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The influence of the House of Habsburg

One of the most influential and powerful royal houses of Europe, to this day many people (even those not familiar with Austrian history or royalty in general) are aware of the House of Habsburg and its significant impact on the development of Europe from the medieval ages through to the present day. Throughout its vast history, the family has ruled over nearly all of the continent of Europe at different periods through its different members and intermarriages. Not only did the house occupy the throne of the Holy Roman Empire continuously between 1438 and 1740, it also occupied the thrones of the Kingdoms of Bohemia, England and Ireland (as a result of the marriage between King Philippe II of Spain and Mary I of England), Germany, Croatia, Hungary, Portugal, Spain as well as the second Mexican Empire and several Dutch and Italian principalities.

The earliest traceable, believed member of the House is Guntram the Rich, a 10th century count who hailed from the Breisgau region (modern day Germany). It was Guntram’s grandson, Count Radbot and his older brother, Werner, Bishop of Strasbourg, who built the fortress after which the Habsburg family took its name; Habichtsburg (Hawk’s Castle) in 1020. The castle, now located in the canton of Aargau in modern-day Switzerland was the seat of the House of Habsburg throughout the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and overlooks the river Aar. It was during this period that the Habsburgs began to build up momentum and grow within the surrounding regions. As a result of arranged marriages, the extinction of nearby noble families and political prowess, the family acquired countship rights in Zürichgau, Aargau, Thurgau, Upper Alsace and Swabia, as well as high positions within the Catholic Church.

Growth of the Habsburg Empire in Central Europe. Photo: Unknown through GFDL

Due to the family’s firm grip and continuously growing influence over the region, Count Rudolph IV of Habsburg (the seventh great-grandson of Guntram the Rich) was elected King of Germany (officially under the title “King of the Romans”) on 1 October 1273 and took the regnal name of Rudolph I. In 1282, Rudolph I also acquired the Duchy of Austria, a region the Habsburgs would rule over for 600 years until 1918. It was at this moment that the House of Hasburg’s long and famous relationship with Austria began. During this period, it was normal for the family to vest the governments of their hereditary lands to male members of the House. However, as a result of this continuous vesting, complications and power struggles within the family soon began to arise.

After attempting a system of condominium over their Austrian lands (the operation of a government under joint rule), Rudolph IV, Duke of Austria (the great grandson of Rudolph I of Germany) created a pact with his younger brothers with the aim of preserving unity over the family’s Austrian lands. This pact, although acknowledging equal rights between the different male members of the family and their respective governments, recognised de facto supremacy over the lands and governments for the Head of the House. Although this pact succeeded in working in the long run, and after initially agreeing with it, Rudolph’s brothers, Albert III and Leopold III, later ignored the pact, agreeing to partition their lands under the guise of the Neuberg Treaty in 1379, with Albert taking Austria and Leopold taking Styria, Carinthia and Tirol. This resulted in two separate Austrian Habsburg Lines, the Albertinian Line and the Leopoldine Line.

Rudolph IV. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The grandson of Albert III, Duke of Austria, Albert V succeeded to the Austrian Duchy upon the death of his father, Albert II of Austria; however, through his marriage to Elisabeth of Luxembourg, the daughter of Sigismund, the then Holy Roman Emperor, Albert V also acquired rulership over Bohemia and Hungary. His titles only grew after the death of his father-in-law, Sigismund as he was elected as the next King of Germany under the regnal name of Albert II, making him one of the most powerful man of his time due to the abundance of lands beneath his rule.

However, this new-found power came to an end rather soon with the death of Albert in a war against the Turks in 1439. His son, Ladislas Postumus succeeded his father to the Duchy of Austria and the lands of Bohemia and Hungary, but, due to the fact Ladislas was never married and therefore childless, the Habsburgs lost Bohemia and Hungary (territories they would not regain until decades later) and the Albertinian Line (founded by Albert III upon the partition of Austria with his brother Leopold III under the Neuberg Treaty mentioned above) became extinct. In this time, the Leopoldine Line which descended from Leopold III following the Neuberg Treaty sub-divided into the branches of Inner Austria and Tirol.

