Rising from obscure origins, the Habsburgs became the dominant political family of Europe during the Renaissance. Through a series of advantageous marriages, the family managed to overcome territorial and language boundaries and gained control of much of Europe and of vast tracts of land in the Americas. The Habsburgs also played a significant role in the cultural life of the Renaissance through their patronage* of major artists, literary figures, and scientists.
The Rise of the Habsburgs. The reign of the house of Habsburg began in 1246, when the family took control of Austria. At first, the Habsburgs seemed to be just another noble family with ambitions to expand its territory by waging war and making favorable alliances though marriage. But they were more successful than others, winning the throne of the Holy Roman Empire* for Rudolf I (ruled 1273–1291) and his son Albert I (ruled 1298–1308).
Quarrels within the family, the ambitions of rival families, and the general political instability in Europe prevented the Habsburgs from regaining the imperial* throne until 1438, when Albert II seized power. Although Albert ruled for only about a year, he became the first of an unbroken line of Habsburg rulers that lasted until 1740.
Father and Son. Albert's cousin Duke Frederick of Styria succeeded him and ruled as Frederick III until 1493. During his reign, Frederick took several steps that strengthened the power and holdings of the Habsburg dynasty. He married Eleanor of Portugal, which allowed the Habsburgs to acquire that kingdom in the late 1500s. He also reached an agreement with Pope Nicholas V that gave the Holy Roman Emperor considerable authority over the appointment of church officials in Habsburg lands. Finally, he married his son, Maximilian, to Mary of Burgundy (daughter of the prosperous duke of Burgundy). He had less success in his role as Holy Roman Emperor, failing to establish a workable system of taxation in the empire and raiding the royal treasury. However, as a patron of the arts, he introduced humanist* learning to Germany.
One of the most remarkable princes to emerge during the Renaissance, Frederick's son Maximilian I (1459–1519) had studied astrology, music, carpentry, mining, hunting, weaponry, and other subjects in his youth. He spoke seven languages, which greatly helped him rule his multilingual* empire. Maximilian defended the Burgundian inheritance in battle against two French kings and became king of the Romans in 1486, joining his father in managing the Holy Roman Empire.
When Frederick died in 1493, Maximilian became the sole ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and head of the house of Habsburg. The new emperor faced many problems, including a fierce rivalry with France over Italy and threats to the empire's eastern frontier by the Ottoman Turks*. He dealt with the efforts of reformers to alter the political structure of the realm and with disagreements over taxes. To advance his interests in Italy, Maximilian married Bianca Maria Sforza, daughter of the duke of Milan, in 1494. He made an unsuccessful expedition to Italy, but because of opposition from the Venetians, failed to reach Rome for his imperial coronation in 1508.
On the positive side, Maximilian secured Austria by driving the Hungarians from Vienna. He also persuaded the king of Bohemia to pass the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary to the Habsburgs if he died without a male heir. Like his father, Maximilian supported the arts and literature. He employed such artists as Albrecht DÜrer for numerous projects, including illustrations for his own literary works.
World Empire. The grandson of Maximilian, Charles V held more than 60 royal and princely titles, including emperor, king of Castile and Aragon, and archduke of Austria. In addition to his titles, Charles inherited a multitude of problems. The Holy Roman Empire was facing a religious crisis sparked by Martin Luther, who called for church reform. Charles, a steadfast Roman Catholic, failed in his attempts to suppress Luther's movement and to eliminate Protestants from the empire. He did, however, manage to hold off the Ottoman Turks in central Europe and the French in Italy. Operating from Spain in 1535, he captured Tunis in North Africa. New rounds of fighting between the Valois, the French royal family, and the Habsburgs broke out in 1536 after the French king Francis I forged an alliance with the Ottomans. These wars finally ended in 1544 when Francis signed the Peace of Crépy.
Under Charles's sponsorship, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan began his quest to sail around the world in 1519. Hernan Cortés completed his conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico (1521) and Francisco Pizarro vanquished the Inca in Peru (1533). Charles never fully realized the significance of his overseas possessions. He simply exploited* their resources and used them to enhance the image of Habsburg power. In the arts, Charles maintained the Habsburg tradition of patronage, supporting DÜrer and the great Italian painter Titian.
Dividing the Habsburg Inheritance. Wishing to keep the empire in the hands of one man, Charles announced in 1550 his intention to turn over the entire Habsburg inheritance to his talented son Philip. The plan received little support. To avoid the threat of civil war, Charles signed an agreement in 1551 that his brother Ferdinand I would succeed him as emperor. Ferdinand would be followed by Charles's son Philip II and then by Ferdinand's son Maximilian II. The arrangement pleased no one and led to suspicions that the Habsburgs intended to turn the elective emperorship into a hereditary monarchy. Worn out by conflict and troubled by illness, Charles turned over his imperial responsibilities to Ferdinand in 1555. The Netherlands, Spain, Italian lands, and the colonies went to Philip. Charles retired to his country house and died in 1558, the year Ferdinand was crowned emperor.
Ferdinand I spent much of his reign trying to settle religious conflicts in Germany and urging war against the Ottomans. He was an enthusiastic follower of the open-minded humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus. His tolerance for diversity, however, went only so far. Before he allowed his son Maximilian II to be crowned king of the Romans, Ferdinand forced him to renounce his Protestant beliefs.
When Ferdinand died in 1564, the Habsburg lands were divided among his three sons. Maximilian II succeeded his father as Holy Roman Emperor and gained Bohemia, part of Hungary, and Upper and Lower Austria. His brother Charles acquired Inner Austria, while the third brother, Ferdinand, received lands in Germany. Their cousin Philip II of Spain, named head of the house of Habsburg in 1564, ruled over what became the world's leading military power. Philip had some success against the Ottoman Turks, winning significant battles in North Africa and in the waters off Lepanto, Greece.
