Wittelsbach Dynasty (Bavaria)

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WITTELSBACH DYNASTY (BAVARIA). The Wittelsbachs were one of the more important dynasties in European history. They ruled Bavaria (11801918), the Palatinate (12141918), and Electoral Cologne (15831761), as well as half a dozen prince-bishoprics (Freising, Lièege, Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn, and Regensburg), and they held up to three electoral votes in the Holy Roman Empire during the early modern period. Three Wittelsbachs were elected Holy Roman emperor (13141347, 14001410, 17421745), some ruled as counts of Holland and Friesland (13491425), one became king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (14401448), two became kings of Bohemia (16191620, 17411745), four succeeded to the throne of Sweden (16541720), and one was made king of Greece (18321862). An attempt to succeed the Habsburgs in Spain failed in 1699, as did other attempts to assume the status of a major dynasty. The Wittelsbachs rose to princely status as supporters of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in the twelfth century, deriving their name from the tiny castle of Oberwittelsbach in Bavaria (in the district of Aichach, near Augsburg).


The Wittelsbachs molded the history of Bavaria, which they ruled as dukes (11801623), prince-electors (16231806), and later kings (18061918). Otto I von Wittelsbach, appointed by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in 1180, and his son Louis I, who received the Palatinate in 1214 from Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, were the founding fathers of the dynasty. The Wittelsbach coat of arms, assembled during this period, includes the Hohenstaufen lion as well as the colors white and blue from the counts of Bogen, inherited through Ludmilla of Bogen (daughter of Frederick Přemysl, duke of Bohemia), and Elisabeth of Hungary, the wife of Louis I.

The first Wittelsbach emperor, Louis IV (ruled 13141347), attracted Franciscan celebrities and philosophers like William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua to his court at Munich; Pope John XXII disdainfully branded him Ludovicus Bavarus (Louis the Bavarian). The emperor married Margaret of Holland, and his numerous children married into the dynasties of Lancaster, Cleves, Denmark, Mecklenburg, Poland, Brzeg, Bohemia, Hungary, Nuremberg (the Hohenzollerns), Hohenlohe, Lower Bavaria, the Tyrol, Verona (the della Scala, or Scaliger, family), and Sicily. The emperor's attempt to spread Wittelsbach rule over large parts of Europewith his sons ruling over Holland, Zeeland, Friesland, Hainaut (Hennegouwen), Brandenburg, Bavaria, and the Tyrolfailed, but Louis's legacy influenced Bavarian politics in the early modern period, raising ambitions and inspiring historiography. More concretely, the Treaty of Pavia (1329), in which Louis divided the Wittelsbachs into a Bavarian and a Palatine branch, actually maintained dynastic unity in order to secure mutual succession, concluding with the unification of the house of Wittelsbach in 1777 and 1799.

Throughout the early modern period the Bavarian Wittelsbachs based their politics on their core territory, securing it carefully with dynastic and religious alliances. They managed to bring about sustained development and to create not only a modern territorial state, but even a Bavarian nation. Albert IV the Wise of Bavaria-Munich (ruled 14651508), married to a Habsburg princess, obtained territorial unity in the Bavarian War of Succession (1504) and by issuing a law of primogeniture (1506). William IV (ruled 15081550) molded a policy of absolute Catholicity in the period of the Reformation. Bavarian princes married exclusively Catholic princesses, primarily of the houses of Habsburg, Lorraine, and Savoy. The dynastic alliance of Albert V (ruled 15501579) and Anna of Austria guaranteed an austere Counter-Reformation. Catholicism was indeed transformed into a state ideology. William V the Pious (ruled 15791597) compensated for his weak character with religious determination, guided by Jesuit advisers. He intervened in the Cologne War (1583), leading his territory close to bankruptcy, and had to resign. However, he secured the Bavarian secundogeniture in the Lower Rhine region and Bavarian rule over the ecclesiastical lands of Cologne, Münster, Hildesheim, Paderborn, Osnabrück, Liège, and the abbacies of Stavelot and Malmedy.

Maximilian I (ruled 15971651) was the most powerful of all the Wittelsbachs. Like his Lorraine cousins in France, he managed to assume leadership, and he forged a Catholic League in Germany (1610). He defeated his Wittelsbach cousin in Bohemia (1620), gained the Palatine dignity of prince-elector (1623), and annexed the Upper Palatinate (1628), leading his country through the horrors of the Thirty Years' War and eventually supporting the Peace of Westphalia. His son Ferdinand Maria (ruled 16511679) consolidated the country during the postwar depression and introduced the culture of the baroque, together with his wife Henriette Adelaide of Savoy. Maximilian II Emanuel (ruled 16791726), the "blue prince," fought successfully in the wars against the Turks and served as a governor in the Spanish Netherlands from 1691, but failed in his aspirations to the secure the Spanish succession for his son by Maria Antonia of Spain, prince Joseph Ferdinand (16921699), who died at the most unfavorable moment. Charles Albert, Maximilian II's son by a Polish princess, was elected king of Bohemia and became Emperor Charles VII (ruled 17421745), his rule marked by war and financial exhaustion. Maximilian III Joseph (ruled 17451777), an enlightened prince and astute reformer, became the last prince-elector of the Bavarian line. According to the Treaty of Pavia (1329), he was succeeded by a Palatine prince.