Due to the fact the throne of the German Kingdom was not hereditary, but elected, following Albert II’s death, his only son Ladislas did not succeed as King of Germany. Instead, it was Archduke Frederick V of Inner Austria who was elected as the next King of Germany by the electoral college. Following Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor’s death in 1437, no person had succeeded as Holy Roman Emperor, causing a great rival among the members of the House of Habsburg and against other noble families to win the seat of the most powerful position of the time. The House of Habsburg finally succeeded in seating one of their members on the Imperial throne of the Holy Roman Empire when, in 1440, Pope Nicholas V made the decision to crown Frederick Holy Roman Emperor. The coronation took place on 19 March 1442 in Rome, making Frederick the last Holy Roman Emperor to be crowned in Rome. Frederick took the regnal name of Frederick III upon his coronation.

It was in Rome that Frederick married Eleanor of Portugal, a match that would prove very successful in linking the Habsburg dynasty with many of the western and southeastern monarchies of Europe. Not only did the match prove successful in terms of international relations, Eleanor was a very hands on and shrewd mother, insisting that the couple’s children were educated to the best standards, thus ensuring the growth of the Habsburgs through political prowess. The House of Habsburg would go on to sit on the Imperial throne almost continuously for centuries until 1806. This was due to the fact that because the lands ruled by the Habsburgs were so numerous and began to form a very wealthy and large aggregate; the different family members who ruled over their respective lands within the aggregate were very influential in imposing their Habsburg candidates for the Imperial throne on the other non-Habsburg, German electors.

Throughout his time as Emperor, Frederick was very successful in influencing the internal politics of the House of Habsburg, taking over in all but official title as Head of the House due to his superior position as Emperor. Following the extinction of the Albertinian Line of the Austrian Habsburgs and the Tyrolean Branch of the Leopoldine Line in 1490, Frederick succeeded in re-uniting Austria under the family. Due to his triumphant win over Charles the Bold of Burgundy at the Siege of Neuss between 1474 and 1475, Frederick won the hand of Charles’s daughter, Mary, for his son Maximilian. As a result of the match, the Habsburgs acquired the Low Countries (consisting of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands).

Following Frederick’s death, Maximilian was elected to succeed his father as King of Germany, and in turn, by the Pope to succeed his father as Holy Roman Emperor. However, due to opposition from Venice and the French upon his election as Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian was unable to travel to Rome to be crowned by the Pope. Regardless, the Pope recognised him as the true Emperor and, consequently, future German Kings would now become Holy Roman Emperor immediately upon being elected as King of Germany, without needing the Pope’s approval to sit on the Imperial throne.

Portrait of Philip I of Castile (1478-1506). Portrait:
Juan de Flandes (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

The Habsburg influence truly reached its peak beneath Maximilian’s rule, especially in regards to and because of the marriage between his son, Philip the Handsome and Joanna of Castile, a daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain, as well as the elder sister of Queen Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. Philip and Joanna would go on to have six children, of whom the eldest would become Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor following his father’s death. Due to his maternal routes, not only did Charles receive the Habsburg’s Austrian and Italian lands and the low countries, but he also inherited the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, as well as their colonies in the “New World” (modern-day America).  Since the loss of the Kingdoms of Hungary and Bohemia decades before, the Habsburgs were eager to get the two Kingdoms back beneath their rule. Plans to achieve this were first discussed in 1515 before being finalised in 1521 through the marriages between Maximilian’s grandchildren (Mary and Ferdinand respectively) with two of the grandchildren of King Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary. These plans were proven successful when both Maximilian, Vladislaus and Vlaudislaus’s son Louis, the husband of Mary died. This resulted in Ferdinand inheriting the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary as well as the Imperial throne. It was following this inheritance that the Habsburg’s truly ruled the greatest and most influential Empire the world had ever known.

