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Joseph II (German: Joseph Benedikt Anton Michel Adam; March 13, 1741 – February 20, 1790) was Holy Roman Emperor from August 1765 and sole ruler of the Habsburg lands from November 1780 until his death. He was the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Emperor Franz I, and the brother of Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI of France and Navarre. He was thus the first ruler in the Austrian dominions of the House of Lorraine, styled Habsburg-Lorraine. Joseph was a proponent of enlightened absolutism; however, his commitment to modernizing reforms subsequently engendered significant opposition, which resulted in failure to fully implement his programs.


Joseph married Princess Isabella of Parma in October 1760, a union fashioned to bolster the 1756 defensive pact between France and Austria. (The bride’s mother, Princess Louise Élisabeth, was the eldest daughter of King Louis XV of France and Navarre. Isabella’s father was Philip, Duke of Parma.) Joseph loved his bride, Isabella, finding her both stimulating and charming, and she sought with special care to cultivate his favor and affection. Isabella also found a best friend and confidant in her husband’s sister, Maria Christina, Duchess of Teschen.

The marriage of Joseph and Isabella resulted in the birth of a daughter, Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria (1762–1770), Just a few months short of her eighth birthday, Archduchess Maria Theresa became ill with pleurisy. Her father, by that time Holy Roman Emperor, did everything in his power to save her and attended her bedside even at night. However, the medicine in those days was highly undeveloped and Archduchess Maria Theresa died on January 23, 1770 from a very high fever.

Princess Isabella of Parma

In November 1763, while six months pregnant, Isabella fell ill with smallpox and went into premature labor, resulting in the birth of their second child, Archduchess Maria Christina, who died shortly after being born. Progressively ill with smallpox and strained by sudden childbirth and tragedy, Isabella died the following week. The loss of his beloved wife and their newborn child was devastating for Joseph, after which he felt keenly reluctant to remarry.

For political reasons, and under constant pressure, in 1765, he relented and married his second cousin, Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria, the daughter of Charles VII, Holy Roman Emperor, and Archduchess Maria Amalia of Austria, the daughter of Emperor Joseph I and Wilhelmine Amalia of Brunswick-Lüneburg. This marriage proved extremely unhappy, albeit brief, as it lasted only two years. Though Maria Josepha loved her husband, she felt timid and inferior in his company. Lacking common interests or pleasures, the relationship offered little for Joseph, who confessed he felt no love (nor attraction) for her in return.

Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria

Four months after the second anniversary of their wedding, Maria Josepha grew ill and died from smallpox. Joseph neither visited her during her illness nor attended her funeral, though he later expressed regret for not having shown her more kindness, respect, or warmth. Joseph never remarried.

On the death of his father, Holy Roman Emperor Franz I in 1765, he was succeeded as Emperor by his eldest son, Joseph II, and as Grand Duke of Tuscany by his younger son, Peter Leopold (later Emperor Leopold II). Maria Theresa retained the government of her hereditary dominions, Austria, Hungary and Bohemia until her own death in 1780. As emperor, he had little true power, and his mother had resolved that neither her husband nor her son should ever deprive her of sovereign control in her hereditary dominions.

Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Emperor Leopold II, by Pompeo Batoni, 1769, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

The death of Maria Theresa on November 29, 1780 left Joseph free to pursue his own policy, and he immediately directed his government on a new course, attempting to realize his ideal of enlightened despotism acting on a definite system for the good of all. He undertook the spread of education, the secularization of church lands, the reduction of the religious orders and the clergy, in general, to complete submission to the lay state, the issue of the Patent of Tolerance (1781) providing limited guarantee of freedom of worship, and the promotion of unity by the compulsory use of the German language (replacing Latin or in some instances local languages)—everything which from the point of view of 18th-century philosophy, the Age of Enlightenment, appeared “reasonable”.

Despite making some territorial gains, his reckless foreign policy badly isolated Austria. He has been ranked, with Catherine II the Great of Russia and Friedrich II the Great of Prussia, as one of the three great Enlightenment monarchs. His reputation as an enlightened monarch was somewhat legendary, leading to false, but influential letters depicting him as a radical philosopher. His policies are now known as Josephinism. He was a supporter of the arts, and most importantly, of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.

In November 1788, Joseph returned to Vienna with ruined health and was left abandoned. His minister Kaunitz refused to visit his sick-room and did not see him for two years. His brother Leopold remained at Florence. At last, Joseph, worn out and broken-hearted, recognized that his servants could not, or would not, carry out his plans.

Joseph died on February 20, 1790. He is buried in tomb number 42 in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna. He asked that his epitaph read: “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.” Joseph was succeeded by his brother, Leopold II.