Maria Theresa, 
Archduchess of Austria

Maria Theresa (1717-1780), archduchess of Austria, Holy Roman Empress, and queen of Hungary and Bohemia, began her rule in 1740. She was the only woman ruler in the 650 history of the Habsburg dynasty.   She was also one of the most successful Habsburg rulers, male or female, while bearing sixteen children between 1738 and 1756.

Maria Theresa was the eldest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI.  In 1711, Charles VI found himself the sole remaining male Habsburg. An old European law, the Salic Law, prohibited a woman from inheriting her father's kingdom. Concerned that he may not father a son, Charles VI issued a decree in 1713, known as the Pragmatic Sanction. This document guaranteed the right of succession to his daughter. At this time, many of the great powers of Europe agreed to her succession of power, at a price.  Upon the death of Charles VI in 1740, however, challenges to the Habsburg lands led to the War of the Austrian Succession.

During the last several years of her father's reign, two wars had already left the monarchy financially compromised, and the army weakened. And since Charles VI had believed that his daughter would surrender true power to her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, he did not take the time to teach her the workings of the government. Without money, a strong army, and knowledge of state affairs, Maria Theresa knew she had to rely on her judgment and strength of character. 

King Frederick II of Prussia was her first challenger, when he took the occasion of Charles VI's death to occupy Silesia, beginning the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Bavaria and France joined in and invaded Maria Theresa's lands from the west. This challenge by Frederick II became the dominating element of Maria Theresa's long reign. The archduchess was determined that her internal and external policies would focus on the strengthening of her state and the creation of positive diplomacy in order to defeat the Prussian monarch. Maria Theresa was determined not to surrender to her enemies, but to reconquer all of her lands. She began by initiating reforms. Maria Theresa strengthened the army by doubling the number of troops from her father's reign, reorganized the tax structure to insure a predictable annual income to support the costs of the government and army, and centralized an office to assist in the collection of the taxes. Economic reform fueled prosperity for her empire.  The war ended with the loss of Silesia, but her state intact, and her husband recognized as Holy Roman Emperor.  

In 1756, Maria Theresa felt that Austria was strong enough to renew her conflict with Frederick II. With the direction of her state chancellor, Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, the empress reorganized Austria's foreign policy in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution." On the advice of Kaunitz, Maria Theresa abandoned its accord with Great Britain and secured an alliance with France and Russia.  Yet, Frederick II surprised everyone when he attacked first, invading one of Austria's allies, Saxony. This conflict began what is known as the Seven Years' War (which combined with the French & Indian war in the American Colonies). In 1763, after much bloodshed, Maria Theresa signed the Treaty of Hubertusberg, ending all hostilities and recognizing Prussian possession of Silesia once and for all.

Two years later, Maria Theresa suffered a great personal loss, the unexpected death of her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine. Her love for him was so deep that from the day of his death until her own death in 1780, she dressed in mourning. After Francis Stephen's death, Maria Theresa became increasingly withdrawn. She continued reforms, but they came at a slower and more systematic pace. She changed her foreign policy from vigorously trying to regain Silesia to maintaining peace. After fifteen years of war and frustration, Maria Theresa was reluctant to get involved in conflicts that might prove unsuccessful. After the death of Francis Stephen, Maria Theresa recognized the eldest of her sixteen children, Joseph II, as emperor and coregent. Joseph II's  many fundamental differences in beliefs with his mother, caused anxiety and arguments. Periodically, Maria Theresa considered abdication of the throne. However, she never did abdicate. Instead, she allowed Joseph II only limited powers, since she felt his judgment too rash.

Maria Theresa was courageous, generous and kind. She respected the rights of others and expected others to respect her rights. In the later part of her rule, the empress focused more on human concerns, and less on financial and administrative improvements. She became increasingly involved with the problem of serf reform. Throughout the empire, the peasants were obligated to pay monetary and work dues to their lords. In 1771, Maria Theresa issued the Robot Patent, the serf reform designed to regulate the peasants' labor payments in all of the Habsburg lands.

The empress had a long reign which spanned forty years. She died on November 29, 1780. Some historians have termed Maria Theresa as the savior of the Habsburg Dynasty. Her efforts to transform her empire into a modern state solidified the Habsburg rule. Although when she came to the throne, her state appeared on the brink of dismemberment, Maria Theresa provided a strong foundation for the continuation of the Habsburg Dynasty into the modern era.

