Maria Theresa of Habsburg (Vienna, 13 May 1717 – Vienna, 29 November 1780) was reigning Archduchess of Austria, Apostolic Queen of Hungary, reigning Queen of Bohemia and Croatia and Slavonia, reigning Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, reigning Duchess of Milan and Mantua and also Grand Duchess Consort of Tuscany and Empress Consort of the Holy Roman Empire as wife of Francis I, former Duke of Lorraine under the name of Francis III Stefano.
By virtue of the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, issued by her father, Emperor Charles VI, in 1740 she was the first (and only) woman of the House of Austria to inherit the government of the vast possessions of the Habsburg monarchy. Maria Theresa”s inheritance was not recognized by several German states, which, backed by France and Spain, plunged central Europe into what became known as the War of the Austrian Succession. In the end, thanks mainly to the loyalty shown by Hungary, Maria Theresa emerged victorious and was recognized as the legitimate sovereign of her hereditary possessions, but she could not be elected to the imperial throne and was content to be the empress consort, having her husband elected emperor. He had as his main opponent in the clashes that interested his kingdom the figure of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
Together with her husband, she was the founder of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, the dynasty that ruled the Austrian domains until the First World War. She was the mother of Emperors Joseph II and Leopold II, as well as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily.
Her personal rule is remembered as a period of economic and social reform, as well as of great cultural development throughout the empire. Maria Theresa was able to count on the support of such outstanding advisors from the Enlightenment period as Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz-Rietberg, Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz and Gerard van Swieten. He largely promoted trade and the development of modern agricultural techniques, reorganized the imperial army and strengthened the international prestige of Austria. However, she was traditionalist in her religious policy, expelling Jews and Protestants from her lands, adopting the principle of the state church and refusing to recognize religious pluralism, which is why some of her contemporaries criticized her.
Childhood and inheritance issues
Born in the morning of May 13, 1717, the second child and eldest surviving daughter of Emperor Charles VI of Habsburg and his wife Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, she was baptized the same evening having as godmothers her aunt Wilhelmina Amalia of Brunswick-Lüneburg and her grandmother Eleonora Maddalena of the Palatinate-Neuburg.
In the course of the baptism, Maria Theresa was brought before her cousins, Maria Josef of Austria and Maria Amalia, the daughters of the now deceased emperor, Joseph I. This was the first sign that her father would not follow the pact of succession and would put his daughter before the daughters of her brother, Joseph I.
In fact, Emperor Charles VI, although disappointed by the lack of male heirs who could continue the dynasty, in 1713, issued the Pragmatic Sanction by which he disinherited the daughters of his brother Joseph and appointed Maria Theresa as heir.
In any case, the Pragmatic Sanction as accepted by the other European powers only after difficult negotiations that forced the emperor to accept some conditions: in fact, Great Britain demanded as a”counterpart to the acceptance the dismantling of the Company of Ostend, while Spain and France demanded some compensation in Italy. Therefore, the Prammatica Sanzione was accepted only by some states, Great Britain, France, Spain, Saxony, Poland, the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, the Papal States, Russia and Denmark, Prussia and Bavaria. In fact, when the time came, France, Spain, Saxony, Bavaria and Poland would renege on the recognition.
Maria Theresa had very influential relations among the European monarchs, primarily due to her being a Habsburg, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, and to her shrewd marriage policy among her close relatives. Through her mother”s sister who had married the heir to the Russian throne Aleksej Petrovič Romanov, Maria Theresa was in fact a first cousin of Tsar Peter II of Russia as well as the German Duke Ferdinand Albert II of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Other cousins of hers were Charles Albert of Bavaria (for a short time emperor in dispute with Maria Theresa herself), Joseph I and Peter III of Portugal. His cousin Maria Josepha of Austria, was queen consort of Poland (as wife of Augustus III) and electrix consort of Saxony.
Before Maria Theresa, Charles VI had a firstborn son, but he died when he was one year old. After Maria Theresa”s birth, the imperial family had two more daughters, Maria Anna and Maria Amalia who, however, died at the age of six. Physically, Maria Theresa had large blue eyes, blond hair, a slight blush on her cheeks, a wide mouth and a strong body; moreover, since her parents were not closely related, Maria Theresa did not suffer the adverse effects of marriages between close relatives that had characterized many of her ancestors.
Characteristically, Maria Theresa was extremely serious and reserved; she loved singing, archery and would have liked to learn at least the basics of horseback riding, but her father, fearing she might hurt herself, prevented her from doing so; moreover, she participated in opera productions, often conducted directly by Emperor Charles VI.
