Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution
TimelineGlobal Revolution
Royal LifeAbout the Film
Famous Faces

The Iron Fist: Maria Theresa

The Iron Fist: Maria Theresa Maria Theresa was born in Vienna on May 13, 1717.  She was the eldest daughter of the Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI who also held the title of Holy Roman Emperor.  When her only brother died, Maria Theresa became heir to the throne of Austria and Hungary, thanks to the Pragmatic Sanction  of 1713 that made it possible for a daughter to inherit the throne if there were no sons. 

This would not have been possible in France, where the Salic Law not only prohibited daughters from inheriting the throne, but decreed that the royal succession must pass through the male line. 

Because the Pragmatic Sanction made it possible for a daughter to inherit the throne of the Hapsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Maria Theresa did in 1740, Marie Antoinette had to sign away any later claims she might have to becoming ruler herself.  In becoming Queen of France, Marie Antoinette relinquished her right to become Empress of Austria.

At the age of 18 Maria Theresa  married Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine.  Between 1737 and 1756 she bore 16 children, of whom 10 survived to adulthood.  Maria Antonia, who would become Marie Antoinette, was her youngest daughter.  With so many siblings ahead of her, it was unlikely that Marie Antoinette would ever have succeeded to her mother's throne.  And in fact, at the death of Francis Stephen in 1765, Maria Theresa elevated her eldest son, Joseph to Emperor, ruling with him as co-regent until her own death in 1780. 

For 40 years Maria Theresa reigned as Archduchess of Austria, and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. She was also named Holy Roman Empress when her husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor.

Maria Theresa was one of the most powerful rulers of her time, and was as stern with her children as she was with her nation.  She was also an "Enlightened Absolutist," a ruler who, like her rival Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia, instituted liberal reforms such as abolishing serfdom and instituting universal schooling, but always from above as an expression of the the will of the ruler rather than that of the people. 

She provided her daughter Marie Antoinette and her son (Joseph II) with a powerful model of a ruler who believed absolutely in the legitimacy and necessity of  the monarchical form of government and her own right to exercise absolute power for the good of the nation.

Famous Faces

Rumors and RevolutionThe Teen Queen: Marie AntoinetteHis Royal Hesitancy: Louis XVIThe Iron Fist: Maria TheresaSwede on the Side: Axel von FersenThe Queen's Crony: Princesse de LamballeMonsieur Moneybags: Jacques NeckerPass the Buck Chuck: Charles-Alexandre de CalonneMad Max: Maximilien RobespierreThe Warmonger: Jacques Pierre BrissotDear Abbe: Emmanuel Joseph SieyèsCrooked Cardinal: Cardinal de RohanAmerica's Sweetheart: Marquis de Lafayette
Explore Versailles Queen's Chamber

Marie Antoinette in Austria
Read about Marie Antoinette's Early Years

Global Revolution
Investigate revolutions and rebellions around the globe.

Fact or Fiction Quiz