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Leopold II (Peter Leopold Josef Anton Joachim Pius Gotthard; May 5, 1747 – March 1, 1792) was Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, and Archduke of Austria from 1790 to 1792, and Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790.

He was a son of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria in her own right and her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Franz I.

Leopold was also and the brother of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre as the wife of King Louis XVI of France and Navarre; Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples and Sicily as the wife of King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies; Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma by her marriage to Ferdinand, Duke of Parma; and Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor.

Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany (left) with his brother Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor

Leopold was a moderate proponent of enlightened absolutism. He granted the Academy of Georgofili his protection. Despite his brief reign, he is highly regarded. The historian Paul W. Schroeder called him “one of the most shrewd and sensible monarchs ever to wear a crown”.

Unusually for his time, he opposed capital punishment and abolished it in Tuscany in 1786 during his rule there, making it the first nation in modern history to do so.

As his parents’ third son, he was initially selected for a clerical career, he received education with focus on theology.

In 1753, he was engaged to Maria Beatrice d’Este, heiress to the Duchy of Modena and the eldest child of two monarchs, Ercole III d’Este, Duke of Modena and Maria Teresa Cybo-Malaspina, reigning duchess of Massa and princess of Carrara.

As heiress to four states (Modena, Reggio, Massa and Carrara), she was a very attractive wedding partner. Empress Maria Theresa sought to arrange a marriage between Maria Beatrice and Archduke Leopold, but this never materialised. Instead she married Leopold’s brother, Archduke Ferdinand Charles bof Austria, in a union through which the Austrians aimed to expand their influence in Italy.

Upon the early death of his older brother Archduke Charles in 1761, the family decided that Leopold was going to succeed his father as Duke of Tuscany. Tuscany had been envisioned and designated as a Secundogeniture, a territory and title bestowed upon the second born son, which was greater than an Appanage.

Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain

On August 5, 1765 Leopold married the Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain, daughter of Carlos III of Spain and Maria Amalia of Saxony. Upon the death of his father, Franz on August 18, 1765, he became Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Leopold, during his government in Tuscany, had shown a speculative tendency to grant his subjects a constitution. When he succeeded to the Austrian lands he began by making large concessions to the interests offended by his brother’s innovations.

He recognized the Estates of his different dominions as “the pillars of the monarchy”, pacified the Hungarians and Bohemians, and divided the insurgents in the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) by means of concessions. When these failed to restore order, he marched troops into the country and re-established his own authority, and at the same time the historic franchises of the Flemings.

Young Leopold as the Grand Duke of Tuscany

Yet he did not surrender any part that could be retained of what Maria Theresa and Joseph had done to strengthen the hands of the state. He continued, for instance, to insist that no papal bull could be published in his dominions without his consent (placetum regium).

One of the harshest actions Leopold took to placate the noble communities of the various Habsburg domains was to issue a decree on May 9, 1790 that forced thousands of Bohemian serfs freed by his brother Joseph back into servitude.

Leopold lived for barely two years after his accession as Holy Roman Emperor, and during that period he was hard pressed by peril from west and east alike. The growing revolutionary disorders in France endangered the life of his sister Marie Antoinette, the queen of Louis XVI, and also threatened his own dominions with the spread of subversive agitation. His sister sent him passionate appeals for help, and he was pestered by the royalist émigrés, who were intriguing to bring about armed intervention in France.

From the east he was threatened by the aggressive ambition of Empress Catherine II of Russia and by the unscrupulous policy of Prussia. Catherine would have been delighted to see Austria and Prussia embark on a crusade in the cause of kings against the French Revolution.

While they were busy beyond the Rhine, she would have annexed what remained of Poland and made conquests against the Ottoman Empire. Leopold II had no difficulty in seeing through the rather transparent cunning of the Russian empress, and he refused to be misled.

To his sister, he gave good advice and promises of help if she and her husband could escape from Paris. The émigrés who followed him pertinaciously were refused audience, or when they forced themselves on him, were peremptorily denied all help.

Leopold was too purely a politician not to be secretly pleased at the destruction of the power of France and of her influence in Europe by her internal disorders. Within six weeks of his accession, he displayed his contempt for France’s weakness by practically tearing up the treaty of alliance made by Maria Theresa in 1756 and opening negotiations with Great Britain to impose a check on Russia and Prussia.

Leopold put pressure on Great Britain by threatening to cede his part of the Low Countries to France. Then, when sure of British support, he was in a position to baffle the intrigues of Prussia. A personal appeal to King Friedrich Wilhelm II led to a conference between them at Reichenbach in July 1790, and to an arrangement which was in fact a defeat for Prussia: Leopold’s coronation as king of Hungary on November 11, 1790, preceded by a settlement with the Diet in which he recognized the dominant position of the Magyars.

Leopold II. Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, and Archduke of Austria, and Grand Duke of Tuscany

He had already made an eight months’ truce with the Turks in September, which prepared the way for the termination of the war begun by Joseph II. The pacification of his eastern dominions left Leopold free to re-establish order in Belgium and to confirm friendly relations with Britain and the Netherlands.

During 1791, the emperor remained increasingly preoccupied with the affairs of France. In January, he had to dismiss the Count of Artois (afterwards Charles X of France) in a very peremptory way. His good sense was revolted by the folly of the French émigrés, and he did his utmost to avoid being entangled in the affairs of that country.

The insults inflicted on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, however, at the time of their attempted flight to Varennes in June, stirred his indignation, and he made a general appeal in the Padua Circular to the sovereigns of Europe to take common measures in view of events which “immediately compromised the honour of all sovereigns, and the security of all governments.” Yet he was most directly interested in negotiations with Turkey, which in June led to a final peace, the Treaty of Sistova being signed in August 1791.

On August 25, 1791, he met King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia at Pillnitz Castle, near Dresden, and they drew up the Declaration of Pillnitz, stating their readiness to intervene in France if and when their assistance was called for by the other powers.

The declaration was a mere formality, for, as Leopold knew, neither Russia nor Britain was prepared to act, and he endeavored to guard against the use which he foresaw the émigrés would try to make of it. In face of the reaction in France to the Declaration of Pillnitz, the intrigues of the émigrés, and attacks made by the French revolutionists on the rights of the German princes in Alsace, Leopold continued to hope that intervention might not be required.

When Louis XVI swore to observe the constitution of September 1791, the emperor professed to think that a settlement had been reached in France. The attacks on the rights of the German princes on the left bank of the Rhine, and the increasing violence of the parties in Paris which were agitating to bring about war, soon showed, however, that this hope was vain.

Leopold meant to meet the challenge of the revolutionists in France with dignity and temper, however the effect of the Declaration of Pillnitz was to contribute to the radicalization of their political movement.

Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito was commissioned by the Estates of Bohemia for the festivities that accompanied Leopold’s coronation as king of Bohemia in Prague on September 6, 1791.

Leopold died suddenly in Vienna, in March 1792.

His mother Empress Maria Theresa was the last Habsburg. His brother Joseph II died without any surviving children, but Leopold in turn had also 16 children, just like his mother, and became the founder of the main line of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

The eldest of Leopold II’s eight sons being his successor, Emperor Franz II, the last Holy Roman Emperor and first Emperor of Austria. Some of his other sons were prominent personages in their day. Among them were: Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany; Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen, a celebrated soldier; Archduke Johann of Austria, also a soldier; Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary; and Archduke Rainer, Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia.