The great issue dominating Austria in the years after the War of the Spanish Succession is again a problem of succession – this time relating to the remaining Habsburg territories, ruled from Vienna. The emperor Charles VI has a son, born in 1716, but the child dies before the year is out. A daughter, Maria Theresa, is born in 1717. Another daughter, Maria Anna, follows in 1718. The emperor has nieces (daughters of Joseph I) but no nephews.
Several European powers have an interest in further dismantling the Habsburg empire, and a woman on the throne of Austria may seem an excuse to do so. Charles VI’s foreign policy becomes devoted to the task of ensuring that his elder daughter is accepted as his heir. And this means achieving acceptance by the European powers of his Pragmatic Sanction of 1713.
The Pragmatic Sanction (the term for an edict by a sovereign on a matter of state) declared that the Habsburg inheritance is indivisible, and that the line of succession will be any as yet unborn son of his, followed by his eldest surviving daughter and then the daughters of his brother Joseph I.
Over the years Austrian diplomacy succeeds in persuading the European powers to accept the Sanction. Every state of any significance does so (France, Spain, Great Britain, Holland, Russia, Prussia), but all to little avail when Charles VI dies and is succeeded by Maria Theresa. It is Austria’s misfortune that a dynamic and ambitious young king has just inherited the throne of neighbouring Prussia. Given a chance, Frederick II is not the man to be held back by a Pragmatic Sanction.
Frederick the Great and Silesia: AD 1740-1745
Charles VI dies unexpectedly on 20 October 1740. Less than two months later, on December 16, Frederick II astonishes Europe by marching a Prussian army into the rich Habsburg province of Silesia. The king of France, Louis XV, hearing the news, describes the young Prussian as a madman. Frederick himself says that the opportunity presented by Charles VI’s death has the effect of giving ‘free rein to his fever’.
The new Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa (twenty-three to Frederick’s twenty-eight) is also a woman of strong resolve, but Habsburg armies prove no match for Frederick’s Prussians.
Frederick’s first victory over the Austrians (at Mollwitz in April 1741) persuades the French and Bavarians to join in against Maria Theresa. Their intervention is of great help to the Prussian adventurer, since it fragments Austria’s response. But Frederick shows no interest in becoming involved in a wider European war. He continues to occupy Silesia and to fight battles only in defence of it. Three victories in 1745 display his military skill to such advantage that his contemporaries accord him the title by which he is known to history, Frederick the Great.
Meanwhile his young antagonist, Maria Theresa, has been demonstrating her greatness in a different context.
French and Bavarians: AD 1741-1742
From the summer of 1741 Maria Theresa has French and Bavarian forces to cope with, as well as the Prussians. The elector of Bavaria, the Wittelsbach ruler Charles Albert, is married to a younger sister of Maria Theresa. He now claims her father’s title as Holy Roman emperor (a dignity agreed to be for men only) together with a share of the Habsburg inheritance. It suits the French to support him, eager as they always are to diminish Habsburg power.
From June 1741 French and Bavarian armies push through upper Austria and into Bohemia. In November they enter Prague. Maria Theresa, who has to flee from Vienna, is advised on all sides to come to terms. Instead she withdraws, in fighting mood, to the Hungarian border.
In Bratislava the young queen gives a passionate address to a Hungarian parliament, beseeching the nobles and gentry for their help. They are sufficiently moved to promise her 100,000 men.
In the event only 20,000 ill-trained Hungarians are moblized, but Maria Theresa’s spirit and strategic sense saves her throne. She leaves Frederick for the moment in undisturbed possession of a large part of Silesia. In the resulting lull, the Austrian armies can give full attention to the French and Bavarians. They drive them back so successfully that by the end of January 1742 the Austrians are in the Bavarian capital, Munich (though Prague is not recovered till December).
Continuing warfare in Germany during 1743 leaves the Austrians in possession of Bavaria, but also points up an anomaly. French forces have been supporting the Bavarian claimant against Austria, and British armies have joined the fray on the side of the Austrians. Indeed there is a direct clash between French and British in June 1743 at Dettingen (a victory for George II on the last occasion when a British king leads an army in battle).
Yet officially France and Britain are not at war with each other. They are merely marching in support of their allies. This changes in 1744.
French and British on land: AD 1744-1745
After the War of the Spanish Succession the French and the British often act in a somewhat uneasy alliance. The main reason is that both nations have political leaders, Cardinal Fleury and Robert Walpole, who see peace as a necessary aspect of national prosperity. But Walpole resigns in 1742 and Fleury dies in 1743.
