Maria Theresia

The Habsburg's most powerful woman

By Austrian National Library

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Maria Theresia (1745) by Leopold SchmittnerAustrian National Library

Maria Theresa

The Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia was never elected or crowned empress, and yet everyone knows her as Empress Maria Theresa.

"Der Zug von Hof nach St. Stephans Thomkirchen" (1740) by Georg Christoph KrieglAustrian National Library

Ceremony of
hereditary homage

Charles VI
died in October 1740 without leaving a male heir. In November, the Ceremony of
Hereditary Homage of the Lower Austrian States was held in the presence of the
new sovereign Archduchess Maria Theresa, a ceremony recorded in an honorary

Maria Theresia im Familienkreis (1760) by Johann Gottfried HaidAustrian National Library

Wife and

On February 12, 1736, Francis Stephen married Maria Theresa in the church of St Augustine in Vienna. They became 16 children, two died in infancy and four in childhood. All the children had a happy childhood at a lively baroque court in Vienna. However, their education was dominated by a strict daily routine with their own tutors.

Artes Novae et Deperditae (1769) by Philipp RottenbergAustrian National Library

Institutio archiducalis

In order to prepare the male descendants for their future political functions, the parents commissioned Georg Philipp von Rottenberg to draw up a comprehensive programme for their sons’ education, the “Institutio archiducalis”. The three volume manuscript, contains magnificently crafted teaching panels in a folding baroque cassette in book form, with a Morocco leather cover. The content is divided into seven fields, religion, people (customs), ways of expressing thoughts, mathematics, geography, history and the liberal arts and the holes at the upper edge of the images indicate that the panels were hung during the teaching.

Gebetbuch Maria Theresia gewidmet (1744)Austrian National Library

Strict Catholicism

Maria Theresa followed the example of her mostly devout predecessors and was always present in the public as a figure of religious identification. “Nothing is as necessary and salutary as religion” – a genuine conviction she attempted to pass on to her children. Despite her deep roots in Catholicism, Maria Theresa was also a pragmatist who restricted the Church’s influence within her sovereign territories by submitting its institutions to state supervision.

Michaelerplatz und altes Burgtheater (1783) by Karl SchützAustrian National Library

Vienna began to become
the centre of the Habsburg Empire

One of the most important new buildings include the university on today’s Ignaz-Seipel-Platz, planned by the French architect Jean Nicolas Jadot de Ville-Issey, which was also regarded as the architectural manifestation of the university reform.

Starting in 1743, the hunting palace at Schönbrunn was extended to become the imperial couple’s preferred residence. The summer residence at Laxemburg was also restructured, with the addition of pavilions and a theatre to entertain the courtly public. Also the "old" Burgtheater is a creation of Maria Theresa who wanted a theatre next to her palace. The many court festivities and balls served the prestige and the self-presentation of the Habsburgs.

Abbildung der richtigen Sitz- und Schreibhaltung (1775)Original Source:

Reform" initiated by Maria Theresia

It was only after her hard-won recognition as Regent that Maria Theresa was able to begin in 1749 with the systematic renewal in almost all fields of life. A major role was played by her advisors, influenced as they were by the ideas of the Enlightenment. The General School Regulations, an education law mainly drafted by Johann Ignaz von Felbiger, was an important part of her renewal. The new school regulations aimed at educating all children as the most important basis for the “true happiness of the nations”. Six years’ education was made compulsory. Uniform curricula were drawn up, as were new textbooks. Teaching, the administration of the schools and the training of the teachers were subject to strict monitoring.

Kolibirs (1788) by Ignaz von BornAustrian National Library


Under Maria Theresa, the sciences underwent a remarkable boom. On the basis of the ideal of an enlightened and rational view of the world, the previously dominant interest in the unusual was extended and special collections replaced cabinets of curiosities. In this respect, a central role was played by Francis Stephen I of Lorraine. It was mainly at his initiative that the new Imperial Collections were created in rapid succession – the Natural History Cabinet, the Coin Cabinet and the Physics Cabinet. Voyages of discovery, above all the major expedition to the Caribbean (1754–1759) by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin, served the sovereign’s collecting activities and supplied exhibits for the cabinets, gardens and menageries.

„Entwurff der Anlegung der Daumenstöcken, mit den darzu nöthigen Personen“ (1769)Austrian National Library

“Torture is

1768 saw the entry into effect of the “Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana”, a uniform criminal law for all the territories of the Habsburg Empire with the exception of Hungary. This penal code continued to regard torture (“painful interrogation”) as an appropriate method for obtaining a confession. Thus it did not constitute a reform in the sense of the Enlightenment, but merely standardised and regulated the methods of torture.

Maria Theresia in Witwentracht (1770) by anonymAustrian National Library

“This will
one day be a good place to rest”

The sudden death of her husband Francis Stephen in 1765 plunged Maria Theresa into deep despair, and from this time on she wore nothing but black widow’s weeds. Her elder son Joseph II became Emperor, but Maria Theresa retained control of the government until her death. In November 1780, the Regent’s health deteriorated. Maria Theresa on November 29 and was buried by the side of her husband in the crypt of the Capuchin church on 3 December 1780.

Marie Geistinger als Maria Theresia (1868) by Fritz LuckhardtAustrian National Library

continuing influence of Maria Theresa

She was the “Mother of the Nation”, the guarantee of the cohesion of the various peoples and a myth that has survived to the present in paintings, monuments, music and literature.

Plakat zur AusstellungAustrian National Library

with Maria Theresia at the State Hall

The Austrian National Library presents the person of Maria Theresa and her role in Austria and Europe from February 17 to June 5, 2017. More than 160 drawings, paintings and prints, some of which have never been previously displayed, reveal the wide variety of the aspects of Maria Theresa, opening up a broad panorama of her life and the lasting effects of her reign.

Credits: Story

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Project Management and Editorial Services: Heidrun Kubart, Thomas Zauner

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