Maria Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in Her Time 
by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, translated by Robert Savage.
Princeton, 1045 pp., £35, March, 978 0 691 17906 3
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Maria Theresa​ Walburga Amalia Christine, as she was baptised in Vienna in 1717, did not expect to become queen – or ‘female king’ (rex femina) as she was known in several of her many lands. After observing the ravages of the War of the Spanish Succession, Charles VI issued the Pragmatic Sanction, an edict which aimed to ensure that his (as yet unborn) children – even his daughters – would stand in line to inherit his kingdoms. He assumed he would have at least one male heir. In 1716, his wife, Elisabeth Christine, gave birth to a boy, Leopold, who died in infancy, and then to three girls, only two of whom reached adulthood. Maria Theresa was the eldest. Her upbringing was not that of a future ruler; there was a great deal of painting, music and dancing. Later in life she complained that ‘it never pleased my father to involve me when he attended to foreign or domestic affairs, nor to inform me about them.’

Most regimes set greater store by male heirs, but as Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger points out in her study of Maria Theresa, female rulers weren’t unusual. The difficulty for Charles VI was that the Habsburgs were not only kings of Hungary and Bohemia, rulers of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, princes of Transylvania and so on, but also, by tradition, Holy Roman Emperors. By the time Charles came to power in 1711, the Holy Roman Empire was no longer seen as a secular counterpart to the Church, and was, as Voltaire put it, ‘neither holy, Roman, nor an empire’. Instead, it was a loose federation of mainly German-speaking states over which the emperor held representative power. While certain thrones might be passed to a titular queen, the imperial crown, which the All-Highest Archducal House of Habsburg had held without interruption since 1440, could be worn only by a man. Charles’s solution was to propose that the two titles, king of the Romans and king of Hungary, one elective and the other hereditary, be split between husband and wife.

Maria Theresa was, unusually, granted a say in her choice of husband. She set her sights on a man who had spent much of his life at court under her father’s guidance: Francis Stephen, who was nine years her senior and inherited the small duchy of Lorraine in 1729. He was persuaded – with some difficulty – to renounce his hereditary rights and the provincial charms of Nancy and Lunéville. In exchange, he was offered the grand duchy of Tuscany, marriage to Maria Theresa and the prospect of election as Holy Roman Emperor. The marriage took place in 1736.

When Charles VI died unexpectedly four years later, the Pragmatic Sanction was widely ignored and Maria Theresa was forced to assert authority over her subjects and repel invasions by her neighbours. She succeeded admirably at the former, but less well at the latter. France, Prussia and Bavaria saw her accession as an opportunity to challenge Habsburg power. Frederick of Prussia took advantage of her uncertain position by annexing much of prosperous Silesia. Charles Albert of Bavaria invaded the kingdom of Bohemia and became – as a Wittelsbach – the first non-Habsburg to be elected Holy Roman Emperor for more than three centuries (he ruled as Charles VII from 1742 until his death in 1745). The eight-year War of the Austrian Succession reshaped European borders. It was ended in 1748 by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which recognised the Pragmatic Sanction at the expense of Austrian concessions: as well as Silesia, Maria Theresa lost Glatz and the Italian duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, and her troops were forced to withdraw from Genoa and Modena. The outcome cast a long shadow over Austrian foreign policy, fuelling distrust of both Prussia and Britain (which had insisted on the cession of Silesia).

Maria Theresa could, however, count on unwavering loyalty at home. In particular, she won the military and moral support of the Palatines. And while the story that she addressed the Diet of Pressburg (now Bratislava) with her baby son in her arms is a fabrication, it captures something important. Family and state were bound up together. Maria Theresa portrayed herself as a mother to her peoples so successfully that even subjects in far-flung possessions were willing to lay down their lives for her. She was also adept at countering accusations (many of them true) of her political naivety, ensuring that prints circulated showing her engaged with matters of state.