Her education was supervised by the Jesuits who, although they were able to teach her good Latin, were unable to correct her unconventional spelling and punctuation nor did they pass on to her the oratorical skills of her predecessors, to such an extent that Maria Theresa herself became accustomed to speaking and writing in the Viennese dialect. Her father, who was still awaiting a male heir, did not instruct her in the affairs of state or give his daughter the training proper to an heir to the throne, although he did allow her to attend council meetings from the age of fourteen; for this reason, in fact, Maria Theresa, like her younger sister, received only notions of drawing, painting, music and dance, disciplines typical for the role of a princess or queen consort.
Since her childhood, Maria Theresa became the object of matrimonial negotiations between the different courts of Europe. Her father decided to betroth his daughter to Prince Leopold Clement, who was supposed to meet Maria Theresa in Vienna in 1723 but died of smallpox; the emperor, then, turned to the younger brother of Prince Leopold Clement, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, and invited him to live in Vienna.
In any case, Charles VI considered other possibilities: he thought of marrying his daughter to the hereditary prince of Prussia, Frederick, in order to create a strong German state, but he was Protestant and religious differences proved to be insurmountable; then, he promised his daughter in wife to Charles of Spain but European powers opposed and forced him to renounce, fearing that such a marriage would have upset European balances. Maria Teresa, who in the meantime had become a good friend of Francis Stephen of Lorraine, was very pleased with the negative conclusion of these negotiations.
In 1729, at the death of his father Leopold, Francis Stephen ascended to the throne of Lorraine and left from Vienna; finally, on 31 January 1736, during the negotiations for the conclusion of the war of Polish succession, Louis XV of France accepted that Francis Stephen was engaged to Maria Theresa, on the sole condition of renouncing the Duchy of Lorraine in favor of the deposed King of Poland, Stanislaus Leszczyński, and receiving in exchange the right to succeed to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Gian Gastone de” Medici, who had no male heirs. Francis Stephen accepted the agreements and married Maria Theresa on February 13, 1736.
Maria Theresa”s love for her husband was strong and possessive: in her letters she expressed her desire to see him and only him, while her husband”s answers were very formal. Extremely jealous, with the passing of the years she had strong contrasts with her husband for his infidelities, especially with Maria Wilhelmina von Neipperg, princess of Auersperg, his most famous lover.
At the death of Gian Gastone, on July 9, 1737, Francesco Stefano became Grand Duke of Tuscany. The following year, Charles VI invited his daughter and son-in-law to make their formal entrance in Tuscany: for the occasion, a triumphal arch was erected at Porta San Gallo, where it still remains today; however, the stay was short because the emperor called back his daughter, by then his designated heir, to Vienna. In the Danubian capital, in fact, a very complex situation awaited them: since the summer of 1738, the Austrian Empire was at war with the Ottoman Empire but the conflict was turning to disaster; the continuous defeats and the territorial losses had led the Viennese to revolt and Francesco Stefano, sent to the front, became the object of general contempt because of his French origins that made them fear his loyalty; finally, in 1739, the war ended with the Treaty of Belgrade.
Ascension to the throne
Charles VI died on October 20, 1740, probably due to a mushroom poisoning; the emperor left at his death a very precarious situation: having ignored the advice of Prince Eugene of Savoy, he had obtained diplomatically the adhesion of the other powers to his successor projects, but he had not taken precautions against any possible turn of the other monarchs and therefore had not foreseen the threat of a war of succession. The treasury, in fact, contained just 100 000 florins, the army had at its service just 80 000 men who, although devoted to the dynasty, were discouraged because of the defeat against the Turks suffered the year before.
Moreover, Maria Theresa was not prepared for her role as reigning queen: she was not informed about affairs of state, did not know her ministers, had no relations with other monarchs and the only advice given to her by her father was to keep her advisors in office and to rely on her husband. She herself described in the “Political Testament” the circumstances of her rise to power: “I found myself without money, without credit, without an army, without experience and knowledge of myself and, finally, also without advice, since each of its members, at first, wanted to wait and see how the situation would develop.”
From the moment she ascended the throne, she rejected the possibility that other countries could obtain some of her territories by right or by force, and immediately took steps to obtain the dignity of Empress of the Holy Roman Empire; however, since women could not access the imperial throne, she had to favor the ascension of her husband to this position, keeping for herself the title of Empress Consort (Maria Theresa would have continued to hold the role of Queen over all the territories of the Habsburg monarchy, governing them directly).
