This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of Austria’s most important figures. A major exhibition open until 29 November will be hosted this year at Schönbrunn Palace and across three sites in Vienna and Lower Austria, entitled “Maria Theresia, Strategist, Mother, Reformer”, to mark the tercentenary of her birth, each of which opens to the public on 15 March. The exhibition will explore the monarch’s life and legacy, her political achievements and works, allowing us a rare insight into the many facets of her personality and also the darker periods of her reign.
Such was the power of her personality and legacy that she still can dominate today: she stands in the form of the great monument on the square in Vienna that bears her name, the Maria-Theresien-Platz. This monument does much to symbolise the many ways in which she has come to leave her mark on popular culture, showing her synonymously as both powerful Empress and unmistakable woman, which was part of the cult that Maria Theresia consciously cultivated. And then there is the depiction of her as Austria’s ‘Great Mother’, as a monarch ruling over her subjects as her first children – a remark which Maria Theresia actually made – meaning that in equal reverse, her children were first ruled like subjects, to whom she was devoted but who she nevertheless expected to be compliant when it came to their personal futures, which were decided by way of dynastic marriages to strengthen the Franco-Austrian alliance for the ultimate benefit of the state. Maria Theresia promoted many reforms during her reign which would help to modernize the state – for which reason she is justly remembered today – although it is important to remember that she rather receives the credit for these as they took place during her reign, although her ministers and co-regent and successor Joseph II were more probably responsible for them.
She was born the eldest surviving child of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and his bride, Elisabeth Christine of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, on 17 May 1717 at the Hofburg Palace, the imperial residence in Vienna, being christened later that day with the names Maria Theresia Walburga Amalia Christina. Her sex was a source of disappointment at her birth. Charles VI had issued a variation of Leopold I’s Pact of Succession – the so-called Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 – which meant that his children could succeed before the daughters of his elder brother. Charles VI was deeply concerned that the Sanction should be recognised by the European Great Powers, although it was issued during the wait for the longed-for male heir to arrive, as the Sanction pre-dated Maria Theresia’s birth by four years. It seems to have been made as the last strategy at the end of a long-held hope: ultimately, with Maria Theresia’s recognition as his heir, marriage negotiations would eventually follow which would enable the imperial elective throne of Holy Roman Emperor to be given to her future husband, Francis Stephan of Lorraine in 1745, thus making her Holy Roman Empress herself, albeit by marriage. On the sudden death of Charles VI, Maria Theresia found herself inexperienced and vulnerable to the attacks which soon followed: Shortly afterwards, several of the European powers that had acknowledged the Sanction repudiated their recognition of her rights, notably Prussia, with Frederick II’s invading of Austria’s hereditary territory of Silesia, thereby striking the match for what would become known as the War of the Austrian Succession. The loss of Silesia during this War meant that it would remain a bone of bitter contention, as it belonged to the inherited body of her dominions and was something which – despite the great Austrian victory at the battle of Kolin – was not recovered during the subsequent Seven Years’ War.
Maria Theresia fought in another way too. To achieve the dynastic marriages so desired by the state, she was prepared to make a personal sacrifice by way of her children. Among these were the future Emperors Joseph II, Leopold II, Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who all made dynastic marriages negotiated by Maria Theresia’s State Chancellor, Prince von Kaunitz. The main aim of these state marriages was to support a volte-face in Austrian foreign policy: the rapprochement between the Hapsburg and Bourbon monarchies, underpinned by the 1756 Treaty of Versailles. The Roman Catholic Maria Theresia’s clever embracing of her sex in the form of a ‘Great Mother’ has meant that this is largely as she is remembered today, something which she promoted during her own lifetime.
The Maria-Theresia-Denkmal in Vienna, © Hubertl / Wikimedia Commons / via Wikimedia Commons
Typical of the time in which she was born, Maria Theresia does, in fact, embody an era’s gradual dawning in transition, viewing reform with a caution which her natural conservatism could never entirely overcome. The many modernising advances introduced during her reign were essentially for the betterment of the state and not because of her philosophical convictions, along the lines of what has become known as ‘enlightened absolutism’. It was her son, Joseph II, who better personified a enlightened attitude in the next generation with the abolition of torture in 1776, for example. Arguably the greatest legacy of her reign was the renovation of the imperial palace of Schönbrunn. A major exhibition in Vienna will be hosted this year at Schönbrunn and across other sites, entitled “Maria Theresia, Strategist, Mother, Reformer”, to mark 300 years since her birth. Her other main residence in Vienna was the Hofburg Palace where she was born and the wing in which she lived – the Leopoldinischer Trakt – is today the Chancellery of the Austrian President. The President’s Salon is presided over by an enormous portrait of Maria Theresia, in her former bedroom: The Empress has her place in Vienna’s future, as well as its past.