Maria Theresa

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Maria Theresa (1717-1780). Habsburg Empress, Co-Regent of the Empire.

Without male heirs, Charles IV altered Habsburg family law by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, which proclaimed the indivisibility of his lands and designated his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, as his successor. When she ascended to the throne at age 22, Maria Theresa had shown considerable interest in the arts, but virtually none in politics, and presented herself to her people as a philanthropic and pious monarch. Yet, she quickly displayed a dogged determination to defend the Habsburg Empire and the Catholic faith. She became a diligent and courageous ruler with an astute ability for choosing able advisors. Humane and pragmatic, she had an inexorable sense of duty. Calling herself the "first and supreme mother of her lands," she fought Prussia in the three wars that marked the latter's rise to great power status. Notwithstanding her moral qualms about exploiting diplomatic opportunities, such as the partitioning of Poland, she did so unhesitatingly when reasons of state were involved.

Upon her father's death in 1740, Maria Theresa confronted the challenge of an ambitious Frederick II, the Great of Prussia whose troops invaded Silesia with its rich ore deposits and valuable linen trade. For the next decades, she would defend her dominions against various coalitions that imperiled her Empire. The invasion of Silesia ushered in the War of Austrian Succession, which would last from 1740-48, and escalate into struggles in Central Europe, Italy, the Netherlands, North America, the Caribbean, and India. In 1741, another claimant to the Austrian throne appeared, one Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, who was elected Charles VII in Frankfurt the following year. Maria Theresa was forced to cede Lower Silesia to Prussia in 1741, then the entire province in 1742. With the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the Habsburgs lost Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, and the Milanese territories west of the Ticino.

Although she ceded considerable territory, Maria Theresa managed, against great odds, in maintaining the Austrian throne and thus the integrity of the Habsburg Empire. When Charles VII died in 1745, his son renounced all claims, and Frederick II recognized Maria Theresa's consort as Emperor. The Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty would retain the imperial title.

War with Prussia forced the Habsburgs to reconsider their foreign policy. Maria Theresa's conviction that Prussia had become Austria's chief opponent led to the conclusion of an alliance with the traditional enemy, France. Although this alliance and the subsequent major conflict, the Seven Years War (1756-63), failed to secure Austria's reacquisition of Silesia, Maria Theresa's courage and resiliency were universally acclaimed. It was not for nothing that her perennial rival, Frederick the Great, referred to her as "that man in Vienna" and the "only man among my opponents."

During her reign, Vienna became the cultural center of the German-speaking world. Palaces, statues, and the works of prominent composers attest to the greatness of the era. Vienna also became the administrative hub of the far-flung empire, and the Austrian political system is still shaped by the centralization that ensued. In consolidating royal power, she circumscribed the power of the ecclesiastical courts, and restricted the number and wealth of convents. She created a High Court of Justice, a Chancery for Foreign Affairs, and a Council of State. War's exigencies allowed Maria Theresa to lessen the power of the provincial nobility and the local estates, and to increase taxes. She introduced an income and poll tax.

Though opposed to religious toleration and all efforts to reform the Habsburg Empire from the grassroots, Maria Theresa carried out lasting reforms, establishing elementary schools, breaking the Jesuit monopoly on education, and removing universities from Church control. She abolished torture, and granted the judiciary considerable autonomy. She limited the landlords' judicial authority over serfs. Although decrees forbidding the appropriation of serfs' holdings and ordering landlords to permit serfs to buy land remained largely unenforced, those dividing royal lands among peasants on the basis of long-term leases and curtailing the mandatory labor services of peasants proved significant.

To increase economic efficiency and bolster tax revenues, she created a large internal market by forming a customs union consisting of most of the Danubian lands. Fiscal and humanitarian reasons induced her to continue agrarian reforms. She remarked that "I must answer my conscience. I do not want to be damned for the sake of a few magnates and noblemen." Accordingly, she strove to afford the peasantry greater justice, above all, by diminishing the power of the landlords.

Further Reading:

Edward Crankshaw, Maria Theresa, 1986.

C. A. Macartney, Maria Theresa and the House of Austria, 1969.

William J. McGill, Maria Theresa, 1972.

David M. Keithly

American Military University