Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Joseph II

About ten years ago, I went to Austria with my friend Kathleen to visit her daughter Rose, who was spending a semester at the Franciscan University of Steubenville's campus in Gaming. The Austrian campus is on the grounds of what was formerly a Carthusian monastery. Like many monastic communities in what was once the Holy Roman Empire, the monastery in Gaming was closed down in the late 1700's by the orders of Emperor Joseph II, who did not tolerate any contemplative orders, those who were not doing "practical" work.

Joseph was Marie-Antoinette's bossy oldest brother, as different from her as night from day, although he claimed to be fond of his little sister. Joseph was an "enlightened despot." He was a liberal, and like many liberals today he could be quite tyrannical when it came to imposing his ideas of freedom upon everyone else. He tried to secularize his country by making the Church subservient to the state, influenced as he was by new ideas. Strange that he had the same goal as many of the revolutionaries in France, although he was intent upon keeping the imperial power.

Joseph was particularly concerned about the Austrian influence at the French court, and his minister Count Mercy-Argenteau constantly pressured Marie-Antoinette to intervene with her husband on behalf of the political goals of her family. Louis XVI, however, did not allow his queen to meddle and he thwarted Joseph's plans. Joseph, like his mother the Empress Maria Teresa before him, hoped that becoming the mother of an heir would enhance Marie-Antoinette's power and prestige at the French court, as well as her influence with her husband, all for the cause of Austria.

It was this preoccupation with Louis XVI's and Marie-Antoinette's intimate matters that caused Joseph to come himself to France to urge the young couple to beget an heir. It is doubtful that Louis XVI, being intensely secretive, would ever have confided any private bedroom matters to Joseph, and I doubt that Marie-Antoinette would have spoken of it either with him, prudish as she was about such things. Joseph wrote a graphic letter to his brother Leopold, making a joke at Louis' expense, as Vincent Cronin surmises in his biography Louis and Antoinette. He was undoubtedly annoyed with Louis for not making certain political concessions. Nevertheless, Joseph was able to persuade the young couple to sleep together more often, and so a child, Madame Royale, was at last conceived.

Some people speculate that if Joseph had lived, he may have done more to help his sister the Queen of France in her hour of need than either his brother Leopold or his nephew Francis did as emperors. But that is speculation. No matter how much he loved his sister, he was an emperor first, and would have done what he thought was best for Austria. However, because he died young, we will never really know. Share