The struggles of Marie Antoinette’s mother, Queen Maria Theresa, included a shaky start.
“I do not think anyone would deny that history hardly knows of a crowned head who started his rule under circumstances more grievous than those that attended my accession.” Maria Theresa wrote this many years after the fact, but she was hardly exaggerating. The ministers surrounding her were the men who served her father and even her grandfather.
They were old, old men who had grown adept at flattering the emperor and doing just enough to hold onto their jobs. According to one historian; “It’s members appeared to be embalmed.” To compound her problems her chancellor, Count Sinzendorf, was not only very old, but crooked as a dogs hind leg and, her Majesty strongly suspected, a traitor.
He had been taking money from the Spanish for years. He took money from the Duchy of Lorraine to advance Francis Stephen as the perfect hubby for Maria. And while these things had at least the fig leaf of respectability, Did not Spain used to be a Hapsburg possession? Her Majesty loved her husband, didn’t she? The same could not be said for Sinzendorf’s suspected dealings with Frederick of Prussia, Maria Theresa’s deadliest enemy.
The bitter fact of the matter was, there was no one else she could turn to. As imperfect as these men were, they were all she had. For the time being. She even went to the extraordinary length of making her husband co-regent, something the Pragmatic Sanction did not allow for. That she did so knowing full well that her husband would be of very little use in running the empire, and also knowing that he was almost universally distrusted, if not despised, for his perceived “French” background, says much about her character.
And then there was France and Prussia. Louis XIV’s foreign policy was in the hands of Cardinal Fleury, a diplomat and a plotter without equal anywhere in Europe. Not for a moment did he forget that his only aim was to advance French interests. Frederick of Prussia, Frederick the Great to posterity, was not in the least concerned with the legality or morality of treaties. He had the second most powerful army in Europe. It was more than a match for the woefully led, woefully supplied, woefully paid army of Austria.
Simply invading Austria was not what Frederick had in mind, however. Such a move could have dire consequences. France and England would not sit idly by in the event. It could well spark a Europe-wide war that would invariably draw in Russia. Russia to the east and France to the west, with England rushing to protect Hanover. No. Too risky. However…Silesia was there for the taking. And a tempting prize it was.
Right next door to Prussia, it was the richest part of what was left of the Hapsburg empire. And it was Protestant. Most of Silesia is in modern-day south west Poland. It possessed great mineral and agricultural wealth. And because of the rough country of the Riesengebirge that lay between it and Bohemia, difficult to defend or re-enforce from the Austrian side.
Being the sort of fellow that Frederick was, secretive to the point of paranoia, treacherous as a politician’s smile and temperamental as a colicky timber rattler, he sent Vienna a steady stream of letters professing devotion and friendship.
So sorry to hear about your dad. If there is anything
I can do to ease your burden, a lime jell-o marshmallow
salad? Run errands for you? Invade Silesia? Just name it
and I’ll be happy to do it.
Your Real Friend:
Frederick (The Great)
I made that letter up. Just to let you know. Frederick also sent similar letters to Francis Stephen in a bid to drive a wedge between husband and wife. All this was done while he steadily built up troop concentrations along the Prussian-Silesian border.
Maria didn’t buy any of it. Although she didn’t know what, exactly, he had in mind, she knew something was up and it would not be in Austria’s favor. She wrote to her ambassador in Berlin; “In the interest of a proper understanding you had better realize that nobody is to be trusted less than a Prussian.”
In an age when writing styles, particularly for women and even more particularly for the diplomatic corps tended to be as baroque as the architecture, such bluntness must have been un-nerving to it’s recipients.
The last thing Maria needed was a war. The economy was at a stand-still. Desertions from the army were epidemic because the soldiers hadn’t been paid in months. All of the governments sources of revenue were mortgaged to the hilt. Loans from the great landholders had been frittered away with nothing left over. At this time Maria Theresa had less than 100,000 Florins with which to run the entire empire.
Plus, the loyalty of the great magnates was very far from secure. It became less so when a “girl” came to the throne. And now Frederick was planning some mischief. By the end of November, 1740, it was obvious to all the courts of Europe that something was up. Frederick’s troop movements could not be hidden, but he continued to to insist that they were just on maneuvers.
When they finally did cross the border, his reason for doing so, at least the one he gave his uncle King George II of England, was that he wanted to preserve Silesia for Austria! Why, some other country might invade it instead! And they might not be so nice about it!
If Maria Theresa heard this excuse, her response was not recorded.
– Mr. Al