Franz Stephan, however, although he regularly held the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany (as well as Duke of Teschen and Count of Falkenstein), he did not have the title of prince-elector and therefore could neither vote nor be elected emperor. Therefore, in order to provide her husband with a sufficient political basis, Maria Theresa decided to formally grant him co-rulership of the hereditary Habsburg dominions so that he could attend the meetings of the Imperial Diet as Elector of Bohemia. However, it took over a year before the Hungarian Diet accepted Franz Stephan in his role as associate ruler.
Finally, it must be added that Maria Theresa, even though she felt a strong feeling of love towards her husband and even though she had associated him with her in the government, always prevented Franz Stephan from taking an interest in the affairs of state and often came to dismiss him from council meetings, when the two were not in agreement. The ascent to the throne was then formalized on November 22, 1740, when Maria Theresa obtained, at the Hofburg – the city residence of the court – the homage of the nobility of the hereditary possessions of Lower Austria.
War of Austrian Succession
Immediately after her accession to the throne, some European sovereigns, who at first had recognized the succession of Maria Theresa, broke their promises: in fact, Charles Albert of Bavaria, husband of Maria Amalia of Habsburg, cousin of Maria Theresa, with the support of France and Spain, claimed part of the Habsburg possessions; in December, Frederick II of Prussia invaded Silesia and demanded that Maria Theresa agreed to hand it over to him, or she would have supported her opponents. At the same time, Maria Theresa obtained the support of Charles Emmanuel III of Savoy, a state that had not accepted the Prammatica Sanzione during her father”s lifetime, in November 1740.
Buoyed by this success, Maria Theresa refused to surrender Silesia, fearing that any violation of the Prammatica Sanzione might invalidate the entire document; Francis Stephen himself exclaimed to the Prussian ambassador, “Better the Turks at the gates of Vienna, better the surrender of the Netherlands to France, better any concession to Bavaria and Saxony, than the surrender of Silesia!” The invasion of Silesia, moreover, was the beginning of a long enmity with the King of Prussia, to whom Maria Theresa referred as “the evil man.”
Short on experienced officers, Maria Theresa released Marshal Wilhelm Reinhard von Neipperg, whom Charles VI had imprisoned for his poor performance in the war against the Turks.
In April 1741 the Austrians suffered a heavy defeat in the battle of Mollwitz, as a result of which Frederick II entered Olmütz and France agreed with Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Spain a plan to divide the Habsburg possessions. In such a compromised situation, Francis Stephen tried to induce his wife to compromise with Prussia, and Maria Theresa reluctantly agreed to the negotiations.Contrary to expectations, however, Maria Theresa managed to garner considerable support in Hungary: she had herself crowned on June 25, 1741 (after honing her equestrian skills necessary for the coronation ceremony), then, to appease those who considered her gender as the most serious obstacle, she assumed the male titles of archduke and king.
In July, the attempts of conciliation with Prussia collapsed; the Elector of Saxony, until that moment allied to Maria Theresa, changed front, while the Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg declared himself neutral; therefore Maria Theresa was forced to ask for help to Hungary. In order to achieve this goal, she did not mind the means: she granted favors to the nobility, gave the port city of Rijeka to Hungary (until that moment it was part of the Austrian possessions), finally, she showed triumphantly her son and heir in front of the assembled nobles, ensuring even more sympathy.
In 1741, the Austrian authorities informed Maria Theresa that the Bohemian people would have preferred, as sovereign, Charles Albert; in any case, Maria Theresa refused to give ground. However, on October 26, Charles Albert, having conquered Prague, obtained the appointment as King of Bohemia; on January 24, he was elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire with the name of Charles VII, a fact that was considered a catastrophe.
After some failures, thanks to the Hungarian reinforcements and exploiting the divisions of the adversaries, the Austrian troops succeeded in conquering Monaco, the capital of Carlo Alberto of Bavaria.
Finally, in June 1742, the Treaty of Breslau ended the hostilities between Austria and Prussia, allowing Maria Theresa to concentrate all her forces in the reconquest of Bohemia: in the winter of the same year, the French troops abandoned Prague; finally, on May 12, 1743, Maria Theresa was crowned Queen of Bohemia in the Cathedral of St. Vitus.
In 1745, the death of Charles Albert of Bavaria made the imperial throne vacant, and despite some French successes in the Austrian Netherlands, on September 13 the German princes elected Francis Stephen as emperor; Frederick II accepted the proclamation after Maria Theresa acknowledged the loss of Silesia in December 1745.
