The Habsburg Empire

I can’t get my head around the Habsburg Empire at all. This is a great short introduction that gives its broad outlines and who’s who and some brilliant little details…I’m afraid they are more what I latched on to. It is six hundred years, a sprawling story across Europe, it is too big. Yet this is the empire that has shaped so many of the places we have visited, and in particular Vienna. (Vienna! I once started writing out sections of the Fodor travel guide to Europe starting with Austria…I don’t know why, so desperate to see and to know other places when I was little…)

The Habsburgs were always an enterprising family deeply discontented with their lot. They started carving out ‘a medly of discontinuous lordships and manors in the region of the Upper Rhine, ranging across Alsace, the Black Forest, and what is now Northern Switzerland‘. The 1st definite record of them comes with Radbot (935-1045) — Radbot! — who founded the Benedictine abbey of Muri in Swiss Aargau. About the same time he built a stone fort called Habsburg, Castle of the Ford or Castle of the Hawk depending on your preference. This is where the name came from, but they didn’t like the area so much and were busy acquiring territories towards Austria and Styria so they just gave this castle away to vassals in 1230, who then lost it.

You can still see it though.

This might be my favourite Habsburg story, perhaps because it unsettles all my ideas of aristocracy, the mythologies of their connection with a specific place, with specific lands.

The renewed Holy Roman Empire started Christmas Day AD 800 — the emperors were not initially Habsburgs (we all knew that already) but came to be elected by Habsburgs, and the Habsburgs stopped electing and themselves became Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740

A chart of the Habsburgs proper before the death of Charles VI, the passing of the throne to Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (the beginning of the Habsburg-Lorraines), together representing 600 or so years of empire…

Thus all of the Habsburg possessions were ‘composite’ states and kingdoms, comprising several or more territories which had over time become bound together under single rulers. (9)

By Unknown – [1]., GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5961090

They also collected titles, like these two marking how much they had looted through 1648:

Don Philip the Fourth, by the grace of God king of Castile, Leon, Aragon, the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, Seville, Cerdagne, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the Eastern and Western Indies, the islands and terra firma of the Ocean, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Barcelona, lord of Biscay and Molina, etc.

Ferdinand III, Elected Roman Emperor, at all times Enlarger of the Empire, King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia etc, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Luxembourg, Upper and Lower Silesia, Wurttemberg and Teck, Prince in Swabia, Count of Habsburg, Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia, Landgrave of Alsace, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Upper and Lower Lusatia, Lord of the Windisch Mark, Pordenone and Salins etc.

Some of these places they genuinely owned, some of them they had owned once, some they thought they had some claim to as Rady writes:

By having these places listed, they were kept ‘active’, as possible future acquisitions should the right circumstances arise. (12)

He continues:

The Habsburgs were not just a ruling family. They were also a dynasty. A dynasty is more than a group of blood relatives, for it has a sense of its own history that guides its development through time. It is proprietary, in the sense of seeking to retain and even augment its landed inheritance, but it is also a legal community whose members have interconnected rights and obligations. (12)

They were good at forgeries. Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg forged a charter from Julius Ceasar himself. Although it was always known as a fake, it buttressed their claims to ‘pre-eminence in the Holy Roman Empire’ from the 14th Century onwards.

His successor was Frederick who had the most splendid mother ever:

Cymburga, a woman of prodigious beauty and physical strength, who could reputedly drive nails into oak tables with her bare fist (21).

That seems a good quality in a ruler, but I don’t think the tradition was continued. Instead the Habsburgs just continued on acquiring things — women of prodigious beauty, art, statues, lands, titles, money. I suppose in these early years they must have been rather fierce, shrewd in marriages and diplomacy. But that couldn’t have been quite enough to hold such an array of cultures and languages and lands together. Rady writes:

The preferred method of 16th-century Habsburg rule was ‘conciliar’. This meant that Habsburg monarchs practised, where they could, government by committee, and functions were devolved to meetings made up largely of experts. The heads of these committees, the secretaries or ‘super-clerks’, often reported directly to the ruler, thus preparing the way for what would later become cabinet government. (34-35)

I’m still not entirely sure how all of this hung together — a dynasty supreme in the art of delegation. Coupled with a lot of brute force. Take Phillip II, of whom his leading general said

‘every individual has the feeling that one fine night or morning the house will fall in on him’ (39).

This level of force continued, even as the emperors got a bit madder over time. Of Rudolf II, his brothers reported

His Majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies… He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely  so that he may in future serve a different master. (41)

Second favourite story.

They presided over the 30-years war from 1618-1648, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, France, all the little German principalities. Rady describes the ‘refeudalisation’ of Spain through the globalization of the Empire, but by 1700 they had lost that. (This is written with their global conquests as primarily a sidenote.)

Rady writes:

In that year, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain, Charles II, died — deranged, without heir, and habitually unkempt. (59)

Third favourite story.

The Enlightenment arrives, everyone thinks Central Europe is just a bit backward. It really is. But there was a thing called the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 that established the indivisibility of Habsburg lands and a single succession and allowed daughters to inherit — so Maria Theresa was allowed to ascend to power (they have to become the house of Habsburg-Lorraine at that point), but not without Frederick the Great of Prussia taking Silesia (they didn’t manage to get it back during the 7-years war). Rady talks about how in Britain and North America Enlightenment meant ‘an extension of popular sovereignty, curbs on government, and a new ‘science of freedom’ but in Central Europe

the Enlightenment tended towards the reverse–towards regulation, the ‘science of the state’, and the subjection of the individual to the common good, as the sovereign understood it to be. (63)

They stood against Napoleon — poorly. Vienna was occupied twice, the Habsburgs stripped of their territories. Metternich took control of foreign policy in 1809. Metternich had slept with Napoleon’s sister, had had a chat with Napoleon and realised that he had totally underestimated Russia, planned accordingly. The 1814-15 talks that concluded the Napoleonic wars took place in Vienna. The Habsburgs lost their claim to the Holy Roman Empire. Francis became emperor of Austria, finally a legitimate empire with Metternich firmly ensconced presiding over the Biedermeier period until the revolutions of 1848. 

Empire continues on, limps on through the glories of the vin-de-siecle. We come to Franz Ferdinand…this is a rather extraordinary photo of the man who got himself assassinated to start WWI.

And they come to an end with Charles I. The empire no one tried to reinstate.

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