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300 Years After. Empress Maria Theresia and Her 1748 Imperial Seal

May 13, 2017 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian Archduchess and Empress Maria Theresia, who ruled between 1740 and 1780. This months archivalia presents the powerful monarch with her imperial coat of arms and her ruler's title as depicted by the beautifully preserved seal attached to her 1748 charter.
The diameter of the imperial seal is 12 cm.

Round hanging seal of Empress Maria Theresa made of red wax. SI AS 1063, Zbirka listin, št. 5514. | Author Arhiv Republike Slovenije

Empress Maria Theresia and Her 1748 Imperial Seal

May 13, 2017 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian Archduchess Maria Theresia. She was the second of four children of the Emperor Karl VI von Habsburg (1711–1740) and Elisabeth Kristine von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Not expected by her parents to become Empress one day, Maria Theresia was not brought up as the heiress apparent to the throne, but instead received education that was at the time appropriate for daughters of noble families, which means her training was focused mostly on matters related to proper court conduct, music, dance and the study of foreign languages. In 1736, at the age of nineteen, she married Franz I. Stephan von Lothringen, the future Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1745–1765). The marriage was extremely fertile, producing no less than 16 children, 11 of them daughters and 5 sons – two Emperors (Joseph II. ((1765–)1780–1790) and Peter Leopold II. (1790–1792)) and one Queen (the French Queen Marie Antoinette, victim of the guillotine during the French Revolution in 1793).    

Maria Theresia ascended the throne in 1740 and retained it until her death in 1780. The way for her accession was paved by the so-called Pragmatic Sanction (Sanctio Pragmatica) of 1713, which stated that Austrian throne and ruler’s position could be inherited not only by sons, but also by daughters. However, already at the start of her reign, Maria Theresia was forced to defend that right in the so-called War of the Austrian Succession (1741–1748). Namely, European rulers (Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, France, and later also Spain) who initially agreed with Pragmatic Sanction, all of a sudden refused to recognize it after the Emperor died.

From her father Maria Theresia inherited an empty state treasury, huge debt and a weak army. A number of reforms had to be implemented, initially in the field of administration and taxes, later also in education, health care, commerce and trade, traffic, military, matters of the Church etc. A stable structure of officials began to take shape and so did an efficient system of supervision. She re-shaped the monarchy into an absolutist state in which all areas of life were centralised. Elementary education, by means of which the state hoped to strengthen its economy and finances, was encouraged, while at the same time the influence of the Church on all levels of educational system was taken away from it. Church was seen as an institution whose task was to help the state exercise its will and vision and priest were expected to become a sort of state officials. Maria Theresia intervened in matters of the Church by imposing prohibitions concerning the professing of religion and of the attitude to life and death, but she also dealt with the administrative matters of the Church (abolishing Patriarchate of Aquileia and establishing Archdiocese in Gorizia in 1751). She introduced changes in monastic life as well and her church and political reforms left permanent and indelible mark on administrative and organisational structure of the Church. They were continued by her son Joseph II and some may even be noticed today (dissolution of monasteries, reorganization of parish structures, etc.).

This month’s archivalia shows Maria Theresia with her imperial coat of arms and her ruler’s title as depicted by a well preserved seal, attached to the parchment charter. The charter in question confirmed the rights and privileges of the Dominican female convent in Velesovo and was issued in 1748 by Maria Theresia in accordance with her right as the Queen, Archduchess and as the last ruler before the dissolution of the convent in 1782.

The seal bears the signature of Maria Theresia and additional verification of the charter’s text. Apart from her title and coat of arms it also depicts three symbols of the ruler. Based on the title and the coat of arms we can recognize the owner’s family relations, the actual ownership of the territories, and last but not least the owner’s political aspirations for and recollection of the territories lost.

Depicted in the middle of the ruler’s seal (Majestätssiegel) of Maria Theresia is the escutcheon on top of which is the royal crown. The shield is placed on the chest of the double-headed state eagle (Reichsadler) with wings spread and an imperial crown over its two heads. The eagle is surrounded by twelve coats of arms, each of which is a testament to the power of the House of Habsburg. In the middle of the escutcheon there is the Austrian-Burgundian heart shield with archducal hat, which has a connecting role; representing hereditary lands clustered around the House of Habsburg. The escutcheon is divided into three lines in which 18 different coats of arms are depicted: line one: Castile, León, Aragon, Sicily, Hungary (the old and the new coat of arms), Bohemia, Lombardy, Mantua, Parma; second line: Styria, Carniola, Carinthia, Transylvania, Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Gorizia; third line: Jerusalem, Lorraine, Tuscany, and Bar. Surrounding the eagle, top right: Croatia, Styria, Württemberg, Hungary, Kyburg, Gradisca, Luxembourg, Moravia, Silesia, Luxembourg, Bosnia, Dalmatia.

Maria Theresia got the image of the double-headed state eagle from her husband, Emperor Franz I. Stephan von Lothringen, who was her co-regent in hereditary lands. From 1745, she used the title Empress, but after her husband’s death in 1765 she changed it to Empress Dowager.

Suurounding the seal is the inscription in two lines (motto): »* MARIA THERESIA D(ei) G(ratia) ROMA(norum) IMP(eratrix) GER(maniae) HUNG(ariae) BOH(emiae) DAL(matiae) CROA(tiae) SLAV(oniae) ETC REG(ina) ARCHID(ux) AUST(riae) DUX BURG(undiae) BRA(bantiae) MED(iolani) STYR(iae) CARIN(thiae) CAR(nioliae) MANT(uae) PARM(ae) LUZ(atiae) WIRT(tembergae) SIL(esiae) ETC PR(inceps) SVEV(iae) ET TRANS(ylvaniae) MARCH(io) BUR(goviae) MOR(aviae) ETC COM(es) HAB(sburgi) FLAN(driae) TYR(olis) KYB(urgi) GOR(itiae) NAM(urci) GRAD(iscae) ETC ETC *«.

From this motto it is possible to understand that in 1748 Maria Theresia was: by the Grace of God Empress of the Romans; Queen of Germany, of Hungary, of Bohemia, of Dalmatia, of Croatia, of Slavonia; Archduchess of Austria; Duchess of Burgundy, of Brabant, of Milan, of Styria, of Carinthia, of Carniola, of Mantua, of Parma, of Lusatia, of Württemberg, and of Silesia; Princess of Swabia and Transylvania; Margravine of Burgau and Moravia, Countess of Habsburg, of Flanders, of Tyrol, of Kyburg, of Gorizia, of Namur, and of Gradisca.

Jure Volčjak