top of page

Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780)

A retrospective on the 300th anniversary of her birth: An Interpretation by Dr. Elfi Thiemer

A single essay about Maria Theresa cannot, of course, convey every detail of her life. However, it can put individual aspects of her character into their own display cases, as if part of a museum exhibit, shedding light on striking characteristics and important chapters in her life as best as possible. And anyway, how such encounters with historical figures are ultimately interpreted is always left up to the beholder’s imagination.


Empress Maria Theresa is a source of inspiration – her qualities and successes, but also her mistakes and failures.

Martin van Meytens the Younger, Maria Theresa (1717–1780) in the Hungarian coronation robe. Office of the Federal President of the Republic of Austria, Vienna. On loan from the Kunsthistorische Museum Wien (Vienna Museum of Art History). Copyright KHM-Museumsverband

Gracious yet attentive, she gazes down from a giant oil painting that depicts her in baroque opulence and imperial majesty. The magnificent room is named after her and has been the Republic of Austria’s most important reception room since 1946. It is here, in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace in the centre of the city, that Austria’s head of state has his offices. Today, it is in these chambers that new governments are sworn in, foreign guests are received, documents are signed, hands are shaken and press conferences are held. The woman on the wall oversees it all. She is a constant observer of the political life happening at her feet.


This was once her bed chamber. The large ornate bed, with its heavy, dark red velvet canopy arching over it, is now on display at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, but her original escritoire is still here. Crafted in the French style, it is astonishingly delicate. Perhaps true power has no need for intimidating status symbols.


She is Maria Theresa, firmly embedded in the historical consciousness as the first and only female ruler, whose reign from 1740 to 1780 would go down in Austrian history as the era of Maria Theresa.


Empress Maria Theresa is undoubtedly an interesting woman – interesting as a person and as a ruler. Generations of researchers have analyzed and interpreted her and made the myths surrounding her the subject of critical examination. Into the 20th century, political forces used her for their own purposes as they saw fit and when it served their ideology. Kitschy novels were published about her, as were countless tales and anecdotes. She is the corpulent and maternal majesty who had many children; a loving wife, but also a very fierce politician.

2017 marks the 300th anniversary of Maria Theresa’s birth, and Austria is commemorating a great ruler in numerous exhibitions this year.

For more than 600 years – from 1282 to the end of World War I in 1918 – the Habsburgs, the dynasty from which Maria Theresa hailed, steered Austria’s fate. Beginning in the Middle Ages, they transformed small holdings into an empire, which by the 16th century stretched from eastern central Europe to Spain, and from there to the bountiful colonies of South America.


Born on May 13, 1717, in Vienna, the imperial capital, Maria Theresa was the eldest daughter of Charles VI and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Her father was considered friendly yet distant, with a penchant for inflexibility when it came to pursuing his objectives. Her mother is described as a beautiful and decisive woman with great resolve.


As a girl, Maria Theresa was baptized with a great deal of baroque pomp and circumstance, but she still wasn’t considered a “valuable” child. This label was reserved for a son. A male heir to the throne had been born a year earlier, much to her parents’ joy, but he was buried just a few months later. Child mortality was high at that time.


Two more girls followed, but the emperor-father continued to hope for the desperately needed male heir, if his dynasty were to be kept alive.

Initially, the young Maria Theresa was brought up as was usual for an emperor’s daughter: she was taught languages, religion, history and proper court etiquette. She sang, was an excellent dancer and demonstrated a talent for sketching. To her father, she was a “dear” and “sweet” child. Moreover, she was spared from any parental conflicts regarding her upbringing conducted at her expense; instead, she was surrounded by a sense of family, apart from the strict ceremony at court. Nor did she suffer the military drills that the young male heirs to the throne of her time were subjected to. Instead she enjoyed friendly care from Countess Maria Karoline Fuchs, who would remain a lifelong friend.

