Austrian Empress Maria Theresia gave birth to 16 children, ten of which survived into adulthood (pregnancy seems to have given her extra spurts of energy which she then used to accomplish such things like reorganizing the army or conducting wars.) Her eldest son Joseph succeeded her as monarch, and her most famous child is probably Maria Antonia (better known by the French version of her name.) These two and all the others are subject of the book which I am currently reading, “Maria Theresias Kinder: 16 Schicksale zwischen Glanz und Elend” (Maria Theresia’s Children: 16 Fates Between Glory and Misery), Hanne Egghardt, 2010.
After the unexpected death of her husband, Franz I Stephan, during a trip to Innsbruck, Maria Theresia founded a Damenstift for noble ladies there. A Damenstift (or Frauenstift) is a sort of monastery for women, but differs from a convent in that, unlike nuns, the residents were not bound by holy orders. They were required to participate in prayer and masses, but enjoyed many more personal freedoms as well as the option to leave if they so wished. The Stift founded by Maria Theresia was set up so that prayers would be said around the clock for the soul of the deceased Emperor (I assume carried out in shifts.) As most of the noblewomen were under quite young, it may well have resembled a sort of Catholic girls’ boarding school, without classes or teachers.
When Maria Theresia died, Joseph made sweeping changes in Austrian government as well as to his own household, moving out the two “spinster” sisters still living in the palace (‘Weiberwirtschaft‘.) Maria Anna (“Marianne”) had always been in poor health and was never married off; she went by her own choice to a monastery in Klagenfurt. Maria Elisabeth had been a lovely, unserious young woman consumed with her beauty, fashion and society until a debilitating case of the pox laid her low. She survived but was literally scarred for life. All her marriage prospects dried up at once, and she stayed well out of the public eye for three years. Elisabeth, it was decided, was to go to the Damenstift in Innsbruck, and it was a turning point in her life.
After a childhood and youth in which her looks were everything, and the depressing years following her illness, Elisabeth began to find her self-confidence. She gained a high position in the community, received the Pope during his visit to Innsbruck. She never lost her sharp wit, nor her sharp tongue — she called Emperor Franz II “the boor”, Archduke Ludwig “the sneak”, the Archbishop of Oelmitz the “little nest-shitter”. Freed from all pressure to be attractive for marriage, she gained quite a bit of weight and became known for her triple chin, which she even showed off on occasion by pulling aside her veil and “letting them swing like billiard balls”.
When troops neared town (first Revolutionaries, then Napoleon’s) the ladies of the Damenstift were forced to flee, and in 1806 they ended up in Linz. Elisabeth died there in 1808 and was laid to rest in the cathedral.