Archduchess Maria Elisabeth of Austria (1743–1808)
|Archduchess Maria Elisabeth|
Portrait by Martin van Meytens
August 13, 1743|
Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Archduchy of Austria, Holy Roman Empire
September 22, 1808 (aged 65)|
Linzer Palace, Linz, Empire of Austria
|Father||Prince Francis, Duke of Lorraine|
|Mother||Empress Maria Theresa I, Holy Roman Empress|
Maria Elisabeth of Austria (Maria Elisabeth Josepha Johanna Antonia; 13 August 1743 – 22 September 1808) was the sixth child and the second surviving daughter of Maria Theresa I, Holy Roman Empress and Francis of Lorraine. She was an abbess of the Convent for Noble Ladies in Innsbrück from 1780 until 1806.
Maria Elisabeth was known in the family as "Liesl". She was given the customary education of the daughters of the empress, with a focus on accomplishments designed to make her an attractive consort of a royal court and with only shallow and the most basic instructions in academic subjects.
As a person, she was described as somewhat unstable to her character and without any particular interests. She was considered to be the most beautiful of all the daughters of Maria Theresa, was regarded a beauty already by the age of twelve and was reportedly very well aware of this fact. Her mother the empress referred to her as childish and immature and called her eine Kokette der Schönheit ("a pretty coquette") and observed: "It mattered not if the look of admiration came from a prince or a Swiss Guard, Elisabeth was satisfied." 
At the wedding of her brother Joseph in 1765, she played the part of Apollo in the operetta Il Parnasso Confuso by Gluck.
Her beauty was considered a valuable asset in the dynastic marriage politics of her mother and made her a subject of marriage speculations on the dynastic marriage market early on.
When Charles III of Spain was widowed in 1761, marriage negotiations was made between Spain and Austria about a marriage between Charles III and Maria Elisabeth, but ultimately ended in failure. A marriage with the King Stanislaw of Poland was suggested after his succession to the throne in 1764, but discontinued after empress Catherine the Great had made clear her discontent over the proposal. A marriage was proposed to Prince Benedetto, Duke of Chablais, which Maria Elisabeth herself declared herself very willing to enter, but ultimately, her brother Joseph II did not find such a match to enough political advantage, as he considered her to be a great asset within dynastic policy and wished to assure a marriage with the highest possible status. When Maria Elisabeth became 24 in 1767, this was considered a high age to be unmarried by the standards of an 18th-century princess.
In 1768, in parallel with the discussions of a marriage between her younger sister Marie Antoinette and the heir to the French throne, a suggestion was made to engage Maria Elisabeth to the widowed king Louis XV of France, which would result in a double marriage alliance between France and Austria. A marriage contract was prepared and the negotiations almost completed. Before the negotiations was finalized, however, Maria Elisabeth was affected with the smallpox. While she made a full recovery, it was reported that the illness had terribly scarred her face and destroyed her beauty, and thus all plans of marriage was disrupted.
Maria Elisabeth was appointed cannoness of the Convent for Noble Ladies in Innsbruck by her mother, but like her sister Maria Anna, who had a similar position, she did not in fact live in the convent but continued to share her time with the Imperial Court at Hofburg and Schönbrunn.
After the death of her mother empress Maria Theresa in 1780, Maria Elisabeth and her sisters Maria Anna and Maria Christina was asked by their brother emperor Joseph II, to leave court, because he did not want any women there and wanted to dissolve what he referred to as his sister's „Weiberwirtschaft“ or Women's Republic. He confirmed his mother's appointment of Maria Christina and her husband as governors of the Austrian Netherlands, after which they left for Brussels, while Maria Elisabeth and her Maria Anna left to join their respective convents. Maria Elisabeth left for the Convent of Noble Ladies in Innsbruck. which had been established by her mother in 1765 to pray for the soul of her late spouse, the father of Maria Elisabeth.
Maria Elisabeth resided as abbess of the Convent of Noble Ladies in Innsbruck for about fifteen years. Here - or rather in Innsbruck's Imperial Castle - Maria Elisabeth resided from May 1781 until January 1806. Her position did in fact not signify much of a monastic life, as the terms of the convent gave its members high rank, a personal allowance, a suite suitable for a noblewoman and the freedom to participate in public life and high society. Maria Elisabeth did not live a secluded life but entertained much in her apartments, received guests and often arranged family receptions. During her years as abbess, she was described as greatly overweight, was referred to as "Kropferte Liesl" ("Kropf" = struma) because of her pock marks, and became known and feared for her sharp wit. Her friends described her as a popular society person with a fiery personality. Sir John Swinburne described her sharp wit and humorous self irony upon his visit.
When her younger brother Leopold succeeded as emperor in 1790, he involved her more in state affairs. He gave her representational tasks, and in 1790, she ceremoniously opened the Provincial Assembly (Landtag) at Innsbruck in his place, and she often acted as his representative in ceremonial occasions at Innsbrück. She often received important guests such as princes, but also entertained artists such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She was allowed to travel again and visited the Puster Valley on several occasions with her chamberlain Count Spaur, and spent the winter of 1800-1801 in Brunico.
In January 1806, Maria Elisabeth fled from Innsbruck, when the province of Tyrol was taken over by Napoleon Bonaparte's ally, the Kingdom of Bavaria, for Vienna and from there to Linz. She spent her last years in Linz, where she died on 22 September 1808. She was buried in the Jesuit Church of Linz.
- Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette: The Journey ORION, London 2002, ISBN 978-0-7538-1305-8
- Brigitte Hamann (Hrsg.): Die Habsburger: Ein biographisches Lexikon. Wien 1988, S. 320.
- Genealogie ascendante jusqu'au quatrieme degre inclusivement de tous les Rois et Princes de maisons souveraines de l'Europe actuellement vivans [Genealogy up to the fourth degree inclusive of all the Kings and Princes of sovereign houses of Europe currently living] (in French). Bourdeaux: Frederic Guillaume Birnstiel. 1768. p. 1.
- Friedrich Weissensteiner: Die Töchter Maria Theresias (Mária Terézia leányai) , Kremayer & Scheriau, Bécs, 1991.
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