Leopold II: Things seldom turn out as expected …

A. Bencini: The widowed Maria Theresa, Archduke Leopold and his wife Maria Ludovica together with two of their children, gou

It could not have been predicted that Archduke Peter Leopold, the third-born son of Maria Theresa, would one day become emperor.

A. Bencini: The widowed Maria Theresa, Archduke Leopold and his wife Maria Ludovica together with two of their children, gou

Born on 5 May 1747, the future emperor Leopold II was the ninth child of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Franz Stephan. The infant was baptized Peter Leopold, in honour of his godmother, the Russian tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna. This explains the choice of his first name, which was uncommon in the Habsburg dynasty. However, the archduke was always called Leopold within the family, and it was this name by which he later chose to be crowned emperor.

Given that he was the third son, it could not have been predicted that Peter Leopold would one day become emperor. In his rivalry with his elder brothers he drew self-assurance from the fact that he had been born ‘in the purple’, that is, by the time of his birth his father had already been crowned Holy Roman Emperor, while his brothers Joseph (b. 1741) and Karl Joseph (b. 1745) had been born ‘merely’ as the sons of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

As a later-born son, Peter Leopold could only expect to receive the regency of a minor state. A prospective bride was found for him at an early date: as the daughter and heir of the d’Este dynasty, Maria Beatrix would secure him the regency over the minor northern Italian state of Modena. The early death of his brother Karl Joseph in 1761 improved his prospects, as his mother then changed her plans for his marriage: Peter Leopold was now to marry the bride originally chosen for Karl Joseph, Maria Luisa of Bourbon, daughter of King Charles III of Spain, thus becoming regent-in-waiting to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a title held by his father.

In his character Peter Leopold strongly resembled his father. His strict mother criticized his careless appearance and his disdain for ceremonial. The archduke was seen as affable and down-to-earth, and spoke broadest Viennese dialect. However, people also attested to his great intelligence and quick wittedness. He was given a careful education founded on Enlightenment principles with a focus on the natural sciences and engineering, interests he shared with his father Franz Stephan.

In 1765 the family set out for Innsbruck, where his marriage to the Spanish infanta Maria Luisa was to take place. However, the wedding was overshadowed by the sudden death of his father, Franz Stephan, who died of a stroke during this imperial sojourn in the Tyrolean capital.

Thus Peter Leopold succeeded his father as regent of Tuscany earlier than expected. 

Martin Mutschlechner