However, following his marriage in 1521 to the daughter of Vladislaus of Bohemia and Hungary, Ferdinand was made a gift of the family’s Austrian lands by his brother, Emperor Charles V. When Charles died and Ferdinand became Holy Roman Emperor, this initial division of the lands resulted in a division of the house, with the Austrian Habsburgs ruling the Holy Roman Empire, Austria and the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary and with the Spanish Habsburgs ruling over Spain, its Italian possessions, its New World Colonies, the Netherlands as well as Portugal, for a short time. This was all very well for the Habsburgs, until their marital choices began to come back and bite them. With the motto “The best spouse for a Habsburg is another Habsburg”, the Spanish branch of the family began to intermarry ceaselessly, with the majority of unions taking place between first cousins and uncles and nieces. This no doubt led to their unavoidable extinction, with the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, Charles II, being seriously disabled from birth due to having the genetic qualities and physical conditions similar to that experienced by a child born to a brother and sister. With Charles II’s death, the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs became extinct.

Coat of arms of Spanish Habsburgs (1581–1621 Version) showing the shield as kings of Portugal. Portugal regained its independence in 1640, and when Spain acknowledged this in 1668, it was removed. Photo: Heralder (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The Austrian branch of the family would also become extinct rather soon, with the male line dying out with the death of Charles VI in 1740; however, this was not the end of the Habsburgs. With the marriage between Charles VI’s daughter, Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, the pair would go on to rule the Holy Roman Empire until Maria Theresa’s death in 1780. This meant technically that the House of Lorraine had now taken over from the Habsburgs as the rulers of the Empire; however, upon gaining the throne following the death of his mother, Maria Theresa’s eldest child, Joseph II ruled under the dual House of Habsbourg-Lorraine. His descendants would carry on this dual name, resulting in the Habsburgs being able to maintain their territories beneath their name. In 1806, however, Napoleon I, Emperor of France deemed the Holy Roman Empire redundant before crowning himself French Emperor. Predicting this, Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor (the grandson of Maria Theresa) proclaimed himself heir to the newly established Austrian Empire and thus, took over the throne as Francis I, Emperor of Austria. Although the Habsburgs territories had seriously diminished, it was their union with Hungary (made official in 1867) that began to spread their influence once more. They were now no longer the Austrian Empire, but the Empire of Austria-Hungary, with Hungary no longer being a crown territory of the Habsburgs, but an entity which was given official status alongside the Austrian lands.

It was in the wake of World War I, with the Empire practically keeling in on itself around him, that the last Emperor Charles I, denounced his role as head of state in both Austria and Hungary, before announcing that it was Austria’s fate to determine its state. Although he had not officially abdicated, he had practically done just that. The First Austrian Republic soon formed, banishing every single Habsburg from the country. Although things now looked bleak for the House of Habsburg, the family did not give up their claim to the territories they felt were rightly theirs until the official renouncement of all Otto von Habsburg’s (the son of Charles I and thus Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary) claims to the Imperial throne in the 1960s. Although the Habsburgs had now officially lost their thrones and lands, with the very likely chance that they will never get them back, the family did not simply fade into obscurity. Due to their constant intermarriages into royal and noble houses (even after the loss of their thrones), members of the Habsburg family can be seen at certain official events of reigning royal houses.

Small Coat of Arms of the Austrian Empire adopted by Francis I in 1804. On the center is the Small (personal) Coat of arms of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine adopted by Emperor Francis I. It shows (left to right) the arms of Habsburg, which had all but been abandoned in favor of Austria when the Habsburgs acquired Austria, the Arms of Austria, and the Arms of Lorraine. Photo: Tom Lemmens (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Although I initially wanted to keep this account of the family and their history brief and as clear as possible, I’m not sure I have succeeded… I sincerely hope I have, but with a history like that of the Habsburg dynasty, it is almost impossible to be brief. Despite their initial exile and now non-reigning status, the Habsburgs continue to hold some influence within Europe through the past positions occupied by Otto von Habsburg and his son Karl within the European Union and their proximity to current reigning royal houses, namely the Belgian and Luxembourgish royal families. There is no doubt that the House of Habsburg will not fade into obscurity anytime soon, especially within the Catholic world, where the last Emperor Charles I has been beatified as a runner for Sainthood and with the continuous lobbying for the beatification of his wife, the last Empress Zita of Austria.