Sunday 18 August 2013

Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, A Ruler in Name Only?

Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Grand Duke of Tuscany (Francis Stephen; Nancy, France, 8th December 1708 – Innsbruck, Austria, 18th August 1765)

Portrait of Francis I

After an interlude with a somewhat ambitious lady we are back in Austria for an audience with another Holy Roman Emperor, the founder of the powerful Hapsburg-Lorraine dynasty. His life was one of politics and upheaval, steered through some very choppy waters by a politically astute wife who adored him.

Born into a dynasty that enjoyed some very influential connections, Francis was the son of Leopold Joseph, duke of Lorraine, and his wife Élisabeth Charlotte d'Orléans, daughter of Philippe, duc d'Orléans. The family had a long and fruitful relationship with the house of Hapsburg via marriage and it was an alliance that would prove fateful for Francis.

Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, was looking around the ruling houses for a suitable match for his daughter, Maria Theresa, and quite naturally turned his attention to his cousins in the house of Lorraine. There he settled on Francis' elder brother, Leopold Clement. However, when Leopold died Charles decided that Francis would be an idea substitute, taking the teenager to live in Vienna with his bride-to-be. Francis and Maria Theresa became very close, with the future bride particularly enthusiastic about their planned union.

Portrait of Francis by Martin van Meytens, 1745
Francis I by Martin van Meytens, 1745

As the years wore on Francis travelled throughout Europe, becoming a Master Freemason in the United Kingdom and Duke of Lorraine on his father's death. In 1732 Maria had him appointed Lord Lieutenant of Hungary, a position that he was less than thrilled to receive as he had warmed somewhat to life as a gentleman of leisure. 

In 1733 the War of the Polish Succession broke out and Lorraine fell to the French; when peace was declared two years later Francis was awarded the Grand Duchy of Tuscany by means of compensation as Lorraine was handed to Stanisław Leszczyński, the unsuccessful claimant to the Polish throne. Although Francis' family prevailed upon him to reject the deal, Charles strongly encouraged him to accept and the young man acquiesced to the wishes of his future father-in-law, agreeing to what would eventually become the Treaty of Vienna. The loss of Lorraine hit Francis' family hard and when it came time to make his engagement to Maria Theresa official, the young man wavered. A few tense minutes passed but Francis recovered his nerve and agreed to the wedding formally, with the ceremony taking place less than a fortnight later in February 1736.

Portrait of Maria Theresa by Andreas Möller
Maria Theresa by Andreas Möller

A shrewd political negotiator, after the death of her father Maria Theresa found herself plunged into the War of Austrian Succession. With the excuse that a woman couldn't succeed to her father's throne, France and Prussia moved against her, determined to lessen the influence of the powerful Hapsburg dynasty. The War raged on for eight years before the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle brought it to an end in 1748 and we've already hosted one of its most infamous spies here at Gin Lane!

In fact, though Maria Theresa's gender did indeed preclude her from ruling the Holy Roman Empiere, she had long intended to make her husband co-Regent of her Austrian and Bohemian territories. This, she hoped, would lay the foundations for him to assume the Imperial throne. In fact, it would be another five years before this aim was achieved and in 1745 Francis was elected Holy Roman Emperor. 

In reality Francis would rule in name alone, with his wife the prime mover behind the Empire, a situation that suited her husband admirably. He did not share her love of politics and preferred to advise Maria Theresa in an administrative capacity, spending his time indulging his love of nature and engaging in a number of high profile love affairs. With his wife he had sixteen children including the last Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the near-legendary Queen Marie Antoinette

Painting of the Wedding Breakfast of Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis  by Martin van Meytens
The Wedding Breakfast of Maria Theresa of Austria and Francis  by Martin van Meytens

Whilst in Innsbruck to celebrate the wedding of one of his children, Francis took a trip to the opera. Returning in his coach on the evening of 18th August 1765, the Holy Roman Emperor died suddenly and unexpectedly. His reign may have been over but Maria Theresa's certainly was not. As her son, Joseph II, took the throne, he found himself a more than able guide in the form of his mother, who assured him that the business of the Holy Roman Empire was safe in her hands.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)


Unknown said...

The intricacies of politics at this time never fail to amaze me. Such a flimsy excuse for war as no female can succeed to the throne is pretty breathtaking by comparison these days! And to think of an alliance between the Austrians and the French!

Catherine Curzon said...

There seem to have been some very creative reasons for going to war in the 18th century!

Blue said...

I like Maria Theresa! Yet more proof of a woman's ability to rule, even behind the scenes.

Catherine Curzon said...

She was certainly a force to be reckoned with; she'll be getting her own post soon!

Gem Twitcher said...

Madame. My poor head is going around and around with with all the dynastic complications!!:-(...but am I correct in thinking that Mary Queen of Scots comes into the conundrum somewhere?

Catherine Curzon said...

She usually does' what are your thoughts, sir?

Mari Christian said...

The irony of Maria Theresa portrait is that she looks so delicately feminine. According to your account, nothing could be further from the real woman: the clever and iron willed lady.

Catherine Curzon said...

A woman to be reckoned with...