The war dragged on for another three years, until the Treaty of Aachen recognized Maria Theresa”s succession to the hereditary possessions of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary and the position of Francis Stephen as Emperor, in exchange for the recognition of the Prussian conquest of Silesia and the cession of the Duchy of Parma to Prince Philip of Spain.
Seven Years War
Maria Theresa conceived her reforms in very different fields as a means of strengthening the empire in view of a conflict with her main rival, Frederick II of Prussia.
In August 1756, after lengthy diplomatic skirmishes, Frederick II of Prussia invaded Saxony, beginning the conflict known as the Seven Years” War in which Austria, allied with Russia and France (a true diplomatic reversal orchestrated by Maria Theresa and Chancellor Kaunitz), faced Great Britain and Prussia.
Maximilian Ulysses Browne was in command of the Austrian troops. After the inconclusive battle of Lobositz in 1756, he was replaced in command by Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine, brother-in-law of Maria Theresa, appointed more for his family connections than for his military skills, which in fact proved to be a fiasco. This was soon after replaced by Leopold Joseph von Daun, Franz Moritz von Lacy and Ernst Gideon von Laudon.
If on the seas and in the colonies the British superiority was almost always absolute, the European front was much more uncertain: at first, Frederick II had some successes, then the battle of Kolin marked a real reversal of fortunes in favor of Austria, since Frederick II, having lost a third of his forces, was not able to maintain an offensive demeanor.
In 1758 the destiny of the conflict began to balance: in that year, in fact, the French suffered a hard defeat in the battle of Krefeld and were forced to retreat to the Rhine; finally, at the death of the Empress Elisabeth of Russia, in 1762, her successor, Peter III, admirer of Frederick II, withdrew the Russian forces from the conflict, leaving Austria practically alone. In 1763, the contenders, by now to the exhaustion of the forces, stipulated the treaties of Hubertusburg and Paris, by means of which France was forced to renounce to a great part of its colonies in favor of English, while Austria had to be satisfied with the status quo ante bellum, renouncing to the dream to reconquer Silesia.
Widowhood and co-regency with Joseph
Emperor Franz died on August 18, 1765, while he and the court were in Innsbruck celebrating the marriage of Archduke Leopold. Maria Theresa was devastated by grief: she renounced jewelry and other ornaments, cut her hair short, placed black curtains in her rooms, wore black clothes for the rest of her life, and finally withdrew from public life, to the point that she spent the entire month of August and the eighteenth day of every other month every year alone in her chambers; she herself wrote that she barely recognized herself and had become, without the love of her husband, like an animal, deprived of reason.
The death of the emperor, moreover, opened to the succession of his eldest son Joseph, who was elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and took, on 17 September 1765, the role of co-regent of the Archduchy of Austria that had been of Francis, in order to keep intact the Habsburg dominions and, on the death of Marshal Leopold Joseph Daun, also the supreme command of the armed forces.
According to historian Robert A. Kann, Maria Theresa was a monarch of above-average qualifications, but intellectually inferior to Joseph and Leopold: the queen possessed a warm heart, practical mind, firm determination and perspicacity; she was ready to recognize the mental superiority of some of her advisors and to accept their advice, but in any case the relationship with her son was complicated.
In fact, although Maria Theresa and Joseph did not lack intelligence and human warmth, their personalities were quite divergent and they rarely saw each other in public, a fact that often created strong contrasts in the administration of the State, to the point that both resorted to the threat of abdicating from their roles.
One of the most famous episodes of contrast between mother and son was the partition of Poland: the hypothesis, in fact, agreed by Joseph and Kaunitz together with Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia, saw the firm opposition of Maria Theresa, who considered it dishonorable and unjust; only after long discussions, Maria Theresa, convinced by her son that Prussia and Russia would have moved even without the Austrian support, decided to accept the annexation of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomiria; cynical, Frederick II commented: “The more he cries, the more he takes”.
For much of her life Maria Theresa enjoyed excellent physical health (even in the middle of winter she kept her windows open), until, in 1767, she was struck by a severe attack of smallpox. From this, according to many historians, she never fully recovered and in her later years began to suffer from asthma, asthenia, persistent coughing, necrophobia, insomnia and, finally, edema.
