Friday, May 6, 2011
Consort Profile: Empress Maria Theresa of Austria
In 1740 Emperor Charles VI died, leaving behind a daughter he had never really prepared for the role of Empress and a state that was almost bankrupt. Given the character of the new wave of liberal “enlightened despots”, it is perhaps not surprising that the Emperor was hardly cold in the ground before King Frederick the Great of Prussia broke his word and marched 30,000 men into Silesia. To oppose him, the greatest soldier in Europe, was the 23-year-old Empress Maria Theresa, pious and inexperienced, who could have hardly seemed like a very imposing figure to the famous old warrior. Furthermore, the British were pushing the new Empress to give in to Prussian demands for territory and the French were backing Karl Albrecht, Graf von Bayern (Bavaria) as a claimant to the Austrian throne.
As Empress consort, Maria Theresa certainly succeeded in securing the succession of the Hapsburg throne, having 16 children, 9 of whom lived to adulthood. She also set an example of moral and devout Catholic leadership when most of the rest of Europe had fallen prey to ideas of nationalistic tyranny, influenced by the “Enlightenment”. Maria Theresa also cared deeply for her people and would visit them in disguise to learn the true state of affairs in her realm and hear the honest opinion of her people. She greatly improved the lives of her people and the economy of Austria by cutting taxes for the poor and, for the first time in Austrian history, taxing the nobility. She built up a strong and efficient military so that Austria would not be caught at a disadvantage again, she improved the justice system, gave the poor the opportunity for an education and allowed peasants to own their own land rather than constantly being at the mercy of the landed aristocracy. She also provided a refuge for the Jesuits when her son, Emperor Joseph II, and even the Church turned against them.
Aside from going along with Prussia and Russia in the unfortunate partition of Poland, which she did against her better judgment, Empress Maria Theresa stands in sharp contrast to other rulers of her time for her courage, piety and true concern for the welfare of her people. While other “enlightened” government officials in foreign lands ruled with an iron fist, Maria Theresa earned the loyalty of her people through her benevolent policies and by improving their lives. Likewise, while others (we will mention no names) were living lifestyles marked by scandal, murder and debauchery, Maria Theresa set an example of Christian virtue and as a loyal daughter of the Church. All of these rulers, whether Frederick the Great or Catherine the Great, had their own personal talents which cannot be ignored, but Maria Theresa sets an example as one who was able to rule with wisdom and compassion, being both a clever monarch and an example of morality for her people, which is truly the mark of a great leader.