On 19 April 1713 Maria Theresa’s father, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor and head of the House of Hapsburg, issued his Pragmatic Sanction, an imperial decree designed to ensure that his hereditary lands were not broken up on his death and that they could be inherited by his female descendants. The Hereditary lands consisted of the Kingdoms of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, the Archduchy of Austria and the Austrian Netherlands, among others. The decree was needed because (1)Salic law did not allow for female rule and (2) Charles had previously agreed that if the male line were to die out his older brother Joseph’s daughters would have precedence over his own daughters. (The title Holy Roman Emperor was an elective title for males only so he did not address that. )
Charles’ brother Joseph had left two daughters. One eventually married the Elector of Bavaria and the other the heir to the Elector of Saxony. Both had their eyes on their wife’s inheritance.
In 1713 Charles and his wife Elizabeth had been married for five years but did not have any children. He always hoped for a son and in fact ruined his wife’s health by insisting she try various “remedies” designed to ensure the birth of a male child. He and his wife eventually had two daughters that survived childhood: Maria-Theresa born in 1717 and Maria Anna in 1718.
Charles became obsessed with getting agreement to this document and spent years making deals with the various European powers. His minister, Eugene of Savoy, told him that he would be better off spending his time and money building an army rather than striking deals.
Eventually, he was able to gain agreement from most of the parties. England agreed in return for Austria closing its trading port. The Duke of Saxony agreed in return for support for his claim to the Polish throne. Spain agreed in return for Austria giving up its claim to the Spanish throne. France agreed in return for the Duchy of Lorraine. The Duke of Lorraine was engaged to Charles’ daughter Maria Theresa, and Charles’ minister told him firmly: “No renunciation, no Archduchess.” With great hesitation, the Duke of Lorraine signed the renunciation and gave up his Duchy. (His mother did not forgive him).
The King of Bavaria, mindful of his wife’s claim, never agreed. No doubt he sided with his mother-in-law who said that her daughter’s claim was given by God and therefore could not be nullified by a piece of paper. Prussia finally pretended to agree as a faithful servant of the Emperor.
Eugene of Savoy was prophetic. Charles VI died on 20 October 1740. Within weeks Frederick of Prussia’s armies were marching on Austria. France, Saxony and Bavaria soon joined him. The War of the Austrian Succession had begun. The Pragmatic Sanction that Charles had spent so many years on was unable to secure Maria Theresa’s inheritance. It would take eight years of war until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle confirmed Maria-Theresa as ruler of the Hapsburg lands. Her husband Francis, former Duke of Lorraine, was elected Holy Roman Emperor.