After the death of Charles Albert, the title of Holy Roman Emperor was wrested back from the Wittelsbachs and given to Francis Stephen. Prince Khevenhüller-Metsch, the lord high chamberlain, recorded in 1757 that ‘we have two masters, the emperor and the empress … both wish to rule.’ But other observers, such as the Portuguese statesman Count Tarouca, thought the couple constituted ‘a single heart and mind’. Maria Theresa dealt with diplomatic, legal and military matters and most state business; Francis Stephen took charge of finance. Both were interested in architecture and the arts, sponsoring transformations of the Schönbrunn and Hofburg palaces as well as several musical masterpieces – Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice premiered at the Burgtheater on the emperor’s name day in 1762 (Maria Theresa is said to have attended fourteen performances).

Stollberg-Rilinger’s biography, first published in Germany in 2017, is a behind the scenes guide to Maria Theresa’s rule; not a revisionary account so much as an examination of the historiographical layers that have gone into creating her image. Much attention is now paid to Maria Theresa’s unfashionable conservatism and Catholic values – the very traits that encouraged fond memories of her reign in 19th-century Vienna. Yet, despite the many military challenges she faced, and difficult relations with several of her children, she managed to keep her patchwork of kingdoms together during an era of great uncertainty and even to extend Habsburg influence.

Stollberg-Rilinger is in no doubt about her subject’s intractability. Maria Theresa relied above all on her own judgment. Again and again during the Seven Years’ War she ignored advice in the pursuit of (unsuccessful) territorial goals, in particular the reconquest of Silesia. She remained equally inflexible on the home front. She tried to dictate her subjects’ religion, whether they might play post horns at night – the answer was no – and where and when they should drink. She meted out harsh treatments to Protestants and Jews, ordering the removal in December 1744 of the Jewish population of Prague – around ten thousand people. According to Stollberg-Rilinger, this was ‘the last great expulsion of Jews in Old Europe before the Holocaust’ (they were allowed back four years later). The state archives in Vienna, where many of Maria Theresa’s papers and those of her counsellors are kept, and where readers are greeted by a 19th-century statue of the svelte young empress, are filled with reports annotated in her hand. Few matters were beneath her notice, from which bed to put in an archduke’s bedroom to the precise wording of clauses in international treaties. She could be pragmatic. Although she campaigned forcefully for chastity outside marriage, she also established services to support seduced women and obtain maintenance from absent fathers, measures intended to reduce the risk of infanticide. She was, Stollberg-Rilinger argues, exceptional among monarchs in her thoroughness, and gave short shrift to those whose self-discipline didn’t match her own. Her stubbornness could be a handicap – it took several deaths in her immediate family before she accepted the benefits of smallpox inoculation.

She performed countless (often ostentatious) acts of public and private devotion, including regular pilgrimages, in particular to Mariazell in Styria, where a medieval linden-wood statue of the Virgin was said to perform miracles. She presented extravagant gifts to the sanctuary, including a heart set with diamonds after her wedding. Her devotion to her husband was almost as great as her religious feeling. After Francis Stephen’s sudden death at Innsbruck in 1765, and despite rumours of his serial infidelities, she wrote that he had been ‘the sole object of all my deeds and my affections from the age of six to this day’. She noted on a scrap of paper in her prayerbook that their marriage had lasted ‘29 years, 6 months, 6 days’, which she then converted into 335 months, 1540 weeks, 10781 days or 258744 hours.

Unlike her husband, most of her children failed to live up to her expectations. Thirteen of them survived infancy: Maria Theresa called them the ‘poulailler’, or chicken coop. From their early years, they were expected to take part in processions, meet foreign dignitaries and attend festivals and church services. They were dynastic capital, proving to the world that the monarchy was secure. One of the family mottos, presented as ‘AEIOU’, stood for ‘Austria Est Imperare Orbi Universo’: it is for Austria to rule the world. Karl Joseph, her second and favourite son, fell ill and died aged fifteen. Less than two years later, her daughter Johanna Gabriela died. She had been pledged to Ferdinand, King of Naples, and the match was still desirable. Another daughter, Maria Josepha, took Johanna’s place, even though reports circulated about Ferdinand’s bad character. ‘I will not hide that I am well apprised of the advantage of this union, but it greatly alarms my maternal heart,’ Maria Theresa wrote. ‘I consider poor Josèphe a sacrifice to politics. As long as she does her duty to God and her husband, and earns her salvation – even if it means she is unhappy – I shall be content.’ On the day she was due to leave for Naples, 16-year-old Josepha died of smallpox. Still determined to provide a consort for Ferdinand, Maria Theresa sent instead a third daughter, the reluctant Maria Carolina, accompanied by her dead sister’s trousseau. Although it produced eighteen children, the marriage was unhappy. Ferdinand was weak-willed where Maria Carolina was strong; she was fastidious, he was uncouth; she loved the arts, he was happier hunting.

