graven on the hearts of the Austrians. She was at the theatre on the evening of February 19, 1768, when a message was brought to her announcing the birth of a son to her daughter-in-law, the wife of her son Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Overjoyed with the news, she quickly rose, and leaning far over the railing of her box she waved the paper and announced to the audience, Leopold has a boy!" It may be imagined what applause followed these words, so clearly illustrating the familiar relations existing between her and her people.

But Maria Theresa's declining years unfortunately were destined to be no less stormy than the rest of her life had been. The death of her husband, coming so suddenly and unexpectedly, was a crushing blow, but in so far as she felt the need of a man's help she depended on her son Joseph. She made him co-regent with her, not because his youthful strength and energy were necessary to her, but because circumstances made it desirable. Many political complications had arisen—notably the partition of Poland, against which Maria Theresa, with her strong sense of right and justice, protested vigorously. The mere mention of it sufficed to arouse her furious indignation. Although the. Poles had brought it upon themselves, and perhaps deserved no better fate, she felt sure that only evil could result from such a step, as a declaration she made over her own signature when the affair was concluded shows. It ran thus: "I agree to it since such a number of wise men have so decreed, but long after I am dead time will show the bitter consequences!" The whole affair caused her "great sorrow," as she herself expressed it, and made her feel "more anxious than anything has ever done; indeed I am ashamed to have witnessed it!"

The Emperor Joseph's political views were decidedly opposed to those of his great mother, and necessarily so, perhaps, owing to the changes in conditions and circumstances. This was especially the case in the matter of the Bavarian succession, which cast a shadow over the Empress' later years. On the death of the Elector of Bavaria without issue, Joseph laid claim to his dominions; but Maria Theresa recognized the weakness of these claims, although at the same time she strongly resented Frederick II's interference and opposition to her son's plans. She shrank from the prospect of another war, but the situation became so involved and threatening that a conflict seemed inevitable. Preparations for war were actually begun, when the Peace of Teschen put an end to the danger, much to Maria Theresa's relief as well as satisfaction, for she had practically been the means of bringing it about.

Her great influence and popularity remained undiminished to the last; nor did age destroy the charm of her personality, although increasing stoutness caused her much annoyance and trouble. Her mind and heart retained all their youthful vigor, however, nor did she ever lose her kindly interest and sympathy for those about her.

On the eighteenth of November, 1780, a singular accident occurred to the Empress. Her grief for her dead husband was deep and sincere, and she faithfully observed every anniversary of his death, often going to his tomb in the imperial vault. As she walked with great difficulty, however, and the climbing of stairs was especially unpleasant to her, she had had a sort of seat contrived in which she could be raised or lowered easily and slowly into the vault. Upon her visit to the tomb on this occasion she had almost reached the floor of the vault when the strong rope which lowered her broke. She was not injured except from the shock, but this affected her all the more, for she regarded the incident as an omen that she too would soon be consigned to that silent place of rest.

Indeed, on the very next day, possibly as the result of a chill contracted in the tomb, she was seized with convulsive attacks of coughing, which she at first considered of little consequence; but the spasms grew so much worse that suffocation was feared. Bleeding brought little relief, and pleurisy soon developed, increasing her distress so that she was forced to sit up in an arm-chair. She bore her sufferings patiently and uncomplainingly, however. Only once, after a severe paroxysm of coughing and struggle for breath, she said, "God grant the end may come soon, for I do not know how I can bear it any longer," and to the Archduke Maximilian she remarked, "Thus far my courage and firmness have not deserted me; pray God, upon Whom all my thoughts are fixed, that I may keep them to the last!"

The malady increased, and a premonition of approaching death seized her. She called for the last sacrament, like a good Catholic, and then summoned to her bedside all the members of her family who were in Vienna.

"Dear children," she said, "I have received the holy sacrament and know there is no hope of recovery for me. Remember what care and pains your father, the late Emperor, and I have bestowed upon your education; how we have always loved you and tried to do everything for you that could add to your happiness. All that I have in the world belongs to you," turning to the Emperor Joseph, so I need make no disposition of anything. Only my children belong to me, and always will. I commit them to your care. Be a father to them! I shall die content if I have your promise to watch over them truly and faithfully."

To the other children she said, "Henceforth you must look upon the Emperor as your sovereign; obey and honor him as such. Be guided by his counsel; trust and love him with all your hearts, that he may have cause to bestow on you his care, his friendship, and his affection."

Then she quietly and calmly bestowed a maternal blessing upon each of her children, absent as well as present. Deeply moved, they gave way to their grief in sobs and tears, which affected Maria Theresa most painfully, but she controlled herself and said to them firmly:

"I think it would be better for you to go into the next room and compose yourselves."

Even at that solemn moment she was still busy with affairs of government, and she signed several state documents with her own hand. She thanked her faithful Kaunitz for his loyal service to her, and also charged the Hungarian chancellor, Esterhazy, to convey her thanks to his people for all their loyalty, devotion, and help in time of need, at the same time bidding the Emperor Joseph ever to bear this in mind.

Joseph never left her side. She suffered greatly from distress for breath, and at eight o'clock cried out: Open the window!" at the same time rising from her chair. The Emperor supported her gently in his arms, and asked, "Where does Your Majesty wish to go?"

Looking upward, she cried, "To thee! I come!" and with these last words sank back and expired.

Her death occurred November 29, 1780, in the sixty-fourth year of her age. Four days afterward she was laid by the side of her husband in the imperial vault of the Capuchins in Vienna. Her death plunged the whole country into mourning. Few have departed from life so beloved and so honored.

Frederick the Great wrote of her: "The death of the Empress has grieved me much; she honored her throne and her sex. I have made war upon her, but I have never been her enemy!"