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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.
Indeed, Maria Theresia always displayed a queenly care for her poorest subjects. She forbade anyone to oppress workers, and she commanded her officials to protect the common people from oppression. Along with improving the University of Vienna’s school of medicine and founding an academy for the study of oriental languages, she established middle schools and high schools throughout her realm.
As the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maria Theresia saw it as her duty to preserve and promote the Catholic Faith in her dominions. Like other German rulers, she did not allow freedom of religion. She forbade the publication and sale of immoral and heretical books and periodicals. She made a law that dresses had to be a certain length, to protect chastity. She even forbade the use of the English language because, she said, “it corrupts religion and ethical principles.” After 1751, she forbade Protestants to leave her domains; if they did not wish to become Catholic, she said, they had to move to Transylvania in Hungary, where they could worship in freedom. Like Friedrich the Great, she placed restrictions on Jews. At the same time, however, she decreed measures to improve the material conditions of their lives.
When her son Josef became emperor after the death of Franz I in 1765, Maria Theresia began to approve measures that limited the freedom of the Church in her domains. Josef II was not as strongly Catholic as his mother. Influenced by the philosophes, especially Voltaire and Rousseau, he wanted to bring the Church more firmly under the control of the crown. Now, with Maria Theresia’s approval, the government began taxing Church property, forbade anyone under age 21 to join religious orders and monasteries, and limited the number of monasteries. Like Louis XIV in France had done, Josef and Maria Theresia decreed that no papal bulls could be published in their domains without their approval.
In approving these measures, Maria Theresia may have had the good of the Church in mind. The Austrian Church was not spiritually or culturally very healthy, for too many clergymen and even monks and nuns were living in luxury. Yet, the government’s restrictions on the Church in Austria threatened to make the Austrian Church the servant of the state.
Under the growing influence of her son, Maria Theresia eventually agreed to even more radical reforms. Together they removed schools from the control of the Church and placed them in the hands of the state. Then they decreed that all children had to attend elementary schools. More happily, in 1771, they abolished the use of torture against criminals. But when Josef wanted to grant complete religious freedom to his subjects, his mother stood firmly against him. No Catholic prince, she said, could permit “the free exercise of religion… without heavy responsibility.”
In 1772, Josef suggested to his mother a measure that she found utterly disgraceful and immoral. Friedrich the Great of Prussia and Katerina the Great of Russia had decided to take advantage of the weakness of the kingdom of Poland to seize some of its territory. Friedrich wanted to possess West Prussia, which separated East Prussia from the rest of his lands. For her part, Katerina wanted the Polish lands that lay between Russia and the Düna and Dnieper rivers. Both monarchs simply decided to seize these lands for themselves without paying anything to Poland for them. Fearing that these land grabs would make Prussia and Russia more powerful than Austria, Josef II decided he wanted some Polish land, too—in particular, the territory of Galicia, which lay just north of Hungary.
Maria Theresia resisted taking part in this act of theft, which history has named the “First Partition of Poland.” Finally, however, her son and Count Kaunitz convinced her to sign the decree ordering the seizure of Galicia. “How often did I strive to dissociate myself from an action which sullies the whole of my reign,” she said after she agreed to the partition. “God grant that I shall not be held responsible for it in another world. It weighs upon my heart, tortures my brain, and embitters my days.” The cynical Friedrich, learning of Maria Theresia’s feelings of guilt, mocked her. “She wept, but she kept on taking,” he sneered.
Maria Theresia reigned eight more years after the Partition of Poland. In November 1780, she caught cold after riding in an open carriage through a heavy rain. Though she developed a bad cough, she insisted on continuing to work. The strain was too much for her. She grew seriously ill and received the last Sacraments. Hearing of her sickness, her son Josef rushed to her bedside. One day, trying to make her comfortable, he said to her, “Your Majesty lies in a bad position.” To which she responded, “Yes, but good enough to die in.” And die Maria Theresia did, on November 29, 1780, at the age of 63.
Josef II, her son, thus became sole ruler of the Habsburg domains and the Holy Roman Empire.
A Touch of Turkey in 18th Century Austria
In 1780, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, then living in Salzburg, composed an opera for a company for the performance of German opera that Emperor Josef II was planning to establish. The opera, later called Zaide, was about a Turkish woman, named Zaide, who falls in love with a slave, thus moving the Sultan to jealousy. Mozart never finished the opera, and it was not performed until 1866, long after his death. Here we present a Zaida's famous aria, Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben (“Softly rest, my sweet Life”), sung by Lucia Popp.