Death of a Truly Great Woman: November 29, 1780
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Maria Theresia of Austria has never been called “the Great,” but she was truly one of the great women, and rulers, of her time. Though devoted to the Emperor Franz and the 16 children she bore him, she did not neglect her queenly duties. Indeed, she saw it as her religious duty to improve the lives of her subjects. For 20 years (1745–1765), she ruled the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg realms with her husband and, when he died, with her eldest son, Emperor Josef II. The world may never have called her “the Great,” but Maria Theresia received a better title from her subjects. They called her “a true mother of her people.”
Like the other European monarchs, Maria Theresia strove to be an absolute ruler. Yet, though she abolished local diets in most of her dominions, she allowed Hungary, Lombardy, and the Spanish Netherlands to keep their traditions and forms of self-government. She improved the discipline of the army and increased its numbers to 108,000 men; to pay for this, she made the nobility and clergy as well as peasants and commoners pay taxes. Like Friedrich, she did not think it wise to abolish serfdom; but, as an example to the nobility, she freed the serfs on her own estates. To ease the lot of the poor in Hungary (where serfdom was very hard), she decreed that peasants should be able to marry whomever they wished, raise their children as they saw fit, and change their dwelling place without the permission of their lords. Believing that monarchs should surround themselves with grandeur, Maria Theresia richly decorated her palace of Schönbrunn in Vienna. Still, she was quite frugal; instead of wasting large sums of her own wealth on luxuries, she spent it on a multitude of charities. (more…)