As a woman, Maria Theresa could never be elected Holy Roman Emperor, but she did become Queen of Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia and Archduchess of Austria in her own right. Unfortunately, she was woefully unprepared to rule and put her trust in God. She later wrote, “In these circumstances, I found myself without money, without credit, without an army, without experience and knowledge, even without counsel, because all my ministers were wholly occupied in trying to discover which way the cat was going to jump.”1 The only two people she had some faith in was Johann Christoph von Bartenstein, whom she detested at first, and finance minister Count Gundacker Starhemberg. After being told of the true state of the realm, Maria Theresa was left in tears.
The situation seemed rather hopeless, but there was one positive thing. On 13 March 1741, Maria Theresa gave birth to a son – the future Emperor Joseph II. Having a son helped her to establish herself as it was as an auspicious omen. A coronation would also help to establish herself, and later that same year, she was crowned Queen of Hungary.
From 1536 until 1830, the Hungarian coronation ceremony was always held in Pressburg (Bratislava). The event was set for 25 June, and on 19 June, Maria Theresa set off from Vienna, taking a flotilla down the Danube. They stopped on the Austrian side of the border for the night and in the morning were escorted by representatives of the Hungarian Diet across the border where two pavilions had been set up. Maria Theresa changed into a gold-embroidered dress in one and received the representatives of the Diet in the other. Later that day, Maria Theresa and her husband entered the city with the bells ringing and crowds in the streets to welcome them.
The next day she met a larger contingent in the great hall where she was to finalise the oath she would take to uphold the Hungarian constitution. Hungary’s Diet wanted to be certain that their liberties would be preserved, while Maria Theresa wanted it to be clear she was the ruler and could pass on the Crown to her chosen successor. Negotiations between Maria Theresa and the Diet grew tense and threatened to delay the coronation. Eventually, Maria Theresa agreed to write into her coronation oath that she would continue to negotiate so that the ceremony could continue.
The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition. The monarch was clothed in the mantle worn in 1000 by St. Stephen, the first crowned King of Hungary, and used by all monarchs since. The Holy Crown of Hungary was called the Crown of St. Stephen, although it is believed to actually date to the twelfth century. The Crown has enormous significance, and a Hungarian King was not considered legitimate without having been crowned with it.
The coronation itself took place on 25 June. Maria Theresa knelt and kissed the cross and swore to uphold the laws of the land. The Bishop anointed her and put St. Stephen’s mantle around her shoulders, the Holy Crown on her head and handed her the orb and sceptre. The sceptre was also believed to have been carried by St. Stephen. She then rode to the church of the Brethren of Charity, where she took the coronation oath and was named Rex Hungariae (King of Hungary- there being no provision for female rule in the constitution.)
Next came a unique part of the Hungarian tradition, again following the example of St. Stephen. A large hill, with soil from all parts of Hungary, had been constructed in the main square. Maria Theresa rode a black charger up Royal Hill, as it was called, and at the top swung her sword to each of the four corners of the earth, vowing to defend Hungary from all comers. This was a physically demanding exercise, but Maria Theresa had been practising for some weeks and pulled it off.
A grand banquet followed, but she had little time to savour the moment. She was still in Pressburg when news came that the Prussian King Frederick had invaded Austria. She had been left with no treasury and not much of an army, and she was now threatened by an alliance of France, Spain and Prussia. In one of the most famous moments of her reign, she went to the Hungarian Diet and begged for an army with which to defend her realm. Reportedly the Diet, which had been so difficult during her coronation negotiations, was quite moved by her speech and shouted out in agreement, “Blood and life for our King Maria Theresa.”2
The War of the Austrian Succession was to drag on until the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed in October 1748. During this time, Maria Theresa gave birth to six more children: Maria Christina (born 13 May 1742), Maria Elisabeth (born 13 August 1743), Charles Joseph (born 1 February 1745 – died at the age of 15), Maria Amalia (born 26 February 1746), the future Leopold II (born 5 May 1747) and Maria Carolina (stillborn or died shortly after birth on 17 September 1748). Finally, on 13 September 1745, Francis Stephen was elected as Holy Roman Emperor – making Maria Theresa Holy Roman Empress consort.
Maria Theresa had retained the main Habsburg domains of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia and the Austrian Netherlands were also eventually returned to her. She ceded the Duchy of Parma to Philip of Spain, who became Duke of Parma. His daughter Isabella would eventually marry Maria Theresa’s son, Joseph, while Philip’s son and heir Ferdinand eventually married Maria Theresa’s daughter Maria Amalia. Nevertheless, Maria Theresa was not satisfied with the outcome but all around, the parties were exhausted of war. She bitterly commented that condolences were more in order than congratulations, though she had come out of it with a minimal loss of lands.
Part three coming soon.