Franz I, Emperor of Austria

by Susan Flantzer

Credit – Wikipedia

One day in February 1768, Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia in her own right, rushed into the court theater at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna shouting, “Our Leopold has a boy!”

Maria Theresa had been the only surviving child of her father Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Throughout his reign, Charles expected to have a male heir and never really prepared Maria Theresa for her future role as sovereign.  Upon her father’s death in 1740, Maria Theresa became Queen of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia in the own right.  She was unable to become the sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire because she was female. Maria Theresa’s right to succeed to her father was the cause of the eight-year-long War of the Austrian Succession.

The Habsburgs had been elected Holy Roman Emperors since 1438, but in 1742 Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII from the German House of Wittelsbach was elected. He died in 1745 and via a treaty Maria Theresa arranged for her husband Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.  Despite the snub, Maria Theresa wielded the real power. Upon the death of her husband, Maria Theresa’s eldest son Joseph was elected Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, but Maria Theresa continued to wield the real power. Joseph had married twice, but both wives died of smallpox. His first marriage had produced two daughters, one had died at age seven and the other died shortly after birth. Maria Theresa’s Leopold was her second surviving son, and therefore the heir and the birth of his son ensured the succession of the throne.

Franz’s grandmother Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia

Franz Jospeh Karl was born on February 12, 1768, in Florence, the capital of Tuscany (Italy), where his father reigned as Grand Duke from 1765–90. Franz was the eldest son and the second of the 16 children of Leopold (the future Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II) and Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain, the daughter of King Carlos III of Spain.

Franz at the age of 2, 1770, by Anton Raphael Mengs; Credit – Wikipedia

Franz had 15 siblings:

Franz with his parents and siblings, circa 1784-1785; Credit – Wikipedia

Franz had a happy childhood surrounded by his numerous siblings in Florence. His father Leopold was active in his children’s upbringing and encouraged freedom and self-expression. His children were encouraged to run about freely and participate in energetic play. Archduchess Maria Christina, the children’s paternal aunt, recalled with delight being rolled on the floor with her nieces and nephews. The children’s education was a hands-on one. The British ambassador Sir Horace Mann was impressed with Franz’s education: “He played at Geography by the dissected maps that I was desired to get from England, and on all his walks and rides he is accompanied by people who amuse him and instruct him. He has learned the principal modern languages as the natives do, having attendants of different nations who always speak their own language to him, by which means, they are familiar to him.” This pleasant life ended for Franz in 1784 when he was 16 years old. His uncle, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, summoned him to the imperial court in Vienna to be prepared as a future emperor.

Soon after his arrival in Vienna, Franz received a memo from his uncle listing his deficiencies: “physical development has been completely neglected,” “stunted in growth,” “very backward in bodily dexterity,” “a spoiled mother’s boy.” Joseph told Franz that if he did not improve methods involving “fear and unpleasantness” would be used. Franz learned to control his feelings and the expression of his opinions based upon his uncle’s demands. He was sent to join a military regiment in Hungary to complete his education.

Emperor Joseph II, in the middle, with Elisabeth of Württemberg, on the left, and Franz, on the right; Credit – Wikipedia

A bride was chosen for Franz by the Emperor. Her Highness Duchess Elisabeth of Württemberg, daughter of Friedrich II Eugen, Duke of Württemberg and Friederike of Brandenburg-Schwedt, was chosen for political reasons and sent to Vienna in 1762, when she was 15-years old. Brought up as a Lutheran, Elisabeth was educated at the Monastery of the Salesian Sisters in Vienna, where she converted to Roman Catholicism. Franz and Elisabeth were married on January 6, 1788. On February 18, 1790, Elisabeth gave birth to a premature daughter Archduchess Ludovika Elisabeth of Austria, and then she died early in the morning of February 19, 1790 at the age of 22. The next day, on February 20, 1790, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II died at the age of 49. The infant Archduchess did not survive long, dying on June 24, 1791. Within a week of his 22nd birthday, Franz became a widower and the heir to the throne, which now passed to his father, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Franz’s father’s reign was only two years and at age 24, he became Franz II, Holy Roman Emperor.

Elisabeth of Württemberg, Archduchess of Austria; Credit – Wikipedia

Franz married again, a little more than six months after the death of his first wife. On September 15, 1790, Franz married Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, the eldest daughter of King Ferdinand IV and III of Naples and Sicily (later King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) and Archduchess Marie Caroline of Austria. Franz and Maria Theresa were double first cousins, which meant they shared all of their other grandparents in common. The couple had 12 children with seven surviving childhood. While pregnant with her 12th child, Maria Theresa fell ill with the lung infection pleurisy. Her doctor bled her and this caused premature labor. Maria Theresa gave birth to her 12th child, who lived only one day, and died on April 13, 1807 at the age of 34. Franz was inconsolable and had to be forcibly removed from his wife’s body.

Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily; Credit – Wikipedia

Franz and Maria Theresa’s children:

Franz, Maria Theresa, and their children; Credit – Wikipedia

Austria took part in the French Revolutionary Wars, lasting from 1792 until 1802, resulting from the French Revolution, which saw the rise of an unknown French general named Napoleon Bonaparte. Holy Roman Emperor Franz II feared that Napoleon could take over his personal lands within the Holy Roman Empire, so in 1804 he proclaimed himself Emperor Franz I of Austria. Two years later, after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved and lands that had been held by the Holy Roman Emperor were given to Napoleon’s allies creating the Kingdom of Bavaria, the Kingdom of Württemberg, and the Grand Duchy of Baden. In 1809, Franz attacked France again, but was again defeated. This time, Franz was forced to ally himself with Napoleon, ceding territory to the French Empire, and marrying his daughter Marie-Louise to Emperor Napoleon. In 1813, for the final time, Austria turned against France and joined Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Sweden in their war against Napoleon. Austria played a major role in the final defeat of France, and Emperor Franz I of Austria, represented by Clemens von Metternich, presided over the Congress of Vienna and held in Vienna from September 1814 to June 1815. The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon meets Franz following the Battle of Austerlitz; Credit – Wikipedia

Franz married two more times. On January 6, 1808, he married another first cousin, Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este, the daughter of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este and Maria Beatrice Ricciarda d’Este. She was a great enemy of Napoleon and protested the marriage of her stepdaughter Marie-Louise to Napoleon. Franz and Maria Ludovika had no children, and Maria Ludovika died on April 7, 1816 of tuberculosis at the age of 28.

Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este; Credit – Wikipedia

Franz’s fourth and last wife was Princess Caroline Augusta of Bavaria, daughter of Maximilian I Joseph, King of Bavaria and Augusta Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt. The couple married on October 29, 1816, but had no children.

Caroline Augusta of Bavaria; Credit – Wikipedia

On March 2, 1835, the day after the 43rd anniversary of his father’s death, Franz died suddenly of a fever at the age of 67. For three days, the people of Vienna filed past his coffin. His coffin was then brought in the traditional procession to the Capuchin Church (German: Kapuzinerkirche) in Vienna, Austria, where the Imperial Crypt (German: Kaisergruft), the traditional burial place of the Habsburgs, lies underneath the rather plain church. Franz’s remains lie in the Franzensgruft (Franz’s Vault) surrounded by the tombs of his four wives.
Unofficial Royalty: A Visit to the Kaisergruft (Imperial Crypt) in Vienna

Tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Franz II/Emperor Franz I of Austria; Photo Credit – Susan Flantzer

Wikipedia: Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor
Recommended Book: The Habsburgs by Andrew Wheatcroft, 1995