Like her sisters Maria Amalia, duchess of Parma, and Maria Antonia (better known as Marie Antoinette), Maria Carolina was faced with a vacuum of authority created by the inactivity of her husband. It might be assumed that the archduchesses had been well prepared for the role of royal spouse. But Maria Theresa’s daughters received no practical instruction in politics, and were advised by the empress herself never to meddle in state affairs. Once on their respective thrones, the sisters were viewed by many, both at home and abroad, as scheming and power-crazed, in large part because of their mother. She kept an eye on them all through her intricate web of correspondents and spies, who produced detailed reports, allowing her to cross-check what her children told her in their regular letters.

Archduke Joseph’s birth in 1741, after three daughters, had fulfilled his parents’ hopes for a son. A wide-ranging pragmatic education – Hume, Gibbon and Rousseau – sparked his lifelong interest in areas as diverse as government administration, industrial affairs and music, but also, to his family’s despair, a rejection of most aspects of Catholicism. Joseph declared he was more afraid of marriage than of going to war, but was pleasantly surprised by his wife, Princess Isabella of Parma. When, three years after their marriage, she died at the age of 21, Maria Theresa forced him to remarry. His second marriage, to Maria Josepha of Saxony, was brief and unhappy. He saw her only at mealtimes and after two years she, too, died of smallpox.

The history books are divided on Joseph, who became Holy Roman Emperor after his father’s death, and co-regent with Maria Theresa of the Habsburg lands until her death. He campaigned for secularism, suppressed religious orders and promoted tolerance, but though he called for curbs on absolute power when it was wielded by his mother, he was less prepared to accept them when it came to his own exercise of sovereignty. Being co-regent didn’t suit him: ‘All my bitterness, my repeated appeals, my entire conduct, everything has its root in this cause,’ he said. He spent much of his time away from court, writing to his mother that he ‘faced, if I may say so, no opponent other than Your Majesty yourself’. Power was not shared equally: Maria Theresa made the decisions. But Joseph refused to give his assent if he disagreed, though his mother saw such refusals as betrayals. Numerous reports refer to her distress after their heated exchanges. She was angered when Joseph sought out Frederick II of Prussia, whose enlightened despotism he admired, and wouldn’t hear of any possible alignment. They also disagreed on the partition of Poland and the War of the Bavarian Succession.

In some respects, Maria Theresa’s pragmatism paved the way for her son’s transformations. Although her conservatism is evident in Stollberg-Rilinger’s account, she intervened against forms of Catholic superstition and initiated developments – the emancipation of the peasantry, legal reforms and an increase in education provision – that were later seen as part of ‘Josephinism’. After her death, Joseph granted greater religious freedoms as well as abolishing serfdom and the death penalty (he also invented a re-usable coffin, which had folding doors as its base). But while Maria Theresa was widely loved, Joseph didn’t inspire the same loyalty in his subjects. Many viewed him as interfering, and it was galling for him to see his plans for modernisation met with considerable scepticism – and not just on the part of his mother.

Maria Theresa died in 1780. Aware that the end was approaching, she asked to see her confessor, a request Joseph thought premature. After the last rites were administered, she took to an armchair and, businesslike as ever, proceeded to put her affairs in order, writing to absent relatives and thanking those around her. She refused medicine, fearing it might dull her senses, and resisted sleep: ‘How could I wish to sleep when I may be called before my judge at any moment? … I want to see death coming.’ A few days later, she suddenly rose from her seat and then collapsed. As she was helped back up, Joseph remarked on the discomfort of her position. She retorted that it was ‘good enough for dying in’.

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