Frederick III (Holy Roman Empire) (1415–1493; Ruled 1440–1493)

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FREDERICK III (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (14151493; ruled 14401493)

FREDERICK III (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (14151493; ruled 14401493), Holy Roman emperor. A scion of the Habsburg dynasty, Frederick III married Eleanora of Portugal, with whom he had a son and heir, the future emperor Maximilian I (14591519; ruled 14931519). Frederick was considered a handsome and placid individual; he had the appearance and bearing of a prince. Intellectually he was a gifted amateur astronomer, botanist, and mineralogist. Politically, however, he lived in reflected glory.

Frederick's career was marked by a striking combination of dramatic defeats and subtler victories. His election as king of Hungary by a faction of Magyar noblemen in 1439 plunged Frederick into an unequal conflict with Matthias Corvinus (1440/14431490; ruled 14581490). Despite being bought off in 1462, Frederick suffered military defeat at the hands of Corvinus's superior army, which conquered lower Austria, Moravia, and Silesia. He was ultimately driven from Vienna, where Corvinus established his capital in 1485. When Corvinus died in 1490, he left Hungarynot the Holy Roman Empirethe dominant power in central Europe. The rise of the Ottoman Empire, which conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, however, reduced Hungarian might and made the country a battlefield for centuries to come. Frederick was never able to mount an effective resistance to Ottoman expansion, which continued for most of his reign. By 1493 the Turks had advanced steadily through eastern and central Europe to the very borders of the Holy Roman Empire. During his struggle with Corvinus, however, Frederick managed to strengthen Habsburg relations with Rome. He signed the Concordat of Vienna in 1448, thus bringing the conciliar movement to an effective end and strengthening the hand of the papacy in matters of church governance. As a further acknowledgment of papal authority, Frederick rode to Rome for his coronation in 1452. Papal recognition set a seal of sorts on Habsburg authority within the Holy Roman Empire, but Frederick had to struggle to make that authority real. His relations with the territorial princes of the empire were marked by conflict. The emergence of the Imperial Diet led by the electors gave them extraordinary influence in opposition to the emperor. Frederick played an active role in efforts at imperial reform, fostering the creation of regional confederations, such as the Swabian League, as a counterweight to princely pretensions. As on his eastern frontier, imperial policies to the south and west were similarly disputed. The nascent Swiss Confederation had long sought to throw off imperialto say nothing of Austrianrule and establish its independence. Likewise relations with Burgundy, one of the great powers of the fifteenth century, were strained. Frederick decided to make common cause with the Swiss in their military campaign against Charles of Burgundy (14331477). In 1474 he signed the Perpetual Peace, renouncing all Austrian claims to Swiss territory. With Frederick's assistance, the Swiss defeated Charles, who was killed in 1477. That year Frederick mended fences with Burgundy by marrying his son Maximilian to Charles's daughter Mary. The alliance of Austria and Burgundy helped raise Habsburg fortunes to their absolute zenith.

Frederick's victories, though less striking in the moment, may have been more durable than his defeats. Though driven from his capital by Corvinus, Frederick managed to outlast him. When the great Hungarian king died and his country succumbed to the Turks, the Habsburgs shouldered the defense of Latin Christendom's eastern frontier with such power and prestige as accompanied that task. By fostering good relations with the papacy, Frederick strengthened both the hand of the emperor and the house of Habsburg as an ally of the Roman Church. It assured each a say in appointments to ecclesiastical office and a means to control church influence in European politics. By encouraging political reform in the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick made the emperor a protector of local interests. It did nothing, however, to halt the erosion of imperial authority to the advantage of the territorial princes. By settling with the Swiss and defeating the Burgundians, Frederick stabilized imperial frontiers and drew Europe's wealthiest principality into the Habsburg orbit. It did bring the house of Habsburg into conflict with the Valois kings of France, but it also laid the foundation for the great Habsburg empire that developed during the reign of Charles V (15001558; ruled 15191556). Frederick can be said to have given real meaning to the Habsburg motto AEIOU: "Austriae est imperare orbi universo" or "Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan." Whether or not all the world was indeed subject to Austria became a theme of European politics for centuries to come.

See also Austria ; Burgundy ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Habsburg-Valois Wars ; Hungary ; Switzerland .


Haller, Brigitte. Kaiser Friedrich III. im Urteil der Zeitgenossen. Vienna, 1965.

Hesslinger, Helmo. Die Anfänge des Schwäbischen Bundes. Stuttgart, 1970.

Kramml, Peter F. Kaiser Friedrich III. und die Reichsstadt Konstanz, 14401493. Sigmaringen, Germany, 1985.

Nehring, Karl. Matthias Corvinus, Kaiser Friedrich III, und das Reich. Munich, 1975.

Thomas Max Safley

Frederick III

views updated May 29 2018

Frederick III

Frederick III (1415-1493), Holy Roman emperor and German king from 1440 to 1493, was one of the longer-reigning and weaker of the Hapsburgs. His misfortunes spurred his family to strengthen their position. He was the last German emperor crowned by the pope in Rome.

Frederick III was born on Sept. 21, 1415, in Innsbruck. His father was Ernest, Duke of Austria, a title to which Frederick succeeded (as Frederick V) in 1424. The young prince developed interests in jewels, which he collected, and astrology, and study which did little to further his fortunes. Frederick was raised to the imperial office in June 1440, when he was crowned king of the Romans (that is, the Germans; the German king was not officially emperor until crowned by the pope) in Aachen to succeed his cousin, Albert II. Frederick was noted for his lack of leadership in the internal affairs of Germany. Rejecting the appeals of princes and cities for imperial reform, he rarely attended a meeting of the Imperial Diet. In his absence princes and cities organized or strengthened existing confederations, slowly undermining what was left of German unity and enhancing a princely power that no future emperor would ever overcome. And when princes fought and cities rebelled, Frederick again refused to intervene.

Despite this indolence, Frederick continued to collect precious stones and dignities. In 1452 he married Leonora of Portugal, and on March 16 he was crowned in Rome by Pope Nicholas V. The Pope had good reason to favor this Hapsburg. In 1448 Frederick and Nicholas had concluded the Vienna Concordat, which strengthened the power of Rome in the German Church, while it was beginning to wane elsewhere. Unwittingly, Frederick thus eased the way for that future collaborator with princely particularism, the German Reformation.

The Emperor did perform one positive act for his family. In order to head off aggressive moves by Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy (1474), he arranged that his son, Maximilian, should marry Charles's daughter Mary. Charles died 3 years later; the French moved to absorb his heritage, but the richest Burgundian provinces in the Low Countries were preserved for Maximilian by his timely conclusion of the wedding arrangements. And it was this expansion to the West that created the nucleus of the future empire of Charles V.

Frederick was not so fortunate in the East. There, the Bohemians shook off his rule, while the Hungarian leader Mathias Corvinus actually occupied the Hapsburg capital of Vienna in 1485. Frederick had reached the end of his rope, and so had the Germans. They forced him to allow Maximilian to be elected king of the Romans. Frederick maintained the imperial office, but the empire was now in somewhat more capable hands. Frederick died at Linz on Aug. 19, 1493.

Further Reading

For the history of the empire during Frederick's reign see Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (1947), and Denys Hay, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1966). □

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