Emperor Francis I: The reign of Francis I was one in which he would be overshadowed by his wife and by a Bavarian rival for the imperial throne. When Charles VI died his daughter Maria Theresa succeeded him in his hereditary positions (Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary etc) but it was uncertain what would be the place of her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine. He had practically been raised to be the husband of Maria Theresa (his brother was the original choice but died) and he did his part to gain friends and fortune for the Hapsburgs, gaining the favor of British elites by joining the Freemasons and challenging France over the Polish succession by which he traded Lorraine for Tuscany in Italy. When his father-in-law died, the Bavarian Charles VII was elected Emperor but quickly lost most of his territory to Austrian troops as Marie Theresa was more than prepared to fight for her land and titles (or those she wanted for her husband). Bavaria might have remained an Austrian possession were it not for the intervention of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. Maria Theresa managed to have Francis I elected emperor in 1745 and he was co-regent of her hereditary dominions but it was really Maria Theresa who ruled, which was well enough because she was pretty darn good at it, being a principled, decisive, religious and all around great ruler. Emperor Francis mostly “ruled” from behind a desk doing paperwork and though he was not a faithful husband he still did his part to secure the Hapsburg-Lorraine succession by fathering sixteen children with Maria Theresa, among them two future emperors and an ill-fated future Queen of France. He died in 1765, some time before his wife.
Emperor Joseph II: Known as the “People’s Emperor”, Joseph II will always be remembered as one of the “Enlightened Despots”. His personality changed after the death of his beloved first wife, making him more cold and aloof. He tried to apply reason to government which earned him friends and enemies alike. At home and abroad his desire was to make Austria a great power, centralize government and unify his diverse domains. His public popularity came for his emancipation of the serfs, granting of religious freedom (up to a point) and providing social welfare for the poor. Yet, he was also a very authoritarian man and a very absolutist monarch who would tolerate no opposition. His efforts to place the Catholic Church under state control earned him many lasting enemies among the clerical faction and Church histories to this day often speak more harshly of Joseph II than predecessors who actually made war on the Pope or never practiced their religion at all. To unify his people he tried to make German the official language of all Hapsburg lands, which did not go over well, and he tried to make the House of Hapsburg supreme in Germany, going to war with Frederick the Great of Prussia in the process. He also fought less consequential wars against the Turks and Hungarian rebels, which were practically family traditions. He planned a rescue operation to save his sister, Queen Marie Antoinette from the French Revolution but his offer was refused by the brave royal couple who were reluctant to leave (at least at that stage). A patron of the arts, particularly music, Joseph II was called the “Musical King” and is most remembered now for his commissioning of work from Mozart. He died in 1790 adored by the lowest but hated by many for his interference in religion and Germanization policy. Still, he set the example which almost all subsequent Hapsburg Emperors tried to emulate.
Emperor Leopold II: Succeeding his elder brother, Leopold II had to put down rebellions from Belgium to Hungary because of the unpopular policies of his brother and he repealed the most provocative of these but maintained the majority of them. He too was a proponent of “enlightened” absolute monarchy and had originally been trained for the priesthood. He ruled as Grand Duke of Tuscany where his aloof nature made him less than popular, despite abolishing the death penalty and instituting public health programs. As Emperor, he was cold and calculating, refusing aid to French royalists and preferring to try to eliminate Prussia as a rival in Germany than punishing republican France. He also refused to allow any Papal Bulls read in his territory without first approving of the document. Still, the treatment of his sister and brother-in-law stirred his fury as an absolute monarch and he agreed to make common cause with the other Crowned Heads of Europe to stop the spread of republicanism. He died before any concerted action could be taken in 1792 at the age of only 44. Whereas his brother Joe had been much more single-minded and uncompromising, Kaiser Leo II was always prepared to keep flexible and to always consider the “politics” of any given situation. Unlike his brother, he certainly did his part to secure the succession, having sixteen children just like his own parents did. Overall, Emperor Leopold II might not have been the sort of monarch to be widely admired but he was probably the right man for the job at that time.
Emperor Francis II/I: The last Holy Roman (German) Emperor and the first Emperor of Austria, Francis succeeded his father after being raised in extremely strict fashion by his uncle Emperor Joseph II whom he nonetheless idolized. Emperor Francis can be a hard man to understand. He seemed not to really care that his aunt was guillotined by revolutionaries and yet the honor of his house was of paramount importance to him. His empire was well known for its vast network of spies and powerful secret police, yet he was an approachable monarch who always made time for any of his subjects who wished to speak with him. Most of his reign was dominated by the war with Napoleonic France and he was Napoleon’s most intractable enemy on the continent. When Napoleon became so successful that he determined to make himself emperor, Francis II feared that he might be able to so dominate Germany as to win election so he dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and thenceforth ruled as Emperor Francis I of Austria. It was a bitter blow to have to cede territory to France and worse still to give his own daughter to Napoleon in marriage. However, he saw the Austrian Empire through the crisis and by his own very conservative nature, helped ensure that the peace was practical and based on a respect for traditional authority. In the end, his prestige also allowed the Austrian Emperors to become the hereditary presidents of the German Confederation. He was a good, solid emperor and though sometimes accused of being paranoid and tyrannical, the fact is that he had reason to be and the steps he took prevented Austria from falling apart due to radical nationalism. He died in 1835.
