MARIA THERESA (1717-1780), archduchess of Austria, queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and wife of the Holy Roman emperor Francis L, was born at Vienna on the 13th of May 1717. She was the eldest daughter of the Emperor Charles VI. (q.v.) and his wife Elizabeth of Brunswick- Wolfenbiittel. On the izth of February 1736 she was married to her cousin Francis of Lorraine (q.v.), then grand duke of Tuscany, and afterwards emperor. Five sons and eleven daughters were born of this marriage. From the date of her father's death on the 20th of October 1740, till her own death in 1780, Maria Theresa was one of the central figures in the wars and politics of Europe. But unlike some sovereigns, whose reigns have been agitated, but whose personal character has left little trace, Maria Theresa had a strong and in the main a noble individuality. Her great qualities were relieved by human traits which make her more sympathetic. It must be allowed that she was fairly open to the criticism implied in a husbandly jest attributed to Francis I. While they were returning from the opera house at Vienna she said to him that the singer they had just heard was the greatest actress who had ever lived, and he answered " Next to you, Madam." Maria Theresa had undoubtedly an instinctive histrionic sense of the perspective of the theatre, and could adopt the appropriate attitude and gesture, passionate, dignified or pathetic, required to impress those she wished to influence. But there was no affectation in her assumption of a becoming bearing or in her picturesque words. The common story, that she appeared before the Hungarian magnates in the diet at Pressburg in 1741 with her infant son, afterwards .erwaiua Joseph II., in her arms, and so worked on their feelings that they shouted Moriamur pro rege nostro Maria Theresia, is only mythically true. But during the delicate negotiations which were required to secure the support of the Hungarian nobles she undoubtedly did appeal to them with passionate eloquence, and, we may believe, with a very pardonable sense of the advantage she obtained from her youth, her beauty and her sex. Her beauty, inherited from her mother, was of an open and noble German type. The official portrait by Muytens, engraved by Petit, gives a less convincing impression that an excellent chalk drawing of the head by Gabriel Mattei. In the conflict between her sense of what was morally just and her sense of duty to the state she laid herself open to the scoffing taunt of Frederick of Prussia, who said that inivthe first partition of Poland die pleurait et prenait toujours. But the king of Prussia's taunt is deprived of its sting by the almost incredible candour of her own words to Kaunitz, that if she was to lose her reputation before God and man for respecting the rights of others it must not be for a small advantage if, in fact, Austria was to share in the plunder of Poland, she was to be consoled for the distress caused to her feelings by the magnitude of her share of the booty. There was no hypocrisy in the tears of the empress. Her intellectual honesty was as perfect as Frederick's own, and she was as incapable as he was of endeavouring to blind herself to the quality of her own acts. No ruler was ever more loyal to a conception of duty. Maria Theresa considered herself first and foremost as the heiress of the rights of the house of Austria. Therefore, when her inheritance was assailed at the beginning of her reign, she fought for it with every weapon an honest woman could employ, and for years she cherished the hope of recovering the lost province of Silesia, conquered by Frederick. Her practical sense showed her the necessity of submitting to spoliation when she was overpowered. She accepted the peace of Berlin in 1742 in order to have a free hand against her Bavarian enemy, the emperor Charles VII. (<?..). When Frederick renewed the war she accepted the struggle cheerfully, because she hoped to recover her own. Down to the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1 748 she went on fighting for Silesia or its equivalent. In the years following the peace she applied herself to finding allies in France and Russia who would help her to recover Silesia. Here, as later in the case of Poland, she subordinated her feelings to her duty to the state. Though she denied that she had ever written directly to Madame de Pompadour, it is certain that she allowed her ministers to make use of the favourite's influence over the French king. When fate decided against her in the Seven Years' War she bowed to the inevitable, and was thenceforward a resolute advocate of peace.
In her internal government she showed herself anxious to promote the prosperity of her people, and to give more unity to an administration made up by the juxtaposition of many states and races with different characters and constitutions. Her instincts, like those of her enemy Frederick and her son Joseph II., were emphatically absolutist. She suspended the meetings of the estates in most parts of her dominions. She was able to do so because the mass of her subjects found her hand much lighter than that of the privileged classes who composed these bodies. Education, trade, religious toleration, the emancipation of the agricultural population from feudal burdens all had her approval up to a certain point. She would favour them, but on the distinct condition that nothing was to be done to weaken the bonds of authority. She took part in the suppression of the Jesuits, and she resisted the pope in the interest of the state. Her methods were those of her cautious younger son, Leopold II., and not of her eldest son and immediate successor, Joseph II. She did not give her consent even to the suppression of torture in legal procedure without hesitation, lest the authority of the law should be weakened. Her caution had its reward, for whatever she did was permanently gained, whereas her successor in his boundless zeal for reform brought his empire to the verge of a general rebellion.
In her private life Maria Theresa was equally the servant of the state and the sovereign of all about her. She was an affectionate wife to her husband Francis I. ; but she was always the queen of Hungary and Bohemia and archduchess of Austria, like her ancestress, Isabella the Catholic, who never forgot, nor allowed her husband to forget, that she was " proprietary queen " of Castile and Leon. She married her daughters in the interest of Austria, and taught them not to forget their people and their father's house. In the case of Marie Antoinette (q.v.), who married the dauphin, .afterwards Louis XVI., she gave an extraordinary proof of her readiness to subordinate everything to the reason of state. She instructed her daughter to show a proper respect to her husband's grandfather, Louis XV., by behaving with politeness to his mistresses, in order that the alliance between the two courts might run no risk. The signing of the peace of Teschen, which averted a great war with Prussia, on the 13th of May 1779, was the last great act of her reign, and so Maria Theresa judged it to be in a letter to Prince Kaunitz; she said that she had now finished her life's journey and could sing a Te Deum, for she had secured the repose of her people at whatever cost to herself. The rest, she said, would not last long. Her fatal illness developed in the autumn of the following year, and she died on the 28th of November 1780. When she lay painfully on her deathbed her son Joseph said to her, " You are not at ease," and her last words were the answer, " I am sufficiently at my ease to die."
See A. von Arneth, Geschichte Maria Theresas (Vienna, 1863- 1879) and J. F. Bright, Maria Theresa (London, 1897); also the article AUSTRIA.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)