We begin a whole new series of history posts by Mr. Al today. For those who don’t know yet, Mr Al is my husband. I talked him into doing a series about the wives of Henry VIII, and then about the life of George IV. Somewhere along the way he became interested in the mother of Marie Antoinette, Maria Theresa. Welcome, Mr. Al, and thank you for letting me twist your arm yet again.
In the autumn of the year 1740, the Hapsburg Dynasty experienced a profound shock. The Emperor, Charles VI, died quite suddenly. Some thought he died from a bad cold caught while out hunting in nasty weather. Others were convinced he was carried off by a pot of bad mushrooms. Either way, the Holy Roman Emperor died without siring a son to take his place.
While some may have paused to consider the novelty of the situation, such a thing had not happened in over five hundred years, others were quick to prepare for what many believed would be the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire.
By 1740 the empire was much reduced from it’s glory days in the sixteenth century. It was then, with the Hapsburg’s on the throne of Spain, that their empire spanned the globe. As far as Austria’s eighteenth century neighbors were concerned, there was still plenty left to covet.
To the south were Tuscany and Lombardy, long before the cookbook writers and calender makers discovered them. To the north, Bohemia, Silesia and Moravia, which would form modern-day Czechoslovakia. There were the Austrian Netherlands, which would become part of Belgium.
It was particularly important to England that Austria remain in the Austrian Netherlands. Not because the English had any great love for the Austrian way of doing things, it was that the Austrians were not French, whom the English had a very low opinion of. And more to the point, the Austrian Netherlands stood between France and Hanover, which King George the II worried about constantly.
And then there were the people that formed the heart of the empire. Germans, Czechs ans Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbo-Croats, Italians, Slovenes, Romanians, Magyars and Ladins. All of them wanted something different and were not over concerned about how others might feel about their getting it.
Financially, the empire was nearly bankrupt. Unnecessary wars, corruption and general mis-management had reduced the House of Hapsburg to a shadow of its former glory. With the unforeseen death of Charles, many ministers prepared for the map of Europe to be rearranged, and not to Austria’s advantage.
After all, the empire was about to pass into the hands of a young woman. A girl, really. Only twenty three! Maria Theresa was the daughter of the Emperor, to be sure, but she was…only a she! And as a girl, she had received no formal training in government. Indeed, dad had been careful to exclude Maria Theresa from any kind of education in matters of state.
At the time of her fathers death, Maria Theresa had been married for five years to Francis Stephen of Lorraine, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was a good natured, if unfaithful fellow. Her soon-to-be Majesty was madly in love with him. This was just as well since she would spend much of her adult life pregnant with his children.
His infidelity, for that time and place and for a man of his station, was not particularly remarkable. Maria Theresa was willing to look the other way provided he not make a spectacle of himself and that he have the good sense not to fall in love with any of his conquests. Maria Theresa was a very, very practical woman.
She also quickly realized that he would be of little help in running the empire. He did have a talent for managing money. This would come in very handy for Her Majesty in the years to come, but she could not count on him at all in other matters, political or military.
Maria Theresa had a remarkable gift for reading peoples strengths and weaknesses. This was a gift she would make full use of as time went on. She was also remarkable, especially for someone in her position, that she did not, by and large, hold peoples weaknesses against them. At a time when military prowess on the part of a man like her husband was not only expected, but almost demanded, Francis Stephen had none.
She tried to fit him in, but his military career was short, and thankfully, uneventful. He had no grasp of command and his station would not allow him to be subordinate to anyone. At a time when the rank and file really were treated like cannon fodder, he would send his wife long letters about the conditions his men had to endure, the crummy food they had to eat and the stupidity of his brother officers.
Very well. No harm done. Bring hubby home and set him to doing what he really liked to do. Hunt,play with the kids, make money and chase skirts. Not necessarily in that order. Other men from modest backgrounds would find a place in her court, and at her table of Ministers. If this caused resentment in those that felt they were entitled to a place at the table because of their noble birth, tough noggies.
Maria Theresa had an empire to run and she did not suffer fools gladly. It wasn’t as though these men were concerned with her feelings. In fact, as far as some of her own Ministers were concerned, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Milan, Statthaler of the Netherlands,was doomed to fail and they wanted to make sure they profited from her failure.