Maria Theresa received praise for her mastery of foreign languages. She spoke and wrote Latin, Spanish, Italian and French with ease and is said to have been able to express herself eloquently. Pietro Metastasio, the long-time librettist and poet at the Vienna court, vaunted the young princess’s manners as simply “adorable.” According to a letter he wrote, working with her was a great joy. And no, this was certainly not the usual flattery! To his brother, Metastasio wrote: Do not believe that “the lady’s high standing clouds my judgment, considering what grand ladies I have moved among. This one is unquestionably more attentive, more grateful, and, without losing any face, infinitely more gracious than any I have previously beheld.”[i]

Friendly, polite, eager to learn, talented – but apparently there was much more to this girl. Around the same time, in 1733, Sir Thomas Robinson, British envoy to Vienna, wrote about the 17-year old: “She reasons already. She strives to gain access to the affairs. She admires her father’s virtues, but then condemns his mismanagement, and is of a temper so formed for rule and ambition, as to look upon him as little more than her administrator.”[ii]

In contrast, the father she so admired, Charles VI, was becoming increasingly depressed. No matter how talented she was, a daughter could not make up for the lack of a son.

And yet, he had wisely planned ahead years earlier. He had developed an ironclad edict, the “Pragmatic Sanction,” even before Maria Theresa was born. The aim of the sanction was to prevent disputes following his death, to give legal protection to hereditary possessions both within the empire and from outside forces, to guarantee the unity of the inherited lands, and – this was also key – to enable his eldest daughter to accede smoothly to the throne if no male heir were produced.

Charles VI had confidence in the contracts and signatures.


This would soon prove a mistake.

Maria Theresa’s father invested a vast amount of time, money and effort in convincing the European powers to accept the sanction. He had to pay a high price: like a suppliant, he also had to make many political and economic concessions. However, Charles VI had no time, money, or energy left for renewal and reforms within his empire.

The 55-year-old died suddenly on October 20, 1740, which overnight led to the very situation that no one wanted. With no surviving son, Maria Theresa became the heir to the throne. Everyone – and not only at the Vienna court – was anxiously wondering what would happen next. Is she even capable of governing? And isn’t it undignified to be ruled by a woman?

The shocked, young 23-year-old Maria Theresa was virtually bowled over by the events following her father’s death. Although she had inherited the vast empire – or, rather, a colourful collection of lands and regions – she had never been prepared in earnest to govern this conglomerate of different ethnic and cultural traditions by and with herself at the top, uniting them all.

In a memoir written years later, she complained of essentially having learned nothing because “it had never pleased father to summon me to deal with either foreign or domestic affairs.” “What for?” her father would ask, surprised. Wouldn’t Maria Theresa’s husband be in charge of state affairs anyway?

That wasn’t how Maria Theresa saw it. She was the heir, and she wanted to govern the empire herself.

By the time of her father’s death, she had already been married for four years. After her options had been carefully weighed, Francis Stephen, from the insignificant Duchy of Lorraine, was chosen as her husband. Despite this arrangement, it was a love marriage that also received the political blessing of Europe’s key powers.


The young man, whom she had met when she was still a child and liked even then, emerged early on as a prince charming. Maria Theresa had enjoyed an unburdened life in the years between her grand wedding in 1736 and her father’s death four years later. She gave birth to one child after another. Again only girls, which led Charles VI, who was already depressed, to fall into utter despair. First no male heir of his own, and now not even a grandson.


Maria Theresa was pregnant for the fourth time when he was buried. This time with a son. Three more were to follow. Between the ages of 20 and 39, she gave birth to a total of 16 children.


Maria Theresa loved her husband, Francis Stephen, dearly. She expressed these feelings clearly already during their engagement. She wrote to him, addressing him as the very official “Your Most Serene Highness, the Archduke, beloved Bridegroom,” as per protocol. She described herself as a “poor puppy” waiting longingly for news from him.


The new situation in 1740 changed the lives of the young couple overnight. Most of all, Maria Theresa’s youth and inexperience were a source of provocation, and questions began to circulate in several European state chancelleries as to whether the 23-year-old was even the rightful heir.


