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War of Austria Succession, 1740-48


In 1740 another war erupted concerning what king should rule where. It followed the death of the Habsburg who ruled in Austria and was also Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI, his death said to have been caused by his eating mushrooms. Charles not having had a son, his successor was to be his daughter, Maria Theresa, age 23, who acquired the titles of Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Bohemia and Queen of Hungary. According to Britannica, France, a long-standing continental enemy of Austria, "supported the dubious claims of Bavaria, Saxony, and Spain to parts of the Habsburg domain and supported the claim of Charles Albert, elector of Bavaria, to the imperial crown, all with the overall aim of crippling or destroying Austria."


Frederick II, ruler of Prussia, age 28, to be known as Frederick the Great, thought it an opportune time to expand Prussia's rule southward into Silesia, an area that would double the number of his subjects to six million. Silesia was relatively advanced in industry, rich in agriculture and mineral wealth, and Protestant – unlike the Habsburg monarchy that presently ruled there. With countries quick in going to war, monarchs had reason not to let their realm appear weak. Frederick was aware of Austria's economic and military weakness, made apparent during the War of Polish Succession (1733–35). He asked Maria Theresa to trade most of Silesia for an alliance, and she refused. He asked his generals to think of "the good name of Prussia" which their forefathers had earned on the battlefield, and then he and his army marched into Silesia.

Maria Theresa was aghast, and she demonstrated resolve by sending troops to retake Silesia. But her military didn't have the necessary strength. A showdown battle occurred on April 10, 1741, at Mollwitz. Austria's cavalry fell apart when attempting to ride down Frederick's infantry. Frederick's troops had a five to three advantage in rapidity of fire, and they drove off the Austrian infantry.

News of Frederick's success at Mollwitz traveled across Europe, awakening all of Europe that Prussia was a power to be reckoned with. France, ruled by a Bourbon, joined the anti-Habsburg forces and signed a treaty with Prussia. Maria Theresa reassured the Hungarians of their autonomy and won their support for her as their queen. She wanted support from her ally, Russia, but Russia was having succession problems and was occupied by a threat from Sweden. Sweden was allied with France and declared war on Russia. The political party in power in Sweden, the Hats, believed that the time was right to win back from Russia the territories Sweden had lost in the Great Northern War of 1700-21.

Augustus III, ruler of Saxony and Poland, joined the war against Maria Theresa, and with the French and Bavarians overran Prague. It is said that on hearing news of her loss of Prague, Maria Theresa burst into tears. She was only a little more than twenty-four years-old, pregnant with her fifth child and surrounded by elderly male advisors of questionable competence. She was outdoing them in planning and resolve, complaining that her pregnancy prevented her from mounting a horse to lead her troops.

She pursued her war against France and her war with Spain regarding territory in Italy. Britain was still at war with the Bourbon king in Spain, Philip V. Maria Theresa's main foreign support was from Britain. The British were afraid that France's success in Europe would jeopardize its commercial and colonial empire. According to Britannica, "the War of the Austrian Succession was, in part, one phase of the struggle between France and Britain that lasted from 1689 to 1815."

Frederick's financial reserves were running out, and Britain thought it was a good time for Maria Theresa to make peace with Frederick. Those two signed a treaty in July 1742 that recognized Fredericks rule in most of Silesia, its southern parts called Jagerndorf and Troppau going to the Habsburgs.

With Prussia out of the war, the French and Bavarian forces lost their hold on Prague. In mid-December around 14,000 of the French in Prague sneaked passed the Austrian lines, leaving behind their sick and wounded. The Austrians moved into Prague and allowed France's sick and wounded to return home. The Austrians took reprisals against people in Prague whom they suspected of having collaborated with the French. Jews were among the suspects, and Maria Theresa banished Jews from the city and from all her territories. Some others suspected of collaboration with the enemy received fines or loss of property. Some were sentenced to life imprisonment, to maiming, or to death. But Maria Theresa, being a woman of generosity and having a soft heart, commuted the death sentences.

Bourbon-ruled France signed a treaty with Bourbon-ruled Spain — the Treaty of Fontainebleau — family togetherness. France declared war on Charles Emmanuel of the House of Savoy, and France chose all-out war against Britain. France prepared to invade Britain and looked forward to a rising of Catholics there and toward returning a Catholic of the Stuart family to the British throne. On March 7, 1744, a gale tore apart the French fleet in the English Channel, and the French dropped their plans to invade. But they formally declared war on both Britain and Hanover. And in May they formally declared war on Austria.

In 1746 France approved an attempt by British emigres to return the descendants of James II (House of Stuart) to the English throne, overturning the Glorius Revolution of 1688. This, to be known as the Jacobite risings, ends in defeat at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland. The British lose 50 killed, the Jacobites lose from 1,500 to 2,000 killed or wounded. The Jacobite force had been poorly led by the Stuart pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie," who managed to escape back to France.

In 1747 the Sardinians and French fought each other in mountainous territory 125 miles southwest of Milan — the Battle of Assietta — where the French are slaughtered trying to ascend a ridge, losing a quarter of their troops in one day.

Britain was benefitting from the power of its navy. By the second half of 1747 the British blockade of French ports was hurting the French. The British public had been elated by victories at sea against the French and the Spanish, but British passions for the war were becoming dulled by the expense of the war and the elusiveness of a decisive victory. War weariness and depleted finances were making all of the belligerents more interested in peace, and Austrians and French met in January. In April 1748, British and French representatives also met, and in October, Britain, France, Spain and the Dutch signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappel. Austria and Sardinia added their signatures in November. The treaty confirmed Prussia's gain of Silesia. France agreed to the Habsburgs regaining their part of the Netherlands (Belgium), and the British agreed to return areas in the Americas and in India to the French.

With Europe's major powers having settled their differences, Voltaire, Montesquieu and some other intellectuals became optimistic about the nations of Europe getting along with each other. In 1751, Voltaire described Europe (excluding that controlled by the Ottoman Turks) as "a sort of great republic." and bent on "maintaining among themselves as far as possible an equal balance of power."

If the Europeans had accepted a new balance of power and had peace been maintained the history of the remainder of the 1700s would have been different. But there was still rivalry between Britain and France in the Americas. In 1754, war broke out between the two in the Ohio Valley – to be known as the French and Indian War. In early 1755, troops left Britain and crossed the Atlantic. In late April that year troops from France embarked for the Americas. In early June the British attacked the ships carrying those troops. Many in Britain again became eager for war.

CONTINUE READING: Seven Years' War, 1756-63

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