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Maximilian I 1459–1519 Holy Roman Emperor

Maximilian I
1459–1519
Holy Roman Emperor

Maximilian I, one of the most remarkable rulers of the Renaissance, served as the Holy Roman Emperor* from 1493 until 1519. Under his leadership, the Habsburg family came to dominate in Europe in the 1500s. Maximilian added vast lands to the family holdings and used diplomacy, warfare, and marriage to make the empire more secure.

The son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Maximilian grew up in southern Austria. He was a well-educated man who spoke seven languages and enjoyed hunting. In 1477 he married Mary of Burgundy, one of the wealthiest women in Europe and heir to the duke of Burgundy. When her father died two years later, the French tried to seize Burgundy. Maximilian defeated the French at the Battle of Guinegate and added Burgundy to the Habsburg possessions.


King and Emperor. The ruler of the Holy Roman Empire also held the title "king of the Romans." In 1486 Maximilian was chosen king of the Romans and joined his father in managing the empire. Maximilian soon gained control of the Tyrol, a mountainous area in western Austria with rich copper and silver mines. The mines helped him finance many of his wars. Not all of these wars were successful. His attempt in 1490 to take the throne of Hungary failed, although he did succeed in driving the Hungarians out of other areas of central Europe.

In 1493, after the death of his father, Maximilian I became head of the house of Habsburg and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Unable to pass through Italy for coronation as Holy Roman Emperor by the pope, Maximilian assumed the title "Elected Roman Emperor."


War and Peace. Throughout his reign, Maximilian fought frequently with France over control of Italy. In 1495 he joined forces with Spain, the Italian city-states of Milan and Venice, and the pope to drive the French from Italy. Maximilian failed to force the French out of Milan or to make the citizens of Venice give up territory to him.

The emperor waged war on other fronts as well. The Ottoman Turks* constantly threatened the empire's eastern frontier. Maximilian also went to war against the Swiss, who refused to pay royal taxes to support his war efforts. However, during his reign Maximilian proclaimed eternal peace and banned private warfare. He also established a supreme court of law.

Money was a constant problem for Maximilian. He financed many of his wars with money borrowed from bankers, such as the Fugger family of Germany. He also arranged marriages for his children and grandchildren with many of Europe's powerful and wealthy families, adding much new territory to the Habsburg realm. The marriage of Maximilian's son Philip to a daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella eventually brought the throne of Spain to the Habsburgs.

Maximilian I was an important patron* of the arts as well. In the empire's capital city of Innsbruck, he remodeled the imperial palace and built a new arsenal. In addition, he supported both church and court music and commissioned many beautifully illustrated works to honor the achievements of the Habsburgs. Maximilian also wrote about hunting and completed large sections of his three-part autobiography.

(See alsoHoly Roman Empire. )

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

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