Familial hereditary claims to the throne began to be made here and there, backed by a willingness to defend them on the battlefield if necessary. Bavaria hadn’t recognized the Pragmatic Sanction, nor did the old enmity with France bode well for the future.


And there was another immediate challenge to her: Frederick II, the new Prussian king who was just a few years older than Maria Theresa and had acceded to the throne in the same year. He wanted to cause a great stir and take advantage of the opportunity to quickly gain political and military glory.


Then came the next shock. Frederick II occupied her province of Silesia in a flash and put serious military pressure on the young ruler.

She was recognized as the ruler of her empire.

Maria Theresa had conceivably been dealt the worst hand, and she was distraught at the front being mounted against her by Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, France and Spain. It quickly became clear that she could hardly defend her empire because her army had been run into the ground, as had her finances.

The young woman in Vienna responded, but not in the way that was expected. She began to fight, first in her mind; she refused to accept the situation that had been forced upon her. She simply refused to relinquish something that she was legally entitled to – or in her view, had been entrusted to her by the grace of God.


Europe was astonished.

Maria Theresa initially tried to get an idea of the situation, to take stock of the happenings and the urgent need for action. With the help of her father’s capable confidants, she brought order to the chaos. Her aim was to demonstrate decisive leadership. She attended conference after conference and studied files, files and more files. She wanted to govern, command, organize and be tough when necessary. But much of what she said at this time revealed her inexperience and caused much head-shaking.


Maria Theresa later admitted openly that she saw her downfall before her. She asked for only one thing in her prayers at that time, she said: that God would please open her eyes to the affairs of state!


“With God’s grace, anything is possible!” later became one of her legendary sayings.

Of course she was smart enough to recognize that it was her duty to do something herself to receive this “grace,” in other words, to acquire the skills she needed to govern. Not only the gravitas, but also the know-how.

Again and again she expressed to her advisors how important it now was to demonstrate fortitude, loyalty and zeal. She wanted men who were assertive and bold around her for defence, not men who would discourage her, hesitate, or falter, or play down the real danger of the destruction of her empire.

The result of all of this was the War of the Austrian Succession. She had good advisors, and thanks to her and their considerable commitment and skill, found military allies. By 1741 nearly all of Europe’s powers had become tangled up in the conflict. They traded victories and defeats and experienced all of the atrocities of war – as always. Ultimately Maria Theresa had to sign peace treaties and give up occupied Silesia.

But against all expectations, she had asserted herself in the face of a coalition of enemies that seemed superior. Apart from Silesia, her hereditary possessions remained by and large in her hands.

Maria Theresa and her greatest adversary, Frederick II, never met in person. “The Habsburgs now have a man, and she is a woman,” he said ironically. And at the end of her era, he wrote, in recognition: “This woman, who could be likened to a great man, has consolidated the wavering monarchy of her father. She has done honour to her dynasty.” As a woman, however, she was subjected to his ribald male mockery and cynicism during her lifetime.


And so she had become a great figure. But what is great?

In the meantime, Maria Theresa knew that her empire could not remain as it was. She knew that she needed to make changes. Under external pressure, she began to carry out reforms. She, the joyful and exuberant woman who had loved to enjoy herself and socialize in her younger years, proved to be an energetic ruler who also unequivocally expressed her will. It was thanks to her that her husband Francis Stephen was elected Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, and crowned in Frankfurt. She attended the coronation even though she was again pregnant. However, she declined to kneel next to him, she herself holding the highest ranks. Nevertheless, she was referred to as “Empress” from this point on, a title she cherished.


Back at home in Vienna, Emperor Francis I, as her husband Francis Stephen was now referred to, was content to return to the back seat as his wife’s co-regent. He didn’t mind. He was living his own dream and devoted himself to finance and the sciences. And anyway, his “Chère Mitzi” (a Viennese term of endearment for “dear Maria”) held the reins firmly in her hands. But he was there for her when she needed him.


By this time, Maria Theresa knew one more thing for certain: the power and wealth of a state depends on the strength of its population. She transformed her empire from top to bottom. She wanted to centralize rule to better keep her empire together and unite it. To do that, she needed an efficient administration and a modern state under the rule of law. She revamped the justice system, promoted and modernized science and research, introduced compulsory education, and established a military academy.


