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M. B. Synge

Maria Theresa

"Fair Austria spreads her mournful charms,

The Queen—the beauty, sets the world in arms."

—Dr Johnson.

A NSON returned home to find that during his four years' absence Europe had plunged into a terrible war. He had but just started when the Emperor of Austria died somewhat unexpectedly. He had left his crown and all his vast possessions to his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa. The story of this young and beautiful queen, left at the age of twenty-three to rule over the large empire of Austria, is a stirring one in the world's history.

She was born at Vienna in 1717, and was "the prettiest little maiden in the world," when Frederick the Great was beginning his unhappy childhood at Berlin. When she was but seven years old, her father made up his mind that she should succeed him if he had no son. He drew up a great document, known to history as the "Pragmatic Sanction." It was accepted by Spain, England, Prussia, Russia, and Holland, and refused by France and Bavaria. The little Maria Theresa was brought up as the future Empress of Austria. At the age of fourteen she was admitted to council meetings, and she listened with eager interest to all she could understand. People often took advantage of the little girl, giving her petitions to carry to her father till he became angry with her:

"You seem to think that a sovereign has nothing to do but to grant favours," he said at last.

"I see nothing else that can make a crown bearable," answered the child.

She insisted on learning the history and geography of her own country, and ever tried to fit herself for the high position she was some day to take. One story says that a marriage between Maria Theresa and Frederick the Great was planned, which might have altered the whole course of European history. A marriage with the Spanish heir was certainly talked of, but Maria Theresa, with tears, insisted on marrying her cousin, the Duke of Lorraine. She had been married four years when her father died. Maria Theresa suddenly found herself Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and Sovereign of the Netherlands. She reigned over some of the finest and fairest provinces of Europe; over nations speaking different languages, governed by different laws, and held together by no link save that of acknowledging the same queen. That queen was very young and very beautiful, but quite inexperienced.

Within a few months her right to these provinces was questioned, and Europe began to grab her outlying possessions. France, Spain, and Prussia led the way. England and Holland remained true to their promise. Like a hind in the forest when the hunters are abroad and the fiercely baying hounds are on every side, so stood the lovely Queen Maria Theresa. She trembled for the safety of her empire, not knowing from which side the fury of the chase would burst upon her. She was determined to yield nothing.

"The inheritance which my father has left me, we will not part with these. Death, if it must be, but not dishonour."

Her helpless condition excited the greatest pity in England, and King George II. came over in person to fight for her. But before he came over to help, Frederick the Great had already claimed Silesia. One snowy day in April 1741, he fought a great battle against the Austrians, and all Europe from this time seemed to break into war. In the midst of these distresses a son and heir was born, and called Joseph.

After this, and amid scenes of the greatest enthusiasm, Maria Theresa was crowned Queen of Hungary. Presburg, the old capital, was some fifty miles from Vienna. Here the old iron crown of Hungary was placed upon her head, a sacred robe was thrown over her, a sword was girded to her side. Thus dressed, she mounted a splendid horse, and riding to a piece of rising ground she drew her sword, and, waving it towards the four quarters of the globe, she seemed to be defying war and "conquering all who saw her."

The crown had never been placed on so small a head before; it had been lined with cushions to make it fit. But it was heavy and hot, and when the young queen sat down to dine in the great hall of the castle after the coronation, she begged to have it taken off. As it was removed, her beautiful hair, no longer confined, fell in long ringlets on her shoulders. It is said that her Hungarian nobles could hardly keep from shouting applause.

Three months later, at this very Presburg, one of the most famous scenes in history took place, when Maria Theresa threw herself and her infant son upon the mercy of these very Hungarian nobles.

Her enemies had now reached the very gates of Vienna, and, taking the six-month-old baby, she was obliged to flee for her life, leaving her husband to maintain her cause. Making her way to her old capital, she summoned the Hungarians to a great meeting in the castle. It was September 11, 1741, a day ever remembered in the annals of Hungary. The great hall was already full when the young queen entered. She was in deep mourning, for it was not yet a year since her father had died. Her dress was Hungarian, the iron crown was on her head, the sword of state in her hand. Though her step was firm, her tears were falling fast, and for some time after she had ascended the throne she was unable to speak. For some moments there was deep silence. Then a statesman rose and explained the melancholy position to which the queen was reduced.

Maria Theresa had now recovered herself. On a cushion before her lay her baby son Joseph, afterwards Emperor of Austria. The queen now took him in her arms. She held him up to the assembly before her. Her face, still wet with tears, was "beautiful as the moon riding among wet, stormy clouds." She spoke in Latin, the official language of Hungary to this day.

"The kingdom of Hungary, our person, our children, our crowns, are at stake," she cried to them amidst her sobs. "Forsaken by all, we seek shelter only in the tried fidelity, the arms, the well-known valour of the Hungarians."

The beauty and distress of their unhappy queen roused every Hungarian to the wildest enthusiasm. Each man drew his sword, and all cried as with one voice, which re-echoed through the lofty hall, "Our lives, our blood for your Majesty! We will die for our king,  Maria Theresa!"

The young queen burst into tears.

"We wept too," said one of the nobles present; "but they were tears of pity, admiration, and fury."

From this day matters improved. It is true the province of Silesia was lost; but through the long wars that characterised the reign, other provinces were added to Austria.

And so the queen played her difficult part, and played it well. She was succeeded on the throne by her son Joseph, while her youngest daughter, Marie Antoinette, became the wife of the French Dauphin, of whom we shall hear presently.