The birth of the future Emperor Joseph II on 13 March 1741 was a relief. The longed-for male heir was born just a few months after his grandfather’s death. The birth was celebrated hugely, and it even pleased the Hungarians.
“Today, in the early morning, between two and three o’clock, Her Majesty the Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, our most gracious princess and wife of a beautiful and well-designed Archduke to unutterable joy of the highest dominions as well as the highest Consolation of all local inhabitants and the whole Kingdom. Hereditary Kingdoms, and lands; From which glowing confinement, as soon as the call, a perpetual jubilation cries through all the alleys still sound at night. From this happy confinement, the messages were also sent to various foreign courts by means of the dispatch of a few chamber-men, Truhsessen, and, respectively, Expresso. “ 1
The young Archduke was baptised on the evening of his birth, where Pope Benedict XIV was represented by Cardinal Sigismund von Kollonitz. He was baptised Josephus Benedictus Augustus Joannes Antonius Michael Adamus.
Maria Theresa’s supervised the very strict upbringing of all her children, but Joseph as her heir was special. Although she herself had complained about her useless upbringing, it never crossed her mind to give her daughters a more meaningful education. They were brought up to be docile, “They are born to obey and must learn to do so in good time.”
Maria Theresa was uneasy about her son’s abilities. He was badly spoiled as a child and refused to be knocked into shape by a tutor. She wrote, “because my son, a pledge so dear and important to us all, has been brought up from the cradle with the greatest tenderness and love, it must be admitted that his desires and requests have been deferred to too easily in many ways, particularly by those who serve him, who have flattered him too much and allowed him to develop a premature conception of his exalted station. He expects to be obeyed and honoured, finds criticism unpleasant, almost intolerable indeed, gives way to all his own whims, but behaves discourteously, even rudely to others.”
On 17 October 1760, Joseph married Isabella of Parma. She was much loved by family-in-law, but she had a dark secret. Isabella was very much in love with her sister-in-law, Marie Christine. However, she was realistic enough to write, “Deeply as I love you, I discovered yesterday that the Archduke comes first.” She and Joseph had two children, Archduchess Maria Theresa, who died at the age of eight and Archduchess Maria Christine, who was stillborn. During her pregnancy with Maria Christine, Isabella caught smallpox, and she gave birth to Maria Christine on the third day of her illness. She herself died five days, and Joseph wrote, “I have lost everything. My adored wife, the object of all my tenderness, my only friend is gone…. You have known my love for her and now will be smitten by the same misery as I: judge of my situation! Agonised and beaten down, I hardly know if I am still alive. This terrible separation: shall I survive it? I shall, but only to live in misery for ever.”
Deeply in mourning for his wife, he was sent to Frankfurt to be crowned King of the Romans. He wrote home, “With a heart aching with grief, I have to appear delighted with a position of which I feel all the burden and none of the pleasure.”
Maria Theresa was already on the hunt for a new bride. Joseph was uninterested in a remarriage, but he was along with it anyway. The bride was Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria and Joseph wrote of her, “She is 26. She has never had smallpox, and the very thought of the disease makes me shudder. Her figure is short, thick-set, and without a vestige of charm. Her face is covered with spots and pimples. Her teeth are horrible.”
And although he promised to treat Maria Josepha with “every imaginable consideration”, he continued to show his contempt for her. His sister Maria Christine wrote, “I believe that if I were his wife and so maltreated, I would run away and hang myself on a tree in Schönbrunn.” Maria Josepha ended up in a loveless marriage, which was to last mercifully short. Joseph was being pressured to father children with her, but he was repulsed by her. “My wife has become insupportable to me… They want me to have children. How can one have them? If I could put the tip of my finger on the tiniest part of her body which is not covered in pimples, I would try to have a child.”
Seven months after his wedding, his father suddenly died. Joseph, King of the Romans, without formality, became Emperor Joseph II. However, his mother remained Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and he had no new power other than what she chose to vest in him. Maria Theresa was at first tempted to retire to live out the rest of her life in a convent. She soon came to her senses. Joseph was formally made co-regent. On 28 May 1767, Maria Josepha died, and the court was again plunged into mourning. Joseph did not visit his wife when she was ill, nor did he attend her funeral.
The death of Maria Theresa on 29 November 1780 began Joseph’s solo reign. He directed his reign to an ideal of enlightened despotism. During the French Revolution, he actively sought to help his sister and her husband (Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI of France) escape, but these plans all failed, and both were eventually guillotined. Luckily he did not live to see this as he died on 20 February 1790. In his final days, he observed, “I do not miss the throne; I feel at peace, but only a little hurt with so much painful effort to have made so few happy and so many ungrateful; but then, such is the fate of men on the throne.”2