In 1754 she also founded an academy for oriental languages. It was well known at the Vienna Court how necessary and meaningful knowledge of that part of the world was.

Abolishing torture was a general priority of every enlightened monarch in Europe around this time, and so it was for Maria Theresa.

She put a great deal of energy into her works, but relied on considerable political sensitivity and good advisors and organizers as well. When deliberating reforms, she also took the unique ways of life and characteristics of her lands into consideration. She wasn’t the sort to suddenly go against tradition, to mock the old ways, or to destroy things with the stroke of a pen without considering the consequences. She acted in her own way. She tried to find middle ground when carrying out reforms, curtailing passed down privileges and traditions, and changing people’s attitudes about them.

This instinct, the sound judgment with which she acted, is considered one of the greatest achievements of her rule.

Maria Theresa was without a doubt successful in managing her challenging duties. But nothing came to her easily. She had to learn, and she studied her files intensely. She not only needed to fight for many cases; she also had to work hard for her successes. Of course she was well familiar with the corridors of power. After all, she had grown up within them. She had lived through many events indirectly, simply because they were in the air. During her childhood and youth, she had seen what it means to succeed but also to suffer defeat. Experiences like these leave their mark.

Maria Theresa demonstrated leadership qualities of her own. By now, she was power-conscious but also friendly and cordial, at least at the beginning of her reign. She was able to motivate people and use the abilities of her advisors, confidants and companions. She got along with different personalities, including eccentrics who were sneered at by others.


She leaned on the people she trusted. She was not of the mindset that she, as Her Majesty, always knew better. “I am counting on you,” she told her field marshal Ludwig Andreas von Khevenhüller, Count of Aichelberg-Frankenburg. He had helped her defend herself and the empire against her enemies from the very beginning, and he was always touched by her emotional way.

Maria Theresa was considered impulsive, easily excitable, eager to work and ready to act. What she had no patience for were blowers of hot air, courtiers who simply stood around and nodded, whispering importantly, when Their Majesties said something, but thought only of their own career advancement at every opportunity.

The Prussian envoy Otto Christoph von Podewils reported from Vienna in 1747:

Her expression is open and bright, her conversation friendly and charming. No one can deny that she is a lovely person. . . . When she became ruler, she knew the secret of winning everyone’s love and admiration. Her sex, her beauty and her misfortune helped in no small measure. . . .

She granted everyone an audience; personally read petitions; . . . rewarded one person with a kind word, another with a smile or courteous sign; made her negative replies bearable; gave splendid promises; and publicly displayed the greatest piety, remarking often that she would trust everything to God.”[iii]

When conducting her daily business, Maria Theresa took time to carefully weigh arguments in favour of and against a decision, but then once resolved, she made decisions quickly. She was receptive, could see things from other points of view, and break out of old thought patterns when it served her political objectives.

For example, she was impressed by the way in which King Frederick II, her lifelong enemy who had stolen Silesia away from her, strengthened and reformed his own realm. Why not borrow a page from the book of those you deeply despise?

She valued patient, tenacious work on a goal even though this did not correspond at all to her own nature. This is how she came to support a provocative project of her top diplomat and future chancellor, Wenzel Anton, Prince of Kaunitz-Rietberg, which came to be known as the “Renversement des Alliances.” It was a diplomatic revolution.

Kaunitz presented her a broad analysis of Europe’s political landscape. He took apart the power relations, interests, and their foreseeable development and put them back together to create a conclusion that surprised Maria Theresa. He advised her to abandon her old traditional alliance with Britain and bury the old enmity with France. A reversal of alliances would be helpful in facing the constant danger coming from Prussia. The House of Habsburg and the House of Bourbon – long-time enemies – were to become the strategic partners of the future. In the past, Britain hadn’t proven to be the reliable partner that Vienna had expected.

