The ruler of the Austrian Habsburg dominions, Maria Theresa was the only female ruler (1740–80) of the Habsburg dynasty in its 650-year history. She inherited the Austrian throne when her father, Charles VI, died in 1740 without male heirs to succeed him. A capable monarch, she was admired by friend and foe alike. Even her archenemy Frederick the Great of Prussia called her “a credit to her throne and her sex.”
Maria Theresa’s reign was marred by three conflicts,
- the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48), which began almost immediately upon her ascent to the throne;
- the Seven Years’ War (1756–64); and
- the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79).
Her experience in prosecuting these wars prompted her to undertake a sweeping modernization of her armies. On the domestic scene, Maria restructured the tax system, started a universal school system that was separate from the church, and provided some relief to the beleaguered peasant class. A devout Catholic, she suppressed the Jesuits and was intolerant in her policies toward Jews.
Maria Theresa was the mother of 16 children, the most famous of whom were Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790, and Marie-Antoinette, the queen of France who fell victim with her husband, Louis XVI, to the French Revolution. Maria Theresa died in Vienna on November 29, 1780.