31 August 2018

Empress and Mother

By Andreas Moller via Wikimedia Commons
Among Empress Maria Theresa of Austria's many accomplishments is one that none of her male counterparts could ever have achieved: she was pregnant for more than 13 years! The first three of her children were born before her accession at age 23, but the remaining 13 children arrived after her contested rise to the throne. She spent the first several years of her reign battling against opponents who thought a woman should not be empress, and for much of that time, she was heavily pregnant. If not for that, she said she herself would have taken to the battlefield to defend her right.

It was a right that her father, Emperor Charles VI had sought desperately to assure. In a nation hampered by Salic law that barred female accession, Charles realized early on that his death could mean the end of his dynasty on the throne. After his older brother's death leaving only a daughter, Charles was the only male left standing. After three years of childless marriage, he began to worry about the issue. If he had no children, he wanted his brother's daughter, Maria Josepha, to succeed him. In 1713, he issued the Pragmatic Sanction declaring that a woman could inherit his hereditary possessions, which at that time included Austria, Hungry, Croatia, Bohemia, Milan, Naples, Sicily, and the Austrian Netherlands. He spent the rest of his life trying to convince foreign rules and rival claimants to respect this decision. Once his own daughters were born, he became even more obsessed by it. (His first child, a son born in 1716 died that same year.) He even traded off territory and made financial commitments to convince them.

Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen with 11 of their children.
By Martin van Meytens via Wikimedia Commons
All to no avail. Upon his death in 1740, Maria Theresa, who had been born in 1717, succeeded him but the War of the Austrian Succession began almost immediately. Her father's policies had left her with a depleted treasury and weakened army. He'd also done little to prepare her as a monarch. She was in a poor position when France, Prussia, Bavaria, and Spain opposed her accession, mostly for territorial not moral reasons. Fortunately, she had strong support from most of her own territories, particularly Hungary and Croatia. The war (or wars since several other European conflicts are tied to it) carried on for eight years. Maria Theresa was ultimately successful although she did lose Silesia to Prussia (an incredible economic boon to Prussia and a victory that helped earn its king the epithet Frederick the Great). Her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, was elected Holy Roman Emperor, a title that had usually been given to the Habsburg ruler of Austria.

She would fight Frederick the Great two more times, but he always had the greatest respect for her, calling her "the only man among my opponents."

Maria Theresa was one of the earliest examples of a successful "working mother", taking her dual roles equally seriously. She was keenly aware of her children's value to the Hapsburg dynasty (which had often used marriage as a means of acquiring riches, lands and allies) but she was also deeply in love with them and highly involved in their education and upbringing. When her daughters went off to marry foreign princes, her frequent correspondence advised them not just about their duties as wives and mothers but of their political roles as daughters of Austria. Two of her daughters became queen consorts: Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily and the most famous of her children, Marie Antoinette of France, whose struggles with fertility and with "fitting in" in the Parisian court deeply concerned her mother, who thankfully did not live long enough to see Antoinette's execution in the French Revolution.

By Martin van Meytens via Wikimedia Commons
Once she had secured her throne in the war, Maria Theresa set about creating a better nation for her people. She tightened and simplified the relationships between the many nations over which she ruled, strengthening the political and military bonds between them. She addressed every area of society, including health care with new hospitals and the championing of the newfangled idea of inoculation, with which she controversially treated her own children against smallpox. She revised the civil code, banning the burning of witches that had so possessed Europe in the previous centuries. She provided more protections and freedom for the serfs against their landlords. She also expanded educational opportunities for both boys and girls. Strangely for a ruler of her times, she was less interested in culture and the arts, failing even to recognize the brilliance of the young Mozart. Despite this, Vienna emerged as a cultural center in the German-speaking world and in Central Europe.

Throughout her early reign, she relied upon a strong relationship first with her husband, whom she loved dearly. After his death in 1765 she appointed her son Joseph as co-ruler, but their relationship was less smooth, mainly due to temperamental differences but also some fundamental political disagreements. She strongly disagreed with Joseph's support of partitioning Poland between Austria, Germany and Russia, only changing her mind after realizing that Germany and Russia would gladly leave Austria out.

Maria Theresa passed away in 1780 at the age of 63, leaving behind a much stronger Hapsburg empire than she had inherited.

More about Maria Theresa
Consort Profile: Empress Maria Theresa of Austria on The Mad Monarchist
Fit for an Empress: 2017 Exhibition for Maria Theresia on Royal Central
Franz I, Emperor of Austria on Unofficial Royalty
A Letter from Maria Theresa on Tea at Trianon
Maria Theresa on Biography
Maria Theresa on Enlightenment and Revolution
Maria Theresa on History's Women
Maria Theresa on The Love of History
Maria Theresa on New Advent
Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria on Women's History
Maria Theresa Inherits a Throne But Not Much Else! on Every Day is Special
Maria Theresa Obituary on The True Life of an Austrian Empress
Maria Theresa, the Original "Lean In" Woman on Castles & Coffeehouses
Maria Theresia of Austria, A Working Mother of 16 on Motherhood in Prehistory
Maria Theresa's Throne in 1740 on Lo Que Paso en la Historia
What made Austria's Maria Theresa a One-of-a-Kind Ruler on DW
The Year of Maria Theresa: Holy Roman Empress on History of Royal Women
The Year of Maria Theresa: Marriage to Francis of Lorraine on History of Royal Women

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