The history of the Palatine Wittelsbachs is much more complicated and confused, as their territory remained fragmented throughout the early modern period, and the dynasty suffered from endless divisions. This creative chaos had its positive sides, as it guaranteed a plurality of voices and eventually secured the survival of the Wittelsbach dynasty. The Wittelsbach electoral vote was given to the Palatines by the Golden Bull of 1356. Rupert III managed to become German king (Rupert I von der Pfalz, or 'of the Palatinate'; ruled 14001410). As in the case of the Bavarian emperor, after his death the land was divided into four linesthe electoral line (Kurpfalz, or Electoral Palatinate), Palatinate-Neumarkt, Palatinate-Simmern, and Palatinate-Mosbachwith a good number of subdivisions. Of growing importance were the line Palatinate-Simmern, which succeeded to the electoral line with Frederick III (ruled 15591576), and its sideline Palatinate-Zweibrücken (founded 1459), which branched out into Palatinate-Neuburg (1614), Palatinate-Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld (1569), and Palatinate-Sulzbach (1614).

Some of the Palatine Wittelsbachs adopted Protestantism, and the elector palatine assumed leadership of the Protestant party (Heidelberg Catechism, 1563) in the Holy Roman Empire. The Calvinist Frederick V (ruled 16101632), son-in-law of James I of England through his 1613 marriage to Elizabeth Stuart, was elected king of Bohemia (4 November 1619) butdespite Dutch, English, and Danish supportwas deposed by his Bavarian cousin in 1620; he is thus remembered as the "Winter King." His son Rupert (16191682) fought as a general in the English Civil War, became privy councillor to Charles II, and discovered Rupert's Land (the drainage basin of Hudson's Bay) in Canada. The Palatine Wittelsbachs won back their territory in 1648, along with an additional (eighth) electoral vote. Charles I Louis (ruled 16481680) introduced toleration, admitting Lutherans, Mennonites, Jews, and Catholics to the Palatinate. His son remained childless, however, and his daughter Elizabeth Charlotte's (16521722) marriage to Duke Philip I of Orléans was utilized by France as a pretext to invade and devastate the Palatinate in the War of the Palatine Succession (16881697).

In 1685 the Electoral Palatinate was inherited by the Catholic Palatinate-Neuburg line. Wolfgang William of Palatinate-Neuburg (ruled 16101653), who had been raised as a Lutheran, had maintained his claims in the Jülich-Cleves Succession War and converted to Catholicism after marrying a sister of Maximilian of Bavaria in 1613. The new Palatine ruler in Düsseldorf, the ruler of the duchies of Jülich and Berg, married a princess of Palatinate-Zweibrücken, confirming his line's claim of succession in the Electoral Palatinate. The Neuburgers eventually succeeded to the main electoral line in Heidelberg in 1685/1699 with Elector Philip William. Their policy of re-Catholicization drove many subjects to emigrate, some to North America. When the Neuburger line ended with Elector Charles III Philip in 1742, they were succeeded by the princes of Palatinate-Sulzbach, a sideline of the Neuburgers, famous for their Rosicrucian commitment under Prince Christian August (16221708). Although married to a Calvinist princess of Nassau, Christian August personally converted to Catholicism but admitted all confessions and invited the Jews into his territory.

The Sulzbacher elector palatine Charles Theodore (ruled 17431799) inherited Bavaria in 1777 and shifted the Palatine court to Munich, but he remained childless. In the end the count of the tiny Palatinate-Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld inherited not only all the Palatine lines (1795 Zweibrücken, 1799 Electorial Palatinate), but also the throne in Munich. For the first time since 1329 all the Wittelsbach territories were united under one single ruler, after 470 years. After the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Maximilian IV Joseph (ruled 17991825), supported by Napoleon I, gained territorial independence and became King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria. His descendents stayed in power in an enlarged kingdom of Bavaria (with added lands from Swabia and Franconia) until the revolution of 1918. The Wittelsbach family, despite the official abolition of nobility, is still honored by the Bavarian government to the present day.

An offshoot of the Palatine Wittelsbachs became kings of Sweden in the seventeenth century, when the younger son of the Calvinist prince John I of Palatinate-Zweibrücken, John Casimir of Palatinate-Kleeburg in Alsace, married Catherine, a daughter of King Charles IX of Sweden. After Queen Christina Vasa converted to Catholicism and abdicated in 1654, the son of John Casimir and Catherine, educated as a Lutheran, came to the Swedish throne as Charles X Gustav (ruled 16541660). Under the Wittelsbach ruler Charles XI (ruled 1660/16721697) Sweden became the hegemonic power in northern Europe, ruling over Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Livonia, and Pomerania. Charles XII (ruled 16971718) maintained this position in the Great Northern War, but remained without an heir and was briefly succeeded by his sister Ulrika Eleonora (ruled 17181720). Her husband Frederick of Hessen-Kassel (ruled as Frederick I, 17201751) was elected Swedish king in 1720. All Wittelsbach rulers, even the Swedish kings, shared the titles of duke of Bavaria and Count Palatine of the Rhine.

See also Bavaria ; Charles X Gustav (Sweden) ; Holy Roman Empire ; Palatinate ; Reformation, Catholic ; Reformation, Protestant ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


Glaser, Hermann, ed. Wittelsbach und Bayern. Munich, 1980.

Rall, Hans, and Marga Rall. Die Wittelsbacher in Lebensbildern. Graz, Austria, and Regensburg, Germany, 1986.

Spindler, Max, ed. Handbuch der bayerischen Geschichte. 4 vols. Munich, 19671975.

Straub, Eberhard. Die Wittelsbacher. Berlin, 1994.

Wolfgang Behringer

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