In 1740 the Habsburg Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, died leaving Maria Theresa as his successor. He had long been preparing for the fact that Salic law would not permit his daughter to inherit the title of Holy Roman Emperor. He had therefore arranged the agreement of many of the German states to approve his Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 that would permit a woman to take the role.
On his death Maria Theresa did duly become the Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, the Archduchess of Austria and the Duchess of Parma, but not the Holy Roman Empress.
Prussia had been both a vassal and an ally of Austria in the War of the Polish Succession that had just ended in 1738. Frederick II of Prussia had signed an alliance with France the year before and in 1740, upon the Emperor’s death, he promptly invaded Silesia, an Austrian possession. He had given no advance warning, had not declared war and surprise won the day. Their treaty meant that France was there to open a second front on the Austrians. Prussia had doubled its size and population by the move, though there were still pockets of resistance..
The Duke of Bavaria, Charles Albert, had a lineage that allowed him to challenge directly Maria Theresa’s rights in the Empire, he challenged the arrangements and invaded northern Austria in 1741. He signed an alliance with France and the French forces entered the action acting as auxiliaries to the Bavarians, wearing a Bavarian cockade.
They crossed the Rhine and soon captured Linz. They looked as if they would move on to attack Vienna, but now joined by the Saxons, they suddenly changed tack to seize Prague. With his supporters Charles crowned himself as the King of Bohemia.
Frederick reached a strange agreement in Silesia, permitting an Austrian general and his army constrained in Neisse fortress to leave unmolested to tackle the Bavarian threat. Satisfied with this for now, Frederick agreed a secret truce with Austria and made no further moves beyond Silesia.
By 1742 Charles with his allies’ support was crowned as Charles VII, Holy Roman Emperor.
The Austrians were supported by both George II of Great Britain and the Dutch Republic. Maria Teresa boosted her forces by raising a Hungarian militia to swell her troops numbers.
She promptly recaptured Charles’ territories, taking Munich on his coronation day. Charles escaped to Frankfurt, still proudly proclaiming his title though he now controlled nothing.
As the Austrian progress went well they revealed the details of the truce with Frederick to interfere with the Prussians’ relationship with the others. The Dutch Republic forces approached Frederick who arranged for the Saxons to support him in a march towards Vienna. The Dutch moved to cut the Prussians off from Silesia and the Hungarians moved into it. The Prussians won this phase and a peace was signed, thus ending the First Silesian War.
As 1743 dawned the Bavarian and French forces were at loggerheads with each other and responded poorly to Austrian and Dutch advances. The Bavarians gave up town after town and the French were defeated by King George II at Dettingen. The French were pushed out of Germany and changed their focus towards the Netherlands border.
The Austrians briefly enjoyed the support of the Russians, but one of its envoys had been implicated in a plot in St Petersburg and the Russians withdrew their support. The Swedes then joined the Austrian supporters.
In 1744 the Second Silesian War broke out with Frederick II of Prussia feeling increasingly exposed by Franco-Austrian successes. Frederick reached agreement with the Louis XV to declare war directly against the Austrians.
The French carried out a diversionary tactic by assembling troops at Dunkirk that they threatened to send in to Great Britain in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Prince Charlie was the grandson of James II who had been the last Catholic monarch in Great Britain before being deposed in favour of his daughter Mary (of William and Mary). Louis XV had not been inclined to Prince Charlie’s father but had warmed to the young man.
Prince Charlie arrived to head the fleet of ships that would make the invasion but a harsh storm disrupted the assembled ships and the invasion was scuppered. The storm became known as the ‘Protestant wind’.
Louis XV fielded four armies against the Netherlands and they advanced rapidly, the Austrian Netherlands sent diplomats to agree peace but the French were not interested. But they broke off from their Netherlands invasion and turned their attentions to Alsace and Lorraine.
With the Austrian attention of the Netherlands and on Silesia, the Prussians marched in to Bohemia virtually unopposed. The Dutch had to retreat back across the Rhine and abandon Alsace and Lorraine. This should have been a significant moment for the French but Louis XV was struck down by smallpox and therefore the eye was off the ball.
The Austrians rallied and with fresh support from the Saxons drove the Prussians back in to Silesia.
1745 saw a new statement of alliance between Austria, the Dutch Republic, Great Britain and Saxony. Just a fortnight later the Bavarian Charles VII was dead and the Holy Roman Emperor role was up for grabs.
By late Spring the French had seized the Austrian Netherlands following their victory at the Battle of Fontenoy against a force of British/Hanoverian and Dutch forces. In the summer the French opened a second flank on Britain by fomenting a rebellion in Scotland in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This did not incite general support and the following year the Battle of Culloden brought an end to the Jacobite cause.
The Prussians lured an Austrian-Saxon army in to a long march, then sprung a surprise attack, the Battle of Hohenfriedberg, where they were overwhelmed and forced to retreat.
In the autumn the French and Austrian forces both sought to control Frankfurt and the Main valley where they could impose their will on the election of the next Emperor. Austria prevailed and Maria Theresa’s husband was duly elected as Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor; though she would exercise the power.
A second Prussian force also defeated a Saxon army at the Battle of Kesselsdorf and this was the trigger for peace talks. The Peace of Dresden was signed with Maria Theresa formally ceding Silesia to Prussia, but Frederic in return recognised her husband as the Emperor.
Though this was meant to be a conflict to resolve the Austrian succession it soon prompted other actions between the European powers out in their colonies.