Both Philip and Maximilian had broad intellectual interests and both men became great patrons of the arts and sciences. Determined to make Vienna the cultural center of Europe, Maximilian brought distinguished scientists and scholars to the city. Philip continued his father's patronage of the Italian artist Titian and also promoted the career of one of the leading female painters of the late Renaissance—Sofonisba Anguissola of Cremona. He also established academies to promote mathematics and science.
The Later Habsburgs. Despite numerous intermarriages, the Habsburg inheritance remained divided between its Austrian and Spanish branches. Philip III succeeded his father Philip II on the Spanish throne, ruling from 1598 to 1621. Maximilian II became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1564, followed by Rudolf II in 1576. Already king of Bohemia and Hungary, Rudolf never married and is best known for his patronage of the arts and sciences. He turned Prague (in the present-day Czech Republic) into a great cultural center by bringing the astronomers Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and others to his court. Rudolf's brother Matthias succeeded him. Lazy and in poor health, Matthias left government matters in the hands of Melchior Klesl, bishop of Vienna. Klesl's efforts to make peace between Catholics and Protestants were hampered by Matthias's cousin Ferdinand, who became emperor in 1619. By that time the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) had begun and the house of Habsburg was in decline.
- * patronage
support or financial sponsorship
- * Holy Roman Empire
political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806
- * imperial
pertaining to an empire or emperor
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * multilingual
referring to many languages
- * Ottoman Turks
While Others Wage War
As a matchmaker, Maximilian I had few equals. His greatest success was in arranging the marriage of his son Philip to Joan I of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The result of this union was that his grandson Charles inherited the Spanish crown and a prominent place in the order of succession as Holy Roman Emperor. Some people said of the Habsburgs, "Others may wage war, but thou, happy Austria, marry!"
- * exploit
to take advantage of; to make productive use of
A royal dynasty whose members became the hereditary rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, and held authority over the largest realm in Europe during the Renaissance. The Habsburgs originated in Swabia, a duchy of southwestern Germany. In 1246 they took control of the duchy of Austria. In the late thirteenth century, Rudolf I became the first of the line to be elected as Holy Roman Emperor; he passed this title on to his son Albert I. In 1438, Albert II succeeded to the title, followed by Frederick III. A capable ruler with a wide education, Frederick consolidated Habsburg rule in Germany, expanded the domain to the east, and signed the Concordat of Vienna with Pope Nicholas V, an agreement that allowed the Habsburgs some independence from the control of the church. At this time, the ideas of the Italian humanists were starting to arrive in northern Europe. Frederick named an Italian scholar, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, as his secretary and then as official poet laureate.
The Habsburg rulers were skilled in enlarging their domains through marriage agreements. Frederick engaged his son Maximilian to Mary of Burgundy, heir to the prospering duchy of Burgundy. A well-educated man and skillful diplomat, Maximilian was a patron of the arts, literature, and scholarship at his court in Vienna. He defended Burgundy against the French and founded the Holy League, an alliance of the Holy Roman Empire with the pope, Venice, Milan, and Spain to fight the attempted French conquest of Italy. He expelled a Hungarian army from Vienna and brought Bohemia within the Habsburg lands through marriage arrangements.
Maximilian's grandson Charles inherited the throne of Spain as well as the title of Holy Roman Emperor. A devout Catholic, Charles fought against the Protestant Reformation, which was supported by German princes who sought independence from Habsburg control. In 1527, when rebellious troops sacked Rome and took Pope Clement VII as a prisoner, Charles soon restored the pope to his throne. Charles defeated a French army and King Francis I at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, and fought off an assault by the Ottoman Turks on Vienna in 1529. In 1549, he defeated the Protestant Schmalkaldic League at the Battle of Mühlberg. Unable to return the German territories to Catholicism, however, he agreed to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, allowing the German princes to establish the religion of their choice in their own domains.
The immense empire ruled by Charles V—the largest since the time of Charlemagne—posed a serious problem regarding succession. Rivalries for land and authority within the Habsburg family were intense. Charles finally arranged for his brother Ferdinand to inherit the imperial throne, which would then pass to Philip, Charles's son. Weary of his heavy responsibilities, Charles abdicated in 1555; three years later Ferdinand was crowned emperor. Philip inherited the Netherlands, Spain (as King Philip II), the Habsburg territories in Italy, and the Spanish colonies in the Americas. On the death of Ferdinand I in 1564, the Habsburg domains were divided among his three sons: Maximilian II became Holy Roman Emperor, and also ruled Bohemia and Austria. Charles and Ferdinand shared Austria.
With an enormous sum in silver and gold arriving from the Spanish colonies, Philip set out on an ambitious campaign to expand and defend his empire. He defeated the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and mounted assaults on the lairs of Mediterranean corsairs in North Africa. Seeking to end English support for a revolt in the Netherlands, and return England to the Catholic fold, he sent a huge armada north in 1588. The armada was turned away, however, and this defeat dealt a severe blow to Philip's power and prestige as a defender of the faith in Europe.
Philip established new academies in Spain, patronized leading artists, and built the Escorial palace, the finest example of Renaissance architecture in Spain. From the time of his reign, the Habsburg dynasty remained divided between an Austrian and a Spanish branch, with each having its own lines of succession. Philip was succeeded by his son Philip III, and Ferdinand by his son Maximilian II. Rudolf II, Maximilian's successor as Holy Roman Emperor, made Prague a center of the new astronomy, bringing Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler to his court in the capital of Bohemia. His cousin Ferdinand II, who succeeded him, was a staunch Catholic whose attempts to enforce Habsburg authority in Bohemia touched off the Thirty Years' War.