Maria Theresa’s response to her growing infirmities was to push herself even harder. When she was told that these exertions would be her undoing, she redoubled her efforts. These were not the actions of a woman who was denying her mortality; they were the actions of a woman who knew she was dieing and wanted to get it over with. There was very little in the world that frightened Maria Theresa. Nothing frightened her personally. Certainly not the thought of her own death.
If she could no longer write, no longer walk, no longer discharge her duties to the Empire, the Church, and the dynasty, then she was ready to go. Besides, she knew, knew in her heart and soul, that Francis was waiting for her. In the autumn of 1780, Maria went out with Joseph on one of the hunting parties that both he and his father loved so much.
She caught a “chill” and retired to Schonbrunn. On All Souls Day she insisted on making her usual pilgrimage to the family vault at the Capucin church. It was something she most certainly would have been forgiven, had she announced that she was going to skip it that year. Her chill got worse. A week later, she was having serious respiratory troubles. She couldn’t sleep on her back. Joseph refused to believe it was serious. She’d be back on her feet in no time. He accused her doctor of making it sound worse than it was so he would look good when she was cured.
With each day her breathing became more labored. Yet she continued to write letters to her children. On November 26th, she informed Joseph that she wished to receive Extreme Unction. (or Last Rites) Joseph panicked a bit, begging her to hold off. Last Rites? Come on mom, that’s crazy talk! You’re gonna be fine! Nonetheless she sent out special messengers to the family, asking them to rally around. She told one of her doctors that she hoped she would be dead by the time they arrived, so the sight of their suffering mother wouldn’t overwhelm the poor dears. Catholics! I tell ya!
On the evening of November 29th, the pain she was suffering became almost intolerable. Her doctors begged her to allow them to give her something so that she could sleep. She refused. “I wish to see death coming.” She did ask most of the children to leave the room. This was not going to be peaceful or pretty. In the end only the doctors and Joseph remained. After asking if the windows were open, they were, there was a cold breeze blowing through the room, she heaved herself to her feet. Joseph was at her side, holding her up. “Your Majesty cannot be comfortable like that.” he said. She looked at him and smiled slightly; “No, but comfortable enough to die.” With that, she collapsed on a sofa, dead.
There is so much to say about Maria Theresa and what she accomplished. But what is equally remarkable is what she avoided. Because of her reforms, Austria entered the 19th century as a modern state. The revolutionary violence that overtook France, and later, Germany, never took root in Austria. If her descendants were not up to the task of holding the Empire together, and they were not, it wasn’t because they didn’t have a framework to build on.
But I hesitate to compare later Hapsburgs, or even earlier ones, to Maria. As a whole, they were a pretty lack-luster bunch. It’s a wonder they ever became so powerful. Maria Theresa was not only a dynamic Empress considering her origins, she was a dynamic monarch for any time period or any place. Leaders of her caliber were and are few and far between.
If history has left her in the shadows, it may be because what she prevented was as important as what she accomplished. Would Captain Edward Smith be famous today if he had missed that iceberg and brought the Titanic into New York Harbor, safe and sound? Maria Theresa’s daughter is more famous by far because of how badly she screwed up. And by no means was she entirely at fault.
But…there it is. History always remembers the spectacular failures for the same reason it remembers the winners of the spectacular battles. Because they are spectacular. And saving an empire doesn’t always mean saving it from the bad guys on the outside. That is a lot more exciting, and makes for better reading, than saving an empire from the idiots on the inside.
For me, Maria Theresa will always be one of the most underrated monarchs in history, Certainly the most underrated monarch of the 18th century. And yes, I have crush on her and I don’t care who knows. Maria Theresa and Elizabeth I of England. (sigh.)
– Mr. Al
This marks the end of the Ah Maria series. Thank you all for reading. Mr. Al will be back next Wednesday and for foreseeable Wednesdays, but with photography in place of history. At least until I can get him to start another series.