The Mint of Austria have issued a new coin that marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Habsburg Empire’s only female ruler, Empress Maria Theresa (1717–1780), who became empress on the death of her father, Emperor Charles VI (1685–1740), Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor.
The remarkable story of the empress began with her accession to the many thrones within the Austrian Empire, starting with the Austrian War of Succession, which beleaguered her rule for seven years but eventually secured her place on the Hapsburg throne until her death in 1780. The only female ruler of the Habsburg Empire, Empress Maria Theresa is the most fascinating female figure in Austrian history. The young woman was to become an imposing empress who managed to steer the Habsburg Empire on a highly successful course for 40 years.
This coin is the first in a new series that focuses on four elements marked by her rule: courage, justice, clemency, and prudence. Each coin is based on specific medals made during the empress’s years on the throne. The first coin is entitled “Courage and Determination,” with the dominant image on the reverse being that of an armed Minerva. The reverse motif symbolises Maria Theresa’s fortitude—a virtue that meant she was not daunted by the magnitude of her role as empress of a vast empire. (Hover over coin images to zoom.)
The obverse portrait is based on medallic artwork created during her reign that features a portrait of the young Maria Theresa created by engraver Matthäus Donner (1704–1756). The four-coin Empress Maria Theresa series is minted in extra-bold relief to give each Proof-quality silver coin a special antique look. The next three coins will feature portraits of Maria Theresa during different stages of her life, namely those of wife, mother, and finally, widow.
|€20||.925 silver||20.7 g||34 mm||Proof||10,000|
Coins in the series are presented in capsules with custom case and certificate of authenticity. A colourful album to house the coins is also available. Please visit their website of the Mint of Austria for more information on this and other coins the mint offers.
The Last of the Hapsburgs, Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria
Born on the 13th May 1717 as the second child to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor (1685–1740) and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was something of a disappointment. She was born just after the death of her elder brother and it was feared by her father that his lineage would become extinct if he could not produce a son. From her birth, she became heiress presumptive to the Habsburg realms in the absence of a male heir as her father had issued the Pragmatic Sanction proclamation of 1713. Charles had succeeded his elder brother, Joseph I, on the Hapsburg throne in 1711, and his proclamation placed his nieces behind his own daughters in the line of succession. The proclamation caused great concern with the powers of Europe, and in order to elicit the support of many of them, the Treaty of Vienna, in which Austria made many concessions in return, was signed in 1731.
The life of the young Archduchess was precious to many. She represented the continuation of the Hapsburg dynasty to the vast empire, and eventually, her marriage would be the subject of intense importance. In 1723, Maria Theresa was promised to Léopold Clément, hereditary prince of Lorraine (1707–1723), who was heir apparent to the throne of the sovereign Duchy of Lorraine. The region was an important ally, and the groom’s family was regal enough to provide for the future succession. Unfortunately, the hereditary prince contracted smallpox and died before the marriage, at just sixteen years of age. The match had been considered very important to both families, so much so that an invitation was sent to the late prince’s younger brother, Francis Stephen (1708–1765), to meet the Archduchess Maria Theresa.
From the time of Francis Stephen’s arrival in Vienna, she became close to the man she would one day marry; however, their formal betrothal was not announced until January 1736. By this time, Francis Stephen had already ascended the throne of Lorraine. As a concession to the French King Louis XV, who demanded Francis Stephen relinquish his dynastic rights to Lorraine before the marriage could take place, the new consort to the heiress presumptive would receive the Grand Duchy of Tuscany upon the death of the Grand Duke Gian Gastone de’ Medici, who had no heirs of his own. Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen were married on the 12th February 1736 in the Augustinian Church, Vienna.
It was believed the new royal couple had a happy marriage, with evidence supporting the notion that Maria Theresa was very much in love with her husband, but that he was often unfaithful and indiscreet. These many instances of unfaithfulness did not deter the couple from having 16 children, many of whom would ascend thrones in Europe in the coming years.
Succession and Imperial Prerogative
On the 20th October 1740, the archduchess’s father, Charles VI, died from what was believed to have been mushroom poisoning. Far from being a stable and prosperous empire, the country he left was in debt, its treasury depleted by numerous wars. With less than 100,000 florins on deposit and an army that had not been paid in months, Maria Theresa inherited a very insecure throne—not to mention the fact she could not succeed her father as Holy Roman Emperor. This title would eventually be inherited by her husband, Francis Stephen, five years later as the founder of the Hapsburg-Lorraine dynasty.
Maria Theresa was wholly unprepared for her exalted position, for she knew little about matters of state and government. In order to continue the procedure of state, she ended up taking the advice of her late father, who had earlier counselled her to retain his ministers in the event she came to the throne and to defer matters of government to her husband—a decision she would later record has having regretted.
Nearly a decade later, in 1749, the Empress Maria Theresa penned what was to be referred to as her Political Testament, which detailed the circumstances under which she had ascended the Hapsburg throne. In her own words, she wrote:
I found myself without money, without credit, without an army, without experience and knowledge of my own and finally, also without any counsel because each one of them at first wanted to wait and see how things would develop.
Despite her circumstances, the reigning archduchess dismissed the possibility that other countries might try to seize her territories, and she immediately started securing the imperial dignity for herself, in the form of the power of prerogatives of Holy Roman Emperor once held by her late father. Since it was known that a woman could not be elected Holy Roman Empress, Maria Theresa worked to secure the imperial office for her husband. Francis Stephen, however, did not possess enough land, support, or rank within the Holy Roman Empire to make him eligible for the imperial throne. Maria Theresa took a bold and shrewd step towards enabling him to vote in the imperial elections as the elector of Bohemia (which she could not do because of her sex); to accomplish this, Maria Theresa declared her husband the co-ruler of the Austrian and Bohemian lands on the 21st November 1740. After her decision, it too the Hungarian parliament more than a year to accept Francis Stephen as co-ruler. Despite her love for her husband and his position as co-ruler, Maria Theresa never allowed him to have a final say in matters of state and often dismissed him from council meetings when they disagreed—which was often.
