The Strength of Maria Theresa’s Fighting Spirit


Maria Theresa’s reign as ruler of the Hapsburg dominions started out as a tumultuous one. October of 1740 saw a bitter winter. By December, Frederick II of Prussia, who like herself took the crown of Prussia that year, marched to the mineral-rich Austrian province of Silesia to occupy it. The following year, Charles Albert of Bavaria occupied Bohemia and proclaimed himself its King. Worst, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor, a title held by the Hapsburgs since the 1500s. For a lady without experience left to inherit an empire nearly bankrupted, the darkest days of her life has arrived.

Born on March 12, 1717, her father, Charles VI, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, already had in mind that he might not have a son. As early as 1713, he busied himself getting every European sovereign to agree with his Pragmatic Sanction, the edict that would ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. In 1736, Maria Theresa married Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine. In 1740, Charles died, leaving Austria in an impoverished state. The emperor ignored the advice of Prince Eugene of Savoy to focus on enriching his empire instead of spending his days securing Europe’s approval of Pragmatic Sanction. A decade after coming to her possessions, Maria Theresa recalled in her Political Testament : "I found myself without money, without credit, without army, without experience and knowledge of my own and finally, also without any counsel because each one of them at first wanted to wait and see how things would develop. “

With Silesia lost to the hands of the Prussians and Bohemia occupied by her enemies, Maria Theresa found her strongest support in Hungary, who rallied behind her as she attempted to recover her possessions. As Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Spain are now planning to partition her empire, she appeared in Pressburg in September 1741, hoping to persuade the Diet to call a mass conscription and recognize Francis Stephen as co-ruler. She then showed her gift for theatrical displays by triumphantly holding her son and heir, Joseph, before the Diet, thereby gaining sympathy of the noblemen. She immediately retaliated  and caught her enemies unprepared by insisting on a winter campaign; the same day he was elected emperor, Austrian troops captured Munich, Charles Albert's capital.

In May 1743, Maria Theresa had herself crowned Queen of Bohemia in St. Vitus Cathedral. But her struggle would continue. By August 1744, the Prussians sacked Prague but in January 1745, Charles Albert’s death secured the crown of Holy Roman Empire to Francis Stephen, who was elected on September 13. Prussia recognized Francis’ election and in return Maria Theresa ceded Silesia to Prussia in the Treaty of Breslau in December 1745.

Maria Theresa’s battle continued for three more years but she never wavered.  The core Habsburg domains of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia remained in Maria Theresa's possession. The war ended with the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, recognizing Prussia's possession of Silesia. Austria also ceded the Duchy of Parma to Philip of Spain, while France conquered the Austrian Netherlands. However, Louis XV, not wanting to enter a future conflict with Austria returned them to Maria Theresa. 

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