Ferdinand III (Holy Roman Empire)

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FERDINAND III (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (16081657; ruled 16371657)

FERDINAND III (HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE) (16081657; ruled 16371657), king of Hungary and Bohemia and Holy Roman emperor. The son of Ferdinand II and Maria Anna of Bavaria (15741616), daughter of Duke William V of Bavaria, Ferdinand III was probably the least-known emperor of the modern period. He was born on 13 July 1608 in Graz, when his father, who was to be elected emperor in 1619, was still only head of a cadet branch of the Habsburgs. Already during the lifetime of his father, Ferdinand III was elected king of Hungary in 1625 and crowned king of Bohemia in 1627. However, in 1630, during a critical juncture of the Thirty Years' War, Ferdinand II failed to ensure his son's election as his successor in the empire, and he succeeded in doing so only on 22 December 1636, a few weeks before his own death.

Imperial policy during the Thirty Years' War oscillated between a Spanish orientation that was primarily anti-French and a Bavarian orientation that was primarily anti-Protestant. Ferdinand's marriage to Maria Anna (16061646), daughter of Philip III of Spain, in 1631 followed a period when the Austrian and Spanish political paths had threatened to diverge after the inconclusive end of the War of the Mantuan Succession (16271631). At home, Ferdinand was driven into opposition against General Albrecht von Wallenstein, and his court chamberlain, Count Maximilian Trauttmansdorff, counted as one of the movers who helped ensure Wallenstein's dismissal and assassination in February 1634. Finally taking command of the imperial army, with Count Matthias Gallas as his most trusted lieutenant, Ferdinand was joined by a Spanish army from Italy and won the victory of Nördlingen on 6 September 1634, which demolished the Swedish position in Germany (and was celebrated in several of Peter Paul Rubens's paintings). Ferdinand went on to command the imperial army for the first two years of the war against France, after 1635. His return to Vienna after his father's death on 15 February 1637 coincided with the virtual end of joint Austrian-Spanish Habsburg efforts against the Bourbons, as he was forced to devote most of his resources to the renewed incursions of the Swedish army. He himself was almost taken prisoner in the winter of 1641, when the Swedish general Johan Banér raided Regensburg, where Ferdinand was attending the imperial diet. Banér was only stopped at the last moment by the ice breaking up on the Danube.

Ferdinand III is often credited with hastening the end of the war. That judgment is ironic because he was consistently determined to fight the war to a successful conclusion; though undoubtedly pious, he represented a more businesslike approach than his father. He was adamant in not allowing concessions to Protestants in the hereditary Habsburg lands, where heresy was regarded as the midwife of rebellion. In Hungary, however, where Protestants could rely on Transylvanian support, Ferdinand was grudgingly forced to return a number of churches to them at the peace of Linz in 1647. On the other hand, he was quite willing to adopt the late Wallenstein's policies and work with the Protestant princes of Germany. But his allies among the German electors were one by one forced to withdraw into neutrality when the disorganized imperial army failed to defend them from the Swedes. Meanwhile, his cousin and brother-in-law Maximilian of Bavaria wished for an understanding with France and a break with the Spanish alliance. Ferdinand thus fought a losing battle to keep the family compact alive. After the disastrous campaigns of 1644/1645, with the Transylvanians joining the Swedes and their armies at the gates of Vienna, he was reduced to entering peace negotiations on his enemies' terms and finally had to abjure further support of Spain at the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia in October 1648.

That peace settlement was less damaging in its consequences for imperial power than has long been believed. The defeat was measured in opportunity costs rather than actual lost territories. Ferdinand's room for maneuver was even widened by the increasing irrelevance of the denominational divide, and he continued to exercise his influence among the estates of the empire, while France was prevented from fully exploiting her position by the civil wars of the Fronde. Separation from Spain, though, also meant that Ferdinand was unable to gain a lock on the Spanish inheritance by marrying his eldest son, Ferdinand IV, to the Spanish heiress Maria Theresa. Ferdinand IV, moreover, died on 9 July 1654, soon after being elected king of the Romans (the title of the designated successor to the emperor).

