Hungary and Maria Theresa I


Alexandre Evariste FRAGONARD Maria Theresa Presenting Her Son to the Hungarians.

The advantages of the compromise concluded by the House of Habsburg with the Estates of Hungary manifested themselves sooner than expected. After two unlucky wars on the side of Russia, Charles III left his daughter Maria Theresa (1740–80) a militarily, financially and morally shaken empire. When in April 1741 the Austrian army suffered a devastating defeat by the Prussians at Mollwitz near Breslau, France, Spain and Bavaria also fell upon the Habsburg Hereditary Lands. In the face of this military catastrophe, as Sir Thomas Robinson, the English ambassador in Vienna, noted, the twenty-three-year old Maria Theresa, “lacking money, lacking credit, lacking an army, lacking experience and knowledge, and lacking advice”, demonstrated perhaps the most important attribute of a ruler, namely courage in misfortune. Robinson depicts the reaction in the Council of State when the bad tidings of the Prussians’ and the united Bavarian-French army’s advance into Upper Austria reached Vienna: “The deathly pale ministers fell back in their chairs; only one heart remained steadfast: that of the Queen.”

Four months after her coronation as King of Hungary (the masculine form was used by design since she herself was the ruler and not the wife of a king) Maria Theresa decided, with her infallible sense for the feasible, to mobilize the Magyars—the last unused resource in her dramatically shrunken empire—by a personal call to arms; this in the teeth of advice from her father’s high officials, who warned her not to ask for money or soldiers since no one could foresee what the Hungarians would do with the weapons. An adviser is supposed to have said: “Your Majesty would do better to rely on the devil.”

Despite all the warnings and after thorough preparations by her Hungarian confidant palatine Count János Pálffy, who had fought as a general in the Turkish and Kuruc wars, and by Cardinal Imre Esterházy, Archbishop of Esztergom, Maria Theresa appeared on 11 September 1741 at eleven in the morning before the Diet in the castle of Pressburg. Several anecdotally embellished versions exist of how the ruler, dressed from top to toe in mourning, with a sword at her side, slowly passed along the rows of members of the two Houses, mounted the throne, and in a dramatic Latin speech, interrupted by weeping, appealed to “Hungarian courage and loyalty”. She was very beautiful and spoke with a firm voice—but she did not have the heir to the throne, her six-months-old son Joseph, in her arms, as has been conveyed to posterity in painted and poetic portraits; this scene was enacted ten days later when the ceremonial oath on the Hungarian constitution was taken by her co-regent Francis.

The speech given in a truly emotional fashion “by the poor Queen abandoned by all the world” was a great political and theatrical achievement:

“The very existence of the Kingdom of Hungary, of our own person, of our children and of our crown are now at stake. Now that we are forsaken by all, our sole resource is the fidelity, arms and long-tried valour of the Hungarians; exhorting you, the Estates and Orders to deliberate without delay in this extreme danger on the most efficacious measures for the security of our person, our children and our crown, and to carry them into immediate execution. In regard to ourself, the faithful Estates and Orders of Hungary will enjoy our hearty co-operation in all things which may promote the pristine happiness of this ancient kingdom and the honours of the people.”

The success of the appeal was overwhelming. The Hungarian nobles thundered with swords drawn: “Vitam et sanguinem pro rege nostro Maria Theresia!” (Blood and life for our King Maria Theresa!) However, there was one blemish on this superb scene, which most of the reference works fail to mention: it is said that a loud and clear voice was heard from the back rows, where the representatives of the Protestant counties of eastern Hungary stood, adding “sed non avenam!” (but no oats!)—in other words, no material obligations.

The Estates’ emotional response was no empty gesture: the Hungarians at first wanted to provide altogether 100,000 men from the lands of St Stephen, but eventually an army of 60,000, consisting of over half of the nobility’s general levée and a force of conscripted peasants, took to the field in great haste.15 Directly and indirectly the Hungarians saved Maria Theresa and Austria in their time of greatest need—it was barely thirty years since they had been humbled by that same dynasty whose highest representative now appealed to them for their assistance, devotion and loyalty. Not only was the size of the military contingent important, but also the fact that an armed uprising, comparable to the one forty years earlier during the War of the Spanish Succession, would certainly have dethroned Maria Theresa. Furthermore, it would have been impossible to liberate Linz and Prague and even to occupy Munich without the psychologically vital military aid from Hungary. The success in Hungary and the intervention of the nobles’ mounted force and the infantry regiments set up by them surprised and bewildered Austria’s enemies and helped to turn the fortunes of war even before England’s intervention.

Maria Theresa had won this difficult game in Pressburg with charm, chivalry and skill, but also by means of explicit concessions strengthening and expanding the nobility’s privileges. Among other things she promised to maintain their tax exemption as part of the nobility’s “fundamental rights and freedoms”, non-intervention in local jurisdiction, and the organization of serfdom. “I have come not only to take but to give,” she declared, thus guaranteeing the majority of rights demanded by the Diet.