Annotated Bibliography

Bright, Rev. J. Franck. Maria Theresa. New York: Macmillan Company, 1897.
A detailed account of the statesmanship of Maria Theresa from the War of the Austrian Succession to the Seven Years War. This can be of assistance when looking for details about the life of Maria Theresa, and how war influenced her to begin the now common practice of drafting of soldiers.

Colton, Joel and R.R. Palmer. A History of the Modern World. 3rd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
This book is a reference for the Austrian War of Succession and the Pragmatic Sanction. This shows how Maria Theresa got her start on the throne. From the detail in this book, it is possible to see how she was accepted as an Empress, since she actually gave much of the credit for the ruling of the country to her husband.

Crankshaw, Edward. Maria Theresa. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.
The author used many sources from the Vienna archives to give an heroic picture of the only woman to rule the Habsburg lands. This book gives much detail regarding the fact that she was the only women up to this time to control the Habsburg dynasty. A clearer picture is given of how she did it.

Crankshaw, Edward. The Fall of the House of Hapsburg. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
This book gives an account of the final century of the Habsburg Dynasty, the longest running dynasty in Europe. This talks of the fall of the Habsburgs, but it also returns to its origins and describes how they gained power, and how they maintained power through their powerful rulers, such as Maria Theresa.

Gooch, G.P. Maria Theresa and Other Studies. 2nd. ed. Boston: Longmann, Green and Company Ltd., 1963.
Gooch makes relevant quotations from personal correspondence of Maria Theresa to her oldest son, Joseph II. He presents a vivid portrait of the courage and wisdom of Maria Theresa. Maria had always talked of the love she had for her husband, and how she had made decisions, yet she left Francis Stephen in the spotlight.

Link, Edith Murr, ed. The Emancipation of the Austrian Peasant, 1740-1798. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1949.
Maria Theresa initiated serf reform. This book details the life of the peasant before and after the reform. It shows how the lives of the people in Austria changed due to the efforts of Maria Theresa.

Morris, Constance Lily. Maria Theresa, The Last Conservative. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937.
The author details the life of Maria Theresa, highlighting her intense love and concern for her family and her empire. This is useful because it shows the type of ruler she wanted to be and how she achieved that goal.

Pick, Robert. Empress Maria Theresa: The Earlier Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
A biographical study of Maria Theresa which parallels the personal history of her life with the story of her reign as empress. We are able to see what she did to make both extremely significant through the course of history.

Roider, Karl A., Jr. Maria Theresa. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973.
Karl A. Roider, Jr. presents Maria Theresa's own words and the views of her contemporaries. He also offers a retrospective analysis. This gives us a first hand look at how Maria Theresa viewed the world and how the world viewed her.

Wheatcraft, Andrew. "In the Blood: The Secret History of the Habsburgs." History Today 46, no. 9 (September 1996): 25-32.
Andrew Wheatcraft on the 18th Century succession crisis that unlocks a tale of genetics, religion, and obsession of a dynasty. This gives a detailed account of the life of Maria Theresa which can help us to understand who she was.

Internet Sites:

Theresa, Maria. "Maria Theresa" Microsoft Encarta. 1995. (8 March 1998).
This is a complete biography of the life of Maria Theresa from birth to death. It outlined the significant points in her life, and emphasized the more important aspects of her reign.

Theresa, Maria. "Maria Theresa of Austria" The Page of the Dead. 1996. http://www.xs4all.n1/~androom/deadtheresia.htm (11 March 1998).
This shows a smaller amount of information about her life. It gives the important details, but does not go into explicit detail about all of her accomplishments. This site has a stored image of the tomb of Maria Theresa, giving us a chance to see how she was honored after her death.

Theresa, Maria. "Maria Theresa" 23 January 1998. (11 March 1998).
There is a smaller biography given here of the life of Maria Theresa, but one can go directly to other topics involving her by clicking on the underlined names and events included in the biography. From this, we are able to find more details about her life and the lives and events that shaped her life.

Theresa, Maria. "Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria" Maria Theresa. 1996. (11 March 1998). [Link broken?]
Another detailed account of the life of Maria Theresa can be found here. Like the other sites, this one offers links to more information about her life which one can access for more information.

Theresa, Maria. "Maria Theresa" Maria Theresa. 1996. (17 March 1998). [Link broken?]
This biography of Maria Theresa discusses each event in her life and how they all managed to impact her life. For instance, the death of her husband was a direct cause of her relaxing reforms in Austria. This example gives insight into her mentality as a Queen and how her personal life affected her decisions as a leader.

Written by Brian Vinsko


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Original Posting: 16 November 1998
Last Revision: 16 November 2004

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