There is nothing now to restrain the long-standing enmity between these two Atlantic nations, each with a developing empire overseas. In March 1744 the French declare war on Britain and make plans for an invasion across the Channel in the company of the Jacobite pretender Charles Edward Stuart.
Bad weather damages the French fleet and causes the plan for an invasion in 1744 to be abandoned. In the following summer the French divert their energies to an attack on the Austrian Netherlands. Maurice Saxe, commanding a French army which includes an Irish brigade, wins a victory at Fontenoy in May 1745 over a combined force of British, Hanoverian, Austrian and Dutch troops under the duke of Cumberland, son of the British king.
Saxe continues his successful campaign, conquering the whole of the Austrian Netherlands by the end of 1746. For much of this time he has no opposition from the British army. The regiments and the duke of Cumberland are recalled in October 1745 to meet a new threat in Scotland.
The Forty-Five: AD 1745
The Scottish threat derives from Charles Edward Stuart. Abandoned by the French after the abortive plans for an invasion in 1744, he becomes convinced in 1745 – with Britain losing to France in the campaign on the continent – that he stands a chance of success in Scotland even without foreign support.
The prince is a romantic figure known to his Jacobite supporters as Bonnie Prince Charlie (but to the English as the Young Pretender). He lands in the Hebrides early in August 1745. The Highland clans rally to his cause and the prince marches south, gathering forces as he goes. On September 16 he enters Edinburgh. On the next day he proclaims his father James VIII of Scotland.
Within a week Charles has to defend this claim on the battlefield. At Prestonpans, on September 21, he meets and defeats an army led by Sir John Cope. After this victory (news of which promptes the recall of Cumberland and his army from the Netherlands) Charles marches south to invade England. He takes Carlisle in November and by early December has progressed as far south as Derby.
At this point his followers lose heart. They are too far from safety in Scotland, and the promised French support has not materialized. On December 6 Charles heads back north, pursued now by the duke of Cumberland.
The two sides finally meet in pitched battle on 16 April 1746 at Culloden. Charles has marched his force of about 5000 Scots through the previous night in an attempt to surprise the larger army (some 9000 men) of the duke of Cumberland. The battle, on an exposed moor, lasts only an hour. The Scots are competely routed.
It is the end of the Jacobite cause. A price of £30,000 is put on the Pretender’s head, but he manages to escape back to France after five months in hiding (thanks to the romantic intervention of Flora Macdonald). Cumberland acquires the nickname ‘butcher’ because of his brutal persecution of Jacobite sympathisers. And the government introduces severe measures to pacify the Highlands.
French and British at sea: AD 1745-1748
French successes in northern Europe under marshal Saxe, in 1745-6, prove in the long run less significant than Britain’s stranglehold on French trade by sea. Once war is officially declared, in 1744, the British navy harasses French merchant fleets en route for the West Indies or India. Closer to home the harbours of France are blockaded, preventing the transport of commodities up and down the coast (by far the easiest route in the age before decent roads).
By 1748, after four years of low-keyed naval warfare, France is ready for peace. Significantly the only important territories which have changed hands are overseas.
In 1745 militiamen from British north America have seized from France the harbour of Louisbourg, at the entry to the Gulf of St Lawrence (of strategic importance in relation to French Canada). In India, in 1746, the French have occupied British Madras.
Both are returned in 1748 in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle – restoring the status quo, but also postponing an inevitable colonial conflict between what are now Europe’s leading powers. Frederick the Great says of France and Britain: ‘they see themselves as the leaders of two rival factions to which all kings and princes must attach themselves’. Within less than a decade the kings and princes will again have to take sides, in the Seven Years’ War.
Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle: AD 1748
The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle makes certain adjustments between Austria and Spain in the patchwork of Italy. Otherwise, with one exception, it restores to their previous owners the territories occupied during the eight years of the War of the Austrian Succession. Bavaria, occupied by the Austrians, has already been returned to the elector. Now the Austrian Netherlands, taken by the French, revert to Austria.
The exception is Silesia. Its sudden seizure by Frederick the Great launched the war in 1740. Now the international community recognizes his sovereignty over the region, the possession of which adds about 50% to the population of Prussia.
This is a loss which Maria Theresa of Austria has to accept, but it will rankle. Nevertheless her own possession of the Habsburg inheritance, another cause of the war, is now secure and recognized. Moreover fate has already brought back to Vienna a lost Habsburg dignity.
Maria Theresa’s brother-in-law, the elector of Bavaria, succeeds in being elected Holy Roman emperor and is crowned in 1742 as Charles VII. But he dies just three years later. This time the electors choose Maria Theresa’s husband, who in 1745 becomes the emperor Francis I. The imperial dignity, after a very brief spell with the Wittelsbachs, is safely back in Vienna.