The Pragmatic Sanction (Latin: Sanctio Pragmatica) was an edict issued by Charles VI on 19 April 1713, to ensure that the Habsburg hereditary possessions could be inherited by a daughter. The Head of the House of Habsburg ruled the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Croatia, the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Italian territories awarded to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht (Duchy of Milan, Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily), and the Austrian Netherlands. The Pragmatic Sanction did not affect the office of Holy Roman Emperor because the Imperial crown was elective, not hereditary; even though successive elected Habsburg rulers headed the Holy Roman Empire since 1438.
Since their marriage in 1708, Charles and his wife Elizabeth Christine had not had children, and since 1711 Charles had been the sole surviving male member of the House of Habsburg. Charles's elder brother Joseph I had died without male issue, making accession of a female a very plausible contingency. Because Salic law precluded female inheritance, Charles VI needed to take extraordinary measures to avoid a succession dispute. Charles VI was, indeed, ultimately succeeded by his elder daughter Maria Theresa (born 1717). Despite the promulgation of the Pragmatic Sanction, however, her accession in 1740 resulted in the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession.
In 1700, the senior (oldest, first-in-line) branch of the House of Habsburg became extinct with the death of Charles II of Spain. The War of the Spanish Succession ensued, with Louis XIV of France claiming the crowns of Spain for his grandson Philip and Leopold I claiming them for his son Charles. In 1703, Charles and Joseph, the sons of Leopold, signed the Mutual Pact of Succession, granting succession rights to the daughters of Joseph and Charles in case of complete extinction of the male line, but favouring Joseph's daughters over Charles's, because Joseph was older.
In 1705, Leopold I died and was succeeded by his elder son, Joseph I. Six years later, Joseph I died leaving behind two daughters, Archduchesses Maria Josepha and Maria Amalia. Charles succeeded Joseph, according to the Pact, and Maria Josepha became his heir presumptive. However, Charles soon expressed a wish to amend the Pact in order to give his own future daughters precedence over his nieces. On 19 April 1713, the Emperor announced the changes in a secret session of the council.
Securing the right to succeed for his own daughters, who were not even born yet, became Charles's obsession. The previous succession laws had also forbidden the partition of the Habsburg dominions and provided for succession by females but they had been mostly hypothetical. The Pragmatic Sanction was the first such document to be publicly announced and as such required formal acceptance by the estates of the realms it concerned.
For 10 years, Charles VI labored, with the support of his closest advisor Johann Christoph von Bartenstein, to have his sanction accepted by the courts of Europe. Only the Electorate of Saxony and the Electorate of Bavaria did not accept, because it was detrimental to their inheritance rights. (Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony was married to Maria Josepha of Austria and Charles, Elector of Bavaria to Maria Amalia of Austria, both daughters of Charles's deceased elder brother Joseph I)France accepted in exchange for the duchy of Lorraine, under the Treaty of Vienna (1738).
Spain's acceptance was also gained under the Treaty of Vienna (1738). In 1731, the 15-year-old Spanish prince Charles became the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, as Charles I, on the death of his childless granduncle Antonio Farnese. He went on to conquer Naples and Sicily, after which he returned Parma to the Emperor by the Treaty of Vienna (1738). In 1759 he became King of Spain as Charles III.
Great Britain and the Dutch Republic accepted in exchange for the cessation of operations of the Ostend Company.
King Frederick I of Prussia approved for his loyalty to the Emperor.
Charles VI made commitments with Russia and Augustus of Saxony, King of Poland from which came two wars: the War of the Polish Succession against France and Spain, which cost him Naples and Sicily, and the Austro-Russian–Turkish War, which cost him Little Wallachia and northern Serbia, including the Fortress of Belgrade.
Hungary, which had an elective kingship, had accepted the house of Habsburg as hereditary kings in the male line without election in 1687 but not semi-Salic inheritance. The Emperor-King agreed that if the Habsburg male line became extinct, Hungary would once again have an elective monarchy. This was the rule in the Kingdom of Bohemia too. Maria Theresa, however, still gained the throne of Hungary; the Hungarian Parliament voted its own Pragmatic Sanction in 1723 in which the Kingdom of Hungary accepted female inheritance supporting her to become queen of Hungary. Croatia was one of the crown lands that supported Emperor Charles's Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 and supported Empress Maria Theresa in the War of the Austrian Succession of 1741–48 and the Croatian Parliament in 1712 signed their own Pragmatic Sanction of 1712. Subsequently, the empress made significant contributions to Croatian matters, by making several changes in the administrative control of the Military Frontier, the feudal and tax system. She also gave the independent port of Rijeka to Croatia in 1776.
Charles VI spent the time of his reign preparing Europe for a female ruler, but he did not prepare his daughter, Maria Theresa. He would not read documents to her, take her to meetings, or allow her to be introduced to ministers or have any preparation for the power she would receive in 1740. It is possible that it was because such instruction would imply an acceptance of his inability to produce a male heir.
Charles VI managed to get the great European powers to agree to the Pragmatic Sanction (for the time being) and died in 1740 with no male heirs. However, France, Prussia, Bavaria, and Saxony broke their promises and contested the claims of his daughter Maria Theresa on his Austrian lands, and initiated the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Austria lost Silesia to Prussia. The elective office of Holy Roman Emperor was filled by Joseph I's son-in-law Charles Albert of Bavaria, marking the first time in several hundred years that the position was not held by a Habsburg.
As Emperor Charles VII, he lost his own country, Bavaria, to the Austrian army of his wife's cousin Maria Theresa and then died. His son, Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria, renounced claims on Austria in exchange for the return of his paternal duchy of Bavaria. Maria Theresa's husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Francis I in 1745. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748, finally recognized Maria Theresa's rule.