Surprised by an autumn thunderstorm, on November 24, 1780 Maria Theresa began to suffer the effects of a pneumonia that had struck her and soon, on the basis of the diagnosis of the court archiater, Dr. Störk, it was understood that her condition had become particularly critical. In the following four days she became weaker and weaker and therefore asked for extreme unction. She died at nine o”clock in the evening of November 29, surrounded by her loved ones. According to her will, she was buried in Vienna in the Imperial Crypt, next to her husband.
Frederick the Great, for a long time his rival, came to know of the disappearance of the queen and said that Maria Theresa with her presence had given honor and luster to his throne and to all the women of the world and that, although he had fought her in three wars, he never considered her his enemy. With her death, the House of Habsburg also died out and was replaced by the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. Emperor Joseph II, already co-ruler of the Habsburg dominions, now became the sole owner, giving rise to a new era of profound reform.
The Archduchess had inherited a state in crisis due to diplomatic failures and military defeats, now close to decline. After forty years of reign, she left her son Joseph, the first of the Habsburg-Lorraine, a revitalized state with an efficient military, economic and administrative system. The acquisition of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomiria and the privileges granted to the Hungarian nobility, however, accentuated the multinational character and, on the other hand, the introduction of compulsory schooling as a means of spreading German culture triggered, as a reaction, the rebirth of Czech culture and the awakening of various nationalisms.
Maria Theresa understood in her lifetime the importance of her public persona and was able to gain esteem and affection from her subjects. Her rule has been judged by historians as an unprecedented success, particularly when compared to that of her predecessors. His reforms significantly transformed the Holy Roman Empire and Austria in particular into a modern state with a significant international role. He centralized and modernized all institutions and his reign is regarded as the beginning of the era of “enlightened absolutism” in Austria with a new way of thinking about government: the measures taken by the ruler became more modern and rational, in the interests of all the people.
Although his views were rather conservative (especially when compared to those of his son and successor, Joseph), he implemented important reforms in the administrative and legal field in order to strengthen Austria”s economic and military capabilities: first, Maria Theresa commissioned Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz to establish a permanent standing army of 108,000 soldiers, directly subject to the control of the central government, to pay for which Haugwitz rationalized the tax system, establishing a land registry system and also requiring the clergy and nobility to pay taxes.
With this reform, therefore, the principle of legal equality between the patriciate and the bourgeoisie with respect to the State and public functions was substantially affirmed: in fact, if everyone was obliged to contribute according to a percentage of their wealth, the assumption of a privileged status for the nobility fell away; the criterion of entrusting tax administration to “bodies” or to the “firm” (contracting out collection to private individuals) was replaced by a new subject, the taxpayer, in direct relationship with the State.
As a result, between 1754 and 1764, Maria Theresa was able to double the tax revenue and raise the 14 million guilders needed annually for the army, and although the extension of taxation to the clergy and nobility was only a partial success, nevertheless, the reform had a positive effect on the economy.
In May 1749, Maria Theresa unified the chancelleries of the Austrian and Bohemian dominions, while the central administration of judicial affairs was entrusted to a separate body; Finally, in 1760, she established the Council of State, composed of a chancellor and six members (three representing the high aristocracy and three representing the lower nobility), which, although it was only endowed with advisory functions, showed the difference with other “enlightened” despots (including Frederick II) who exercised their prerogatives directly and personally.
Medicine and hygiene
Following the death of her sister, Archduchess Maria Anna, Maria Theresa recruited physician Gerard van Swieten to serve at court as her personal physician and to reform the health care system by building a hospital in Vienna and renewing medical studies; later, Maria Theresa entrusted Van Swieten with the task of studying the problem of infant mortality in Austria and, on the recommendation of the doctor, the queen sanctioned that the hospital of the city of Graz (second city of Austria) would have to perform autopsies for all the deaths occurred, in order to ensure adequate data for medical research.
Then, Maria Theresa forbade the construction of cemeteries without prior governmental permission, thus opposing costly and unhygienic funerary customs; finally, the decision to subject their children to vaccination, in 1767, was essential to overcome the opposition to this practice, repeatedly expressed by the academic community. It was Maria Theresa herself who inaugurated vaccination, hosting a dinner for sixty-five children at Schönbrunn castle.
In matters of law, Maria Theresa oversaw the compilation of the Codex theresianus, begun in 1752 and completed in 1766, which regulated personal rights, real rights and obligations.
The text of the code, divided into three books, consisted of 8,000 articles which, according to initial intentions, were to become the sole legal source; however, opposition from Chancellor Kaunitz, who considered the code to be too close to common law and local rights, as well as excessively verbose, prevented its promulgation.