Henceforth, in writing as well as by word of mouth, Maria Theresa repeatedly declared her gratitude to the “Hungarian nation” whom she regarded as “fundamentally good people, with whom one can do anything if one takes them the right way”. During disturbances twenty years later she came out in favour of the serfs against their inhuman treatment by the aristocracy. “I am a good Hungarian,” she wrote to her brother-in-law, then governor of Hungary. “My heart is full of gratitude to this nation.”

During the Seven Years War (1756–63) two gifted Hungarian army commanders ensured that the bravery of the Hungarian regiments would make a great impression on Europe and arouse the Queen’s profound admiration. When on 17–18 June 1757 General Ferenc Nádasdy won a decisive victory in three successive cavalry charges against Frederick the Great of Prussia at the battle of Kolin, the Empress was overjoyed, calling it “the birthday of the Monarchy”, and established the Order of Maria Theresa for outstanding military achievement. Nádasdy was one of the first recipients of the Grand Cross. This most talented of Maria Theresa’s generals next to Laudon was the grandson of the Count Nádasdy executed in Vienna on the order of Leopold I for his participation in the Zrinyi-Wesselényi conspiracy in 1671.

However, the most daring manoeuvre was accomplished some months later by General András Hadik (born in 1711 at Esztergom), who had already won spectacular successes during the Silesian wars. By a brilliantly executed stratagem Hadik took the war right into the enemy’s heartland, advancing directly on Berlin behind the back of the Prussian army as it marched westwards against the French. His raiding party consisted of a mere 3,500 cavalry and infantry, the artillery being represented by four cannons. On 16 October 1757, after a short and bloody clash, he forced an entry through the Köpenick gate and blew up a bridge, penetrating the city with 1,700 of his men; another party took the Cottbus gate. The frightened and confused Berliners estimated the strength of the attackers at 15,000 men, and in the belief that this force was merely the vanguard of a large Austrian army, the city council was willing to pay 125,000 silver thalers as tribute, giving Hadik a promissory note for a similar amount and an additional 25,000 thalers as a gift to the soldiers. The threat of bombardment had served its purpose. The following day Hadik disappeared without interference from the city with his men and the six banners and 400 prisoners they had captured. The infantry marched 50 km. a day and the cavalry rode at least 80 km. A unit of 300 hussars commanded by Colonel Ujházy held up the pincer movement of the pursuing Prussian troops. During one skirmish Magyars once again fought Magyars since the vanguard of the Prussian infantry included hussars under Colonel Mihály Székely. The frightened Court returned to Berlin on 18 October, following the Prussian troops who had re-entered the capital only the night before. King Frederick himself set out with his army in pursuit of Hadik—his order of the day was “These men must be ours, dead or alive!” However, he did not succeed in catching up with Hadik’s little unit.

According to the Habsburg historian Adam Wandruszka, Hadik’s exploit filled Maria Theresa with special pride, since she hated the Prussian King, whom she called the “thief of Silesia”. In a handwritten letter she told Hadik of her “most gracious satisfaction at the cleverly and successfully carried out enterprise against Berlin”, awarding him 3,000 ducats and the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa. Needless to say, Hadik’s bold venture furnished rich and colourful material for stories. According to one, he sent the Queen from Berlin a box of gloves of the finest leather—but because of the hurry it contained twenty-four for the left hand only.

Hadik was given the status of hereditary count, promoted Field-Marshal, appointed military governor of Transylvania and later of Galicia, and in 1774 chairman of the Supreme Military Council (Hofkriegsrat), a position he held until his death in 1790. The significance of this appointment, which marked the peak of his career, can be gauged by the fact that no Hungarian had ever before been permitted to appear even as an adviser to this authority. As the historian Julius Miskolczy put it: “Over the centuries not a single Hungarian statesman was honoured by participation in the government.[…] Even the country’s highest dignitaries, the palatine and the Chancellor, were kept away from the government of the Habsburg Monarchy. The reason for this was lack of trust.”

Maria Theresa was without doubt the outstanding figure in the history of the House of Austria. Frederick II himself paid homage to her in his Testament as “the wisest and politically most gifted” princess: “This woman, who could be regarded as a great man, has consolidated her father’s unstable monarchy.”

“Despite the fourteen years of war”, wrote Wandruszka, “despite the birth of sixteen children, despite the nobility’s and the clergy’s resistance, Maria Theresa was a great reformer blessed with benevolence, feminine charm and the talent of a virtuoso for choosing and treating her advisers.” He concludes:

No ruler before or after her in the long line of the old Habsburg and Habsburg-Lorraine dynasties, which had become merged within her person, knew how to place the right man at the right time in the right place: no one but she carried out, in the midst of critical wars, so many fundamental and revolutionary innovations which also stood the test of time. Whatever sphere of Austria’s modern history one deals with, be it administration, fiscal and trade policy, education, the armed forces, justice and health, one reaches the conclusion that the decisive reforms and beneficial institutions can be traced back to the reign of the great Empress.


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