The Pragmatic Sanction and the War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-48

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Although the Habsburg Empire continued to expand in the east at Turkish expense, Charles VI recognized that defense of Austria's position in Europe required greater economic and political centralization to foster the development of a stronger economic base. Because he lacked a male heir, however, the continued unity of the Habsburg Empire was jeopardized. In 1713 Charles promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction to establish the legal basis for transmission of the Habsburg lands to his daughter Maria Theresa (r. 1740-80). The price extracted by local diets and rival European powers for approval of the Pragmatic Sanction, however, was abandonment of many centralizing reforms.

Nonetheless, Charles's concessions did not prevent the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) from breaking out on his death in 1740. Prussia occupied Bohemia's Silesian duchies that same year. Late in 1741, the elector-prince of Bavaria, Charles Albert, occupied Prague, the capital of Bohemia, with the aid of Saxon and French troops and was crowned king of Bohemia. This paved the way for his election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1742, thus breaking the Habsburgs' three-hundred-year hold on the imperial crown.

The Austrians, however, retook Prague, and Maria Theresa was crowned queen of Bohemia in the spring of 1743. Aided by a British diplomatic campaign, Austria also made important military gains in Central Europe. Thus, when Charles Albert unexpectedly died in January 1745, his son made peace with Austria and agreed to support the Habsburg candidate for emperor. This enabled Maria Theresa's husband, Franz (r. 1745-65), to be elected Holy Roman emperor in October 1745. In the west, the war with France and Spain gradually settled into a military stalemate, and negotiations finally led to the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

Although Maria Theresa emerged with most of her empire intact--owing largely to the early support she received from Hungarian nobles--Austria was obliged to permanently cede Silesia, its most economically advanced territory, to Prussia. Recognizing that the costly war with France had done more to promote British colonial interests in North America than its own interests in Central Europe, Austria abandoned its partnership with Britain in favor of closer ties with France. This reversal of alliances was sealed by the marriage of Maria Theresa's youngest daughter, Marie Antoinette, to the future Louis XVI of France.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress