Maria Theresa of Austria

Portrait of Maria Theresa by Martin van Meytens (1759). Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Gabby Storey

Maria Theresa was ruler of the Habsburg dominions, thus archduchess of Austria, queen of Hungary and Croatia, lady of the Netherlands, from 1740-1780. She was also Holy Roman Empress from 1745-1780 and queen of Bohemia from 1743-1780. Born to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel on 13 May 1717, she replaced her cousin Maria Josepha as heir presumptive owing to the Pragmatic Section of 1713 which elevated Charles’ daughters in the line of succession. Her education was reportedly poor in comparison with her contemporaries, as it is noted that Charles did not prepare her well for the succession.

Maria Theresa was married to Francis Stephen, duke of Lorraine, on 12 February 1736. She acceded to the throne on 20 October 1740 upon the death of her father. Maria initially followed the guidance of her father’s advisers and her husband, a decision she came to regret. She was unable to be elected Holy Roman Empress initially, and made Francis co-ruler of Austria and Bohemia to enable him to vote for her elevation. Despite this, Maria barred Francis from state decisions.

The first decade of her reign saw Maria facing war, initially with the Austrian succession and then with the Seven Years’ War. Francis was elected Holy Roman Emperor on 13 September 1745, thus elevating Maria to Holy Roman Empress. The wars were ultimately resolved with the Treaty of Hubertusburg and the Treaty of Paris in 1763, with Austria ceding occupied Prussian territories and Maria turned her attentions to domestic matters.

From 1737-1757 Maria bore sixteen children, of whom thirteen survived infancy, including Marie Antoinette. She was active in networking and ensuring suitable marital alliances for her children, with several going on to be queens, archduchesses, and duchesses. Maria was active in encouraging inoculation against smallpox, with members of the royal family contracting it, some fatally.

Maria Theresa was also an advocate for reform across several forums, particularly with regards to Austrian military and bureaucracy. However, her conservatism can be seen in some spheres, notably the censorship of books and learning in certain topics.

The death of Francis on 18 August 1765 changed Maria completely. She withdrew from court life, however she declared their successor, Joseph, as co-ruler on 17 September 1765. They frequently disagreed and both threatened to abdicate at certain points. Warfare erupted again in the 1770s and decreased the Austrian treasury. Maria Theresa died on 29 November 1780 after a short illness, and she is buried in the Imperial Crypt, Vienna, next to Francis.

Recommended Reading

Barbara Stollberg-Rillinger, Maria Theresia: Die Kaiserin in ihrer Zeit. Eine Biographie (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2017)

Barbara Stollberg-Rillinger, Maria Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in Her Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022)

Charles Ingrao, The Habsburg monarchy, 1618-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Elena Teibenbacher, “Maria Theresia and Catherine II: The Bodies of a Female Ruler in Propaganda, Criticism, and Retrospect,” in Memorialising Premodern Monarchs. Medias of Commemoration and Remembrance, ed. Gabrielle Storey, 221-243 (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)

Steven Beller, A Concise History of Austria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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