08 August 2017

A Different Maria Theresa of Austria

By Johann Ender via Wikimedia Commons
Revolutionaries had forced her to flee Sicily with her five youngest children, but now a new crisis loomed: cholera. The deadly disease made no allowance for widowed queens and their little ones. She had already lost three of her 12 children, and her stepson had lost his throne. When she began to feel the effects of the disease, doctors were summoned, but Maria Theresa of Austria, majestic to a fault, refused their care. She would not be saved by liberal doctors. She passed away on August 8, 1867 at age 51. A few days later, her youngest child, 10-year-old Prince Januarius, died too.

As a great-granddaughter and namesake of the famous Empress, Maria Theresa's life was bookended by revolution. Before her birth, her father Archduke Charles had battled against the French Revolution, but his efforts ultimately failed to save the monarchy or the life of his aunt Queen Marie Antoinette. By the time he married the Protestant Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg, he was already a bona fide hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Austria's version of Britain's Duke of Wellington. Maria Theresa was the first of their seven children, but she was only 13 years old when her mother died of scarlet fever.

At age 20, Maria Theresa was sent to be the second wife of her second cousin, King Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, and immediately became a mother to his son, the future King Francis II. Baby Francis' mother, another second cousin of both Maria Theresa and King Ferdinand, had died one year earlier, just five days after Francis' birth. From the beginning, the stepson was close to his stepmother, and she accepted him as her own, even after her own brood began arriving with regularity.

The peace and calm of their family life, with Maria Theresa enjoying both motherhood and needlework, did not extend to their public life. Queen Maria Theresa was thought to have a little too much influence on her husband, and that influence was thought to be too authoritarian. Things only got worse after Ferdinand's death in 1859, placed 23-year-old Francis on the throne. As always, he turned to his stepmother for advice, and she was only too happy to assist him. This not only caused strife with his new bride Maria Sophie of Bavaria, but severe political issues at a time when all of Italy was in turmoil. The forces of Italian unification and revolution were threatening must of Italy's various little states. Whenever any issue large or small arose, Francis' response was often a reactionary overreaction.

In less than two years, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies was being threatened by an imminent invasion by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who would eventually unite Italy under one government. Maria Theresa was the first of the royal family to flee with her young children in tow. She was followed not long thereafter by Francis and Maria Sophie. They fled to the coastal fortress at Gaeta, but it was eventually overrun by the opposing Sardinia King Victor Emmanuel II, who would eventually be King of all of Italy. The family then took refuge in Rome, while summering at the papal retreat in Albano Laziale, where Maria Theresa would meet her final defeat at the hands of unrelenting cholera.

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