Maria Theresa and Her Childhood Before She was Empress

Empress Maria Theresa was Marie Antoinette‘s mother, but before she became a mother, she was a child herself. She was born to Emperor Charles VI (Karl VI) and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel on 13 May 1717 at the Hofburg Palace. Her older brother, Leopold John, had been born on 13 April 1716, but he died when he was seven months. Thus, there was great rejoicing in the kingdom when a healthy baby girl was born. (She was also the oldest of three girls, her younger sisters were the Archduchess Maria Anna and the Archduchess Maria Amalia, who lived to be only six years old.)

Empress Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa at three years old in the Hofburg Palace Gardens., Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because of the loss of Leopold John and the difficulty of having children, Charles VI took steps to provide for a male-line succession failure with the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, a document which abolished male-only succession. The sanction allowed Maria Theresa or any of Charles VI’s other daughters to succeed over the children of his elder brother and predecessor, Joseph I. Moreover, Charles VI “felt the importance of securing his beloved daughter’s undisputed title to the throne,”[1] even though he remained disappointed Maria Theresa was not a boy and knew the male line would die with him. She also recognized her political importance, and it was said from an early age she “seemed one of nature’s queens, born to reign and subdue.”[2]

Empress Maria Theresa

Charles VI and his family in 1730. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To ensure Marie Theresa obtained the throne, her parents thoughtful considered what was best and decided to educate her using the Jesuits. She studied religion, history, and languages, along with music, drawing, and painting. In addition, her father fancied himself an amateur composer and wrote operas, demanding she and her sister perform in ballets. Although her parents did not succeed, they did try to put Maria Theresa’s “abundant mental faculties” to good use. Contemporaries praised her Latin, but otherwise most people found her education lacking: Her spelling and punctuation were unconventional, and she lacked the formal manner and speech that so characterized her Habsburg predecessors.

To ready her for the throne, her father summoned her to sit by his side at the meetings of the State Council. These meetings were long lasting and dry as toast, but she attended them regularly, sat silently, presumably thoughtful, and showed no outward signs of weariness. When she was 16, she participated in council deliberations for the election of the King of Poland, which caused one person to remark:

“She listened with grave attention to … the councillors … [and] when it came her turn to express her opinions, at her father’s desire, the astonishment of the ministers was unbounded … at the clearness and accuracy of her judgment, and the acuteness and keenness of her perceptions.”[3]

Empress Maria Theresa

Maria Theresa in 1729 by Andreas Möller. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In learning what a sovereign should be, Maria Theresa relied on the example of her father. Charles VI was said to be “a man of slow and phlegmatic temper, a narrow capacity, and a grave and formal deportment.”[4] He attached grave importance to courtly etiquette, smiled little, and was said to have only laughed once. As he did not allow Maria Theresa to participate at council meetings, the only privilege she had was to intercede on the behalf of others. Apparently, at one point her father decided her interceding was too frequent: He became so impatient with her many requests for others, he said, “You seem to imagine a sovereign has nothing to do but grants favors.”[5]

Joseph I (Charles VI’s older brother whom he succeeded), Charles VI, and Maria Theresa. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In appearance, Maria Theresa was said to resemble her mother and her younger sister Maria Anna. People described her as far more beautiful than the portraits painted of her, and they noted she was tall, graceful, and majestic. She was also described as having large expressive gray-blue eyes, a transparent complexion, and a wide mouth with full Austrian lips. Her profusion of fair hair tinged with a hint of red was also regularly noted. If these physical characteristics were not appealing enough, “to complete her charms, the tone of her voice was peculiarly soft and sweet.”[6]

In character, she displayed a serious and reserved side, even as a youth. She also cast a shadow over her mild younger sister, who was likewise reserved. She was also said to be inflexible, overbearing, and display pride in her royal station. In fact, some people claimed she would have been viewed as arrogant at times if she had not been “restrained by the example of her … mother,”[7] a woman who was enthusiastically religious and who doted her attentions on her daughter.

The softer side of Maria Theresa was her love for animals. She loved dogs as much as her daughter Marie Antoinette whose dogs followed her en masse as she strolled the halls of Versailles. After Maria Theresa became Empress, she became extremely attached to one dog, a toy spaniel. She loved the spaniel so much, she had it stuffed when it died, and, if you are ever in Vienna, you can see her stuffed spaniel, which appears to be a Phalène (a drop-eared variety of a Papillon), displayed at the Vienna Natural History Museum.

When Maria Theresa was young, her father planned for her to marry Leopold Clement of Lorraine, but Leopold died of smallpox in 1723. A few years later, in 1725, she became betrothed to Charles of Spain, but that marriage fell through also. When it did, she was relieved. Her father was aware that she had become enamored with Francis Stephen, the Duke of Lorraine and Leopold Clement’s younger brother. Francis Stephen had come to Vienna shortly after the death of his brother and was brought up at court with Maria Theresa, who was highly infatuated with him, as one person noted:

“Notwithstanding [Maria Theresa’s] … lofty humor by day, she sighs and pines all night for her Duke of Lorraine. If she sleeps it is only to dream of him; if she wakes, it is but to talk of him to the lady in waiting; so that there is no more probability of her forgetting the very individual government, and the very individual husband which she thinks herself born to.”[8]

Francis Stephen

Francis Stephen after he became Francis I. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was no wonder Marie Theresa was smitten by the Duke of Lorraine. Francis Stephen was “eminently handsome, indisputably brave, and accomplished in all the courtly exercises that a prince and gentleman [required].”[9] They married on 12 February 1736, when she was 18 and he was 27, and although Francis Stephen was not possessed of any “shining talents,” she loved him all the same. Moreover, she was highly possessive of her husband throughout their marriage, and many contemporaries noted her extremely jealousy for his mistresses, particularly Maria Wilhelmina, Princess of Auersperg, who was his best-known mistress.

Francis Stephen and Maria Theresa’s wedding breakfast. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Charles VI died, Marie Theresa was 24 and no longer a child, and although she may not have been the best prepared monarch, she proved to be a much better ruler than her father, who left her nothing but problems. Indicative of this is a French epitaph for the late Emperor published in the Newcastle Courant that read:

“Of the proud AUSTRIAN Line the last is laid here,
For his Honour too late, for his Children too quick,
Who, in hopes a Male Heir would sometimes appear,
In his Wisdom proud, play’d his Daughter this Trick:
A succession he left here that’s not to be had,
A Spouse to whom nought form his Grandfires descend;
A Long List of Titles may make her run mad;
No Treasure, no Council, no Army, no Friend.”[10]

In fact, the girl who used to sit quiet at council meetings developed into a formidable and forward-thinking ruler. She kept an eye towards maintaining and improving her kingdom, which she accomplished by correcting abuses, abolishing torture, and improving revenues. She also moved Austria from a medieval state to a modern one, and, upon her death, she left a multinational and revitalized empire that influenced other European nations throughout the nineteenth century.


  • [1] Oertel, Wilhelm, Maria Theresa, 1905, p. 15.
  • [2] The Illustrated American, Volume 8, 1891, p. 547.
  • [3] Oertel, p. 18.
  • [4] Jameson, Mrs. Anna, Memoirs of Famous Female Sovereigns, 1832, p. 127. 
  • [5] The Illustrated American, p. 547.
  • [6] Jameson, p. 138. 
  • [7] The Illustrated American, p. 547.
  • [8] The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, 1808, p. 154.
  • [9] Jameson, p. 131. 
  • [10] “A French Epitaph for the late Emperor Charles VI,” in Newcastle Courant, 10 October 1741, p. 3.

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