Empress Maria Theresa: A Formidable Ruler

Maria Theresa is perhaps best known as Marie Antoinette‘s formidable mother, but Maria Theresa always kept her focus on her kingdom and was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last ruler of the House of Habsburg.

As ruler, Empress Maria Theresa was a strategic, energetic woman who many people said was tactful like a woman but thoughtful like a man. Under her rule, two great wars were fought—War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War—both of which proved to be highly beneficial to Austria in strengthening its laws and introducing needed reforms. In addition, the Empress made Austria a modern state characterized by commercial enterprises and extraordinary intellectual activity.

The Empress married her cousin Francis I and made him co-ruler. However, she was the one in charge and often dismissed him from council meetings when they disagreed. Together they had 16 children (13 of who survived infancy). In many respects, Maria Theresa was a good mother: She oversaw her children’s education and provided governesses and tutors. After they were adults, she wrote weekly letters to her children, although her letters were absent of any tender expressions. In fact, the Empress’s letters were often filled with blunt advice and frequent instructions. She also used her letters to exercise authority over her children and used her children as pawns in a dynastic game to benefit the Austrian state by arranging strategic and political marriages, willing sacrificing “her children’s happiness, and occasionally her own dignity [for political gain].”

As Empress, she adopted the motto “Justitia et Clementia, or in English, ‘Justice and Clemency.’” She lived up to her motto almost as soon as she took the throne, because, at the time, the state treasury was almost empty, the army largely on paper, and “in short, everything was lacking, and no order of system existed anywhere.”

As her distressed people faced want and need, one of her first acts was to “throw open the well-filled imperial granaries and induce the great lords in her dominions to do the same.” Large herds of deer, protected by law, were overrunning the countryside and peasants were unable to hunt. Maria Theresa quickly redressed this wrong: Hundreds of deer were shot, their flesh sold cheaply, and pardons given to insurgents who the preceding year had rebelled because of hunger and the deer problem.

Francis I died on 18 August 1765 at the age of 56 from a massive apoplexy attack. Maria Theresa never recovered from his death and mourned him the rest of her life: She abandoned all ornamentation, cut her hair short, and wore mourning clothes the rest of her life. She also had her chambers hung with black cloth, withdrew from court life, and gave up attending most public events. Thereafter, every month on the 18th she would “pour forth her devotions at his tomb,” and every year during the entire month of August, she remained alone in her darkened chambers to mourn the loss of her husband, the great love of her life.

The last great political event of the Empress’s life was the Treaty of Teschen, a treaty signed on 13 May 1779 officially ending the War of the Bavarian Succession between the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy and the Kingdom of Prussia. The Empress’s health had been declining for some time, and prior to her death, she was unable to move without assistance. An English traveler who saw her in these last months described her as “an old lady, immensely corpulent, habited in the deepest weeds, with her gray hair slightly powdered and turned back under a cap of black crape. Notwithstanding her many infirmities, her deportment was still dignified, her manner graceful as well as gracious, and her countenance benign.”

The Empress was suffering from dropsy and indicative of her strength during her illness was an interaction with her son Joseph II, who co-ruled with her after husband’s death. Joseph II was so moved by her acute suffering, he burst into tears. “My own sufferings do not appall me,” she said to him tenderly, “but your affliction takes away my firmness.” It was this firmness that she displayed to the end. A short time after receiving last rites, she closed her eyes, and one of her ladies whispered, “The Empress sleeps.” The Empress immediately opened her eyes and responded, “‘No…I wish to meet my death awake.’ Then suddenly alluding to her dead husband, she exclaimed: ‘To thee I am coming.'” Thus, on 29 November 1790, the last female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg died.

Written for Sheroes of History by Geri Walton. If you are interested in learning more about the Empress and her relationship with her daughter, Marie Antoinette, it is described in length in Geri’s first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, due to be released September 2016. You can also find out more about the Empress at Geri’s website www.geriwalton.com

Find out more…

Find out all about The Habsburgs, including Maria Theresa on The World of the Habsburgs website.

Watch this documentary about Maria Theresa’s life:

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