It was a crazy idea! But Maria Theresa was convinced by the inconceivable. The plan was deliberated and developed and moulded into a strategy. Maria Theresa sent Kaunitz himself to France to set about achieving the aim through diplomacy. He had what it took, appreciated French idiosyncrasies, and was familiar with the complicated webs of power and influence exercised by mistresses at the French court.

The project was a success, though it took tough diplomatic work. The Vienna-London alliance was superseded by the alliance with Vienna’s arch-enemy France. The reversal of Europe’s systems of alliances went down in history. For Maria Theresa, the idea and motivation behind it was not only to surround and push back the new Prussian power; the reversal was also a renewed attempt to win back Silesia.

The new alliance was first put to the test in 1756, when the Seven Years’ War (which included the North American conflict known in the United States as the French and Indian War or in French-speaking Canada as War of the Conquest) erupted and was played out in the North American colonies, where France and Britain engaged in bloody fighting for supremacy along with their respective Native American allies.

Empress Maria Theresa sent her youngest daughter, the 15-year-old Maria Antonia, to seal the great reconciliation and new alliance with France with a marriage to the future Louis XVI.

The rest is familiar history. Maria Antonia, now the French queen Marie Antoinette, died on the guillotine during the French Revolution. By the time the bloody rebellions broke out in 1789, when anger and frustration over the ignorance, pomposity and wastefulness of the French court exploded, Maria Theresa had already been dead for nine years.

But first she had to witness what it is like when an adolescent without the same values or qualities as her mother is entrusted with important duties. As her mother, Maria Theresa was for years fraught with concern for her daughter Marie Antoinette, her eccentric life at the French court and her wastefulness.

How often she had criticized the young woman, now queen of France! Maria Theresa tried again and again, threatened, pleaded, begged: “Do not say that I scold, that I preach, but say: ‘Mama loves me, and has constantly my advantage in view; I must believe her and comfort her by following her good advice.’” 


Then, resigned: “Your happiness can vanish all too fast, and you may be plunged, by your own doing, into the greatest calamities. . . . You will realize all this one day, but it will be too late.”[iv]

Maria Theresa made this deeply pessimistic prediction in 1775. Fourteen years later it came true.


Maria Theresa was not only astonishingly considerate of regional particularities in her empire; she also made allowances for personal idiosyncrasies. She allowed her advisors their “individuality,” as we would say today. And in return, she received what she needed: loyalty and good results. Wenzel Anton, Prince of Kaunitz-Rietberg, for example, was doubtless the eccentric at the Vienna court, and people whispered maliciously behind his back about his vanity. He valued a perfect appearance above all; he couldn’t pass a mirror without stopping, they said. He also dressed far too young. He always had menservants create a cloud of powder – 20 pounds of it – that he would then walk through, back and forth, over and over. It wasn’t only himself and his appearance that overly concerned him; his health did, too. He was constantly plagued by fears of infectious diseases and cool drafts, they said as well.


Maria Theresa merely laughed. But when he came for an audience, she ordered the windows closed. For the heat-sensitive empress who longed for fresh air, this was really a generous sign of appreciation for her esteemed advisor. Others were not treated as graciously and appeared before the cold-loving empress in fur coats.

She was well aware of the power of emotions, of intuition, and of her tireless appreciation of people who seemed to merit it.


Maria Theresa’s reign was during the era of enlightenment and reason, the era of emancipation from ways of living dictated from on high. Everything was called into question, analyzed and explained. The curious no longer looked as frequently to heaven for explanations of the visible and invisible.

As a young child, Maria Theresa was not sent on an educational tour as was customary for the young nobility of her time. Even later, during her reign, she rarely left Vienna. Travel was costly and strenuous.

Apparently she also didn’t have the great need to be challenged by intellectuals at sophisticated roundtables as her adversary Frederick II, whose gatherings of illustrious men at Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam had long been legendary. Voltaire, the aging king of philosophy among the French Enlightenment philosophes, was brought specially to Prussia to converse with the young ruler.

