Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne

In accordance with the Pragmatic Sanction, upon the death of Charles VI Maria Theresa succeeded to the Austrian throne. Although she was one of the greatest of all Habsburg rulers, Maria Theresa’s accession began an intense rivalry between Austria and Prussia that eventually led to the eclipse of Austria as a power and the creation of a German empire under Prussian leadership.

Summary of Event

Maria Theresa’s succession to the throne of the several Austrian Habsburg lands in 1740 was by no means uncontested. Her father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, had sought to ensure her peaceful accession by working diligently throughout his reign to obtain the recognition of the Austrian nobility and most of the European powers, including Prussia and France, to a series of state acts known collectively as the Pragmatic Sanction Pragmatic Sanction. In effect, the Pragmatic Sanction publicly proclaimed that the Austrian lands were to pass undivided, on the basis of hereditary right, to Charles’s son or—in the absence of legitimate male issue—female Women;royal succession heirs. By 1717, it was evident, for all practical purposes, that his only direct legitimate successor would be Archduchess Maria Theresa. [kw]Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne (Oct. 20, 1740)
[kw]Throne, Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian (Oct. 20, 1740)
[kw]Austrian Throne, Maria Theresa Succeeds to the (Oct. 20, 1740)
[kw]Succeeds to the Austrian Throne, Maria Theresa (Oct. 20, 1740)
[kw]Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne, Maria (Oct. 20, 1740)
Habsburg Empire
Austrian throne
[g]Austria;Oct. 20, 1740: Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne[1040]
[g]Germany;Oct. 20, 1740: Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne[1040]
[g]Prussia;Oct. 20, 1740: Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne[1040]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 20, 1740: Maria Theresa Succeeds to the Austrian Throne[1040]
Maria Theresa
Charles VI
Frederick the Great
Francis I
Charles VII
George II
Fleury, André-Hercule de
Belle-Isle, Charles Fouquet de

The remark of one contemporary observer some years later, that Charles would have secured a more effective guarantee for the Pragmatic Sanction with an army of 200,000 men rather than the promises of the great powers, was proven correct by the sudden attack of Frederick the Great of Prussia on Silesia within two months of Maria Theresa’s accession. Frederick the Great had ascended the throne of Prussia early in 1740 on the death of his father, Frederick William I. The old king may have been a boor, but he was not untrustworthy. Throughout his reign of twenty-seven years, he had been a loyal prince of the Holy Roman Empire. The youthful escapades of his son and heir were well known, and thus Frederick’s attack on Silesia so early in his reign both shocked and perplexed the diplomats as well as the rulers of the various European states.

The Prussian invasion of Silesia in December, 1740, marked the beginning of the War of the Austrian Succession Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748) , which was to last until 1748. Prussia’s action, known specifically as the First Silesian War (1740-1742), Silesian Wars (1740-1745) was only the first in a series of claims advanced against various parts of the Austrian lands by European powers whose rulers found it convenient to ignore their previous acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction. One potentially hostile state, Bavaria, had never endorsed it because the elector of Bavaria, Charles Albert of Wittelsbach, coveted not only the Austrian Alpine and Bohemian lands but also the title of Holy Roman Emperor, which he actually secured for a brief period from 1742 until his death early in 1745.

Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria.

(Harper & Brothers)

The Prussian position with respect to Maria Theresa harmonized well with the aggressive, anti-Habsburg policies of Marshal Charles Fouquet de Belle-Isle, the French general and diplomat who headed the “War Party” in France. For Belle-Isle and his confederates in the French government, the opportunity to strike a final and fatal blow against the perennial Austrian foe appeared most auspicious. Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, the leading minister of France from 1726 to 1743, and a staunch proponent of nonintervention in the war, was unable to dissuade Belle-Isle from his intention to form alliances with those rulers who had claims against the Habsburgs.

By pursuing a consistent policy of nonintervention and relatively peaceful coexistence with the hereditary enemies of France, Cardinal Fleury had been able to repair much of the damage done to France’s financial structure by the disastrous schemes of Louis XIV. Now the ambitions of Belle-Isle and his party threatened to undo Fleury’s statesmanship. During 1741, Belle-Isle made secret agreements with Prussia and Bavaria as well as Saxony, which sought to take Moravia from Austria. Even Spain, which openly coveted the Habsburg possessions in Italy, found encouragement from the wily Belle-Isle. It seemed that Maria Theresa would be allowed to retain only Hungary. If the aims of its allies were realized, France would be able at long last to dominate central Europe, thus realizing one of the consistent aims of the foreign policy of Louis XIV.

