The Habsburgs in the Medieval and Early Modern Period

by Heather R Darsie, JD

The Habsburg family had inauspicious beginnings in the late 10th century. Count Radbot von Klettau, a count, was born at the very end of the 10th century. He built Habsburg Castle in Habsburg, County Aargau, Switzerland in the early 11th century. The precise source for the name “Habsburg” is unknown, either it seems to have come from the German word for ford, because the castle was near the Aar river. The more romantic version is that Radbot of Klettau saw a hawk perched on one of the castle walls, and decided to name it “hawk palace”, or Habsburg, in German.

Radbot von Klettau’s grandson Otto, born a century after Habsburg Castle was built, decided to adopt the last name of, “von Habsburg” instead of “von Klettau”. Although more research is needed, it is generally believed that Otto is the first person to be titled, “Count of Habsburg”. The family was still based at Habsburg Castle in Switzerland. It should be noted that this part of Switzerland was considered part of the Duchy of Swabia until the early 15th century.

The first Habsburg to achieve meaningful power within the Holy Roman Empire was Count Rudolf I, who was later elected King of the Germans-Romans (there is no distinction between King of the Romans and King of the Germans. The titles are used interchangeably, and eventually came to mean the Holy Roman Emperor-elect). Born in 1218, Rudolf gained control of the duchies of Styria and Austria over his lifetime by defeating King Ottokar II of Bohemia in 1278. Despite initial rejection of his rule by the Austrian and Styrian princes, Rudolf was able to maintain control of the duchies. His family held power over Autria and Styria for more than 600 years.

A 16th century image of Rudolf I in the Chronicle of the Bishops of Wuerzburg

Upon Rudolf’s death in 1291, Adolf of Nassau became King of the Germans. The German Electors were afraid of Rudolf trying to establish the title King of the Germans as a hereditary one. Rudolf’s eldest son Albrecht was eventually elected King of Germany in 1298, anyway. Albrecht also shared the duchies of Styria and Austria with his younger brother Rudolf II until 1283, when Rudolf II was required to give Styria and Austria to Albrecht in exchange for Rudolf II becoming Albrecht’s successor to the title King of the Germans.

Rudolf II married in 1289, and had one son, Johann. Rudolf died either shortly before or shortly after Johann’s birth. Johann was insultingly nicknamed, “Johann, Duke Lackland”, due to his father Rudolf’s failure to secure any sort of meaningful inheritance for any of his future heirs back in 1283. Johann, very displeased with this unfair situation, set upon his uncle Albrecht, King of the Germans, on 1 May 1308. Johann cleaved Albrecht’s head in two before fleeing to Italy.  The title King of the Germans then passed out of Habsburg hands until 1438, when Albrecht the Magnanimous, a Knight of the Garter, regained the title.

Friedrich III by Hans Burgkmair the Elder

After Albrecht’s death, his cousin Frederick was elected King of the Germans in 1440. Frederick went on to become Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, ruling in that capacity from 1452 to 1493. Frederick’s election to the Imperial throne paved the way for the title Holy Roman Emperor to become a hereditary one held by the Habsburgs. It was Frederick III who began wedding into the Iberian noble families, as well. His wife Eleonore Helena of Portugal gave him his two surviving children, Kunigunde and Maximilian.

The next Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, was elected King of the Germans in 1486. His father Frederick had not given up the title, so the two shared it until Frederick’s death in 1493. Maximilian greatly expanded the landholdings and powerbase of the Habsburgs through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. Mary was her father’s only heir, giving Maximilian the right to rule Burgundy and the Low Countries jure uxoris, or by right of his marriage to Mary.

Mary of Burgundy by Pocher, c. 1479

Mary and Maximilian were reportedly quite happy together. Mary was two years older than Maximilian. The couple wed on 19 August 1477, and their first child, Philip the Handsome, was born less than a year later on 22 July 1478. The couple’s second child, Margaret, was born 10 January 1480. Sadly, Mary died in early 1482 from injuries sustained during a hunting accident.

Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, 15th Century, Anonymous

Tragedy struck Maximilian again in 1506, when his only son, Philip, died. Thankfully, Philip had six children with his wife Juana of Castile: four girls and two boys. Both boys, Charles and Ferdinand, went on to become Holy Roman Emperor.

Maximilian never quite made his way to Rome to be formally crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and instead was granted the title of, “Elected Roman Emperor” by the Pope in 1508. This move ended the centuries-old tradition of Holy Roman Emperors being crowned by the Pope in Rome.

Maximilian died in January 1519, leaving the election of the next Holy Roman Emperor somewhat up in the air. Maximilian’s grandson Charles was a natural candidate, although the fear was that Charles’ election would lead to the position of Holy Roman Emperor becoming hereditary. Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England were candidates in 1519, too. It seemed a real possibility that Francis I could have become Emperor, as well as Charles, which was not palatable to the electors because both men were regarded as foreigners. Neither spoke German. The position was briefly offered to Elector Friedrich III of Saxony, but he declined. Charles eventually won after bribing several of the electors, and became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Charles V c. 1535, by Barthel Beham

Charles ruled an absolutely massive amount of territory between his assuming the throne of Castile, Aragon, and Leon (his mother Juana remained queen in name only of Castile and Leon; her story is a sad one), being the hereditary Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, and Lord of the Netherlands, his property covered most of western Europe. Through clever marriage arrangements for himself, his sisters, and his brother, Charles was able to maintain control over most of his territories.

Charles did face the German Reformation, which was a serious challenge to his authority. On top of that, Charles spent a portion of his career combating the Turkish threat to the east. He met with varying degrees of success.

Charles’ younger brother, Ferdinand, became King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia in 1526 after his brother-in-law twice over (through Ferdinand’s wife and Ferdinand’s sister Mary) died in battle. Five years later, Ferdinand was elected King of the Romans-Germans. Ferdinand frequently represented Charles V’s interests at Imperial Diets throughout Charles’ reign. In 1555 to 1556, Charles briefly considered making his son Philip King of the Romans-Germans, but Ferdinand was heavily opposed for personal and pragmatic reasons. Philip was raised at the Spanish court, preferred Spain, and did not speak German. Ferdinand, on the other hand, did speak German and was already well-known as an Imperial authority within the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, Ferdinand remained as King of the Romans-Germans, and Philip was granted the Low Countries in early 1556.

Ferdinand I, mid-16th century, by Hans Bocksburger der Aeltere

Charles V abdicated the Imperial throne in 1556, after which Ferdinand called himself the “Emperor Elect”. However, Ferdinand was not recognized as Holy Roman Emperor until May 1558. Charles died in September of that year.

Ferdinand I, wishing to continue the title of Emperor for his son, held an election in 1562. His son Maximilian became King of the Romans-Germans until Ferdinand’s death in 1564. Maximilian then became Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. The Habsburgs continued as Holy Roman Emperors until 1742.

Love learning about the Holy Roman Empire or Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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You Might Also Like

  1. The Habsburg Sisters, Part I: Eleonore von Habsburg, Queen Consort of Portugal and France
  2. The Habsburg Sisters, Part II: Isabella von Habsburg, Queen Consort of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden
  3. The Habsburg Sisters, Part III: Maria von Habsburg, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia
  4. The Habsburg Sisters, Part IV: Catherine von Habsburg, Queen Consort of Portugal
  5. The Scandalous Marriage of Katharina von Bora and Martin Luther

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Coxe, William. History of the House of Austria: From the Foundation of the Monarchy by Rhodolph of Hapsburgh to the Death of Leopold II. London: L. Hansard & Sons (1807).
  2. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister. Stroud: Amberley Publishing (2019).
  3. Parker, Geoffrey. Emperor: A New Life of Charles V. London: Yale University Press (2019).

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