Born on 13 May 1717 in Vienna, Archduchess Maria Theresa was one of the most important personalities of the Habsburg family. Her parents were the Roman German emperor Charles VI and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
In 1713 the emperor had promulgated a law of inheritance known as the Pragmatic Sanction, which among other things established the indivisibility of the Habsburg hereditary lands as well as the Habsburg succession. For the first time female succession was to be possible if there was no male heir in the immediate family or in its collateral branches.
This situation arose in 1740 when Charles VI died unexpectedly and Maria Theresa took over the reins of government at the age of 23. At this point she had been married to Franz Stephan of Lorraine – later Emperor Franz I – for four years and was pregnant with her fourth child; her first three children had all been girls. All the promises made by the European rulers to her father accepting her as his successor were suddenly forgotten. Prussia and Bavaria invaded and occupied Habsburg territory. It was to take eight years before the war ended and Maria Theresa was recognised as the rightful ruler. She then turned to implementing a comprehensive programme of reforms with which she transformed the Austrian hereditary lands into a modern state. Among other things the education system, the state administration and the judicial administration were completely reorganised, and torture was abolished.
Maria Theresa bore sixteen children in all, and laid great emphasis on their upbringing and education. The girls also received an education, which was very unusual for those times. This large brood (despite the fact that only ten survived into adulthood) was valuable capital in the the 18th-century political arena. Maria Theresa was occupied for almost twenty years in marrying off her children to the most powerful royal families in Europe.
After the death of her husband in 1765 Maria Theresa withdrew from society. She ruled jointly with her eldest son, Joseph II, which led to a considerable degree of tension, as Joseph wanted to implement more comprehensive and far-reaching reforms than his mother. Maria Theresa died on 29 November 1780, having reigned for forty years.