On 13 May 1717, Maria Theresa of Austria was born as the daughter of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. She was born at the Hofburg Palace but spent most of her childhood at the Favorita Palace.
Maria Theresa’s birth came seven months after the death of her elder brother Leopold Johann, and she was later joined in the nursery by two younger sisters. The youngest of the three, Maria Amalia, would die at the age of five, but Maria Anna would survive to adulthood. Due to her father issuing the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713, she displaced her cousin Maria Josepha as heiress presumptive. Although her father certainly loved her, he could never bring himself to see her as his inevitable heir. He continued to hope for a son, and her mother was submitted to strange “fertility” treatments that included large doses of liquor and a rich diet that eventually led to her becoming so large that she was unable to walk unaided. Her room was also decorated with erotic images of manly beauty.
As was the custom, Elisabeth Christine and Charles saw their daughters at a set hour, mostly daily. Charles gave Maria Theresa the nickname “Mutz”, but to the girls “Mami” was their governess and not Elisabeth Christine. During her daughter’s reign, it was noted that Elisabeth Christine was “hardly was much beloved” by her daughter.1 The education of her daughters was mainly focussed on religion, and Maria Theresa learned to speak French, Italian and some Spanish. Although her mother tongue was German, she only wrote it (semi-)phonetically. She was also taught music and singing. The girls were not taught to ride as ladies were not supposed to mount a horse.
From the age of six, Maria Theresa was part of marriage negotiations, and many suitors were considered. Her father was perhaps most serious about the match with Prince Clement of Lorraine. Clement’s father was a first cousin of Charles and also a childhood friend. Tragically, Clement died in 1723 at the age of 16. His younger brother Francis Stephen was promptly put forward as a replacement. He was brought to Vienna for his education, and the two got to know each other well before their eventual marriage. She apparently fell in love with him at first sight. In 1729, he succeeded his father as Duke of Lorraine and set out to see the world – he was then 21 years old while she was only 12. He returned three years later to Vienna to find that Maria Theresa had grown into a young woman. However, Emperor Charles remained silent on the subject of their betrothal.
For her first communion, Maria Theresa was taken to Maria Zell, where a lifesize effigy of her short-lived brother stood at the feet of the miracle-working Madonna. Religion would play an important role in Maria Theresa’s education and also her life. What was lacking in her education was the study of government and the history of her own house. Much time was devoted to her musical talents.
In 1733, the War of the Polish Succession broke out, which France then used as an opportunity to seize Lorraine from Francis Stephen as they were concerned it would bring Austria closer to France. The peace that was eventually reached in 1735 gave Lorraine to Stanisław I, the losing claimant to the Polish throne, while Francis Stephen was made the heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in compensation. He was apparently told in no uncertain terms that if he refused to “yield your possession, you shall not marry Maria Theresa; no signature, no Archduchess.”2 Around this time, Maria Theresa was described as being “a Princess of the highest spirit, and regards her father’s losses as her own. She sighs and pines for her Duke of Lorraine all day and night. If she sleeps it is but to dream of him, if she wakes it is but to talk of him to her lady-in-waiting.”3 Francis Stephen want to agree to a modified version that would allow him to retain Lorraine until the death of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, but Charles would not have it. When the original treaty was returned to Francis Stephen, he reportedly threw the pen on the floor three times before finally signing.
On 31 January 1736, Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen were officially betrothed, and while the wedding was set for just 12 days later, Francis Stephen left Vienna as it was the custom. In the meantime, Maria Theresa wrote to him, “Dear sweetheart, I am under endless obligations to you for having sent me news concerning yourself, because I was uneasy, like a little dog, about you. Love me and forgive me that I do not write more, for it is ten o’clock and the messenger is waiting. Adieu, my little mouse, I embrace you with all my heart. Take care of yourself. Adieu, sweetheart! I am your happy bride!”4 Although the wedding was described as a happy one, the fact that Francis Stephen had signed away his birthright hung over the ceremony. His mother reportedly called down the wrath of heaven upon him.
Maria Theresa fell pregnant quickly and gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Maria Elisabeth, on 5 February 1737. Maria Theresa had been hoping for a son, so the birth of a daughter was a disappointment. On 6 October 1738, Maria Theresa gave birth to a second daughter – Maria Anna. Just shortly after the birth of Maria Anna, Francis and Maria Theresa left for Tuscany as they had become Grand Duke and Duchess of Tuscany the previous year. They were not very well-received and did not stay long. A third daughter – named Maria Carolina – was born on 12 January 1740. Just six months later, their eldest daughter Maria Elisabeth tragically passed away – she was just three years old.
Even more worrying, it seemed that her father’s life was coming to an end as well. By then, Maria Theresa was pregnant with her fourth child. On 10 October 1740, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, died. He had ordered Maria Theresa not to come and see him to prevent her from having a miscarriage. Although most of the European powers had agreed to the terms of the Pragmatic Sanction, it quickly became clear that it would not be easy for Maria Theresa. Within three months, Frederick II of Prussia occupied the Silesian duchies, and others claimed a portion of the Habsburg lands, such as the son of Maria Theresa’s cousin Maria Amalia (the daughter of Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor, who had been disinherited by the Pragmatic Sanction).
The fight was on.