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The Pragmatic Sanction

As the 17th Century faded into the 18th, Europe had just entered the War of the Spanish Succession, as Habsburg and Bourbon continued their struggle for dominance. Dynastic wars would continue throughout the rest of the century, as the Enlightenment took hold and the state became seen as an entity separate from its ruler.

Throughout most of its history, the ancient and medieval West had considered the ruler and his or her government to be one. When the king died, all agreements made in his name died with him. By the time of the Enlightenment, the increasing complexities of governing forced creation of a permanent bureaucracy, and though in most European states it remained headed by a monarch, the dynasty took importance over the individual, meaning that treaties and policies would survive the death of the king.

Given the increasing complexities of international trade and diplomacy, no sane ruler could afford the lunacy of overturning all of his predecessor’s works out of sheer childish spite. That made for a great deal more stability, but still left one glaring flaw: what if the monarch died without a clear heir?

Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI faced that probability as the War of the Spanish Succession ground to a halt. He had sought the crown of Spain, but unexpectedly became Holy Roman Emperor when his elder brother, Joseph I, contracted smallpox and died at the age of 33 despite his promise to give up extramarital sex should he survive. Joseph had no living sons at the time of his death; he had sired two daughters (and a son who died in infancy) before passing a case of syphilis to his wife Empress Wilhelmine Amalia, rendering her sterile. Charles, then 26, at the time had no children.


Europe in 1738.

Salic Law – an ancient tradition handed down from the time of the Franks – held that a daughter could not inherit most of the Habsburg lands, nor the Imperial crown. She could, however, rule as queen of Hungary which would split the dynastic inheritance. Leopold I, father of Joseph and Charles, had foreseen potential problems and forced his sons to sign a pact assigning all of the Habsburg lands to Joseph’s eldest daughter should Leopold have no legitimate grandsons. After taking the throne, Charles decided to give his own future daughters – at the time, he still had no children – precedence over Joseph’s.

Charles then set out to head off a potential succession crisis on two fronts. A whole series of physicians, charlatans and quacks prescribed treatments for Empress Elisabeth Christine, a young woman considered exquisitely beautiful before the remedies began. A suggestion that heavy consumption of alcohol would help her conceive a son left the empress red-faced and perpetually drunk. Another course involved rich foods to build up her slender frame; eventually she became morbidly obese and required mechanical assistance to sit and stand. The emperor himself inflicted his own cure upon her, lining her bedchamber with pornography to get her in a sexier mood.

All the while Charles maintained a string of mistresses yet fathered no bastards; somehow the thought that the problem might not lie within the empress does not seem to have been openly mentioned.

While Elisabeth Christine tried to eat and drink her way to a solution, Charles opened a diplomatic offensive to secure recognition for a future daughter as heir to his lands – well before such a girl even existed. He unveiled this so-called Pragmatic Sanction to his council in April 1713, and later that year began to seek adherence from other European powers. Previous decrees had for centuries rejected Salic Law and laid down the principles that the Habsburg lands could not be divided, and could be inherited by a woman. Yet Charles became obsessed with securing both international recognition for his own version and acceptance by the various segments of the Habsburg lands.

The Francophobic Frederick I, King in Prussia (not “of”) gave his consent willingly, without exacting a price, as did most of the Habsburg lands – a succession crisis would mean war, likely on their territory. The Hungarian nobles raised legalistic objections but eventually consented. But most of the other European states hedged their replies, waiting to see if the Empress could produce a son out of her rolls of flesh and constant alcoholic stupor.

In 1716 she gave birth to her first child, a son named Leopold John, who died when seven months old. A year later she had a daughter, Maria Theresa, followed by more daughters in 1718 and 1724, the younger of whom died at age 6. But despite her efforts and the continuing “cures,” she had a series of miscarriages but no more live births.

Once the Empress passed into her forties and would obviously not bear a son, Charles’ efforts to secure the Pragmatic Sanction became frantic. To obtain English consent, Charles sold the Austrian Navy’s new ships of the line to the Republic of Genoa and closed down trading companies just begun in Naples and in Ostend in the Austrian Netherlands. Piedmont-Sardinia agreed in exchange for an Austrian promise to support the House of Savoy’s future claim to the Polish throne. Prince Eugene, his army commander and chief minister, urged him to halt these silly efforts and put the money and energy into rebuilding the surest guarantee for the dynasty – the army – but the Emperor would not be deterred.

Elisabeth Christine managed to dry out and to shed much of the excess weight, intervening in court politics to scotch her husband’s idiotic plan to marry their two daughters to the two sons of Philip V of Spain – a move that could, potentially, have handed most of Europe to the rival Bourbon dynasty. Instead she oversaw a dual marriage with the two sons of the Lorraine dynasty, a minor House therefore unlikely to overshadow her daughters’ claims.

The Empress could not, however, prevent her husband from plunging his realm into a disastrous pair of wars in the 1730’s, undertaken in hopes of securing the Pragmatic Sanction. The War of the Polish Succession was undertaken to support Augustus of Saxony and thereby induce him to abandon his claim to the Habsburg inheritance through his wife Maria Josepha, daughter of Joseph I. The Austrian side, which included Russia, did manage to place Augustus on the Polish throne, but Charles lost Lorraine – home of his sons-in-law - to France and the Kingdom of Naples to Spain. In exchange for these territories – and a renunciation of Habsburg claims to the Spanish throne – Charles exacted adherence from both Bourbon kingdoms to the Pragmatic Sanction.

Russian pressure had kept the settlement from becoming even worse for Charles – who appears to have regarded it as successful, since he had signatures on his Sanction – and it had come at a price. Russian Empress Anne would also adhere to the Pragmatic Sanction, but expected active Austrian participation in her war of conquest against the Ottoman Empire. Austria joined the war in 1737, when it had already been under way for two years, and things went horribly wrong from the start. After repeated defeats the Austrians made a separate peace in 1739, yielding Serbia (including the fortress of Belgrade, constructed at enormous expense) and Lesser Wallachia, territories conquered in 1718 and settled by German colonists who were now expelled. But once again, Charles had obtained a valuable signature on his document.


The Pragmatic Sanction.

In October 1740 Charles, by then 55 years old, went on a hunting excursion during which he ate a fine meal including, apparently, poisonous mushrooms. He died in agony several days later, leaving his lands to Maria Theresa. She had a nearly-empty treasury, an army shattered by defeat and desertion and a complete lack of education or preparation for ruling a massive multi-national agglomeration of separate lands. But she did have a piece of paper that guaranteed it was all hers.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.