In addition, in 1776, at the instigation of her son, Joseph, she outlawed the practice of witch-hunting, reduced the number of crimes punishable by capital punishment and abolished torture; the slowness and the great difficulty with which Austria practiced these reforms has been explained by many historians by the fact that Maria Theresa, born and raised in the late Baroque age, adapted with extreme difficulty and reluctance to the ideas of the Enlightenment.
Education and School
Aware of the inadequacy of the bureaucracy in Austria, Maria Theresa issued her Allgemeine Schulordnung für die deutschen Normal-, Haupt und Trivialschulen in sämmtlichen Kayserlichen Königlichen Erbländern (General School Regulations for German Normal, Upper and Elementary Schools in all Imperial and Royal Hereditary Lands) in 1774, thus reforming the school system. This regulation stipulated that every child between the ages of six and twelve would be required to attend school. This regulation was met with strong hostility in many areas and did not have the desired outcome by the sovereign. In some areas of Austria, in fact, in the nineteenth century still half of the population was illiterate, but the regulation was important because it established the principle of the value of a free and public education.
He also allowed non-Catholic students the right to attend university and reorganized the courses of study, promoting the introduction of legal subjects and ensuring that professors were chosen with particular reference to professional ability; finally, in order to ensure a uniform preparation, it was stipulated that only universities would be able to guarantee the degree, depriving professional colleges or reserved for the nobility.
Maria Theresa”s government also became notorious for the censorship it systematically applied to publications. The English author Sir Nathaniel Wraxall wrote in one of his letters from Vienna: “The insulting bigotry of the empress is particularly to be attributed to a deficiency of her culture. It is hard to believe, but there are many books and productions of every kind, in every language, which have been forbidden by her. Not only are Voltaire and Rousseau among those included in the list, on account of the immoral tendencies and licentious nature of their writings, but authors whom we consider absolutely harmless have also been given such treatment.” The censorship particularly affected those works that the sovereign considered to be contrary to the Catholic religion and its principles. Ironically, for this purpose, Maria Theresa was assisted by Gerard van Swieten, considered an “enlightened” man.
Maria Theresa was particularly committed to improving the standard of living of her people, mainly because in this reform she saw a link between the standard of living of the poorest classes of workers (the peasants), productivity and state income. The Theresian government also attempted to strengthen the industrial sector through government intervention. After the loss of Silesia, Maria Theresa increased subsidies and trade barriers to encourage the relocation of Silesian textile industries to northern Bohemia. She opposed the old guild privileges (of medieval origin) and internal duties on trade (particularly on the Austro-Bohemian axis).
Another point of economic reform during Maria Theresa”s reign was undoubtedly the regulation of the peasantry”s relations with the state. Although the empress was initially reluctant for her government to intervene in this regard, she eventually became convinced that the functioning of a bureaucracy closer to the common citizen would ultimately benefit the state greatly and reduce peasant protests and the abuse of feudal rights by aristocrats. In 1771-1778 a series of Robotpatenten were signed by Maria Theresa to regulate and restrict the working hours of peasants in Germany and Bohemia. The aim was to ensure that the peasants could not only support themselves and their families, but also that they could contribute to the welfare of the state in the event of war. However, these reforms were vigorously opposed by the Hungarian aristocracy.
Maria Teresa and Lombardy
One of the territories that most benefited from the government of Maria Teresa was the Duchy of Milan, whose economic and social conditions at the beginning of 1700 were quite precarious, due to the effects of wars and plagues of the previous century as well as the inefficient Spanish administration that had not been able to manage the economic stagnation and the strong crisis of the Lombard manufacturing sectors.
As for the land registry, completed by Pompeo Neri on behalf of the Empress (which took its name from her as the Teresian Cadastre), its importance lies in the particular mechanism of operation: of each landed property, it was assumed an income of four percent, which thus became the fixed tax base for the calculation of land tax, the income above four percent, as well as any profit from an increase in income, was exempt.
The introduction of the land register had two positive effects: in the first place it called for contributions from social classes that until then had not paid taxes; in the second place it made it convenient to increase agricultural incomes, since these increases would in any case be exempt from taxation; It was precisely this second factor that spurred the nobility to take better care of their assets, entrusting them to a new figure, that of the tenant, who, upon payment of a fee, took over the management of assets in order to achieve a profit, in particular through the transformation of open fields and properties cultivated by sharecroppers in pastures to obtain meat and dairy products.
