Maria Theresa was the elder daughter of Emperor Charles VI and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. However, she was not brought up as a future ruler, since the couple kept on hoping for a long time that they might still have a son.
Maria Theresa received the upbringing and education typical of a daughter of dynastic lineage, focusing on courtly deportment, music, dancing and languages. Even the choice of languages – exclusively the Romance languages of Latin, French, Italian and Spanish, but not the tongues of the Crown Lands such as Hungarian and Czech, as was otherwise customary for heirs to the throne – shows that she was not originally prepared for a future role as ruler. Apart from this she was given an ordinary basic classical education on strictly Jesuit principles. She received no instruction in political theory, military science or diplomacy.
When it became certain that no male heir could be expected any longer the search began at the Viennese Court for a capable husband for the heiress who would rule in her name. In 1736 she was married to Franz Stephan of Lorraine, who had arrived at the Viennese court at a young age and been groomed systematically as the son-in-law and successor of Charles VI.
However, Charles’s daughter developed an astonishingly forceful demeanour, refusing to become merely the passive object of her father’s schemes. In the introduction to one of his reports the English envoy Thomas Robinson wrote that the archduchess admired the emperor’s virtues but criticized his behaviour, regarding him as it were as the administrator of the lands that she would one day possess.
Here brief mention should be made of the role played by the Pragmatic Sanction, which is often interpreted wrongly as ‘ad hoc legislation’ for the assumption of power by Maria Theresa. In fact, this agreement regulated the succession within the House of Habsburg. At that time, female succession represented a worst-case scenario, since the Sanction was promulgated as early as 1713: hopes for a male heir to the throne were still very much alive, and Maria Theresa had not even been born at this point.
The main aim of the Pragmatic Sanction was to provide a basic legal framework that would unify the Habsburg Monarchy. This heterogeneous complex of territories with different constitutional traditions that had come into being over the centuries and was only united at the top by the dynasty that ruled over them was now to be unified as a nation state and become ‘indivisible and indissociable’.
When Maria Theresa assumed the reins of government following the sudden death of her father in 1740 it was soon obvious that Charles’s lifelong efforts to secure the continuation of the Habsburg Monarchy through diplomatic agreements had had little success. No adequate provision had been made to prepare the Monarchy to defend its existence by force of arms. In the eyes of its adversaries the House of Austria was seen as extinct, not least because the first three births resulting from the marriage of Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan had been girls, which additionally weakened the position of the young monarch. The first boy was born as their fourth child. The birth of Joseph in 1741 came at just the right time.