The war itself, fought on several fronts, was a complicated and involved struggle. Frederick’s cooperation with his French and Bavarian allies in the expanded conflict against Maria Theresa rested solely on his desire to protect his Silesian conquest against a resurgent Austria. Accordingly, he deserted his allies on three occasions, the last time at Christmas, 1745, marking the close of the two-year Second Silesian War. Frederick’s unreliability seriously impaired the joint French-Bavarian assault on western Alpine Austria and Bohemia. Maria Theresa found additional relief in the support she received from Saxony (which had now switched sides), from the loyal Hungarian aristocracy, and from George II, elector of Hanover and king of Great Britain, who desired to restore the balance of power between Austria and France. The alliance thus formed in 1745 between Austria and Great Britain also reflected the effort of the latter to reduce French competition overseas.

By 1745, Austria’s position had improved somewhat. Moreover, the death of Charles Albert in that year brought peace with Bavaria, whose new ruler agreed to cast his vote in the next imperial election for Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis, duke of Lorraine, as Holy Roman Emperor. Late in the year, Austria concluded peace with Prussia. Although it was driven from the Habsburg possessions in central Europe by 1746, France had completed the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands Austrian Netherlands
Netherlands;Austrian begun the previous year. At this juncture, the threat of Russian participation on the side of Austria induced the Bourbon states of France and Spain to make peace with their Habsburg foes.


Maria Theresa’s succession to the throne of the Austrian lands was recognized in the Aix-la-Chapelle, Treaty of (1748)[Aix la Chapelle, Treaty of] Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), which she signed with her adversaries in 1748. Yet these lands no longer included Silesia, which she had reluctantly conceded to Frederick the Great. Maria Theresa emerged from the conflict as the respected ruler of a resurgent Austria. She surrounded herself with men of talent and vision, such as Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz Kaunitz, Wenzel Anton von and Count Frederick Wilhelm von Haugwitz, and together they transformed the ramshackle Habsburg Empire Habsburg Empire into a modern state.

The struggle for Silesia, begun in the 1740’s and renewed in the 1750’s, marked the opening chapter in the so-called Struggle for Supremacy Austrian-Prussian conflicts[Austrian Prussian conflicts]
Prussian-Austrian conflicts[Prussian Austrian conflicts] in central Europe between Austria and Prussia, a conflict that would last until 1866. In the war fought between them in that year, Prussia destroyed Austria’s historic preeminence and substituted its own, thus laying the foundations for German unification without the inclusion of Austria.

Further Reading

  • Dickson, Peter G. M. Finance and Government Under Maria Theresa, 1740-1780. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. This work is absolutely essential to an understanding of the transformation of Austria under the empress.
  • Dorn, Walter L. Competition for Empire, 1740-1763. Vol. 9 in The Rise of Modern Europe, edited by William L. Langer. New York: Harper & Row, 1940. Dorn presents a concise discussion of the cumbersome structure of early eighteenth century Austria in this volume, which is still valued as a standard work.
  • Ingrao, Charles W. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Describes how the Habsburg state emerged as a military and cultural power of enormous influence. Includes information on the reign of Maria Theresa.
  • Macartney, Carlie Aylmer. Maria Theresa and the House of Austria. London: English Universities Press, 1970. Written by a recognized authority on eighteenth century Austria, this work concentrates on the reforms that ensured the survival of the Empire.
  • McGill, William J., Jr. Maria Theresa. New York: Twayne, 1972. A scholarly biography free of the sentimental treatment of the empress found in many earlier works.
  • Pick, Robert. Empress Maria Theresa: Her Early Years, 1717-1757. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Maria Theresa emerges as a skilled ruler, a wife, a mother, and a woman of extraordinary talents in this very readable biography.
  • Szabo, Franz A. J. Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 1753-1780. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Biography of Count Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, state chancellor of the Habsburg monarchy from 1753 to 1792, who helped Maria Theresa administer and modernize the Habsburg state. The book includes a great deal of information about Maria Theresa and her reign.
  • Thomson, M. A. “The War of the Austrian Succession.” In The New Cambridge Modern History, edited by J. O. Lindsay. Vol. 7. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1957. The account of the War of the Austrian Succession is particularly valuable for the nonspecialist.

Ottoman Wars with Russia, Venice, and Austria

Treaties of Rastatt and Baden

Russo-Austrian War Against the Ottoman Empire

Treaty of Vienna

Accession of Frederick the Great

War of the Austrian Succession

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

Joseph II’s Reforms

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Austrian throne