Then came the administrative reform, which determined both the gradual abolition of public service contracts (salt, customs, post, transport, tobacco) and the reform of administrative districts and local public bodies: it was recognized to each municipality the “convocato”, that is, a council composed of the main landowners, who would elect both the mayor of the municipality and a consultative delegation at the provincial district (at the top was maintained the Senate of Milan, which, however, lost its administrative functions to the advantage of a second body, the Council of Government chaired by the Chancellor, the actual responsible for the entire public administration.
Equally important was the gradual abolition of internal duties and guilds (replaced by the Supreme Council of Economy and then by a real department), because, breaking down all the prohibitions that hindered the free movement of labor, allowed entrepreneurs to take advantage of the excess labor from the countryside to hire a stable and increasing number of workers to work the textile yarns in the buildings and using the looms of the employer; in substance, even if at the price of a widespread phenomenon of proletarianization of the artisan class, there was the passage from artisan manufacturing activities to real industrial activities.
In ecclesiastical matters, Maria Teresa”s initiative saw the abolition of tax exemptions enjoyed by churches and monasteries and the suppression of religious censorship; finally, in the cultural sphere, the Scuole Palatine of Milan were reorganized and the reconstruction of the old ducal theater was decreed; thus the Teatro alla Scala was born.
Like all members of the House of Habsburg, Maria Theresa was a fervent Catholic and believed that religious unity was necessary to ensure a peaceful public life, so much so that on several occasions she explicitly rejected the idea of ensuring a form of religious tolerance; in any case, Maria Theresa also firmly rejected the intrusions of the Church into her prerogatives as monarch and personally controlled the selection of archbishops, bishops and abbots.
For these reasons, her approach to religion differed from that of her predecessors: influenced by Jansenist ideas, she supported conversion to Catholicism by granting economic subsidies to converts and tolerated the Greek Orthodox Church, which she considered equal to the Catholic Church. She herself was known for her extremely austere and ascetic life, especially during her long widowhood. The relations with the Apostolic See were of greater continuity with the successor of Clement XIII, Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit Order, of which Maria Theresa forfeited the goods for her own State, was the promoter of the Orders of Chivalry, among which there were also the Military Order of Maria Theresa and the Order of Charles III (the latter Spanish) and was an orthodox and austere promoter of the unity of the Church and knowledge: Clement XIV composed “the history of the Benedictine Order and directed the laborious edition of the liturgical books of the Eastern Church; he was consultant to the Holy Office in Rome.” Three months after his election, the pontificate began with the Decet Quam Maxime, his first encyclical, which called clerics to the Council of Trent, particularly with respect to episodes of simony. In the same years, the Empress of Austria completed the building of the Benedictine library of Admont.
The relationship between Maria Theresa and the Society of Jesus was very complex: in fact, the members of the order had been educators and confessors of the queen since before her accession to the throne, tutors of the crown prince and influential figures in the ecclesiastical and political life of the country.
The Jesuits remained a particularly powerful order during the early part of Maria Theresa”s reign; however, the empress”s ministers later managed to convince her that the Jesuits could become a danger to monarchical authority; not without hesitation, Maria Theresa decided to remove them from public office, then exiled them.
Although she eventually gave up trying to convert her non-Catholic subjects to Roman Catholicism, Maria Theresa viewed both Jews and Protestants as dangerous to the state and actively sought to expel them.
Maria Theresa, in fact, had very strong anti-Jewish prejudices, stating that they were a real plague because of their banking activities and therefore should be avoided and expelled. In 1777 the Empress wrote: “I know that there is no greater plague than this race, which with its deception, usury and avarice is bringing my subjects to misery. Therefore, as far as possible, the Jews must be avoided and kept away from my people. In order to compromise Jewish business in Vienna, he even accepted the presence of the well-known Protestant financier and businessman Johann Fries (Swiss by birth), while trying to impose heavy taxes on Jewish communities.
In December 1744, Maria Theresa ordered her ministers to expel the Jews from Austria and Bohemia by the following month; her initial idea was to deport the entire Jewish community of the empire from January 1, but on the advice of her ministers who calculated that this could mean moving 50,000 people, she extended the timeline until June 1745. The order to expel the Jews had to be revised in 1748 under pressure from other countries, including in particular Great Britain, where the main Austrian communities had poured in. Maria Theresa instead succeeded in deporting 20,000 Jews from Prague on the charge of having been infidels at the time of the Franco-Bavarian occupation during the War of Austrian Succession. The order was then extended to all the Jews of Bohemia and to all the communities of the main cities of Moravia.
