Her eldest stepson Franz Ferdinand had become the heir to the throne following the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf. However, he was in love with Countess Sophie Chotek, who was considered to be highly unsuitable. Sophie had been a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella (born of Croÿ), the wife of Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen. When Franz Ferdinand began visiting her house, she had assumed he had come to court one of her many daughters, but when he turned out to be courting Sophie, Isabella turned to trickery to still arouse his interest in her daughters. Nevertheless, the romance had been kept under wraps for several years by then. When Franz Ferdinand could not be diverted from Sophie, things changed, and the Countess was turned out of the house. On 23 April 1899, Sophie tended her resignation, and she eventually ended up with her sister in Dresden. A furious Isabella reported the situation to the Emperor.
Franz Ferdinand came clean to his uncle about his feelings for Sophie and how he intended to marry her. Franz Joseph was stunned and replied that such a marriage was impossible as the Choteks were not equal to the Habsburgs. Furthermore, if they were to marry, it would be morganatic, and any children would be barred from the succession. Franz Ferdinand was told to take a year to carefully consider the consequences. Maria Theresa had sided with her stepson when she learned of the romance, as did both of his half-sisters. She personally went to plead with Franz Joseph twice, but although he heard her out, he refused to allow the wedding. Another supporter came from an unexpected corner, Crown Prince Rudolf’s widow Stéphanie, who was fighting for permission for her own morganatic marriage. Maria Theresa reportedly even wrote to the Pope extolling Sophie’s virtues, and the Pope decided to urge the Emperor to allow the marriage to take place.
When it turned out that Franz Ferdinand could not be persuaded otherwise, Franz Joseph yielded. He would agree to the marriage but under strict terms. He could marry Sophie in a morganatic marriage while swearing that he would never elevate her status or grant succession rights to future children. Franz Ferdinand reluctantly agreed to the terms. Maria Theresa now gladly offered her summer home at Reichstadt for the wedding. Conveniently, Princess Josephine of Baden had died in June, and while the Austrian court had barely recognised her during her lifetime, it now went into mourning, which happened to end the day after the wedding was supposed to take place. This ensured that no member of the family could attend the celebrations.
The only ones to risk it were Maria Theresa and his two half-sisters. During the family dinner, Maria Theresa proposed the toast to the bride and groom. She also presented Sophie with a jewellery box that had belonged to Franz Ferdinand’s mother. As the bride dressed for the wedding, Maria Theresa placed the tiara, which had belonged to Franz Ferdinand’s mother as well, on Sophie’s head. During the ceremony, Franz Ferdinand escorted his stepmother and half-sisters, while Sophie was escorted by a cousin of hers. A newspaper wrote that the ceremony was devoid of “court ceremony, with no pomp, no show of luxury.”1 Upon her marriage, Sophie was raised to the ranks of princely hereditary nobility with the name Hohenberg and the style of “Fuerstliche Gnaden” (similar to “Your Grace”). During their honeymoon, Franz Ferdinand wrote a touching letter to his stepmother to thank her for all that she had done. Nine years later, when her youngest stepson Archduke Ferdinand Karl wanted to marry Bertha Czuber, it was once again Maria Theresa who pleaded with the Emperor. Although this time, the Archduke would be forced to renounce his titles before being allowed a morganatic marriage.
Meanwhile, her own daughters were of an age to marry as well. Her eldest daughter Maria Annunciata had been set to marry Duke Siegfried August in Bavaria, but she had suddenly broken off the engagement and had asked for permission to become a nun. The Emperor appointed her as Abbess of the Order of Noble Ladies of the Hradschin in Prague but refused his permission to allow her to become a nun. Her youngest daughter Elisabeth Amalie married Prince Aloys of Liechtenstein in 1903, and the Emperor pointedly attended the wedding to make it known that he considered it to be an equal marriage.2 Their eldest son would be named Franz Joseph, and he would eventually become the reigning prince of Liechtenstein.
Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie would end up having three surviving children together, but their fairytale wasn’t to last. On 28 June 1914, they were both assassinated in Sarajevo – an event that kickstarted the First World War. Once more, Maria Theresa proved her loyalty to her stepson – she reportedly immediately hurried to their home to inform the three young orphans of what had happened. When separate funeral plans were drawn up, Maria Theresa objected, and eventually, the Emperor agreed that the two should have a shared funeral service. She also declared that if he did not grant the children a yearly income equal to that of Austrian Archdukes, she would resign her own allowance in their favour. Her wishes were taken into consideration, and their futures were now assured.3 The three children stayed at the Belvedere with Maria Theresa as their parents were laid to rest. Unfortunately, they were not permitted to attend the service. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were eventually buried together in the crypt at Artstetten. During the First World War, Maria Theresa worked as a nurse.
Maria Theresa would live to see the succession of her step-grandson Charles, who became Emperor Charles I upon the death of Franz Joseph I. He had married her niece Zita (the daughter of her younger sister Maria Antónia) in 1911 and Maria Theresa had played quite the matchmaker. Tragically, Charles and Zita would be the last Emperor and Empress of Austria as the Empire fell apart in 1918. Maria Theresa accompanied the family to Madeira, where Charles became seriously ill. Maria Theresa and Zita tried to nurse him through the worst of it, but it was no use – he died on 1 April 1922 at the age of just 34.
Maria Theresa eventually returned to Austria, where she lived with her eldest daughter. She died in Vienna in 1944 at the age of 88. She received a state funeral and was interred in the Imperial Crypt.