He was a third son, and was at first educated for the priesthood, but the theological studies to which he was forced to apply himself are believed to have influenced his mind in a way unfavourable to the Church. On the death of his elder brother Charles in 1761 it was decided that he should succeed to his father's grand duchy of Tuscany, which was erected into a "secundogeniture" or apanage for a second son. This settlement was the condition of his marriage on August 5 1764 with Maria Louisa, daughter of Charles III of Spain, and on the death of his father Francis I (August 13, 1765) he succeeded to the grand duchy.
For five years he exercised little more than nominal authority under the supervision of counsellors appointed by his mother. In 1770 he made a journey to Vienna to secure the removal of this vexatious guardianship, and returned to Florence with a free hand. During the twenty years which elapsed between his return to Florence and the death of his eldest brother Joseph II in 1790 he was employed in reforming the administration of his small state. The reformation was carried out by the removal of the ruinous restrictions on industry and personal freedom imposed by his predecessors of the house of Medici, and left untouched during his father's life; by the introduction of a rational system of taxation; and by the execution of profitable public works, such as the drainage of the Val di Chiana.
As he had no army to maintain, and as he suppressed the small naval force kept up by the Medici, the whole of his revenue was left free for the improvement of his state. Leopold was never popular with his Italian subjects. His disposition was cold and retiring. His habits were simple to the verge of sordidness, though he could display splendour on occasion, and he could not help offending those of his subjects who had profited by the abuses of the Medicean régime. But his steady, consistent and intelligent administration, which advanced step by step, making the second only when the first had been justified by results, brought the grand duchy to a high level of material prosperity. His ecclesiastical policy, which disturbed the deeply rooted convictions of his,people, and brought him into collision with the pope, was not successful. He was unable to secularize the property of the religious houses, or to put the clergy entirely under the control of the lay power.
During the last few years of his rule in Tuscany Leopold had begun to be frightened by the increasing disorders in the German and Hungarian dominions of his family, which were the direct result of his brother's headlong methods. He and Joseph II were tenderly attached to one another, and met frequently both before and after the death of their mother, while the portrait by Pompeo Baltoni in which they appear together shows that they bore a strong personal resemblance to one another. But it may be said of Leopold, as of Fontenelle, that his heart was made of brains. He knew that he must succeed his childless eldest brother in Austria, and he was unwilling to inherit his unpopularity. When, therefore, in 1789 Joseph, who knew himself to be dying, asked him to come to Vienna, and become co-regent, Leopold coldly evaded the request. He was still in Florence when Joseph II died at Vienna on February 20 1790, and he did not leave his Italian capital until March 3.
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 divided the Belgian insurgents by concessions. When these failed to restore order, he marched troops into the country, and re-established at the same time his own authority, and the historic franchises of the Flemings. 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).
If Leopold's reign as emperor, and king of Hungary and Bohemia, had been prolonged during years of peace, it is probable that he would have repeated his successes as a reforming ruler in Tuscany on a far larger scale. But he lived for barely two years, 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 a subversive agitation. His sister sent him passionate appeals for help, and he was pestered by the royalist emigrants, who were intriguing both to bring about an armed intervention in France, and against Louis XVI.
From the east he was threatened by the aggressive ambition of 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 would have made conquests in Turkey. 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 emigrants 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 her weakness by practically tearing up the treaty of alliance made by Maria Theresa in 1756 and opening negotiations with England to impose a check on Russia and Prussia.
He was able to put pressure on England by threatening to cede his part of the Low Countries to France, and then, when secure of English support, he was in a position to baffle the intrigues of Prussia. A personal appeal to Frederick William 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 the November 11, 1790, was preceded by a settlement with the diet in which he recognized the dominant position of the Magyars. 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 peace of Sistova being signed in August 1791. The pacification of his eastern dominions left Leopold free to re-establish order in Belgium and to confirm friendly relations with England and Holland.
During 1791 the emperor continued to be increasingly preoccupied with the affairs of France. In January he had to dismiss the count of Artois, afterwards Charles X, king of France, in a very peremptory way. His good sense was revolted by the folly of the French emigrants, 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 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 the conference at Sistova, which in June led to a final peace with Turkey.
On August 25 he met the king of Prussia at Pillnitz, near Dresden, and they drew up a declaration of 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 England was prepared to act, and he endeavoured to guard against the use which he foresaw the emigrants would endeavour to make of it. In face of the agitation caused by the Pillnitz declaration in France, the intrigues of the emigrants, and the 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 met the threatening language of the revolutionists with dignity and temper. His sudden death was an irreparable loss to Austria.
Leopold had sixteen children, the eldest of his eight sons being his successor, the emperor Francis II. Some of his other sons were prominent personages in their day. Among them were: Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Tuscany; the archduke Charles, a celebrated soldier; the archduke John, also a soldier; the archduke Joseph, palatine of Hungary; and the archduke Rainer, viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Names in other languages: German/Czech/Slovak:Leopold II, Hungarian: II. Lipót
Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor
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Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor