The next edition of our series “The Year of Maria Theresa: Death of an Empress” focuses, on the end of Empress Maria Theresa’s, the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, 63-year life.
On 13 May 1717, Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, the future Holy Roman Empress, was born to Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in the early morning at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria.
She was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church later that evening. Her godmothers were named as Holy Roman Empress Wilhelmine Amalia, an aunt and Eleonor Magdalene of the Palatinate-Neuburg, her grandmother. Accounts from the baptism state that she was carried into the church ahead of her cousins, Maria Josepha and Maria Amalia (whose mother was Wilhelmine Amalia). This was emphasised because they were the daughters of Charles VI’s older brother, Joseph I, and Charles was making it clear who his heir would be.
However, the young Maria Theresa would end up outranking her first cousins aside from the fact that her grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I made his two sons sign the Mutual Pact of Succession to ensure precedence of the daughters of Joseph. However, Charles issued the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 placing his children ahead of his nieces in line for the throne. As a result, from the moment of her birth, Maria Theresa became the heiress presumptive ahead of Maria Josepha.
Maria Theresa was the eldest surviving child of the Holy Roman Emperor and his wife. Her older brother, Leopold John, had died the previous November when he was just seven months old. Her father was desperate for a male heir to continue on the family name and dynasty. He found Maria Theresa’s birth as extremely disappointing and was said never to have gotten over it.
Though he was disappointed with his lack of a male heir, Maria Theresa would go on to be one of the most successful rulers of the House of Habsburg (of which she was the last). She was instrumental in developing much-needed reforms in education and finance, as well as strengthening Austria’s standing on the world stage (due in part, no doubt, to her reorganisation of the Austrian military as part of her reforms).
Her 40-year reign would come to an end on 29 November 1780 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. She had a bout with smallpox several years before in 1767, with many historians arguing that she never fully recovered from the illness.
It was on 24 November 1780 that the Empress began feeling ill with chills; her physician Dr Störk was called in and informed her and her family that her condition was serious. Four days later she received her Last Rites, as per her request. It was only a day later that she would pass away at home surrounded by her children. She had been preceded in death by her husband, Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and several of her children: Maria Elisabeth, (the first two) Maria Carolinas, Charles Joseph, Maria Johanna and Maria Josepha.
She was so respected that one of her rivals, Frederick II of Prussia, complimented her upon her death saying that she was never his enemy and honoured the Austrian throne and all females.
With her died the House of Habsburg, and her son Emperor Joseph II succeeded her leading the new House of Habsburg-Lorraine. Because of her, the family would have significant influence across Europe up through the 19th century. Her son would continue her reforms to help the Austrian Empire.
She was buried in the family crypt, the Imperial Crypt, alongside her husband in Vienna.