Ferdinand III himself remarried twice, with both alliances designed to strengthen family ties. His second wife Mary Leopoldina (16321649), a first cousin from the Tyrolean branch of the Habsburgs, died after only a few months of marriage. His third wife, Eleanor of Gonzaga (16301686), whom he married on 30 April 1651, was a relation of his stepmother and proved to be a dazzling consort at the Diet of Regensburg, where the imperial couple held court from December 1652 to May 1654. Ferdinand has been described as a melancholy character who often felt compelled to stand on his dignity. He did, however, intensify a family tradition of interest in music by dabbling as a composer himself, and he exhibited some knowledge of the natural sciences. Because of both family and military influences, his reign probably saw the peak of Italian influences at the court of Vienna. Ferdinand was again starting to engage in a proxy war with Sweden when he died on 2 April 1657 and was succeeded by his second son, Leopold I.

See also Habsburg Dynasty ; Holy Roman Empire ; Leopold I (Holy Roman Empire) ; Mantuan Succession, War of the (16271631) ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Wallenstein, A. W. E. von ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) .


Asch, Ronald G. The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe, 16181648. Houndmills, U.K., 1997.

Koch, Matthias. Geschichte des Deutschen Reiches unter der Regierung Ferdinands III. 2 vols. Vienna, 18651866. An archive-based but unfootnoted survey up to 1648.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Thirty Years War. 2nd ed. London and New York, 1997. This and Asch's work are the two best English-language introductions to the period.

Ruppert, Karsten. Die kaiserliche Politik auf dem Westfälischen Friedenskongreβ (16431648). Münster, 1979.

Lothar HÖbelt

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Ferdinand III

Ferdinand III (1608-1657) reigned as Holy Roman emperor from 1637 to 1657. He unwillingly presided over the triumph of Protestantism in Germany.

Ferdinand of Hapsburg was born in Graz in Styria on July 13, 1608, son of the later emperor Ferdinand II and Maria Anna of Bavaria. Family tradition dictated his Jesuit upbringing. As heir to the newly reunited Hapsburg patrimony in central Europe, he was elected king of Hungary in 1626 and king of Bohemia in 1627. From 1626 onward his father brought him into the councils of state. Ferdinand was intrigued by military affairs and coveted a field command. Frustrated by his father's dependence on Albrecht von Wallenstein, he became an ardent opponent of the Bohemian mercenary. After Wallenstein's murder, Ferdinand commanded nominally at the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 and won reflected glory. In December 1636 he was elected king of Rome and succeeded as Holy Roman emperor when his father died on Feb. 15, 1637.

Ferdinand III shared his father's deep piety relying constantly on the advice of his Jesuit confessors. He firmly upheld the Catholic restoration in Bohemia and Austria but showed more willingness to negotiate with the established Protestant states of Germany. Twice during the protracted peace negotiations, in 1645 and in 1647, he took personal command of his armies in an effort to win on the battlefield what he could not gain at the bargaining table. Both times he blundered disastrously, and thereafter he remained in Vienna at the center of the administration.

The Westphalian treaties of 1648 were a great disappointment to him, and Ferdinand had to be forced by his supporters to accede to them. Although he never lost sight of the goal of restoring Catholicism, he turned his attention thenceforth more to the dynastic interests of his family. In 1653 he engineered the election of his oldest son, Ferdinand Maria, as king of Rome, only to have his hopes dashed with his heir's sudden death in 1654. The last years of his reign were largely taken up by his ultimately successful efforts to secure the imperial throne for his second son, the Archduke Leopold.

Aside from his passion for the hunt, Ferdinand III had a love of learning and a special fondness for music which became a family tradition. Unlike his father, he was a gifted linguist and spoke the languages of all his subjects: German, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, Spanish, and French as well as Latin. Frugal, stolid, and rather shy, he grew mistrustful and ill-tempered in his later years. He died in Vienna on April 2, 1657.

Further Reading

Ferdinand III has never attracted a good biographer. The main source is in German. For general works on the period see C. V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War (1939); S. H. Steinberg, The "Thirty Years War" and the Conflict for European Hegemony, 1600-1660 (1966); Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (1967; trans. 1968); and H. G. Koenigsberger, The Habsburgs and Europe, 1516-1660 (1971). □

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Ferdinand III (1608–57) Holy Roman Emperor (1637–57), son of Ferdinand II. In 1634, he succeeded Albrecht Wallenstein as commander of the imperial armies in the Thirty Years' War. After Ferdinand's accession, the Habsburg empire suffered a devastating series of defeats. He was forced to conclude the Peace of Westphalia (1648), marking the end of Habsburg dominance in Germany.