Emperor Ferdinand I: Although often dismissed, I have a bit of a soft spot for Kaiser Ferdinand, sometimes known as “Ferdinand the Good”. True, he was handicapped in a number of ways and suffered from very severe epilepsy, however, he was not as totally incompetent as some seem to think. He could speak several different languages, could write very well and was a considerate and very religious man. Married to the Italian Princess Maria Anna of Savoy, she was a devoted wife who took good care of her husband, really being more of a nurse than a traditional wife but he loved and appreciated her for her attentiveness in what was really a sacrifice for her. If all had remained calm and tranquil, it might have been possible for Ferdinand I to remain on the throne with considerable help but that all changed with the outbreak of the Revolutions of 1848. He realized that he was not up to the task and the best thing to do would be to abdicate in favor of someone young and fit who could handle the situation. So he did, handing power over to his nephew after which he retired to Prague and lived quietly the rest of his life. While there, he also proved to be a help to the local economy and actually proved to be quite an astute businessman, amassing a fortune that supported the family for the rest of the Hapsburg reign. He died in 1875.
Emperor Francis Joseph I: One of the longest ruling monarchs in modern European history, the events of the reign of Francis Joseph would be too numerous to mention. He started out by suppressing revolutionaries and remained ever vigilant to threat of rebellion thereafter. Despite rising ethnic unrest, Francis Joseph made the Austrian Empire a workable power with growing industry and a scientific and artistic community that was second to none. However, in 1859 he acted rashly in allowing himself to be provoked into war with France and Sardinia in northern Italy, losing Lombardy in the process and a short time later went to war with Denmark alongside the other German states. The aftermath of this led to a short, disastrous war with Prussia which saw Austria removed from German affairs in 1864. Any attempt at a revival was dashed by the continuing danger of rebellion in Hungary which Emperor Francis Joseph tried to put to rest by (rather reluctantly) agreeing to the Compromise of 1867 which saw the Austrian Empire become the “Dual-Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary with each having separate and co-equal governments. In 1882 he signed on to the Triple Alliance, a monarchist defense pact, with the German Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia which angered Serbia and Russia (as well as Italy since they did not receive the territorial compensations they had been promised) and pan-Slavism, led by Serbia and backed up by Russia would become the dominant concern of the latter years of Francis Joseph’s reign. He was always a dutiful monarch and he learned from experience. He also became more sincerely religious as he aged, possibly because of the many tragedies he faced in his private life, though he was still not above using the imperial veto to influence papal elections. Holding on to what he had been given became his primary concern and the strength and preservation of the monarchy was never far from his thoughts. When World War I came, he probably viewed some sort of showdown with Serbia as inevitable but he was still reluctant and had to be lied to before actually giving the order to go to war. Too old, by that time, to play much of a part, he died in 1916.
Emperor Charles I: Known as the “Peace Emperor”, it is rather illustrative of his life that this nickname was due to intentions rather than actual achievements. He was thrust into the position of heir to the throne when Archduke Francis Ferdinand was shot in 1914 but already displayed admirable qualities that would have served him well as monarch. He was an accomplished soldier, known for his concern for the welfare of his troops, his devotion to his wife and family and his deep faith. When the Pope called for a peace without victors, only Charles and the King of the Belgians took it seriously and made the attempt. Unfortunately, it was a rather naïve and futile gesture that almost brought about the early destruction of Austria-Hungary. His intentions were noble and his virtue was far above his contemporaries but it was simply beyond the realm of possibility that the Allies would have agreed to such a proposal at that stage and even more ludicrous to think they would have kept his secret when making the attempt public proved so helpful to the Allied cause. The Germans were furious at such a betrayal and made plans to invade and occupy Austria-Hungary at a moment’s notice (it would not have been dissimilar to what happened to Italy in 1943). From that point, Austria-Hungary was more like Germany’s prisoner than Germany’s ally and Emperor Charles had little choice but to see things through to the end. He dismissed the old army leadership and took command himself while also proposing new domestic plans in an effort to regain the loyalty of the various ethnic minorities. However, it was to no avail and the Allies had already agreed to the post-war dismemberment of Austria-Hungary in any event. After a final, crushing blow in 1918 the empire simply collapsed in on itself and Emperor Charles was forced to relinquish power and go into exile. However, he did not abdicate as he viewed the monarchy as a sacred trust that he could not abandon. In 1921 he tried twice to regain his throne as King of Hungary but was blocked by the ruling regent. He died in Portugal a year later at the age of only 34. In 2004 Charles, the last Hapsburg Emperor, was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II. He was a saintly man and, like a number of “last” monarchs, too good for his own good in a number of ways.