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The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 and the Austro-Hispanic Treaties of 1725

By: Randall Lesaffer

In European political history, the term ‘pragmatic sanction’ refers to a princely decree which deals in a pragmatic way with an exceptional or difficult situation that does not permit the application of normal rules. It has frequently been used for issues of dynastic succession. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, whereby the Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) harmonized the succession rules for all of the various principalities of the Burgundian Netherlands and thus ensured their continuing unity under a single prince, is an important example thereof. However, the iconic Pragmatic Sanction, to which historians often refer without any further qualification, is the one issued by the Emperor Charles VI (1685–1740) on 19 April 1713.

In 1711, Charles VI had succeeded his brother Joseph I (1678–1711) as head of the Habsburg house, ruler of the Austrian lands and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the time, the new emperor, who was also the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish succession and still styled himself as Charles III of Spain, had no children. Already in 1703, during the lifetime of the brothers’ father Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705), a family pact had been made to regulate the Habsburg succession in case of the extinction of the male line, as neither of the princes had sons. The pact stipulated that if Joseph—who had two daughters, Maria Josepha (1699–1757) and Maria Amalia (1701–1756)—died without sons, he would under the prevailing Salic law be succeeded by his younger brother Charles. If, however, Charles also died without male issue, the Habsburg lands would revert to the oldest surviving daughter of Joseph, regardless of whether Charles had daughters as well. The pact disregarded the fact that the Salic law applied in the Habsburg lands and changed it into what is sometimes called the semi-Salic law: the acceptance of female succession after all male lines had become extinct.

In a meeting with the Privy Council and chief ministers, Charles VI announced his amendment of this plan. Although he and his wife, Elisabeth Christina of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1691–1750), had no children at the time, Charles wanted to change the order of succession to the benefit of his own future daughters over Joseph’s. The Pragmatic Sanction he issued that day confirmed the unity of the Habsburg lands but sought to affirm this by guaranteeing the succession of the throne to his own oldest daughter, in case he had no male heir, over the daughters of Joseph I.

At the time, the Pragmatic Sanction had little direct relevance, but this situation changed in the following years. After the birth and death of a son in 1716, the new emperor and his wife produced three daughters: Maria Theresia (1717–1780), Maria Anna (1718–1744), and Maria Amalia (1724–1730). From about 1720, it thus became a priority for Charles VI and his ministers to gain recognition for the Pragmatic Sanction and thus assure his future succession by his eldest surviving daughter. To achieve these goals, three main categories of parties needed to be persuaded.

First, there were the daughters of Joseph I himself and their future spouses. Such acquiescence was assured—for the time at least—by inscribing a cession of succession rights in the marriage agreements of Maria Josepha with the future Augustus III (1696–1763), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, in 1719 and of Maria Amalia with Karl Albrecht (1697–1745), the future Elector of Bavaria and Emperor Charles VII, in 1722.

Second, there were the diets and other competent institutions of the different Habsburg lands. Their acceptance came forward with relative ease between 1720 and 1725, with Hungary making the reservation that in case of the absence of a male heir, it reserved the right of an election. However, in 1740, the Hungarian diet duly elected Maria Theresia their queen.

Third, Charles VI and his ministers wanted to avert a new succession war by ensuring the acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction by the great powers of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, and the leading princes of the Empire. This ambition would set the Habsburg ministry on a diplomatic campaign that would consume much of its governing power and diplomatic energy for the coming two decades.

In the years after the War of the Spanish Succession and the Utrecht peace settlement, the contending great powers of Europe were more amenable to giving such a guarantee than they would have been at other times. The likelihood of a new protracted conflagration over the Austrian succession had a deterrent effect, which was corroborated by the Anglo-French entente to uphold the 1713 peace settlement. Nevertheless, the emperor’s desire to have the Pragmatic Sanction internationally recognized gave him a weak hand in any negotiation and offered a window of opportunity that was permanently open to any power who wanted to wrestle something from Vienna. It remains, however, an astonishing feat of Viennese diplomacy that the Empire and ultimately all the great powers of Europe did agree to sign treaties whereby they promised to uphold the Pragmatic Sanction. It also bore witness to the fact that the Utrecht settlement, for all its flaws and complexities, did ensure a certain measure of stability and had forged Europe into a working international system based on compromise ensured by treaties.

The first power to take the bait of the Pragmatic Sanction, and profit from it, was Charles VI’s historic enemy, Bourbon Spain under Philip V (1683–1746). In 1720, after war with France and Great Britain, Spain had finally given in to accept the loss of its possessions in Southern Italy and the Southern Netherlands by joining the Quadruple Alliance (Accession of 17 February 1720, 31 CTS 149). The treaty ensured the succession by the children of Philip V and his second wife, Elisabeth Farnese (1692–1766), to Tuscany and to Parma after the extinction of these principalities’ respective ruling dynasties. It failed, however, to deliver the guarantee Spain wanted for this by introducing neutral, Swiss garrisons in these countries’ main fortresses. The failure of the ensuing international congress at Cambrai in 1724 led the Spanish government to determine that it would no longer put its trust in the Anglo-French condominium to deliver on the assurances of the 1720 treaty and that it would deal directly with emperor Charles VI, who as feudal suzerain over the Kingdom of Italy held the legal cards in a future succession in Tuscany and Parma.

The result was a set of three treaties, signed at Vienna on 30 April 1725. The major treaty (32 CTS 37) confirmed the settlement of Utrecht and the Quadruple Alliance whereby each monarch confirmed the other’s present possessions and ceded all opposing rights and claims. Charles VI, as head of his house but also as emperor and suzerain over Northern Italy, guaranteed the Bourbon succession in Tuscany and Parma, even if he refused to cave in on the matter of garrisons. In return, the Spanish king guaranteed the succession in Austria ‘with Right of Primogeniture, for all the Heirs and Successors of his Majesty of both Sexes’ (Article 12).

In the years to follow, the Viennese government would be successful at inducing numerous other powers to guarantee the Austrian succession, often, however, at the price of serious concessions. Anglo-Dutch cooperation followed in 1731 (Treaty of Vienna of 16 March 1731, 33 CTS 313) but Vienna paid a high price for it by agreeing to fold the Ostend Company in the Southern Netherlands. A major success constituted the agreement of the Prussian King Frederick William I (1688–1740) (Treaty of Berlin of 23 December 1728, 33 CTS 127), which ensured Maria Theresia’s future husband the Prussian vote for the election of a new emperor and helped smooth the path towards the Imperial Diet’s acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction on 11 January 1732. This time, Charles VI had to give little in return but a promise to further the king’s claims to the succession in Berg and Jülich in the west of Germany, so that with justification Vienna ranked it as a great success. It was therefore not a small irony of history that it was Frederick William’s heir and successor Frederick II (1712–1786) who at the death of Charles VI buried the former emperor’s relentless two decades of diplomacy in the graveyard that became known as the War of the Austrian Succession.


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Frederik Dhondt, Balance of Power and Norm Hierarchy. Franco-British Diplomacy after the Peace of Utrecht (Leiden and Boston: Brill/Nijhoff 2015).

Charles Ingrao, ‘The Pragmatic Sanction and the Theresian Succession: A Re-evaluation’, Etudes danubiennes 9 (1993) 145–61.

J.H. Jones, Great Britain and the Tuscan Succession Question, 1710–1737 (New York: Vantage Press 1999).

Karl Anton von Aretin, Kaiserstradition und österreichische Grossmachtpolitik (1684–1745), vol. 2, Das Alte Reich (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1997).

Joachim Whaley, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011).