In contrast, Maria Theresa had no time for the works of the Enlightenment, and when they were mentioned, she rejected them. She was always suspicious of reading and discussing revolutionary French writings. Even in 1770, when her 15-year-old daughter Maria Antonia was setting out on her journey to wed the French heir to the throne, she carried her mother’s strict instructions: “Do not read any book, however indifferent it may be, without your confessor’s approval: this is even more necessary in France than elsewhere because there are always books being published there which seem pleasant and erudite, but behind this respectable façade they are pernicious with regard to religion and morals.”[v]

Tolerance, a lack of piety, and equality of ideas were the evils of the time according to Maria Theresa. Even her eldest son and successor to the throne, the future Joseph II, had to constantly hear about how she opposed as misguided his fascination with the philosophers of the Enlightenment.


Resolved and under the profound influence of Catholicism, the ruler particularly opposed attempts at civil tolerance toward other confessions. It was her deeply held conviction that “without a dominant religion, tolerance and indifference would spread, and these are just the very means to undermine everything.”[vi]

Nevertheless, she brought many enlightened spirits to Vienna, often on the suggestion of her husband Francis Stephen.

In 1765 Francis Stephen died completely unexpectedly. It was a very dark time for the empress with far-reaching consequences – both political and personal. She was virtually paralyzed by shock and grief at her husband’s death. “I do not know myself any more,” she told her old mentor, Count Silva-Tarouca, who reminded her of her obligations as she fell into endless mourning. “for I live like the animals, without spirit and reason. I forget everything. I get up at five, go to bed late, and do nothing all day. My situation is cruel.”[vii]

Fun, joy and pleasure had long been part of her daily routine, even during times of war. “We must have spectacle”[viii] was one of her legendary sayings.


And now? There would and should be spectacle, as before. But without her. From then on, such things were only a burden. She wrote her friend, Countess Sophie Charlotte of Enzenberg: “While court is being held, I am alone in my chamber, draped with grey cloth and with only two candles. It is quite sombre. But this is how I like it. Everything that looks merely like a shadow of joy makes me sad and irritates me. Only the darkest is a comfort. . . .” At Christmas, 1765, she wrote her friend: “I grow sadder each day, as if in a stupor.” In this period of darkness, did she have a moment of sympathy for her son, however late, which had been utterly lacking two years earlier? Did she remember that Joseph wanted to mourn his most beloved wife, Isabella of Parma? The two married in 1760, and had only been together for three years when Isabella died of smallpox in 1763.

Maria Theresa urged her son and heir to the throne to remarry without delay. He had to “function;” to her, duty came before everything else. She brushed his feelings aside. Now, as she was the one suffering, she wrote: “Can an existence without tender sentiment even be called life?”


The power of this personal blow to her destiny did not cause her to rise up though, as she would have done before. A few weeks later, she also had to accept the death of two close advisors. “My true friends, who told me the truth roundly, to whom I could open my heart without restraint,”[ix] she wrote to her friend, Countess Enzenberg.


In 1765 Maria Theresa named her son Joseph co-regent. In fact, she wanted to resign but then decided against it. The next 15 years until her death were characterized by a deep generational conflict, daily friction between mother and son, opposing views, disappointments and accusations, but also by desperate assertions of deep affection.


Then Maria Theresa’s personal physician, a particular supporter of her reforms, died. “I have lost the great Gerard van Swieten,” she wrote her daughter-in-law Maria Beatrix. “He was a most reliable friend. I owe him so much thanks. At my age, you can never recover from such losses.”

She had called him to Vienna long ago, at Francis Stephen’s recommendation. Even today van Swieten is considered a prolific Enlightenment philosopher and founder of the famous First Vienna School of Medicine. Maria Theresa knew that something new needed to be forged in the field of medicine. That a great deal was stagnating, that space needed to be created for new, enlightened thought and knowledge. Gerard van Swieten was not only a highly gifted physician; he was also a talented organizer. Someone who truly saw reforms through instead of giving up at the first sign of resistance.

She appreciated him and let him do as he saw fit.


