Maria Theresa was born on May 13, 1717, the eldest daughter of the Austrian Habsburg emperor Charles VI (1685–1740). By 1713, Charles had not produced a male heir and issued an imperial edict known as the Pragmatic Sanction that decreed that if an Austrian ruler did not have living sons, the throne should pass to his eldest daughter upon his death. After his sole male heir died in infancy in 1716, Charles spent the rest of his reign ensuring that the crowned heads of Europe would accept Maria Theresa as his successor, despite widespread opposition to female succession.

After lengthy negotiations, and even a series of territorial concessions, most neighboring monarchs agreed to the Pragmatic Sanction. One of the few to refuse to agree to it was the king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm I (1713–40), an ambitious monarch who hoped to profi t from the Habsburg dynastic instability.

Upon the death of her father in October 1740, the 23-year-old Maria Theresa assumed the Austrian throne. When Maria Theresa claimed her crown, however, Prussia contested her claims and in December invaded the strategic Austrian territory of Silesia, sparking the War of Austrian Succession.

Maria Theresa was also forced to fi ght the rulers of France, Spain, Bavaria, and Saxony, although most of them had previously agreed to the Pragmatic Sanction. Facing these powerful enemies, and with the Austrian army in disarray, Maria Theresa, as newly crowned queen of Hungary, had to appeal to the Hungarian diet to support the war effort or risk disaster.

She had just given birth to her fi rst child, as Bavarian troops advanced on Vienna and French soldiers invaded Bohemia, but she traveled with the infant to the September 1741 diet to make a dramatic personal appeal to the Hungarian nobles. Holding her son in her arms, the young queen pleaded for the nobles’ support, reportedly saying:

The clouds of danger gather above us from all directions. I do not want to hide this fact from my beloved Hungarians, as you also are affected by it. The Holy Crown is in danger, I am in danger with my child and—abandoned by all others—I solicit the help of Hungarian arms whose fame shines throughout history.

I appeal to the well-known gallantry of the Magyars and to their loyalty, it is in this fidelity that I herewith lay my future and my child’s future. (Sisa 1995: 124)Her famous appeal did not fall upon deaf ears, and with drawn swords Hungary’s nobles pledged their loyalty to Maria Theresa and soon rode to the defense of Austria.

While the Austrians lost Silesia to the Prussians, Maria Theresa successfully defended her claim to the Austrian throne after eight grueling years of warfare. She would ultimately emerge as one of the greatest Habsburg rulers. While Salic law prevented her election to the imperial dignity, in 1745 she secured the election of her husband, Francis I, and as empress consort Maria Theresa was de facto ruler of the Holy Roman Empire for decades.