The Habsburg dynasty was about to die out in the year 1740, when Emperor Charles VI died without a male heir. He had seen this coming; he had worked during his entire reign to promote the Pragmatic Sanction, an agreement whereby members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire recognized his daughter, Maria Theresa, as his rightful heir even though she was a woman. He was not cold in his grave when many of the entities that had agreed changed their minds.
The young queen had to fight battles, both military and political, to hold on to power. She married the man she loved, Francis of Lorraine. The Habsburg dynasty, instead of dying out entirely, became the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty. Francis was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, though, and Maria Theresa soon realized that she had to be the actual day-to-day ruler of her vast empire. She did it for 40 years.
In her spare time, she gave birth to 16 children. She arranged politically advantageous marriages for them all over Europe, mostly strengthening Habsburg power with each marriage. Poor Marie Antoinette got the short end of the stick, but the other children made out pretty well.
In the Hofburg at Innsbruck, Maria Theresa’s PR skills are on glorious display. She redecorated a very grand reception room, called the Giants’ Hall. When she began her reign, the room came with paintings of Hercules and other characters from myth and legend. Maria Theresa did away with all that; instead she filled the room with oversized portraits of herself, her husband and above all her many children. Visitors to the palace had to pass through this room, basically plastered with Habsburg dynasty billboards, to reach the other rooms of the palace. Children who had died in infancy were pictured in the clouds.
I don’t know why someone has not made a movie of Maria Theresa’s colorful life. She is every bit as interesting as, say, her unfortunate daughter Marie Antoinette. Actually, there are not many biographies of Maria Theresa, and I don’t know of any historical novels about her. I have a feeling, though, that Maria Theresa could have written a very modern book like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!