Over the course of 20 years of marriage, Maria Theresa would give birth to 16 children, 13 of whom, remarkably, survived past infancy. The first child, Maria Elisabeth (1737–1740), was born a little less than a year after the wedding. As with the birth of the archduchess herself 20 years earlier, the child’s gender was the cause of great disappointment, as were the births of two further daughters, Maria Anna (1738–1789), the eldest surviving child, and Maria Carolina (1740–1741).
Determined to preserve the inheritance of the new dynasty created between herself and her husband, Maria Theresa finally gave birth to a son—Archduke Joseph Benedikt Anton Michael Adam (1741–1790), who was named after Saint Joseph, to whom she had repeatedly prayed for a son during the pregnancy. One of Maria Theresa’s youngest daughters would become one of the most celebrated and tragic figures of the late 18th century. Archduchess Maria Antonia (1755–1793) would be remembered as Queen Marie Antoinette of France—the wife of King Louis XVI (1754–1793) and the woman sent to the guillotine as an enemy of the people of the Revolution. Another daughter, Maria Carolina (1752–1814), would become the queen of Naples as the wife of King Ferdinand IV of Naples, III of Sicily, and her eldest son would also become Holy Roman Emperor as Joseph II in 1765, on the death of his father.
Political Policy and Expansion
It was firmly believed that Maria Theresa was as conservative in manners of state as well as in those of religion, but at the same time, she showed an inclination toward implementing significant reforms in an effort to strengthen Austria’s military and bureaucratic efficiency. Her supreme chancellor of the United Court Chancery, Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Haugwitz (1702–1765), modernised the empire by creating a standing army of 108,000 men who were paid with the proceeds efficiently extracted from each holder of crown land. Although the central government was responsible for the army, Haugwitz instituted taxation of the nobility, who had previously never paid taxes. Other directives were enacted that both strengthened and solidified her rule within the Hapsburg lands. The unification of the Austrian and Bohemian chancelleries was implemented in May 1749, and the creation of the council of state—composed of the state chancellor, three members of the high nobility, and three knights—now served as a committee of experienced people to advise the queen empress exclusively. From 1754 to 1764, Maria Theresa doubled the state revenue, and, although her attempt to tax clergy and nobility was only partially successful, these financial reforms greatly improved the economy.
Widowhood and Appointment of Co-ruler
On the 18th August 1765, Emperor Francis unexpectedly died while he and the court were in Innsbruck to celebrate the wedding of their second son, Leopold. His death left Maria Theresa so wholly devastated that she abandoned all ornamentation, had her hair cut short as a sign of deep grief, and dressed in mourning for the rest of her life. The dowager queen empress completely withdrew from court life, public events, and theatre, and throughout her widowhood, she spent the whole months of August and the eighteenth of each month alone in her chamber, which would eventually have a negative effect on her mental health. Describing her own state of mind shortly after Francis’s death, she wrote,
I hardly know myself now, for I have become like an animal with no true life or reasoning power.
With the death of Francis I, Joseph succeeded his father as Holy Roman Emperor, but by the time of his accession, he ruled less land than his father had in 1740. Believing that the emperor must rule over enough land to maintain the Empire’s integrity, Maria Theresa declared Joseph to be her new co-ruler on the 17th September 1765, and from then on, both mother and son frequently had ideological disagreements. Maria Theresa reluctantly gave her son absolute control over the military following the death of Count Leopold Joseph von Daun, field marshal of the Imperial Army.
The relationship between mother and son was at best complicated by their strong personalities, which often clashed. Despite his intellect and preparedness for his task as ruler—the latter being something his mother had not benefitted from—Joseph was often made to cower before Maria Theresa’s force of personality. While she openly admired his talents and achievements, at the same time, she criticised him in the presence of others. During their bouts of animosity Maria Theresa often threatened to abdicate, but after contemplation and resolve, she thought better of it. Joseph himself often threatened to resign as co-regent and emperor, but he, too, was persuaded from doing so.
The recovery of the dowager queen empress from smallpox in 1767 was thought to be a sign that God wished her to remain empress until death. She did just this until the end of her life, which she knew was at hand from the 24th November 1780. On the 28th November, she asked for the last rites to be administered, and the next day, in the evening, she died surrounded by her remaining children.
The Empress’s Legacy
With the death of the only surviving child of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, the House of Habsburg died out completely in the male line and was replaced by the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The young archduchess is remembered as having been wholly unprepared for the role of empress, but unexpectedly coming to power at the age of 23 in 1740. Right from the outset, through her courage and determination, Empress Maria Theresa stood her ground against the enemies of her Empire and not only strengthened her dominions but consolidated power and ruled the Hapsburg lands with integrity, aptitude, and fairness. The name and legacy of Maria Theresa is still associated with the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, clemency, and prudence. The lineage that was founded by Maria Theresa and Francis I endured until 1918, when the last emperor of Austria abdicated. The realms and lands of the former Empire eventually became separate countries, many of which will celebrate their centenary of independence from next year. But all share a similar history, in which the empress is remembered for her resolve and strength in keeping together a very diverse empire at a time when few women could have imagined such power and influence as was the prerogative of Maria Theresa. ❑