Maria Theresa: the empress who left a mixed impression on the Czech lands

Maria Theresa, photo: Public Domain

Radio Prague is over the next weeks reporting on aspects of the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa to mark the 300th anniversary of her birth. Actually, her birthday was May 13. She was the one, and only, woman ruler of the Habsburg empire and her 40 year reign usually stirs mixed emotions in one of the key parts of her empire, the then Kingdom of Bohemia.

Maria Theresa,  photo: Public Domain
Being a woman in an overwhelmingly man’s world was no doubt a handicap in the 18th century. Her father, Charles the Sixth, tried to pave the way for Maria’s succession, although he seemed for a long time to be hopeful that a son would be born with a less contested path to the throne. So while Marie was dragged along to council sessions with her father, the rest of her education, mostly in the hands of Jesuits, left her largely unprepared for occupying the throne.

And the best attempts of her father to sign up the strong neighbouring states to Maria’s succession proved to be in vain. France, Bavaria, Prussia, and Saxony all repudiated their past promises on the death of Charles the Sixth in 1740 and the first of a series of wars was launched.

In her own famous words, Maria Theresa came to an empire with the coffers bare and without credit, without an army, and not knowing who to rely on for advice. And her neighbours were keen to take advantage of the perceived weakness and grab a piece of territory. The resulting first war of Silesia resulted in an unsurprising defeat for Austria. Prague was occupied by the Bavarian army and the Austrian army was beaten on Bohemian soil at the battle of Chotusitz or Chotusice, near modern day Caslav. The result was that Prussia took most of the swag in the form of the rich Duchy of Silesia (mostly in modern day Poland) and the country of Kladsko, then regarded as being part of Bohemia.

One of the officials ordered that dead bodies should be removed from the streets.

Apart from being fought over, the Bohemian lands were also occupied by Bavarian prince elector Charles the Seventh and his French allies. He declared himself King of Bohemia in December 1741. Most of the territory was lost a year later with Bohemia eventually restored to the Austrian fold. Maria Theresa decided to deal leniently with her Czech subjects who had supported her enemies. Trials were held but no one was executed. And she herself could now be crowned as Queen of Bohemia at St Vitus Cathedral in 1743. As historian Eduard Maur comments, Prague represented a sorry spectacle.

Coronation of Maria Theresa,  photo: Public Domain
ʺThe coronation was a slightly special situation. Prague was just recovering from the war. It had been bombarded by the Austrian army when the French were occupying the city and had earlier been bombarded by the French at the start of the war. One of the officials ordered that dead bodies should be removed from the streets. In spite of that the coronation was a lavish spectacle and Maria Theresa came to Prague castle for the event. She was not crowned by the Prague archbishop, as was usual, because he had cooperated with the French and was under house arrest at his country home. The job was carried out by the Olomouc archbishop."

The ceremony went ahead as normal, with a few concessions given that this was a queen, and afterwards there were celebrations, a ball, opera presentations and visits by noblemen and visits to the countryside For Prague is was a great spectacle."

Another war followed in quick succession in 1744 with Silesia still the main prize and Bohemia one of the main battlefields. This time it was the Prussians who sacked Prague that year and eventually won the war.

War was the main function of monarchs at the time with the need to finance large armies the spur for taxation and eventually moves to reform and centralise the state machinery. This was the case with the sprawling Austrian empire as well. Centralising reforms concentrated power in Vienna and eroded many of the traditional rights and privileges of the Bohemian crown and nobility. Other reforms, largely inspired by the so-called Mercantilist school of thinking which put the state in the forefront of moves to boost business and trade, also sought to boost the monarch’s powers. These included the abolition of internal customs duties. The Czech lands profited in part from being earmarked as sites where the textiles and glass industries would thrive, setting down the foundations for the later industrial revolution. The introduction of the Maria Theresa silver thaler as a standard coinage from 1741, which was widely adopted across the German speaking lands and later across the world for the following 200 years, also helped underpin economic development.

The revolts were very interesting because nothing on this scale had been seen before in the Czech lands.

There were other reforms as well, for example the introduction of obligatory primary school education for the first time for those aged between six and 12. And Maria Theresa was also involved in health reform, promoting the first birthcare clinics across the region. The sovereign was pretty prodigious in the childbirth arena herself, giving birth to 16 children of which 10 survived into adulthood. She was infatuated by her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, who sometimes led her troops on the field of battle with mixed success. He often played away from the marital bed.

Many of the monarchs of the era, including Maria Theresa, were dubbed enlightened despots: pushing pragmatic reforms which improved the efficiency of the state but did not mean that they shared or diluted their power. Maria Theresa, a convinced Catholic, was notorious though for her hatred of Jews and her refusal to push for religious toleration.

The limits of the reforms were underlined by the strain of yet another war, the so-called Seven Years’ War which ended in 1763. The burden of taxation still fell mostly on peasants and measures to lighten obligatory labour duties were slow to take effect. After similar uprisings across the empire, peasants’ rebellions broke out in Bohemia in 1775 with 40,000 troops having to be sent to supress them. Historian Eduard Maur:

Teresian wing of Prague Castle,  photo: Kristýna Maková
ʺThe revolts were very interesting because nothing on this scale had been seen before in the Czech lands. The movement started in Eastern Bohemia and the revolt eventually progressed to Prague, where it was put down by the army. The revolts were interesting from the socio-psychological viewpoint of how people appeared to lose all control over their actions and emotions and that everything that was not nailed down or could not be moved was destroyed. That was the call that went out and was taken up "

On the architectural front, Maria Theresa’s reign left some considerable marks on Prague. Prague Castle underwent substantial reconstruction and repairs with the so called Teresian wing added and attempts to give the castle a unified facade. Substantial works on St Vitus’ Cathedral were completed including the southern tower. The Rozmberk Palace was turned into a institution for impoverished noblewomen. St. Nicholas’ Church in the lower town was completed and, upon the abolition of the Jesuit order, the Klementinium became a university library. The Vyšehrad fortress was also strengthened with new gun positions and stores.

This is how historian Mauer sums up the matriarchal Maria Theresa monarchy:

I would say that Maria Theresa was one of the most significant rulers to exercise authority over the Czech lands.

"I would say that Maria Theresa was one of the most significant rulers to exercise authority over the Czech lands. Through her reforms she speeded up its development. The reforms affected all levels of society although it could be sometimes said that they were over cautious, took too much time, and did not go far enough. That was the case probably regarding religious tolerance. But in any case, they left a foundation for further developments which followed. She also avoided getting into open conflicts which meant that her reforms were guaranteed to endure. On the other hand, her son pushed through more fundamental, far reaching and effective reforms but at the same time there was increased tension and even open conflict in some of the countries and that forced him and his successor, Leopold II, to go back on some of those reforms.ʺ