He quickly became famous. He was direct and inviting when speaking before audiences about long life and aging with dignity and in good health. “It is up to each one of us to remain healthy and vigorous into old age,” he said emphatically. “Do not let yourselves decline in old age and do not constantly find fault with young people,” he said, holding up a mirror to his noble listeners. “Exercise your mind and body so that you will stay healthy longer! It is good for you and for everyone else.”


The advice could have come from a 21st century gerontologist, but van Swieten said it back in the middle of the 18th century.


But Maria Theresa was no longer able to accept his forward-looking advice. “A long life does not mean happiness,” she wrote to her daughter-in-law Maria Beatrix. “You have nothing to give you solace!”


What was her motto long ago? “The greatest incentive is

trust. If there is no trust, then there is nothing. . . . I have always preferred to use words to urge people to do my will, to convince them rather than force them. It has served me well.”


But her old formula no longer worked. Maria Theresa became more difficult because the world had changed. There was now a great deal that she no longer understood, and she no longer trusted the others around her. She believed she needed to watch over everything, had her children spied upon, and repeatedly indulged in reprimands and made it known that she knew better.


In 1778, two years before her death, her son Leopold wrote of his mother that “owing to her age and her corpulence she is beginning to have great difficulty in walking; she starts breathing very heavily as soon as she walks or moves, and since she is embarrassed about this and tries to walk very quickly, she becomes ever more bad-tempered and disconsolate. Her memory has deteriorated considerably and she fails to remember many things or orders she has given, frequently repeating herself, which creates much confusion. She is starting to become somewhat hard of hearing. . . . She has qualms about many things and constantly mistrusts herself and everybody else. She never enjoys anything and is constantly alone and melancholic, as she never has company and is always fretting about everything.”[x]


This and similar reports were made about the now elderly ruler and mother, and Maria Theresa knew it.

Empress Maria Theresa died on a grey day in November in 1780. She was 63 years old, sluggish and ill, exhausted by 40 years of challenging work and 16 children. She was buried in a magnificent double sarcophagus in the Capuchin Crypt (also referred to as the Imperial Crypt) in the centre of Vienna, next to her beloved Francis Stephen of Lorraine.

Dr. Elfi Thiemer is a political scientist and author, and works at the Press and Information Service of the Office of the Federal President of the Republic of Austria.

Translated into English by Irina Pálffy-Daun-Seiler.


[i] Translator’s Note: Unless otherwise indicated, quotes are provided by the translator.

[ii] Slightly altered from Russell, Lord John, Memoirs of the Affairs of Europe from the Peace of Utrecht: Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1829), 133.


[iii] Buhle, Mary Jo, Documents collection for: Women and the Making of America (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009), 41, accessed September 7, 2016,


[iv] Gelardi, Julia P., In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters, and the Price They Paid for Glory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 213.

[v] “Letters: Maria Theresa to Marie Antoinette, 21 April 1770,” Treasure for Your Pleasure, accessed September 13, 2016,


[vi] Fertig, Ralph David, Love and Liberation: When the Jews Tore down the Ghetto Walls (Lincoln: iUniverse, Inc., 2003), 27.


[vii] Beales, Derek, Joseph II: Volume 1, In the Shadow of Maria Theresa, 1741–1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 139.

[viii] “‘We must have spectacle’: Opera at the Imperial Court, 1600–1800,” World and worlds of the Habsburgs – a Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. project, accessed September 13, 2016,


[ix] Beales, Joseph II, 140.


[x] Mutschlechner, Martin, “Maria Theresa’s final years: widowhood and death,” World and worlds of the Habsburgs – a Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. project, accessed September 7, 2016,







German-language sources:

Mraz, Gerda and Gottfried, Maria Theresia. Ihr Leben und ihre Zeit in Bildern und Dokumenten (Munich: Süddeutscher Verlag, 1979).


Tolesko, Werner, Maria Theresia. Ein europäischer Mythos (Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2012).


Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Forschung, ed. Maria Theresia und ihre Zeit:  Ausstellungskatalog zur 200. Wiederkehr des Todestages, Wien Schloss Schönbrunn 13. Mai bis 26. Oktober 1980 (Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1980).

bottom of page