Monday, March 12, 2007

Empress Maria Theresa

The Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) was Marie-Antoinette's mother. I believe Maria Theresa can be counted among the greatest of Christian monarchs. She was born an Archduchess of Austria and became Queen of Hungary and Queen of Bohemia when her Habsburg father died, but held the title of Holy Roman Empress because her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, had been elected Emperor. The marriage was a love match, although not without problems, and produced sixteen children. Here is a list of her children:
People have accused Maria Theresa of betraying her motherhood by marrying her children all over Europe in order to forge alliances, but she was not doing anything different from other royal parents. Furthermore, she was the mother of her people as well, and allying the empire with foreign nations was a way to promote peace. Especially it was important to cement an alliance with France, the traditional enemy of Austria. (Marie-Antoinette was the sacrificial lamb for that project, but that is what it was to be a princess, an Archduchess of Austria.)

One noblewoman described being presented to Empress Maria Theresa:

Her Majesty entered followed by the three princesses. My husband and myself each sank upon the left knee and kissed the noblest, the most beautiful hand that has ever wielded a scepter. The Empress gently bade us rise. Her face and her gracious manner banished all the timidity and embarrassment we naturally felt in the presence of so exalted and beautiful a figure as hers. Our fear was changed to love and confidence.

The Emperor and Empress made occasional pilgrimages to the Marian shrine of Mariazell in the Austrian alps, accompanied by their numerous offspring. They once left two gold hearts, symbolic of the hearts of Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen, at the feet of the miraculous statue of the Virgin.

When Francis died in 1765, Maria Theresa was inconsolable, but she kept herself busy governing the Empire and writing letters to all of her daughters, telling them what to do. She was worried about Marie-Antoinette, and when she was dying, wept as she mentioned her youngest daughter's name. Maria Theresa passed away on November 29, 1780. Her nemesis, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had given her no end of trouble, upon hearing of her death, said: "She has done honor to the throne and to her sex; I have warred with her but I have never been her enemy." (New Advent)

Maria Theresa was buried in the Capuchin crypt in Vienna, the traditional burial place of the Habsburgs. I visited the crypt in 1995 and was able to pray at her tomb. My heart was touched in a way which is difficult to describe. It was shortly after my return from Austria that I found in the cellar the beginning of a novel about Marie-Antoinette that I had begun writing about a decade earlier. I decided to finish the book and called it Trianon.


Jeffrey Smith said...

Good post.
"Betraying her motherhood"? How on earth do people come up with such nonsense?

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Jeffrey! Both pictures of the Empress I borrowed from Triumphant Baroque. (I meant to work that into the article.)

Some prominent biographers of Marie-Antoinette accuse Maria Theresa of being mercenary and cold by marrying her daughters to foreign princes, especially Marie-Antoinette, who was only fourteen. It is silly, really, since so many girls were sent away from home much younger than that.

Anonymous said...

Wow, she was The Queen Bee of them all. Someone should make a
movie about her. All kinds of movies about Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great, but she seems to have been overlooked.

Anonymous said...

I did not know that story of your going to her crypt and then returning home and being moved to write Trianon, your masterwork.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Every time I visit here I find another interesting article to read.

Thank you, Elena.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Alice, I guess devout and faithful wives do not get noticed by Hollywood. She has been portrayed in several films about Marie-Antoinette, though.

Thanks, dear Cay!