On 12 February 1736, Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria married Duke Francis Stephan III of Lorraine. The pair had known each other since childhood and were distant cousins. Maria Theresa’s family had offered shelter to Francis’s father and grandfather who were both born in Austria, during a period of exile from their Duchy Lorraine. Despite a Duke of Lorraine being much lower in rank than a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, the close family bond meant that a match had been planned since Maria Theresa was a child.
The Archduchess was destined to marry a son of the house of Lorraine, but Duke Francis was not always the intended groom. From being an infant, Maria Theresa was betrothed to the Hereditary Prince of Lorraine Léopold Clément. Unfortunately, the match was ill-fated, and Léopold died of smallpox at the age of sixteen on his way to Vienna.
There was a period of uncertainty for Maria Theresa after the death of Léopold as her father planned to marry her to Charles, the heir to the Spanish throne. Luckily for Maria Theresa, this match was vetoed by many European powers. The Spanish branch of the Habsburgs had only died out in 1700, and the rulers of Europe were unwilling to allow the re-creation of such a power bloc.
Throughout the years of negotiation, Maria Theresa and Francis grew close as they were brought up together in Vienna. Though once it was finally time for the marriage to go ahead, Francis was hesitant. Maria Theresa’s father; Emperor Charles VI had put Francis in a difficult position. In order for him to be able to marry Maria Theresa, he would have to give away the Duchy of Lorraine. To help to solve the War of the Polish Succession, it was decided that Lorraine should go to the deposed King of Poland for his lifetime. Francis would be compensated by being given the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Francis and his family were truly heartbroken about the decision; Francis even hesitated during the betrothal ceremony and put down his quill before eventually signing the documents.
The wedding took place at 6 o’clock in the evening at the Augustinian Church in Vienna. Imperial chamberlains led the procession to the church. The privy counsellors and conference members followed and after them, the Knights of the Golden Fleece in long medieval robes. The groom was clad in cloth of silver, a white hat and wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece. The bride wore a gown of silver-thread fabric studded with diamonds and pearls. She was flanked by her mother and Joseph I’s widow, Wilhelmine Amalia of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Her train was carried by her mistress of the robes, Madame Fuchs. Her younger sister followed her in the procession. The church was lit with thousands of candles and was hung with splendid Flemish tapestries. The bride and groom exchanged rings and were blessed by the papal nuncio. The celebrations ended with a Te Deum, and the wedding party had a magnificent banquet.
The marriage was to be a happy one; blessed with sixteen children who were part of the new Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty. For Francis, the risk he took by giving up his beloved Lorraine paid off. He firstly became co-regent to Maria Theresa’s vast dominions after she succeeded her father and was elected as Holy Roman Emperor in 1745.1