At the same time, she had the Protestant population transferred from Austria (in Upper Austria alone there were 2,600) to Transylvania, but she preferred to abandon the idea of transferring Protestants “en masse” because this would have had too many practical, demographic and economic complications.Only in 1777, after her son, Joseph, had threatened to abdicate in protest to his mother”s decisions, did Maria Theresa renounce the policy of converting religious minorities and agreed that the non-Catholic population could perform religious rites privately. Nevertheless, her son Joseph regarded his mother”s religious policy as “unjust, impious, impossible, harmful and ridiculous”.
Finally, in the last decade of her reign, influenced by her son and a Jewish courtier Abraham Mendel Theben, Maria Theresa softened her anti-Jewish positions: in 1762, she forbade the forced baptism of Jewish children; the following year, she ordered the clergy to cease all collection of assets from Jews; in 1764, she ordered the release of Jews unjustly accused in the village of Orkuta; and finally, she supported Jewish commercial and industrial activity.
The policies of the government of Maria Theresa towards the Orthodox were marked by a certain special interest, not only for the particular and complex religious situation in the eastern regions of the Habsburg monarchy, inhabited by Orthodox Christians such as Serbs and Romanians, but also for the political aspirations of the Habsburg court for the neighboring lands of Southeast Europe, still subject to a decadent Ottoman Empire, but inhabited precisely by a population with a majority of Orthodox faith.
Maria Theresa reconfirmed (1743) and continued to uphold the ancient privileges granted to her subjects of the Orthodox faith by her predecessors (Leopold I, Joseph I, and Charles VI), but at the same time she proposed new reforms, for example establishing closer state control over the Karlovci Metropolitanate. These reforms were initiated by royal patents known as Regulamentum privilegiorum (1770) and Regulamentum Illyricae Nationis (1777), and concluded in 1779 by the publication of the Declaratory Act of the Illyrian Nation, an all-encompassing document regulating the main aspects of the religious life of the Orthodox subjects of the Karlovci Metropolitanate. This last act of Maria Theresa remained in use until 1868.
Over the course of twenty years, Maria Theresa gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of whom survived infancy. After a year of marriage, Archduchess Maria Elisabeth of Habsburg-Lorraine was born (who died at just three years of age), then Maria Anna and Maria Carolina, who, however, died at just 1 year of age. Finally, during the War of Austrian Succession, in the most critical moment for the survival of the dynasty, the long awaited heir, Joseph, was born. In the course of the conflict, Maria Christina (the favourite daughter) was born, who came to light on the queen”s 25th birthday, then Maria Elisabeth, Archduke Charles, Maria Amalia, Leopold and Maria Carolina, who died on 17 September 1748.
Five children were born during the peace between the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years” War: Maria Giovanna, Maria Giuseppina, Maria Carolina, Ferdinand and Maria Antonia. The last child, Maximilian Franz, was born during the Seven Years” War. Maria Theresa herself said that if she had not been always busy with her pregnancies, she would have participated directly in the battles.
In 1750 her mother, the widowed Empress Elisabeth Christine, died, followed four years later by her governess, Karoline von Fuchs-Mollard, who, by the express order of Maria Theresa, was buried along with members of the imperial family in gratitude for the service she had performed.
With her children, Maria Theresa was extremely devoted and affectionate, but she often sacrificed their personal happiness in advantageous dynastic marriages and, even when they were married, she did not fail to send weekly letters to give them advice and criticism: she often accused Leopold of coldness, Maria Carolina of dealing too much with political matters, Ferdinand of having poor gifts as an administrator, Maria Amalia for haughtiness, and finally Maria Antoinette who, even after her marriage to Louis, Dauphin of France, received long letters of criticism regarding frivolous and idle pastimes and the lack of an heir.
Her family life was influenced not only by the death of her husband, in 1765, but also by the death of her daughter Maria Josephine: in fact, in May 1767, Maria Theresa contracted smallpox from her daughter-in-law, wife of Emperor Joseph. At the death of her daughter-in-law, she forced her daughter Maria Josephine to follow her for a prayer in front of the tomb, unsealed, of the deceased; after a few days, Maria Josephine began to show symptoms of smallpox and soon died. For Maria Theresa it was a very hard loss because for the rest of her life she believed that her daughter had caught smallpox during the prayer that she had imposed (actually today we can say, considering the incubation time of the virus, that the archduchess was most likely infected a few weeks before the visit to the tomb).
Francesco Stefano and Maria Teresa had sixteen children, of whom four boys and six girls reached adulthood.