The Habsburgs dominated Austria and Hungary and influenced the Austrian Netherlands and much of Bavaria, Bohemia and Moravia. The defeat of the Ottoman army outside the gates of Vienna in 1683 allowed the Habsburgs to expand territorially into the Balkans as Ottoman forces retreated.
Francis I, the consort of Maria Theresa (pictured), the former Duke of Lorraine and then Duke of Tuscany, was initiated into English Freemasonry at The Hague in 1731 and raised at Sir Robert Walpole’s Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England, later the same year. He was Austria’s most prominent freemason but running a close second were members of the Esterházy family. At least seven were active in the order: Count Emerich, a member of Zur gekronte Hoffnung lodge in Vienna; Count Franz, a member of Aux Trois Canons; Count Franz Seraphin, a member of Zur gekronten Hoffnung and De le Union in Brussels; Count Johann Baptist, the master of lodge Zur gekronten Hoffnung; Count Johann Nepomuk, master of Zur gekronten Hoffning; Prince Nikolaus I, deputy master of Zur gekronten Hoffnung; and Count Nikolaus, a member of Nur neugekronten Hoffnung.
The Esterházys’ association with freemasonry had began a short two years after the Duke of Lorraine’s initiation and was reported in London’s Daily Advertiser on 9 August 1733:
On Tuesday last Prince Anthony Esterházy, lately arrived here, and another German Nobleman, a relative to the Elector of Mentz, were admitted Free and Accepted Masons at the French Lodge, held the first and third Tuesday of every Month, at the Duke of Lorraine’s Head in Suffolk Street.
Prince Anthony Esterházy was Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy de Galántha, originally a Hungarian nobleman. Unlike other Hungarian and Magyar aristocrats, the Esterházys were loyal to the Habsburgs and when the Ottomans were defeated at Vienna the family received land, sinecures and titles, with Leopold I raising the Esterházys to hereditary princes.
The Esterházy estates were enlarged through judicious marriages and by the early eighteenth century the Esterházys were the largest landowners in Hungary with some 1,850 square miles (c.4,800 square kilometres) of territory and a fortune that rivalled that of the Habsburgs. Within the remit of their estates, their authority was absolute and their tenants remained feudal serfs until the late nineteenth century.
Paul Esterházy, the first member of the family to be ennobled, was succeeded by his son, Michael, and briefly by his brother, Joseph. Paul Anton inherited at the age of ten. His mother, Maria Octavia, and Count Georg Erdődy, an Imperial Privy Councillor, managed the family estates as co-regents until he reached the age of maturity in 1732. His visit to London took place the following year.
That Esterházy was accompanied by a German nobleman, ‘a relative of the Elector of Mentz’, is significant. The Maintz was the largest ecclesiastical province in Germany and the most prestigious of the princely states that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Its ruler, the Archbishop-Elector, was one of seven prince-electors and ranked second in political precedence to the Emperor. He was at the same time Germany’s primate and arch chancellor, and headed the Electoral College, the body that chose and crowned the Emperor.
It is unlikely that Esterházy’s visit to London was planned solely with the intention that he would be made a freemason. Far from it. He could have been initiated into freemasonry almost anywhere in Europe. Given the context of imminent war, it is reasonable to assume that his objective was to seek British support for Austria against France, Spain, and their allies. If one wished to communicate in confidence about such matters it were best done in person or through a highly trusted intermediary.
French troops were mobilised in the early summer of 1733 and positioned along its eastern and northern borders. In August Russian forces entered Poland. Two months later France declared war on Austria and Saxony, and Spain joined with France to regain the Italian territories it had ceded in 1713. France used the pretence of restoring Louis XV’s father-in-law, Stanislaus Leszczyński, to his throne in Poland as its justification but the real driver was France’s desire to neutralise the risk of a Habsburg-aligned Duchy of Lorraine and remove it from Austria’s sphere of influence. France succeeded.