CLIO TALKS BACK: Thoughts About the Empress Maria Theresa As Mother

Clio recently revisited Vienna, where she was reminded of the remarkable career of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780).  She was the sole female Habsburg ruler, thanks to the Pragmatic Sanction negotiated by her father Charles VI to guarantee her succession.  In her early twenties, she took power following his death in 1740.

It is hard to grasp just how much of Europe Maria Theresa and the Habsburg dynasty once ruled.  These crownlands encompassed what is now Belgium in the west to Transylvania in the east, not to mention Austria proper, the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, Croatia, Serbia, and much of the Dalmatian coast plus major parts of northern Italy.  Taking an active role in directing affairs of state, this empress fought several wars against Frederick the Great of Prussia to maintain her right to rule Silesia as well as to keep the Turks at bay.  She engineered an alliance with the French, hoping to contain the expansionist aims of Prussia.

During her reign (following her marriage to Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who was subsequently appointed Holy Roman Emperor and duke of Tuscany), Maria Theresa made her mark as a prolific mother – producing sixteen children, of whom eleven lived to adulthood. Such numbers, she believed, would assure the dynastic future of the Habsburgs. 

Maria Theresa took great interest in her children, their upbringing and their futures.  She produced three daughters before the birth of her first son and heir, Joseph.  Then two more daughters, and another son (short-lived).  Then six more daughters and two more sons.  It’s a wonder she could even keep track!  One would need a secretary just for birthdays!  But then, in a court where four languages were regularly used (German, Italian, French, and Latin), perhaps keeping track of birthdays was just one complication among others.  Even so, the children’s education was less thorough than it might have been.

Work-life conflicts can be less of a problem for royal mothers, or for families of the super-rich.  They have no shortage of household help, and they don’t have to purchase the groceries, wash the dishes, join the parent-teachers’ association, or drive carpools to school or after-school activities, tasks which consume many mothers in the western world today.  They can call on wetnurses, maids, cooks, coachmen, and nannies.  Relieved of these mundane duties, Maria Theresa found time to build a summer palace at Schoenbrunn, which rivaled the Versailles of Louis XIV of France – a fine playground for lively, growing children, when the Hofburg in central Vienna was not enough.

Maria Theresa was one of the three major enlightened despots of eighteenth century Europe, along with Catherine of Russia and Frederic the Great of Prussia.  A celebrated female historian of international affairs (Ragnhild Hatton) once commented, “I never really understood enlightened despotism until I became a mother.”  Indeed, enlightened despotism is an excellent metaphor for the act of mothering, especially when children are small.  But when they grow up, more liberty is called for.  However, Maria Theresa never withdrew from her children’s lives or offered them much liberty.  Motherly advice  – and directives – were never in short supply.  They were above all Habsburgs.

Maria Theresa kept up a voluminous correspondence with her adult children, who had married – or been systematically married off – to consolidate or  reinforce political alliances for the House of Habsburg.  One of her most notable – and intrusive – correspondences (later published) was with her youngest daughter, Marie Antonia, who became Marie Antoinette – the queen of France who would be guillotined during the Revolution. 

Further Reading:  Karl A. Roider, Jr.  Maria Theresa (1973); Robert Pick, Empress Maria Theresa: The Earlier Years, 1717-1757  (1966); Regina Schulte, “’Madame, Ma Chere Fille’ – ‘Dearest Child’ : Letters from Imperial Mothers to Royal Daughters,” in The Body of the Queen: Gender and Rule in the Courtly World 1500-2000 (2006).