Empress Maria Theresia is the most fondly remembered of her clan. There’s been no Habsburg ruler for almost a century, yet today it’s not unusual to find her picture in a central European home. And not among Austrians only: her subjects included Czechs, Poles, Italians, Croats, and Hungarians.
She’s revered as a mother, as well as a great Empress. (Or, to use her official title, the Queen, sometimes even “King”, of Hungary.) Which imperial figure could lay claim to such an extensive brood? Of her sixteen children, ten survived to adulthood, most notably Joseph — the reforming emperor who succeeded her — and the unfortunate Maria Antonia, better known as Marie Antoinette.
But in 1740, when she came to power — her father dead of a soaking and an unwise supper — few imagined that her reign would continue, let alone thrive.
Charles VI, disappointed in a male heir, spent years working up support for his daughter. But no sooner was he gone than his allies deserted the new Empress. His enemies, meanwhile, spotted the opportunity they had long awaited.
To them, the coronation of a female Habsburg meant one thing: the chance to carve up the old empire which dominated central Europe. None was more rapacious than Prussia, lately elevated to the status of kingdom and sworn to unite its disparate realm.
Its ruler, Frederick II — to become known as Frederick the Great — wasted no time. Ridiculed by his father as a milksop, he proved a ruthless manipulator and warlord of genius. Even as he uttered pieties about the honour of princes, he marched his troops into Habsburg Silesia.
In her resolve to hold the province, rich in minerals and prosperous towns, Maria Theresia stood alone. Her father had devoted his energies to treaties and diplomacy. But the Imperial army he bequeathed was in no condition to repel the Prussian invader, and her coffers were empty. Her own council was indecisive, unwilling to take up arms.
Worse, Maria Theresia had been brought up to grace the arm of a king or emperor, rather than reign herself. Her father — supposing that a male heir would continue his line — never thought to educate his daughter in statecraft.
In this terrible hour, with Frederick’s allies ranged against her — the very title of Holy Roman Emperor denied her husband — her instinct was put to the test. With her son, the future Joseph II, in her arms, she went to Bratislava, the then Hungarian capital, and appealed for help: a dicey undertaking, since Hungarians were no great enthusiasts for Habsburg rule.
But the Magyar nobles affirmed Maria Theresia and backed her with force. Hostilities were to last for almost twenty years, for behind Prussia was the Habsburgs’ traditional enemy, Bourbon France, with whom they had long contended for European mastery. And whoever fought France won Britain’s support. Despite fitful armistices and a longer truce, the Seven Years’ War erupted in 1756: the first truly global conflict, more often seen in English-speaking countries as a struggle between Britain and France for control of India and North America.
When peace was concluded in 1763, both sides exhausted, two issues had been resolved: Prussia would never again be regarded as an upstart challenger, but the authority of Maria Theresia in her own house was long secured.
Even at that, the Empress’ energies were not exhausted. The girl denied the education to run the empire she inherited became its most effective reformer, whether in economics, administration, education or religion. And her mark on the city of Vienna was permanent, too, in the form of the stunning palace of Schönbrunn.
It’s true that, despite her reforms, she was often thought of as hidebound in her Catholic practice, a devotion which led to the most serious blot on her reign.
While Maria Theresia seems not to have been racist (her empire, like the Ottoman, was multi-ethnic) she suffered from the marked antipathy to Judaism typical of her day. In 1744 she decreed that all Jews must leave Prague by the following January, and, within six months, Bohemia itself. She may have been persuaded, under Jesuit influence, of Jewish involvement with her enemies, or may simply have been reminded of the example of her forebears, always inclined to suspend toleration at a whim.
Whatever the cause, the suffering in that severe winter was intense, prompting international outcry. And while the city itself protested against the measure, some citizens took it as incitement to murder.
As a parent, though loving and natural, she followed the normal Habsburg instinct to cement alliances through dynastic marriage. She didn’t live to see the terrible result of her daughter’s union with the Dauphin, though she was generous with unheeded advice on modest living at the French court.
Her tomb, in the Capuchin Crypt in Vienna, is the tenderest monument a ruler could desire: waking with her husband on the Last Day, she shares the sceptre with him — little as she did that in life — while reaching for the sword on her left, in token of vigour. A testament rather more impressive than her father’s.